MyAmericanFuture

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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

May 31, 2011 [Academic Work in Progress Post 15]: Let’s Review

Shorter post today, as I used up most of my 1000 words for the day—actually, pretty much exactly that number; I came it at 997 with a 1000-word max!—on something I just sent off, a draft of my first scholarly book review. The journal American Literature asked me if I would write a review essay on two recent books, James Salazar’s Bodies of Reform: The Rhetoric of Character in Gilded Age America (2010) and Andrew Taylor’s Thinking America: New England Intellectuals and the Varieties of American Identity (2010), and I was both honored to be asked and very excited to write the review. It’s only a draft that I’ve submitted, and the actual review won’t appear until the winter at the earliest, so I shouldn’t say too much about it in any specific way here. But I did want to make sure to highlight these two great books, and more exactly two interconnected lessons that I’ve taken away from the whole experience:
1)      I still have a lot to learn about America! My dissertation and first book focused on the same decades and period (the Gilded Age) at the heart of these two works, yet I can safely say that I learned something (and really many things) new and significant in every chapter of both books. As I wrote in the review, reading both books mostly made me want to put them in conversation, and to learn and understand more about their focal points and American identity through them; but that’s not even vaguely a bad thing, and instead a great reminder that I can and should read more works by my fellow American Studies scholars. Of course I’ll keep reading and thinking about the primary texts (in all media) as well, but there’s a ton of great American Studies work being done out there, and I pledge today to learn more about, and from, it.
2)      And as I do, I pledge as well to share at least some of those great works and voices with you, dear readers. I’m not going to set a definite schedule for when these scholarship-highlighting posts will appear—we’ve all seen how that’s gone with the Guest Posts; and speaking of, if you haven’t gotten me one of those yet, whether I’ve asked you or not, please feel free and very encouraged to do so!—but I promise to slot them in at least every couple of weeks, both to hold me to the first pledge (of reading more scholarly works) and to add these voices and ideas into this here AmericanStudies mix.
In the meantime, don’t wait for my review to appear—check out those two books, or at least check out their very impressive and interesting authors at the links below. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
3)      OPEN: Any book recommendations?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

May 29-30, 2011: Memory and Memorials

In my December 9th post on the Statue of Liberty, I made a case for remembering, and engaging much more fully, with what the Statue was originally intended, by its French abolitionist creator, to symbolize: the legacy of slavery and abolitionism in both America and France, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the memories of what he had done to advance that cause, and so on. I tried there, hopefully with some success, to leave ample room for what the Statue has come to mean, both for America as a whole and, more significantly still, for generation upon generation of immigrant arrivals to the nation: I think those meanings, especially when tied to Emma Lazarus’ poem and its radically democratic and inclusive vision of our national identity, are beautiful and important in their own right. But how much more profound and meaningful, if certainly more complicated, would they be if they were linked to our nation’s own troubled but also inspiring histories of slavery and abolitionism, of sectional strife and Civil War, of racial divisions and those who have worked for centuries to transcend and bridge them?
I would say almost exactly the same thing when it comes to the history of Memorial Day. For the last century or so, at least since the end of World War I, the holiday has meant something broadly national and communal, an opportunity to remember and celebrate those Americans who have given their lives as members of our armed forces. While I certainly feel that some of the narratives associated with that idea are as simplifying and mythologizing and meaningless as many others I’ve analyzed here—“they died for our freedom” chief among them; the world would be a vastly different, and almost certainly less free, place had the Axis powers won World War II (for example), but I have yet to hear any convincing case that the world would be even the slightest bit worse off were it not for the quarter of a million American troops who lives were wasted in the Vietnam War (for another)—those narratives are much more about politics and propaganda, and don’t change at all the absolutely real and tragic and profound meaning of service and loss for those who have done so and all those who know and love them. One of the most pitch-perfect statements of my position on such losses can be found in a song by (surprisingly) Bruce Springsteen; his “Gypsy Biker,” from Magic (2007), certainly includes a strident critique of the Bush Administration and Iraq War, as seen in lines like “To those who threw you away / You ain’t nothing but gone,” but mostly reflects a brother’s and family’s range of emotions and responses to the death of a young solder in that war.
Yet as with the Statue, Memorial Day’s original meanings and narratives are significantly different from, and would add a great deal of complexity and power to, these contemporary images. The holiday was first known as Decoration Day, and was (at least per the thorough histories of it by scholars like David Blight) originated in 1865 by a group of freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina; the slaves visited a cemetery for Union soldiers on May 1st of that year and decorated their graves, a quiet but very sincere tribute to what those soldiers have given and what it had meant to the lives of these freedmen and –women. The holiday quickly spread to many other communities, and just as quickly came to focus more on the less potentially divisive, or at least less complex as reminders of slavery and division and the ongoing controversies of Reconstruction and so on, perspectives of former soldiers—first fellow Union ones, but by the 1870s veterans from both sides. Yet former slaves continued to honor the holiday in their own way, as evidenced by a powerful scene from Constance Fenimore Woolson’s “Rodman the Keeper” (1880), in which the protagonist observes a group of ex-slaves leaving their decorations on the graves of the Union dead at the cemetery where he works. On the one hand, these ex-slave memorials are parallel to the family memories that now dominate Memorial Day, and serve as a beautiful reminder that the American family extends to blood relations of very different and perhaps even more genuine kinds. But on the other hand, the ex-slave memorials represent far more complex and in many ways (I believe) significant American stories and perspectives than a simple familial memory; these acts were a continuing acknowledgment both of some of our darkest moments and of the ways in which we had, at great but necessary cost, defeated them.
Again, I’m not trying to suggest that any current aspects or celebrations of Memorial Day are anything other than genuine and powerful; having just heard some eloquent words about what my Granddad’s experiences with his fellow soldiers had meant to him (he even commandeered an abandoned bunker and hand-wrote a history of the Company after the war!), I share those perspectives. But as with the Statue and with so many of our national histories, what we’ve forgotten is just as genuine and powerful, and a lot more telling about who we’ve been and thus who and where we are. The more we can remember those histories too, the more complex and meaningful our holidays, our celebrations, our memories, and our futures will be. More soon,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Blight’s chapter on “Decoration Days” in this text is a great intro to the history of the holiday: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst;jsessionid=L6pd2pVHvN4hNrwFhL4rdT3RWpyp8wJMS676zdVQdVhd8Wc0YGTn!-64009190?a=o&d=113423562
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

