Hollywood Gossip Columnist Hedda Hopper Returns to the Screen in Trumbo

Famed Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, played by actress Helen Mirren, is starring in the new movie Trumbo. Directed by Jay Roach and starring Bryan Cranston, the film is about screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and the blacklist in Hollywood during the Cold War. Hopper is featured in the film as Trumbo’s political nemesis, as indeed she was. Rather than dismissing the conservative, anticommunist Hopper as “a crank” who engaged in “pinko purges”—as did earlier portrayals—the film takes her formidable role in mid-20th century American popular and political culture seriously.

Whether known as the “duchess of dish” or a “gargoyle of gossip,” Hedda Hopper was a powerhouse of Hollywood’s golden age. For 27 years, beginning in 1938, she wrote her movie gossip column. Her mass media gossip—or as she put it “snooping and scooping”—drew over 30 million readers to her column at its height in the 1950s. As a gossip, she publicized information about private lives. She focused mostly on the big stars, their movies and marriages, their secrets and scandals. But what made Hopper most stand out from the crowd of celebrity journalists—apart from her famous, flamboyant hats—was her political coverage and political conservatism.

Hopper excelled at a style and practice of journalism that blurred public and private, politics and entertainment and set the context for our current era. By combining and wielding gossip about the worlds of both entertainment and politics, Hopper inserted celebrity into her coverage of politics and politics into her coverage of celebrities. Her insertions took the form of today’s sound bites—simple morsels for immediate consumption. But making information entertaining simplifies the political debate and obscures the political issues. Hopper would have been very comfortable with our historical moment where politicians and celebrities are interchangeable, and personal attacks and character assassinations are a regular part of political discourse.

Hopper used her journalistic platform to promote her conservative politics and traditional values. She attacked members of the film industry who departed from her political views and moral standards, and mobilized her readers into letter-writing campaigns and movie boycotts. Always a proud member of the Republican Party, she sought to build opposition to the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, and modern manners and morals. Her highest priority, however, was fighting against Communism at home and abroad. For decades, Hopper busied herself with “exposing Reds in the name of patriotism.” By publicizing the Communist beliefs of members of the film industry, she violated their civil liberties and the right to keep their political affiliations private. But private information was her currency in the gossip trade.

One of her most prominent targets was Dalton Trumbo. She could not understand why a successful screenwriter like Trumbo, one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood, “could be a Commie.” Once the blacklist was established in late 1947, with Trumbo on it, Hopper felt it was not enough and demanded further blacklisting. In 1950, Hopper accused MGM of continuing to employ Trumbo under a pseudonym, a warning to other studios to maintain the blacklist. Hopper continued to monitor Trumbo’s career and put pressure on those protecting him. When Trumbo received screen credit for Spartacus (1960), effectively breaking the blacklist, Hopper strongly objected. “The script was written by a Commie,” she wrote, “so don’t go to see it.”

The establishment of the Hollywood blacklist in late 1947 signaled the stifling of social criticism and political dissent in Cold War America. As the new movie Trumbo makes clear, Hedda Hopper helped make this so.

Jennifer Frost is Associate Professor of History at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. She is the author of Hedda Hopper’s Holywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism (NYU Press, 2011) and An Interracial Movement of the Poor Community Organizing and the New Left in the 1960s (NYU Press, 2005).

Charles Lee and Hamilton: He’s a General, Wheee!

—Phillip Papas

Prior to 2013, there had not been much mention of General Charles Lee in the narrative of the American Revolution. Lee is everywhere now. He appears in the AMC series TURN, in the Outlander novel My Own Heart’s Blood, in the video game Assassins Creed III, and in two biographies, including Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Lee (NYU Press, 2014). Lee also emerges in Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical that tells the story of Alexander Hamilton and the other revolutionaries who forged the American nation.

While Lee has become more visible in popular culture and in scholarship, his image as a debauched, cowardly malcontent has remained. Miranda’s Lee continues this trend.

