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Friday, July 29, 2011

July 29, 2011 [Link-Tastic Post 1]: The Debt Ceiling

Since the outset of this blog I have tried, with the links at the end of each post, to indicate just how much I see my own ideas here as both part of a broader conversation and as a starting point from which readers can and should continue their own research and reading and learning and analysis. To that end, and to add one more feature into the mix here, I’ve decided that I’ll occasionally create a post in which I try mostly to aggregate a few different useful and productive links on a particular topic; my goal here is not simply to replicate a Google search or the like, but instead to highlight other AmericanStudies-type work that, it seems to me, would help any interested reader continue thinking about the issues in question.
To start us off with a particularly relevant topic, here are (in no particular order, although the first few are more explicitly political/argumentative and the last couple are more primary source/statistical) some AmericanStudies-type links on or related to the debt ceiling:
1)      A post on the ceiling’s legal history, including a link to the full text of the Supreme Court case that more or less directly ruled the debt ceiling unconstitutional: http://renaissancepost.com/politics/debt-ceiling-unconstitutional-per-14th-amendment-and-proved-so-in-perry-v-us/
2)      Another take on that Court case, from the Constitution Center’s own site: http://blog.constitutioncenter.org/constitution-check-can-the-president-ignore-the-debt-ceiling/
3)      A history of debt ceiling votes (focused on Republican support) over the last 15  years: http://www.opencongress.org/articles/view/2295-A-Brief-History-of-Debt-Limit-Votes-in-the-House
4)      Ronald Reagan’s perspective on the first debt ceiling vote of his presidency, as he articulated it in his private diary: http://www.businessinsider.com/maddow-ronald-reagan-debt-ceiling-video-2011-7
5)      Info on the public debt over the past 60 years or so, from the Treasury Department: http://www.treasurydirect.gov/govt/reports/pd/mspd/mspd.htm
6)      A series of charts related to federal budgets (including debts) from 1968 through 2007: http://www.cbo.gov/budget/data/historical.pdf
That’s enough for one post, I’d say! If you have other links to add, please feel free to do so, as always! More this weekend,
Ben
PS. One more time, any links you’d highlight?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

July 28, 2011: Advancing Through History

I’ve made no secret, here or in any other arena (outside of the classroom, at least), of my profound disdain for the Tea Party (the current political movement, not the thing in Boston back in the day). There are lots of reasons why I feel that way, but if I had to boil it down, I’d focus on two distinct but interconnected elements: the TP’s striking and foundational antipathy toward cultural “others” (as evidenced by one of its primary rallying cries, employed partly in direct opposition to the Obama presidency but also in response to issues like illegal immigration: “I want my country back!”); and its deeply oversimplified and almost entirely inaccurate vision of American history (as evidenced by the coupling of its use of the Revolutionary-era “Don’t Tread on Me” flag to a platform that bears no meaningful resemblance to the ideas and ideals of the Founders). Both of those elements were ironically but clearly on display this past weekend at the inaugural meeting of the South Central (Los Angeles) Tea Party; the event (per the story at the first link) was emceed by an African American minister named Jesse Lee Patterson, and focused mostly on expanding Patterson’s portrayal of the NAACP as “no different than the KKK” and an organization dedicated to “causing black Americans to hate their country, to hate what’s right.”
Patterson and his fellow speakers apparently paid lip service to the NAACP’s incredibly rich and vital history, arguing that the organization had done good work in its “nascence” but is no longer needed. But as with so many of our contemporary political and cultural issues, the more genuine and accurate narrative is significantly more complicated on two interconnected fronts. First, I would argue that our communal awareness of the NAACP’s history, especially in its founding and formative years, is at best hugely limited, and at worst actively distorts the organization’s truly and impressively radical identity and work. That history really represents some of the most inspiring characteristics of the early 20th century Progressive movement, from the organization’s multi-racial and diverse group of 1909 founders (including W.E.B. Du Bois and three very distinct white Americans: Kentucky blue blood William English Walling; Mary White Ovington, a suffragette and the descendent of generations of New England abolitionists and reformers; and Romanian immigrant and New York social worker Henry Moskowitz) to its sophisticated and to my mind very American form of socialism (one concerned not with the strident attacks and violent goals of Russian Marxism but with a genuine and impassioned interest in issues of class, poverty, labor, and reform). And from the outset the NAACP wedded those voices and political perspectives to a complex blend of occasional protest (such as its responses to the film Birth of a Nation [1915]) and continuing research, reporting, argument, and advocacy (such as in its vital magazine The Crisis [1910-present]), balancing both reactive and proactive efforts as well as any American social organization ever has.
It’s that balance in particular that illustrates the second and even more salient complication of Patterson and company’s arguments. It’s true that African Americans have advanced significantly in the century since the NAACP’s founding, but many if not all of those advancements have depended precisely on the efforts of organizations like the NAACP, both in its reactions to the century’s worst racial abuses and excesses (the continued horrors of lynching and Jim Crow, individual horrors like the Scottsboro case, anti-Civil Rights violence, and many others besides) and its proactive contributions to advances in housing, education, the post-World War II integration of the armed forces, and many more. And while, again thanks in significant measure to the NAACP and its peers, the issues facing 21st century African Americans (and thus all 21st century Americans) are very distinct from the ones that faced Du Bois and his colleagues in 1909 (or King and his colleagues in 1959, or Jackson and his colleagues in 1989), it is beyond naïve to argue that such issues no longer exist or (as a co-speaker at the Tea Party event claimed) that they no longer have anything to do with race. Moreover, while combating our contemporary issues certainly depends on an awareness and engagement with them in their present complexities and realities, it can only be aided by a concurrent knowledge of history, both generally and in terms of the NAACP’s vital and still relevant role specifically.
We all know the cliché that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. There’s still plenty of truth to that one, but in this case, as in so many on which I’ve focused here, I’d say that it’s just as accurate, and less well-accepted, that those who oversimplify and falsify history greatly limit our chances for a stronger future. If African Americans, and all of us, are going to keep advancing, it’s going to be through our shared history—and it’s that “shared” part which renders the Tea Party’s version so woefully inaccurate and inadequate. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
2)      A great resource for finding early issues of The Crisis: http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/serial?id=crisisnaacp
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