May 28, 2011: Pahk Your Blog in Hahvahd Yahd

In honor of my boys’ first Boston Public Garden swan boat ride earlier today, here (more briefly than they deserve, but the boats, or maybe the boys, tired me out!) are three great moments in American literature and culture set around some of the Boston area’s most significant landmarks:
1)      A Visit to the Hall: About halfway through Henry James’s big, complicated, messy The Bostonians (1885), his Southern, ex-Confederate male protagonist Basil Ransom pays an equally complicated visit to Harvard’s new Memorial Hall, which had been built to commemorate the Union dead who were Harvard students and alums.  Basil’s sense of camaraderie with these former foes feels partly like many other reconciliation narratives in this post-Reconstruction era;  but there’s no denying the emotional impact of the scene, and of the memories of war that it conjures up in Basil.
2)      Submerged History: In one of my first posts here, on the Shaw Memorial, my second link was to Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead” (1960), a poem that manages to link the abandoned South Boston Aquarium to the Memorial, threading both into powerful and ultimately angry images of a city and nation where past and history have been submerged beneath an ocean of televised images and “savage servility,” and where the cliché that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it is giving striking new life.
3)      A Swan Fetish: No post that begins with the swan boats can end without including the best scene ever set at that location, and one of the great movie monologues of all time, Robin Williams’ speech to (Good) Will Hunting about everything he doesn’t know. It’s an incredibly powerful and revealing scene, telling us a great deal about both of these pivotal characters, but it’s also a worthy lesson for any of us: that the more certain we are about what we know, the more likely it is that we haven’t yet experienced the complexities of life quite as fully as we could. But also, and equally important, that one of the best ways to learn about anything is to listen to each other—and Williams makes plain that he’s more than happy to listen to Will when Will is ready to return the favor.
More tomorrow,
Ben

PS. Four links to start with:
1)      Full text of James’s novel (the Mem Hall sequence is in Chapter 25): http://www.online-literature.com/henry_james/bostonians/
3)      The Will scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qM-gZintWDc
4)      OPEN: Any Boston scenes you’d highlight? Or ones that capture other cities in these ways?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

May 26, 2011: The Two-Way Street

A recent study by researchers at Tufts and Harvard confirms, if through a relatively small sample, something that I’ve felt to be the case for at least the couple years of Obama’s presidency, and really for some time before that—that many white Americans believe that anti-white racism has become a significant national problem, and in fact that it often outstrips (and at least in many ways equals) the more typically defined racisms and discriminations against minority groups. More exactly, as the study puts it, many whites seem to see race and opportunity as a zero-sum game, meaning that the more progress is made by various minority groups (perhaps especially African Americans), the more it happens at the expense of the opportunities for others (and especially “average” white Americans, in this formulation). It seems clear to me that a great many of the last few years’ prominent controversies—from arguments that Sonia Sotomayor was an “affirmative action pick” for the Supreme Court to Glenn Beck’s vision of Obama as a “racist” who just “doesn’t like white people,” from all of the critiques of Eric Holder’s Justice department as favoring African Americans to the oft-repeated cries of “I want my country back!” at Tea Party gatherings and Town Hall protests—can be linked to such beliefs about anti-white discrimination.
I have to admit that I’ve mostly dismissed such beliefs as fundamentally silly, nonsensical even, given the ongoing and (to my mind) still inarguable distributions of power and wealth and opportunity across racial and ethnic lines in our culture. I would still argue vehemently against this position in the case of each of those aforementioned controversies, all of which have been based on a combination of blatant falsehoods and, frankly, actual and ugly bigotry. And, more significantly and more in keeping with this blog’s focal points, I would also argue that the deepest problem with this perspective is that it tends to reinforce national narratives in which racism against minorities is a shameful but distant part of our national past, something that happened in a bygone era and thus has no particular relevance, and certainly no continuing purchase, in our contemporary moment. Such narratives are not only historically inaccurate but also extremely disingenuous, as they almost always serve as a cover for arguments about the need to dismantle social and educational programs that seek to aid disadvantaged populations—many if not most of whom, just to be very clear, are in actuality themselves “white.” (That’s true not only of social programs like welfare and Medicaid or educational ones like Head Start and federal financial aid but also, it’s important to note given the complete absence of this fact from our national conversations, affirmative action programs, many of which have long aided lower-income white Americans, especially but not exclusively women, alongside other minority groups.)
And yet I’ve long argued, here and elsewhere, that one of the main goals of my recent book is to develop a definition of American identity that can include all Americans, that can feel as relevant to those who might identify themselves as part of the Puritan tradition as it would to those who might identify more with the multicultural tradition or any culture/community therein. And so I do find myself agreeing with some of what’s being argued in that Tufts/Harvard study, at least as it’s framed in the Salon.com piece linked below—in particular, I think it is fair to say that multicultural historical and national narratives, as they have often been deployed, have had relatively little to say to white Americans, or have even represented them as a new version of the “Other.” For example, one of the sections in the collection Multiculturalism in the United States (2000) is entitled “European American Decline,” in direct contrast to the others that have titles such as “Asian Americans” and “African Americans.” Whether we would call such attitudes discriminatory, much less racist, is an open question to be sure; but whatever we would call them, it certainly seems neither practical nor ideal for defining national narratives to have little to do with large percentages of our national community and population. A defining national narrative that can include (for example) a tenth-generation German American family in Kansas alongside first-generation arrivals to New York City from Cameroon is to my mind a much more communally productive and meaningful narrative than either one in which the Kansans are the “real Americans” or one in which the two cultures are equally significant but entirely separate.
To link this to yesterday’s ideas, acceptance is a two-way street—it does none of us any good if accepting certain individuals and communities as full and equal parts of our national identity requires us to minimize the presences or roles of others in the process. If some white Americans are feeling that they have less of a place in 21st century America—even if they’re often expressing that feeling through narratives about race and racism that feel, to me, pretty flawed and problematic—then it’s that much more important to work toward national narratives that accept, and interweave, all of our American identities. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
2)      A thorough and strong take on our limited narratives about affirmative action policies: http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1442
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

