Sunday, September 20, 2015

European History Since 1648, Week 3

"Civilization", British style, part and parcel of the world the East India Company created
For week 3 of European History Since 1648 at UNLV we began with some back-tracking, to think about some of the ways that religion shaped European politics and society during our period.  We had some catch-up from the previous class (the schedule is largely theoretical), and so the class was too short to do the topic proper justice, but the students had a discussion of the Edict of Nantes, and thought about its implications for European state systems and the people living within them.
Students then discussed selections from the trial of Suzanne Gaudry, a woman who was tortured into confessing to practicing witchcraft, to think about the way in which religion could intrude into everyday life, but also about the vulnerability and contingent status of women during our time period, a link to the previous week’s fleeting discussion of Mary Astell, who turned claims about the social contract back against the patriarchal society in which she lived.
If Tuesday was about tying up loose ends, Thursday involved thinking through social and political innovations.  Thursday’s class started with a discussion of coffee houses, and how these spaces (and the much-debated product they sold) facilitated new kinds of exchange and conversation, critical to the globalized economy that cut across class and other boundaries, which was emerging during the 17th centuries and beyond.
Coffee houses are often associated with the democratization and popularization of trade and its effects on popular culture.  But the trade in coffee, tea, and other products depended on other new institutions.  The focus of our class for the day was on the East India Company, a corporation with its own army, navy, and governing apparatus, and a salutary reminder that debates about a surfeit of corporate power are nothing novel.
I provided the students with a brief chronology of the company, from its origins, through its increasing accumulation of power in the Indian subcontinent, the impeachment proceedings against its corrupt leadership and the debates this sparked in British society about the corrosive influence of imperialism, to its days as a drug-running rogue quasi-state and its role in the Opium Wars.

We discussed its downfall through the Indian Rebellion of 1857, and its role in shaping the trajectory of British imperialism for years to come. 

European History Since 1648, Week 2

We discussed Hobbes' Leviathan
It didn’t take me long to fall off the wagon, but here is an update for Week 2 of European History Since 1648 at UNLV.  Our first class that week discussed two of the emerging organizing principles for states during the 17th century, Absolutism and Constitutionalism.  The next one focused on the relationship between movement, communication, and power.
Our first class was based around a reading by the students of selections from John Locke’s The Second Treatise of Government, and Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan.  We began by discussing some of the ‘attributes’ and ‘imperatives’ associated with states, by way of helping to define what constitutes a state, and also distinguishing between states and nations (a distinction that will become crucial later in the semester).  After I provided some context for the 17th century, the students did a close reading of the front-pieces of the two works, and then discussed points of comparison between the two. 
Much of our course will be preoccupied with understanding competing modes of organizing polities, and the different claims that subjects and citizens within those polities made on the states and nations in which they lived.  So Locke and Hobbes and the forms and relationships for which they advocated provide a good starting point.
Our class on Thursday was preoccupied with a series of readings that connected the mercantilist economies of the day (and competing modes of economic thought and organization) with concerns about movement, trade, and the colonies.  Students read selections from the narrative of Jacques Marquette, a missionary in North America who acted as an observer for and agent of empire.  His narrative of his travels helped us to think about questions of agency in early colonial environments.
Students also read an article from an English observer who advocated emulation of the socioeconomic framework of the Netherlands, and selections from a memorandum on trade by French finance minister Colbert.  The latter offered an instrumentalist view of the role of trade in the national economy.
In the course of this conversation we discussed how access to knowledge and mobility—in colonies and the metropole—empowered people, both subjects and rulers.  We discussed how maps and improvements to road and canal networks changed the nature of the relationship between individuals and the states in which they lived.

Next week, some discussion of religion in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, and a lecture on the British East India Company…

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

We Have a Word for What Donald Trump Represents...Fascism

Photo by Gage Skidmore
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is attracting astounding attention.  The demagogue has been rising in the polls, his ever-more-bizarre pronouncements sparking admiration and outrage, but never failing to capture attention.  Many media organs have been praising him for his forthright statements, others have worried that he is straying just over the borders of respectability, still others treat him as something of a joke.

