MyAmericanFuture

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Thursday, June 30, 2011

June 30, 2011 [Dream-Guest Post]: Bruce on Clarence

[Having posted my own eulogy of sorts for Clarence Clemons, it only seems right to post Bruce Springsteen’s actual eulogy, as delivered at the Big Man’s funeral. It’s currently up on Bruce’s site, brucespringsteen.net, but there’s no separate link for it, and I want this post of mine to endure long after that specific page might change. So I’m going to paste the whole thing here, and hopefully not get sued. It’s a beautiful and moving and funny piece, and I sure wish I could have heard it in person!]
“This is a slightly revised version of the eulogy I delivered for Clarence at his memorial. I'd like to thank all our fans and friends who have comforted us over the past difficult weeks.
FOR THE BIG MAN
I've been sitting here listening to everyone talk about Clarence and staring at that photo of the two of us right there. It's a picture of Scooter and The Big Man, people who we were sometimes. As you can see in this particular photo, Clarence is admiring his muscles and I'm pretending to be nonchalant while leaning upon him. I leaned on Clarence a lot; I made a career out of it in some ways.
Those of us who shared Clarence's life, shared with him his love and his confusion. Though "C" mellowed with age, he was always a wild and unpredictable ride. Today I see his sons Nicky, Chuck, Christopher and Jarod sitting here and I see in them the reflection of a lot of C's qualities. I see his light, his darkness, his sweetness, his roughness, his gentleness, his anger, his brilliance, his handsomeness, and his goodness. But, as you boys know your pop was a not a day at the beach. "C" lived a life where he did what he wanted to do and he let the chips, human and otherwise, fall where they may. Like a lot of us your pop was capable of great magic and also of making quite an amazing mess. This was just the nature of your daddy and my beautiful friend. Clarence's unconditional love, which was very real, came with a lot of conditions. Your pop was a major project and always a work in progress. "C" never approached anything linearly, life never proceeded in a straight line. He never went A... B.... C.... D. It was always A... J.... C.... Z... Q... I....! That was the way Clarence lived and made his way through the world. I know that can lead to a lot of confusion and hurt, but your father also carried a lot of love with him, and I know he loved each of you very very dearly.
It took a village to take care of Clarence Clemons. Tina, I'm so glad you're here. Thank you for taking care of my friend, for loving him. Victoria, you've been a loving, kind and caring wife to Clarence and you made a huge difference in his life at a time when the going was not always easy. To all of "C's" vast support network, names too numerous to mention, you know who you are and we thank you. Your rewards await you at the pearly gates. My pal was a tough act but he brought things into your life that were unique and when he turned on that love light, it illuminated your world. I was lucky enough to stand in that light for almost 40 years, near Clarence's heart, in the Temple of Soul.
So a little bit of history: from the early days when Clarence and I traveled together, we'd pull up to the evening's lodgings and within minutes "C" would transform his room into a world of his own. Out came the colored scarves to be draped over the lamps, the scented candles, the incense, the patchouli oil, the herbs, the music, the day would be banished, entertainment would come and go, and Clarence the Shaman would reign and work his magic, night after night. Clarence's ability to enjoy Clarence was incredible. By 69, he'd had a good run, because he'd already lived about 10 lives, 690 years in the life of an average man. Every night, in every place, the magic came flying out of C's suitcase. As soon as success allowed, his dressing room would take on the same trappings as his hotel room until a visit there was like a trip to a sovereign nation that had just struck huge oil reserves. "C" always knew how to live. Long before Prince was out of his diapers, an air of raunchy mysticism ruled in the Big Man's world. I'd wander in from my dressing room, which contained several fine couches and some athletic lockers, and wonder what I was doing wrong! Somewhere along the way all of this was christened the Temple of Soul; and "C" presided smilingly over its secrets, and its pleasures. Being allowed admittance to the Temple's wonders was a lovely thing.
As a young child my son Sam became enchanted with the Big Man... no surprise. To a child Clarence was a towering fairy tale figure, out of some very exotic storybook. He was a dreadlocked giant, with great hands and a deep mellifluous voice sugared with kindness and regard. And... to Sammy, who was just a little white boy, he was deeply and mysteriously black. In Sammy's eyes, "C" must have appeared as all of the African continent, shot through with American cool, rolled into one welcoming and loving figure. So... Sammy decided to pass on my work shirts and became fascinated by Clarence's suits and his royal robes. He declined a seat in dad's van and opted for "C's" stretch limousine, sitting by his side on the slow cruise to the show. He decided dinner in front of the hometown locker just wouldn't do, and he'd saunter up the hall and disappear into the Temple of Soul.
Of course, also enchanted was Sam's dad, from the first time I saw my pal striding out of the shadows of a half empty bar in Asbury Park, a path opening up before him; here comes my brother, here comes my sax man, my inspiration, my partner, my lifelong friend. Standing next to Clarence was like standing next to the baddest ass on the planet. You were proud, you were strong, you were excited and laughing with what might happen, with what together, you might be able to do. You felt like no matter what the day or the night brought, nothing was going to touch you. Clarence could be fragile but he also emanated power and safety, and in some funny way we became each other's protectors; I think perhaps I protected "C" from a world where it still wasn't so easy to be big and black. Racism was ever present and over the years together, we saw it. Clarence's celebrity and size did not make him immune. I think perhaps "C" protected me from a world where it wasn't always so easy to be an insecure, weird and skinny white boy either. But, standing together we were badass, on any given night, on our turf, some of the baddest asses on the planet. We were united, we were strong, we were righteous, we were unmovable, we were funny, we were corny as hell and as serious as death itself. And we were coming to your town to shake you and to wake you up. Together, we told an older, richer story about the possibilities of friendship that transcended those I'd written in my songs and in my music. Clarence carried it in his heart. It was a story where the Scooter and the Big Man not only busted the city in half, but we kicked ass and remade the city, shaping it into the kind of place where our friendship would not be such an anomaly. And that... that's what I'm gonna miss. The chance to renew that vow and double down on that story on a nightly basis, because that is something, that is the thing that we did together... the two of us. Clarence was big, and he made me feel, and think, and love, and dream big. How big was the Big Man? Too fucking big to die. And that's just the facts. You can put it on his grave stone, you can tattoo it over your heart. Accept it... it's the New World.
Clarence doesn't leave the E Street Band when he dies. He leaves when we die.
So, I'll miss my friend, his sax, the force of nature his sound was, his glory, his foolishness, his accomplishments, his face, his hands, his humor, his skin, his noise, his confusion, his power, his peace. But his love and his story, the story that he gave me, that he whispered in my ear, that he allowed me to tell... and that he gave to you... is gonna carry on. I'm no mystic, but the undertow, the mystery and power of Clarence and my friendship leads me to believe we must have stood together in other, older times, along other rivers, in other cities, in other fields, doing our modest version of god's work... work that's still unfinished. So I won't say goodbye to my brother, I'll simply say, see you in the next life, further on up the road, where we will once again pick up that work, and get it done.
Big Man, thank you for your kindness, your strength, your dedication, your work, your story. Thanks for the miracle... and for letting a little white boy slip through the side door of the Temple of Soul.
SO LADIES AND GENTLEMAN... ALWAYS LAST, BUT NEVER LEAST. LET'S HEAR IT FOR THE MASTER OF DISASTER, the BIG KAHUNA, the MAN WITH A PHD IN SAXUAL HEALING, the DUKE OF PADUCAH, the KING OF THE WORLD, LOOK OUT OBAMA! THE NEXT BLACK PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES EVEN THOUGH HE'S DEAD... YOU WISH YOU COULD BE LIKE HIM BUT YOU CAN'T! LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE BIGGEST MAN YOU'VE EVER SEEN!... GIVE ME A C-L-A-R-E-N-C-E. WHAT'S THAT SPELL? CLARENCE! WHAT'S THAT SPELL? CLARENCE! WHAT'S THAT SPELL? CLARENCE! ... amen.
I'm gonna leave you today with a quote from the Big Man himself, which he shared on the plane ride home from Buffalo, the last show of the last tour. As we celebrated in the front cabin congratulating one another and telling tales of the many epic shows, rocking nights and good times we'd shared, "C" sat quietly, taking it all in, then he raised his glass, smiled and said to all gathered, "This could be the start of something big."
Love you, "C".”
More tomorrow,
Ben