May 25, 2011: Accept It

I had the honor of sharing a bit of last week’s Tribute post at my grandfather’s funeral service yesterday, and in preparing for those remarks realized that I needed to make a small but significant revision to the final of my three points. In the post I called Arthur “the most tolerant and open-minded” person I had ever met, but the more I thought about it, and connected my thoughts to other ideas and conversations I’ve had kicking around my head for a while now, the more I realized that tolerant is not quite the word I was looking for. As Mark Twain famously noted, the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug, and I believe yesterday I got a good bit closer to the lightning: “Granddad,” I put it, “was the oldest person I knew, and also the most open-minded and accepting.”
The difference between “tolerant” and “accepting,” I would argue, gets very nicely at some of the most significant stakes of my argument for a cross-cultural American experience and identity that connects all Americans. In even the best case of a multicultural narrative and national identity, what we’re hoping for, it seems to me, is in most ways tolerance—an understanding of the wide range of cultures and heritages and identities that have comprised America since its origin points, and thus a tolerance of one another as we continue to coexist here. Yet the problem with tolerance is that it very directly implies that the other person is an “Other” in one way or another, is fundamentally different from me, and thus that what I am trying to accept is precisely that otherness, that difference. No matter how fully or perfectly I achieve such tolerance, though, I will never in this narrative see myself as fundamentally the same as that other person; perhaps I might come to see certain similarities alongside the differences, and perhaps might even embrace someone as a brother or sister as a result (brothers and sisters are not necessarily the same, after all, just related, linked), but nonetheless, there will always be that awareness of difference, and always I would argue a gap between us because of it.
Obviously people in general, and Americans specifically, are indeed different from each other—not only because of different cultural heritages and all that comes with them (languages, customs, beliefs, and much more), but for all sorts of other fundamental reasons too. But if we come to recognize that something—such as a heritage of cross-cultural transformations and the identities that they produce—is shared across all of us, that would be one very key way to imagine relationships based not on tolerance but on acceptance, on two interconnected levels: acceptance of every individual for who he or she is, for every aspect of his or her identity and experience; and, even more communally and critically, acceptance that we are all Americans in this core and defining way, all linked by experiences and heritages that, whatever their specific differences, are fundamentally the same. Those levels might seem contradictory, but I don’t believe that they ultimately are: we can and must recognize that every individual’s identity is unique and specific, and can (as my Granddad most definitely did) strive to accept every person on his or her terms; and in so doing, especially when paired with some communal understandings of what links all of us, we would move very fully toward a national identity in which every individual is equally present and defining, and the communal whole depends on all of us and on our accepted and vital interdependences.
Like Bruce’s oft-repeated (and certainly parallel to these ideas) line, “Remember, in the end, nobody wins unless everybody wins,” this goal is, I am very much aware, an ideal. As with any ideal, and as for that matter with the optimistic and utopian images of hope at the conclusions of the novels on which my next book will focus, that means it would and will be very difficult to achieve, and perhaps even harder to maintain into a communal future. But if we are to become the more perfect union for which we have so long strived, I think that’s a challenge we can, and in fact must, accept. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. No links for this one, but as always your thoughts and perspectives and ideas will be much more than just tolerated, will be fully accepted and much appreciated!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

May 24, 2011: I’m on a Boat

Took the ferry over to Martha’s Vineyard today for my Granddad’s funeral, and so got to thinking about some of the most significant boat trips in American literature, history, and culture. Here are four of ‘em, in chronological order:
1)      The Pilgrims Hang On (1620): William Bradford opens Chapter 9 of his Of Plymouth Plantation—the chapter in which he’ll document the Mayflower’s arduous journey—with a pair of contrasting and (to him) very symbolic anecdotes. In the first, an unfriendly sailor who has been making fun of the Pilgrims in their seasickness is suddenly and with justice laid low by illness and dies; in the second, a young Pilgrim named John Howland falls overboard but hangs on to a rope long enough to be saved. It’s easy for a modern reader to focus on the former, on the great pleasure which Bradford takes in recounting the Lord’s vengeance on the sailor, and on what that can reveal about the Puritan mindset; but the latter anecdote is far more telling. Whatever we think of the Puritans, there’s no question that they took a remarkable leap of faith at every stage of their journey; practically every line of Chapter 9 reveals just how uncertain and fraught and seemingly hopeless that journey felt to the community, both on the boat and (even more so) when they finally arrived at Cape Cod’s rocky and wintry shores. But like John Howland, they hung on, and saw their journey through to a very successful completion.
2)      Taking the Amistad (1839): Thanks to one Mr. Spielberg, the Amistad case has likely become nearly as famous in American history as the Pilgrims’ voyage. I haven’t seen the film, so I can’t comment on its accuracy or storytelling, but I think there’s no question that the story is a unique and very compelling one. Not only because it represents one of the only documented occasions on which the captives on a slave ship (a Spanish one, in this case) overthrew the ship’s crew and took control of the vessel themselves; but also and even more compellingly because of two results when the slaves were recaptured (by a US Coast Guard vessel) and brought to the States. For one thing, abolitionists sued for their release and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that since the international slave trade had been abolished, the slaves were being transported illegally and so were free. And for another, the freed slaves lived for a time in Farmington, Connecticut before returning to Africa, and there, according to a piece written half a century later for the Farmington Magazine by Charles Ledyard Norton, became a vibrant part of the town’s community.
3)      Helga’s Round Trip (1928): There are many ways I could describe Helga Crane, the protagonist of Nella Larsen’s novella Quicksand: she’s the mixed-race daughter of a West Indian immigrant father and a Danish immigrant mother, struggling to come to grips with that heritage; she’s a proud, beautiful, and very refined (and picky) young women struggling to find a place and a man with whom she can connect; she’s quite a bit like Larsen herself, but presented by Larsen’s third-person narrator with both sympathy and critique, in complex mixture. But the best single word for Helga would have to be “mobile.” Every three or four chapters she moves to a new place, and the most dramatic such moves are her trans-Atlantic journeys: first away from New York and the Harlem Renaissance and to her mother’s relatives in Copenhagen; and then, a few months later, away from that somewhat ideal but ultimately too foreign world and back to New York and her destiny in the text. These journeys not only reveal a good deal about both the lengths to which Helga is willing to travel to try to find a place she can belong and the breadth of her cross-cultural American identity, but about Americans’ increasing ability in the early 20th century to travel that interconnected world.
4)      A Steamer and a Rowboat (1974): I’ve written before here about one of my favorite American films, The Godfather Part 2. As I wrote there, one of the film’s greatest strengths is in its juxtaposition of the flashbacks to Vito Corleone’s immigrant saga and the present-day narrative of his son Michael’s consolidation of his identity as the new Godfather. And one of the most striking contrasts within that juxtaposition has to be between the boat trips that open and close those respective stories: Vito’s American experience begins with his arrival in New York Harbor on an epic steamer, the Statue of Liberty rising above to promise him all that American life and opportunities can mean; Michael’s narrative in the film closes with his brother Fredo taking a ride out onto the family property’s lake in a dingy rowboat, the closing tableau and gunshot (the latter heard after we have cut to Michael in his solitary and tragic power) signaling all that the family’s American story has become.
PS. Five links to start with:
2)      A piece on Farmington and abolition; the Amistad section starts around page 12: http://pdfhost.focus.nps.gov/docs/NHLS/Text/98001190.pdf
4)      The final seconds of Godfather 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcTG3pNqW0I
5)      OPEN: Any boat trips you’d add to the list?

