WASPs Still Fighting for Recognition

—Molly Merryman

“Women Who Flew,” documentary short directed and produced by Molly Merryman & Tom Baumann.

When I interviewed veterans of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, it became clear that what most troubled them was the need to “pass the hat” so that women pilots killed in the line of duty could receive proper burial. They glossed over the discrimination and indignities they themselves endured, but they could not forgive the mistreatment of their fallen comrades.

Nor should we.

It recently has come to light that Arlington National Cemetery has refused to accept the cremains of WASP veteran Elaine Harmon. According to her family, it was her dying wish to be inurned there. Once more, these veteran pilots and their families suffer painful discrimination at the hands of bureaucrats.

The WASPs were 1,074 skilled pilots who flew missions that including ferrying planes from factories to bases, test-piloting new and captured enemy planes, and pulling targets at which live artillery rounds were fired for training. Thirty-eight WASPs died in service.

“If we got killed in action our friends passed the hat to get enough money to send our personal effects home to the family. We couldn’t have a military internment; we didn’t get a flag for the coffin; and we got no burial expenses,” WASP Madge Rutherford Minton noted. In a 1978 news story, WASP veteran Pat Pateman said: “We served our country, and when one of us died the parents were met with a pine box saying, ‘Thanks a lot, here’s your daughter’. It was pretty earth-shattering.”

Now, Arlington Cemetery offers earth-shattering disregard to the sons and daughters of WASP veterans.

The bureaucrats at Arlington are using the mistake of a 1940s Congress to justify excluding these veterans. When World War II started, women were forbidden from military service, but it was realized that the war effort would only succeed if that changed, so all military branches created women’s units that were enacted as civilian entities until Congress militarized them. One by one, women in the Army, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy were militarized. But when the WASP bill came up for debate in 1944, Congress balked: it wasn’t able to accept a unit of women who engaged in the most masculinized and romanticized role: the military pilot. The WASPs were disbanded.

In 1977 Congress passed and the President signed a bill allowing the WASPs to “have their service recognized as active military service by the Secretary of Defense and to receive honorable discharges and full veterans’ benefits.” When Airforce Colonel Arnold testified before the House, he said this about WASP military burials: “Who is more deserving, a young girl, flying on written official military orders who is shot down and killed by our own anti-aircraft artillery while carrying out those orders, or a young finance clerk with an eight to five job in a Denver finance office?”

We should be ashamed to let these veterans’ dying wishes be ignored. The WASPs gave their everything to the war effort—can’t we as a country at least permit them to be buried with the honor they earned?

Molly Merryman, Ph.D., is a documentary filmmaker, author and an associate professor of Sociology and director of LGBT and Women’s Studies at Kent State University. She is the author of Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS) of World War II (NYU Press, 1998) and has written a number of academic journal articles and book chapters. She also has produced and directed documentaries that have screened internationally and been broadcast on regional PBS stations.

Putting the Lead in Structural Violence

—Peter C. Little

As anthropologist and disaster studies expert Gregory Button, author of Disaster Culture, recently put it, the unfolding disaster in Flint, Michigan is more than a case of urban lead contamination. Rather, it is a “morality play about structural violence.” [i] He encourages this way of thinking about this emerging national environmental health conflict because this “structural violence” he refers to is about a system of racial discrimination that is a social, political, economic, and infrastructural fact of life in the US. Thinking about the structural violence of lead contamination requires a focus on how lead politics are exacerbated by deep-historical racial discrimination and ongoing poverty politics. As evidence for these lead-related disasters, Button sites a recent study [ii] published in the American Journal of Public Health that reports that while 41.5% of Flint residents are living below the poverty line—compared to the national average in 2014 of 14.8%—nearly 60% are African American. These are some bare facts of inequity that when meshed with toxic substance exposure risk exacerbates the bitter reality of recent Flint water crisis headlines.