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

June 29, 2011: Fits the Profile

In both the Preface to my just-released book and my March 10th post here I argued that Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots)” responds to the Amadou Diallo case by creating a sympathetic portrayal of both the undercover police officers and the unarmed victim (before moving on to even broader and more sweeping questions of race, nation, community, and identity). I think Springsteen’s song most definitely does work to extend its sympathies in both directions, and think moreover (as I wrote in both those spots) that the stakes of finding connections between such seemingly and violently divided Americans are incredibly high. But as with any complex and dark historical event, the Diallo shooting can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be boiled down to a single narrative, and it’s important to add that those who would read the shooting as an example of racial profiling and/or police brutality have a case: the undercover cops were looking for the suspect in a violent rape and identified Diallo as that suspect because he lived in the same building and, yes, was the same race; and even if they did believe him to have a weapon, they shot at him 41 times at close range, a level of response for which the word “brutality” does not feel inappropriate.
So as with most of the events and questions about which I’ve written here, the answer would have to be that there is no one answer: that the cops in the Diallo case were likely similar to their victim in being afraid for their lives (the communal connection to which Springsteen’s title phrase initially refers), and that humanizing their perspective and emotions as well as Diallo’s is a fair and important response; but that they were also likely acting out of some of the worst perspectives and emotions that those in power can embody, the kinds of oppressive and brutal attitudes that not only reflect but can also further communal divisions along racial, cultural, social, and other lines. If this mixed narrative of the event seems unsatisfying, I would argue that one of the main reasons is precisely that meta-narratives tend to depend on more simplifying and unified concepts: so on the one hand policies or practices of racial profiling link all members of a certain racial or ethnic community to one another and to certain negative traits or actions, while excluding any other, and especially all individual, attributes or characteristics of those people; while on the other, similar hand narratives of police brutality define police officers solely through their collective power and abuses of same, while generally excluding any sense of the officers as individuals with their own complex emotions, perspectives, and identities.
I obviously think that it’s important to get beyond such narratives, and that virtually all historical events cannot be fully understood, much less analyzed and engaged with, until and unless we do. But I’ll also be the first to admit that at times it’s very difficult not to give in to the simpler narratives, particularly when it comes to oppressive and violent events. What led me to think about the Diallo case again is another, ongoing controversy, this time over police shootings of unarmed, black New Orleans residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And what makes this case significantly more troubling is the place where it diverges from the Diallo shooting: here again, as the news story at the first link indicates, police officers believed themselves to be threatened and shot first; but apparently in this case, when the officers discovered that their victims were unarmed, they immediately concocted a cover up, a false story about being fired upon, and stuck to it for years afterward. The desire to lie in order to escape responsibility, especially for horrifying actions like these (and with the consequences that would follow from admitting that responsibility), is of course another human emotion; but when it leads to a systematic and broad cover up, to efforts by multiple authority figures (including the officer who has now come forward to reveal the truth) to further stigmatize the victims rather than deal with the harsh realities of the case in question, it’s simple but accurate to call this police brutality and corruption at its most profound.
Perhaps the ultimate point here is similarly simple, at least in theory: every incident and event needs to be investigated, examined, and analyzed on its own terms, with larger narratives and contexts acknowledged but not taken for granted or assumed. Sometimes those analyses will lead to more positive perspectives or answers, to ideas about what connects rather than what divides us; sometimes they’ll reveal and indeed reaffirm the worst of what we can be and have been. But at the end of the day, the result will be a fuller and more accurate profile of American history and identity, of what we’ve been and of where we go from there. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      A story on the post-Katrina cover-up: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/43567683/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts/?GT1=43001
2)      A long but very thorough Dept of Justice study on racial profiling practices: http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/bja/184768.pdf
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

June 28, 2011 [Tribute post 17]: Only Connect!

