THE GUARDED GATE: BIGOTRY, EUGENICS, AND THE LAW THAT KEPT TWO GENERATIONS OF JEWS, ITALIANS, AND OTHER EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS OUT OF AMERICA by Daniel Okrent

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(Ellis Island, NY)

Recently I learned that the Trump administration finally concluded a tariff deal with Mexico which had a number of components related to illegal immigration into the United States.  Apart from Trump’s stupefying rhetoric surrounding his “wall” and other asinine comments like, “why are we having so many people from these shithole countries come here,” immigration and race have become litmus tests for certain politicians.  This political atmosphere in the United States makes Daniel Okrent’s new book, THE GUARDED GATE: BIGOTRY, EUGENICS, AND THE LAW THAT KEPT TWO GENERATIONS OF JEWS, ITALIANS, AND OTHER EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS OUT OF AMERICA an important contribution to the background history of our current views of people who are trying to escape tyranny and poverty and come to the United States.  Okrent focuses on what he describes as the “perverse form of ‘science’ [that] gave respectability to the drastic limits Imposed on the number of Jews, Italians, Greeks, Poles, and various other eastern or southern Europeans seeking to come to America between 1924 and 1965.”  It is during this period that some of the arguments and attitudes concerning immigration were formed that still impact us today.

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(Massachusetts Senator, Henry Cabot Lodge)

Okrent’s narrative is scary as it points to the pseudo-science and ignorance employed from the late 19th century that is still exists today.  His history of the eugenics movement and its role in passing the Johnson-Reed  Act of 1924 is very disconcerting as it reflects the racism and bigotry that dominated American thought throughout the period, including historical figures ranging from Margaret Sanger to Woodrow Wilson.  Okrent points out that the key to the development of these ideas was the growing belief that the United States was being overrun by immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who brought certain traits and attitudes that would blend negatively with the American population.  As millions poured into the United States between 1890 and 1910 politicians like Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the epitome of Brahmin superiority led the fight to keep these people from entering the United States through legislation that featured literacy tests and other obstacles.  This movement which fostered the Immigration Restrictive League (IRL) which came about in 1894 rested on the works of other Boston types who would come up short in passing their agenda until after World War I.  Once the war ended fears of these immigrants centered on labor union unrest, political radicalism, and racial conflict.  In the end it was Senator Albert Johnson with the assistance of eugenics and anti-immigration elements who was able to gain the passage of restrictive legislation in 1924 that would stem the tide.

In providing a general history of the eugenics movement and its marriage to immigration restriction from 1890 onward, Okrent zeroes in on the development of their convoluted ideas and the diverse personalities who came to be at the forefront of the movement.  A number of individuals emerge that moved the process forward.  In addition to politicians like Lodge who stoked American xenophobia from the 1890s onward as he took on the role of evangelist and propagandist from anti-immigration forces, Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson also became proponents of many of the racial theories related to Hungarians, Italians, Jews, Poles and others that were propagated.

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(Charles Davenport)

What is fascinating is how people bought into these ideas and concepts of racial breeding and how the United States was committing “racial suicide” by allowing these ethnic groups to enter. Okrent’s narrative provides a who’s who of those who advocated the selective breeding of human populations to improve their genetic composition.  Okrent reviews the ideas of Francis Galton who coined the term eugenics in 1883, Charles Darwin, the French anti-Semite Count Arthur de Gobineau, Houston Stewart Chamberlain a proponent of Aryan superiority, and William Z. Ripley, all popular authors in the late 19th century.

Okrent takes it further as he traces the further development of these ideas through the works and ideas of Charles Davenport, a prominent biologist and leading spokesperson for the eugenics movement who set up his “racial laboratory” in Cold Harbor, NY, funded at the outset by Mary Harriman, the heir to the railroad fortune.  In addition, +he focuses on James H. Pattern, an effective congressional lobbyist for the IRL;  Edward A. Ross, the author of THE OLD WORLD AND THE NEW that merged eugenics and xenophobia doubling down on the inferiority of Slavs;  Madison Grant, zoologist, lawyer and author of THE RACIAL BASIS OF EUROPEAN HISTORY;  Henry Goddard’s famed Kallikak study convinced thirty states to pass legislation to impose forced sterilization on the “feebleminded;” and lastly Harry H. Laughlin who directed the Eugenics Records Office who advocated for the “involuntary sterilization of defectives.”