Monday, May 23, 2011

May 23, 2011: Home Lands

In 1859, a brief but very heated nationwide debate broke out over questions of immigration, naturalization, and national allegiance. A French American immigrant had returned for a visit to his native country and been abruptly conscripted into the French military (which was involved in a war with Austria at the time); the French government argued that despite his immigration he had never abandoned his national allegiance to their country, and thus his duty to serve in the military in times of war. The man appealed to the US government for aid, but the Buchanan Administration, and more explicitly the Secretary of State Lewis Cass, denied his request, arguing that indeed he had demonstrated by returning to France (even for a short visit) that he was still more a part of that country than he was of his adopted home. The ensuing, heated debate in the American press unfolded mostly along partisan lines, and was quickly forgotten in the ongoing build-up to the 1860 presidential election and the increasing sectional strife that would soon become the Civil War; but many of the voices in that debate nonetheless articulated quite strikingly two starkly opposed and still relevant perspectives on immigration and national identity: one that sees immigrant Americans as fully adopting their new land as a home in every meaningful sense; and the other that questions the possibility of such shifts in identity and allegiance and that argues, as a pro-Administration editorialist did, that once the French immigrant returned to France it was precisely “as if you had never immigrated.”
By the end of the 19th century, that latter perspective on immigrant identity had evolved into a full-blown concept: the idea of the “sojourner.” This image of immigrants, one that defined them as coming to America temporarily with the explicit goal of making their fortune here and then returning with it to their native (and still home) land—and thus of profiting from the United States but not contributing to it in kind, as the narrative usually reasoned—was most consistently applied to Asian American arrivals, and formed a significant part of the explicit arguments that (paralleled to the sometimes more implicit but, I would argue, even more fundamental xenophobia and hatred and fear) led to the Chinese Exclusion Act. It’s certainly likely that some of these Asian arrivals had indeed planned on returning to their native lands, just as in fact many earlier American immigrants (from places like potato-famine-ridden Ireland) had likewise envisioned their immigration as a necessary and temporary respite from unlivable conditions in those lands; it’s also certainly probable that many Asian immigrants developed such a plan once they encountered blatant discrimination and violence in America, and realized the potential limits of their lives here as a result. But as with any simplifying and overarching national narratives, the sojourner image did not allow for—in fact depended precisely on communal ignorance and elision of—such experiential or historical complexities within any particular identities or communities, much less the nation as a whole.
I’m thinking about these historical moments and narratives today because of the (largely artificial or constructed by still very definite) firestorm that broke out this weekend in response to President Obama’s speech on (among other things) the Israel-Palestine situation. I’m well aware that Israel means something different to many Jewish Americans than any other nation or home land might mean to Americans of those heritages; for one obvious but important thing, most of those Jewish Americans are not native to Israel, so the question here is not of allegiance to a native land so much as connection to a communal, ethnic, and spiritual home. I’m also, just because clarity is a good thing when it comes to an issue like this, not in the slightest trying to impugn Jewish Americans with the same questions of loyalty or allegiance to which these earlier immigrants were subjected; that’s quite literally the opposite of my intention in raising those earlier narratives. What I would stress, however, is that viewing this particular moment and debate in isolation, treating it as if it does exist in a much longer and more complex history of American experiences and issues and conversations, is equally limiting, does an equal injustice to those earnestly trying (as I believe Obama is) to figure out both the best way forward in this world situation and (more relevantly for him and for this blog) what role and perspective America can play and have in and on those events. As with every other contemporary and historical issue, the temptation today is to go for the simplifying narratives, to argue for example (as Mitt Romney did over the weekend) that Obama is “throwing Israel under the bus.” But as in every other such case, and as in 1859 and with late 19th century Asian American arrivals, the simplifying narratives lead only to further divisions and hatreds.
I don’t have any answers to what’s happening in Palestine, and that too is precisely part of the point; when it comes to these difficult issues of nationality and international relationships, and especially to questions of home and identity, the answers are complex even for individuals, much less for communities and nations. But I do believe that the more we can recognize the complexity and, yes, the shared humanity of every individual’s and community’s engagement with these questions, the closer we’ll be to a more meaningful answer for sure. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Just to illustrate the complexity of any individual’s identity one more time, some info on Lewis Cass’s 1860 resignation from the Buchanan Administration due to his very different perspective on slavery and secession from Buchanan’s pro-South beliefs: http://almostchosenpeople.wordpress.com/2010/12/12/december-12-1860-secretary-of-state-lewis-cass-resigns/
2)      Quick but interesting connection of the sojourner narrative to other ethnic stereotypes: http://www.indiana.edu/~aaa/?p=22
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Thursday, May 19, 2011