July 27, 2011: WWJD?

It has often and accurately been noted of the Bible that it can be quoted in support of just about any position and argument, a fact borne out nicely by the history of a nation in which various communities have indeed quoted the Bible for and against the institution of slavery, for and against the removal and even destruction of Native American communities standing in the way of national expansion, for and against the KKK’s brutal terrorizing of post-bellum African Americans, for and against the extension to gay Americans of the legal right to marry, and so on. Yet at least as prominent in our national conversations, and of far more specific salience to our unique national identity, is our similarly impressive ability to marshal quotes from the Founding Fathers in support of virtually any position on any issue. Not only did most of those guys write a ton (literally), but they did so over in most cases long and varied careers in which their perspectives and ideas changed significantly and sometimes entirely.
For that reason, the contemporary game—one played most consistently at the moment, in my experience, by folks in the Tea Party, but certainly with players from a variety of other places on the political and cultural spectrum as well—of “What Would Jefferson [or any other Founder] Do?” is far more likely to tell us about the perspective of the player than about our third president. Yet while such selective quoting and referencing of the Founding Fathers is thus perhaps a largely a-historical exercise, that of course doesn’t mean that there isn’t value and meaning to studying and engaging with what they had to say; not just in order to better understand them and their era, but also, if cautiously, to think about how their voices and ideas—and especially the nation whose government and political identity they helped create—are relevant to our own moment and debates. It was at least partly to that end, for example, that I wrote my December 3rd post on the Alien and Sedition Acts and the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions drafted by Jefferson and Madison in response to them; my first interest there was in portraying the historical situation and issues and ideas with complexity and accuracy, but I will freely admit that I hoped (as I do in most every post) that there would likewise be contemporary and ongoing relevance to those focal points (although luckily that relevance is not for any one person, including me, to determine with any finality).
Sometimes, on some issues, it can be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to tease out what any given individual Founder might have believed, much less what that disparate and often divided community of Americans did. And sometimes it’s not. When it comes to the question of whether Muslims might have a place not only in the new United States but in American political life—a question that is at least parallel to the issue of who is and is not American with which I engaged yesterday—the Founders were very consistent and overt in their support for such a place. As the great article at the first link notes (among the many sources its author marshals for this position), during the debates over ratifying the Constitution and the Bill of Rights a North Carolina Baptist argued explicitly that “As there are no religious tests, pagans, deists, and Mahometans might obtain office”; in response, a Provincial Congressman from that state countered precisely that “in the course of four or five hundred years I do not know how it will work. This is most certain, that Papists may occupy that chair, and Mahometans may take it. I see nothing against it.” Thomas Jefferson, who owned a copy of the Qur’an and authored America’s first act for establishing religious freedom (linked below) in order to protect “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and the Infidel,” would certainly have agreed.
We shouldn’t need the validation of the Founders in order to argue for any position, much less a crucial one such as the full inclusion of every American in our political, social, and cultural life; it was precisely with an awareness of a society’s inevitable (and necessary) changes that the Framers created an amendment process for the Constitution, among other such safeguards. But if you’re going to argue that religious—like racial and ethnic and cultural and communal—acceptance and interconnectedness are founding American values, as I would and do, it doesn’t hurt to have TJ and friends on your side. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      An excellent brief article on the Founders and Islam: http://www.altmuslim.com/a/a/a/the_founding_fathers_and_islam
2)      Jefferson’s “Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom” (1786): http://religiousfreedom.lib.virginia.edu/sacred/vaact.html
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

