Meet Harvey J. Kaye. He’s an historian, author and the prestigious Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies, Director at the Center for History and Social Change, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA.
He has been called “the Indiana Jones of American historians” because he “claws his way into the past and returns with lost treasures.” —John Nichols, The Nation
About Dr. Kaye’s recent book, The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great, Norman Lear, TV writer-producer (most famously, All in the Family) and founder of People for the American Way wrote: “No one has ever loved a nation more or spanked it harder for straying from its premise than Harvey Kaye. It contains the historical truths that will set America free.”
Harvey is definitely a thinker and also an energetic and informed speaker. Below our conversation are several links so you can see and hear Harvey in action. There is a short interview with Thom Hartmann as well as Harvey’s recent commencement address, acclaimed as one of the greatest speeches by Vital Speeches of the Day. Harvey says, “giving it was the honor. I received a standing ovation.” Titled This Generation, Too, Has a Rendezvous with Destiny, Harvey urged the graduates of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay to embrace America’s history.
Ever passionate and dynamic, Harvey wants you to know: “I think the most important thing is that we actually have faith in our fellow citizens… I do believe that somehow growing up an American, the greater majority of us, absorb something from American life that makes us capable of being democratic citizens and our task is to continue to cultivate that.” (The complete quote is posted below our conversation.)
SUZE BIENAIMEE: Harvey J. Kaye! Welcome to StudioSeeds! What inspires you?
HARVEY J. KAYE: What first inspired me and I didn’t even know it because it just became a part of my thinking, was my grandfather, Pa Lou, on my father’s side. He was a criminal lawyer, a trial lawyer in New York City born in Russia in 1900; he came to this country at the age of five and got his law degree in 1923. His name was Kaminetsky, but he thought it sounded too Bolshevik given the Red scare in those years, so he changed it to Kaye. So anyhow before I could read, I would climb up to his lap and sit with him in a big chair. He would read to me from a Golden Book of Old Testament Bible stories.
I came to realize as I was getting older, he would weave together the Bible stories and stories of his life about growing up on the Lower East Side in New York City. As a teen and college student he was a Socialist, so there was this version of history I got that emphasized Exodus, dissent, rebellion and then also this Lower East Side labor point of view.
Little did I know he planted in me a kind of romantic Left understanding of history.
So that’s there, shaping all of this.
I always had an interest in history that came along with my time with my grandfather and when in 1967 I went off to college at Rutgers in New Brunswick, New Jersey, I knew I was either going to study history or politics.
I’ll never forget this moment; it was a turning point. So I was a freshman in college, I had just come out of a what we used to call a recitation section which really meant a discussion section; it was with all freshman and a PhD student teacher. I had a real fascination for the graduate student teaching us because he was the guy I enjoyed the most in the classroom. We were walking along on a beautiful, clear, sunny spring day — I can still see it — and he turned to me and asked me what I was going to major in and I said either history or political science. He said: ‘oh history’s great, but you know, it’s just the background’. I was so upset that he viewed history as just the background, that I bid him farewell for the day and ran off to the history department in Bishop House on the campus and signed up as a history major! I couldn’t believe anyone would could reduce history to just the background because it tended to ignore the degree to which we were already ourselves deeply involved in making history or not making history.
I never wanted to be an academic; never wanted to be a writer. I had assumed I would be a lawyer like my grandfather and when the time came to begin to start thinking seriously about this it was also the time I was asked to be the guinea pig by Rutgers to go to the University of Mexico in Mexico City to see if they could work out an exchange program or at least an overseas program for Rutgers students. I spent six months at the National University of Mexico — the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico — I want to be authentic.
While I was there, I discovered it was low priced. The public universities in the United States were low priced, but this was even lower as a foreign student.
I was in the library one day and I saw — this is all getting eventually to your question of what inspires me, because I have to get into how I was even in the position to be inspired! On the wall I saw a poster that said: Becas para Londres — Scholarships for London. I knew I wouldn’t be eligible because this was Mexico, but I started to think. Wow! Maybe I should go to grad school in Europe because it would be the only way I could travel? I didn’t have the money to both travel and study.
After my return to the States I applied to several European universities and ended up going to the University of London, University College and London School of Economics (LSE) to do International Relations and Latin American Studies.
So I did Latin American Politics, Latin American International Relations and a third course on Agrarian Studies of Latin America. My masters degree is the Political Science degree I didn’t do as an undergrad.
While I was in London, my third course was basically peasants in Latin America; I really enjoyed the young guy who was teaching it. He was a new PhD and in fact, he only stayed in academia for a couple of years; he left to be a labor organizer, which I thought was very cool, but it wasn’t going to be me.
