Herodotus and Thucydides, the odd couple of Greek history

The following is a fictional, anachronistic conversation between Herodotus (regarded as the “Father of History”) and Thucydides (regarded as the “Father of Scientific History) on how history should be recorded and it’s importance to society.


Herodotus: I’m writing this down. There was a great number of battles, a lot of people died or were injured, many more were displaced and moved far from home. Since it was a war with Persia, I’ll call it the Persian wars.


Thucydides: Ok ok, but let’s not talk about all the help the gods gave them or how it was just a silly random group of events that all happened one after another without any semblance of causality. Seriously, that’s not history.

Herodotus: You would say that, although I don’t disagree. Mostly though, I think its good to celebrate the heros and talk about the Persian people as a thoughtful and morally centered civilization. There’s no need to be completely dry and boring about something that truly was not.

Thucydides: The only reason I require facts and dismiss romance is as a means to show how it really doesn’t matter who is fighting. Man is going to conquer, man is going to take things from others, and the demagogue will only work to limit the reach of the statesman. You for some reason, have to find something interesting or entertaining in order for it to be historical.

Herodotus: If history was only the dimensions of the oars on the ships in the harbor, no one would care. I know this may seem weird to you, but 99% of our audience can’t read.  The only way for this information to be passed from one to another is if they tell each other or hear it from an entertainer.

Thucydides: I get it. In fact I too value information about the past to be used in the present and future – with one caveat, that it be used to teach and inspire.  There’s no point in forwarding the story of a hero who slain dozens of enemies if the story doesn’t somehow provide value to the polis. Measurements, tactics, laws, things of intrinsic value are all useful pieces of the past that can help us move forward.  Otherwise, every year we would discover gold.

Herodotus: True, but you’re seriously limiting your audience to people who are able to use that information, and even within that group, to the people who care to look to the past whilst thinking of the future. Not everyone does that.  My point is, if you can tell stories of greatness and examples of high morals, they will be more useful to the polis because they will apply to more of it.  The future is a waste of effort if it is duplicated on the premise that the only things learned from the past is weights and measurements.

Thucydides: It’s not that simple, and we are both saying so. I only wish that my history be devoid of the romance and hyperbole that sacks truth and replaces it with nonsense. We’ve come a long way from Homer, but let’s not go backwards.

Herodotus: I think history will tell us we are both right.

Thucydides: Agreed.

The price of oil

This is a paper I wrote for a history class I took at Augsburg College “The Modern Middle East”. The italicized text is the question to be answered, or topic. It’s an excellent class led by an exceptionally knowledgeable professor, Dr. Maheen Zaman (http://www.augsburg.edu/faculty/zamanm/)

To what extent did the Cold War in the Middle East involve the superpowers imposing their will on regional powers, and to what extent did it involve regional powers manipulating the superpowers? Discuss with special reference to different phases of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

According to Khalidi, both the US and USSR had strategic interests in the Middle East for its location in proximity to the USSR, its shipping lanes, and its vital natural resources such as oil and gas. Also, both viewed the other gaining access to these resources as a direct threat to regional economic stability and would pave the way to global military dominance. To the states and countries of the Middle East, the US and USSR were sources of vast wealth and technology, highly advanced weaponry, a means for bringing about a new Arab Nationalism through multilateral control of oil output and pricing, and a means to wage war with Israel.

Continue reading The price of oil

The Ottoman Empire and Western interference

The history of the Ottoman Empire has often been characterized as one of “decline.” Given what you know about the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, is this description apt? Why or why not? If not, how else might we characterize Ottoman history until 1918? 

The 19th century Ottoman Empire forged itself under a banner of nationalism similar to how other nations of the modern era did, by strengthening centralized control and by bringing together disparate groups of religious and ethnic peoples to form a more perfect union, and to protect itself from European interference. The empire was vast in land, resources, power and people and to do so would require not just the democratic theories and ideals mostly borrowed from Europe, but a coerced and at times forced sense of nationalism. If one is going to state a “decline” in the Ottoman Empire, there is an implied comparison with nations that did not decline during this same period, and when you compare the trials and tribulations of the Ottoman Empire to that of America, France, Germany or other countries of western and central Europe, you find many similarities in how these nations were built. Had the Europeans not intervened and interfered with the efforts of the Young Turks, Mustafa Pasha, and others attempting to bring about reform, this period of the Ottoman Empire likely would be regarded as a period of intense nation building and cultural reforms European states could only dream of.