In Act I of Hamilton, Washington’s bedraggled Continentals retreat across New Jersey in 1776. The commander-in-chief hopes to defeat the British through small-scale, risk-averse, skirmishes. “There’s only one way for us to win this, Provoke outrage, outright,” Washington tells his protégé Hamilton. “Don’t engage, strike by night. Remain relentless ’til their troops take flight,” he continues. “Hit ’em quick, get out fast.” (“Stay Alive”) Yet among the Continental officers, Charles Lee was the most consistent and articulate proponent of this kind of strategy, urging Washington to avoid conventional battles in favor of irregular warfare (or petite guerre). However, Lee advised organizing the army along the lines of a national militia, dividing it into small detachments that would coordinate with local partisans to harass the British flanks, cut their supply lines, disrupt communications, and ambush isolated patrols and outposts.

The realization of Lee’s strategy meant fighting a wholly different war than that envisioned by Washington and other Continental officers, including Hamilton. Their view supported a Continental Army comprised of long-term volunteers that avoided large-scale battles in favor of smaller conventional operations before withdrawing from the field, a strategy Washington effectively applied at Trenton and Princeton in the winter of 1776-1777. Washington, Hamilton, and others understood that for the Revolution to succeed the army had to remain intact. Nevertheless, Lee’s advocacy of petite guerre reminds us that Washington’s was not the only view on how to fight and win the war held by the revolutionaries.

Lee was the most experienced soldier appointed by the Continental Congress in June 1775. Yet he accepted the position as the third general in rank behind Washington and Artemas Ward, becoming second-in-command upon the latter’s resignation in April 1776. He also impressed his American contemporaries with his intellect and cosmopolitanism, attributes that are overlooked in Miranda’s musical and by historians. On December 13, Lee was captured by British cavalry at a tavern in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Exchanged in 1778, he rejoined the Continental Army at the Valley Forge encampment. But Lee soon learned that the army had changed considerably during his captivity as had the politics of Congress and of Washington’s headquarters.

Thanks to the training program of the Prussian officer the Baron von Steuben, Washington’s troops emerged from Valley Forge confident they could succeed in a large-scale conventional battle. That opportunity arrived in June 1778 near Monmouth Courthouse, New Jersey. Lee, in command of the advance corps, faced stiff resistance from the British rearguard. His lines disintegrated. Facing potential annihilation, Lee ordered a general retreat. “Ev’ryone attack!” Washington bellows. (“Stay Alive”) Lee replies “Retreat!” Irate to find Lee’s troops retreating, Washington publicly rebuked him. “What are you doing, Lee? Get back on your feet!” To which a cowardly Lee responds: “But there’s so many of them!”

The battle of Monmouth ended in a draw and Lee’s performance would have been considered unworthy of further admonishment had he not criticized the commander-in-chief in the press. “Washington cannot be left alone to his devices. Indecisive, from crisis to crisis,” Lee declares bitterly. He demanded a court-martial. Washington obliged.

The court-martial found Lee guilty of misconduct and disrespect and suspended him for a year. Lee again turned to the press to defend his actions at Monmouth, to criticize Washington, and to denounce a narrative of the battle crafted by Hamilton, John Laurens, and the Marquis de Lafayette. “Many men died because Lee was inexperienced and ruinous,” Hamilton asserts. He “shits the bed at the Battle of Monmouth” the three men exclaim while “a thousand soldiers die in a hundred degree heat” (Laurens). Washington snatches “a stalemate from the jaws of defeat.” (Lafayette)

Lee’s rage against Washington led to a duel with Laurens in December 1779. “Laurens, do not throw away your shot,” Hamilton advises his friend (“Stay Alive”). Lee, Laurens, Hamilton, and Aaron Burr, who supported Lee during the court-martial, use verse to recite the code duello (“Ten Duel Commandments”). Here Miranda foreshadows the 1804 Burr-Hamilton duel that ended Hamilton’s life. “Can we agree that duels are dumb and immature?” Burr asks Hamilton. “Sure,” he responds, “But your man [Lee] has to answer for his words.” Laurens ultimately wounded Lee.

While it was easy to criticize Lee, the fact is he continued to have the respect of several revolutionaries including Aaron Burr, General Nathanael Greene, and the future U. S. president James Monroe, among others. Had Lee not ordered a retreat at the battle of Monmouth, the British would have decimated the Continentals before Washington’s arrival. Moreover, Lee has rarely been credited with delaying the British long enough for Washington to establish his main line of defense. By ordering a retreat, Lee drew the enemy into an unfavorable position by the time the commander-in-chief appeared and helped to save the Continental Army from a potentially devastating defeat. It was only Lee’s disrespect for Washington that ultimately ended his military career, not his performance on the battlefield.