But Trump is no joke and his campaign is no laughing matter.  His persona and pronouncements are increasingly dangerous, and pose a direct threat to our country.  Trump has exposed a deeply racist, nativist, and violent strain in U.S. politics, and is exploiting it in a manner designed to ensure that whether or not he wins the primary campaign or the election, people will get hurt.

But the media is at a loss as to how to categorize and deal with Trump.  On the traditional U.S. left-right scale, support for any welfare measures, such as those voiced by Trump, is generally supposed to indicate leftist leanings.  For this reason, confronted with Trump’s support for social security alongside his hate speech directed at Latinos in the U.S, commentators have appeared at a loss to find a word to describe Trump’s emerging ideology or brand beyond vague references to ‘populism’, a catch all that they also use to describe social democratic Senator Bernie Sanders.

But a glimpse back in time and a little work of historical comparison shows us that we have the vocabulary to describe Trump and what he represents, and that what the media sees as ‘inconsistency’, ‘populism’, or more laughably still, as ‘centrism’, is actually something else, something very like the Fascism that many believed to have been thoroughly discredited after the 1930s and 1940s.

I’m aware that there are those on the political left who throw the word ‘fascist’ around at any idea or individual to their right who they dislike or wish to discredit.  I’m using it in a much more concrete fashion, and think there are strong parallels between the ideas and practice that Trump is calling into play, and those that operated in a variety of places in the 1920s and 1930s in Europe.

It is true that both Sanders and Trump are tapping dissatisfaction with the status quo, and both invoke a version of solidarity.  But Sanders’ solidarity is premised on the idea of equality amongst human beings, whereas Trump’s is premised on the superiority of some people over others.  Sanders’ solidarity is an effort to shore up the general welfare of people across our country, whereas Trump is pitching himself as the defender of the interests of a sub-set of the population, promising to attack a vulnerable group of people to better the lives of people who already enjoy an economic edge by virtue of their race—something about which many people in the U.S. remain in denial.

Both Sanders and Trump are critical of groups within our society.  But Sanders is critical of the behavior of a class, and is proposing to curtail the ability of a class of plutocrats to exploit the middle and working class.  Trump is proposing the general extirpation—through intimidation and deportation—of a population group defined by ethnicity and language.

A UN Security Council resolution described ethnic cleansing as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain demographic areas”.  The means for that cleansing do not—as is oft-supposed—have to involve mass killings, but can include “confinement of civilian population in ghetto areas, forcible removal, displacement and deportation…threats of attacks on civilians”.

Ethnic cleansing might seem an extreme term to describe what Trump advocates towards Latinos, and his ideas would have to take more concrete form before they could be described as such in legal terms.  But consider that his goal has been to portray an entire ethnic group, defined in the minds of the U.S. public by its immigrant members, as “rapists”, “criminals”, and “drug dealers”, the dregs of society, somehow dispatched by a Mexican government to undermine the U.S.  He wants to embrace a mass deportation policy that will tear families apart, violate the laws of citizenship, and ignore the root causes of in-migration to the U.S.  He wants Latinos to walk carefully and fearfully—if indeed they dare walk at all—in public, aware that the eye of the state regards them as a hostile, foreign menace.

Trump has inspired his GOP colleagues to embrace similarly dehumanizing language, which evokes the hygenic references of ethnic cleansing programs.  Chris Christie talked about treating migrants like so many “FedEx packages”, to be tracked and monitored and removed where necessary.  In the 1930s, fascists used modern technological, organizational, and administrative innovations to “cleanse” populations and dehumanize the victims—defined religiously, ethnically, sexually, or politically—of their various purges.

