Past Present Podcast: Taiwan, the Oakland Fire, and Black Santa

African American Santa

In this week’s episode, Niki, Natalia, and Neil discuss the future of the One-China policy, the tragedy of the Oakland fire, and the Mall of America’s first black Santa.



Donald Trump’s phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen last week set off a controversy in U.S.-China relations. Niki outlined the Cold War context of U.S.-China relations, and commented on President Nixon’s 1967 Foreign Affairs article “Asia After Viet Nam” that demonstrated his desire to understand how power operated around the world, as contrasted to Trump’s seeming disinterest in understanding the nuances of American foreign policy. Neil noted the deliberate approach the Obama administration took to dealing with China and that George W. Bush’s press secretary Ari Fleischer indicated how he always referred to it as the “government on Taiwan” instead of “of Taiwan.” Neil suggested the longer economic history of U.S.-China relations, rather than only a Cold War context, might help better understand Trump’s approach to China. Niki noted the 1937 book by Carl Crow, 400 Million Customers, encapsulated how the U.S. had long viewed China, and she recommended Elizabeth Ingleson’s recent dissertation that explores the history of U.S.-China economic relations.

The Oakland Fire

The Ghost Ship Warehouse fire in Oakland killed 36 people last week. Natalia saw historical echoes of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 in the Oakland fire. Neil argued that fire tragedies, like the Iroquois Theater fire of 1903, had led to innovations of fireproofing technology and the introduction of fire code regulations. Niki commented on how the Great Chicago fire of 1871 had brought about the rise of skyscrapers.

Black Santa

The Mall of America’s decision to hire an African-American man as the mall’s Santa has been met with racist outrage on the Internet. Niki compared that outrage to the response some had to the casting of an African-American actress to play the character Rue in the Hunger Games movies. Neil outlined the history of Santa in the American context, including how the 1822 poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” established the character in the American imagination. Niki recommended the BackStory podcast’s recent interview of a black Santa. Natalia discussed the “Pancho Claus” character some California public schools invented in the 1960s that is pictured in her recent book Classroom Wars.

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