Phillip Papas is Senior Professor of History at Union County College in Cranford, New Jersey. He is the author of That Ever Loyal Island: Staten Island and the American Revolution (NYU Press, 2007) and Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Lee (NYU Press, 2014), which earned Honorable Mention for the 2015 Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award.

The Founders Chic of Hamilton

Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 2.25.41 PM—Andrew M. Schocket

Hamilton is the hottest ticket on Broadway.  Anyone who’s been lucky enough to see it or hear it (here’s the soundtrack, for now) knows it’s thrilling.  But Founders Chic, the recent worshiping of our illustrious nation-building heroes, has little to do with its success.

Hamilton portrays the founders as strivers, especially immigrant Alexander Hamilton, who arrived from the Caribbean with almost nothing, and rose to marry one of the brightest (and wealthiest) women in New York, become George Washington’s right-hand man, one of the co-authors of The Federalist, the inventive first Secretary of the Treasury, and the central figure of the nation’s first major sex scandal, all before his death at age 49 in a duel by the hand of a longtime rival, the country’s sitting vice president. All promising dramatic material.

Nonetheless, Hamilton’s inventive lyrics, catchy melodies, non-stop references to contemporary culture, brilliant rhyme, fine dancing, top-notch singing, and dramatic talent are what make this show such a joy.  Those elements, far more than it’s being about a founding figure per se, is why Hamilton is a smash.

If there’s anything I’ve learned as an historian following Founders Chic, it’s that commercial productions that celebrate our founding generation work like any other content: they only succeed if they’re good and fit into the their medium snugly.  Sure, David McCullough’s John Adams book sold over a million copies—but McCullough is one of our grandest storytellers, author of a half-dozen other prize-winning best-sellers.  Mel Gibson’s entertaining The Patriot made money at the box office, while Al Pacino’s gritty but confusing Revolution was a dud.

The reason why Hamilton is so remarkable is not that the world has been craving a hip-hop rendition of the man on the $10 dollar bill.  The 1997 Broadway revival of the early 1970s musical 1776, which campily tells the story of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, limped through a year of lackluster attendance.  Other American political figures have fared worse: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a favorably-reviewed musical on the life of our seventh president, was a commercial failure five years ago.

Rather, Hamilton accomplishes what its best musical predecessors do, only a little differently: spin a strong story, with a marvelous book and hummable music, in the great Broadway tradition.  It re-energizes the form of the musical by injecting it with hip-hop.  Hamilton references previous such reinvigorations, including what the Berlin brothers and Cole Porter did with jazz, Leonard Bernstein did with classical music, and Bob Fosse did with the incorporation of new dances styles.  And if you listen to Hamilton’s soundtrack, you’ll hear a book that, hip hop references aside, would make any Stephen Sondheim aficionado smile knowingly.

Still, a musical bio about a nobody who marries well and entrances a nation, that’s new, right?  Not if you’ve seen Evita, about Eva Peron.  Hamilton’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, credits the mind behind that musical, Andrew Lloyd Weber, as one of his major influences.  And Hamilton goes further back than that: it includes nods to the 20th-century American team of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and even to Gilbert and Sullivan, the late-19th-century British opera-writing duo who helped to meld opera and the popular stage.  It’s not American Revolutionary history that makes Hamilton rollicking fun: it’s Manuel’s melding of musical history.

And that’s one of the lessons to be learned from Hamilton’s triumph.  Not all musicals are created equal: to make a great one, you’ve got to meld words, music, and talent into a more perfect union of words, music, and talent.

Andrew M. Schocket is Director of American Culture Studies and Associate Professor of History and American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University (OH). He is the author of Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution (NYU Press, 2015) and Founding Corporate Power in Early National Philadelphia.

New York has a long history of welcoming popes

—Paul Moses

As Pope Francis arrives this week for the fifth-ever papal visit to the Big Apple, he’ll be buoyed by a modern-day tradition — New Yorkers love their visiting popes.

Somber like Paul VI, ebullient like John Paul II, gentle like Benedict XVI: All of the popes who traveled to New York over the past five decades have thrived on enormous, enthused crowds in a city where Catholics have long been the largest religious denomination.