The scale, scope, and depth of this man-made disaster are impressive, no doubt justifying the need for an environmental justice perspective on the matters at hand. Robert Bullard, long regarded a leader in the environmental justice community and a major source of inspiration for social scientists working on environmental and social justice conflicts, was recently interviewed about the Flint conflict. [iii] He speaks of a “reality” that goes beyond lead toxicity, drinking water distribution pipes, and a systemically fraudulent city, state, and federal government: “Unequal protection is a reality. The right to clean air, clean water and safe places for kids to play is something that affluent communities take for granted. But many low-income and minority communities don’t get parks, or street lights, or housing code enforcement, or safe drinking water. The cumulative environmental stresses in these neighborhoods create a toxic stew. And then government agencies don’t respond when people complain. The government’s nonresponse to Flint’s water crisis is on the scale of the federal nonresponse to Hurricane Katrina.”

The municipal, state, and federal response and mitigation plan unfolding in Flint also turns our attention to how such disasters are treated more as “technical” water management problems rather than human relations problems. Some critiques of the situation have suggested that “Working with communities to plan for better infrastructure, funding those developments, and adequately enforcing environmental laws will help reduce the number of future similar crises from becoming disasters.” [iv] While continuing to expose the contentious role of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and his government counterparts in this complex disaster still matters, an underlying politics of uncertainty lingers as impacted residents try to navigate a living amid the circus of accusations and attempts to restore calm. Continuing to deal with what residents themselves are dealing with is of utmost importance and ought to be where local, state, and federal government energy and forms of empathy focus.

[i] See http://foodanthro.com/2016/01/20/the-flint-water-disaster-a-perfect-storm-of-downplaying-denial-and-deceit/

[ii] See http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.2015.303003

[iii] See http://www.juancole.com/2016/01/flints-water-crisis-is-a-blatant-example-of-environmental-injustice.html

[iv] See http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/01/22/the-real-disasters-in-flints-water-crisis/

Peter C. Little is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Rhode Island College. He is the author of Toxic Town: IBM, Pollution, and Industrial Risks (NYU Press, 2014).

Flint’s Sorry Legacy of Environmental Racism

—Carl Zimring

“I am sorry, and I will fix it.”

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder devoted his State of the State speech to the public health catastrophe in Flint that has poisoned its residents with high levels of lead in its water supply.

This failure has many parents, including Snyder. His administration placed an emergency manager in control of Flint’s finances, a manager who who was not elected by its citizens to do the will of the people of the city. Saving money by switching the water supply ignored the well-being of Flint residents, as was the state’s initially dismissive response to health complaints.

Snyder bears responsibility and blame, but he is not alone. The seeds for this catastrophe were sown decades before the 2011 managerial takeover. Deindustrialization and residential segregation shaped a city with low revenue, high unemployment, and the apathy and scorn of white Michiganders. That history allowed the past two years of lead poisoning.

Environmental racism is the systemic placing of toxic burdens upon people of color. It is an example of structural racism – not necessarily the conscious acts of individuals, but ways in which society is structured that creates patterns of unequal burdens.

The health catastrophe in Flint involves reliance on decaying infrastructure due to disinvestment in the region. Why these conditions led to the poisoning of black children involves structural patterns in residential real estate practices, as well as recent political decisions. Environmental Justice movements have fought for safer, healthier communities for decades, including African American residents opposing waste siting in Houston (1978) and Warren County (1982), and Latino residents of Chicago protesting dirty coal-burning power plants in their neighborhoods in this century.

Yet inequalities persist. They are rooted deeply in land-use patterns, employment patterns, and in cultural stereotypes that privilege whites to have clean, safe communities at the expense of people of color. Noxious stereotypes that nonwhite people were somehow less clean than whites emerged in the nineteenth century, stereotypes that have informed who handles waste and where waste is located. Sociologists observed national patterns of inequities by the late twentieth century. Thirty years ago, the report Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States concluded exposure to toxic pollution was determined by race above all other variables, including class, region, and urban/rural density. Ten years ago, a followup report revealed more continuities than change. Flint is further continuity.