July 26, 2011: Fighting for America

As I’ve read more about the political and cultural beliefs of, and especially the huge manifesto penned by, Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, it’s become clear that while his perspective was broadly anti-multiculturalism and –liberalism, he was specifically and centrally obsessed with what he saw as the threats posed to Western nations like Norway and America by Muslim immigrants. (Jihadists, he would say, but he very overtly meant not only Al Qaeda terrorists but all Muslim immigrants and arrivals.) To that end, the source quoted and referenced most often in his manifesto is (per Jeffrey Goldberg’s story at the second link below) Robert Spencer, a so-called “counterjihad” writer who has made his name and career arguing for this same kind of broad and sweeping anti-Muslim position in the United States. Spencer and his friend and co-blogger Pamela Geller were at the forefront in the controversies over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” and have two of the most prominent anti-Muslim voices in our national conversations for some time now.
To folks like Spencer and Geller, fighting for America means doing exactly what they’re doing—fighting for what they see as our cultural identity and values against this hostile, invading Muslim presence. That’s certainly how Breivik saw the battle unfolding as well, both in his native Norway and around the Western world. The very tragic irony, of course, is that this perspective mirrors quite precisely how Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda ilk think of the presence of Westerners in Arabic and Muslim nations—as an invading presence, one threatening to change all that the nations are at their core, one that thus can and should be answered, with violence if necessary (and isn’t it always to such thinkers?). As Goldberg puts it so succinctly and correctly in that linked piece, the most likely future victims in this fight, at least here in the United States, would seem clearly and horrifically to be Muslim Americans, particularly those associated with “controversial” projects such as the proposed mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. How long before projects like that, or other mosques or Muslim gathering places, begin suffering the brutal fates of black churches during the Civil Rights era? And will Geller argue of such violence what she did of Breivik, that “if anyone incited him to violence, it was Islamic supremacists”?
There are a whole host of ways one could respond to these arguments, but I don’t know that anybody has ever or could ever do so with more elegance and passion than Colin Powell. In the midst of endorsing Barack Obama for president in October 2008, Powell stepped back to address the question of Obama’s alleged Muslim identity, and of Muslims in America more generally. If you haven’t seen or read this part of his statement, or even if you have, it’s worth quoting in full:
“Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no. That's not America. Is there something wrong with a seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing he or she could be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion that he is a Muslim and might have an association with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

I feel particularly strongly about this because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay, was of a mother at Arlington Cemetery and she had her head on the headstone of her son's grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone, and it gave his awards - Purple Heart, Bronze Star - showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death, he was 20 years old. And then at the very top of the head stone, it didn't have a Christian cross. It didn't have a Star of David. It has a crescent and star of the Islamic faith.