Pope Francis’ salt-of-the-earth style seems an especially good match for New York, and his distinction as the first pontiff from the Americas has added to the expectations for his trip.

“There are a lot of Catholics in the city,” said Peter Quinn, author of Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America. “He’s head of an organization with a billion people . . . practicing Catholics, cultural Catholics, even people out of the church, they want the leader treated with a certain kind of respect.”

Some 36 percent of the New York metropolitan region’s residents are Catholic, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. That is tied with Boston and Pittsburgh for the biggest percent of Catholics in the top 30 metro areas — but given New York’s larger size, it makes the city essentially the capital of Catholic America.

A breakout of the institute’s data shows especially large proportions of Catholics on Long Island: 45 percent in Nassau and 48 percent in Suffolk. (For the city’s five boroughs, it is 30 percent.)

Beyond the large number of New Yorkers who identify themselves as Catholic, there are many others who have left the church but feel its tug when a pope visits.

Nationally, the Pew Research Center found that while 21 percent of Americans say they are Catholic, nearly 1 in 10 Americans who practice another faith, or none at all, consider themselves “partially Catholic.” Adding in those who consider themselves former Catholics, and those who have some other Catholic connection — perhaps those with a Catholic parent but not brought up in the faith — means that 45 percent of Americans are Catholic or have some connection to Catholicism, Pew reported this month.

That’s one reason for the attention that visiting popes receive.

“The people I know, there’s still an emotional attachment, even if it’s not religious anymore,” Quinn said. “You have a certain attachment to these symbols, I think. It touches something in people.”

Appealing to other masses

Another reason is that the popes have had crossover appeal. Beginning with Pope John XXIII, they’ve been working to undo many centuries of ill will toward Jews and are always sure to make a gesture of solidarity to New York’s large Jewish community.

“Ask Jewish New Yorkers of a certain age, and they’ll tell you that John was the first pope they really embraced,” said Terry Golway, author of Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics. When Pope Paul VI arrived, cheers were especially strong for him in the heavily Jewish enclave of Forest Hills, Queens, news accounts noted.

That 1965 trip came at what seems to have been the peak of Catholic influence in the city.

In Rome, the three-year Second Vatican Council was near its end. Paul VI’s decision to retain the church’s opposition to artificial birth control, which led to widespread dissent, was still three years away. The nation had mourned the death of its first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, whose widow greeted the pope. Millions of people had flocked to the Vatican Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park to see Michelangelo’s Pieta.

On Long Island, the Diocese of Rockville Centre, created eight years earlier, was rapidly building churches and schools. And New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman, organizing the first papal trip to the Western Hemisphere, presided regally from a chancery dubbed the Powerhouse.

Police estimated that some 630,000 people watched the pope’s motorcade travel slowly from Kennedy Airport to Manhattan via the Queensboro Bridge on Oct. 4, 1965. Many spectators were Catholic school students given the day off.

The key moment of the trip was the pope’s call at the United Nations for an end to war: “Jamais plus la guerre, jamais plus la guerre!”

It became a template for the future addresses that popes would give at the UN.

When Pope John Paul II prepared for the next papal visit in 1979 — a six-city journey in the 12th month of his papacy — he said his own speech at the UN would be “an extension” of Paul’s. The same will likely apply to Francis’ address before the General Assembly on Friday, just nine days short of the 50th anniversary of Paul’s call for peace.

The charismatic John Paul used a method that would turn up in many more of his journeys: Celebrate a nation’s highest cultural ideas — and then hold the people to them. At Battery Park, with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop, he spoke of the freedom this symbol meant for immigrants, and of Americans’ “willingness to share this freedom with others.”

Later, in a Mass at Yankee Stadium, he spoke of the responsibility that freedom requires: “We cannot stand idly by enjoying our own riches and freedom, if, in any place, the Lazarus of the 20th century stands at our door.” He also attacked “the lifestyle of many of the members of our rich and permissive societies.”

Francis is likely to hit similar themes.

John Paul returned to New York in 1995, wizened and bent after breaking his leg the previous year, but still dynamic as he celebrated Mass in Central Park. Msgr. Frank Maniscalco, then director of communications for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, recalled how the pope shocked the security contingent at the end of a service in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The plan had been for him to leave by a side door. Instead, he went back down the main aisle and out the front to greet more people, recalled Maniscalco, now pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in West Hempstead.