The eyes of the nation are on Flint in 2016, but they could easily be on lead-contaminated communities in East New York or Gary, Indiana. Flint is the most conspicuous example of environmental racism in the United States. There are so many examples, however, that a bimonthly journal (Environmental Justice) has filled eight volumes of articles chronicling environmental inequalities. Governor Snyder’s promise that he will fix the present crisis flies in the face of his past actions, the history of Flint, and majority-minority communities across the United States. Recognizing this history is crucial to fixing what ails Flint.

Carl A. Zimring is Associate Professor of Sustainability Studies in the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies at the Pratt Institute. He is the author of Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States (NYU Press, 2016).

Pushing the Klan Aside in Mississippi: My Memory of Alfred Skip Robinson

—Akinyele Umoja

SKIP ROBINSON; PHOTO BY JIM ALEXANDER

Alfred “Skip” Robinson is one of the most dynamic and charismatic individuals I have ever met. I first heard of Skip after a national demonstration in Tupelo, Mississippi in November of 1978. Several of my comrades in the Black Liberation Movement attended a demonstration and rally organized by Skip and the United League of Mississippi (UL) to support their boycott of the commercial district in Tupelo to challenge police misconduct and economic inequality in Tupelo. At that time the UL under Skip’s leadership had organized a series of boycotts in Mississippi to challenge white supremacy and institutionalized racism.

UNITED LEAGUE T-SHIRT; PHOTO BY JIM ALEXANDER

The UL was probably the most dynamic movement in the Black freedom struggle during the late 1970s. The Black Panthers, SNCC, Republic of New Africa, Us Organization, and other Black Power organizations had been severely crippled by the U.S. government’s COINTEPRO program and other repressive campaigns, as well as by the movement’s own internal conflicts and challenges. Several key activists of the movement had been incarcerated, exiled, even assassinated due to government repression. The oldest Black Civil Rights group, the NAACP, also suffered a decline after being defeated in a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit. The Reagan Administration began to dismantle some of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. The late 1970s also witnessed a resurgence of the KKK.

Skip, the UL, and their efforts in Mississippi represented a beacon of hope to the Black freedom struggle of the 1970s. Their boycotts in northern Mississippi towns of Byhalia, Holly Springs, Tupelo, and Okolona stood as effective resistance in a time when social justice fights were in survival mode. The UL’s armed presence and the bold oratory of Skip Robinson, and its other spokespersons Dr. Howard Gunn and Attorney Lewis Myers, was a statement that Mississippi Blacks were not defeated and intimidated by the Klan and other white terrorists. The fact that Robinson and Gunn were still standing unscathed after gun battles with Klansmen was not lost on observers of the UL movement.The UL was probably the most dynamic movement in the Black freedom struggle during the late 1970s. The Black Panthers, SNCC, Republic of New Africa, Us Organization, and other Black Power organizations had been severely crippled by the U.S. government’s COINTEPRO program and other repressive campaigns, as well as by the movement’s own internal conflicts and challenges. Several key activists of the movement had been incarcerated, exiled, even assassinated due to government repression. The oldest Black Civil Rights group, the NAACP, also suffered a decline after being defeated in a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit. The Reagan Administration began to dismantle some of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. The late 1970s also witnessed a resurgence of the KKK.