And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan. And he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was fourteen years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he could serve his country and he gave his life."
Khan lost his life fighting for America too, in a way that puts the Spencers and Gellers and Breiviks of the world to shame. Or should, if they had any capacity for that emotion or any other recognizably human one other than fear and hatred. I don’t believe in violence, but I do believe that those of us who care about America and all of its citizens must and should fight back against this perspective in every other way. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      A story on Powell’s statement, including the beautiful New Yorker photo: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/10/19/colin-powell-invokes-imag_n_135977.html
2)      Jeffrey Goldberg on Norway and anti-Muslim sentiment in America: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/07/on-pamela-geller-robert-spencer-and-other-jihadists/242474/
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

Monday, July 25, 2011

July 25, 2011: Crazy Talk

Acts of terrorism are, by their very nature, committed by crazy people. That’s not to say that the terrorists can’t or don’t have very elaborate and detailed and well-developed rationales for their actions, nor that they can’t belong to communal organizations that have (often) helped them develop those rationales and commit their acts of destruction and murder. Nor is to say that we can’t analyze their actions and draw broader conclusions about society and its various issues and problems as a result. But nevertheless, I believe it’s vital to note at the outset here that anyone who destroys innocent lives and communities—and even more so anyone who includes children in his or her scope—reveals him or herself to be on a core level so bereft of human emotion and empathy as to be clearly insane.
Yet if terrorism constitutes insanity on an individual level, it also and with more significance comprises on a communal level the triumph of simplistic and simplifying narratives. That is to say, each terrorist must, as a prerequisite for committing his or her acts, fully embrace such simplistic narratives on a number of key levels: in terms of history and community, a terrorist must believe entirely in an us vs. them narrative, one in which Northern enemies are conspiring with African Americans to destroy Southern white civilization (in the KKK narrative), the British seek to eradicate the indigenous culture and community of Northern Ireland (in the IRA narrative), Western nations bring their corruption and evil to Muslim nations and holy territory (in the Al Qaeda narrative), and so on; and in terms of individual identity, a terrorist must believe that every person who belongs to that “them” community is equally culpable for its crimes and so equally deserving of the ultimate punishment as a result. Of course many people might similarly embrace such narratives but not (because they’re not as crazy, among other factors) respond with terrorism; but recognizing the importance of these simplistic narratives to terrorism makes even more plain the high stakes in pushing back against those narratives throughout our society and culture.
The early and evolving information about Anders Breivik, the Norwegian farmer who committed the horrific terrorist acts in that nation over the weekend, reinforces each of these ideas: Breivik, who according to his own writings saw himself as a “conservative Christian knight,” was without question crazy; yet he was also heavily influenced by simplistic narratives about politics and culture, particularly narratives about the evils of multiculturalism and “cultural Marxism” and the threats that those boogeymen represent to 21st century societies. And as the first two links below (both pieces written by investigative journalist Dave Neiwert, probably the best chronicler of domestic terrorism in our nation’s history) detail at great length, Breivik’s attachment to those narratives connects him very explicitly to many of the American right-wing terrorists who have committed or attempted to commit their own heinous crimes over the last few years; each of them, as the details always illustrate, was similarly disturbed, but each likewise has been heavily influenced by these simplifying narratives. And as Neiwert’s second piece argues, it is no coincidence that these American terrorists have usually been directly and overtly influenced by the right-wing media empire, and particularly by the voices of talk radio and Fox News; the most central and salient characteristic of those voices is their continual creation of simplistic political and cultural narratives, visions of our national identity and community that mirror quite precisely the aforementioned multi-level simplifications on which terrorism depends.
I’m not arguing that these right-wing voices directly incited the terrorist acts, nor, by extension, that they should be censored or shut down; again, the terrorists themselves seem in each and every case to be certifiably crazy. But neither can we turn a blind eye to the increasing—or at least increasingly prominent—presence of crazy talk in our political and cultural conversations, of voices that exist solely to create and perpetuate some of our most simplistic and simplifying narratives. Pushing back against those voices and narratives, seeking to complicate and challenge their ideas, might not stop any individual terrorists, but it can most definitely strengthen the quality and value of our national conversations. Not to do so would be, well, crazy. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Four links to start with:
1)      A story on Breivik’s political beliefs, with lots of relevant links: http://crooksandliars.com/david-neiwert/norway-terrorist-breivik-was-ardent-
2)      Another great story by that same journalist (Dave Neiwert), on Glenn Beck’s multifarious connections to political criminals: http://crooksandliars.com/david-neiwert/glenn-becks-radio-rwanda-schtick-tra
3)      An even greater story, on the fortunately failed attempt to bomb an MLK Day rally in Spokane: http://www.balloon-juice.com/2011/07/24/homegrown-terrorists/
4)      OPEN: What do you think?