All of the visiting popes have struck a chord in New York because of the people they are and the position they hold, according to Maniscalco. “Catholics really do sense the pope as head of the church,” he said, adding that like the heads of other religions, a pope can give his people the sense of being in contact with God’s will.

Much as John Paul thrived on his connection to Polish New Yorkers, other papal visitors have had ties to ethnic communities as well. In 2008, Pope Benedict connected to German Catholics through a service at a traditionally German church on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

For Francis, watch for the impact that the visit of a South American pope whose native language is Spanish will have on Latinos, who, according to Public Religion Research Institute data, make up the majority of Catholics within New York City.

Times, and attitudes, have changed

Popes weren’t always welcome in New York.

Throughout the 19th century, “the idea of a pope visiting New York would be unthinkable,” said historian Patrick McNamara, author of “New York Catholics: Faith, Attitude & the Works!”

In 1853, the journey of Archbishop Gaetano Bedini, a papal nuncio, sparked riots in various cities. To help the cleric safely board his ship home, New York’s mayor arranged for Bedini to be taken in secret to Staten Island and put on a tug that met the vessel.

New York’s tough, Irish-born Archbishop John Hughes, who was in Cuba trying to recover his fading health, later wrote Bedini that if he’d been home, “We should have taken a carriage at my door, even an open one if the day had been fine enough, and gone by the ordinary streets to the steamboat.”

An 1898 film short of Pope Leo XIII giving his blessings alarmed Protestants who thought it might have been shot in the United States, McNamara said. “This was shown in nickelodeons around the country, and there was a big uproar because people were scared that the pope was actually making his way to the United States.”

The visit of Ireland’s Cardinal Michael Logue to celebrate the centennial of the Archdiocese of New York in 1908 was more promising. He brought greetings from Pope Pius X and received a welcoming letter from President Theodore Roosevelt. Catholics responded with a huge outpouring; newspapers provided expanded and respectful coverage.

In 1936, Spellman, then an auxiliary bishop in Boston, engineered a trip by the Vatican’s No. 2 official, Secretary of State Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII. He stayed in the Manhasset mansion owned by Catholic philanthropist and businessman Nicholas Brady and his wife, Genevieve. Called “Inisfada,” Gaelic for “Long Island,” it later became a Jesuit retreat house that closed and was demolished in 2013.

Having brought the second-ranking figure in the Vatican to New York, Spellman then got to host Pope Paul VI’s visit as archbishop of New York. “By ’65, this was old hat for Spellman,” McNamara said.

Now, as with the earlier papal trips, there is great anticipation among Catholic New Yorkers.

“Just on a personal level, I have appreciated each visit,” said Sister Camille D’Arienzo, a longtime commentator on WINS/1010 radio who has observed the trips. “But I haven’t felt the depth of warmth and almost comfort that he’s coming. I’m so proud of him.”

Paul Moses is Professor of Journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY and former city editor of Newsday, where he was the lead writer for a team that won the Pulitzer Prize. He is the author of An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). His book The Saint and the Sultan won the 2010 Catholic Press Association award for best history book.

[This piece originally appeared in Newsday.]

Katrina’s Lessons: Learned and Unlearned

—Robert Verchick

In the last few years, I’ve commemorated the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in a new way: by pedaling along the self-guided “Levee Disaster Bike Tour.” I begin beneath muscular oaks along New Orleans’ Bayou St. John, and I weave my way around potholes and waterfowl to pay silent respects near three prominent levee-breach sites, each marked with a commemorative plaque. Ten years ago, those breaches, combined with more than 50 others to bring a great American city to its knees.

I lived in New Orleans then, and evacuated to Houston for six months. Like so many others I resolved to return to my flooded home and rebuild. I did just that, and for a decade since I’ve taught graduate students about disaster policy and the central role Katrina plays in shaping our understanding of catastrophic hazards. I’ve learned a lot along the way, as have my students, I hope. But I can’t say the same for policy makers. A decade after the levees burst, some of the most important lessons are still just soaking in. Here is what I hope we will remember.