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(Harry Laughlin)

What is even more disconcerting is the list of the pillars of society Okrent uncovers that supported these ideas.  The reputable publishing company, Charles A. Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins helped publish the works of a coterie of eugenicists that included Lothrop Stoddard’s THE RISING TIDE OF COLOR AGAINST WHITE WORLD SUPEREMACY, that became a best seller and went through fifteen reprints (interestingly Scribner’s published Okrent’s history).  Samuel Gompers the head of the American Federation of Labor.  The Saturday Evening Posts editor  George Horace Lorimer published stories of the pariahs that threatened American society, even Eleanor Roosevelt, reflecting her aristocratic origins held negative racial views until she grew more intellectually mature and worldly.

Okrent’s work is punctuated with documentary excerpts of the work of prominent eugenicists and their opponents.  He has drilled down in his analysis of their “quackery” and has a firm handle on his source material.  The narrative is excellent considering the topic, particularly how the Johnson-Reed Act became law, especially Johnson and company manipulated census and immigration figures to create quotas and the resulting impact on American history for decades to the detriment of millions. Historian, Linda Gordon writes; “previous immigration restrictions targeted particular groups — notably people from Asia — but this comprehensive law aimed not just to limit immigration but to preserve white Protestant dominance in America. It assigned a quota to each nation, ranging from 51,000 for Germany to 2,000 for Russia to 1,100 for the entire African continent.” (New York Times, “The Last Time a Wall Went Up to Keep Out Immigrants,” by Linda Gordon, May 20, 2019)

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(Fairfield H. Osborn)

What is shocking throughout the book is Okrent’s ability to explore the ideology of eugenics providing primary evidence of their views.  For example, Fairfield H. Osborn, paleontologist and teacher of Mary Harriman told delegates to the National Immigration Conference held in New York City in 1923 that army testing of soldiers during World War I showed 6,346,856 immigrants were “inferior or very inferior.”  He commented further that “if the army tests served to show clearly to our people the lack of intelligence in our country, and the degrees of intelligence of different races who are coming to us [then] I believe those tests were worth what the war cost, even in human life.”  Erwin Baur, Eugen Fischer, and Fritz Lenz, the authors of the definitive text on German eugenics, HUMAN HEREDITY AND RACE HYGIENE argued further that the “Nordic race marches in the vanguard of mankind.”  Interestingly in 1924 Adolf Hitler, then an inmate at Landsberg Prison in Bavaria found the book useful “jailhouse reading.” (322)

The title of Okrent’s narrative, THE GUARDED GATE was inspired by an 1895 poem by the Boston patrician Thomas Bailey Aldrich, a leading restrictionist. Aldrich would have none of Emma Lazarus’s words, chiseled into the Statue of Liberty, welcoming “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Writing in a mode more like Donald Trump, Aldrich warned:

Wide open and unguarded stand our gates,

And through them passes a wild motley throng ...

O Liberty, white Goddess! Is it well

To leave the gates unguarded? (Washington Post, “When the Government Used Bad Science to Restrict Immigration,” by David Hollinger, May 24, 2019)

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(Maxwell Perkins)

Okrent has taken on an important historical topic as George Santayana has warned “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  It took the rise and fall of Nazi Germany discredit eugenics in the United States, but even in 1952 with the McCarran-Walter Act Washington continued to show its preference for people from northwestern Europe.  It would take until 1965 to drop that preference.  With a president who calls for the immigration of whites from countries like Norway as opposed to Hispanic types one must wonder where American immigration is headed for today – is race still the major qualification?

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THE TRUTH ABOUT TRUMP by Michael D’Antonio

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This morning I spent an inordinate amount of time reading the MUELLER REPORT.  It is not my purpose to recount what was divulged, but what concerns me most is the dysfunction that exists at the pinnacle of our government.  What does it say about us as a people, and what does it say about the man who is responsible for trying to block American citizens from learning about Russian penetration of our elections, his refusal to even accept that it occurred, and the fact that his administration refuses to take any action to secure our elections for the future.  Denial is one thing, but outright deception and overt lying is another.  So, one must ask what type of individual would use the American electoral process as a “branding opportunity,” and upon learning of the appointment of the Special Counsel from then Attorney-General Jeff Sessions responds that “Oh my god, this is terrible.  This is the end of my presidency.  I’m fucked.”*  The answers to these questions are provided in Michael D’Antonio’s book, THE TRUTH ABOUT TRUMP.