LEW MEYERS (CENTER); PHOTO BY JIM ALEXANDER

I decided to visit Northern Mississippi to witness the UL for myself in August of 1979. Skip had been appointed the Chairman of the Democratic Party in Marshall County, Mississippi. Marshall County was a Black majority county, Skip’s birthplace and home, and the headquarters of the UL. There was a primary election going on the day I arrived in Holly Springs, the seat of Marshall County. I was told this would be the first election in the county’s history that Black people participated as officials at the polls. Prior to the late 1970s, the white minority stole elections by white folks voting multiple times and the ballots of dead people being counted. Intimidation was also used to keep the Black majority from the polls. This would be the county’s first, free and fair election. My host was UL organizer Jim Agnew. Brother Agnew and I arrived in Holly Springs early that morning before the polls opened. We approached Skip on the street arguing with a police officer. The officer arrested Skip for disorderly conduct. Everyone figured Skip was arrested to disrupt Black voter mobilization and scare Black people from coming to the polls. I also witnessed groups of white men standing in a belligerent and menacing manner near the polling place to intimidate Blacks.

KKK AT TUPELO POLICE STATION, 1978; PHOTO BY JIM ALEXANDER

Skip was released from jail right before the polls closed. I escorted Skip to the UL office, which was near the Northern Mississippi Legal Services located right in the main county square. While I stood next to Skip, his primary security guard, a young man probably in his late 20s, came down the stairs of the Legal Services office. The bodyguard said he needed to go home and check on his family. He wanted Skip to come upstairs, outside of public view, so he could give him back the .357 magnum handgun the bodyguard carried concealed for the UL leader’s protection. It was probably the same gun Skip wore stuck in his pants during California speaking engagements. Standing on the street of the north side of the main square of Holly Springs, Skip boldly said “Give it to me right here (on the street). I want them (the White supremacists) to know I have a gun!” The young man hesitantly passed Skip the handgun right there on the street. I was humbled when Skip later asked me to draft his press statement detailing his arrest. I was honored to be of the assistance of this impressive leader.

robinson

I had the pleasure and opportunity to write about Skip and the UL in the book We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (NYU Press, 2013). In fact, had I not met Skip Robinson, the book may have not been written. I grew up during the Civil Rights and Black Power movement in Los Angeles, California. Most of my generation in northern urban centers had no idea that armed Black men, women, and youth defended the community and themselves in human rights battles in the South. Our only image of Black resistance in the South was the nonviolent movement, which many of us could not relate to. Other than the nonviolent movement, the major response we saw of southern Black folks was being in fear and intimidation to white terror. Skip Robinson and the UL provided me a living example and played a major role in destroying the stereotype of an exclusively “nonviolent” southern Black freedom movement in my mind. Skip Robinson and the UL provided an inspiration to write and tell our story. More must be done to reconstruct and illuminate the story of Skip Robinson and the United League. More must be done to recognize and remember his contribution to challenge injustice and improve the lives of his people. It is an inspiring, uplifting saga and a story of courage and commitment to social justice that changed Mississippi and inspired others like me to keep on pushing.

Akinyele Omowale Umoja is Professor and Chair of the Department of African-American studies at Georgia State University, where he teaches courses on the history of the civil rights and Black Power movements and other social movements. He has been a community activist for over 40 years. He is the author of We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (NYU Press, 2013).

[This piece originally appeared on wpconvo.com, the website of the play Byhalia, Mississippi.]

 

Dissent and the 2016 Election

—Ralph Young

There have been many times of crisis throughout American history when some citizens completely lose faith in the political process. Invariably such times lead to a rise of uncompromising radicals on the fringes of the body politic who eschew compromise in favor of a fundamental overhaul of what they see as a defunct system. One thinks of the Know-Nothings in the 1850s desperately fighting to stem the tide of Irish immigration which they feared would destroy the Protestant fabric of this nation, or the Populist Party of the 1890s who believed neither of the major parties were willing to address their grievances, or the rise of radical demagogues on both right and left during the Great Depression when it seemed to many that capitalism itself had failed, or was at best on the ropes, who denounced everything from the New Deal to Wall Street, from big business to communism. Some hated Franklin Delano Roosevelt; some hated the “economic royalists.”

