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Battles for Freedom

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Eric Foner has always been a calming voice of reason. A historian by trade, he peppers his articles with perspective. History has seen it all, and today is just more of the same. This is dramatically on display in Battles for Freedom, a collection of his The Nation articles, which began in 1977. In them, readers will see the very same issues they anguish over today, plus historical context the media seem to not want to know about. It is a smooth and easy read, with lots of issues readers might think are new and unique. But Foner shows they are anything but.

In article from the late 90s called Our Monumental Mistakes, Foner examines the then (as now) blazing controversy over Civil War monuments. Should they be taken down? Should the war’s defeated be allowed to lionize their failed leaders? And who really were the people being given statues? A little digging shows that “most Confederate monuments were erected between 1890 and 1920 under the leadership of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.” This means they were offered to localities. It was not the case that residents clamored for them to be erected. The monuments glorify people like the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, for example. And all those horse-mounted heroes are situated facing north, never retreating but always attacking the Union armies. Games. And the US is still playing them, this round with Proud Boys and Neo-Nazis defending the statues of traitors.

The way American monuments lie about the past come in all kinds of flavors, but all amounting to lies just the same. In his usual polite manner, Foner simply says “Amnesia best describes America’s official stance regarding slavery.”

In another chapter, he examines schooling in Texas, where never was heard discouraging word, giving students a totally distorted view of the nation. He says high schoolers learn about Phyllis Schlafly, The Moral Majority, The Heritage Foundation, the Contract with America, and the NRA. All ultra-conservative, and hardly representative of anything but failed extremism. Today, Texas has added massive book banning to ensure its young never see reality. As Foner says later: “America was created perfect and has just been getting better ever since.”

He is dumbfounded by the attacks on affirmative action. This after diagnosing the Reconstruction era as hypocritical, and the Jim Crow era that immediately followed, undoing what little equality and affirmative action was gained. His argument: “Let us not delude ourselves, however, into thinking that eliminating affirmative action will produce a society in which rewards are based on merit. Despite our rhetoric, equal opportunity has never been the American way. For nearly all our history, affirmative action has been a prerogative of white men.” And this was 20 years before the Roberts court dismantled it.

A fan of Lincoln, Foner also points to his same kind of wit and wisdom in the 16th president: “Young America,” he remarked “owns a large part of the world, by right of possessing it; and all the rest by right of wanting it and intending to have it.” Hence his appreciation of Abe Lincoln.

Foner deftly puts topics in their place in American conversation: ”If racial justice is an acceptable subject, class conflict is not.” He is frustrated by the lack conversation around class and mobility.

He profiles Sacco and Vanzetti (his first article for The Nation, requested by the publisher in a completely cold call to Foner) on the 50th anniversary of their totally shameful executions, despite appeals and huge protest marches, not to mention numerous eyewitnesses. His ease with storytelling shows through, as his long career of writing for The Nation testifies.

He looks at labor movements, the safety net, and a salute and request to Bernie Sanders in 2015. The salute was for making progressive issues and policies front and center for the first time in decades in the USA. The request was not to downplay American radicalism. There is no shame in being radical in America; it is only through the pressure of radicals that there is any movement at all, was Foner’s point. Wear it proudly; it’s the American way.

Contrast his appreciation of Sanders with his criticism of Obama. He saw Obama as just more of the same. Same faces, same voices, and no new ideas. This was ironic because Obama was supposedly all about change. Foner was not the only one to recognize the hopelessness of Obama’s choices of who to listen to, and when asked about change, he simply declared that he was the change. Not helpful. And little to show for eight years in power.

The book consists of 27 such pieces, plus a concluding interview of Foner by The Nation’s Assistant Editor. The sheer variety of topics is wonderful, but the color and depth Foner adds to them ensures his work will long outlast him.

David Wineberg

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The author does a fantastic job of uniting history with current events in each of his essays contained within this book. Whereas everyone may not align with his political ideology, both sides of the aisle certainly can gain some insight and knowledge from at least one of these essays.

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Foner does what history teachers should always do: relate how historical figures and events relate to our current reality. I had not been aware of the author's essays in The Nation, but I liked what I read here. These pieces are short and accessible, but they still pack a powerful punch.