The characterization of a decline in the Ottoman Empire can be categorized into the loss of territory, the continued massive borrowing of money and technology from Europe, and the infighting due to the tumultuous changes taking place as the efforts of the Ottoman state attempted to unify all people of the empire. They did so by growing the size of the military and the number of civilians working for the central state, forming its own educational network “largely based on west and central European models” (Quataert, p.62). Also between 1829 and 1856, the state attempted to remove the cultural disparities based on religious beliefs between Ottoman subjects and promoted the idea of equality for all citizens, which led to infighting, violent protests and wars.

The notion that violence and infighting in a rapidly changing vast empire was a sign of decline is at best based on mythos and a fanatical adversity to religious indifference. Europe underwent similar changes in defining the nations and nationalities that make up its current form, and the bloodshed of the American Civil War, slavery, and the genocide of the American Indian define the comparatively young country of America to this day.

While it is true that much of the Ottoman Empire lost its international power due to the extensive borrowing of money and technology from Europe during the 19th century and due to the revolts and wars that made Tsar Nicholas I of Russia call it “the sick man of Europe”, this should not insist the people were suffering. The Ottoman Empire was not able to import goods from far away colonies much like Britain and France could, and so a period of domestic trade flourished. While this may have weakened the Ottoman Empire’s role in the global system, it strengthened its culture. Instead of exporting goods and services mainly to Europe and persisting in somewhat of a vacuum with other states of the empire, urban centers flourished with citizens sharing a common memory and identity across religious and ethnic backgrounds.
Continue reading The Ottoman Empire and Western interference

Civic Agency in America, Past and Present

Americans live in an age of market driven anxiety.  There’s a fear of being poor, fear of disease, fear of corruptive governmental powers and fear that the common good is a thinly veiled advertising slogan for a political party.  With the fusion between corporations and government gaining strength, democracy is shifting towards becoming nothing more than mere ideology practiced by untrustworthy government officials. We are comfortable with corporate interests being responsible for our elected officials because it will provide us with more technology, more comfort, more information, and more happiness.  Advertising and product marketing to the greater public has become so pervasive in American society that advocating for the common good is considered narcissistic, self-serving, and socialist. The time for mutual self-interested organizing is upon us.

The fear of an untrustworthy government existed in the time leading up to the American Revolution as well.  Unlike today however, most middle-class colonists faced life or death situations in their everyday lives. While many were farmers, everyone had to rely on a stable monetary system to feed their families.  When the British Parliament, under King George III, banned the use of paper currency due to its devaluation from massive inflation, poor farmers left their family to fight the British Army despite there being no country to fight for.  Also, similar to the social centers of the Progressive Era, common ordinary men gathered within pubs and churches to organize themselves for social disobedience and eventually war. Not until the gentry was able to create the Continental Army and declare independence from England was there an opportunity for nationalistic pride like there is today – but the common man fought anyway.  Unfortunately, shortly thereafter the promise of a fair and just society based on democracy fell flat. Elite gentry men such as Robert Morris sought to oppress the new American citizen in nearly the same ways as the British had, by creating his own currency for his own private banks and working to eliminate the paper currency being circulated. The American Revolutionary war relocated elitist powers from English parliamentary members and Kings to affluent, property owning, merchant members of the gentry, and all it took was to for them to promise a democracy to an unorganized public.

The constitution declared, “all men are created equal”. Of course at the time “men” was understood to be white, property owning Christians, a bellwether of what was to become of American democracy in the years following the Revolution. Another prevailing theory was that a proper democracy required the elite gentry run it, and by 1788 the Federalists launched a campaign to create a “barrier against democracy” (Bouton, 171). This theory concluded the common man would never be capable of determining the leadership for services and property considered important to the security and welfare of the state, and that this responsibility should be granted to the adept and capable hands of the rich and powerful. The common man was once again poor and purposeless, caught in a vicious cycle of empty promises and a failure of leadership.

Christopher Lasch writes about how liberalism failed the fresh promises of democracy in the 1780’s and 90’s America in The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy.  Going against the older view by John Adams, “public virtue is the only foundation of republics” Lasch quotes James Wilson as saying, “a proper system of constitutional checks and balances would ‘make it advantageous even for bad men to act for the public good’”. The liberals of a newly created America believed the “principles of a society may be virtuous, though the individuals composing it are vicious” (Lasch, 94). Elite gentry agent Stephen Collins declared in 1786, “the people have become theaves and pirates, entirely destitute of honor”. Collins believed that “’the people’ had taken control of the government and were now using it to unleash their ‘madness’ upon gentlemen with a host of ‘abominable laws’” (Bouton, 172) This mistrust resulted in reduced public ownership of the democracy and a broader separation of power from the common man towards the elite property owning gentry. Unfortunately, this also meant common American citizens would experience a decline in representation and inaccessibility to capital and wealth. On the eve of the war for independence, colonial Pennsylvanians had approximately $5.30 in circulation for every person, but by 1790, it stood at $0.30 per person (Bouton, 91). This marked the beginning of liberalist ideals constituting an over reaching state in place of the previous single ruling dictatorial party, or monarchy.

