gentle rereader

. . . rediscovering Jacques Barzun

Archive for the category “Politics”

America now

Recent events have called to mind Jacques Barzun’s exertions to influence his own times, and our future.  A review of the latest Ken Burns documentary, The Dust Bowl, triggered a memory of America Now, a topical anthology published during the Great Depression.  Barzun’s contribution to the book includes a striking example of prejudice that crystallizes the nature of racism.

But I let it go.  Would Jacques want anyone to bother with a mere essay from 1938 when the previous year he had published an entire book on the hateful subject? Like Burckhardt and Gibbon, Barzun may well become celebrated for a single work, so why spend time and effort on such a dated piece?

Then a couple of weeks ago Timothy Egan, author of the National Book Award winner The Worst Hard Time, stirred up Dust Bowl history again with “In Ignorance We Trust”.  Recalling Barzun’s essay once more, I pulled it off the shelf and reread it.  The memorable episode of racism that I first recalled is but one small part of an exegesis that arrays his usual – extraordinary – variety of evidence.

First_Lt_Daniel_Inouye

1st Lt. Inouye

Finally, one of many tributes to the late Senator Daniel Inouye included the war hero’s account of a San Francisco barber denying the Japanese-American a haircut, despite the empty right sleeve pinned to Inouye’s Army uniform.  That shameful incident might have turned out differently if someone in that shop had read Barzun’s essay.  The prospect that such situations could arise motivated Jacques to write something new for America Now, and moves me to resurrect it at last.

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Barzun did not simply submit a chapter from his second full-length book, Race: A Study in Modern Superstition (1937).  The global, historical perspective of Race remains, however, as he starts fresh with conditions at home: “At the present a wave of anti-Japanese feeling is sweeping over the United States. Everywhere, in high circles and low, condemnation of the Japanese for their war on China is to be heard, and practical effect is given to it in the form of a buyers’ boycott of articles made or originating in Japan, from silk stockings to ten-cent-store cigarette boxes.  The Japanese living in this country are put on the defensive and must perforce be apologetic or defiant.  They must either uphold the policies of their mother-country or explain them away as the doings of a military clique with which they, the Japanese-Americans, are not in sympathy.”

Barzun then shifts to the plight of German-Americans in the U.S. during World War I to illustrate the first characteristic of race-prejudice, calling it “tribal identification.” Before the first page ends he brings in the third Axis power to provide a concrete example of the superstition’s absurdity and harm: “More recently, Italian imperialism in Abyssinia had its repercussions in Chicago and New York in the form of clashes between Italians and Negroes on the same basis of identification with the two groups warring in the Ethiopian mountains.

“It is easily seen how slight the real bond between the two pairs of opponents in such a racial situation can be. Even on the basis of color the Abyssinians and the American Negroes hardly form a homogeneous group, and on a political or economic or cultural or geographical basis, there is no discoverable similarity between the population of Harlem and that of Addis Ababa.”

Having deflated race-thinking, Barzun replaces it with constructive thought – the imagination of the real.  Years before there was a Manzanar, Jacques asks his readers to consider the differences between two men walking side-by-side in Los Angeles, an issei father and nissei son (like young Dan Inouye in Hawai’i) who “are separated by a personal and cultural chasm that it would be hard to exaggerate.” Their expectations and hopes diverge like their legal status.  The son’s birth on American soil allows his family “to get around the provisions of the California Alien Land Act, and thus a motive of economic rivalry is introduced into a situation already complicated on the social and cultural sides.”

