Sunday, November 25, 2012

La Grande Illusion

Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion is one of the undeniably great films in the history of world cinema – an eloquent commentary on the borders that divide people, classes, armies, and countries. During WWI, two aristocrats – the German commander Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) and his prisoner, the French officer Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) – share a mirror image of society based on honor and order, a system of mutual respect and protocol linked to years of tradition.  Though their class is doomed by the changes that produced the war, they must act out the rituals of noblesse oblige and serve a nationalism they don’t really believe in.  Hence the grand illusion that somehow class and upbringing elevate these officers above the commonness of war – when bullets don’t know one bloodline from another.

Friday, November 23, 2012

A UNION MAN - A new biography of an unlikely American statesman

Review by Dorothy Wickenden
Seward came to see himself as the chief conciliator between the rebellious Southern states and punitive Northerners.
            On the afternoon of July 23, 1846, William H. Seward rose to give his closing argument in a local murder case. Recently returned from Albany, where he had spent two terms as governor of New York, he had resumed his law practice in Auburn, a hundred and seventy miles west. He was defending a twenty-three-year-old black man who had confessed to killing a white family of four. A mob had come close to lynching the defendant, and Seward was warned that, as the defense counsel, he could face retaliation. 'There is a busy war around me, to drive me from defending and securing a fair trial for the negro Freeman," Seward wrote to his closest adviser, Thurlow Weed. At sixteen, William Freeman had been wrongly charged with horse stealing and sent to Auburn Prison, where he was beaten with a wooden board until his skull cracked and he lost his hearing. Seward told Weed that Freeman "is deaf, deserted, ignorant, and his conduct is unexplainable on any principle of sanity. It is natural that he trusts me to defend him." Weed urged Seward against it, but Seward's wife, Frances, commended his decision, and assisted him in his research on the insanity defense, a novel legal tactic at the time.
            Seward told the jurors that he was appalled, as they were, by the massacre of "a whole family, just, gentle, and pure," but he argued that Freeman, who was clearly unstable after having been brutalized himself, was "still your brother, and mine, and bears equally with us the proudest inheritance of our race--the image of our Maker." The jury was unmoved, and the judge sentenced Freeman to hang. Yet newspapers across the country printed Seward's courtroom arguments, and they were applauded by a progressive constituency throughout the North. The case helped re-launch his career in politics, a line of work that he described in his memoir as "the important and engrossing business of the country." He went on to become, as Walter Stahr shows in his masterly new biography, "Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man" (Simon & Schuster), one of the most influential and polarizing American politicians of the nineteenth century.
            William Henry Seward, known as Henry, grew up in rural New York, in a slave-owning family, although his parents, alone among their neighbors, allowed the slaves' children to go to school, and, Seward recalled, they "never uttered an expression that could tend to make me think that the negro was inferior to the white person." In 1820, when Seward graduated from Union College, in Schenectady, the students were inflamed by the Missouri Compromise, which allowed slavery in Western territories south of the Missouri line. Seward gave a commencement address, with Southern graduates on one side of the dais and Northerners on the other, in which he introduced an argument that he developed during the next forty years: the North and the South should agree to pursue the "gradual emancipation" of slaves.
            In 1834, Seward and Weed became founding members of the Whig Party, formed to combat the corrupt Presidency of Andrew Jackson and his followers in the Democratic Party. But, as governor from 1839 to 1842, Seward incited the wrath of anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic Whigs by increasing funding for public education for all children, advocating citizenship for immigrants, and passing a state law giving fugitive slaves the right to a trial. As a newly arrived senator in 1850, he delivered a three-hour stem-winder before packed galleries, denouncing the Fugitive Slave Act and disagreeing with his illustrious elders Clay, Webster, and Calhoun about the extension of slavery. Appealing to the Founders' principles of union, justice, welfare, and liberty, he announced that "there is a higher law than the Constitution." He led a generational change in the chamber, where Radical Republicans rejected the compromises the triumvirate had forged on slavery. Those compromises, Seward said, arose from "the want of moral courage to meet this question of emancipation as we ought." They would lead to civil war, not prevent it.
            The first shot may have been fired at Fort Sumter, in 1861, but the Civil War had its origins in Kansas, in 1854, when the Illinois senator Stephen Douglas pushed through the Kansas-Nebraska Act, allowing slavery in the vast Nebraska territory north of the Missouri line. "Bleeding Kansas" split in two, with pro-slavery advocates setting up their legislature in a schoolhouse just west of Missouri and anti-slavery settlers gathering in Topeka. Seward had predicted such an outcome four years earlier, and he helped lead the opposition to the bill in the Senate.