May 19, 2011 [Uber-Tribute Post]: An Exemplary American

My paternal grandfather, Arthur R. Railton (1915-2011), is an exemplary 20th- and early 21st-century American on at least three distinct and impressive levels. In his principal career, as a marketing and public relations executive at Volkswagen, and more exactly as one of the main voices behind the rise of the Beetle in and after the 1960s (his early admiration for the car while an editor at Popular Mechanics is what led to the job offer from Volkswagen in the first place), Art significantly impacted and helped alter the development of the automobile industry, in America and around the world. Moreover, it’s fair to say that the popularity of the Beetle played a not-insignificant role in other cultural trends and movements of the 1960s, most especially the hippie and anti-war movements, and so in its own focused way Art’s professional career contributed to the whole arc of the second half of the 20th century in American culture and life.
Art and his wife, Margery Marks Railton (1918-2000), retired to Martha’s Vineyard in the mid-1970s, and it’s there that the second, and for me even more impressive, level of Art’s exemplary American story played out. Never the kind of person who could retire to a life of golf or the like, Art joined, and soon became one of the most significant presences at and leaders of, the Vineyard’s Dukes County Historical Association and Martha’s Vineyard Museum; for many years he also served as the editor of and a researcher and writer for the Museum’s quarterly journal, the Dukes County Intelligencer. Art’s reinvention as a local, regional, and national historian is one of the most impressive scholarly acts I can possibly imagine, not only because of the incredible quantity, consistency, and quality of the work he produced, but also because he did it entirely out of passion and love, for its own sake and the sake of what it and he could contribute to the Island’s awareness and understanding of its history and identity. And to top all of that off, Art began work, in his 80s (!), on the first (at least since 1900) and definitive history of the Island, the book that became his The History of Martha’s Vineyard: How We Got to Where We Are (2006). It’s a great book, fun and well-written and richly researched and thorough and broadly accessible, and it garnered Art a great deal of well-deserved and very positive recognition and praise.
The third level of Art’s exemplary American story is the least public, the least broadly meaningful, contributed the least to any national narratives or histories or conversations; but it’s also by far the most inspiring to me, in every aspect of my own identity and life. Art’s life story reads like a Greatest Generation stereotype: worked from a very young age to support his family in New Hampshire during the Great Depression; shipped off to Europe to serve as an officer in World War II (where among other amazing things during his four years of service he was one of the first American soldiers to come upon a recently abandoned concentration camp, a story he only told late in his life) immediately after marrying his college sweetheart Marge; came home to raise a family and become a hugely successful part of a major corporation; etc. Yet in one crucial way Art challenges the ways in which our national narratives so often depict such older Americans as conservative, resistant to late 20th century changes, targets for the Birthers and their ilk: he was by far the most tolerant and open-minded and liberal in the most genuine and ideal sense of any person I’ve ever met. If anybody ever tries to argue that issues like gay marriage or mixed-race identities or full racial equality or anything else just take time, require generational shifts, Art provides the most compelling piece of evidence I’ve ever encountered for the contrasting reality: ideal American values can and do exist in every generation.
Art, my Granddad, passed away earlier today. But his life and story—like those of his wife, who on the third level was at least as inspiring and impressive an individual and American for damn sure—will live on, as a model of the best of what American industry, scholarship, and identity can be. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      Art’s History: http://www.mvmuseum.org/shop-bookMV.php
2)      One of my favorite pictures, both of Art and period: http://www.facebook.com/#!/profile.php?id=63603442

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

May 18, 2011: Grading on a Curve

I’ve been thinking a lot lately, in this space and in talks about my book and in class conversations and in other ways and venues as well, about those often implicit but still very predominant and long-accepted narratives of “America” that equate the nation’s fundamental identity with certain ethnic, racial, and cultural identities (mostly, as I’ve said here before, white/Anglo/Christian ones). But, to pivot off of the titular phrase from yesterday’s post, I don’t know that I’ve engaged nearly enough with the (or at least an) other side of those narratives: how frequently they have depended on concurrent narratives of the not-only-less-American but also, often, less-fully-human identities of other ethnic/racial/cultural groups. Certainly that was most pronounced with our national narratives of slavery and African American identities within it, such as the Constitution’s 3/5s clause and the Dred Scott decision; but similar images of less-human identities can be found in many prominent national narratives about Native Americans, Asian Americans, and African Americans long after the end of slavery (among other examples).
As with many of our most shameful national narratives, it can be easy to feel, when we even admit to and confront them at all, that these are part of our distant past, something to be regretted to be sure but nothing we need worry about today. For example, even if we recognize that a sizeable percentage of public intellectuals and political figures around the turn of the 20th century embraced an ugly mélange of eugenics and Social Darwinism, one in which non-Anglo (or at least non-European/white) Americans were distinctly inferior and posed a threat to Anglo-American purity and survival (see Tom Buchanan’s rant in Chapter 1 of The Great Gatsby for a representation of this position into the 1920s), that perspective can feel deeply antiquated at the turn of the 21st century. Yet the 1994 publication of The Bell Curve, and the many prominent public intellectuals (including someone whose work these days I greatly respect, Andrew Sullivan, in his role at the time as editor of The New Republic) who expressed admiration for it, should provide ample evidence that there is still substantial national appetite for such racial and ethnic narratives, so long as they’re couched (as were eugenics and Social Darwinist narratives) in pseudo-scientific language and argumentation. For those who haven’t read Curve (and the first link below does a great job summing up both its sections/arguments and three of the main critiques it received), it’s worth noting just how overtly it links such pseudo-scientific narratives to national, political, and social ones: the final two chapters constitute a very direct critique of affirmative action programs, making clear the AmericanStudies stakes of such arguments for racial hierarchies.
Just in case 15+ years ago feels as if it’s still part of a shameful national past, it’s worth noting that what got me thinking about all of this today is a very contemporary and, to my mind, very parallel controversy. A blogger for the website Psychology Today posted an article in which he uses a deeply flawed poll from a health-related website in order to argue that African American women seem to be less attractive, on average, than women in other racial/ethnic groups. (His post has been subsequently removed after a firestorm of criticism, but a follow-up critique by another PT blogger is still up and includes a working link to the initial post; see the second link below.) The blogger doesn’t engage at all, at least not in any explicit or developed sense, with what would seem to me to be the only actual potential conclusion to be drawn from this, again, very suspect collection of “evidence”—that the poll can provide some support for those would argue that our national and communal ideals and images of beauty (among other concepts) are still far too often linked to certain ethnic, racial, or cultural standards and constructions. Some of that is, perhaps, human nature, a tendency to idealize aspects of our own identity (since apparently the vast majority of those polled identified themselves as Caucasian). But I would argue that at least as much of it is very much related to these ongoing American narratives, images of our national ideals that are certainly no longer widely taken for granted (note the quick and impressive pushback on this PT post) but that remain very much with us and so still in need of engagement, analysis, and response.
More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Very thorough summary of both Curve and the principal critiques of it: http://www.indiana.edu/~intell/bellcurve.shtml
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