What we are experiencing in the second decade of the twenty-first century is a replay of this historical phenomenon. As we approach the 2016 election there are those on the right who deplore what they see as creeping European style socialism on the part of a government that has abandoned laissez faire capitalism in favor of regulatory control over business and finance, a government that has abandoned the rugged individualism that they believe (falsely) made this country great. And on the left we see progressives who are highly distraught that the Democratic Party has turned its back on democracy and dances to the tune of business interests just as much as the Republicans. Thus we have outsiders challenging the establishment, on both right and left, who, believing that bipartisanship and compromise is weakness, are tapping into a vein of deep-seated discontent. Many Americans are obsessed by a nagging fear that the United States is in decline and will soon lose its special place in the world. And this helps explain the unexpected popularity in the primary season of Donald Trump and Ben Carson on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left.

Registered Republicans want anyone, even candidates as unqualified as Trump and Carson, who will oppose the Washington establishment, they want an outsider, a novitiate in politics, precisely because they are not politicians, in fact are completely ignorant of how politics works. And large numbers of Democrats, fed up with the coziness of Democratic politicians with Wall Street and believing that the United States is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy, are turning to socialist Bernie Sanders as the only hope to return the United States to its democratic roots. “Isn’t it strange,” Sanders’ forerunner and hero Eugene V. Debs said during his trial for sedition in 1918, “that we Socialists stand almost alone today in upholding and defending the Constitution of the United States?” Sanders is taking up Debs’s message and it resonates deeply with his supporters. Whether they are outsiders, or demagogues, or opponents of business as usual, hardnosed individuals from Huey Long to George Wallace, Father Coughlin to Donald Trump, all appeal to the populist impulse. And all are as American as Apple Pie.

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, and Dissent: The History of an American Idea (NYU Press, 2015).

Decades of Xenophobia Shape US Response to Syrian Refugees

[This piece originally appeared in Truthout.]

—Richard Baldoz & Shelley Sang-Hee Lee

Current debates surrounding President Obama’s plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016 have revealed deep political fissures in the United States. Until recently, criticism focused on the Obama administration’s doing too little to aid people fleeing the bloody civil war in Syria, but Republican leaders have now seized on the terror attacks in France, while stoking anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, to oppose refugee resettlement on national security grounds.

While the White House and its allies dismiss their opponents’ position as xenophobic and un-American, this line of argument is also simplistic, as our history with refugees is an ambivalent one. Over the past century, the prospect of settling refugees has tested Americans’ self-avowed benevolence, underscoring our conflicted attitudes about newcomers and raising inconvenient questions about the extension of US power abroad.

As migrants, refugees are distinct. They are a displaced people escaping danger who, unlike conventional immigrants, have not voluntarily left their homes for reasons like family reunification or economic opportunity. While in the abstract, humanitarian concern for refugees is a broadly agreed upon principle, we have been tentative when it comes to admitting living, breathing people. During the late 1930s, for instance, as European Jews were fleeing Nazi aggression, two-thirds of Americans opposed increasing immigration ceilings to admit them, citing fears that Bolsheviks or German agents might slip into the country. This was also a time of international isolation, marked by economic depression and low immigration. It was not until 1944, as Americans learned more about the horrors of the Holocaust, that special provisions were made to admit Jews.

With the onset of the Cold War, anti-communism and diplomacy guided US actions on refugees and revealed the selective application of humanitarian compassion. For much of the second half of the 20th century, policies allowing refugees’ entry were implemented in an ad hoc fashion and usually only applied to people fleeing communist regimes. For example, the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 prompted the admission of tens of thousands of Hungarians, and Cuba’s socialist revolution of 1959 led to the United States accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees from that country. In these cases federal officials opened the doors by invoking emergency powers, despite most Americans’ opposition due to concerns about potential communist infiltrators and other “undesirables.” By contrast, during the 1980s, Haitians fleeing the dictatorial but US-backed Duvalier regime were repeatedly denied asylum or refugee status on the grounds that they were economic migrants whose human rights had not been violated.

