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Reading Between the Lines: What Can Testimonies of Former Slaves Tell Us about their Relationships with their Former Mistresses?

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The testimonies of formerly enslaved women reveal a great deal about their experiences and relationships formed with their former white mistresses (a term used for female slaveholders in antebellum America). My SURE project, supervised by Rosie Knight, sought to compare the testimonies of formerly enslaved women in Virginia and South Carolina recorded in the WPA Slave Narratives Collection. Comparing these states reveal the varying factors that influenced slave-mistress relations, and the weight they held in doing so. These two regions contrasted greatly in a number of ways, including economic circumstances, slaveholding sizes and geographical disposition, which in turn influenced the relationships formed between enslaved women and their mistresses.

The WPA interviews have been a hotly debated source of testimony, providing valuable insight into the experiences of formerly enslaved people from their own perspectives, but also heavily influenced by the context of the 1930s. Many participants were suffering in poverty during the Great Depression, which may have influenced more nostalgic recollections of their childhood characterised by greater economic security.

Moreover, the ruling of Jim Crow may have meant participants were intimidated by their white interviewers, and indeed expressed reluctance to say too much or ‘the worse’, as one interviewee put it. In cases such as these, their silences may be the most revealing aspect of their testimonies. From analysing these interviews, three key themes come to the fore: violence, material well-being and religion. However, the nature and extent of the influence of such factors were subject to regional variations.

The violence experienced by enslaved women was heavily dictated by regional circumstances, and greatly influenced both the relationships formed and perceptions constructed of the mistress. Slaveholdings were generally smaller in Virginia than those in South Carolina, meaning mistresses themselves would often beat and whip slaves themselves, whereas in larger slaveholdings in South Carolina, overseers usually inflicted violence upon slaves.

The personal dimension of such violence played a key role in shaping how mistresses were remembered by slaves later in life. For example, Henrietta King (VA) recalled the brutal violence she experienced at the hands of her mistress for stealing a peppermint candy when she was a child, explaining: “See dis face? See dis mouf all twist over here so’s I can’t shet it? See dat eye? All raid, aint it? … Well, ole Missus made dis face dis way.” She went on to describe her former mistress as “a common dog.”[1]

In contrast, recollections of former slaves in South Carolina tend to recall their former mistresses as justified in their violence toward them, and appear less resentful, perhaps influenced by the relatively good material conditions and religious teachings they were provided. Victoria Adams, for example, recalled: “De massa and missus was good to me but sometime I was so bad they had to whip me.”[2]

The booming slave economy of South Carolina meant enslaved people often experienced better material conditions, and the larger size of slaveholdings meant enslaved people had greater opportunities to form stable family units and networks of kinship than in Virginia, where familial separation was common due to interstate slave-trading and the tendency for smaller slaveholdings. The better conditions in South Carolina may have led to less direct resistance, and thus less violence from their mistresses. Economic decline in Virginia meant slaves often lived in abhorrent living conditions and were provided little, if anything, to eat, which led to attempts to escape or steal food.

Such conditions shaped perceptions of former mistresses, as expressed by Henrietta King:  “In de house ole Missus was so stingymean dat she didn’t put enough on de table to feed a swaller.”[3] Such a testimony illustrates the ways in which the material conditions of slaves influenced their perceptions of their mistresses, both during their enslavement and retrospectively. Moreover, located further north, Virginia slaves were more likely to reach the free states, and so may have more readily engaged in direct resistance and efforts to escape.

In South Carolina, where conditions were better, interviewees tended to remember their former mistresses as domestic and motherly women. For example, Granny Cain described her mistress as “the best white woman I know of — just like a mother to me, wish I was with her now.”[4]

Viewing nostalgic recollections of slaves within the context of the Great Depression allows us to understand how interviewees may have recalled their experiences in slavery in survival terms, as a time in which they may have had greater economic security. Fear of bad-mouthing former slaveholders, again, may have also played a role in such recollections. Moreover, many interviewees were children during slavery, and so may have had greater experiences and less responsibilities than their mothers or older siblings would have experienced.

