Category Archives: History

Coates on Reparations

The latest issue of The Atlantic features an important piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates on the issue of reparations for the U.S.’s racist history. It went live on Thursday to a lot of hubbub, but I wanted to dedicate a short post to tell you all to read the whole thing in full.

Coates uses housing as his framework for viewing America’s history, focusing on the long plunder of the 20th century. He spends much of the rest of the article arguing for reparations by showing how the repercussions of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration continue to punish black people. He also criticizes efforts to help the disadvantaged without taking race into account.

Coates also wrote here about tracing his line of thinking from opposing reparations four years ago. It includes links to several interesting pieces, all factors in his thought process. Coates also penned this short footnote to the article, highlighting why it is an important issue to tackle. Both are worth perusing if you’re interested.

In response, Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote this piece about education’s role in inequality and the (lack of) potential it has for being the channel through which we can attain a more equitable future. She brings numbers to the game, for those who like them, from a recent economic policy paper. Summarizing the findings, she states: “No matter what black college grads do, they are more sensitive than non-blacks to every negative macro labor market trend. They are more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, and hold low quality jobs even when they have STEM degrees.” She closes by arguing that “[w]hen we allow education to be sold as a fix for wealth inequality, we set a public good up to fail and black folks that do everything “right” to take the blame when it goes “wrong”.”

Alyssa Rosenberg also wrote this piece reflecting on how culture would have to change in order for such reparations to occur. She sheds some light on American media and how much attention has been paid to slavery and racism through what we watch. There’s also an interesting piece on the recent Caribbean effort to gain reparations from European countries for 400 years of slavery and colonization, and this piece outlining ways to actually see reparations through.

(If you know of other good pieces on Coates’ article, leave them in the comments.)

Early 20th Century American Slang

For those who don’t know, I work part time at a library of rare books and manuscripts. It often involves stamping books, organizing magazines, opening the mail, filing receipts, and loading packages into the freezer. Recently, it involved putting a giant collection of Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books in numerical order. They are small 3.5″ x 5″ books published in Girard, Kansas, during the early- to mid-20th Century. The books include everything from Shakespeare and Ibsen plays to the U.S. Constitution and French-to-English guides. One that caught my eye was #56, A Dictionary of American Slang.

Included in it were some things that we still use today, like geezer, gold digger, high jack, and hot dog as an exclamation. But there were also some things that I have never heard of, and some of the definitions were just as strange. So, without further ado, some examples of ~1920s slang:

  • absotively – absolutely and positively
  • acknowledge the corn – admit responsibility for
  • Adam’s ale – water
  • all to the mustard – excellent
  • almighty dollar – money, god of America
  • applesauce – blah, tripe, nonsense, foolish talk
  • go to the bad – attend Sunday movies, dance, or otherwise offend the Rotary Methodist god
  • birthday suit – nature’s garb
  • cake eater – tea-hound, lounge-lizard, lady-bug
  • snake’s hips – something excellent
  • cracker – poor white, as in Georgia
  • dude – one who follows “What Men Are Wearing” in the theater programs
  • flumadiddle – humbug, flummery, nonsense
  • full of prunes – you’re crazy, you’re wrong
  • gibble-gabble, mulligatawny – foolish talk
  • to ride the goat – to be initiated into a secret society
  • fluzie – a daughter of joy, prostitute
  • Heavens! – formerly, god’s resident; now, an expletive
  • hotsy-totsy, tootsie-wootsie – a girl all to the mustard, all O.K.
  • izzum-wizzum – hotsy-totsy, red hot sweetie
  • Jericho (to send one to) – Hell, or Hoboken
  • justice – slang for what is obtained in legal courts
  • late unpleasantness – the last war; long used for the Civil War, in 200,000 AD it will be used of the most recent war
  • low-brow – an average person; one who prefers the poetry of Eddie Guest
  • Bible Marathon – the latest American indoor sport, in which both Testaments are read aloud in relays at breakneck speed, to the glory of God
  • mollycoddle – excessively effeminate person
  • mossback – a fossil, dodo, conservative stand-patter
  • to get one’s nanny – to get one’s goat
  • necktie partie – a hanging bee, lynching
  • to pass on – Christian Science euphemism for “to die.” It has become general throughout these Rotaried states. Nobody has died since Christ; all the rest have “passed on.”
  • paste – to strike a blow; “I’ll paste you in the bean”
  • piffle – nonsense, twaddle, applesauce, stewed rhubarb
  • poor white trash – a 100% free and un-terrified Nordic financial and mental pauper in the Southern States, whose family never owned slaves. If a child of poor white trash becomes President, historians will at once raise his ancestors to the aristocracy.
  • pop the question – to propose marriage; to dare congual shipwreck
  • primrose path – road to Hell, anything pleasant
  • puritan – one scrupulous about the morals of others; one who holds that the pleasant is always wicked
  • red – Communist, Socialist, Bolshevik, radical, prohibitionist, anti-prohibitionist, or member of any belief different from yours
  • right-o – annoying, the British expression of approval
  • rough diamond – an uncalcimined daddy; a rich man who eats peas with his knife 
  • rum row – the liquor-laden fleet 12 miles out
  • Sam Hill – the devil, as in “what the Sam Hill?” Sam’s father was Bunker Hill, shortened to Bunk Hill
  • stork – long-legged bird, purveying all human babies. In the U.S. the cabbage and rose bush methods have become slightly obscene; the biological is verboten. The Stork, Santa Clause, and Yahweh live in St. George Washington’s cherry tree.
  • strawberry blonde – red head, carrot top
  • V spot – five dollar bill
  • whangdoodle – mythical creature, akin to the gymnascutus, leg shorter on one side than the other, to let him feed n a hillside; nonsense

Latin America’s Exception, From the Torture Network to the ICC

About a week ago, Greg Grandin wrote a piece about the CIA’s extensive torture network, noting that, among the 54 countries involved, Latin America was completely absent. The article is a really great read and sheds light on why the region didn’t render itself part of the massive anti-terror network. The history of U.S.-Latin America relations is, of course, a dubious one. Grandin cites Cold War involvement as well as economic failures brought about by neoliberalism as setting the stage, and both the Iraq War and the U.S.’s aggressive post-9/11 militarization as informing the Latin American response to Washington’s requests. He cites several WikiLeaks cables regarding Brazil’s effort to prevent U.S. expansion into South America:

[The cable] went on to report that Lula’s government considered the whole system Washington had set up at Guantánamo (and around the world) to be a mockery of international law. “All attempts to discuss this issue” with Brazilian officials, the cable concluded, “were flatly refused or accepted begrudgingly.”

In addition, Brazil refused to cooperate with the Bush administration’s efforts to create a Western Hemisphere-wide version of the Patriot Act. It stonewalled, for example, about agreeing to revise its legal code in a way that would lower the standard of evidence needed to prove conspiracy, while widening the definition of what criminal conspiracy entailed.

It’s really fascinating to look at the reasons that Brazil and other South American countries might be wary of what the U.S. is trying to use them for. This is also evident in the context of the International Criminal Court. Every single country in South America – and almost all of Central America – are members of the ICC, despite U.S. efforts to prevent such membership in the Court’s early years.

When George W. Bush entered office, he quickly set out to cripple the ICC before it was even officially created. He and like-minded senators targeted the ICC and tried to discourage states from signing the Rome Statute, the founding treaty behind the Court. They passed laws like the American Service-Members’ Protection Act, which barred U.S. cooperation with the Court and prevented military aid and training from going to countries that joined the Court. The White House also set about signing Bilateral Immunity Agreements (BIAs, also called Article 98 agreements) with countries establishing that they would not extradite American citizens to the Court. If states joined the ICC but didn’t sign BIAs, they would no longer receive aid.

The Bush administration worked hard to either isolate the ICC or cripple it by preventing jurisdiction over U.S. citizens. The response wasn’t what conservatives had hoped. By October of 2005, 54 countries had denounced BIAs (pdf), including a number of Latin American countries. While countries around the world issues such statements, Latin American countries had much more to lose in aid dollars, and yet they still refused to cooperate with the U.S. attempt to derail international justice. Ecuador lost more in aid funds than any other country in the world, and Peru and Uruguay both lost over a million dollars, in 2004, with threats of more in years to come.