Reducing the size of government has been the battle cry of conservative right-wing professional politics since the 1970’s and continues through today with organizations like the Tea Party and clock-watching libertarians. However, since they have failed to promote civic agency as a means to replace the services the government provides, and have grown the size of government in the areas of national defense and security, the movement falls short.  To them, the concept of a democratic public has turned from the pluralist values of the Progressive Era to that of the individual.  Individual service, not civic action, is promoted resulting in a largely disconnected democratic public driven to make change happen through volunteering rather than organizing. Instead of encouraging individuals to create groups to solve issues of social justice and make change for the common good, they encourage individuals to invent businesses that create jobs, goods and services that attempt to enhance the common good, leaving whomever can’t afford to participate to suffer alone.

The claim of replacing government services with private industry as a means to empower the people to progress the common good is paradoxical. Promoting the idea to replace one form of an over reaching institution driven by attempting democracy with one that is entirely profit driven and responsible for very little common good is not only shortsighted, but implies the problem only lies with having a government you don’t like. Corporations are not of, by, or for the people. Corporations exist with or without populist ideals, and corporations can only enact laws that benefit themselves (and especially not other competitive corporations), because to do otherwise would be unprofitable.

Although the destruction of grass roots organizations, civic agency and labor unions may have been the target of the Nixon and Reagan administrations, the standard that democracy is reliant upon federal economic policy was a result of the Great Depression, The New Deal, and World War II. As Michael Sandel points out in Democracy’s Discontent, “World War II brought a growing consensus that government should employ fiscal policy to assure full employment during times of peace as well as war.” (Sandel, 261)

After the Great Depression brought 30% unemployment, the Roosevelt administration attempted to use policies and controls, which were then ignored by industry giants. Next they tried to break up monopolies but the enforcement was fumbled. Finally, The New Deal was implemented by increasing the federal budget to record breaking levels with tax cuts and government works projects. “With the triumph of fiscal policy, the political economy of citizenship gave way to the political economy of growth and distributive justice.” (Sandel, 262) . The federal government invoked mass production during WWII and its ability to restore the economic status of America as a world power proved democracy would be forever linked with a consumer based economy. If America wasn’t going to make tanks to fight the Germans, they were going to make bread and automobiles to fight the communists. Mass production and the affluence it gifted was considered the strongest defense against socialist policies, even if it really only benefitted the few and not the many.

We can see the effects of this today. Corporations are more accountable to share holders than ethical practices, and government bailouts of failing banks due to risky investments are at an all time high. The corporation is fast becoming a citizen, and as Gerald Taylor writes, “Corporations are granted the same rights and opportunities to influence the spaces of democratic decision making as individual living citizens” (Taylor, 229). The phrase “it’s just business” is used in more and more situations involving the common good as our democracy slowly separates itself from the people and draws towards corporate industry.

The truth has become self-evident; the best government is one created and maintained by the people practicing civic agency to empower populist movements. These populist movements will come and go, some will remain unresolved and others will forever change the face of our society and world. Some movements will involve violence and instability, and others will require peace. This is the cycle of human understanding, and the gradual progressive increase in consideration and awareness of all human needs.

In general, politics are practiced during an election cycle, or when a scandal is reported, or when our government has to make decisions we feel will directly impact the future of our country. But as Harry Boyte points out in Everyday Politics “[everyday politics] requires learning the skills of negotiation among diverse interests among citizens of relatively equal standing, across partisan and other divisions, to accomplish tasks or to solve problems.” (Boyte, 37) Learning these skills requires what Stephen Smith points out in Stoking the fire of democracy when he writes about finding the “why” in an organizing project, “We must tell others what matters to us. We need to hear how it sounds to us and to them.” (Smith, 30) When we talk to each other about what matters to us, we are practicing everyday politics, the building blocks of our society and the crucible in which we can make change happen.