One of my favorite bumper stickers is the one that reads “God Bless the Whole World, No Exceptions.” As I made explicit in my April 23-24th post on atheism, I don’t believe in God, but to my mind the point of that bumper sticker is something other than a spiritual one (although I take the spiritual point for sure). Partly it’s a refusal to endorse a knee-jerk and parochial form of American exceptionalism, the God Bless America kind that blindly defines our nation as the best in the world; I’ve said more than enough in my toward-book-three posts about my preferred form of patriotism, one which I believe can still emphasize what is truly exceptional about our nation but can do so in necessary light of what has often been so far from ideal. But the bumper sticker says more than that—it also expresses a vision of the world in which all people are equal in the most profound sense, all posses the same human soul (which again goes beyond spirituality to me), and thus all are worthy of and in fact require the same respect and acceptance from their fellow men and women. (At least until they prove that they don’t—I don’t think this perspective makes it impossible to see certain people as ultimately evil and unworthy of our respect and acceptance, but it does make clear that such people can come from anywhere, including right here.)
 The British novelist E.M. Forster perhaps expressed this sentiment most succinctly and powerfully in Howard’s End (1910), when describing the “sermon” that his heroine Margaret Schlegel hopes to impart to her fiancĂ© Henry Wilcox. “She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man,” Forster writes, and then, with even more concision and clarity: “Only connect!” Forster and Margaret mean here and throughout the novel partly the need for connection between two people, for romantic and physical love and passion, which is a separate (if no less significant and ultimately interconnected) topic to be sure. But as the “in the soul of every man” line indicates, and as the novel’s social plots and themes certainly exemplify, Forster without question likewise argues for those broader and more communal kinds of connection, for the ties that bind all people to one another. And Forster’s next novel, A Passage to India (1924), could be said to focus ultimately on both the great challenges to such connection and yet the continued necessity of striving for it as an ideal. In that book’s final chapter, its British hero Cyril Fielding expresses his most earnest wish, to “be friends” with its Indian hero Dr. Aziz, recognizing that “It’s what I want. It’s what you want”; Forster follows these lines by noting that the whole historical and cultural world around the two men seems to rebel against the idea, responding, “No, not yet” and “No, not there,” but I would argue that the novel as a whole has constituted an eloquent argument in favor of such cross-cultural friendship, or at least in dire warning about the consequences if (to put it too simply) the two men and nations can’t learn to be friends.
It’s easier in many ways to go with the pessimism of those rejections instead, perhaps especially in a 21st century American world where we often can’t even quite imagine connecting to those of different political perspectives (and I’ll freely admit to being guilty as charged too much of the time these days), much less to (for example) citizens of Iran or Afghanistan. But I’m willing to bet that each of us has inspiring people in our lives to whom we can look for examples of precisely such connections, not theorized or philosophized but lived and embodied on a daily basis. My Mom spent a couple hours today in a pediatric intensive care unit, sitting with the mother of one of her school’s Bright Stars kids, a woman whose two year-old daughter is in critical condition. The woman is actually assigned to another counselor, not my Mom; she speaks mostly Spanish, and my Mom mostly English (although her self-taught Spanish is impressive and improving!); to say that my Mom has plenty of other, often similarly exhausting and emergent and always present, work that could occupy those couple of hours would be an understatement. But there she sat, and if I had to boil down the many worthy reasons why she did so (including some key practical ones, such as asking the hospital chaplain to find someone to pray with the mom), I would say it’s because she has and is connected to this woman. She connects to each of the program’s families, of course to their cute and awesome kids but also to the parents and other relatives, to the many complicated and challenging and profoundly human lives and identities she encounters, and because of that connection impacts and strengthens, every day.
To say that my Mom didn’t tell me about those couple hours expecting that I would turn them into a blog post is yet another understatement. But they and she deserve this tribute post, not because she’s my Mom (I mean, that too, but not specifically), but because they and she exemplify so fully the best of both what can be truly exceptional about our American community and what human connection truly means and entails. If we can all connect to, and then emulate, such an example, we’ll be a long way toward where we so desperately need to go. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      A great essay on similar themes (and with the same title) by the also very inspiring Dr. William Cronon, he of the recent right-wing attacks at the U of Wisconsin: http://www.williamcronon.net/writing/Cronon_Only_Connect.pdf
2)      The whole of Howard’s End; the “Only connect!” quote is in Chapter 22: http://www.online-literature.com/forster/howards_end/
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

