In this month’s audio interview, Seth Dellow spoke to Kristofer Allerfeldt, a Professor of American history at the University of Exeter. Kristofer specialises in modern slavery, immigration, the Ku Klux Klan and organised crime, and in his interview with Seth he covered topics ranging from people trafficking to quantum computing.
His route to becoming a professor of history was not traditional by any means. Brought up on the edge of Dartmoor, Kristofer’s father was a farmer and his mother a portrait painter. He describes them as ‘complete and utter opposites’ but ‘a fantastic combination together.’ After university in Bristol, where he studied advertising and marketing, he recalls how ‘for one reason or another, I left and went out on trawlers and did all sorts of the Jack London type stuff’ before moving for a spell to San Francisco. However, instead of then following an academic route to where he is today, he came back home and spent the next twenty years farming.
In fact, he was still farming when he did his degree in history, followed by a Ph.D. in history, and even continued after he started teaching at Exeter University. It was a lifestyle that left him with a deep love of animals, especially dogs.
Despite initially studying Russian with someone he describes as ‘Devon’s last Stalinist’ he changed tack to study American history and that is where his interest in immigration came from. ‘I became interested in the idea of immigration history’ he tells Seth ‘and particularly what changed the attitude of America from being a nation of immigrants to being a nation rather hostile to immigrants.’ He was particularly interested in areas where people didn’t come across many immigrants. ‘They seemed to be even more anti-immigrant than they were in the areas where they actually mixed with the immigrants, and I came to the conclusion that actually it’s often fear of the unknown, rather than dislike of the known. And I think that’s true in almost all circumstances of xenophobia and particularly immigration.’
On a visit to New York some years ago he managed to have lunch with one of his heroes, the late Aristide Zolberg, a distinguished political scientist said to have been one of the world’s preeminent scholars of comparative politics. Zolberg believed that there was a time when American immigration policy had been heading in the right direction. However, he thought that the atrocities of 911 changed everything. Kristofer doesn’t like current immigration policies but understands the difficulties. ‘But I can’t come up with a solution to it’ he says, ‘and I suppose people have to have some form of border control. But it seems sad, and it always seems like it’s the most unfortunate people get caught in the middle of it.’
It was Kristofer’s interest in immigration that led to his specialism in the Ku Klux Klan. He explains to Seth how he became fascinated by the Klan and relates the story of how in the Pacific North West in the 1920s they had hundreds of thousands of members. The organistaion was ‘very public, very successful at propagating itself and spreading its message across the regions, particularly the urban regions of Oregon.’ They attempted to replicate this by moving into Washington State and it was totally unsuccessful. ‘They were opposed by the Catholic Church. They were very anti-Catholic at this point and they were opposed by the Catholic Church and the Catholic Church did a very good job of shutting them down, having learnt the lessons of why they’d been successful in Oregon, and developed strategies to deal with it.’
Kristofer’s interest in the Klan led to a specialism in organised crime. He tells Seth this ‘stemmed out of an interest in criminal history, which I got into largely because of links between corrupt politicians and anti-immigrant behavior. And also just anti-immigrants arguments. I mean one of the big arguments against the immigrants at the turn of the 20th Century was that they were involved in crime, particularly Southern and Eastern Europeans and particularly, of course, the Italians.’ His interest in criminal history is because he believes ‘we cannot understand the history of America if we don’t have a look at the history of crime in America.’
In his wide-ranging talk with Seth, Kristofer also talks at length about modern slavery and human trafficking. He believes that celebrating the abolition of slavery is used to cover up behavior that is no better than that which was abolished. ‘Abolition in 1865 in America really just forced another form of slavery that was driven underground’ he says. ‘And the difficulty is that in order to maintain that fiction of abolition, the Americans have created a vision of slavery that is focused on plantation slavery. So it’s all African Americans being imported into America, which again, is a fallacy anyway in terms of the numbers. But it’s really very much this idea of we abolish that, and that isn’t the case. It’s much more. It’s morphed, it’s mutated, it’s changed since those years and to the point where there’s actually more slaves in America now than there ever has been in history. Which is quite a shocking statistic. But significantly more.’ As well as many other measures to combat this he would like to introduce legislation that said paying below the minimum wage was actually a criminal offense and should be seen as modern slavery.
He is currently fascinated by the potential of artificial intelligence and whether it will have the ability to help stem the flow of misinformation by helping build models of behavior based on historical data. He cites the example of how during an outbreak of bubonic plague in Chinatown in San Francisco in 1900 it was decided to offer vaccination to the Chinese community as it seemed they were the most likely to be infected. ‘So of course, the Chinese immediately thought there must be something wrong with this vaccination, why are they only giving it to us?’ They responded with fear that the vaccination was a conspiracy. Kristofer wonders whether artificial intelligence will help create models that will help eradicate this kind of misunderstanding. However, it’s a difficult balance. Will we all become ‘enslaved by the algorithm’ he asks, or will artificial intelligence enable drones to be able to pick up situations such as modern slavery?
Kristofer believes the real problem with artificial intelligence is that ‘the speed of change will be so massive’ that we have to be looking at potential outcomes now. ‘We’ve got to have legislation and we’ve got to have thinking, philosophical ideas in place’ he says. ‘It is going to dramatically change everything we do.’
Perhaps one of the most frightening things he talks to Seth about is his concern about quantum computing and the geopolitical ramifications of one nation developing computational speed quicker than others. ‘Can you imagine the quantum computer enables the cracking of any security system whatever in milliseconds? So of course, the company that develops that has the control over everything.’ He foresees that happening within the next five to 10 years.
Seth Dellow’s full interview with Kristofer Allerfeldt is available to listen to on the Marshwood Vale Magazine website.