New Orleans was swamped by an engineering failure, not just a storm, and other cities are waiting in line. Katrina was a monster, but much of its rage had dissipated by the time it reached land. When the levees broke, the storm was within that system’s design specifications. To its credit, the Army Corps of Engineers acknowledged the failings in its design and construction and has toiled since to build a supersized complex of ramparts, gates, and pumps as sophisticated as any flood-control project in the world.

But other time bombs tick across the country. An estimated 100,000 miles of levees protect tens of millions of households, from Sacramento to Miami to New York City, with nearly 1 million of those households in Houston. Yet we know surprisingly little about their fitness. In response to Katrina, the federal government is developing an inventory of all federal and many non-federal levees. Of those rated so far, only 9 percent have been found to be in “acceptable” condition. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s levees a D- and estimated that repairs would cost more than $100 billion.

But even that isn’t enough. U.S. flood-control projects are normally designed to withstand only a so-called “100-year” event, or more accurately, an event with a 1-percent chance of occurring in any given year. If you own a home for the span of a 30-year mortgage, you have a 26-percent chance of being under water in the literal sense before you pay it off. By comparison, dikes in the Netherlands, where they know from floodwaters, are designed to withstand events that are up to 100 times less probable.

Social burdens linked to income and race make everything worse. As Americans learned watching television broadcasts of their fellow citizens, many of them poor and African-American, helicoptered off battered rooftops or trapped in the Superdome, disasters do not ignore social inequalities; they amplify them. Low-income and minority populations, for instance, are less likely to have first-aid kits, emergency food supplies, fire extinguishers, and evacuation funds, but more likely to suffer property damage, injury, and death. In the aftermath of Katrina, the damaged areas of New Orleans were 75 percent African-American, while undamaged areas were 46 percent African-American. Government assistance programs—crucial in the wake of large catastrophes—tend to favor middle-class homeowners over less affluent renters or the homeless.

Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy inspired a variety of indices and mapping platforms to identify “social vulnerability.” As with the federal inventory of levees, this information is critical. But, still, I wonder whether it will be used to its best effect. Will such mapping lead to safer homeless shelters, multi-lingual responders in immigrant areas, better public transportation for the elderly, better evacuation plans? If not, what’s the point?

Disaster is backlit by climate change. Experts agree that human-caused global warming is increasing average temperatures, disrupting rain patterns, and raising the seas. While scientists can’t link any individual storm to climate change, Katrina was perhaps the first to open the public’s imagination to what life on a warming planet could really mean. Thus the Federal Emergency Management Agency now incorporates climate impacts into its disaster recovery framework (now being followed in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy) and has plans to fold climate projections into the flood maps that determine insurance needs across the country.

What Katrina really teaches is that we are all in this world together, surrounded by vulnerabilities. On the frame of my ten-speed is a bumper sticker with the motto, “Be a New Orleanian—Wherever You Are.” What you didn’t know, is that you may have little choice.

Robert Verchick teaches at Loyola University New Orleans and Tulane University, is the president of the Center for Progressive Reform, and is the author of Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World (Harvard University Press, 2010) and Feminist Legal Theory: A Primer (NYU Press, 2006).

[This piece originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.]

Remembering Katrina

This week marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. In reflection, we’d like to highlight a few recent books that explore the effects of the historic storm and its impact on the resilient city of New Orleans.

Mardi Gras, jazz, voodoo, gumbo, Bourbon Street, the French Quarter—all evoke that place that is unlike any other: New Orleans. But what is it that makes New Orleans ‘authentic’? In Authentic New Orleans, Kevin Fox Gotham explains how New Orleans became a tourist town, a spectacular locale known as much for its excesses as for its quirky Southern charm. Beginning in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina amid the whirlwind of speculation and dread surrounding the rebuilding of the city, Gotham provides a unique interpretation of New Orleans, one that goes beyond its veneer and moves into the rich cultural roots of this unique American landmark.


In Critical Rhetorics of Race, a groundbreaking collection edited by Michael G. Lacy and Kent A. Ono, scholars seek to examine the complicated and contradictory terrain of racial rhetoric, critiquing our depictions of race in innovative and exciting ways. In the powerful first chapter, Michael G. Lacy and Kathleen C. Haspel take us back in time to the post-apocalyptic New Orleans of 2005 to explore the media’s troubling representations of black looters following the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.