Saturday, July 23, 2011

July 23-24, 2011 [Tribute post 19]: Amy Winehouse

Talented and deeply troubled British singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse was found dead at her London home earlier today. Posting a tribute to her on this blog might seem strange for at least two reasons: she’s not American; and her life story is much more tragic than tribute-worthy. But for one thing, Winehouse exemplifies a very familiar and, in some ways, very American story (although it can be traced back at least to British Romantics like Keats and Byron), the tragic arc of a very talented and (often) troubled young artist who dies young—that arc describes many of the 20th century’s most prominent American artists, from actors (such as James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, John Belushi, and Heath Ledger) to musicians (Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix) to writers (Nathanael West, Sylvia Plath, John Kennedy Toole, and David Foster Wallace), and many others. And for another, I believe that Winehouse also illustrates one of our culture’s most troubling communal qualities, our fascination with stories of celebrity (and often specifically young female celebrity) failure and self-destruction.
I wrote a post on Winehouse and some related questions and issues way back in 2007 (on my long-defunct first blog), and I think it resonates even more fully in this moment (and not just because of today’s tragic news), so here ‘tis:
No, No, No
The history of rock and popular music is prominently littered with talented musicians lost before their time to substance abuse problems of one form or another--in fact, it sometimes seems that if you're only mildly talented (see: Aerosmith), you can get ridiculously deep into the drug scene and come out more successful than ever on the other side, whereas if you're a true genius (see: Hendrix and Joplin, to name only two), you just never make it back up that mountain. While some of those lost artists did record songs that, in hindsight, seem quite eerily telling about the attractiveness of their abusive behaviors--like Hendrix's "Purple Haze"--I Think it's pretty safe to say that we've never had a siren song of warning anywhere near as vivid as one that's still out there on the airwaves right now.

I'm Thinking, because I heard it on the radio this afternoon, about Amy Winehouse's "Rehab." My friend Jeff (he of the frequent comments on these Thoughts) has been following Winehouse's situation more closely than I, but it's been hard to miss her seemingly sudden (or at least suddenly visible) descent into hard-core addiction and co-dependent behavior (with her even more fucked-up and yet somehow alluring, at least to her, husband) and self-destruction on an epic scale. The latest reports place her and her husband in St. Lucia (site of my very happy and peaceful, even without this comparison, honeymoon), where apparently she's vomiting blood on the walls of her ritzy resort room; the trip is less a vacation and more an escape from those friends and family who have been begging both of them, and especially her, to, you guessed it, enter rehab and save not only her career (and with a voice like that she'd seem to be primed for a good one) but also, and more importantly, her life.

That story isn't a new one, of course, nor necessarily the most sympathetic one; there are plenty of other addicts dying out there every day, and the vast majority of them aren't able to jet down to the Caribbean when the going gets too tough. Plus, drug addiction, as tragic as it can be, has to be one of the least sympathetic of the world's great tragedies, at least for someone like Winehouse for whom it seems to have come about largely through self-destructive choices (rather than, say, a response to horrible pain or trauma). But nonetheless, it's very hard to watch anyone, and especially a talented young woman, kill him or herself in front of the world, and it sure doesn't make it very fun to listen to a song with the chorus of, "If you try to make me go to rehab/I say 'No, no, no.'"

Which begs the question--why the hell would a radio station still be playing that? I'll try not to be so cynical as to say because of the publicity, and just say that it's a lack of thought. Which, ironically, led to mine tonight. More next week,
Ben

PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Winehouse’s great “Back to Black”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1evzhSast8
2)      One of the best dissections of our culture’s obsession with tearing down young female celebrities, courtesy of the guys at South Park: http://www.southparkstudios.com/full-episodes/s12e02-britneys-new-look
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