            Seward's anti-slavery sentiment was deep enough that he and Frances harbored fugitives in their home. Frances, the well-educated daughter of a judge, had grown up in Auburn, and her political views were even more fiercely held than her husband's. She and Seward gave financial support to Frederick Douglass's abolitionist newspaper and cultivated a friendship with Harriet Tubman. In November, 1855, when Seward was in Auburn and Frances was away, he wrote to her that "the underground railroad works wonderfully. Two passengers came here last night." He had recently won reelection to the Senate and was considering a run for the Presidency. Given his ambitions and his high public profile, flouting federal law in this was a particularly risky enterprise.
            Not long afterward, having decided that the Whig Party was weak and outmoded, Seward became a primary force in the birth of the Republican Party. Its immediate purpose was to arrest the spread of slavery and, as he put it, to unseat the "privileged class" - Southern slaveholders, who still dominated the government. In Rochester, New York, in October, 1858, Seward declared that the slave states and the free states were engaged in an "irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces." The speech caused a frenzy in the press, with one paper applauding it as "clear, calm, sagacious, profound, impregnable," and another denouncing Seward as a "repulsive abolitionist." Four months earlier, in Springfield, Illinois, a forty-nine-year-old Abraham Lincoln had given his remarkably similar "House Divided" speech, to a mostly local audience, and he went on to lose the Senate election to Douglas.
            By 1860, Senator Seward was the country’s preeminent Republican, and a that Southerners could be persuaded to familiar figure around Washington. Fifty-eight
years old, he was invariably disheveled, in an old jacket and trousers that hung limply on his narrow frame. He had keen blue eyes, deep-set and overhung with unruly gray eyebrows, and a nose that jutted out from his face like the prow of a ship. A reporter for the Times of London later described him as "a subtle, quick man, rejoicing in power, given to perorate and to oracular utterances, fond of badinage and bursting with the importance of state mysteries."
            Like many in his party, Seward was shocked when he lost the Presidential
nomination to Abraham Lincoln, whom he furiously described as "a little Illinois lawyer." But some Republicans had feared that his militant reputation would prevent him
from winning in key moderate states, including Illinois. (In the South, he was regarded
as a dangerous foe. A Mississippi congressman warned that, if Seward was elected President, we "will tear this Constitution to pieces, and look to our guns for justice.") Seward, though, had a trait that was rare in Washington: an ability to curb his rancor. He threw himself into campaigning for Lincoln, and, more than anyone, helped secure his victory.
            A month later, Lincoln wrote to Seward asking him to be Secretary of State, shrewdly commending his "integrity, ability, learning, and great experience." When Lincoln arrived in the capital, shortly before his Inauguration, Seward officiously escorted him to the White House to see President Buchanan, took him to church, hosted him for dinner, and gave him a tour of the House and the Senate. A writer for the New York Herald noted, ''The 'irrepressible' senator thinks he has Mr. Lincoln sure, and delights in introducing him to everybody, on the same principle which leads children to display their new toys."
            Seward's buoyancy and his unapologetic indulgence in claret and cigars were almost as much remarked upon as his declamations in the Senate. But, as the country splintered, he assumed a role that belied his reputation as an extremist. After Lincoln's election, South Carolina withdrew from the Union-quickly followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Even at his most provocative, Seward had never advocated immediate abolition. He believed that Southerners could be persuaded to see slavery "give way to the salutary instructions of economy, and to the ripening influences of humanity." Now he infuriated Radical Republicans by working
up until the eve of the war to keep the border states from seceding.
            On January 12, 1861, three days after his appointment became public, Seward
gave a momentous speech in the Senate on the importance of the Union. Invoking Jefferson to explain why he had departed from his "cherished convictions," he said that politicians must consider not only their personal views but also "those with whom we must necessarily act." He even advised amending the Constitution so that Congress could not "abolish or interfere with slavery in any state." Members of the Senate, defying protocol, erupted into applause. Frances Seward, though, disapproved. "Eloquent as your speech was, it fails to meet with the entire approval of those who love you best," she wrote from Auburn. "Compromise based on the idea that the preservation of the Union is more important than the liberty of nearly 4,000,000 human beings cannot be right."
            Lincoln had few of the insecurities that hobble fur more experienced politicians. He surrounded himself with seasoned if fractious advisers, and during his first weekend in Washington he asked Seward to look over his Inaugural Address. Salmon Chase, soon to be Treasury Secretary and a Seward antagonist, had been urging Lincoln to take a hard line with the South. But Seward thought that Lincoln's bristling tone was all wrong. He compiled a six-page list of proposed revisions, including a section on the Dred Scott decision, in which the President deplored "the despotism of the few life officers composing the Court." Lincoln accepted many of Seward's changes, most important his elimination of the bellicose conclusion: "You can forbear the assault upon [the government], I can not shrink from the defense of it. With you, and not with me, is the solemn question of ' Shall it be peace, or a sword?' "Seward urged Lincoln to conclude, instead, with "some words of affection," of "calm and cheerful confidence." Excising Lincoln's last lines, he substituted his own:

Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly they must not, I am sure they will not be broken. The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.

            Lincoln took the sentiment, stripped it of its orotundity, and produced one of the most stirring political statements in American history:

Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

            It was the start of a remarkably successful collaboration between a President and his Secretary of State. Lincoln told Seward early on, "I shall have to depend upon you for taking care of these matters of foreign affairs, of which I know so little, and with which I reckon you are familiar." That meant, above all, keeping a cotton-dependent Britain and France from recognizing the Confederacy as a legitimate government. In November, 1861, Seward faced his first test when Charles Wilkes, an intemperate Union captain, fired upon an unarmed British mail ship, the R.M.S. Trent, and then boarded and captured the Confederacy’s envoys to Britain and France, James Mason and John Slidell. In his biography, Stahr describes the immediate aftermath of the incident as "the most dramatic and tense weeks in transatlantic relations of the entire Civil War," and calls the Trent affair "the Cuban missile crisis of the nineteenth century: a moment when the United States faced possible war with the world's other major power."
            Seward knew that the Union could not survive if Britain declared war. He began working the back channels, privately assuring British officials that Wilkes had acted on his own. One of Seward's many influential friends in the press was Henry Raymond, the editor of the New York Times and an active member of the Republican Party. On December 17th, in words that could have sprung directly from Seward's pen, the newspaper editorialized that "the American people do not desire a war with England-that none but secessionists and those who sympathize with them, are disposed to a needless rupture of our friendly relations with any foreign power." Two days later, Seward persuaded Britain's ambassador to turn over an unofficial copy of the British government's demands. Seward promised that he would share the document with no one but the President, and won a little more time to prepare the Administration's response.
            On Christmas morning, Seward presented to the Cabinet his draft response to the British, carefully balancing the conflicting imperatives of foreign and domestic policy. Britain insisted that the Union apologize for violating international law and promptly release the prisoners, but Wilkes was being feted in Northern cities as a hero. The President and the rest of the Cabinet, alert to popular sentiment, were also repulsed by the idea of bowing to Britain's terms. Seward agreed that Wilkes had legally searched the Trent and taken the prisoners. Nevertheless, he said, citing a precedent established by Monroe, Wilkes had improperly allowed the ship to continue to England rather than taking it into port, where the matter could be settled in court.
            Lincoln at first balked, and said that he would prepare his own letter, but the next day he came around to Seward's approach. Stahr, the biographer of John Jay, another underappreciated American diplomat who conducted delicate negotiations with the British, is generally restrained to a fault. Here, though, he concludes that the letter Lincoln had in mind probably would have led Great Britain to declare war on the United States.
            After the Trent crisis, Seward's relationship with the President grew closer, a source of bitterness among Cabinet members already predisposed to resent him. Stahr draws frequently on the spiteful but astute diary entries of Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy, who emerges as one of Seward' s most revealing foils. In September, 1862, Welles wrote that Seward "runs to the President two or three times a day, gets his ear, gives him his tongue, makes himself interesting, and artfully contrives to dispose of many measures or give them direction independent of his associates."
            Seward had come to see himself as the chief conciliator between the rebellious Southern states and punitive Northerners. "Somebody must be in a position to mollify and moderate," he wrote to Weed. ''That is the task of the President and the Secretary of State." Yet he often ended up infuriating members of his own party. Charles Sumner, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and an old friend, accused Seward of the "grossest mismanagement" of foreign affairs, and taunted his preening and "prancing." Mary Todd Lincoln told her husband that she hated to see him "let that hypocrite, Seward, twine you around his finger as if you were a skein of thread." In September, 1861, a group of New Yorkers warned Lincoln about Seward's drinking and smoking, a charge that Lincoln waved aside. A year later, a delegation of Radical Republicans from New York went to Washington with ostensible evidence of Seward's leniency toward Southern "traitors." Lincoln retorted, "It is plain enough what you want. You want to get Seward out of the cabinet." He said that every one of them would be content to see the country ruined "if you could turn out Seward."