After the Vietnam War, Americans hesitated to admit Southeast Asian refugees, due in part to a legacy of anti-Asian immigration exclusion and a desire for closure from a divisive war. Because people were fleeing Communist governments, politicians acceded that the United States had a duty to admit them, and Americans’ urgency to do so deepened after learning about tragedies like the plight of “boat people” and the “killing fields” of Cambodia.

Ideological commitments and moral compassion aside, the United States’ obligations also stemmed from a history of interventions in Indochina going back to the 1950s. Determined to contain communism, it committed troops to fighting in Vietnam from 1965 to 1973 and conducted secret bombings and military operations in Cambodia and Laos. After the communist victories in these countries in 1975, persecution and violent purges of dissidents and minorities prompted massive exoduses, a segment of which the United States admitted.

Four years later, facing pressure to accept more refugees, two-thirds of Americans opposed increases due to worries about their assimilability and the prospect that they would drain public resources. Eventually, about 1 million Southeast Asian refugees were resettled in the United States, and they have inarguably been woven into the fabric of our nation over the past 40 years despite the enormous hardships they have faced.

While the troubles in Syria seem removed by comparison, recent US actions there, as well as a long history of meddling in Middle East affairs, underscore the US role and obligations in the current crisis. Viewed one way, modeling moral leadership on the refugee issue can be an effective anti-terror strategy against ISIS propaganda that portrays the United States as an anti-Muslim nation.

The debate about admitting refugees, moreover, begs a moral and philosophical question about the consequences of US foreign intervention: If we are committed to toppling the Assad regime in Syria and defeating ISIS through proxy fighting and aerial bombings, why would we withhold refuge to those fleeing the turmoil?

We might also keep a longer history in view, because despite decades of diplomatic and military entanglements in the region – in the name of anti-communism, Israel, oil and more recently anti-terrorism – our perspective on the Syrian refugee crisis is strikingly myopic. And yet, as we witness another humanitarian catastrophe, some of our leaders raise the specter of terrorists entering the United States, glossing over the fact that refugee screening entails multiple and lengthy rounds of examination by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the United States, making entry for anyone enormously difficult. It defies reason to think individuals with terrorist aspirations would submit themselves to a multiyear vetting process that probes into every aspect of their past and present associations.

The interrelated propositions framing the debate about Syrian refugees – that we have a moral obligation to provide shelter to those facing imminent danger, and that the US bears a responsibility because of its interventions in the country and region – point to a dilemma we have confronted before. Additionally, how we treat refugees mirrors not just our mixed feelings about newcomers and the world outside, but also ignorance about the world within our borders (thus highlighting an irony of the promise of US safe harbor). In the war on terrorism, our imprecise understandings of its origins and trajectories have given rise to enemies that are creations of our own bigotries, which pervade discussions about Syrian refugees and have made scapegoats of Americans of Arab and South Asian descent.

After President Jimmy Carter signed the Refugee Act of 1980, which created a comprehensive system for processing refugee and asylum cases, he proclaimed, “[It] is the historical policy of the United States to respond to the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution in their homelands.” Although not entirely accurate, this statement echoes a challenge to which we ought to rise.

Richard Baldoz is a professor of sociology at Oberlin College. He specializes in the areas of immigration and citizenship policy and is the author of the award-winning The Third Asiatic Invasion: Empire and Migration in Filipino America (NYU Press, 2011).

Shelley Sang-Hee Lee is a professor of history and comparative American studies at Oberlin College. Dr. Lee specializes in Asian American history and urban studies. She is the author of A New History of Asian America (Routledge).

Zach Anderson, Statutory Rape Laws, and the History of Age

—Nicholas L. Syrett

In October of this year, thanks in part to a petition that circulated on change.org, stories that went viral on Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, and a good deal of media attention, an Indiana man named Zach Anderson was removed from the sex offender registry in two states. He had originally been added after having been convicted of statutory rape.