In 2005, General Bantz Craddock of SOUTHCOM testified before a House committee (pdf) that he was unable to work with 11 countries in his region, and that these countries were turning elsewhere for training and aid, causing severe damage to U.S. influence. Losing its sphere of influence in it’s own backyard, the U.S. eventually backed down, allowing aid to flow into these countries in order to reestablish military support, but apparently not enough to marshal admission into the CIA torture network. It’s not crazy to assume that holding aid hostage for U.S. gains in the early 2000s played a role when it came to trying to build anti-terrorist laws and programs in the region.

Only Nixon, Only Reagan – International Treaties and the Presidency

A lot of people have been lamenting the US Senate’s failure on Wednesday to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by a vote of 61-38 (treaties need 67 votes to be ratified), and rightly so. There is virtually no reason not to ratify the treaty, and many GOP senators even went back on promises at the last minute by voting no. It’s really terrible that the United States is so unwilling to ratify international conventions, many of which are great treaties, on the absurd fear of losing all American sovereignty (or whatever it is they’ve convinced themselves).

But the fact is, we shouldn’t be surprised. The Unites States is the only country other than Somalia that hasn’t ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. And we’re in the minority of non-ratifiers for a host of other conventions and treaties, from landmine bans to climate change protocols to international justice. The next time the U.S. signs onto anything like this, it will be because a Republican President wants to.

Sometimes people look at me with a bit of skepticism on that point, but it’s true. In an only-Nixon-could-go-to-China way, only a Republican president could twist the arms of enough GOP senators to vote alongside Dems, who for the most part already support such measures. The only reason the U.S. ever signed onto the Genocide Convention was because Ronald Reagan accidentally visited a Nazi cemetery (and didn’t visit any concentration camps) on a trip to Germany. To solve the controversy, he pushed for the Genocide Convention’s passage and voila. That is almost the only route for America to sign anything.

So we just need the next GOP President to fuck up on an issue, I guess.

We are the 99% – 1890 Style

I recently started a part-time job at a library on campus, stamping and source-marking books and manuscripts in acquisitions. My first project has been to sort through a large array of broadside ballads and booklets of songs. Last Friday I happened upon something pretty great: the December 17, 1890 edition of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside & General Labourers’ Union of Great Britain & Ireland. The issue is a collection of labor songs, and one on the front page struck me as particularly linked to contemporary issues. Unsurprisingly, it seems workers chanted against the stark inequality of the top one percent long before last September. Here’s a scanned copy, with the text below.

“Chants of Labour,” from December, 1890.

“There are Ninety and Nine”

There are ninety and nine that work and die
In want and hunger and cold,
That one may live in luxury,
And be lapped in the silken fold!
And ninety and nine in their hovels bare,
And one in a palace of riches rare.
From the sweat of their brows the desert blooms,
And the forest before them falls;
Their labour has builded humble homes
And cities with lofted halls,
And the one owns cities and houses and lands,
And the ninety and nine have empty hands.
But the night so dreary and dark and long
At last shall the morning bring;
And over the land the victors’ song
Of the ninety and nine shall ring,
And echo afar, from zone to zone,
“Rejoice! for Labour shall have its own!”
 

Teaching Students Racism

Last week my wife told me about an insane case in which a Texas high school had an annual tradition of teaching students about Nazism in the stupidest way possible – by having half of the students be Nazis, and half of them Jews. From the article:

The students playing Jews wear red ribbons. “[Red ribbon students] must do everything school faculty or other students tell them to, including picking up other students’ trash, being taken outside and sprayed with water hoses, bear-crawling across the hot track, carrying other students’ books, and even carrying other students,” says the suit, filed in federal court by Andrew Yara, 19. “Engaging in this exercise was compulsory, with it constituting 60 percent of a major test grade for students in their World History Class, and any student who did not do everything they were told were receive a failing grade.”