Friday, July 22, 2011

July 22, 2011 [Scholarly Review 3]: Caroline Rody

Obviously I have some very personal reasons for thinking that academic and scholarly voices have something meaningful to contribute to our broader national conversations and narratives; but while I do hope that my own voice and work (present and future) can do so, I have also come to this perspective through reading and engaging with lots of other scholars who seem to me to have at least as much to offer to the non-academic world as they do within it. It’s certainly fair to say that some academic work is intended mostly for academic audiences and conversations, and I wouldn’t do what I do for a living if I didn’t find such work (which I would admit includes my first book pretty fully) valuable as well; but just as we AmericanStudiers can learn about our culture from a variety of sources, academic and otherwise, so too can our culture at large only gain from including scholarly voices in its conversations more frequently and meaningfully.
As I see it, most if not all of the scholars and works I’ll highlight in these scholarly review posts will fall into that category, and that’s definitely true of Professor Caroline Rody, who teaches in the University of Virginia English Department alongside Railton pére. Rody first came to my attention with the publication of her first book, The Daughter’s Return: African-American and Caribbean Women’s Fictions of History (2001), a beautifully written and very engaging analysis of a number of contemporary historical novels and their themes of family and heritage, identity and community, past and future. Granted, that genre and those themes are among my most consistent scholarly and personal obsessions, but I would argue that they are also hugely significant for all 21st century Americans, and Rody’s book made those stakes plain and compelling without losing sight of the complex details of her chosen authors and texts. As this blog hopefully attests, I think that there’s great value in highlighting and analyzing works that we should all read as well as in framing and analyzing themes and questions of national and human importance; a scholarly work that does either of those things well is a success to me, and Rody’s first book did both.
Her second book, The Interethnic Imagination: Roots and Passages in Contemporary Asian American Fiction (2009), extends many of those same focal points and conversations to a third body of contemporary literature, and does so even more engagingly and readably. Yet in it Rody also does very successfully what I strove to do in my own second book—highlights the consistent and meaningful presence, not only in her chosen works but throughout our culture and identity, of interethnic encounters and exchanges, both in the intersections of individuals and communities with one another and in the interplays that constitute any and every individual identity and perspective within our culture. Rody’s book is once again grounded very fully in her particular authors and texts, but never loses sight of the value of her ideas and insights for our culture—and thus for all interested and engaged American readers—more generally. In the Intro to my book I highlighted a group of scholarly projects that served as models for me, not only in their ideas but also in their execution; I hadn’t had a chance to read Rody’s book when I finalized my own, so consider this a very worthy addition to that list.
One of the false dichotomies that can plague narratives about the academy is that there’s the stuff we focus on within its walls and the stuff that happens outside of it (ie, in “the real world”); similarly, us literary scholars are sometimes seen as reading and analyzing works that wouldn’t otherwise be read or engaged with. But as Rody’s books entirely illustrate, the truth is quite the opposite—the work done by the best scholars and the books most worth our scholarly attention both represent voices we can and should include in our individual, communal, and national conversations. I can’t wait to read her third book! More this weekend,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Rody’s website at UVa: http://www.engl.virginia.edu/faculty/rody_caroline.shtml
3)      OPEN: As usual with these posts, suggestions for scholars or works to be covered very welcome!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