There are great examples of this personal engagement and practice of everyday politics during the progressive era, the most successful of them being social centers. Creating what Mattson calls a “democratic public” involved creating structures that gave everyone, not just the educated elite, an opportunity to practice everyday politics. Within a social center the people “decided what was to be debated and who was to do the debating”. (Mattson, 52) They provided a venue for political candidates to hear about issues outside of special interest groups “thus creating an institutional basis for the Progressive Era challenge to political corruption.” (Mattson, 57)

The corruption of government officials prior to the Progressive Era was included in The Omaha Platform and was a driving force for “The Peoples Party” of 1892. The rights of women, the commonwealth consisting of land ownership by those who could produce by it, and Black Populism were also core tenets of the larger movement overall. Although Black Populism was never truly accepted by The Farmers Alliance as evidenced in its constitution, “No person should be admitted as a member of this order except a white person over sixteen years of age” (Ali, 46), the creation of The Colored Farmers Alliance, The Colored Farmers Union and the Knights of Labor was to represent Black Populist ideas and initiatives. This was absolutely required at the time because most government officials chose to only represent a white constituency, a much more severe form of government corruption because it specifically denied American citizens representation based solely on their ethnic background.

The book “Free Spaces: The sources of democratic change in America” uses the example of Black churches during the apartheid American south as being a free space. According to Evans and Boyte, a free space is an “environment in which people are able to learn a new self-respect, a deeper and more assertive group identity, public skills, and values of cooperation and civic virtue” (Evans, 17) Black churches were free spaces because members could discuss and debate any topic they wished, learned about and practiced leadership, and worked collectively to make change happen.

Civic agency is grown from the free spaces that democracy and populism define. Civic agency is the action and tangible result of a free space.  Civic agency is as Dennis Donovan put it “power achieved through mutual self-interest” and in the space between private life and large-scale institutions lies the ability to find mutual self-interest.

Since the advent of the Internet and subsequent rise in social media, organizing has changed significantly. Now people can be engaged in causes thousands of miles away by producing a Youtube video, or by using a Twitter hashtag. Engagement is faster for organizers, but the same problem of lasting engagement in the cause persists, and because the issue is not locally visible, trust becomes more of a factor. Ella Baker was able to engage with people thousands of miles away, but only through a slow process of networking and working with local political offices. These days, anyone can reach out in hours not days to a broad constituency kept abreast of the latest happenings in the movement via Facebook.

But social media has also increased the rate at which terms like democracy and civic action are diluted. The increasing amount of information (based on both evidence and opinion) delivered to an all to eager public forces us to choose which bits of it to consume. This has changed not just the political landscape over the last few decades, but the public’s perception of democracy and civic agency.  The democratic public sees such terms right next to advertisements and useless news broadcasts.  Because we have to work less to get the information we need and desire, we actively participate less in our local, state and national communities. It’s just too easy to think someone else is going to get us what we need, and we aren’t often wrong. This is a recent change in America, as people fighting for what they need to survive have driven movements of times past.

Today people can easily communicate and share ideas with anyone they please. Unfortunately an understanding of what is best for the public or the common good can then be more easily filtered out. Population increase only exacerbates this as people are forced to be more and more selective with whom they communicate. Why care about the common good when I can keep in constant contact with only the people I like? How accurate will my thoughts of a common good be when the population has reached 310 million people? Historically, this connectedness was not possible. People had to spend time with people they didn’t like or people that didn’t agree with them, and then compromise. An understanding and appreciation for the common good was easier to obtain because people had no choice but to live within it. Today, it’s all too easy for people to separate themselves from the public and only focus on the people or things they care about. Ella Baker had to work with and for people she actively despised, and while organizers must still do this today, our democratic public has the option to ignore that which is not liked without fear of retribution.

Our town hall meeting on Free Spaces was a very effective way to build a power map. The attendees who came to the meeting had mutual self-interest in the topic being presented, and we could speak with them after about who else would be interested in the topic. There was even a chance they would become branches on our power map by discussing the issue with their mutually interested peers. We were all in this meeting space because we cared about and wanted to discuss an issue, not because we wanted to network or meet and greet, that was just a nice bonus. The one-to-one meetings also included building the power map as part of the discussion. The connections in a power map grow exponentially, but when you first start out it’s hard to see it. Power maps also reflect the objectivity in the issue or cause and present a populist face to the group. Power maps cannot center on a person or organization, they must center on an issue. Above all, power maps reflect the mutual self-interest that is so important in building lasting organizations.