This is some insane shit. Giving one group of high school students unrestricted power over another group of high school students is ludicrous, and all it does – besides exacerbating bullying and other problems – is teach students to be assholes.

When I first heard about this, my mind went straight to Jane Elliott’s work in Riceville, Iowa in 1968. You might know her as the third grade teacher that split up her students based on eye color and treated them differently. She began by explaining to her students that blue-eyed people were smarter, cleaner, punctual, and more determined than brown-eyed students, and therefore deserved snacks, extra recess, and sitting up front in class. She noted the sudden divide between students as bullying occurred on the playground and grades rose and fell for the two groups. The next day, she reversed the roles and the third graders immediately swapped places, with grades and attitudes rising and falling according to eye color. The result was a particularly telling example of how prejudice can affect people, with a side of controversial treatment of children.

Elliott’s exercise isn’t without criticisms, and rightly so. It’s worth noting that treating children in such a way can lead to some sorts of trauma through emotional abuse (on which I’m no expert). Telling a third grader, “of course your homework is late, you have blue eyes” will probably have some sort of effect. As this paper (pdf) shows, while most of her students remember the two day experiment as beneficial and life-changing, albeit humiliating at the time, some are hesitant when thinking about whether or not to put their children through the same lesson. Whether you agree with her tactics, the strategy is clear: show all students what it’s like to be mistreated, and they will learn what it feels like to be judged based on their appearance, then they should spend the rest of their lives trying not to be racist.

Compared to Elliott’s exercise, the Perryton High School exercise goes farther in demoralizing students and submitting them to abuse, and I’m curious as to what sort of post-exercise lesson the students undergo. Giving students two days to treat peers as slaves is very different from a supervised two tier classroom setting, and Red Ribbon Days seem to not really do much teaching. News articles don’t point to any positives of the lesson whatsoever; there’s little supervision, some actions cause bodily harm (which has led to the current uproar, after a lawsuit was filed when a student was forced to carry another student almost double his weight), students don’t share both experiences, and the actual lesson doesn’t even address the core curriculum of teaching the Holocaust. It’s controversial and it’s dangerous. It’s also bad teaching.

Enforcing Arizona’s Progressive Constitution

Yesterday I wrote about 2/3 of a panel that I saw the Arizona Historical Society concerning the state’s constitution and its place in the progressive movement. It was interesting to hear about how groundbreaking Arizona’s founding document was and how involved labor and the progressive movement were in constructing that document, but it wasn’t entirely convincing since Arizona is so reactionary now. Arizona, after all, is the home to a slew of seemingly disastrous legislative ideas and hosts some of the most conservative state officials in the country.

The third speaker at Wednesday’s panel was Paul Bender, a law professor at ASU, who concentrated on Arizona’s State Supreme Court and explained how it had allowed – or took part in – the gradual crumbling of the state’s relatively progressive constitution. He broke his lecture into three ways in which the Court has treated the constitution: stripping it down, protecting it, and ignoring it altogether.

Direct Democracy

Bender argued that the Arizona Supreme Court was uncomfortable with the amount of direct democracy inherent in the constitution, and therefore allowed the state’s government to circumvent some of the obstacles that direct democracy created. The initiative process in the constitution allows the general public to circumvent the legislature in the lawmaking process, creating laws by popular ballot. This inherently implies that the legislature is beholden to what the people decide, however there were a number of instances in which the legislature repealed laws passed by initiative. When the issue was brought before the judicial branch, judges said they saw no issue with legislators opposing popular initiatives.

In addition, Bender explained, state legislation is not supposed to go into effect until 90 days after the legislative session ends, allowing time for the public to gather signatures for an opposing referendum if so desired. There is a provision that allows legislation to be enacted immediately during emergency situations, with 2/3 of the legislature’s approval. Often times, the legislature invokes an emergency without the grounds to do so, and when this is brought up to the courts, they deny review on the grounds that it is too political an issue.

And so we see instances in which the legislature pushes back against the control that the constitution grants the public over governance. But beyond this, we also see the judiciary stepping aside and allowing it to happen despite clear breaches of the law.