July 21, 2011: Impoverished Arguments

One of my most overt goals for this blog has been that it pivot from day to day from one type of topic to a pretty distinct second type (and so on), both to highlight the many methodologies and approaches within AmericanStudies and to keep the themes and focal points and ideas and texts fresh and (hopefully) engaging. That’s still a central goal, but I have over time decided to allow myself to follow a particular day’s or issue’s lead if and when it feels appropriate. That was the impetus for the prior two posts, both of which were written in response to the debt ceiling debate and the many issues of taxation, wealth, spending, and the like that it has amplified; and it’s the impetus for today’s post, which can and should be read as a third in that series.
I read today of a new report on poverty in America from the conservative think-tank the Heritage Foundation; the report, available at the first link below, is long and detailed, but it’s most fundamental conclusion and argument is that the concept of “poverty,” as defined by governmental/official measures such as the poverty line, no longer jibes with our narratives about that situation. More exactly, as the title’s report suggests, the Heritage researchers argue that because many of the 30 million Americans currently defined as living under the poverty line own things like air-conditioning units and cable television sets, these Americans are not as poor as we might think. As would be expected, the report comes to a number of preliminary conclusions about the necessity (or lack thereof) of various social programs as a result of this argument, which ties it closely to the ongoing debates over what our priorities and emphases should be when it comes to the debt and deficit, government spending and taxation, and the like. The report also connects to many broader and more ongoing national narratives and debates, and most especially to narratives like Ronald Reagan’s infamous (and inaccurate/falsified) oft-repeated anecdotes of the “welfare queen driving a Cadillac” or the “young buck” using his food stamps to buy “T-bone steaks.” Sure, it’s important to work to alleviate genuine poverty (and hunger, and other related problems), these arguments go, but many of those being helped by these social programs aren’t genuinely impoverished, and thus are taking advantage of our help and society. 
There are plenty of ways to counter such arguments, whether with facts and statistics (for example, enterprising reporters in the early 1980s dug into the story of Reagan’s “welfare queen” and found that she had received something like $8000 in benefits over more than a decade, rather than the hundreds of thousands that Reagan’s story described), anecdotes and personal experiences (pretty much every family with whom my Mom works receives government aid of one kind or another, and they all most definitely meet and exceed any images of poverty we might have), or counter-arguments (the wealthiest Americans have for many decades received, in tax breaks and corporate welfare and government subsidies and much else, at least as much support as the poorest, and with far less need). We can also point to the desire of all Americans to own certain items (such as television), even if it means (as it often does) living beyond our means (whatever they may be) in order to do so; while other items included in the Heritage report, such as cars, are in fact in many cases necessities for work. But the larger and to my mind more pertinent problem is the very existence of these narratives in the first place. I don’t believe that anyone would dispute the existence of poverty and hunger in our society, nor the variety of corollary problems (from a lack of medical coverage and a lack of preparation for education to homelessness and crime) that come with them. Yet rather than debate the methods or means of countering and alleviating those problems, it seems to me that far too often we debate instead whether the most disadvantaged among us—which would for example also include illegal immigrants—are genuinely worthy of our support at all; a perspective, I would add, that mirrors our tendency to idolize the super-rich, even when (as with Donald Trump, to cite one prominent example) their wealth derives mostly from inheritance.
American history certainly reveals both the continuing presence of poverty and its accompanying problems and the lack of any set or easy methods for alleviating it and them; it would be just as simplifying and inaccurate of me to claim that our history argues entirely for the benefits of government programs as it would to claim that it does not. Yet what our history and our contemporary society alike make clear is that far too many of our countrymen (to say nothing of others around the world) live in real and desperate poverty; disputing that reality seems to me a deeply impoverished position indeed. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
2)      A very different take on poverty (and especially on hunger) in America, at least in 2008 (although of course the likelihood of improvement in any of these areas is very slim): http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/us_hunger_facts.htm
3)      OPEN: What do you think?
 
4) UPDATE: This piece by Barbara Ehrenreich is too salient not to add to the links: http://www.salon.com/news/great_recession/index.html?story=/politics/war_room/2011/08/09/america_crime_poverty

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

July 20, 2011: That’s Rich

Just to follow up on one particular aspect of yesterday’s Eisenhower post: I read an article about the capital gains tax which included the delightful fact that hedge fund manager John Paulson made $4.9 billion in income last year. Even more delightful (and relevant to yesterday’s points about Eisenhower and tax rates) is that a substantial portion of those earnings were deemed capital gains and thus taxed at only 15%; even the parts considered “income” were taxed only at 35%, a far cry from the Eisenhower era’s over-90% rate, but at least that’s proportional to other rates in our contemporary moment. The 15%, on the other hand, means that much of this richest American’s income from last year was taxed at about half the rate of mine.
Class and wealth are as complicated as any of the other issues I’ve considered in this space, and as with any of them the easiest and least productive way to over-simplify is to focus on extreme and maddening examples. So I’ll resist singling out Paulson too fully, wondering for example what on earth any individual can do with billions of dollars in annual income, hoping against hope that he has plans to donate substantial percentages of it to worthy causes, etc. Asking him not to take the money would be as silly as those pundits (such as Gregg Easterbrook) who have argued that if Obama believes the top tax rate should be higher, he should just voluntarily pay more in taxes himself; such issues are not and should not be left up to individuals to decide, but have to be determined on a communal level, not least so that there’s fairness across the board in how they’re applied and how they affect families and futures. Moreover, as the Gilded Age’s Gospel of Wealth proves, the question of philanthropy—its value and effects, its social meanings, its legitimacy—is itself a complicated one, and deserves its own extended AmericanStudies analysis to be sure.
Besides, the real problems here go well beyond the individual, whether he’s Ebenezer Scrooge or, y’know, Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of the story. First, there’s the problem of a society in which an individual can make $5 billion in income while millions live below the poverty line; inequality might be a necessary side effect of capitalism, but we are quickly reaching levels of inequality that are, in a word, obscene. And second, and most relevantly to these two posts of mine, there’s the problem of our continued insistence on protecting this wealth with government policies (including but certainly not limited to very low tax rates); if Mr. Paulson is able to make that kind of money while living in our society, it seems to me that the least our government can do is see to it that the society as a whole benefits as much from Paulson as he clearly has from it. At the end of that road, I know, lies socialism; but a higher tax rate is not the end of the road, nor should it be such anathema that we’re willing to further destroy the lives of millions at the other end of the spectrum (such as by cutting profoundly important and relatively inexpensive social programs) rather than achieve such a rate.
Am I saying that Paulson’s income goes against core American ideals and identities? No. But our willingness to protect that income above and beyond our communal health and well being most definitely does—and is, as Eisenhower’s era reminds us, a relatively new and distinctly unhappy turn in our national conversation. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
2)      A piece on wealth inequality in the very thorough and important Who Rules America? project: http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