Monday, June 27, 2011

June 27, 2011: The Mysteries of Memory

One of the more interesting, if mostly taken for granted by readers, literary puzzles is the role of first-person narration in mystery fiction. For a century or so the first-person narrator was a friend and confidant of the detective: the unnamed narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin stories (which are often seen as originating the genre), Dr. Watson in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales, Captain Hastings in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels, and the like; these narrators usually depicted themselves as consciously writing down the detective’s exploits after the fact (which is plausible enough, if of course complicated in that the narrator thus knows the resolution of the mystery throughout the story). With the 20th-century shift to American hard-boiled detective fiction, however, the first-person narrator became more often than not the detective him- (and eventually her-) self, introducing a couple more complicating questions into the mix: when the story is being narrated (they are written in the past tense and occasionally include a distant perspective on the events being described (“I should have known she was trouble the second she walked into my office,” to cite a particularly stereotypical example), but at the same time often feel as if the events are unfolding in the present); and, if the story is being narrated from some future moment, whether we can necessarily trust the narrator’s memories (especially since most fictional detectives are not nearly as disinterested in their cases and clients as they might pretend).
As far as I know (or at least as far as I have read), the vast majority of first-person detective novels sidestep these questions, and in fact depend on a reader doing the same: that is, if the reader begins to doubt the detective’s memories or reliability as a narrator, the entire premise of the story would pretty quickly fall apart. While of course unreliable first-person narrators are entirely possible as a fictional option, as Edgar Allan Poe himself proves in stories like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat,” they would seem antithetical to the goals of mystery fiction, and more exactly to how fully the reader relies on the detective to guide us to the text and mystery’s successful conclusion. But there are a couple of terrific late 20th-century (in fact from the same year, coincidentally) mystery novels that not only acknowledge these issues, but make them central to their literary projects and themes, all without abandoning (revising, to be sure, but still deploying very successfully to my mind) the classic elements of mystery fiction: Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music (1994) and Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods (1994).
The two novels could not be more distinct in either setting or tone: Lethem’s is a work of satirical and humorous science-fiction, set in a somewhat distant (if certainly recognizably possible) future which includes genetically mutated talking kangaroos and various psychological and medical uses of technology for humans as well; O’Brien’s is a tense psychological and historical thriller, focused on a Vietnam veteran turned politician whose career is destroyed by revelations of a My Lai like incident. O’Brien’s novelist-narrator is not even explicitly a detective, although he certainly has investigated extensively the novel’s central mysteries (which I wouldn’t dream of spoiling here!). But what both novels share is a fascinating use of the issue of memory itself to complicate and enrich their mystery plots: in Lethem’s work, a medical procedure that can erase memories and replace them with pre-fabricated narratives becomes both crucial to the detective’s ongoing investigations and instrumental to his narration, as he goes into a six-year cryogenic sleep in the middle of the novel and awakes on the other side of such a procedure; in O’Brien’s, virtually all of the central themes come down to the parallel questions first of the memories of war and their accompanying traumas and aftereffects and second to how much any individual or community can rely on memory to determine the truths of histories and lives.
It feels somewhat strange to link these two texts in this space, since O’Brien’s is deeply concerned with American history and culture and Lethem’s much less so (although it has plenty to say about life in Los Angeles in the late 20th century, as viewed through its futuristic fun-house mirror). If you’ve only got time for one, I recommend O’Brien, for that reason and just because it’s one of the best novels by one of our most important contemporary novelists. But they both rework the mystery genre in very fun and successful ways, and in so doing both have a lot to say about not only such books and their readers, but about the human identities and issues (like memory) to which they always connect. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
2)      Great essay on O’Brien by one of our most important scholars, H. Bruce Franklin: http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~hbf/obrien.html
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

June 25, 2011 [Tribute Post 16]: Just A Few More Things

Legendary actor Peter Falk passed away today. Falk was great in a wide range of roles, including as a leading man in two John Cassavetes films and as the grandfather in and narrator of The Princess Bride (1987). But for me he will always first and foremost be Lieutenant (first name unknown) Columbo, the best TV detective (with all due respect to Vincent D’Onofrio’s Bobby Goren and Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes, among other candidates) and one of the greatest TV characters period. To that end, and with Columbo’s signature “just one more question” in mind, here are two of the things that make his character an inspiring (fictional) American, plus, yes, just one more:
1)      He’s Comfortable In His Own Skin (Well, Raincoat): Much has been made of the ways in which Columbo plays up his confusion/befuddledness in order to catch too-clever-by-half murderers off-guard, and that’s certainly part of his detecting repertoire. But I would argue that the majority of his endearing mannerisms are, like that rumpled raincoat, just who the guy is; when he’s ordering the chili at his favorite diner or taking his dog for a walk, he’s not putting on an act, just being comfortably himself. Just so happens that himself is also brilliant, which works out.
2)      He Doesn’t Forget the Heart: That brilliance is Columbo’s foremost feature to be sure, and in some cases/episodes is the driving force throughout his investigation. But in others, including some of the show’s most memorable, Columbo also lets his very big heart come into the equation. Sometimes that means getting genuinely angry, especially with killers who are willing to sacrifice and/or injure other innocents along the way. And sometimes it means coming to care for a killer, and seeing justice as tragic if still necessary. But in any case, these moments just add one more layer to the character and portrayal, and I remember and treasure every one.
I think that’s it for now. Oh, I almost forgot, just one more inspiring detail:
3)      He’s a True Democrat: No, not in the political sense, although I do firmly believe that Columbo votes that way. But in the best philosophical sense: perhaps Columbo’s most defining quality is his complete, entirely polite but very thorough, destruction of hierarchies based on privilege or class or elite status of any kind. Not all of the murderers come from the very top rungs of society, but a great many of them do; and contrary to some narratives, Columbo doesn’t take them down due to some sort of anti-elite pose, but rather because they deserve it, irrespective of any status they might have. And as I noted above, he takes them as the individual people they are—the more sympathetic ones he comes to like and respect, the entirely unsympathetic ones he most certainly doesn’t, and the rest get the same thing every other person he meets does: justice, served with a sense of fairness and humor and genuine soul.
Thanks for all the inspiring moments, Peter. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Great example of Columbo’s investigative style, with murderer Rip Torn: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZiv8vkxMac&feature=related
2)      And a very different Falk, from Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOaiBZNcyY0
3)      OPEN: Any Peter memories to share?

Friday, June 24, 2011

June 24, 2011: No, Your (and My) Ancestors Were Not Legal Immigrants (Renamed Repeat)