The Right to File Suit for Damages

The state of Arizona’s constitution specifically enumerates the right to sue for damages, which might seem bizarre to many. It’s as much a product of the times as the rest of the constitution – hearkening to labor’s involvement and the fear of major corporations corrupting the system. Indeed, there were some occasions of the legislation trying to limit the right to file suit through statues of limitations or restrictions on types of cases – all of which have been ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. It’s easy to see why: the judges are preserving common law precedence. Men and women trained in the ways of law are working to preserve the law as it is. This doesn’t ring of hypocrisy when compared to the relatively foreign idea of the populace creating laws on their own. Where the courts were uncomfortable with direct democracy, they were more than comfortable with civil suits – and so they protected the notion of a right to sue.

Individual Rights

The U.S. Bill of Rights specifies rights that the federal government cannot abridge. Historically, it did not apply to state governments until the Supreme Court began to implement a more activist reading of the document. It is for this reason that many states have almost identical rights included in their own state constitutions. Arizona is no different, except that the rights listed are more broad that the Bill of Rights. Take, for example, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

And compare it to the Arizona constitution’s Article II, Sections 5 and 6:

Section 5. The right of petition, and of the people peaceably to assemble for the common good, shall never be abridged.

Section 6. Every person may freely speak, write, and publish on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right.

The key difference is that the former specifies that one’s rights are protected from Congress, but makes no mention of state and local governments as well as private businesses and citizens. The latter simple states that everyone enjoys these rights – it implies that no one may abridge them. According to Bender, the Arizona Supreme Court has sometimes used to these provisions to protect people’s rights, but often defers to the more restrained precedence of the Supreme Court of the United States.

During the campaign to recall Governor Evan Mecham in 1987, campaign volunteers were prohibited from collecting signatures at some shopping malls – in Fiesta Mall Venture v. Mecham Recall Committee the state Appeals Court cited the U.S. Bill of Rights and upheld the decision, and the Supreme Court denied review. Similarly, in the case of Morton Berger, the state Supreme Court upheld his 200 year minimum sentencing for possession of child pornography, arguing that it was bound by the U.S. Supreme Court’s precedence instead of looking at the state constitution’s 8th amendment equivalent, Article 2, Section 15.

These are just some of the examples provided at the forum. It seems that the state’s judges have frequently ignored the progressive and protective provisions of the state’s constitution and instead either allow the legislature to be unaccountable or defer to the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings. It is unfortunate to see the opportunity to defend civil liberties pass by because judges choose to forget that the state’s founding document protects them. But of course, judges in Arizona can be recalled and must pass retention votes every cycle – and several Republican lawmakers have threatened to do away with the merit-based selection system. While it is important to hold judges accountable as well, some of these rulings raise the question of whether or not judges should be elected and whether or not they are serving in the interests of the state’s constitution and the people who are protected by it – the public.

Arizona’s Progressive Constitution – 100 Years Ago

Last night, I attended a forum at the Arizona Historical Society on the state’s constitution. The panel at the forum was made up of a history professor (who taught the first university class I ever took!), a law professor, and a lawyer. I wanted to paraphrase some of what was discussed, as well as reflect a bit.

Arizona on the verge of statehood in 1911.

At the forum, historian Phillip VanderMeer touched on the historical context of Arizona’s constitutional convention in 1910. State governments had shifted from a strong legislature to increasingly balanced branches of government, and at the time of Arizona’s statehood, progressive ideas were finding their way into states’ founding constitutions, revised constitutions, and amendments. At the turn of the century, Arizona’s economy was deeply influenced by railroad and mining companies, and the workers in these companies struggled to achieve rights. It was at the constitutional convention that organized labor brought ideas including an eight-hour workday, an elected state mine inspector, the prohibition of blacklists of labor leaders, and a ban on child labor – all of which made it into the constitution, along with broad progressive ideas such as initiative, referendum, recall, and direct primaries.