When the images of desperate, hungry, thirsty, sick, mostly black people circulated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it became apparent to the whole country that race did indeed matter when it came to government assistance. The Wrong Complexion for Protection illuminates the long history of failed government responses to a range of environmental and health threats to African Americans. Drawing on compelling case studies and jaw-dropping statistics, the book is a sobering exploration of the brutal realities of institutionalized racism in disaster response and recovery.


Q&A with Ralph Young, author of Dissent

youngHow did you come to write an entire book on the concept of dissent? 

Ralph Young: The idea came to me while I was compiling and editing Dissent in America: The Voices That Shaped a Nation. This was a massive 800-page compilation of 400 years of dissenting speeches, sermons, petitions, songs, poems, polemics, etc. I let the voices of dissenters speak in this book and then I thought I should write my own narrative history of the United States from the standpoint of dissenters and protest movements. From the standpoint of those outsiders who sought more equality, more opportunity, more empowerment.

Can you succinctly define what dissent is—or perhaps it’s easier to say what dissent is not?

There are many ways to define dissent. And I go into this at great length in the introduction to the book. On the broadest level it’s going against the grain. Dissenting against what is. Whatever that is is.

The act of dissent covers a lot of ground ranging from intellectual skepticism to radical violence. Is there ‘good’ dissent and ‘bad’ dissent?

I believe there is. Dissent is dissent, regardless of the motives behind it. But for me dissent that seeks to empower the disempowered without infringing on anyone’s natural rights, that seeks to broaden rights rather than limiting rights is “good” dissent. Dissent that seeks to disempower other individuals or groups, that seeks to maintain white supremacy, or in other ways to limit the rights of others, is “bad” dissent. But ultimately I don’t like to use the words good dissent or bad dissent, because things have a way of working out in surprisingly unexpected ways.

What separates violent dissent from terrorism?

Violence is a somewhat mindless blind reaction against what is and resorting to violence reveals the frustration of those who have been fighting for a cause without success. Terrorism is on a different level. It is more strategic and is the ultimate weapon of groups that wish to destroy a government or a ruling paradigm and set up something entirely different. Violent dissent expresses frustration and is perhaps the last gasp of a group that still wants to reform the system. Terrorism is an attempt to utterly destroy the system.

Is dissent a uniquely American construct, sort of like jazz?

No, it is not uniquely American. Dissent has existed from time eternal and throughout the world. But it is a concept that Americans valued so much that we put it in our constitution as a right and we have been dissenting and refining dissent ever since. (In fact, dissent itself was one of the forces that brought about the creation of the United States, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights itself.)

The book you’ve written is in many ways an alternate history of America. How would you compare Dissent to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States?

I admire Zinn’s People’s History, but it is clearly a one-sided point of view. And while my book admittedly has a point of view, and any reader will know where I stand about the subject under discussion, I do try to give voice to those I don’t agree with. Also Zinn’s book looks at America through the prism of class, of class consciousness, of the age-old class struggle, while Dissent: The History of an American Idea looks at the scope of American history through the lens of dissent, which is a broader perspective. True, some dissent is a manifestation of the class struggle, but it is not limited to class. There are thousands of middle-class, even upper-class, dissenters. So dissent can be a manifestation of far more divergent points of view.

What would you say are some of the biggest triumphs of dissent in America and the biggest disappointments or failures?

Certainly the abolitionist, women’s, and civil rights movements achieved a great deal of success although at the time it seemed maddeningly slow to the participants. The movements that have protested income inequality, like Coxey’s Army and the recent Occupy movement have not achieved success, although they might simply have been the early rounds in an ongoing struggle. Some movements had a great deal of success, like the labor movement in the 1930s, but much of that success has been rolled back since the 1950s.

Have the active protest aspects of dissent such as rallies and marches permanently given way to more passive activities still such as legal action and armchair clicktivism (hitting a like button to support a cause) or are we just going through a phase?

I don’t think active protests and marches will ever come to an end. In some ways the Internet and social media have diminished attendance at protest rallies and marches, but in some ways social media has also increased attendance. I would say the jury is still out on the impact of social media on protest movements. Throughout history dissenters have always employed the latest technology to get out their message: radio, television, song, poetry, mass-printed sources like posters and flyers, etc.