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To D’Antonio’s credit his narrative is based on thorough research and he even had access to Donald Trump  until he started interviewing people who were critical of him.  He has written an entertaining and fair biography and has created the foundation for several books that have followed his publication which repeatedly cite his work.  Whether you have read TRUMP REVEALED by Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher, THE MAKING OF DONALD TRUMP by David Cay Johnston, or TRUMP NATION: THE ART OF BEING THE DONALD, by Timothy L. O’Brien they all tell similar stories and anecdotes and all seem to agree on their characterization of Trump’s early life, career, business practices and philosophy, personal life including his marriages and affairs. However, what sets D’Antonio’s book apart is the detail provided and his ability to integrate the political and economic history of New York City and its unique personalities like Mayors Ed Koch, Abe Beame, and John Lindsay as well as Trump’s mentor Roy Cohn among many other fascinating characters throughout his narrative.  In addition, the author places the Trump family and wealth in the context of American history, going as far as comparing the post 1980s to the Gilded Age of the 19th century as he discusses Trump’s life in the context of broader social, psychological and technological trends throughout the 20th century.

As part of his discussion of New York’s economic crisis of the post 1960 period, D’Antonio describes the urban decay and blight that began to affect Brooklyn, the home base of Trump’s father’s wealth and operations.  Trump was very perceptive as he witnessed white flight to the suburbs, civil rights violence, and the poverty endemic to New York’s economic collapse.  Trump realized that this situation depressed real estate values and that a move to Manhattan could be very profitable.  Trump would be at the forefront of trying to displace the poor and middle class in Manhattan who lived in rent-controlled apartments as he sought to turn buildings into expensive condominiums which he will accomplish over a period of years greatly enhancing his wealth into the 1980s.

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(Coney Island – Brooklyn, NY)

If there is a failing in D’Antonio’s approach is that in addition to the amount of detail pertaining to Trump’s lifestyle and accumulation of wealth are his constant tangents.  The author will be describing any one of many complications associated with Trump’s business dealings and other affairs and then will turn to a full accounting of the lives of other individuals’ attendant to the original discussion I.e., Liz Smith, the gossip columnist, Ed Koch’s biography, or discussing what made a man sexy in the 1980s according to Playgirl magazine or any number of other seemingly  irrelevant digressions.

One of the more interesting aspects of D’Antonio’s methodology is his dissection of Trump’s financial dealings, the creation of his fortune, his dance with insolvency and bankruptcy, and his economic recovery.  D’Antonio delves into various financial transactions dating back to Fred Trump and how he took advantage of Lehrenkrouss and Company, a Brooklyn Mortgage Company in the 1930s; Donald Trump’s manipulation of New York bankers, politicians, and others to acquire various properties including the Commodore and Plaza Hotels; how Trump was able to wedge himself into the casino industry in Atlantic City and the fallout from those  transactions; and his success in branding so many buildings with his name.  Other interesting chapters deal with Trump’s battle with author Tim O’Brien over his book TRUMPNATION that argued that “the Donald’s” wealth was far below what Trump stated.  What follows is a detailed description of the legal battle that ensued.  In similar fashion D’Antonio relates the battle over Trump University that would lead to a financial settlement for many of the students that were fleeced.

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D’Antonio describes Trump’s early years, most importantly the impact his father had upon him and how he wanted to mirror Fred’s business tactics.  Another important component of Trump’s upbringing was his experience at the New York Military Academy, where under the auspices of Major Theodore Dobias cadets were instilled with a feeling of confidence that would propel them through life with a sense that they deserved great success because the academy made them better than everyone else.  Trump took his father’s lessons and his experiences under Dobias to heart to create the foundation of the narcissistic personality that would dominate his adulthood that emphasized winning at all costs and avenging those who were critical of him.  Further lessons were learned from Roy Cohn, Trump’s lawyer for many years who believed in stalling, duplicity, threats, law suits, and never admitting that you made an error.   In dealing with the origin of and later manifestation of Trump’s need to be the best at everything, no matter how insignificant, D’Antonio is correct in arguing that it is not important that Trump lies per say, but he actually believes the lies that he tells and then acts upon them – the mark of a truly disturbed personality.