And when I came back to the States, to make a long story short, I eventually ended up going for a PhD at Louisiana State University. I went from LSE to LSU, you might say. While I was there I was doing agrarian studies of Latin America and I was fascinated by this whole question of class. Living in the South, the question of class — even though in the South it is a question of race — this was in the mid-Seventies and the question of class also very evident. The first time I sat down to write anything, and this is to your question of inspiration, it wasn’t so much inspiration, because the question was already in my head. I was just really pissed-off with something I had read and I thought it was a misrepresentation of history, so I discovered, pretty much there on out: I can get into a subject best, not because I’m inspired, but because I’ve been pissed-off by someone who would deny what I think is an inspiring story. So for example, even the pieces I write regularly as columns or op-ed pieces — you know I used to write columns for the Times Higher Education Supplement over in London, I would write columns for the Chronicle of Higher Ed, I wrote pieces for the Washington Post, so I’ve written all these pieces and I think about them over and over again it usually has to do with someone pissing me off.
In fact the piece I wrote last week, David Brooks had written a column — his New York Times column — basically about his need and need of people like him to break out of their comfort zone. ‘Look at what we’ve done by ignoring this question of inequality’. What really ticked me off is he was proposing therapy, when what we definitely need, I believe, is radical action. So I wrote this piece, it’s on the Bill Moyers website and I titled it: We Don’t Need Therapy, We Need Radical Action: We Don’t Need to Bridge the Class Divide — We Need To End It. (Link below.)
My first book was about a group of intellectuals in Britain, The British Marxist Historians, who transformed the writing of history and they were all engaged, to some extent, in politics at the same time. What bugged me is that I thought people my age writing about them were missing the boat. I actually wrote the first article, never knowing I would do a book because I was just so ticked-off.
In fact, yesterday or was it this morning, I listened to something — every so often I wonder if I should be writing my new book about Radicals at Heart. I sort of say, well I don’t need to write it, why bother. Then I get ticked-off when I hear something and I think, yes, I need to write it.
So my fundamental inspiration came, I think, from my family and my grandfather, Pa Lou, in particular. All the histories I read along the way as a young person that resonated with me usually had to do with a struggle for freedom, equality or democracy and it reflected from this implanting from my grandfather. But then to turn from reader to writer — and as I said one time in an interview, I never thought of myself as a writer, until I was asked, why do I write and then I guess I realized, yeah, I guess, I am doing a lot of writing — so I think it’s the point when someone either ignores reality and says something or denies reality or just literally denigrates something that I feel is really important for us to remember, and then when it bugs me like that, then I can write.
SUZE BIENAIMEE: Thank you Harvey!
Please connect with Harvey J. Kaye in the COMMENTS section for this post.
Join Harvey on Twitter: @HarveyJKaye
MOST RECENT: January 2017 from Harvey J. Kaye: Paine vs. Trump or Let Them Call Us Rebels – BillMoyers.com
Harvey writes: We are the heirs of Thomas Paine — let’s remember his words and spirit of resistance against injustice at the dawn of the Trump era.
“Let them call me rebel and welcome,” Paine wrote, “I feel no concern from it; but I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul by swearing allegiance to one whose character is that of a sottish, stupid, stubborn, worthless, brutish man.” The greatest journalist of the Revolution knew how to call out the enemy.
On Bill Moyers’ website: We Don’t Need Therapy, We Need Radical Action: We Don’t Need to Bridge the Class Divide — We Need To End It
FDR’s “Four Freedoms” at 75…More Important Today Than Ever Harvey J. Kaye discussion with Thom Hartmann
COMMENCEMENT SPEECH: In Harvey J. Kaye’s commencement address he urges grads to embrace America’s history: This Generation, Too, Has a Rendezvous with Destiny
A PDF for: This Generation, Too, Has a Rendezvous with Destiny by Harvey J. Kaye
Remembering Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his proposal of the Second Bill of Rights by Harvey J. Kaye
People for the American Way, founded by Norman Lear
BOOKS BY HARVEY J. KAYE:
Harvey J. Kaye: “I think the most important thing is, that we actually have faith in our fellow citizens. Because if we don’t have faith in our fellow citizens, then we can’t have faith in our democratic political order. It requires a faith in our fellow citizens. So for example, if I ever ceased to have faith, I would cease to do my work and I would retreat — I don’t even know if I could retreat into family and friends properly — because my relationship with family and friends is predicated on a larger sense of having faith in my fellow citizens. By the way I don’t believe all my fellow citizens are saints, okay? I don’t believe in that all, but I do believe that somehow growing up an American, the greater majority of us, absorb something from American life that makes us capable of being democratic citizens and our task is to continue to cultivate that.
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11 thoughts on “Harvey J. Kaye: Historian, Professor, Author of The Fight for the Four Freedoms”
Great looking site. Great conversation.
Lots to see here!
Great historian! Great article!
Making history alive today!
Powerful. Thank you.
History is so important — tells us who we are today. Thank you Harvey.
Love Harvey J. Kaye!
Great fresh history!
My brother suggested I might like this blog. He was totally right.
Harvey truly made my day.