Trump’s would-be Blackshirts have already invoked his name when engaging in savage street violence, and the hirelings at his side during official campaign events have demonstrated that their hatred and contempt extends to Latinos whether they are undocumented or citizens, “get out of my country” becoming a rallying cry.  Trump, who has attracted white supremacists to his rallies, and earned himself an endorsement from a former Ku Klux Klan leader, has also demonstrated that his crude racism will extend beyond the Latino community in the United States…his “act”, so appealing to that surprisingly-large strand of white supremacy in the U.S., having recently demonized Asians through his mocking expressions, accents, and stereotypes that go back to 19th century nativism.

Intense, ethnically- and linguistically-defined nationalism was at the core of fascist worldviews when they arose in the last century.  The “rightful” members of the nation required a scapegoat, a community that could be shamed or worse.  And their nationalism was projected violently abroad, in a quest for confrontation that Trump promises to embrace, whether in his talk of forcing Mexico to pay for a wall, his desire to take on China, or his belligerent brinkmanship.

Trump’s defense of social security, and sporadic criticisms of the plutocratic class of which he is himself a member, has by turns confused and attracted those journalists and progressives willing to turn a blind eye to his hypocrisy and racism.  How, they marvel, can Trump combine the racism associated with the xenophobic right with defense of social security?  It must, they reason, make him a moderate or at the very least ‘incoherent’.

Trump’s speech is certainly incoherent, bubbling over with contradictions and inconsistencies where it is even decipherable, self-aggrandizement and boasting constantly interrupting stream-of-conscious babbling about politics and policies.

But it should be remembered that this form of populism—the uplift of a race at the expense of some other group or groups—has been a staple of right-wing politics, which forms cultural solidarities on the basis of race.  Fascism was able to poach a handful of converts from across the political spectrum, and even turn leftist sympathisers because of its attacks on elites (those attacks didn’t have to make sense or to square with fascisms embrace of corporatism) and its promise of welfare for the elect.  It promised a vigor that broken or sabotaged political systems could not match.

The fascism that I think Trump recalls was defined by hyper-nationalism, militaristic saber-rattling, misogyny, confrontation, name-calling, anti-labor activities, intimidation, showmanship, anti-intellectualism, economic populism that quickly devolves into corporatism, scapegoating, and the constant threat of violence.  As this assemblage of descriptors implies, it was part policy and part political culture.  In his history of 20th century Europe (Out of Ashes, Princeton: 2015), Konrad Jarausch reminds us that fascism was a “style and feeling rather than a systematic ideology” (157), which I think sums up Trump’s “act”.

In his style, Trump is certainly reminiscent of some of the fascist showmen of the 1920s and ‘30s.  And the version of populism that he and his followers propose seems to demarcate access to the state and its resources in ethno-linguistic and ideological terms.  He is proposing to regenerate the nation through a kind of purge, portraying his ideological opponents as weak and degenerate in a way that stops just short of questioning their humanity.

Trump is pursuing electoral politics at the moment, but the threat of violence and the threat to upend political practice lurk in the background.  He has attempted to intimidate the media by letting them know that unpleasant questions could lead to the curtailment of their access.  His threat to bypass the Republican Party if he is not chosen as its standard-bearer is one thing.  But what sound like tacit threats to unleash his “passionate” supporters if he is challenged or bypassed is more sinister, and taps into the trend of right-wing leaders, who suffer defeat after defeat at the polls, challenging the legitimacy of those who defeat them through democracy.

I think that Trump is making this up as he goes along.  I doubt that there is a plan and I doubt that he is imitating some of the vilest constellations of ideas and practices that we have known in the past hundred years.  But his ignorance is no excuse.  For he has the resources, the ego, and the sociopathy that insulates him from being able to understand the consequences of his actions, to play a very dangerous role in the rightward tilt of our politics.  He is embarrassing the Republican Party, but mostly because he is simply saying out loud and with great bravado and pride what the party has historically mouthed through innuendo.