            As the scheming continued, Seward only rose in Lincoln's estimation, and Lincoln in his. Gideon Welles judged that "the qualities of Seward are almost the precise opposite of the President." But their temperamental differences-Lincoln the brooding, lonely depressive; Seward the gregarious optimist-complemented each other like those of a comfortable married couple. They liked nothing better than to relax together in the evening. Seward's son Frederick, who served as his Assistant Secretary of State, recalled that, as the two "sat together by the fireside, or in the carriage, the conversation between them, however it began, always drifted back into the same channel - the progress of the great national struggle. Both loved humor, and however trite the theme, Lincoln always found some quaint illustration from his western life, and Seward some case in point, from his long public career, to give it new light." Seward, in a tone of mock regret, told a British journalist, with Lincoln present, that he had "always wondered how any man could ever get to be President of the United States with so few vices. The President, you know, I regret to say, neither drinks nor smokes." Seward, like Lincoln, was a practiced raconteur, and Lincoln told one visitor, "Mr. Seward is limited to a couple of stories which from repeating he believes are true." Their over-all agreement about the conduct of the war, and their habit of checking each other's rasher impulses, defined Administration policy.
            In July, 1862, when Lincoln presented the Cabinet with a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, Seward warned that it could prompt foreign governments to intervene on behalf of the South, and said that it should be delivered at a time of military strength, not weakness. "Proclamations are paper," he wrote to Frances, "without the support of armies." Lincoln was persuaded to wait. The preliminary Proclamation was signed on September 22, 1862, after the Union victory at Antietam.
            "Nineteenth-century elections were played by rough rules," Stahr writes laconically, and Seward knew exactly how to exploit them. After the New York Draft Riots, in 1863, and a string of defeats by Union troops, many people in the North began agitating for peace. As the election of 1864 approached, even loyal Republicans considered calling for a convention to nominate another candidate. That August, Weed went to the White House to tell Seward and Lincoln that the election was lost. Seward disagreed, and deployed Weed, the consummate party boss, to activate what Gideon Welles aptly described as the "vicious New York school of politics." Welles's Assistant Secretary of the Navy was enlisted to tell workers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard that if they didn't vote for Lincoln they would lose their jobs. Lincoln did his part, too, appointing "a few Seward-Weed men to key posts in New York City." Welles, meanwhile, scribbled in his diary about the "miserable intrigues of Weed and Seward." Outmaneuvered by his nemesis and undercut by a subordinate, Welles wrote after the results came in, "Seward was quite exultant-feels strong and self gratified. Says this Administration is wise, energetic, faithful, and able beyond any of its predecessors."
            The patronage appointments and the unscrupulous tactics continued in 1865, as Congress debated the terms of Reconstruction. Democrats tried to block the proposed Thirteenth Amendment, which would abolish slavery. Radical Republicans resisted the reinstatement of Southern congressmen, and pushed for a federal agency to protect former slaves. Lincoln and Seward, who tried to arbitrate between the two extremes, were determined to get the amendment through the House. They offered political positions to editors who supported it, and Seward hired disreputable lobbyists to secure the votes of resistant Democrats and ambivalent border-state Unionists. On January 31, 1865, the amendment passed. Unlike the Emancipation Proclamation, it had the power of law, and Seward predicted, prematurely, that the process of Reconstruction was almost complete.
            Stahr writes with understated pathos of the terrible events that carne later that year, when Seward was tested "as few men are ever tested." On April 5th, Seward embarked with several members of his family to meet Lincoln near Richmond, where the prospect of serious peace talks beckoned. Not far from home, the door to the carriage flew open, and when the driver dismounted to secure it the horses bolted. Seward leaped out, attempting to grab the reins. Instead, he fell and was carried back to his house unconscious. He had fractured his lower jaw and his right arm, and the doctor considered his condition "perilous in the extreme." Late one night nine days later, at virtually the same moment that Lincoln was shot in his box at Ford's Theatre, Seward was stabbed in bed by one of John Wilkes Booth's coconspirators, a former Confederate soldier. Seward survived, but his son Augustus was injured, and Frederick, beaten over the head with the attackers revolver, was in a coma for several days. Frances Seward, already frail, was undone by caring for her family and by the assassination of Lincoln. She died two months later, at the age of fifty-nine.
            The following year, Seward's twenty one- year-old daughter, Fanny, died of tuberculosis. Devastated, badly scarred, and noticeably aged, Seward nevertheless continued as Secretary of State. This gives him, as Stahr puts it, "the curious distinction of having worked with and admired both Abraham Lincoln, considered one of the greatest if not the greatest of all American presidents, and Andrew Johnson, generally considered one of the worst." Johnson was a former Democrat from Tennessee, with a boorish manner and blundering political instincts. The Chicago Tribune was not alone in thinking that Seward had "effectually committed political suicide" by agreeing to stay on. A member of the House from Pennsylvania compared him to an old English hunting dog, tolerated because he "never bit the hand that fed him."
            In early 1867, as Radicals in Congress pursued impeachment efforts against Johnson, Seward tried both to heat them back and to persuade the President to tone down remarks in his annual message that berated Congress for forcing Southern states to accept the black vote. But Johnson, who believed that blacks had "shown less capacity for government than any other race of people," ignored his advice. Seward was exasperated by Johnson, but he agreed, Stahr writes, "that the southern states should be allowed to govern themselves, and to rejoin the national government, without undue delay or onerous conditions."