Religion also proved to be a significant survival strategy in the experiences of enslaved women, both providing comfort and, in some cases, strengthening connections with their slaveholders. In Virginia, enslaved people appear to have received religious instruction mainly via the church and with little input from their mistress, while in South Carolina, religion and its instruction played a key role in slave-mistress relations. This led to enslaved people associating their mistress with what she taught — as pious, good and even a saviour in some cases. Josephine Stewart, for example, described one of her former mistresses as “a perfect angel, if dere ever was one on dis red earth.”[5]

The relationships formed between enslaved women and their mistresses can therefore be seen as greatly influenced by regional and economic variations across slaveholdings. The most important influences included: the violence enslaved people were subjected to, especially if this was at the hands of the mistress; the material well-being of slaves; and religious instruction. The variation of testimonies across the South points to the value of a comparative framework, signifying how experiences of enslaved women were not the same across the region and cannot be generalised. Understanding the influence regional variations had upon the experiences of enslaved people and the relationships they formed with their mistresses not only enables us to place these testimonies and their experiences in historical context, but also helps us avoid making generalisations about a topic so sensitive and complex.

Lydia Thomas is a final-year History undergraduate at the University of Sheffield. She completed the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) researching the relationships formed between enslaved women and their white female slaveholders. She focused on antebellum Virginia and South Carolina to explore how variations in regional circumstances, such as economy and slaveholding size, influenced the relationships formed and testimonies of formerly enslaved women.

Cover image: A close up of an old map of the USA, featuring Virginia and South Carolina. https://unsplash.com/photos/HA0Rgl-ISko [Accessed 24 March 2020].

[1] Henrietta King cited in Charles L. Perdue, Jr., Thomas E. Bardon and Robert K. Phillips (eds), Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves (Charlottesville, 1976), p. 190

[2] Victoria Adams, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.1, pp. 10-11

[3] Henrietta King cited in Charles L. Perdue, et al., Weevils in the Wheat, p. 190

[4] Granny Cain, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.1, p. 166

[5] Josephine Stewart, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.4, p. 152. It is important to reiterate the influence of the context on such testimonies — positive recollection may have been utilised as a means of avoiding conflict with interviewers; Mistresses also often utilised religious instruction as a form of manipulation and control, especially within the large slave-holdings of the low country, presenting themselves in a position of authority and as an agent in the salvation of the slaves

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There is No War on Christmas

(not so) Happy Holidays!

There is hardly a Christmas in memory upon which there wasn’t a war waged—or, at least, so it seems if one is tuned into American right-wing media. According to Bill O’Reilly in 2004, as a part of a plot to banish religion from the public sphere and bring forth a ‘brave new progressive world’, liberals were banning religious floats from parades and calling Christmas trees ‘holiday’ trees instead. Similar (but fewer) complaints have been made in the U.K.—say, about the use of the phrase “Winterval” instead of Christmas.  But fear not, dear reader. The great and powerful Trump has singlehandedly won the war on Christmas by making it acceptable to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again—a phrase which, according to Trump,  was never uttered publicly during the Obama years.

In reality, however, the so called ‘War on Christmas’ doesn’t exist. It never has.

Now, don’t get me wrong—there has been (what historian Stephen Nussbaum called) a battle for Christmas for centuries: a fight over how Christmas is celebrated. As Earl Count points out, December celebrations originate from pagan festivals (like Zagmuk and Saturnalia) which date back at least two thousand years before Jesus would have been born. And during the 300s, Constantine tried to Christianize these celebrations by declaring 25th December (the sun god Sol’s birthday) to be Jesus’ birthday. But it never really worked; people forgot the pagan origins sure, but throughout the middle ages (what came to be known as) Christmas was celebrated in mainly pagan ways: with drinking, feasting, and sex. It was so debaucherous, in fact, that the Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas all together.

Now, thanks to people like Clement Clarke More, Charles Dickens, and Queen Victoria, Christmas did make a comeback in the early 1800s—but when it did, it was again as secular drunken celebration. Thanks to capitalism, however, it was quickly domesticated into a holiday about giving gifts to your children (and, later, to nearly everyone you know). And once it was popular again, Christianity renewed its efforts to ‘Christianize’ it.[1] But despite what we now call it, ‘Christmas’ has never been celebrated, primarily, as a religious holiday. Christians lost that battle.