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What is clear from D’Antonio’s biography and numerous other books pertaining to Trump’s journey in life is that he spent a lifetime constructing his personal image.  When that façade is threatened by a negative comment or something or someone, he perceives to be untoward he goes ballistic and seeks revenge employing the “Roy Cohn/Roger Stone” strategy.  What is interesting today as Trump fumes and derides people who worked in his administration who testified for the Special Counsel, the White House is filled with fear from presidential retribution.  If one compares his behavior today with the collapse of his casino empire and fear of bankruptcy in the early 1990s it is the same, even to the point of blaming his financial debacle on three of his executives who were killed in a helicopter crash who had helped administer the Atlantic City hotels and casinos.

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Trump is the master of self-promotion and much of his wealth is tied to his brand not his ability to make “deals.” Trump figured out that fortune and fame go together, and superficiality is more important than substance, the result is that he is the epitome of both concepts.  As other authors have also argued D’Antonio is clear that Trump is a classic case of narcissism.  Narcissists enjoy conflict and will exaggerate or obfuscate to gain the upper hand, a strategy that Trump has pursued in political, business, and personal conflicts that he has either caused or exacerbated when the opportunity presented itself as he views publicity whether good or bad, as good.

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No one should be surprised at the type of President Trump is, the signs were clear long before he ran for the White House and we are now experiencing the fallout from the admonitions of authors, reporters, and Trump associates  about before the 2016 election. Perhaps D’Antonio is correct as he portrays Trump in the context of what Christopher Lasch developed in his 1979 book, THE CULTURE OF NARCISSISM: AMERICAN LIFE IN AN AGE OF DIMINISHING EXPECTATIONS – “Trump represented….the pathology of our age.”  Our society, in part may be responsible for the creation of a Trumpian character as it evolved over the decades, now we reap its benefits!

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THE LIBRARY BOOK by Susan Orlean

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(April 28, 1986 Los Angeles Central Library City Fire)

“Writing a book, just like building a library, is an act of sheer defiance.

It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory.” (93)

 

People can acquire many types of addictions.  Mine, happens to be books and libraries and it is a very difficult “affliction” to accommodate.  Despite the digital age, there are books everywhere.  New, old, they seem to proliferate mercilessly, the temptation seems to rise each day.  When I came across Susan Orlean’s new book, THE LIBRARY BOOK I knew that I once again had to confront my disease.  In the end, Orlean has written a wonderful ode to libraries and books.  Her subject revolves around the April 28, 1986 fire that destroyed about 500,000 volumes and damaged another 700,000 books, in addition to microfilm, special collections, and an unsettling amount of other materials at the Los Angeles Central Library.  Her narrative is a combination of historical fact, and a deeply personal emotional experience as she describes her own childhood visiting libraries with her mother and doing the same with her son.  Orleans provides a concise history of the Central Library and how the city of Los Angeles responded to the crisis the day of the fire, and how it tried to cope and rebuild from the loss.  As Billie Connor, a children’s librarian described after she and others entered the building immediately after the LAFD put the fire out; “they felt like they died and gone to see if Dante knew what he was writing about.” (34)

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For Orlean the motivating factor in writing THE LIBRARY BOOK was emotive as she realized she was losing her mother to dementia.  Her mother who had imbued her with the love of libraries is recognized as Orlean composes her narrative to try and preserve her memories of her mother from when she was a child.

Orlean’s approach is rather eclectic and comprehensive at the same time.  She provides wonderful character portraits which add to our understanding of the role that libraries play in our communities.  One individual stands out, that of John Szabol, the head of the Central Library system of Los Angeles who early in his career acquired the nickname,  “Conan the Librarian.”  Szabol views libraries as serving many functions in addition to the dissemination of books.  During disasters they serve as a community center to assist displaced people.  Libraries are one of the few places where the homeless are welcomed and given access to computers, the internet, and if they want “dally” all day.  Szabol dispatch of mobile bookmobiles to homeless areas are among the many programs to assist the public that went beyond the traditional library.