            Seward persisted, too, in order to act upon his long-held ambitions for the American empire. After helping to preserve the Republic, he now set out to expand it. Since the eighteen-fifties, he had been advocating trade with East Asia. On a political tour with Johnson in the summer of1867, Seward told an audience in Hartford, to vigorous applause, that the' people of the United States had before them the "most glorious" prospect "that ever dawned upon any nation on the globe," of a free nation "extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean and approaching the shores of Japan and China." He negotiated treaties with Japan, the Sandwich Islands, Madagascar, and Venezuela. "Nothing could be more important in regard to the growth of American influence and the extension of American power in the future." Eventually, Seward was also vindicated in his determination to acquire the strategically important territories of Hawaii, the Panama Canal Zone, and Alaska.
            Not, however, without engaging in some more diplomatic chicanery. He wanted Congress to pass a treaty with Russia for the purchase of Alaska, but his power had waned. In September, 1868, he admitted separately to the President and to an American diplomat that the Russian Ambassador, Edouard de Stoeckl, had siphoned two hundred thousand dollars from the Treasury Department's seven-million-dollar check to Russia for the acquisition of the territory. The man had some incidental expenses to square away. The editor of the Daily Morning Chronicle requested thirty thousand dollars in return for his support of the treaty, and Stoeckl paid thousands of dollars to ten members of Congress to win their votes. A few months later, when a House investigating committee questioned Seward about the bribes, he denied knowing anything about them. Stahr finds the evidence that Seward perjured himself "troubling," but reminds us, "Seward was not a saint, he was a practical politician, and he was prepared if necessary to use dubious means to achieve great goals." One of the achievements of Stahr's subtle portrait of this confounding figure is that, in the end, our sense of Seward's charm, and even of his integrity, survives roughly intact.
            Although Seward retired at the age of n sixty-eight, in 1869, when Grant assumed the Presidency, he continued to be, as Frances had described him a quarter century earlier, "the most indefatigable of men." He said, "At my age, and in my condition of health, 'rest was rust,' and nothing remained, to prevent rust, but to, keep in motion." Still suffering from pain in his face and neck, his hands crippled, and paralysis creeping up his arms, he went on a journey with his family on the newly opened transcontinental railroad a cause that he had championed in the Senate - and then on to British Columbia, Alaska, Cuba, and Mexico. He returned home for five months before setting off for Japan, China, and Europe with the two daughters of an old political mend. There had been speculation that he would marry one of them, twenty four- year-old Olive Risley, whom he had been seeing regularly in Washington. (One paper, alluding to the age difference, described Seward as "amiable, sportive, frisky, foxy.") Instead, Seward adopted her, thus preempting any stories about the impropriety of travelling with two very young women. After the trip, he finally settled down in Auburn, where he worked with Olive on a book about their journeys, and received frequent visitors at home.
            Seward's devoted young friend Henry Adams enjoyed observing "the old fellow" at dinner "rolling out his grand broad ideas that would inspire a cow with statesmanship if she understood our language." He later wrote of Seward that it was difficult to tell "how much was nature and how much was mask." Seward was maligned alternately as an extremist and as a temporizer. He broke the law to help fugitive slaves, yet made concessions that he found personally unconscionable in order to preserve the Union. A man who literally bore the scars of a violently divided society nonetheless held on to a grandiose vision of American destiny and insured that the contours of a young nation were expanded. He was mocked for his boundless self-regard, but there was one man he came to admire even more.
            When Lincoln returned from Virginia on the evening of Robert E. Lee's official surrender, April 9, 1865, he went directly to visit Seward, who was recuperating from the carriage accident. Frederick recalled that "the gas-lights were turned down low, and the house was still, every one moving softly, and speaking in whispers." Lincoln sat down on the bed. Seward, his face wrapped in bandages, whispered, " 'You are back from Richmond?' 'Yes,' said Lincoln, 'and I think we are near the end at last.' "
            Less than a week later, Lincoln was dead and Seward and two of his sons were struggling to survive. But that night was marked by hope. Frederick recounts how the President, "leaning his tall form across the bed, and resting on his elbow," lay down beside Seward. Lincoln talked about visiting a Union hospital earlier that day and shaking the hands of hundreds of patients. "He spoke of having worked as hard at it as sawing wood," Fanny recorded in her diary, "and seemed, in his goodness of heart, much satisfied at the labor."
            It is easy to imagine the moment: the two canny politicians quietly reassuring each other that the country would soon be reunited and the virulent animosities of the war fade away. A few days after the 1864 election, Seward had addressed a crowd gathered at his house in Washington. According to newspaper accounts, he said that everyone would soon see Lincoln as "a true patriot, benevolent and loyal, honest and faithful. Hereafter, all motive of detraction of him would cease to exist, and Abraham Lincoln would take his place with Washington, Jefferson, and Adams, among the benefactors of his country and the human race." This was not rate political rhetoric. He believed every word.