Once Christmas was popular again, however, it was very useful for vilifying one’s enemies. In the 1920s, for example, the anti-Semite Henry Ford claimed that Jews were waging a war on Christmas in his anti-Semitic tract, ‘The International Jew.’ In 1959 it was the communists that were targeted. The right-wing conspiratorial John Birch Society claimed that ‘One of the techniques now being applied by the Reds to weaken the pillar of religion in our country is the drive to take Christ out of Christmas.’ And in 1999, it was right-wing pundit (and founder of the hate group VDare.com) Peter Brimelow complaining about liberals using phrases like ‘Happy Holidays’ and government Christmas parties being called ‘A Celebration of Holiday Traditions.’ Of course, the phrase ‘Happy Holidays’ is just a short way to reference all the holidays celebrated in December and January. It dates back to at least 1863, and was popular (and uncontroversial) in the ‘30s and ‘40s—especially after the song ‘Happy Holiday(s)appeared in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn. But today, it’s use is viewed as ‘political correctness gone mad.’

The idea that there is a liberal war on Christmas really took flight in 2005 with the publication of John Gibson’s book The War On Christmas: How The Liberal Plot To Ban The Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought and with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly becoming obsessed with the idea that December—and (along with Fox News) remaining obsessed with it pretty much every December since. But, in reality, none of the events that they saw as ‘shots across the bow’ in this war actually occurred.  As I point out in the second chapter of my book The Myths that Stole Christmas, religious floats were not being systematically banned from parades. No school in Plano, Texas banned the colors red and green during Christmastime. [2] Ridgeway Elementary School in Dodgeville, Wisconsin didn’t change the lyrics to ‘Silent Night’ to eliminate all references to religion.[3]  And while it’s true that Democratic Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee didn’t call the tree in the Rhode Island Statehouse a ‘Christmas tree’ in 2011, neither did the Republican governor Donald Carcieri from 2003 to 2010…and yet Fox News never made a peep.

It’s true, of course, that Walmart once encouraged (but did not require) its greeters to say ‘Happy Holidays’ (instead of ‘Merry Christmas’) because not all their customers celebrate Christmas. And there have been a number of lawsuits in response to courthouses or other government entities (like schools) putting up lone nativity scenes or otherwise favoring Christian ways of celebrating. But such actions do not constitute a war on Christmas. They are simply efforts to be more inclusive, and (in the latter cases) to protect against violations of the separation of church and state enshrined in the constitution. But there has never, ever, been any effort to make the celebration of Christmas, or the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’, illegal.

This, of course, hasn’t stopped people from trying to capitalize on the idea that there has. Rick Perry cited it as part of ‘Obama’s war on Religion’ in a 2010 campaign ad. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich did something similar during the 2012 Republican campaign. And, of course, Donald Trump cited the ‘War on Christmas’ numerous times during his 2016 campaign. Indeed, he (and his family) have been taking a victory lap ever since (2017, 2018, 2019) by declaring that he ended the war by allowing everyone to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again. This is why, without any evidence at all, or any clarity about what he meant, Trump this year declared that liberals are now waging a war on Thanksgiving. Declaring that your political enemies are waging a war on things that are universally loved is just too useful for vilifying them.[4]

Before you fall for it, however, realize: in 2005, when he was raging about the liberal War on Christmas, Bill O’Reilly’s website was selling ‘holiday ornaments’ to hang on your ‘holiday tree’, and the Bush White House wished everyone a ‘Happy Holiday Season’ in their ‘holiday card.’ And today, despite all the rhetoric, Trump’s online store has a ‘holiday gift guide’, a ‘holiday collection’, and wishes people ‘Happy Holliday’s’ [sic], and avoids the term Christmas altogether. The same is true in Trump Tower, where the word ‘Christmas’ is nowhere to be found.

In reality, the only wars on Christmas that have ever been waged were waged by Christians, either to Christianize it (like Constantine) or shut it down (like the puritans). But just one look around this December will show that these wars were the most unsuccessful wars in all of history. [5] Not only is Christmas celebrated in mostly secular ways, but in our society (unlike in Trump Tower) Christmas is literally everywhere—taking over the calendar and our entire economy for over a month every year. If there was a war on Christmas…Christmas won.

David Kyle Johnson is Professor of Philosophy at King’s College (PA) and author of the book ‘The Myths that Stole Christmas: Seven Misconceptions that Hijacked that Holiday. His latest book, Black Mirror and Philosophy: Dark Reflections, is available now. You can find him on Twitter @kyle8425

[1] By, for example, falsely declaring Jesus to be the ‘reason for the season’.