His brand of populism, racism, belligerence, and subtle threats of violence are not without precedents.  But we should look carefully and warily at where those precedents are and where they have led.  And all of those who find something admirable in Trump’s political mélange should step back and look carefully at the broader picture to see what it is they might be in danger of endorsing.  Earlier versions of the toxic brew he is cooking up have led to discrimination, violence, the marginalization of voices protecting working people and minorities of all stripes, and far, far worse. 

We must learn to call Trump’s version of fascism by its name, and recognize the extent to which it has entered the mainstream of the Republican Party.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Welcome to Comparative Environmental History

Photo Credit
Welcome to History 443, Comparative Environmental History.  In addition to a lower-division survey course (European History Since 1648), I’m teaching a smaller class on comparative environmental history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  This is a new class that grows out of my interests in environmental history (I write about the history of wildlife conservation debates in Eastern Africa) and a desire to introduce a more global perspective into the courses that I offer.
For the uninitiated, “Environmental History” is a growing sub-field of the historical discipline.  To paraphrase one of our readings from last week, environmental historians write about “the relationship between human societies and the rest of nature on which they depended” (McNeill 347).
The early weeks of this class introduce students to the sub-field and offer some “case studies” for understanding the work that environmental historians do.  Thereafter, the course is focused on thinking about “environmentalism” and how it is informed by a host of other “isms” out there—“isms” (and not all of them actually end with ‘-ism’), simply put, being ways of thinking that make big claims about how we should think, act, and organize our societies.  We’ll discuss different ideologies, imperialism, industrialism, humanitarianism, democracy, and how these things are shaped by and in turn shape environmental politics.
You’re welcome to follow along—the somewhat disorganized syllabus below contains references to the readings students will complete—and I will try to offer updates once a week or so.
Our first week’s meetings involved an introduction to environmental history, to the course, and a discussion of some texts that offer an overview of the subject.  Most students in the class are not history majors, and so it was interesting getting their perspectives on the discipline and on how they think environmental history—and history in general—can help them to think about the world and their own subjects.
Stay tuned…

*McNeill, J. R.  "The State of the Field of Environmental History" in The Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 2010, 35: 345-74.

Welcome to European History Since 1648

Some of the texts the students will encounter this semester.
Last Fall, I began an experiment whereby I posted regularly in conjunction with the class I was teaching.  Life intervened, and I trailed off two-thirds of the way through the term.  I’m going to give it another try, and so, for interested readers…

Welcome to History 106, European History Since 1648!  This class is offered at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and covers some of the major themes and events in European history.  I’ve posted our reading schedule for the term below, and will post updates once or twice a week.

If you’re interested in European history or history more generally, it might be interesting to follow along.  I’d like to think that history as it is taught in a university setting is a bit different from the high school version, demanding more analysis and critical thinking, and treating the past like a puzzle rather than a simple story.

So even if you couldn’t stand history as a student, and have never studied history in a university setting, the brief updates here might give you some idea of what students are doing in a university setting, and what the study of often-maligned humanities subjects looks like.  Students are reading four stand-alone texts, but below you can find links to the short, primary source texts they are being asked to read.

Our first meetings last week were largely occupied by introductions to the course and to the books and other materials students will need.  The students all introduced themselves…learning 50 names is a slow process for someone with my memory, but it will happen before the semester is over!

In our second class last week, we began discussing some course themes and materials.  Our course begins in 1648, and we discussed how that beginning point helps to shape the narrative that we tell.  The peace of Westphalia that settled the Thirty Years War is the conventional reason for starting in that year, but we discussed how focusing on events in the English Civil War leading to the execution of a king, the formal recognition by the Spanish Empire of the Dutch Republic, and Portuguese defeats by the Omani Sultanate in the Indian Ocean could set us on different trajectories, or make us think about the state of Europe in 1648 in different ways.