The New Yorker, October 1, 2012, page 72.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Allure of Black Fraternal Organizations

They exist as leftovers of a by-gone age that "self-segregate" and thereby perpetuate racial antagonism; they are self-serving and loutish elitists that represent the worst of both the "Talented Tenth" (Du Bois 1903) and the "Black Bourgeoisie" (Frazier 1957); they are strange and bizarre fundamentalists and hucksters hostile to intellectual inquiry and free thought, and/or they are little more than "educated gangs" (cf. Hughey 2008).

“Black Greek Letter Organizations” or BGLOs today possess an estimated 1.5 million members worldwide, over 6,400 chapters, and are "among the oldest black campus organizations on most predominately white campuses and are possibly the strongest nationwide social institutions in black America" (McKee 1987, p. 27).  Aside from the black church and organizations like the NAACP, BGLOs were the largest positive influence on the black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

E. Franklin Frazier, a noted sociologist and himself a member of the BGLO Alpha Phi Alpha. Frazier wrote in Black Bourgeoisie (1957, p. 94) that BGLOs were little more than elitist social clubs of a self-congratulatory nature, but excelled within a narrow tripartite mission – developing personal excellence, creating fictive kinship ties, and fostering racial uplift activity (e.g., civic action, community service, and philanthropy).

Without grounded, sophisticated, and ethically minded scholarship geared toward inquiry and democratic action in the interest of Black folks, these organizations may continue to suffer from a reliance on ideologically constructed "common sense," destructive habits, and superstitious illusions. Scholarship, we contend, is a necessary component of these organizations' necessary transformation; from abstracted high ideals to implemented programs in the service of social justice and equality.

Quasi-Secret Organizations And The Challenge Of Leadership Accountability

In the past few years, several of these organizations have been rocked by scandals about their national presidents engaging in financial malfeasance with organization funds. What is more interesting is that members have had tremendous difficulty addressing these issues.

First, the organization's national board members may be intimidated by the national president. On the other hand, they may be unwilling to question his or her authority out of tradition or a desire to preserve the power of that office with the hopes that they will someday occupy that seat and the power it holds.

Second, BGLO members may never learn about the financial malfeasance.

While each BGLO has a legislative branch (i.e., each member has the power of one vote), members' representative votes have the greatest effect at national meetings, which might only occur once every two years. In the interim, the national president is at the height of his or her power, often with the ability to be the sole interpreter of the organization's ultimate authority, the constitution.

Lastly, BGLOs have an Anti-snitching culture predicated on a belief that anything pertaining to the official or unofficial operations of the organization is secret.  As such, to some members, financial malfeasance is just as sacred and secret as their organization's formal ritual. On the other hand, members; may fear that if certain facts were made public about their BGLO, those facts could harm the organization's brand.