The way forward presents itself. Face to face communication is still free to perform, and cannot be replaced by digital means. I found my one-to-one interviews with Augsburg professors and Harry Boyte to be some of the most meaningful learning experiences in my time at Augsburg, beyond anything I anticipated. There was no better way for us to have discussed the topics and ideas we shared. If we had the same discussion over email, SMS, or Facebook, the content would have appeared to be much more controversial and argumentative. I learned how to actively listen, and how to stay on topic so others would listen, I learned how to measure silence, and I gained a greater understanding for what we as a people have in common.  I’ve both conducted and taken job interviews, given lectures to classes as a software trainer, and presented to large groups at corporate events, but it was nothing like the very worthwhile one-to-one interviews. Our societies greatest opportunity for progress lies within its ability to find meaningful connections with its members.







Ali, Omar H. In the lions mouth : Black Populism in the New South, 1886-1900. University Press of Mississippi, 2010.

Bouton, Terry. Taming Democracy. New York , NY: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Boyte, Harry C. Everyday Politics : reconnecting citizens and public life. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Dewey, John. The Later Works, 1925 – 1953. Vol. 14. Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.

Evans, Sara M. and Boyte, Harry C. Free Spaces: the sources of democratic change in America. University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Lasch, Christopher. The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Mattson, Kevin. Creating a democratic public. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University, 1998.

Sandel, Michael. Democracy’s Discontent. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Smith, Stephen Noble. Stoking the fire of democracy. ACTA Publications, 2009.

Taylor, Gerald. Prometheus Unbound: Populism, The Property Question, and Social Invention. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University, 2012.



The peoples politics of Nelson Mandela

Harry Boyte

Director, Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College

Across the world, people have rightly celebrated Nelson Mandela as a figure who “now belongs to the ages,” as President Barack Obama put it in his tribute to the late South African leader. But recognition of his people’s politics has been largely absent. We need to switch from the dominant “great man” view of Mandela as a singular savior of South Africa to an understanding of his citizen-empowering politics if we are to do justice to his legacy and its potential for contribution to a world in turmoil and crisis.

Nelson Mandela was a populist not in the sense in which the term is commonly used in the media, to mean a rabble-rousing demagogue. Mandela was a populist in the deepest meaning of term. He had a profound and also unromantic belief in the potential of everyday citizens to shape the world.

Today’s public discussion of Nelson Mandela is decontextualized and depoliticized, as well as sanctified. Lost is his schooling in the ancient civic culture of the Eastern Cape.

Mandela was born in Mvezo, a tiny village in the Transkei, in the southeast of South Africa. When his father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyisa, was stripped of his chieftainship after defying British authority, he was taken into the home of the paramount chief of the Thembu people.

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela described the meetings at “the Great Place,” Mquhekezweni. “Everyone who wanted to speak did so. It was democracy in its purest form. There may have been a hierarchy of importance among the speakers but everyone was heard, chief and subject, warrior and medicine man, shopkeeper and farmer, landowner and laborer. … All were free to voice their opinions and equal in their value as citizens.”

These experiences became seasoned in the anti-apartheid movement of the 1950s called the Congress of the People (CoP). It produced the Freedom Charter of 1955, the anti-apartheid movement’s manifesto, and aimed at a national awakening instilling freedom consciousness.

In the view of its organizers, the people, not the African National Congress or other political parties, were the driving force of change. As one leader, Rusty Bernstein put it, the ideas of the Charter needed to be “an exercise in getting the people to tell the leadership and self-regarding elites what THEY ought to work for in the name of the people.”

The Congress of the People also challenged anti-apartheid whites to organize in their own communities. Estranged from the white mainstream, they were largely unable to do so.

This movement powerfully shaped Mandela. The Charter, he argued was “by no means a blueprint for a socialist state.” Rather it was “a programme for unification” involving “a democratic struggle of various classes and political groupings.”

Mandela’s schooling generated a clear distinction in his thinking between ideological politics, or “party politics,” and people’s politics. The distinction is clear in an interview published last year in the Australian journal Thesis Eleven with Jakes Gerwel, aide to Mandela throughout his presidency.

Mandela, Gerwel argued, stressed psychological liberation akin to the emphasis of Black Consciousness Movement leader Steve Biko. “Not to be victim to your suffering [and] to be victim of those who perpetrated it against you … He rose above that by the generosity of spirit….”

Gerwel traced such generosity to Mandela’s politics. “People often talk about Mandela’s values,” Gerwel said. “The thing that I remember him teaching me was: ‘Jakes, never let your enemy choose the terrain of combat by reacting in anger. If you act in anger to anybody, you are allowing that person to choose the terrain.’ This was a combination of genuine principled morals with a great tactical sense.”

Gerwel emphasized that “Mandela is a politician through and through. He understands party politics and politics to his finger tips. He is not a saint, and he often made that point. He is a hard politician [who] uses power and his political agency for the good.”