[After reading a couple different comment threads on articles about Jose Antonio Vargas, I feel a need to repeat this post. The number of people who want this guy—who, again, was sent to America at the age of 12 by his Mom—arrested, deported, and/or put in some sort of black site prison for the rest of time is deeply frustrating. If you’re reading this and could send this post to one other person you know, perhaps especially somebody who thinks “illegal immigrant” is a category that has existed since America’s origins and/or has meant something static throughout our history, I’d sure appreciate it.]
I haven’t kept track, but I think it’s quite possible that immigration has been the focal point for more of my posts here than any other theme or topic. While those posts have cut across a pretty wide range of different sub-topics within that theme—from the Chinese Exclusion Act and Angel Island to the Statue of Liberty and the DREAM Act, among others—I would say that there’s been at least one point that I’ve tried to make in each of those pieces. But because it hasn’t been the main point of any of them, and because it goes so hard against the grain of some of our most assumed and shared national narratives about immigration, I want to foreground it as clearly as I possibly can here: for most of our history, for the vast majority of arrivals to America, there was no such thing as legal or illegal immigration. Even after the 1880s, when the first immigrations laws were passed, this remained the case; up until at least the 1920s (and really the 1960s), if you weren’t trying to immigrate from one of the nations that had been limited or excluded as a result of those laws (and if you didn’t have an obvious dangerous illness or the like), you were neither a legal nor an illegal immigrant, just a new arrival to the United States.
I come back to this here, with more force, because of none other than Sarah Palin, whose bizarre non-campaign bus-tour-campaign of the nation arrived at Ellis Island today. In anticipation of that arrival she tweeted that she planned while there to “celebrate legal immigrants’ work ethic and love of freedom,” overtly conflating (as so many Americans, even much better-informed ones than Palin, do) Ellis Island arrivals with legal immigrants. And once there, she responded to a question about the DREAM Act by arguing that “the immigrants of the past, they had to literally and figuratively stand in line and follow the rules to become U.S. citizens. And unfortunately, the DREAM Act kind of usurps the system that is a legal system” [sentence continues but I’m not doing it an injustice by cutting, and that’s enough Palin quoting]. But as Ellis Island’s own official site history details at great length (see the first link below), and as any tour of the facility would likewise no doubt highlight, the lines and rules for those arrivals to Ellis Island had nothing to do with the law—there were certainly policies and procedures in place, mostly to weed out that small percentage who were not allowed to enter (the Chinese after 1882, for example; again, immigrants with obvious and threatening illnesses), then mostly as a 3-5 hour hoop of questions and waiting through which each arrival had to jump. But once that person had made it through the hoop, he or she was free to enter the United States—and fourteen years later, give or take, provided once again that he or she wasn’t from certain excluded countries, he or she could apply for citizenship with far less rigor and far fewer requirements than are asked of the kids who would be eligible for the DREAM Act.
Even if we leave Palin out of this, as I would dearly like to, the stakes of this question could not be higher—more than 100 million Americans can trace their heritage back to folks who arrived at Ellis Island, and if those 100 million believe that their ancestors were legal immigrants, in direct and non-contextualized contrast to today’s illegal immigrants, it becomes nearly impossible for the conversation on the issue to go anywhere other than condemnation. Whereas if those 100 million recognize that such laws simply did not apply to the vast majority of those Ellis arrivals, that the situation is entirely different for many contemporary immigrants (or, more accurately, that many of those contemporary immigrants face situations similar to those experienced by the Chinese in the 1890s), then the conversation can begin in earnest. But as someone who thinks pretty much daily (duh) about public scholarship and American identity, I can’t leave Palin out—a frightening high percentage of Americans are getting their historical information and narratives from Palin, from Glenn Beck University, from Michele Bachmann (who thinks Concord and Lexington were in New Hampshire), from Herman Cain (who is running for President on a platform of restoring the Constitution and believes the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is in that document), and their ilk. And it’s not just that those narratives are partisan or driven by contemporary politics or culturally exclusionary (although they’re all those things)—it’s that the information is inaccurate, false, just plain wrong.
Clearly, there’s a lot of work to be done. I can, I believe, do a bit of it, but mostly what I can do is help direct Americans to our shared history, to the complex and challenging but more real narratives and details of who and what we’ve done. From there, it’s on all of us to keep doing the learning and analyzing, to keep talking about these issues in more informed and communally meaningful ways, and see what happens next. I don’t think that’s just a dream. More this weekend,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
2)      A pretty strong and thorough overview of American immigration laws: http://academic.udayton.edu/race/02rights/immigr01.htm
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

June 23, 2011: An Inspiring Redefiner

First, a link (not to this post itself, although it’s interesting as always from Digby, but to the NYT Magazine story to which she links, and which I believe you can read login-free if you go through her site):
Jose Antonio Vargas, the author of that Times Magazine story, has been well-known for some time as a Pulitzer-winning journalist; but in this lengthy and incredibly powerful essay he outs himself as an undocumented immigrant, and more exactly as precisely the kind of American identity whom the DREAM Act is meant to aid—came to the US as a very young kid, made a success of himself in this home land including college and much after, and has more than fulfilled every possible promise he possessed and opportunity he earned.
Jose isn’t stopping at sharing these potentially controversial but also deeply inspiring experiences, though; he has created a website and project, Define American (http://defineamerican.com/), where he hopes to use his story and the many, many American stories like it to help revise and strengthen two types of crucial national narratives: the specific ones about illegal immigrants and immigration overall; and the broader and even more vital ones about who is and is not an American. It no doubt goes without saying, even for those who know me only through this blog, that I am fully and admiringly and gratefully in support of what he’s doing; not only his work with these crucial national narratives, but also and even more strikingly his willingness to open up about his own, far-too-often attacked but entirely impressive, American identity and experiences.
On the other hand, I suppose it’s possible for someone to dismiss Vargas’ efforts, his work to change these broader narratives, as simply (or even partly) self-justification or –rationalization, as an attempt to legitimize his own otherwise illegitimate identity. (I would hope that no one would feel that way after reading his piece or checking out the website, but of course a large part of adhering to simplistic narratives often entails not engaging with the evidence and texts.) Which makes it that much more vital for those of us with no conceivable personal stake in this equation to express both support for Vargas and, even more significantly, our own shared beliefs that if American is to mean anything genuine and important, if it is to comprise a community that’s more than just geographic or political or legal, that’s human and interconnected and inspiring, it simply must include, and should in fact celebrate, an identity and life like Vargas’.
You know me well enough to know, I hope, that I’m not going to tell you what to do. But there are many options on the Define American site for getting involved with Vargas’ work, and I think they’re all great ways to support these efforts. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. No more links needed, but what do you think?

UPDATE. Read a story about Vargas on msn.com's homepage, and one of the reader comments that had received the most "likes" read simply: "arrest and deport him." These are among the very high stakes, just in case it wasn't clear; whether Americans like Vargas will be welcomed into our (and their own) national community or forcibly removed from it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

June 22, 2011: Judge Not?