In 2008, the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit handed down an opinion in matter brought by a Zeta Phi Beta Sorority member. In Stark, v. Zeta Phi Beta, Natasha Stark discovered that the sorority's then International President, Barbara Moore, had used the sorority's credit cards to purchase personal items totaling more than $300,000. These improprieties violated both the sorority's internal bylaws as well as the IRS codes. The sorority's Board of Directors dealt with the situation by allowing Moore to keep her position in exchange for signing a promissory note to repay the debt over a five-year period. In response, Zeta Phi Beta suspended and later expelled Stark from the sorority. Stark brought a civil suit against the sorority in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which she lost at both the trial and appellate level.

Given the culture within BGLOs-one of anti-snitching and a keep-it-in-the-house mentality-those members were sanctioned.  If these organizations do not seek fundamental change in how they conduct business (e.g., electing or appointing independent general counsels, enacting whistleblower provisions, making annual audits accessible to members), it is up to members to police the organizations' resources and brand.

excerpts from Black Fraternal Organizations: Systems, Secrecy, and Solace” by Matthew W. Hughey and Gregory S. Parks. Journal of African American Studies, 25 July 2012.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Have you ever read Ayn Rand?

Q: Have you ever read Ayn Rand?

POTUS: Sure.

Q: What do you think Paul Ryan’s obsession with her work would mean if he were vice president?

POTUS: Well, you'd have to ask Paul Ryan what that means to him. Ayn Rand is one of those things that a lot of us, when we were 17 or 18 and feeling misunderstood, we’d pick it up.

Then, as we get older, we realize that a world in which we're only thinking about ourselves and not thinking about anybody else, in which we're considering the entire project of developing ourselves as more important than our relationships to other people and making sure that everybody else has opportunity - that that's a pretty narrow vision. It's not one that, I think, describes what's best in America. Unfortunately, it does seem as if sometimes that vision of a "you're on your own" society has consumed a big chunk of the Republican Party.

Of course, that's not the Republican tradition. I made this point in the first debate. You look at Abraham Lincoln: He very much believed in self-sufficiency and self-reliance. He embodied it - that you work hard and you make it, that your efforts should take you as far as your dreams can take you. But he also understood that there's some things we do better together. That we make investments in our infrastructure and railroads and canals and land-grant colleges and the National Academy of Sciences, because that provides us all with an opportunity to fulfill our potential, and we'll all be better off as a consequence. He also had a sense of deep, profound empathy, a sense of the intrinsic worth of every individual, which led him to his opposition to slavery and ultimately to signing the Emancipation Proclamation. That view of life - as one in which we're all connected, as opposed to all isolated and looking out only for ourselves - that's a view that has made America great and allowed us to stitch together a sense of national identity out of all these different immigrant groups who have come here in waves throughout our history.

excerpt from Rolling Stone President Obama pre-election interview by Douglas Brinkley. Rolling Stone magazine, issue 1169, 8 November 2012, p.40.

Romney's "Gift" Gaffe: What he meant to say.... by John Cassidy

Romney's inner voice: "Anyway, back to the election, which I lost for three reasons. First, my opponent—and I give him a lot of credit for this—displayed a better grasp of arithmetic than we did. While I was out there talking about the trees in Michigan and singing “America the Beautiful,” he and his campaign were assiduously putting together a political coalition that would get them to fifty per cent. When the minority vote is nearly thirty per cent of the electorate, and you get four in five minority votes, you only need to attract about a third of the other voters. In successfully reaching out to women, gays, and young voters, the President could afford to cede to us most of the white male vote, and it didn’t matter. (In places like Ohio and Michigan, he did pretty well in appealing to those voters, too.)"

"Second, the President and his party delivered for its core supporters—not just financially but also in a larger sense. To some extent, of course, politics is a transactions-based business: the main reason political parties exist is to defend the interests of their supporters. In offering a route to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants; in restructuring the student-loan program on terms favorable to the debtors; in introducing heavily subsidized health-care coverage for the near-poor and for hard-working middle-class families—some of whom are minorities; in coming out in favor of gay marriage; even in insisting that, under the terms of his health-care reform, insurance plans cover contraception—the President provided concrete benefits for the groups that supported him in 2008."

Read more:

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Some thoughts on black "Greeks" by Dr. Gregory Parks

Greetings All:

In the past couple of weeks, my colleagues and I have completed or made significant headway on a number of projects dealing with black Greek-letter organizations (BGLOs). If interested, you can access a number of them below via hyperlinks:

I just had my article on the challenges the come with holding BGLO national presidents accountable. The article probably doesn't make me popular with some BGLO members, but at least I'm consistent in critiquing undergraduates around issues of hazing and alumni about broader issues of rule and law violation - Gregory S. Parks, Social Networking and Leadership Accountability in (Quasi) Secret Organizations [], 2 Wake Forest Law Review Common Law 39 (2012).