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Character portraits abound in the book.  Apart from Szabol is Orlean’s description of Charles Fletcher Lumis who became the head of the Central Library in 1905 because the library board fired his predecessor because she was a woman.  Lumis’ life is an amazing story in of itself.  Traveler, poet, historian, journalist his talents and life are a fascinating story.  Despite his unusual approach to administration he was responsible for many library components that exist today, i.e.; the photography and autograph collections; the California and Spanish history collections; among his many innovations.  Another library character that stands out is Glen Creason who began taking courses in library science in 1979 and is currently the longest serving librarian in the history of the Central Library.  He has become the library’s institutional memory and his career has spanned surviving the 1986 fire, the AIDS epidemic in which thirteen librarians died, the reopening of the building, and the adjustment to the internet.  Orlean’s approach is to discuss these somewhat obscure figures in a deeply personal manner and she gives them an enthusiasm and zest for what they have done and continue to do that is unimaginable.

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(The library today)

Focusing on a different aspect of her study of libraries, Orlean presents a history of book burning that appears to be the norm, rather than the exception throughout the centuries.  Orlean begins her discourse with a discussion of the destruction of the great Library of Alexandria, carrying forth through the 20th century as the Nazis committed libricide with their Feurspruches and Brenn Kommandos designed to snuff out all Jewish learning.  It seems that Heinrich Heine was correct, “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.”  Hitler was not the only practitioner of libricide; Mao, the Khmer Rouge, Saddam, and the Taliban who continue the practice to this day. Further, Orlean even tries to replicate burning books by trying to ignite her copy of FARENEIHT 451, a task that was difficult and painful.

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Before the fire the library contained over 2 million volumes.  Orleans’ initial focus is how so many volunteers and businesses responded to try and salvage the 700,000 damaged books.  She describes amazing people and procedures to save them.  From freeze drying the books, to packing them up and transporting them to freezers at the fish market, hotel kitchens, and other food warehouses in order to stop the spread of mold.  The city’s response was incredible. Human chains of hundreds of people were formed as strangers worked together to save “knowledge.”  The fire itself was deemed as suspicious from the outset, and in a short time it became clear it was arson.  Since Harry Peake, an actor wanna be, fit the profile of an arsonist; white male between seventeen and twenty-five; in addition to being present at the library at the time of the fire he was immediately considered a suspect.  A month later, when someone identified him from a composite photo it reaffirmed that suspicion.

Orlean does a wonderful job integrating American history and its impact on the Central Library’s own progression.  There are numerous examples to support that conclusion.  Some of the most interesting is how the library administration responded to the demographic growth of Los Angeles, particularly after World War II.  New programs were added to meet the needs of the people, i.e.; microfilm and microfiche, teen departments and other innovations.  The library also tried to meet the concerns of the government as Sputnik and returning veterans created concerns for the public that needed to be met.  Finally, Orlean’s history reflects the sexism that was dominant in all libraries.  For decades only, men were allowed top administrative positions. That began to change with the appointment of Mary Jones, Mary Foy, Harriet Wadleigh, and Althea Warren over the years.

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By the last third of the book, Orlean began to alternate chapters dealing with the library’s history and the case against Harry Peake. The investigation of Peake’s actions at the time of the fire  was drawn out over a long period as Harry was a fabulist who could not keep his story straight.  With seven different iterations of where he was the morning of the fire, investigators had a difficult time creating other than a circumstantial case against him.  The bizarre case resulted in Peake’s law suit against the city, and the city’s counter suit against Peake.  The result was inconclusive and to this day one wonders how the fire came to be.

If there is a theme that emerges from reading Orlean’s work, it is how the Central Library has maintained its relevance throughout the last hundred years or so.  The ability to reinvent itself to meet the needs of their community and constituency whether rich or poor, or even homeless is truly amazing.  Reading Orlean is to travel and immerse oneself in the problems faced by libraries, and how miraculously in the case of the central Library it has overcome disaster and continues to flourish to this day.

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Perhaps  the most wonderful aspect of Orlean’s narrative is how she navigates the Central library and its branches and explain how they operate. Along the way she imparts numerous pearls of information to acquaint the reader of the wonderful world of libraries.  Her observations are priceless as she states that a library is the perfect place to become invisible.  It also has its own rhythms and sounds that are unique.  The Los Angeles system is best described “as if the city has a bloodstream flowing through it, oxygenated by books.”  Orlean has written a wonderful book that should satisfy the interests for all who frequent libraries and wonder how they evolved, and how they are constantly working to meet our needs.

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(Fire damage from April 28, 1986)