We also began to sketch out what Europe looked like in the 17th century.  We began with demographics, and students were asked to look at population trends and theorize historically about what could explain the numbers: the 30 Years’ War could help to account for a dip; family patterns, agricultural developments, and the gradual disappearance of plague could account for the steady increase.

We’ll pick up with this tomorrow, to discuss economic, political, and religious trends in 17th century Europe.  I will talk in general terms about what a “state” is and how we might define it.  We will then embark on a discussion of two pieces by John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, and the respective views these philosophers held on what constituted a good state and society.
Feel free to tag along!


(subject to change)

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Defending the Idea of a UC Redding

Photo by Inder Wadhwa
It has been interesting to read responses to a recent post that praised the idea—being promoted by some North State residents piggy-backing on a bill introduced by Assemblyman Mike Gatto—of opening a new University of California campus in Redding.  Responses combined enthusiasm, cynicism, and skepticism. 
No one was hostile outright to the idea, but a number of people, both in relation to my post, and to early reporting on Gatto’s bill, suggested either that our priorities should be elsewhere, that a new campus somehow wouldn’t achieve its mission, or that UC should be consolidating rather than expanding.
In a world where societies and polities were incapable of chewing gum and walking at the same time, I would agree in principle with many of these criticisms.
Yes, if we could only do one thing for UC, I would say that building-up the campus at Merced should take priority over the construction of a new campus.  If we lived in an impoverished state without the capacity to invest or build, I would agree that expanding UC wouldn’t make much sense.  And if the only purpose of building a branch of a research-intensive university in the North State was to serve the needs of the local student population, I might be inclined to agree that such students could get the same education—and better exposure to the wider world—if they departed for campuses in the Bay Area, Southern California, or the lower reaches of the Central Valley.
But we can, if we choose, walk and chew gum at the same time, and the construction of a new University of California campus in Redding is something more than classroom for North State students—in many respects, our ability to build such a campus in the twenty-first century is an indicator of the health of our society and our democracy, and a test of whether we can, any longer, envision what it means to invest in the future.
Most opponents of a UC Redding will cite the cost, as though building a new University in the state with Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and an affluent upper middle class is outrageous.  But think about what Californians have done before in their state.  In earlier generations, Californians created the Sacramento Delta, a massive engineering feat.  They constructed roads up and down and across the third largest state in the Union.  They build ten main campuses of the UC system and one of the world’s foremost medical schools in San Francisco, over 20 campuses in the California State University system, and scores of California Community Colleges.  We maintain countless elementary, middle- and high schools up and down the state.
Californians move water and power all around the state to supply the needs of its inhabitants.  They have protected vast areas of the state and scenic and recreational areas, and built a massive metropolis in Southern California where, frankly, no city of any size had any business existing from an ecological perspective.
Those things cost money.  But Californians recognized that investing in infrastructure, in the management of natural resources, in higher education, and in K-12 education, and in the creation of habitable living spaces would pay off. 
Yes, constructing a new University of California campus in Northern California would cost a great deal of money.  But it’s a drop in the bucket for a state of California’s size and wealth.
What is unrealistic is this kind of project in California’s current political environment. 
Many students find it difficult to attend Merced, and might think twice before attending an un-tested campus in Redding because of the astonishingly high tuition that UC currently demands of students.  Those students able and willing to pay for such an education or take on huge debt are likely to attend one of the larger, better-known, and so-far more prestigious campuses. 
Californians only have themselves to blame for this state of affairs.
Voters have steadily impoverished UC over the years, falling revenue and increased responsibilities having forced the University to tap into students for much of the necessary funding in the form of tuition.  Previously, the public at large, through sales, property, income and other taxes would have pitched in to pay for the education of future generations who, in turn, would have shouldered the burden for the next generation of students.