In his prison years on Robben Island, Mandela further developed his commitment to nonracial people’s politics. Afrikaner guards who smuggled in newspapers for him to read, provided extra rations, and taught him Afrikaans, the main language of the white population, tempered any desire for racial recrimination.

Meanwhile, exchanges with young hotheads brought home the dangers of a politics of posture. “When you say, ‘What are you going to do?’ they say, ‘We will attack and destroy them!'” he recounted. “I say: ‘All right, have you analyzed how strong they are? Have you compared their strength to your strength?'”

In 1986, Mandela, still in prison, began negotiations with moderates in the National Party government. Simultaneously, parallel efforts began to appear among whites on a large scale.

In 1986, Van Zyl Slabbert and Alex Boraine, leaders of the white opposition party in the South African Parliament, resigned in frustration at the Parliament’s inability to address the country’s growing crisis. They founded the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (Idasa), with the aim of generating discussion and work across the deepening racial divide. Slabbert called this “the politics of negotiation.” Their politics, in the same vein as Mandela’s, took up the challenge to whites made by the Congress of the People and leaders like Mandela, more than thirty years before.

For most whites in South Africa in the 1980s, the everyday lives, concerns, talents, and oppressive conditions of blacks were invisible. Idasa’s work closely paralleled Mandela’s efforts.

In 1987 in Dakar, Senegal, the organization brought together white moderates among politicians, labor unionists, journalists, religious and business leaders with exile leaders of the African National Congress for the first time. The meeting reverberated around the world. Over the next seven years, Idasa followed up by organizing hundreds of meetings which brought whites together with blacks, colored and Indians.

After the 1994 election, Idasa became the leading force on the African continent emphasizing the idea that democracy is a society, not simply a state. Its grassroots popular education efforts taught organizing community methods and nonpartisan empowering citizen politics to thousands of people. Throughout its history, Mandela remained Idasa’s friend.

Nelson Mandela believed that ordinary citizens can become bold, confident, responsible agents of change, able to rise to the occasion of even the most daunting challenges. He devoted his life to seeing the democratic potential of the people realized.

The wisdom of his people’s politics has never been more needed.

Harry Boyte, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, lives several months a year in South Africa, where he is also a Visiting Professor at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

Productive property

Prometheus Unbound: Populism, The Property Question, and Social Invention

The good society, vol. 21, no. 2, 2012  Copyright © 2012 The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA

How, exactly, does Taylor understand the history of popular movements in America?

In the early 18th century, there were a myriad of government programs created to give public land to American citizens, and this continued into the 19th century. At the same time, corporations were able to obtain massive amounts of this same land and when corporations could be created simply through registration, a reversal of fortune for ordinary people ensued. Because people were so focused on property as being a means to which they could live and thrive, losing property (or the ability to obtain property) due to an ever increasing corporate structure driven with the intent on reducing property ownership for the common people meant they were threatened. Thus was born the Farmers Alliance, the Colored Farmers Alliance, and the Peoples Party. These were movements designed to thwart the growing control of the corporate structure over peoples lives, livelihood and feeling of self-worth.

“At the center of the struggle of the populist movements of the late 1800’s, both Black and white, was an attempt to free themselves from debt peonage, wage slavery, and the domination of the rising industrial constellation made up of manufacturing enterprises and joint stock corporations that organized significant combines of land, capital, and workers” (pg.222)

Property and the labor to produce property one would own, grew America from a colony to a country to an economic powerhouse, and as the people began to realize there were far fewer people owning far more than everyone else, populist movements began to sprout with the same beliefs and goals that drove other people to join them – that owning something and making something, was a self-fulfilling prophecy towards independent and just prosperity.

Evidence to support Taylor’s claim to the history of populist movements can be found in excerpts of the Omaha Platform. For example in the preamble “The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few” is in alignment with Taylor when he writes, “By the late nineteenth century less than a third of white households owned significant free-holding property, a dramatic reversal from earlier decades” (pg.222)

Taylor says in a callout on page 226, “The populist movement demonstrated that both individual and collective ways of achieving property ownership were available”, on this point he loses me a bit. I wouldn’t go so far so say that the American Medical Association, comprising of “intellectual artisans” in Taylors words, was in fact a populist movement. First of all, shouldn’t a populist movement by it’s own apparent definition require more than one person to participate?  The AMA was formed as a collection of individuals who wished to operate as a group for monetary and influential gains (sounds like the Farmers Alliance, yes) but it was not formed as a response to a growing sense of loss of property among the disenfranchised – quite the opposite. Doctors were able to benefit from and rise above the problems created by the widening economic gap, especially with the creation of Medicare. Poorer people derived unhealthy people, and those without the means to take care of themselves would have to turn to hospitals and doctors offices for refuge, especially when you consider the mental anxiety and depression surely caused by a feeling of loss. One could even argue that it was not populist at all when you consider the requirements for membership.