[2] Other towns where this supposedly happened include Saginaw Township, Michigan and Orlando, Florida. None of the stories are true. All the schools in question proved as much by posting their guidelines online.

[3] In reality, a church choir director had changed the lyrics to make them easier for children to learn.

[4] Indeed, the stories that circulate about the war on Christmas are part of a larger, absolutely false, ‘Christian victimization narrative’ that tries to paint Christians as a persecuted minority.

[5] And the only causalities were these poor birds.

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Can a single piece of material culture represent the American experience of the Great Depression?

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Exhibitions as a genre rely on representational history; they rely on an object or a constrained collection to represent a much larger set of ideas. Following my study of exhibitions on the Great Depression, I have at times been asked if there is a single object, person, image or event that might best represent the American experience of the Great Depression. The 90th anniversary of the Wall Street Crash, a key event in the onset of the Depression, seems a fitting occasion to once again reflect on this question. My answer is yes, but the object is not one that anyone expects and it is not one that I’ve ever actually found in an exhibition on the Great Depression.

When the National Museum of American History was being renovated (2006-2008) the Smithsonian Institution staged a ‘Treasures’ exhibition. Within that exhibition, the case on the Great Depression held Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, the radio mic from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ‘Fireside Chats’, and substitute currency made of shells. Certainly a strong argument could be made for either of the first two iconic objects taking on the mantle of THE Depression-era material/visual culture.

Radios have been a regular, almost omnipresent inclusion in the exhibitions on the Depression that I’ve analysed, and with good reason. Radios can be used to interpret a range of narratives for museum audiences.  For example, during the Great Depression, radio was the conduit for reassurances sought and offered through the ‘Fireside Chats’ and the soap operas alike. The popularity of shows such as Amos’n’Andy, in which stereotypical black characters were played by white actors in a form of audio blackface, provides insight into the racism inherent in American society at the time.  But within an exhibition a radio must be turned on or explained to fully convey its power. It lacks the silent gravitas of the FSA photographs.

So perhaps Lange’s Migrant Mother is a better choice. Certainly it is a recognizable, emotional Depression moment captured by a skilled artist, who, at the time, was employed by one of the largest federal relief efforts in history. Yet even Migrant Mother and the other FSA images come laden with the weight of decades of being repurposed, reframed, recut.

There is a strong argument that rather than adopting a single iconic object, it is better to embrace the juxtaposition found in the best exhibitions and the dialectic between objects: a photograph, a radio broadcast, a soup-kitchen kettle, plans from a New Deal housing project, a union badge, a Federal Theatre playbill, a copy of the Grapes of Wrath or Tobacco Road. All of these have been used in combination to great effect in various exhibitions on the era.  Yet, despite the fact that it is yet to appear in any exhibition I have visited, I believe there remains one potential object that more fully captures America during the Great Depression.

Conducting the research on museum exhibitions involved travelling from California to Michigan, to New York, to Washington D.C., to Seattle.  All these flights, bus rides and train trips in turn spawned numerous brief conversations with temporary travelling companions. The exchanges usually began with “What brings you to…?” Upon hearing mention of the Great Depression, a surprising number related that their grandmother, or uncle, or next-door-neighbor had lived through the Depression, and for years afterward kept an ever-growing ball of string. Small pieces were collected and preserved, with little concern to color or weave, as insurance against some ill-defined, ill-articulated future disaster.

As bad a crisis as the Great Depression proved to be, for the majority of Americans, it did not result homelessness, or breadlines, or a job with WPA. But it did entail a pervasive sense  of uncertainty and vulnerability and a fear that one could be next. Even as the crisis seemed to ebb, there was a fear that the effects could spread further and devour those homes, those workplaces, as yet untouched. These balls of twine, hidden in kitchen pantries and workbench drawers are the material culture of the lasting effects of uncertainly, of fear, of exposure to risk and of attempts, however small, to mitigate that exposure.  As such, even more than the radio, or the FSA images or a hundred other powerful objects, these are quintessential objects of the American experience of the Great Depression.

Dr Meighen Katz’s research interests include urban history, architectural conservation, built heritage, transgressive women & visual culture.  Currently a Heritage Assessments Advisor for Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, she formerly served as the Ian Potter Museum of Art Grimwade Curator, and lectured at several universities in Melbourne, Australia. Her book, Narratives of Vulnerability in Museums (Routledge) was published in 2019.