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Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley
As I am writing this review, CNN is reporting on the recent shooting in Las Vegas as well as the destruction in Puerto Rico. I live in a country where a president at the very least gives the impression of lacking basic geographic knowledge, human politeness, and empathy. A large segment of the population seems angry that brown people protest, peacefully protest, during a song but not as mad about the mass shooting of innocent concert attendees.
It’s hard not to crawl under the bed and read until the next election, isn’t it?
If you are going to do that, and even more so if you are not going to do so, you should read this collection of Foner’s essays that span is career.
Foner essays cover much, but at the heart of the work is the question of freedom, the right and need to debate as well as to a degree the need to challenge the status quo. He discusses the justification behind college admissions systems as well as the need to challenge the standard view on history. For instance, he discusses a show in the Smithsonian American Museum of Art that challenge the artistic view of the West, pointing out Remington’s view of minorities. There is also a good essay about the Sacco and Vanzetti case.
But perhaps the most important essays in this collection are those about the Civil War, the South, and Lincoln. Not only does Foner discuss the use of revisionist history designed to make slavery a secondary issue (as well as the issue of Texas textbooks). His direct analysis of those statues is also very important, pointing out the true reason for the erection of the statues.
This is a very timely and important collection.
Maybe HBO should give him a show.

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A collection of essays previously published in The Nation about the connection between American history and contemporary issues. Foner is a well-regarded historian; though I know him best for Gateway to Freedom, his book on the Underground Railroad, he's studied and written on multiple periods and topics.

The oldest in this collection is from 1977, written for the 50th anniversary of the case and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. Foner describes the ways the men have been used as a symbol and example for multiple agendas, and how most such portrayals ignore the reality of them as individuals. It's still an interesting and useful article today. The most recent is from January of this year, 2017, and recounts Foner's experiences teaching a college course called “The Radical Tradition in America". He's taught it since the 70s, and students have understandably changed over time, from those who were trying to maintain hope during the Reagan 80s, to those energized by Obama's 2008 victory, to the last batch, influenced by Bernie Sanders's campaign. Some of the essays do feel a bit dated, such as the one from 2001 on the Patriot Act. It's still an awful law, don't get me wrong! It's just that nothing Foner says here is likely to be news to the reader.

My favorite essay was the one on Lincoln's changing views on slavery and racial equality ("Our Lincoln", 2009). Foner portrays him as ultimately a centrist, slow to change his opinion but equally capable of correcting past mistakes. It's a nice change from the black-and-white view of history (and modern people) that can sometimes take over our thinking.

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Foner’s essays for the Atlantic in recent years, often relating history to current events. E.g., Obama never really learned that movements, not leaders alone, change politics. “[U]nlike Lincoln, who respected people to his left such as the abolitionist Frederick Douglass … and took their objections to some of his policies seriously, Obama seems to view criticism [from the left] as little more than an annoyance.” Foner also asks “what exactly constitutes political practicality?”—pointing out that Lincoln for a long time advocated compensated emancipation and colonization of freed blacks, a “harebrained scheme [that] had no possibility of enactment.” It was the wild-eyed abolitionists who put forward the actual program that passed. In terms of southern irredentism, he notes that “in Tennessee there are more memorializations of Nathan Bedford Forrest than any other figure in the state’s history (including president Andrew Jackson) despite Forrest having been a slave trader, founder of the Ku Klux Klan and the commander of Confederate troops that massacred black Union soldiers after they had surrendered.” I’d only quibble with the “despite”—the proper conjunction seems to me to be “because.” Foner discusses the personalization of the political in TV documentaries and their willingness to address race but not class; he also discusses the history promoted by public memorials (where unions are overrepresented but the Union and African-Americans underrepresented). He also points out that he has yet to meet a white male who doubted his own abilities because of the special favoritism he received due to race, class, or the old boys’ network—affirmative action is only degrading to some people. And he needles conservatives by pointing out that it’s the greatest proponents of American exceptionalism who want to get rid of one key exceptionalist feature, birthright citizenship.

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I have always admired the authors work. This collection of essays adds a more personal and revelatory touch to his work. The more you learn about the author the better feel you have for hisvwork.. this collection is a wonderful synthesis of his take on the world.