Some would argue that modern dissent is less about life and death struggles and more of a lament against first world problems. Would you agree or disagree and why?

Dissent has never had to be about purely life and death struggles. In some cases, like with the abolitionist movement, yes. But in other cases it has primarily been about forcing the United States to live up to its part of the bargain. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution established highly idealistic principles that have not always applied to all people. Those who have felt left out of the “American Dream” have viewed these documents as a contract that the United States government must honor.

During the roughly 400-year history you examine in the book, many of the root causes of dissent—race, gender and economic inequality, religious differences, whether or not to fight wars and even police violence—are recurring themes. Does this repetition mean that we are not learning from history and are therefore doomed to repeat past mistakes?

Do we ever learn from history? There are lessons, to be sure, that history can teach us. But these issues are central to human nature. One of my favorite protest signs I saw recently was “I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit!”

Does the passage of time make it easier to judge the motivational integrity and the results of dissent? In other words, is it easier to draw conclusions about the Revolutionary War than the Occupy Wall Street or Tea Party movements?

Yes. The Revolutionary War resulted in the foundation of the United States and so we can interpret and evaluate its motivational integrity far better than we can Occupy or Tea Party since these are still unfolding. The irony, though, is that interpretations of the past are fluid, they are still changing. Historians have analyzed and critiqued the motivations of the Founding Fathers ever since the creation of the United States. Were they motivated by truly democratic principles, or were they economic elites who created a Constitution that would protect the interests of economic elites? This is still a debatable interpretation.

By studying the past, might you be able to predict the future face of dissent or perhaps see the next wave of dissent in America on the horizon?

I’ve always viewed history as the study of the past, the present, and the future! History is organic. And we are part of that organism. We cannot actually predict the future, but we can see the patterns and come up with some reasonable expectations of what they might lead to.

Do you think it’s only a matter of time before some form of violent revolution revisits America or have we progressed beyond that in the 21st century?

I can’t see it happening in the near future, but I wouldn’t count out anything. It depends on how bad things get. If economic inequality continues to grow and fester, it’s like putting a cap on a volcano. Pressures will continue to build unless there is some effort at reform to act as a safety valve. Theodore Roosevelt always believed that reform is essential and that if the powers that be ignore reform they are stoking the fires of revolution.

What do you hope people will take away from reading Dissent?

That dissent is patriotic. It is one of the central attributes of being an American. And that no single individual can change the world, but if thousands, millions of individuals work together toward a goal, together they can make a difference. And making a difference in small incremental steps is the way we do change the world.

Ralph Young is Professor of History at Temple University. He is the author of Dissent in America: The Voices That Shaped a Nation, a compilation of primary documents of 400 years of American dissenters.

Book giveaway: Dissent

Dissent (NYU Press, 2015)“Temple University historian Young delivers a doorstopper that few readers will ever want to misuse in such a manner; his clear and elegant style and a keen eye for good stories make it a page-turner…Young convincingly demonstrates that the history of the United States is inextricably linked to dissent and shows how ‘protest is one of the consummate expressions of Americanness.'”
STARRED Publishers Weekly

“A broad-ranging, evenhanded view of a tradition honed into an art form in America: the use of dissent as ‘a critique of governance’…Young has a knack for finding obscure but thoroughly revealing moments of history to illustrate his points; learning about Fries’ Rebellion and the Quasi-War with France is worth the price of admission alone, though his narrative offers much more besides…Refreshingly democratic—solid supplemental reading to the likes of Terkel and Alinsky, insistent on upholding the rights of political minorities even when they’re wrong.”
Kirkus Reviews

To celebrate the stellar reviews rolling in for our forthcoming book, Dissent: The History of an American Idea, we are giving away a free copy to two lucky winners!

Dissent: The History of an American Idea examines the key role dissent has played in shaping the United States. It focuses on those who, from colonial days to the present, dissented against the ruling paradigm of their time: from the Puritan Anne Hutchinson and Native American chief Powhatan in the seventeenth century, to the Occupy and Tea Party movements in the twenty-first century. The emphasis is on the way Americans, celebrated figures and anonymous ordinary citizens, responded to what they saw as the injustices that prevented them from fully experiencing their vision of America.

To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred e-mail address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, May 1st, 2015 at 1:00 pm EST.