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Party Politics, Realignment and Brexit: Can the American Civil War Teach us Anything?

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A recurring historical analogy in discussions of Brexit over the past few months has been the Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel’s decision to back repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. In lowering the price of grain, he split his party: an eventuality that Jacob Rees Mogg, among others, has warned Theresa May to avoid. At the very same moment Peel was driving a wedge through the Tories, though, another telling comparison to our present condition was taking shape across the Atlantic, where the future of U.S. land annexed from Mexico brought the question of slavery to the fore of electoral politics, and eventually led to the Civil War of 1861-65.

Like Europe, the ‘slavery question’ in the United States provides a case in point as to how the most divisive of issues can be shielded from party politics, yet how, with remarkable suddenness, they can come to occupy the centre of political debate.

To see battles over slavery and Europe as historical equivalents, of course, would be deeply problematic. Whatever the stakes in the current crisis the human toll pales into insignificance when set against the fate of the four million black southerners forcibly held as property across the US South. But the political dynamics, at least, bear some striking similarities.

Prior to 1846, slavery, much like the Europe question before the referendum, stood on the margins of American party politics. Despite the herculean efforts of black and white abolitionists to make it the great issue of the day, neither of the major political parties had any interest in challenging the status quo. Both the Whigs and the Democrats, after all, had been vying for votes from nearly all-white electorates in the North and South ever since the heyday of so-called ‘Jacksonian Democracy’ in the 1830s. To mobilise around either the expansion or extirpation of slavery would have alienated citizens in one section or the other.

Politicians for sure often had strong feelings about the enslavement of black southerners, and would say as much in their own states, but when it came to fighting national elections the parties were non-committal at best. It was a stance that all but guaranteed slavery’s perpetuation. No wonder many abolitionists saw party politics as a dead end.

Slavery, like Europe in British politics then, divided the parties internally prior to the 1850s, but did not automatically produce what political scientists refer to as a ‘realignment’. Attempts to turn American politics into a battle between anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces initially failed as the third parties of abolitionists and their southern critics flickered into life before quickly burning out… In a distorted way, such endeavours resemble the efforts of organizations like UKIP, insofar as they placed pressure on the major parties without forcing a redrawing of party lines. The survival of the Second Party System, as it was known, depended on silencing slavery as a subject of debate. When, from roughly the mid-1850s onwards, that no longer proved possible, the political landscape quickly changed beyond recognition. Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860 as the figurehead of a new, antislavery Republican Party underscored the transformation. Within a few months southern whites formed their breakaway slaveholding republic.

To understand the roots of the American Civil War we, therefore, need to explain that party realignment. How did slavery move from the margins of American party politics to become its central divide? In the simplest terms, historians have tended to fall into one of two camps to answer that question: ‘fundamentalists’, who see slavery slowly but surely undermining the foundations of the Second Party System, and the ‘revisionists,’ who blame either blundering politicians or political dynamics for the collapse.

The latter often hone in on the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854: legislation that opened new territory to slaveholders and prompted the formation of the Republican Party. At first glance, a brazen attempt to extend slavery, the measure, on closer scrutiny, can be seen as a ploy on the part of the northern Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas to resolve a political impasse in his party.[1]

Eager to secure southern Democrats’ support for a transcontinental railroad from his home state of Illinois, he offered slaveholders the sop of new territory, while reasoning that soil and climate would prevent them from migrating in sufficient numbers to seize it. By making slavery extension a question for white voters in territories to determine themselves, Douglas believed the divisive issue could be depoliticized at the national level. The result was precisely the opposite: guerrilla warfare soon broke out in ‘Bleeding Kansas’ and within a few years electoral politics was pitting North v. South.

When it comes to the Civil War, I lean more towards the fundamentalist line. But if such categories were transposed to Brexit I’d be more inclined to revisionism. The Europe question has simmered in British politics since the 1970s, and has divided both major parties, but it required miscalculations on part of clever politicians to bring it to a raging boil. For Stephen Douglas and the Kansas Nebraska Act in 2016 read David Cameron and the referendum of 2016. Both were seemingly clever manoeuvres to resolve internal party conflict that had unforeseen consequences. The political fallout of Brexit, though, is harder to discern.