Barzun examines this second characteristic of race prejudice through the oscillating treatment of Oriental immigrants, beginning with the Chinese: “When the ‘coolies’ were no longer useful and began to offer real competition to white labor they turned from ‘sober and thrifty workers of all-round ability’ to ‘moon-eyed lepers.'”  Then by reversing the “racial” perspective, he furnishes the example that has remained vivid for me since the first reading:

“Anglo-Saxon” refugees in California

“Economic status in America is closely allied to social position, and the distinctions, although not embedded in rigid terms or titles, are keenly felt, often with surprising alterations in the form of local race-prejudice.  For example, it is generally true that the recent or unassimilated immigrant in this country is felt by the ‘older stock’ to belong to an inferior social and racial group. The ‘hunky,’ ‘Cannuck,’ ‘Mick,’ or ‘Wop’ is a lower sort of animal in comparison with the alleged ‘Anglo-Saxon.’  But observe the effect of economics upon this pattern of thought and feeling: In Fresno, the Armenian population is well established, well-to-do, and thoroughly respectable.  When, therefore, during the last depression, Fresno was invaded by homeless immigrants from poverty-stricken regions of the South, these dispossessed ‘Anglo-Saxons,’ whose family trees in some cases had struck roots on this continent before the Revolution, were considered by the Armenians an undesirable alien lot, and the usual batch of contemptuous adjectives rained down upon them in spite of their great past and pedigree.  Dirty, shiftless, crooked and criminal were among the milder terms applied to the new ‘race’ huddling across the railroad tracks in improvised shanties and un-American squalor.”

Barzun’s comprehensive treatment of the human race (singular) may account in part for Kenneth Clark’s 1975 remark that Barzun’s Race: A Study in Superstition (2d ed., 1965) is not one of the classics on the subject.  The first African-American to earn a Columbia University Ph.D. in psychology (1940) married the first woman (and second African-American) to achieve the same distinction (1943).  Drs. Mamie and Kenneth Clark’s long campaign to integrate American society included the studies of children’s responses to “white” and “black” dolls that influenced the unanimous Supreme Court decision to desegregate U.S. schools, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954).  By 1975 the history and achievements of the Civil Rights movement dominated discussions of racism, but Barzun’s first edition of Race had as its background not only the 1930s resurgence of lynchings in America, but also the long history of pogroms in Europe that would erupt again during Kristallnacht – the year that America Now came out.

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After criticizing the treatment Barzun received in “curiously listless and uninvolved” obituaries and memorials, Mr. Mark Halpern added that “He is being prepared, it seems, for burial in footnotes and bibliographical essays as a very decent sort of chap, almost always on the side of the angels, but perhaps not in the front rank of heroic battlers for truth and freedom.”  (Vocabula Review, vol. 14, no. 11, November 2012; published online 18 November 2012 [subscription required]) My use of the bibliographer’s shovel has been to dig up – rather than to bury – Barzun’s brilliance.  This gentle rereader’s lamp may not shine as brightly as The Vocabula Review, but it is here for all to see.  

Our champion – Mr. Halpern’s and mine – battled heroically on many fronts. Regarding the question of race, Barzun certainly was on the side of the angels, and did not wait for the dust to settle before he engaged.  His intelligence mission took him to Germany in 1933–34 (with his new American citizen’s passport) as the Nazis consolidated power.  He waited until after the war to thank “the librarians at Dresden, Berlin, and Frankfurt-am-Main—unknown to me by name—who facilitated, in spite of Nazism, researches of which they knew the bearing.”  But Jacques did not hide in the stacks.  Any fear that the survivor of German shelling during the Great War may have felt did not stop Barzun from attending a Nazi rally and witnessing Ernst Röhm’s threatening ability … that prodded Hitler to have the SA commander assassinated the following year.

Barzun was choosing his next battles even before then.  Several visits to the Paris World’s Fair of 1937 gave indications of trouble ahead: “Politically, it was the first attempt of the fascist, communist, and Nazi propaganda machines to make ‘culture’ an instrument of aggressive diplomacy.”  Jacques did not settle for the role of passive chronicler of events; his actions included timely production of his penetrating thoughts with Of Human Freedom (1939) and Darwin, Marx, Wagner (1941).  Anyone who wants a nutshell version of Barzun’s thought on racism, so as to move swiftly on to these works, would do well to read “Race-Prejudice” in America Now.

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