One of our nation’s longest-running and most complex political narratives has to be our split-personality image of the Supreme Court. On the one hand, from the Constitution on we’ve constructed the Court and its Justices as the only governmental (and perhaps only national) figures who exist and work outside of the political realm: appointed for life, subject only to their consciences and their interpretation of that founding document and of the law, even their chamber and deliberations purposefully isolated and exempt from public access and media coverage. Yet on the other, those Justices and their decisions have become famous and noteworthy in direct relation to their influence over social and deeply political issues: from at least John Marshall’s 1832 rebuke to Andrew Jackson over Indian Removal and the Taney Court’s 1857 embrace of slavery in Dred Scott, the most prominent decisions have been those that responded directly to political controversies. And in large part because of that prominence, the question of presidential appointments of Justices—who will be chosen, the confirmation process, how he or she will rule on the major issues of the day, and so on—has increasingly become one of our most talked-about and politicized national conversations.
The truth, of course, likely lies somewhere in the middle. Supreme Court Justices are human beings, and usually lifelong politically active ones, at that; it’s only logical that they would carry their human interests and opinions into their Court work. Moreover, it’s worth noting that the kinds of cases that most often reach the Supreme Court level are the most socially and politically (as well as legally) significant, and thus the ones for which it can be most difficult to separate the law from those other factors and elements .Yet it’s also important to note that in many if not most cases, as the ample available documentation of a significant percentage of the Court’s decisions and stated opinions illustrates, the Court and Justices have indeed been able to focus their attention on the law, on precedent, on the Constitution (or at least on their interpretations of it, which is the only possible response). That the Court has been subsequently proven stunningly, inarguably wrong in some of the most famous such decisions (the aforementioned Dred and Plessy v. Ferguson in particular) tells us, I would argue, less about politics or bias and more about the significant and crucial evolution of the law (and Constitution) itself over the Court’s more than two centuries of existence. And so a nuanced AmericanStudies approach to the Court’s history would, I believe, acknowledge the human and political side without discounting the genuinely legal and powerful role the Court has played throughout our national history and especially (whether for good or for ill) at some of our most complex moments.
It can be difficult to apply such nuanced thinking to a contemporary moment and controversy, and so I’ll be the first to admit that my point in this paragraph (like any of my points in any post here, but even more so) could be mistaken. But it does seem to me as if the Court’s balance between human/political and legal/ideal has shifted over the last decade, and not for the better. The current Chief Justice, John Roberts, worked before his nomination on George W. Bush’s legal team during Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court decision in which (on entirely partisan lines) the Court ruled to stop the Florida recount and solidify Bush’s claim on the White House. Another current Justice, Antonin Scalia, famously duck hunted with his close friend Vice President Dick Cheney and then refused to recuse himself from a ruling on Cheney’s own secret energy commission. And a third current Justice, Clarence Thomas, has been the subject of a series of an increasingly blatant and disturbing ethical issues over the last year or so, including well-documented tax dodges related to his wife (a prominent Republican fund-raiser and activist)’s income and inappropriate (and possibly illegal) gifts from a company in favor of whose interests he then consistently ruled (on which see the second link). It’s certainly possible both to argue that the Court has always been influenced by human and political factors and yet to claim that its partisan nature has grown much more substantial and destructive, and that seems to me, for these and other reasons, to be indeed what has happened.
It could be argued that this topic represents two distinct goals of this blog colliding: that my interest in creating more nuanced and accurate narratives about our past and identity and my desire to bring light to some of the more destructive and ugly realities of our contemporary society are not only different, but perhaps at odds with one another. All I can say in reply is that I believe both to be important goals, and that in at least one respect they’re similar: Americans desperately need both more nuanced historical narratives and more accurate information about what’s happening in our contemporary society, and whatever the challenges of providing either (much less both), I’m going to keep trying to do so, sometimes one at a time, sometimes, as here, both at once. You can judge the results for yourselves! More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      A nice list of archives for the Court’s decisions: http://www.dol.gov/oasam/library/law/lawtips/supremecourthistoric.htm
2)      The latest of Justice Thomas’s controversies: http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2011/06/21/249512/thomas-aei/
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

June 21, 2011: We Need Them

This is likely not one of the most unique or surprising observations I’ve made in this space, but it remains striking how many of our American narratives, throughout our history, seem to have depended upon the existence (or rather creation) of a “them” against which to define a collective “us.” That tradition certainly can be traced back to William Bradford’s juxtaposition of the Pilgrims’ first moments in the New World with the “wild lands and wild men” that awaited them; can help explain the constructed images of the English Redcoats in early Revolutionary moments like the Boston Massacre; and reappears at so many of our crucial moments, from the use of African Americans in narratives of (white) reconciliation after the Civil War to the post World War I Red Scare, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II to the ongoing anti-Muslim American hysteria since 9/11. Each of those moments and narratives has of course its specific contexts and factors, but I would argue that all likewise and centrally represent this recurring “us and them” motif.
There are plenty of reasons to think that the last of my examples, the anti-Muslim hysteria, remains the driving “us and them” narrative in our current moment; certainly the faux-controversy of the “Ground Zero Mosque” would be exhibit A for such an argument, along with numerous other factors, including the continuing attempts to define President Obama as a secret Muslim and the ridiculous proposed laws in various state legislatures to prohibit the implementation of Sharia Law in their states. The recent and ongoing opposition to other mosque projects in places such as Tennessee might be the best evidence for this narrative’s still central presence, though, since it indicates that Americans far removed from a site like Ground Zero are seeking ways to identify and push back against this “them” in their own communities. Yet without discounting in the slightest the real and troubling—and potentially very divisive and dangerous—existence of those kinds of anti-Muslim efforts across the country, it does seem to me that this particular “them” is most ideologically effective as a foreign enemy, the opponent in a “War on Terror” whom we are most comfortable imagining as plotters and potential targets in the Middle East, as the objects of justified torture practices in our black site prisons around the world, and so on. And if that is the case, it would help explain just how fully our recent domestic narratives have come to include and often depend upon another “other”: illegal immigrants.
The latest, and certainly most overt and to my mind egregious, example of the use of illegal immigrants in this role comes from John McCain, who has attributed (apparently with very little if any actual proof, as per the stories linked in the article below at least) many of the still-raging Arizona wildfires to illegal immigrants. But much more overarching, and more nationally significant, are the numerous and concurrent narratives that link illegal immigrants to a variety of economic woes: unemployment and threats to jobs, of course; but also the crises in health care and education funding, alleged (and generally manufactured) fraud and waste in social support services such as welfare and food stamp programs, low-income housing shortages and spending, and other similar issues. In many of those cases, as I have argued in other posts, illegal immigrants are in fact not eligible for the benefits or programs in question; in the others, any and all communal expenditures are thoroughly dwarfed by what the nation and economy gains from (usually at the expense of) these American workers and consumers. Yet of course these “them” narratives are not now, as they have never been, about facts or realities; they’re about simplified, mythologized answers to some of our most complicated and challenging national questions, about defining a community of fellow Americans as quite the opposite, and helping us feel better and more secure about who we are in contrast.
I suppose one of the most overarching goals of my recent book, as well as much of my work here and my planned future work, is to make a case for precisely the opposite idea: to argue of each of these “them” communities the same thing that I ultimately argue about Obama in my book’s conclusion, that in fact they exemplify core, defining American identities. Or, more exactly and even more significantly, that what they share with the far-too-often contrasted “us” communities not only outweighs any differences, but also and more crucially constitutes a shared and vital national identity and community. We have met them, and they are us. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
2)      One of the most sustained and interesting scholarly analyses of this American tradition, Evelyn Nakano Glenn’s Unequal Freedom: http://books.google.com/books?id=RWKXAltlFC4C&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