Even amid the current chaos, the national parties most united on Europe – UKIP, the Greens, and the Liberal Democrats – languish in the polls. No realignment has remade British politics into a struggle between pro- and anti-European parties, and for now at least, the old party lines just about hold. But will that be the case over the next few months? Once slavery did become the major issue in American politics between 1846 and 1854, it quickly tore apart the established parties. Nothing short of a revolutionary war could resolve it. That eventuality may be improbable here, but the party system we have grown up with may not long endure.

Andrew Heath is a lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield, where he teaches a third-year special subject on the origins of the American Civil War. His book, In Union There Is Strength: Philadelphia in the Age of Urban Consolidation, will be published by University of Pennsylvania Press in February.

[1] Though ‘fundamentalists’ would quite rightly point out that Douglass was responding to pressure from his southern slaveholding colleagues in the Democratic Party.

 

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Abstinence or moderate drinking? Reflecting on the U.S. Prohibition in Britain

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On 18 December 1917, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was put forward in the United States Senate, stipulating a federal ban on the production, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages. Upon its enforcement in January 1920, the Prohibition era, lasting to its eventual repeal in 1933, saw the culmination of the century-long battle against liquor by the temperance movement.

Alongside America, Canada, Norway, and Finland already moved to implement a similar nationwide ban on alcohol. Britain, on the other hand, was one of the few exceptions, being among the nations where alcohol was historically politicised for not undergoing total prohibition. Comparing British and American experiences reveals that approaches to alcohol regulation have been shaped by assumed ideals about how one should, or shouldn’t, drink. The alcohol debate in the early 20th century was defined by the question on whether the promotion of abstinence was truly preferable over moderation, a disagreement that has recently experienced a noticeable comeback in Britain.

The significance of the circumstances surrounding the First World War cannot be understated when looking at the Prohibition as a global trend. Reflecting on the disruptive effects that drunkenness had had on mobilisation during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5, the Russian Empire ceased all production and sale of vodka following the outbreak of war in July 1914. Before formally entering the war in April 1917, temperance groups like the Anti-Saloon League had already succeeded in banning the sale of alcohol in large sections of the United States. Eventually, wartime conditions led to the implementation of Prohibition at a federal level.

Britain also enacted its own set of countermeasures against the disruption caused by alcohol on the war effort. In the summer of 1915, Lloyd George established the Central Control Board (CCB) as a branch of the state intended to regulate the liquor trade. Aside from enforcing higher beverage duties and shorter opening hours for pubs, the CCB enacted a set of innovative policies to achieve its goals. These included a ban on ‘treating’ (buying drinks for anyone other than yourself), the installation of canteens in munitions factories to rival drinking establishments, and the nationalisation of pubs and off-licenses in regions pivotal to the war economy.

The Board’s perceived success in reducing consumption was among the primary reasons why prohibition was never implemented in Britain. The discovery that widespread drunkenness could be tamed by controlling the distribution of alcohol led many to dismiss a total ban as being unnecessarily disruptive. Medical expertise also played a key role in such debates. Evidence derived from wartime clinical and psychological research showed that, while excessive consumption was clearly detrimental to health, moderate drinking had negligible effects on the body. To many contemporaries, this indicated that legislation should promote moderation instead of total abstinence.

Hence, individual stances in the Prohibition debate were very much determined by whether one believed it was necessary to eliminate all consumption or to encourage moderate drinking. The support for a nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol in Britain and America alike was founded on the assumption that moderation was insufficient to solving the problems of drunkenness and alcoholism in society.

Indeed, recent discussions on alcohol policy in Britain have uncovered renewed tensions between these two assumptions. In 2016, in response to a new set of studies that tied moderate drinking to several cancers, the official UK guidelines on alcohol consumption were lowered to a meagre 14 units a week (equivalent to 7 pints of low-strength beer) for both men and women. In light of the new evidence, the Chief Medical Officer for England declared that ‘drinking any level of alcohol carries a health risk to anyone’.[i] Although moderation is still seen as an ideal, some observers have noted that the growing realisation that there is no actual safe level of drinking hint at the resurgence of total abstinence as a legitimate policy goal in the 21st century.