May 17, 2011: The Other Side

I’ve written here before about my Mom’s job, working in multiple roles with classes, kids, and families in Virginia’s Bright Stars program, a Head Start-like program that targets some of our society’s most at-risk children and families and tries to help them both in and outside of the public education system. A significant number of the families with whom she works are immigrants, and a significant percentage of those immigrant families are here in the United States illegally. And so she is in a particularly strong position to remind me, as she did today, of the other side of efforts such as the DREAM Act—the side in which the federal government seeks actively to find and deport illegal immigrants. As she rightly notes, the Obama Administration, to its great discredit, has been without question the most aggressive of any presidential administration in pursuing such deportations; and as she knows as well as anyone, in many if not most cases deportation also means the tearing apart of a family, and more exactly taking a father and/or mother away from their children (since the 14th Amendment, subject of a future post, still stands despite various proposed changes or repeals, meaning that a child born in the United States is a citizen in every case).
Leaving aside broader arguments over the concept of illegal immigration—although as I’ve also written here before, to my mind the very concept is deeply flawed, since it almost always assumes (in general usage anyway) that there is a set “law” that has been around for a long time and to which all immigrants must adhere; whereas the reality is that immigration laws have been around for only about a century, have in that time nearly always applied only to certain nationalities and ethnicities and served simply to limit who can come, rather than apply equally to all those who do, and have generally reflected an ever-shifting national narrative on immigration that is as far from a set law as it’s possible to imagine—there is to my mind no question that such deportations are not only profoundly cruel and immoral in their effects on families and lives but also entirely unproductive in any other, coldly practical terms. Numerous studies (such as those cited in the first article linked below) have long documented how much more illegal immigrants contribute to the American economy (in the work they do, in the sales taxes they pay, in the [per a 2004 study anyway] approximately $420 billion they pay into Social Security that they can never themselves receive, and so on) than they will ever take away from it. One can debate of course the costs associated with things like public education and emergency Medicaid, but given the tragically tiny percentage of our government budgets that overall spending on such programs entails, it’s laughable to imagine that individuals and families within our education or Medicaid systems are costing us anything significant. And it seems clear to me that the costs of aggressively pursuing deportations far supersede those minimal education and social costs—and do not, of course, result in better-educated and healthier members of society, with all of the resulting communal benefits that such improvements can offer.
 Just as is the case with our current immigration laws overall, these deportation policies are also widely if not overwhelmingly applied to particular groups of immigrants: those from Mexico and Latin America. Yet as the first linked article below notes, by most accounts roughly half of those who are in the United States illegally did not come across a border, but instead have overstayed a visa or the like, and thus could well have immigrated from anywhere in the world. I’m sure that many of the individuals in that latter category are likewise facing increased chances of deportation, and I don’t mean to downplay their situations or challenges. But I’m also sure that the xenophobic national narratives on which opposition to illegal immigration is often based—narratives of disease-carriers, of threatening and criminal presences in our communities, of those seeking a “Reconquista” of the Southwest for Mexico, and so on—depend quite precisely on very specific images of who illegal immigrants are and how fully they can be defined as outside of our national identity. It is when those narratives are challenged, when we recognize that now, as ever, illegal immigration is a huge and shifting category and includes as much diversity and complexity as any other national community, that we are forced to recognize what most fully links all those different illegal immigrant communities, both to each other and to all of the rest of us Americans and humans: their individual identities, their social presences and roles, and most especially still their family relationships.
At the very least, every argument for deportation must engage with the other side of the issue: its effects here in the United States, and more exactly who is left behind and to what effects. It seems to me that it is difficult enough for impoverished and at-risk families in America right now, without our unnecessarily creating more divisions and abandonments and losses, more children without stable homes and present parents. At the end of the day, as with the DREAM Act, the other side is really just those kids, such as the 4 year-olds in a Bright Stars preschool classroom, who aren’t any different at all from any other American kids. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      A pretty strong article on many of the narratives and the respective realities surrounding illegal immigration: http://www.rgj.com/article/20080920/NEWS05/809210310/Assertions-facts-about-immigrants?odyssey=nav%7Chead
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