I have two forthcoming, empirical articles on BGLO hazing issues. The first explores what BGLO pledges know about their hazing experiences and when they know it and how such knowledge, and its implications, might be proven in a court of law. Gregory S. Parks & Rashawn Ray, Poetry as Evidence __ University of California Law Review __ (2013). The second explores what beliefs BGLO members have about the utility of hazing and the extent to which those beliefs are factually born out. Gregory S. Parks, Shayne E. Jones, & Matthew W. Hughey, Belief, Truth, and Pro-social Organizational Deviance, __ Howard Law Journal __ (2013). Drafts of both can be downloaded from my Social Science Research Network author's page at []

I also have two other articles that are forthcoming. One deals with the variety of challenges that BGLO fraternities face and how those issues highlight the divide between the organizations' ideals and their reality. Gregory S. Parks & Rodney T. Cohen, The Great Divide: The Chasm between Black Fraternal Ideals and Reality __ Spectrum: Journal on Black Men__ (2013). The other explores the liability that Greek Affairs advisors might place their in given their level of competence in working with BGLOs. Gregory S. Parks & Dorsey Spencer, Student Affairs Professionals, Black “Greek” Hazing, and University Civil Liability __ College Student Affairs Journal __ (2013). Drafts of both can be downloaded from my Social Science Research Network author's page.

The special journal issue on black fraternal orders that Matthew Hughey and I edited is out. Matthew W. Hughey & Gregory S. Parks, Thematic Issue on Black Fraternal Organizations [], 16 Journal of African American Studies 595-729 (2012).

I've submitted an article for publication that is a companion piece to Poetry as Evidence, and further analyzes how broader aspects of BGLO pledge culture might be used in litigation by defendants. Gregory S. Parks, Shayne E. Jones, Rashawn Ray, & Matthew W. Hughey, Complicit in their Own Demise? (under review). The draft will be accessible for downloaded from my Social Science Research Network author's page in a day or two.

In the next couple of weeks, I will wrap-up two other articles. One explores some methods for ending hazing within BGLOs. Gregory S. Parks & Shawna M. Patterson, Changing Hazing Attitudes (and Hopefully Behavior) among Black “Greeks”. The other explores BGLOs as complex organizations and how the issues embedded within that complexity may undermine BGLOs racial uplift activism. Gregory S. Parks, Rashawn Ray, & Shawna M. Patterson, Organizational Complexity and Civic Activism, __ Harvard Education Review __ (invited submission). My coauthor on this paper, Shawna Patterson, and I will present a version of this paper at the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors Annual Conference if you will be there and can swing by the session.

I am also working on some shorter, lay articles and blogposts on gay men in black fraternities, solutions to the issue of hazing within BGLOs, and whether the National Pan-Hellenic Council has run its course and should be disbanded.

Finally, my coauthor Matthew Hughey and I sent our book manuscript off to our publisher. The Wrongs of the Right: Race and the Republican Party in the Age of Obama (NYU Press). Look for it in 2013. We will start work on a massive book project, with Rashawn Ray, in the next couple of months, about hazing within BGLOs.

Thanks for your time.

Gregory S. Parks, J.D., Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Law
Wake Forest University School of Law
1834 Wake Forest Road | Worrell Professional Center, #3346
Campus Box 7206 | Winston-Salem, NC 27109
PH: 336.758.2170 | FX: 336.758.4496

Monday, November 12, 2012

I ride Greyhound

by Ellie Schoenfeld


because it's like being

in a John Steinbeck novel.

Next best thing is the laundromat.

That's where all people

who would be on the bus if they had the money

hang out. This is my crowd.

Tonight there are cleaning people appalled

at the stupidity of anyone

who would put powder detergent

into the clearly marked LIQUID ONLY slot.

The couple by the vending machine

are fondling each other.

You'd think the orange walls

and fluorescent lights

would dampen that energy

but it doesn't seem to.

It's a singles scene here on Saturday nights.

I confide to the fellow next to me

that I suspect I am being taken

in by the triple loader,

maybe it doesn't hold any more

than the regular machines

but I'm paying an extra fifty cents.

I tell him this meaningfully

holding handfuls of underwear.

He claims the triple loader

gives a better wash.

I don't ask why,

just cruise over to the pop machine,

aware that my selection

may provide a subtle clue.

I choose Wild Berry,

head back to my clothes.


Reprinted from Good Poems, American Places

edited by Garrison Keillor, Penguin Books, 2011.