Ryosuke Yokoe is a historian of medicine at the University of Sheffield, studying the history of alcohol and disease in twentieth-century Britain. He is currently working as a research assistant under Professor Julie Gottlieb for the Wellcome Trust Seed Award project, Suicide, Society and Crisis. His twitter handle is @RyoYokoe1

[i] Quote from the Department of Health (2016), ‘New alcohol guidelines show increased risk of cancer’, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-alcohol-guidelines-show-increased-risk-of-cancer (last accessed 4 September 2016).

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40 years later: How We Talk About Jonestown and Why it Matters

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On November 18, 1975, over 900 members of The Peoples Temple died in mass murder/suicide in “Jonestown,” a colony they had built in the jungles of Guyana.  Jonestown remains one of the most disturbing and perplexing events in study of contemporary religion.  While sociologists and religion scholars have spent decades analyzing the factors that contributed to this tragedy, the public has often regarded it as a simplistic, even risible, event.  Not only has a complex event been dismissed with facile explanations, but these facile explanations have become a lens through which contemporary controversies are regarded.

The violent end of Jonestown was the culmination of years of paranoia toward the U.S. government and the forces of racism and capitalism stoked by the Temple’s leader, Jim Jones.  After the murder of Congressman Leo Ryan, who had arrived the previous day to inspect “Jonestown,” the end of the colony was imminent.  Facing the destruction of everything they had built and fearing their children would be taken and “brainwashed” by capitalists, the community’s leaders decided to enact a plan of “revolutionary suicide” by consuming a cocktail of Flavor-aid, cyanide, and other drugs.  While many drank this substance willingly, it was also squirted into the mouths of children with syringes and there is evidence that some were forcibly injected.

Jonestown occurred within the larger cultural context of “the cult wars.”  U.S. immigration laws changed in 1965, allowing an influx of people from South Asia and East Asia that brought with it such new religions as the Unification Church (founded in 1954 by Sun Myung Moon) and the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (founded in 1966 by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada).  Combined with the counter-culture of the 1960s, it seemed to some Americans that religious “cults” were suddenly taking over the country.  Many medicalized these new religions, claiming that converting to them amounted to a sort of disease of the mind.

“Brainwashing,” a term popularized by the Cold War, became a lens through which these new religions were understood.  The tragedy at Jonestown energized the “anti-cult movement.”  Critics of new religious movements felt that all their claims about mind-control and the inherent destructiveness of these groups had been proven correct.  Unfortunately, this narrative hindered more rigorous analysis of why the event happened and led to unwarranted stigmatising of new religions.

In time, the Jonestown massacre became metonymy for the idea of mind-controlled people.  The phrase “drink the Kool-aid”––in addition to being historically inaccurate––became a way of dismissing someone’s worldview by framing it as illegitimate and unworthy of debate.  Rebecca Moore, who lost two sisters in Guyana, notes that Jonestown has become a way of talking about any community deemed deviant or destructive and implying it will come to a similar end.  In a recent essay, she coined the term “Jones’s Corollary to Godwin’s Law.”  “Godwin’s Law” states that, “[A]s online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison to Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”

In most (but not all) arguments, invoking the Nazis and the Holocaust creates such an extreme comparison that it stifles analysis.  Jones’ Corollary holds that discussion of new religious movements begins with a comparison to Jonestown, presenting the most extreme example as somehow commonplace.  ISIS has been interpreted through the lens of Jonestown.  In 2013, when conservative Pundit Glenn Beck announced his plans to build a community called Independence, U.S.A., it was immediately decried as “the next Jonestown.”

These comparisons matter.  Discussing the 1993 immolation of the Branch Davidian headquarters in Waco, Texas, anti-cult psychologist Margaret Singer wrote, “For me, Waco was a replay of Jonestown.”  During a standoff between the Branch Davidians and federal authorities, speculation that the Branch Davidians were planning a “mass suicide” similar to the one in Jonestown was a factor in the decision to end negotiations and attempt a “dynamic entry.”  Equating Waco with Jonestown became a self-fulfilling prophecy as the dynamic entry set the stage for the fires that ultimately killed 83.  Forty years later, we have far more data about what happened at Jonestown, yet we still invoke facile explanations of the tragedy that are not only insensitive but potentially dangerous.

Joseph Laycock is an assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University and a co-editor of the journal Nova Religio. His research interests include American religious history, new religious movements, and moral panic. You can find Joseph on twitter via @joe_laycock

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