Monday, May 16, 2011

May 16, 2011 [End of Semester Post 5]: Keep DREAMing

[With about 150 papers and 60 exams to grade in the next week, I’m anticipating that many of my posts over that time will be quicker hits, reflections on the end of a semester. This is the fifth of those!]
In my Ethnic American literature class this semester, I got the chance to teach a wide variety of very impressive authors, including Mary Doyle Curran, Sandra Cisneros, Martín Espada, and Amy Tan. In my American Literature II survey course, the roster of greats included Nella Larsen and Jhumpa Lahiri. Those aren’t the only amazing American voices with whom we engaged in those two courses, but I’m highlighting the six of them because they all have at least one significant experience and element of identity in common: they’re the children of immigrants, folks who either came to the United States with their families at a very young age or were born here to recent immigrant arrivals. Many of the precise details of those immigrations differ of course, including the reasons for the migrations, the places and social words to which they came, and the legality of their parents’ and families’ immigrations. But none of those unique and significant American voices would be a part of our literary history, would I be able to share with my classes and students and continue to learn from myself, had they and their families not been able to stay and grow and succeed in America from those immigrant starting points.
I read a story this morning about a couple of conservative Democrats who are running for office by, at least in part, trying to smear their incumbent Republican opponents (including Senator Richard Lugar) as supporters of the DREAM Act, the proposed Congressional law that would offer the opportunity to achieve citizenship to young Americans who came to the United States with their families illegally at a very young age (below 16), have graduated high school, and are planning either to attend college or to enlist in the military (among other requirements, as spelled out at the link below). It’s true that some Republicans such as Senator Lugar once supported, and in fact co-sponsored, the Act; it’s also the case that all of those Republicans have withdrawn their support as of this writing. But the attacks are smears not because of those position changes, but because they play into many Americans’ most xenophobic and ugly attitudes about immigrant Americans. All those who could benefit from the DREAM Act are, like the authors I discussed above, young Americans who exemplify the best of what our country is and can be, people from around the world who have grown into impressive maturity here and hope to contribute (through their education, their service, their very identities and voices) to our national community and future. There’s no opposition to the Act that doesn’t depend not only on blatant falsehoods about it (which it always does) but also on images of these young people that are so far from, indeed deeply opposite to, the realities of their profoundly exemplary and American situations and lives. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      Full details of the DREAM Act: http://dreamact.info/students
2)      OPEN: What do you think?

Friday, May 13, 2011

May 13, 2011: Party, School

[With about 150 papers and 60 exams to grade in the next week, I’m anticipating that many of my posts over that time will be quicker hits, reflections on the end of a semester. This is the fourth of those!]
A Fitchburg State University colleague of mine linked on Facebook today to a story in the local newspaper about FSU’s annual Spree Day, as the last day of classes is known; the article notes without much elaboration that some 40 students were arrested by Fitchburg police, many for “open container violations” on the city’s streets (where all of the near- but not on-campus housing is located), an unspecified but smaller number for more serious violations (like disturbing the peace). A few of us had a good conversation under that link about the situation, and I don’t want to repeat it at length; to highlight part of my take, I do think that at least in part the situation is unfair for our students, who are in some ways encouraged to live on campus (as the University tries to become more residential compared to its more commuter-dominated past) but for whom there’s not enough literal on-campus housing, leading to these near-campus locations where, if college students act like college students often will (and not, I’m quite sure, any worse than such students act in and on the city streets around the frats at my hometown University of Virginia on a weekly basis), they can and at least on this annual occasion do get arrested.
Of course I think our students should be spending more time studying and less time partying; although given that roughly 99.9% of us professors were among the nerdier folks at each educational level (yes, even among our PhD pursuing peers!), we’re probably not the best cohort to be defining the proper balance between such activities. But the truth, I believe, is that almost all 18-22 year olds are going to party, just like they’re mostly going to work as many hours as they can at crappy jobs in order to pay for those good times and for phone bills and music and you name it. The difference here is that our students, like all students but in some ways more than most (certainly more than me and my Harvard classmates), are doing their best to do it all—to be in school, to party, to work. They’re pulled in lots of different directions, and while of course from part of my perspective I wish they could focus more fully, from another I’m very impressed with all that they juggle in their lives and with their determination to keep college in the mix. Seems like the drinks are deserved, sometimes. More this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

May 12, 2011 [End of Semester Post 3]: Teacher, Examine Thyself

[With about 150 papers and 60 exams to grade in the next week, I’m anticipating that many of my posts over that time will be quicker hits, reflections on the end of a semester. This is the third of those!]
Maybe I’ll get to a point where I don’t feel as if I have anything more to learn about this teaching gig, but I doubt it, and I certainly hope I don’t. Today I had a really good illustration of how important it can be to keep rethinking what we do, even—especially—those things that have worked well for a long time. I’ve taught probably eight or nine sections of American Literature II, and had used more or less the same final exam format every time: a paragraph close reading of a new passage and then a mini-essay linking a couple course texts in a new way. That second part always worked fine, led to some interesting ideas, etc., but this past fall I happened to be reading those finals just after reading the ones from my Intro to Sci Fi and Fantasy class, where the questions are much more creative and fun. Light bulb went off. And so for this semester’s American Literature final, I turned the mini-essay into a choice of one of two (hopefully) more creative and fun questions: a Mr./Ms. American Literature Since 1865 pageant, where three of our characters have to argue for why they’re the most representative character; and a drunken bar conversation where three of our authors are debating whose works best stand the test of time and are worth our continued engagement.
Needless to say, the results, which I looked at briefly and will be grading tonight, are significantly more creative as well. Not only because they include images like Kate Chopin asking Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald if they want to do jello shots, but also and more importantly because they allowed students to have some fun with our texts and voices while still developing analytical takes on them for sure. Makes me wonder why I waited so long to do this. But better late than never, and if I had it all figured out already—well, I’d be wrong. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Any creative or fun assignments you’ve given, taken, seen?

May 11, 2011 [End of Semester Post 2]: On Indoctrinations

[With about 150 papers and 60 exams to grade in the next week, I’m anticipating that many of my posts over that time will be quicker hits, reflections on the end of a semester. This is the second of those!]
As I’ve written about in this space before, my particular teaching philosophy provides a particularly strong contrast to the stereotypes of academics indoctrinating their students into a particular perspective or worldview. Because I would always and in every sense rather hear from my students than be voicing my own ideas, I end up saying precious little over the course of a semester; and if and when I do add my voice to the mix, it’s almost always to highlight different analytical frames or ideas through which the students can further develop their voices, rather than to provide my own analyses or interpretations of a text, issue, or anything else. But even leaving aside my own particular philosophy, I can say with absolute certainty that of the many, many colleagues at a wide variety of institutions with whom I’ve talked about teaching, every single one has defined his or her job much more through the lens of what students can do and strengthen, rather than what we can beam from our heads and perspectives into theirs. For us, the end of a semester successes are when it feels like they’re getting there—and there has nothing to do with any particular space (political, social, or otherwise) that we occupy.
I’m thinking about this today not only because it’s the last day of classes, nor only because I’m about to start grading a batch of papers and in so doing judging entirely their abilities to develop their own analyses and arguments, and not at all whether I’d argue the same or analyze in the same way. I’m also responding to an article I read today (linked below) about the Koch Brothers, the billionaire Tea Partiers and Governor Scott Walker supporters who have contributed a sizeable amount of money to a Florida State University with the explicit requirement that they have significant say over faculty hires in an Economics Program there. Just wanted to note the irony here—it’s conservatives who have consistently complained about us indoctrinating academics, and yet it’s two of the most prominent American conservatives who have instituted the most explicit system of overt indoctrination I’ve ever encountered. I know what grade I’d give these guys, anyway. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Two links to start with:
2)      OPEN: What do you think?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