In his eyes, what potential connections exist between earlier movements, current challenges, and a potential future for popular democracy?

In a sense he poses the same questions to the same issues that have plagued our American democracy for centuries. “to what degree in a democratic society should the autonomy for self-organization of business enterprises and the economic sphere be limited?” To this question he does not deliver a solid answer. Instead he insists that rather than try to limit what a corporation can do, we should limit how society and government considers it to have the same rights as citizens. Simply because corporations are not people, they are not citizens. A citizen can be in charge of many corporations, or a single large corporation, but at the end of the day, they are still one person. But when a corporation obtains the same rights and privileges afforded to hard working people, the control of citizens over their own lives is lost.

He argues that because populist movements of the past have focused on enabling people to own “productive property” a contemporary movement should do as much, with the caveat that the idea of property ownership needs to “stabilize citizens and their communities” He doesn’t say specifically how or what this means, and I think this is where the article falls just short. Perhaps I am taking it too literally, but if property ownership is going to evolve into something more than an individual owning property, I’d like to know how this is supposed to happen.  Understandably, this is an idealistic outlook of the future he is presenting and so generalities must exist, but it’s difficult for me to imagine a world where people own things for the betterment of the people and not for the betterment of themselves (or their families) without some kind of specific proposal to start with.

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement

What, exactly, was democratic about Baker and the many hundreds that she worked with? 

“A democracy”, as John Dewey once said, “is having faith in other people to do the right thing at the right time”. Ella Baker and the various organizations and organizers she worked with had this faith not just in African Americans, but in all the people of any race. There is simply no other reason for their efforts to equalize economically and politically across racial and class lines. They had faith that the poor could do great things if they had fair and just opportunities to do so. They had faith that African Americans were capable of leading the country in a better direction, if they were given a chance on equal footing. But they also had faith in the elite aristocracy’s ability to lead the nation, given in that their cause did not consistently advocate complete anarchy or move towards communism. Democracy was not the enemy, those who failed to practice it were. White supremacy, Jim Crowe, and the apartheid south were the enemy, not the founding principles of democracy.

Ella was raised by her mother to know and understand class and race did not dictate overall intelligence and ability (pg.19).  She spent time learning about democracy in Harlem against a backdrop of the Great Depression, and she advocated democracy and worked to break up the enemies of democracy by visiting the members of the NAACP people directly, spending time with them rather than just leading meetings in the town center. This indicates a true sincerity towards making change happen, not for herself, but for the people she worked so hard for. She worked for the betterment of race relations to make a better democratic republic.

What unique contributions did Baker make to the burgeoning and diverse Black Freedom Movement? 

Baker had a unique background that allowed her to continue to practice what she preached when she obtained higher levels of status within the NAACP. Many leaders coming from poor or lower class roots changed once they were put in charge or obtained a leadership position. But because Baker was raised in a substantial middle-class black neighborhood (and would routinely outreach to poorer black neighborhoods) she was taught at an early age that a life of service is never completed. On page 209, a perfect Baker quote is cited, “I never worked for an organization but for a cause.” This speaks volumes about her true commitment to the organizations she worked with and for. Baker left the NAACP because she felt it was “falling short of its present possibilities” and “the full capacities of the staff have not been used” and “there is little chance of mine being utilized in the immediate future”. (pg.146) It was a resignation based on lack of focus on the true meaning of the organization, not one due to lack of advancement towards leadership.

Can we call Baker a populist?

Baker was a populist by proxy, because she didn’t advocate for all the poor all the time, but instead the African American poor most of the time, she was not advocating on behalf of the people. Populist beliefs are popular, and she was not in favor of pursuing the popular ideals at the time, such as the belief in white supremacy. As unjust and evil as the pursuits of racist ideals are, they were during her time popular. Baker did not need to be populist, Baker needed to be an advocate of an oppressed race of people in a democratic country. Baker perhaps, could not be a populist as it would undermine her efforts to bring justice and equal rights to a race of people who needed her. Baker’s life was a series of desperate situations brought on by years and decades – millennia even, of ignorance and wanton hate. Baker was not a populist because it was more important for her to focus on African Americans and equal rights.