June 20, 2011: Big Goodbye

In the fall of 2005, Bruce Springsteen was on tour in support of his recently released album The Ghost of Tom Joad (2005). The tour, like the album, was a solo affair, and mostly extremely stripped-down—Springsteen would often begin by asking the crowd to stay as silent as possible, to allow his stories and songs (which intertwined even more fully than usual on this tour, and which were infused with politics and social commentary much more than on any prior tour) to speak for themselves. But on the night of November 19th, Bruce played a show in Hollywood, Florida, and was joined onstage for a rare performance of the song “Drive All Night” (one of the least-remembered and –played, but most interesting and affecting, tracks from 1980’s The River) by his once-and-future bandmate and lifelong soulmate Clarence Clemons (who lived nearby). What followed was one of the most soulful and powerful live performances that I’ve ever encountered, by any artist, in any medium. It’s long, a shade over 9 minutes. But a eulogy for a Big Man deserves a big goodbye; Clarence Clemons passed away late Saturday night, and so this is my big goodbye to him:
No RIPs here—if there is a Heaven, I don’t expect that Clarence will be resting or peaceful there, at least not in the conventional senses; Clarence often said of late that the stage was the most magical and rejuvenative place he knew, and seemed to find peace most fully there, so if we change it to Rejuvenate in Performance, I’m fine with the sentiment. And whatever you believe or don’t believe about the afterlife, I think all of us who knew and shared in and loved Clarence’s work can agree that he’ll playing his heart out for the rest of time in ours.
More tomorrow,
Ben

UPDATE: This Backstreets page of stories and links has some amazing stuff, including an interview with the photographer of the Born to Run cover shot (who agrees with me about race and Clarence/Bruce) and an awesome U2 concert tribute to Clarence:

http://backstreets.com/clarence/

Saturday, June 18, 2011

June 19, 2011: Your Dad Did

One of my favorite songs-that-nobody-knows is John Hiatt’s “Your Dad Did,” from his masterpiece of an album Bring the Family (1987). It’s a great song for many reasons—it’s funny, it rocks, its second-person perspective and emotional themes evolve significantly over its four verses—but I’ll freely admit that my love for it has a lot to do with how much it taps into one of the archetypal American stories with which I’ve long been obsessed; the story, which has two stages, is I’m sure broadly human, speaking to many of our deep-seated psychological issues, but I think it does also tap into particular American narratives very fully and meaningfully. The first stage entails the sense of one’s past, and perhaps especially for a guy one’s Dad, as a limiting influence from which we should escape; and then the second comprises the gradual but vital recognition that he, like our parents and heritage and past more generally, are instead not only inescapable but usually very positive influences and presences.
 Very briefly, here are five great American texts that, despite their many differences, all prominently feature versions of this story; each is well worth its own post (and a few have already gotten such), so this is just an appetizer:
1)      Robert Penn Warren, All The King’s Men (1946): Penn Warren’s novel is usually described as a fictionalized account of Louisiana Governor Huey Long, and certainly the character of Willie Stark parallels Long in many ways. But what makes ATKM great is its narrator, Jack Burden—and Jack’s story, rich and complex and multi-part as it is, is in many ways the Dad story.
2)      Gore Vidal, Burr (1973): Burr is many things, including the first (chronologically) in Vidal’s sweeping American Chronicle and a very biting, smart, and funny portrait of the Founding Fathers and Revolutionary and Early Republic Eras. But at its core, yup, the Dad story.
3)      David Bradley, The Chaneysville Incident (1981): Bradley’s novel is a more powerful and complex portrait of slavery and its aftermath than Beloved (and I love Morrison’s book), and deserves to be more widely read for that reason alone. But there are plenty of other reasons, including a particularly impressive rewriting of, you guessed it, the Dad story.
4)      John Sayles, Lone Star (1996): As I wrote in my long-ago post on my two favorite Sayles films (this one and City of Hope), both feature literally a dozen or more main characters and plotlines. So it wouldn’t be accurate to say that everybody in Lone Star is experiencing the Dad story. Only that the two main male characters are; and oh yeah, the main female character is going through a very parallel Mom story of her own.
5)      Barack Obama, Dreams From My Father (1995/2004): Between this space and my recent book, I’ve said all I can say about Obama’s first and best book. But at the risk of over-psychoanalyzing people I don’t know, let me just add that a comparison of George W. Bush’s Dad story with Obama’s can help us understand just how much more Obama really represents the complex, often dark and difficult, but almost always influential and inspiring role that our fathers and heritages, our families and pasts, play in American lives.
Five great works, all much more than the Dad story, but all deeply connected to it as well. Is it a coincidence that I love all of them almost as much as I love my Dad? Probably not. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Many links to start with:
1)      Great live version of Hiatt’s song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GG-iVJpJXkc
3)      A few excerpts from Vidal’s novel: http://www.gorevidalpages.com/1973/10/index.html
5)      Great mini-essay on Sayles’ film: http://www.ericenders.com/lonestar.htm
7)      OPEN: Happy Father’s Day! Any texts to add?