May 10, 2011 [End of Semester Post 1]: All That We Leave Behind

[With about 150 papers and 60 exams to grade in the next week, I’m anticipating that many of my posts over that time will be quicker hits, reflections on the end of a semester. This is the first of those!]
I don’t think I’ve ever gotten to the last day of a semester—and today was the last day of class for two of my five courses, with a third having ended last night; the other two end tomorrow—without some serious regrets for what we didn’t quite get to talk about. That doesn’t mean that we haven’t had great conversations, or even that I see the classes as having failed in any main ways; quite the opposite, I have felt very good about all but one of the 54 classes I’ve taught in my time at Fitchburg State (and the one that felt less good was in my first semester and led to both a new syllabus that is an all-time favorite of mine and to two articles!). It’s just that the kinds of reflections prompted by a last day always entail, at least for me, an awareness of what we’ve been able to do in our 30 or so meetings and what has been left behind along the way.
 I’m not complaining about this feeling, though. In fact, I have to say that if I ever felt the alternative—felt that we had nothing left to say, that the semester was ending just in time—it might well be a sign that I need to look for an alternate line of work as well. Because one of the true beauties of this gig is that I get to come back in a few months and start it all fresh—new classes, new communities, new conversations (with some students I already know and many I have yet to meet). We won’t get to everything in any of those conversations either, but I know I’ll love trying to do so.
More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Any end of semester or year reflections from you fellow teachers (and students) out there?

Monday, May 9, 2011

May 9, 2011: Planes, Trains, and Americans

Two Muslim American men were removed from a flight—actually not allowed even to board the flight, at least per the story to which I’ve linked below—this weekend; the removal was due, it seems clear (and I understand that the specifics in any individual situation can be different from a published story, and that I’m using this individual situation to make a larger point which I believe holds true regardless), solely to their appearances and those appearances’ connotations. As far as I know, there are not necessarily legal ways to respond to such an action; airlines are of course private companies, and while laws like the Civil Rights Act do prohibit companies from discriminating against individuals based solely on their race or ethnicity, I have a feeling that the airline in question here would try to make a case that there were other issues or factors that precipitated their response. (Or perhaps not, and the men will successfully sue for wrongful discrimination; that’d be fine by me, but wouldn’t elide the broader issues at play here.)
Yet the situation does resonate profoundly with my AmericanStudies interests, not only for its contemporary ramifications but also because of its complicated parallels to one of our nation’s most egregiously wrong-headed legal perspectives. In 1896, a Louisiana man named Homer Plessy took all the way to the Supreme Court his legal challenge to the system of Jim Crow segregation, and more specifically to his state’s segregated railway cars; Plessy, a shoemaker who had been active in efforts to reform public education in New Orleans, was 1/8th African American (the minimum percentage as defined by Louisiana law to qualify an individual as an African American and so subject to Jim Crow law) and had in 1892 purposefully sat in a “white” train car and self-identified his racial makeup to the train’s conductor, leading to his forcible removal from that car. Plessy’s case was eloquently argued, as I noted in an earlier post, by Albion Tourgée, but the court ruled 8-1 to uphold the system of segregation, famously depending on the idea of “separate but equal” spaces for the different races as a linchpin of its arguments. Justice John Marshall Harlan was the sole dissenter, arguing eloquently for the kind of color-blind legal system for which Tourgée had likewise argued (although Harlan did employ as part of his argument profoundly discriminatory attitudes toward Chinese Americans, who were permitted by Louisiana law to ride in “white” cars, making clear just how complex and fraught issues of race have been in any and all of our national narratives).
It’s very easy, of course, to note the many differences between these situations, both those that seem comparatively to ameliorate the realities for post-9/11 Muslim Americans (there is no current set of state- or region-wide laws that produce discriminations like these; many Muslim Americans thus no doubt fly without incident every day) and those that perhaps exacerbate them for that community (there are not any separate—whether equal or otherwise—facilities or opportunities to which individuals like these two men can turn when they’re discriminated against; a significant portion of America in the 1890s was at least less aggressively discriminating against African Americans, whereas it could be argued that the nation as a whole has been in many ways united in opposition to Muslims over the last decade). To draw parallels between different time periods, different societies, different communities, different historical events is in any case a difficult and potentially dangerous task, one that can cloud our understandings of either era as much as it can help us understand both and our nation through them. Yet on the other hand, historical parallels can indeed help us better recognize and understand both national tendencies—such as our ability to section off racial or ethnic communities whom we hope to define as somehow outside of our core national identity; note not only these two but also Native American reservations and the Japanese Internment, among other examples—and what different American communities and individuals have experienced as a result of our communal and even legal actions and their effects.
As I finalize this entry, an msn.com headline informs me that a Senator (I don’t have the heart to click through and find out which one, but I can imagine the possibilities) is proposing a “Do Not Ride” list for the Amtrak system. Again, it’s easy to see how the impetus for such a proposal seems radically different from those behind the rise of Jim Crow segregation; but in some important ways that vision of difference would be inaccurate. The Black Codes that preceded and led to Jim Crow were likewise framed—as in some ways for that matter was “separate but equal”—very much as a law and order response, one that attempted to curb crime and chaos and make our communities safe for all who lived in them. But as with so many national narratives, these depended and still depend entirely on definitions of America in which those being excluded from our planes and trains are fundamentally less important than those who are not. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
2)      Full texts of the Plessy opinion and dissent: http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0163_0537_ZO.html
3)      OPEN: What do you think?