Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"Radicals In Their Own TIme" - Introduction & Selected Excerpts

I've just posted here the Introduction and excerpts from three chapters in my forthcoming book (Cambridge University Press), "Radicals in Their Own Time: Four Hundred Years of Struggle for Liberty and Equal Justice in America," on my Berkeley Press Selected Works page (

Here are the first few paragraphs from the Introduction:

In teaching history, there should be extensive discussions of personalities who
benefited mankind through independence of character and judgment.
-Albert Einstein, 1953

America in the twenty-first century exists in a perpetual Dickensian sort-of “best
of times, worst of times” state when it comes to putting into practice the sacred principles
of liberty and equal justice. On one hand, the once-unthinkable occurred in November
2008 when the nation – a land that had permitted and promoted human slavery for more
than half of its four hundred year history - elected an African-American man president.
The symbolic importance alone of placing Barack Obama at the pinnacle of power in the
United States, given its sordid past practices, cannot be understated. Yet, on the very
same day, a majority of voters in the most populous state in the union, California, voted
to deny thousands of their fellow citizens, gay Americans, the equal right to marry. The
California experience is only one of numerous legislative-judicial struggles beginning to
play out on the issue of gay marriage in other states around the nation.

Taking the long view, if history is any guide (and it is), there is little doubt the
discriminatory laws against gay marriage will eventually end up on history’s scrapheap.
The current battles will soon go the way of those of some fifty years ago involving
interracial marriage, during which one Virginia trial court, in upholding the state’s antimiscegenation statute, reasoned: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference
with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he
separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” Most Americans
today would view such language with a mixture of shock and disbelief - but it was not
long ago that legislative majorities in sixteen states gave official voice to such ignorant

Fifty years from now, the current arguments against gay marriage will seem
similarly archaic. As the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. limned, “the arc of the moral
universe is long; but it bends toward justice.” For all its faults, the United States
Constitution has, over time, provided a one-way ratchet toward greater, not lesser, liberty
and equal justice – every constitutional amendment but one (the eighteenth, itself
repealed by the twenty-first just fifteen years later), for example, has, if anything,
expanded Americans’ freedoms.

America’s story is remarkable: a Nation, sprouting from the seeds of
Enlightenment principles where “tolerance was a moral virtue, even a duty; no longer
merely the prerogative of calculating monarchs, but a fundamental element of the ‘rights
of man.’” For the first time in history a people - coming together toward the common
goal of liberty and equal justice, and clearly cognizant of human nature’s split personality
between good (freedom) and evil (tyranny and oppression) - created a government
explicitly designed to resolve the tension in favor of freedom.

That is the myth, anyway. But all is not well in the land of milk and honey; for
America’s constitutional structure has failed to thwart government’s moves to the darker
side: its shameful history of slavery and apartheid; its past oppression of women; its
systematic subjugation of Native Americans in violation of sacred treaty promises; its
pervasive discrimination against immigrants and homosexuals; and, among other currentday
repressions, its curtailments of civil liberties and inexcusable use of torture in the ill-considered “war on terror.” Consider also American geopolitics of the last hundred years: World War I Censorship (Congress’s and President Wilson’s 1917-1918 Espionage and Alien Acts imposing egregious punishments on political speech); World War II Nativism (the President’s authorizing the military to force 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of them American citizens, from their homes and to quarantine them in internment camps for nearly three years; Cold War McCarthyism (powerful committees of both the United States Senate and House of Representatives conducting modern-day witch-hunts of thousands of American citizens accused of having communist sympathies); and Millennial Cheneyism (the executive branch aggressively
exceeding long-accepted constitutional limits on its power - even while operating in a
system that separates powers in order to provide checks and balances on each co-equal

In each case, prejudice, greed, and political expediency took hold before being
beaten back – for the time being. It is a constant struggle. As much as America has
accomplished in advancing humankind’s perpetual quest for greater Freedom, it has
never completely lived up to its own promise, for whatever reason – whether because of
bitter class wars (Howard Zinn), its economically-motivated Constitution (Charles
Beard), or some combination of these or other factors.

Which viewpoint more accurately describes the true America - the mythic
common-interest pursuit-of-equal-liberty view; the grittier class-warfare explanation; or
the more cynical economic-interest rationale? The reality is that there are elements of
accuracy in each. And it is useful to keep them all in mind: Lest we become swept-up in
misty patriotic myth, we should recall America’s ignoble history of injustices and
intolerance; or, conversely, lest we lose hope, we should remember that the myth and
partial reality of America as beacon of freedom has for centuries truly inspired millions
around the world. In the end, the goals represented in the positive myth are worth
fighting for, both idealistically and practically, for they advance our individual and
collective humanity – and offer a model of ambition, idealism and hope for future