June 18, 2011: Guest Post in Reverse

My guest post for Rob Velella’s great American Literary blog is up today; it’s on Sarah Piatt, my favorite American poet and the subject of a long-ago blog post here. Here’s the link:
More tomorrow, a special Father’s Day post,
Ben

Friday, June 17, 2011

June 17, 2011: On the Other Hand

Too tired for much of a post today, but to follow up yesterday’s post, this amazing story does make clear just how powerful and world-changing of a force love can be:
Bruce Springsteen ends “Worlds Apart,” a song from the post-9/11 album The Rising (2002) about the relationship between an American (or at least non-Arabic) woman and an Arabic (probably Afghani) man, by repeating the line “Let’s let love give what it gives.” That’s in direct response to an earlier section that’s at the heart of the song’s message: “Sometimes the truth just ain’t enough / Or it’s too much in times like this / Let’s throw the truth away we’ll find it in this kiss.” I’m obviously a big advocate of the truth, especially when it comes to complex historical moments and realities like the Civil Rights movement or 9/11. But when it comes to human identities and relationships, to who we are as people and how we connect to one another? Truth without love is a pretty sad thought.
More this weekend,
Ben
PS. Two more links to start with:
1)      “Worlds Apart”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sT4Iw8oEKR8
2)      OPEN: What’s love got to do, got to do with it?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

June 16, 2011: No, Love Is Not All You Need

Compared to virtually every other complex and painful era and element of our national past and identity, we seem pretty good at collectively remembering the Civil Rights movement. And not just as an overall entity, but with some historical specificity: I think it’s pretty safe to say that Brown v. Board of Education is one of the couple Supreme Court cases with which most Americans are familiar (and unlike the other, Roe v. Wade, that’s not because it’s divisive and controversial); Little Rock and Rosa Parks and “I Have a Dream” are all I would argue in the top ten or twenty most prominent of our national narratives about the past; Eyes on the Prize remains one of our most successful and enduring documentaries and historical films; and so on. And because of those prominent presences, even the longer-term and more fully negative historical context, the system of Jim Crow segregation and its practices of institutionalized and communal racism, is to my mind certainly more a part of our national narratives than lynching or the Wilmington massacre, or then parallel events like the Chinese Exclusion Act or the Japanese Internment. 

And yet. In the years after the Civil War, Americans found ways to make the abolition of slavery a part of our triumphant, progressive narratives about our exceptional and ever-improving national identity, conveniently ignoring the continuing injustices and brutalities directed at freed slaves (and all other African Americans) in the post-war era. So too, I believe, have our most shared narratives of the Civil Rights movement become in many ways an occasion for patting our present selves on the back, paying lip service to some less than ideal past moments but noting that we have made the necessary changes and are doing a lot better these days. As many historians have noted, there’s a reason why it’s so much easier for subsequent (and, yes, especially white) Americans to remember fondly the Martin Luther King of “I Have a Dream” than the one who protested Vietnam or systemic and institutionalized poverty, much less than more consistently confrontational contemporaries like Malcolm X or the Black Panthers. Civil Rights activists like King (especially in that speech but certainly throughout his career in many ways), like Rosa Parks or the young girls in Little Rock or the marchers being hit by the fire hoses and dogs, exemplified non-violent resistance, met the hatred and bigotry and oppression with patience and commitment and even love. It’s amazing how much many activists were indeed able to live up to those ideals, and I’m entirely on board with celebrating them.
When the memories are limited to those celebrations, though, there’s both a historical and a present problem. Historically, those memories can serve to delegitimize a group like the Black Panthers or a concept like Black Power, making it seem as if they were over-reacting and giving in to their worst impulses and even embodying the excesses of the late 60s more generally; there may be some truth to those analyses, but they risk equating the Panthers with the segregationists, leading to just another narrative of “both sides went too far at times” or the like. Huey Newton was no George Wallace (much less the KKK members who killed the three workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi). And in the present, those celebratory memories can similarly delegitimize both memories and continuing presences of racism and oppression, and thus the African American anger or bitterness that can justifiably stem from those historical and ongoing realities. What got me thinking about all of this is the still-evolving saga of Shirley Sherrod, the USDA worker who was wrongly fired for giving a speech in which she had described her family’s legacy (her father killed by the Klan, her mother harassed by them; her husband, a prominent Civil Rights activist, had very similar experiences and traumas), her own difficult engagement with questions of race and justice, and her incredibly impressive attempts to move past them in her work with multi-racial farm communities. The immediate story of Sherrod’s firing is one of right-wing lies and propaganda (driven by the king of such, Andrew Breitbart) and the Obama Administration’s far too weak and accommodating response to same; but the longer story, as Ta-Nehisi Coates argues at the first link below, is one of a more complex and honest legacy of Civil Rights, a legacy that includes hatred and violence and murder and terrorism, and even more so their emotional and psychological and communal effects, just as much as it does peace, love, and understanding.
I hope we never stop remembering those good things about the Civil Rights movement, and the amazing activists and Americans who embodied them. But I hope we can also remember the darker realities, and everything they meant and caused, and the whole spectrum of responses and perspectives they help us to acknowledge and understand. When it comes to such difficult and necessary social change, then as now, love is most definitely not all you need. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Coates’ take on Sherrod and Civil Rights: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/06/shirley-sherrod/240552/
2)      The Black Panthers’ original Ten-Point Plan: http://www.blackpanther.org/TenPoint.htm
3)      OPEN: What do you think?