Paul Eckstein, a civil lawyer here in Arizona, spoke about the actual debates and influences on the constitutional convention in 1910. He explained the nature of Arizona’s divided demographics – the territorial legislature was predominantly Democrat, but the territorial governor (appointed by the President of the U.S.) was almost always Republican. Across the border, New Mexico was predominantly Republican, and so both states were admitted at the same time in the name of balance. Eckstein pointed to Arizona’s constitution’s progressiveness relative to our sister state’s founding document as well as contemporary models of statehood across the West and Midwest. He listed a number of things New Mexico’s constitution did not have, that Arizona’s did have (remember, this is in 1912, and both constitutions went into effect almost simultaneously):

  • Initiative
  • Popular Referendum
  • 2 year terms for elected officials
  • Advisory popular vote for the U.S. Senate
  • Direct primaries
  • Public campaign contribution provisions
  • State anti-trust laws
  • Progressive income tax

Some of these are clearly at the forefront of the progressive movement at the turn of the century. Arizona was talking about campaign finance, direct election of Senators, and a progressive income tax before the federal government had made any headway on these issues. Women gained suffrage in 1912, before the 19th Amendment was passed, and prohibition in 1914, five years before the 18th Amendment. President Taft opposed the right to recall judges, leading the territory to remove the provision in order to gain statehood – only to reinstate it almost immediately.

Progressive ideals, especially the idea that the government should be held accountable to the public, is clear in Arizona’s constitution. Two year terms for elected office and the ability to recall elected officials combine for a strong opportunity to keep lawmakers on tight reins. In addition, the executive branch in Arizona was very weak – he was among over a dozen elected officials in the executive and had relatively few appointment powers. The people refused to allow the legislature to run rampant without the support of the general populace.

While some Arizonans today are unfortunately supportive of the more restrictive pieces of legislation put forth in the legislature, the real problem is that the constitution is no longer recognized for what it is supposed to do – lawmakers are not answering to the public and the three branches are not utilizing checks and balances. One of the main tenets of the constitution – to hold government accountable to the public – isn’t happening anymore. Our legislators are not being scrutinized as much as they should – even in light of the recent recall of Russell Pearce.

Update: The sequel of this post, examining how the state’s courts have treated the constitution, can be found here.

A Brief History of Insanity

Sallie Gardner at a Gallop by Eadweard Muybridge.

Yesterday’s Google doodle was a brilliant celebration of photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s birthday. Muybridge is most well-known for his work in recording animals in motion, specifically the horse’s gallop – which simultaneously solved the question of the manner in which horses gallop and pissed off Governor Leland Stanford. I told my wife about it, as she loves photography and is studying art history – and because it was a really cool feature. Not only had she already seen it, she had already clicked through and perused the accompanying Wikipedia article, informing me of this interesting bit of history:

In 1874, while still living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Muybridge discovered that his young wife Flora had a lover, a Major Harry Larkyns. On 17 October, he sought out Larkyns and said, “Good evening, Major, my name is Muybridge and here’s the answer to the letter you sent my wife.” He shot and killed the major pointblank.

Muybridge was tried for murder. His defense attorney pleaded insanity due to a head injury that Muybridge had sustained following his stagecoach accident. Friends testified that the accident had dramatically changed Muybridge’s personality from genial and pleasant to unstable and erratic.

Ultimately, Muybridge’s insanity plea was dismissed, but the jury found the incident a case of justifiable homicide (which is… interesting). Regardless, we got to thinking – how early did the insanity plea enter our courtrooms? And I don’t mean convenient pleas of temporary insanity (like, say, Congressman Daniel Sickles) – Muybridge (also known as Edward James Muggeridge, Eduardo Santiago Muggeridge, and Helios) exhibited some eccentricities.

There are instances of people of unsound mind committing crimes throughout history, of course, but instances of declaring a defense of insanity took a while to reach the tenuous place we are today. In 1764 a British man named Edward Arnold was tried for shooting at Lord Onslow allegedly after he had been bewitched. He plead insanity, and it was in this case that the judge asked the jury to determine whether Arnold had the mental capacity and reason like that of a wild beast or infant – the apparent measure of insanity at the time. Arnold was found guilty and sentenced to death, a sentence which was commuted to life in prison at the behest of Onslow. In 1840, Edward Oxford tried to kill Queen Victoria and was acquitted by reason of insanity, under the notion that he could not resist the impulse to fire due to lack of mental capacity.