Today I met with Mr Boyte to have a research interview.

Today I met with Mr Boyte to have a research interview. We met in his office at the Center for Democracy and Citizenship on campus, an appropriate setting for such a discussion.

We started off the discussion talking about a book called “Blood Struggle” which is about Native American cultures and their resistance to assimilation into the American culture, and how successful they have been. Free spaces in the Navajo tribes and reservation areas were discussed to kick off our discussion.

I explained to him how we were explaining Free Spaces to the other people being interviewed, and I read an excerpt from his book Free Spaces to provide a base definition, also using my forum post on his book to bolster it with what I thought a Free Space to be.

We moved on to the questions and he remarked on while he doesn’t typically engage directly with campus issues, he feels the policy makers and administration could do more to prepare students for a lifetime of employment, not just employment in the next few years. Too often things are done too quickly, focused on making things faster and cheaper, and students are not encouraged to get an education, but to complete a major so they can find a job. Its job training rather than getting an education. I remarked this is similar to the situations I encounter when I tell people I’m a history major but do not wish to be a teacher or a museum curator. I’m getting an education to know things, not to know how to do a job.

He mentioned one issue he finds is with students and their mental health. Students deal with depression and anxiety, affecting all aspects of their life. He feels the administration could do more to help students with this.

We also talked about the struggle to explain a Free Space is not a place to go to. Its not a physical location where you go and complain, or talk about things that bother you. People seem to think that a Free Space is a forum to complain to the people who you think can change things, and we need to re-define this to be a place where you can find mutual self-interest with organizations or people that can help you make change happen. It’s a place to organize with others, a place to build civic responsibility and a place to learn skills that empower individuals and groups to make change happen.

Next we talked about Public Achievement and he gave some examples of he and Dennis reaching out to high schools to build programs that coached or taught public achievement. Free spaces enable public achievement.

He recommended I contact Nancy Kari, who organized a free space for student issues at St Kates in the 90’s and also Noelle Johnson, the coordinator of public achievement at Northern Arizona University. As I was leaving, she actually called Mr Boyte and so I was able to briefly speak with her – weird that she would call just as I was leaving.

How to Read a History Monograph—or Why You Shouldn’t Just Open the Book and Start Reading

1) Don’t open the book!  Look first at the title on the cover.  In almost every case, the title makes an analytical claim, something that clues you in not only to the subject matter of the book, but also the approach and even the main argument made by the historian.


2)  Look at the back cover.  On some books, you will find a one-paragraph summary of the work, plus blurbs from other noteworthy scholars.  Both will give you a sense of the book’s scope, the kind of history pursued by the author (cultural, social, political, environmental, intellectual, military, transnational), and perhaps even the sources used.


3)  Open the book.  Find the table of contents.  Look at it closely.  By now you should be able to answer the who, what, when, where, why questions about the book.  How does the author divvy up the chapters?  What kind of claims is the author making in each section?  How does she or he lay out her or his argument?


4) Find the bibliography, bibliographic essay, or endnotes in the back of the book.  Study them closely, even if you are not familiar with the particular subject at hand. What kinds of secondary sources does the historian rely on?  Particular historians or particular books that keep getting referenced over and over?   How about the primary sources used by the author?  Government reports? Newspapers?  Oral histories?  Manuscript letters?  Organizational documents?  Why might the scholar be using these sorts of documents?  What can they tell her or him that other kinds of documents can’t?


5) Read the acknowledgements.  Usually authors take the time to thank other scholars for reading drafts of the work, or providing research assistance.  Often times, you can even find out which archives a scholar visited or the type of field research they engaged in.  Think about these things in relation to what you’ve already learned.  Now you may know the four or five people who happen to be experts on the particular subject of the book.  This provides insight into other, related reading—the historiography of the subject.


6) Next, read the forward or introduction.  Here, historians usually map out the arguments that you will encounter in the book.  These summaries are especially useful because they offer a preview of what you’ll be seeing in each chapter.


7) Finally, you should start reading the book.   It’s important to remember that the first page (or pages) and the last page (or pages) of a chapter almost always introduce and summarize the main ideas found in that chapter.  Close attention to these sections will help you move through the chapter more efficiently and more quickly.  It will also help you evaluate whether or not the historian has succeeded in what she or he claimed would be their task.


8) Write in the margins of the book as you move through the chapters.  It is good to flag particular pages or underline or highlight important sections, but you should be responding and grappling with the author and the ideas presented.  You can also make notes for yourself, reminders of questions or issues you wish to raise in the next week’s discussion of the work.