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In BATTLES FOR FREEDOM, Pulitzer Prize winning historian Eric Foner explores some different aspects of American radicalism. Available from independent publisher I.B.Taurus, this book contains 24 pieces written by Foner and published in The Nation over the past forty years. He particularly focuses on the politics of history and the politics of race. The first piece ("The Men and the Symbols") deals with the controversy surrounding American "justice" as applied to two immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. In the last ("Letter to Bernie"), Foner acknowledges Sanders' role in forcing "the questions of economic inequality and excessive corporate power to the center of our political discourse." As a side note, our Advanced Placement US History students examining nineteenth century events frequently consult other texts by Foner: Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men and The Fiery Trial.

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As is explained by Randall Kennedy in his introduction to ‘The Use and Abuse of American History’, the book comprises twenty-four pieces originally written by Eric Foner for ‘The Nation’ (of which one - ‘Fighting for the West’ - was co-written with Jon Wiener). The first of these appeared in 1977, the most recent in January 2017.

A twenty-fifth item is the transcript of an interview of Foner by the Assistant Editor of ‘The Nation’, Richard Krietner, on 20 July 2016, the day after
Trump accepted the Republican presidential nomination. Strangely the book states that the transcript “has been lightly edited and condensed” whereas on ‘The Nation’ website readers are told that a “longer version of this interview appears in Foner’s new book”.

The book resembles one of those collections of A. J. P. Taylor’s essays and reviews. There are fewer epigrams and a greater concern with historiography and current politics but the two merit comparison as equally wide ranging, entertaining, informed by a deep learning and exhibiting an appetite to challenge existing orthodoxies from a left of centre perspective. Indeed, Foner belongs to what one might term the ‘awkward squad’ of American historians, alongside figures such as his father, Jack Foner, Richard Hofstadter and Howard Zinn, the latter two of whom both receive admiring appraisals in this volume.

Even the most well-disposed reader may sometimes object to some of Foner’s language (equating the treatment of Native Americans with the Holocaust) or feel that there’s sometimes more to the other side of an argument than he’s prepared to concede (for example on affirmative action) but just as Foner’s scholarly works, beginning with his 1970 ‘Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men’, remain indispensable reading, so even the oldest and most seemingly ephemeral of the pieces in ‘Battles for Freedom’ richly reward consideration.

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A timely collection from a great historical and political thinker. I wasn't very familiar with Foner before, but I'm incredibly happy to have discovered his work in this collection. Considering the current political climate and our declining educational standards, to see someone wrestling with the failures of how the US romanticizes history and ignores ongoing issues like racism is extremely important right now.

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This is a nicely edited and introduced collection of the short pieces Foner has been doing for The Nation since 1977. Among them are elegantly written essays in which Foner revisits the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, defends the controversial Smithsonian exhibit "The West as America" from charge of being "too PC!", teaches American history in 1990 Moscow, calls for a third Reconstruction and poignantly realizes that his mentor Richard Hofstadter's first full-time teaching job was the one from which Foner's father had just been fired for being a Communist.

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My idea of a perfect dinner party would be to have Eric Foner there. Just him alone would be fine. And I wouldn’t have to say a word, I would just ask him to talk. This book is the next-best thing; in fact, it’s better, because you don’t even have to cook! You can just open it and read his thoughts on a variety of important topics.

Eric Foner is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, and the leading historian of America’s Reconstruction Era. He is also intellectually dazzling, and both wise and endlessly interesting. I have read all his books, taken his courses online, and now am delighted to read this collection of essays by him that are reprinted from “The Nation” Magazine, and that were published from 1977 to 2017. Even though I was familiar with many of them, he is so excellent that one can just never read him too much or too often.

The book begins with an introduction by Randall Kennedy, the renowned Harvard intellectual, who summarizes much of Foner’s more salient insights on both the politics of history and the politics of race.

Foner reminds us that historical accounts and representations of the past, such as those curated in museums, stake a claim in a very contested terrain, because what we remember about our history helps form our ideas about who we are as a people. Furthermore, the selection of which documents, pictures, statues or other representations of our past are displayed and which are omitted are critically important to that process.

It is ironic that museums have been regarded as “neutral” or “value-free” reflections of cultural heritage, because in fact, they are anything but.

Objects and ideas are selected to sustain certain myths and ideologies, valorizing them over those that are ignored. They in turn generate a cultural consciousness: this is what we “remember” and this is what we take to be “historical truth.” The form and structures of these remembrances are simultaneously a deliberate designation of what we choose to forget.

As Foner avers, “[u]ltimately, public monuments are built by those with sufficient power to determine which parts of history are worth commemorating and what vision of history ought to be conveyed.”