After an attempt to kill the British Prime Minister in 1843, a panel of judges drafted the M’Naghten Rules, which answered hypothetical questions that gave an outline of the insanity plea and its application, including that the suspect be unable to determine the difference between right and wrong or did not understand the nature of the alleged act. Most common law countries used these guidelines until the 1950s, when the American Law Institute issued the Model Penal Code that established that the defendant had to have “substantial capacity” to understand the crime and criminality in order to face trial.

Alvin Ford is escorted by a police officer. Photo from Associated Press.

After John Hinckley tried to kill President Ronald Reagan, the Insanity Defense Reform Act of 1984 was passed by Congress. Unlike the assassination attempts in England that led to updates to laws concerning the insane, Congress’ response to Reagan’s close encounter made it much harder to be found not guilty by reason of insanity, placing more stringent rules on evidence and placing the burden of proof on the defense. In 1986, the landmark Supreme Court decision Ford v. Wainwright argued that the insane cannot be executed, however in 2005 the Court upheld a state’s rights to limit expert testimony to the insanity defense (thus not qualifying to determine criminal intent) in Clark v. Arizona. There are whole states that have actually banned the insanity plea, bans which have so far been upheld in most cases.

We’ve come a long way since Dorothy Talbye was hanged after God told her to kill her daughter. But the insanity plea is actually quite rare, and very difficult to use – even when it actually applies. It’s just a small part in the overwhelming societies that marginalizes, institutionalizes, and incarcerates the mentally ill.

Civil Rights in Mad Men and Beyond

The only black character that has been on Mad Men for more than two episodes is Carla, the Draper housekeeper. That might change this season.

If you didn’t see the season premiere of Mad Men this week, you should know one thing: racism and civil rights have intruded upon Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. The show has referenced racism a few times, with Paul and Sheila going to the South to register voters, but it has never been a prominent theme like women’s role in the workplace has. It seems, however, that the fifth season could feature race quite a bit, especially if the office hires a person of color. As Tanner Colby points out, most seasons have included a major historical event (Kennedy’s election, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Kennedy’s assassination), and if this season spans about two years it could include Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

In this first episode of the season, race is treated as a problem that nobody wants to fix.  The opening scene of the premiere features a few executives at Young & Rubicam water bomb a Civil Rights protest going on outside their office,* which gets them in the papers. From there, the partners at SCDP decide to take the opportunity to rub salt on Y&R’s wounds by placing an ad in the paper declaring themselves “an equal-opportunity employer.” The boys at Y&R fire back, sending a resume and an African artifact through the door while a number of black applicants sit in the lobby.

While the premiere spends a lot of time showing how SCDP employees struggle with their home lives (with two new children, two new homes, and a new wife), the issue of race is tossed back and forth between SCDP and Y&R throughout the episode, with each agency trying to stick the other with the Civil Rights problem.

During the time in which Mad Men is set, the Civil Rights movement was often treated in the same way.  Politically, both Democrats and Republicans voted against civil rights reforms in Congress, despite Presidents of both parties putting forth piecemeal plans for reform.  Kennedy denounced the Freedom Riders for provoking violence and criticized SNCC for inciting harassment as well.  It would take James Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi and Bull Connor’s crackdown in Birmingham to force his hand.

The biggest victories for blacks, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, arguably only came about because Johnson realized that black votes were important. By and large, the rights of America’s blacks were hot potato’d until politicians realized that black votes, not black people, were something to attract and protect.  One of the boys at Y&R shouted for the protesters to get a job, then pranked SCDP into accepting resumes – neither agency actually wanted to address the problem, but in the end one had to. Most politicians during the time didn’t want to deal with the “problem” of civil rights, but were forced to. I’m definitely not an expert on civil rights history, but I think this was a recurring theme until the movement grew enough to demand attention.


* Fun fact: Young & Rubicam was actually the first ad agency to hire a black adman, Roy Eaton, and that was in 1955.