The story, briefly, is this: last year Anderson met a girl on the app “Hot or Not.” He drove from his home in Elkhart, Indiana to her home in Niles, Michigan, about twenty-two miles away, where they had sex. Anderson was nineteen at the time and the girl said that she was seventeen and had registered in the “adults” section of the app. It turns out she was only fourteen and the age of consent in Michigan is sixteen, meaning that Anderson had unknowingly committed statutory rape.

After being arrested, Anderson pled guilty to a charge of fourth-degree criminal sexual assault and spent seventy-five days in jail. Under the terms of his five-year probation, he was forbidden from using the Internet, owning a smartphone, or having any contact with anyone under the age of seventeen (save immediate family). He was also placed on the sex offender registry in Indiana and Michigan until 2040.

The case attracted as much attention and outrage as it did – aside from the fact that his parents were savvy users of the very Internet from which their son was banned – because the girl admitted to lying about her age, she and her parents opposed the prosecution, and because the judge in the original sentencing was intransigent in handing down the mandated punishment stipulated by the statute. The case provoked broader discussions about teenage sexuality in the age of the Internet and the long-term repercussions of statutory rape laws that brand teenagers as sex offenders.

What received less attention, however much it was lurking just beneath the surface of these conversations, was the function of age itself in what happened to Zach Anderson and his youthful sexual partner. While the minor girl was only fourteen, either she looked like she could be seventeen or Anderson simply willed himself to believe that this was so. Michigan’s penal code stipulates that someone is guilty of “criminal conduct in the fourth degree” if the victim “is at least 13 years of age but less than 16 years of age, and the actor is 5 or more years older than that other person.”

This age-gap exception to statutory rape law is meant to protect the older of two sexually active teenagers from prosecution; it is a result of late twentieth-century revisions to rape laws that came in the wake of the sexual revolution, after which high school students were more likely to have sex than when the original laws were passed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But Anderson was not helped by this part of the law, despite still being a teenager, because he was nineteen. Had Anderson only been eighteen years old, one year younger than he was, he could not have been charged under the law, because the two would only have been separated by four years, not five. Had his birthday been perhaps a little later in the year or hers a little sooner, there would not have been a crime.

Age is a blunt and sometimes arbitrary legal instrument. Legal age cannot accommodate those who lie or who do not “look” their age. In a time when all of our ages are precise, fixed, and documented, Anderson had no wiggle room. He was a nineteen-year-old adult and she was a fourteen-year-old child; despite all the ambiguity of their meeting, in his first trial there had simply been no way around this. Age-based laws have also offered little meaningful protection to actual victims of sexual violence like, for instance, the countless children abused by Catholic priests.

This reliance on age has a history. Only about a hundred years ago Americans were completing the process of incorporating age into their criminal and civil law, as well as their collective consciousness. Since that time, they have increasingly used it as if it were a simple, incontrovertible, biological fact. In one way that is undeniable, but as the case of Zach Anderson also demonstrates, age itself does not fully accommodate or contain all aspects of human beings’ development, capabilities, and responsibilities. It is a legal shorthand that all too often—and statutory rape law is only one example—perpetuates limitations and enacts violence when it is meant to protect or enable. Further, at a moment when the age one purports to be online can have little relation to one’s actual age, and when numerous websites (not just Hot or Not) do little to verify age, we have entered a new era in the malleability of age itself.

While Zach Anderson’s story has a (relatively) happy ending—in the form of his revised sentence—many other young men remain in jail and on sex offender registries because their age at the time of their sexual encounters placed them there.

Nicholas L. Syrett is an associate professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado, the coeditor (with Corinne T. Field) of Age in America: The Colonial Era to the Present (NYU Press, 2015), and author of The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities (2009) and the forthcoming American Child Bride: A History of Minors and Marriage in the United States.

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).