Foner rails against “the amnesia, evasions and misrepresentations” of popular history, particularly in the area of racial conflict. He notes that “[t]hroughout our history, contemporary political problems and commitments have shaped the questions Americans asked about their past and the answers they found.”

He looks not only at museums but also at the docudrama, observing astutely that “the fact that individual action is highlighted and collective action ignored is not simply a consequence of the small screen. Even more, one suspects, it reflects the persistent hold of that peculiarly American strand of individualism on the writers.”

Here he is making the point that a story of individual initiative is one of the ways in which a more threatening narrative of a social movement (especially one that is minority-led) is watered down to conform to the myth of the American Dream, in which any hard-working, courageous person has an equal chance to make a difference and/or to succeed in the American society and economy.

But, as he points out that the intellectual Eric Hobsbawm warned, “studies of the agency of ordinary people, so important in expanding the cast of historical characters, must be placed in the broader context of how social and political power is exercised.”

The fact that these stories rarely are put into a broader social and economic context offers a “meta” lesson about the political ends of carefully shaped narratives couched as “histories.” In addition to telling a story about a specific person, they subtly confer a certain authority or legitimacy upon what is actually a specific set of values, norms, and perspectives that in turn changes popular reactions to events.

In his essay reviewing the work of James W. Loewen (author of books such as “Lies My Teacher Told Me and “Teaching What <em>Really</em> Happened”) Foner singles out tours of historic plantations as a good example of selective memory. He argues that they “ignore or sugarcoat the lives of slaves. No whips, chains or other artifacts of discipline are on display, and presentations by guides focus on the furniture, gardens and architecture rather than the role of slave labor in creating the wealth they represent.” [We found this to be true on a recent tour of George Washington’s Mt. Vernon, where Washington’s slaves were described as Washington’s “servants.”]

Not only is slavery elided whenever possible, he charges, but also the slave <em>trade</em>, “a central element of the pre-Civil War Southern economy,” is generally omitted from public histories. And most germane to Foner’s primary field of study, “Reconstruction …is almost invisible in America’s public history.” To the extent it is covered, it is done so in a way that twists the truth. The history often told (“a time of rampant corruption presided over by unscrupulous Northern carpetbaggers and former slaves unprepared of the freedom that had been thrust upon them”) is an erroneous one that “helped to justify the subsequent policies of segregation and black disfranchisement in the South and the North’s prolonged indifference to white Southerner’s nullification of the federal Constitution.”

He holds that opponents of equality changed the narrative to one of a federal bureaucracy trampling on the rights of white citizens in favor of those who were lazy, incompetent, and bent on defiling white women. (Here Foner laments the irony of that canard, when so many slave women were raped by their white masters. Nevertheless, in the South, as he charges, the accusation of rape of a white woman by a black man, rarely substantiated, was enough to motivate a lynching.)

What Foner wants readers to know is that whiteness has an <em>economic</em> value, and that value has underlaid much of the history of race in America, albeit in an unacknowledged way.

Similarly, he emphasizes, “American radicalism is generally excised from public history.” He cites historian Charles Beard, who taught that American history had been shaped by the struggle of competing economic groups. But you don’t read about that in most history books. He applauds Bernie Sanders for bringing back a recognition of the importance of economic structures for the exercise of power in politics, but regrets that Sanders draws upon the experience of European socialists more than that of homegrown American radicals.

Other topics include social Darwinism (remarkably persistent, and especially popular now among the Alt-Right), affirmative action, the Electoral college, Lincoln and his personal growth on the issue of slavery, the uses of the memory of Lincoln, the 14th Amendment, a particularly astute analysis of Barack Obama and his presidency, and September 11 and the anti-Arab, “clash of civilizations” mentality that has gained so much popularity, and according to which western civilization is superior. (He reminds us: “The definition of ‘Western civilization’ is highly selective - it includes the Enlightenment but not the Inquisition, liberalism but not the Holocaust, Charles Darwin but not the Salem witch trials.”)

He concludes: “History does inform the present, and it should. That’s what I mean by a useable past: a historical consciousness that can enable us to address the problems of society today in an intelligent manner.”

Evaluation: Anyone not already familiar with the breadth and depth of Foner’s ideas will get an excellent overview from this wonderful and all-too-brief collection of essays. They have been chosen well: even the older essays remain relevant and important in light of current events.

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