And there are administrators at UC who see an opportunity in much-degraded public support for Californians’ University.  Eager to pursue privatization, and transform UC into a business catering to customers rather than an institution of learning educating students, some administrators have shrugged off falling public support, and pursue higher tuition and private funding sources, in spite of the fact that the former compromises UC’s public mission and the latter compromises the integrity of its research endeavours.
To build UC Redding, to fill UC Merced, and to make UC a realistic proposition for California’s students, the state needs to reform its political structure in a way that makes it possible to reclaim UC for Californians from the corporate-minded administrators who would change its character.
The state should increase its funding for the institution dramatically (funding has been cut drastically over the years, even as more and more students have entered the system), building the new campus, and bringing down the obscene tuition that, even with generous financial aid packages, remains a formidable barrier to students, particularly the student populations surrounding Merced and our hypothetical Redding campus.
The future leaders, scientists, educators, engineers, labourers, and thinkers of the state should not have to gamble with enormous student debt for an education that in many other countries is more akin to a right for the qualified than the “privilege” of the elite it is in danger of becoming in the U.S.
To increase revenue, Californians would have to modify their tax structure, too dependent on the marginal incomes of top earners, and therefore fluctuating with the economic fortunes of the state’s highest earners.  This means tackling Proposition 13, the source of two ills in our state.
Firstly, Prop 13 requires a supermajority to raise taxes.  This is undemocratic and wrong—a mere majority is required to lower taxes.  And in a state growing in population and in demographic complexity, this undemocratic supermajority requirement has put the state on a de facto autopilot course towards austerity, a policy approach that hurts the working and middle class, while leaving the rich, who can send their kids to private schools, private universities, and get the most expensive medical care in their parallel universe, comparatively unaffected.
Secondly, Prop 13 takes property taxes—in many successful states, a key source of flexibility in managing revenue streams—off the table by fixing increases, failing to distinguish between individual homeowners and corporate property-owners, and allowing successive generations to pay protected tax rates without reference to their need for special protections. 
Revisiting Prop 13—and some facets of California’s initiative system in general—doesn’t mean piling new burdens onto the working class.  It means ensuring that those with wealth are unable to dodge their responsibilities, that inherited wealth isn’t protected, that a majority of our citizens can make decisions about taxing and spending, and yes, sometimes that many Californians might have to pay a little more, in the realizing that they will save later, when those investments pay off.
The construction of a UC Redding is therefore contingent on our state’s population—including the traditionally-conservative population in the North State who would benefit most directly from it—re-thinking the relationship between the individual and society, a relationship which has been corroded in recent years by deep cynicism, structural ills in our politics, and pledge-taking, oath-swearing representatives who have committed themselves to absurdly inflexible voting regimens, irrespective of the needs of their constituents, their communities, and their regions.
Building a UC campus in the North State would be about a number of things.
It would be about proving that as a state community, Californians are still capable of walking and chewing gum, of recognizing the needs of their state and acting on that recognition.
It would be about a reclamation of the public character of UC for the state’s youth from the damage done by decades of divestment by Californians and the cynical maneuvers of administrators and politicians ranging from Ronald Reagan to Jerry Brown. 
It would be about providing a point of access for students and community members in the North State to the wider world, in cultural, economic, social, and political terms.  The region’s politics, stoked by cynical and hypocritical representatives, is deeply cynical, and the public there feels a strong sense of alienation from California’s wider civic project.
Residents already have access to the same public goods enjoyed by other Californians, but geography, larger economic shifts, and manipulative political representation mean that the region is poor, that its residents face significant economic hurdles, and that California’s civic institutions can feel distant and removed.
Clark Kerr, perhaps UC’s most visionary leader, once declared that “When the borders of our campus are the boundaries of our state, the lines dividing what is internal from what is external become quite blurred; taking the campus to the state brings the state to the campus”. 

Constructing a UC Redding would blur those lines in more ways than one, reinvigorating both the North State in particular, and reaffirming Californians’ capacity to imagine and build in a manner commensurate with its population and potential.