July 19, 2011: Be Like Ike

One of the central focal points of this blog, to a degree from its origins but even more fully as it has developed over these first 230 posts, has been on the numerous and complicated interconnections of and intersections between our national history and identity and our contemporary moments and politics. I obviously believe that there’s a lot to recommend that focus, both in terms of coming to a more accurate understanding of our past and identity and in terms of helping us see our current situation’s contexts and origins and meanings more fully. But there are also potential pitfalls that must be avoided with this—as with any—approach and methodology, and one of the most central is a tendency to view the past through the lens of the present, to perceive particular historical events or figures or issues in relationship to aspects of our own moment.
That tendency is probably particularly hard to avoid when it comes to politicians, especially presidents and especially from the last century or so; of course most people have a sense that the Republican and Democratic parties of (for example) the 1880s were markedly different from those of the 21st century, but the 1950s feel close enough to our own moment that it seems as if the similarities should be stronger. Yet whatever the connections, a closer and more objective examination of the administration of a president like Dwight Eisenhower makes clear that the label “Republican” is far from sufficient to define this figure, his policies, and his legacy. For one thing, Eisenhower was perhaps the textbook definition of a taxer and spender: the top marginal tax rate (the income tax percentage paid by Americans in the top tax bracket) stood at 91% during his administration, and despite efforts by the Republican-led Congress (both Houses) to lower those rates, Eisenhower maintained them; and he did so at least in part to fund a huge spending program, one which most famously included the construction of the interstate highway system and other infrastructure projects, and which overall increased domestic spending from 31% of the budget in 1953 to 49% in 1961. There is of course much more that could be said about both taxes and spending during the era, but certainly neither of those trends match our 21st-century narratives about a Republican presidency.
Even more contrary to many of our political narratives, and perhaps even more salient in its complex way to our current moment and debates, is Eisenhower’s striking and sustained critique of the military-industrial complex (a phrase he coined). He began articulating that critique (at least as President) in 1953’s “Chance for Peace” speech, delivered before the American Society of Newspaper Editors just after Stalin’s death; in that speech he most famously (although perhaps not famously enough) argued that “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone.” And he concluded his presidency by focusing even more fully on this problem, as it was a central topic of his brief 1961 “Farewell Address”; by this time, as he noted, the US “annually spen[t] on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations,” and Eisenhower expressed the very explicit worry that this military-industrial “combination” could “endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” One could of course argue that Eisenhower could have done more during his two terms as President to counter that trend, but the fundamental reality was, as it remains, that this military-industrial spending already far outstretched any individual or even governmental ability to reign it in.
At this moment, as our national political leaders continue to debate if and how the debt ceiling should be raised, acknowledging and engaging with these Eisenhower-era details helps us see more clearly on at least three levels. First, despite the Republican’s incessant insistence on drastically cutting spending without raising taxes in the slightest, there is significant and recent precedent for much higher taxes to offset needed federal needing. Second, the one area of the budget that has been consistently ignored by all parties, our military/defense spending, remains an area of deep concern, and one that at least should be included in the conversations. And third, we can and should seek such historical lessons outside of our contemporary visions of politics or party—in at least these particular areas, that is, we on the left can and should strive to be like Ike. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Four links to start with:
1)      A graph charting the top marginal tax rate from the 1920s to the present: http://politics.gather.com/viewArticle.action?articleId=281474977623449
2)      The “Chance for Peace” speech: http://millercenter.org/scripps/archive/speeches/detail/3357
3)      The “Farewell Address”: http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/ike.htm
4)      OPEN: What do you think?

Monday, July 18, 2011

July 18, 2011: If You Like This Blog…

… I’ve got one you’ll love! Starting next Monday, July 25th, and continuing for the next three months and a bit, the New England American Studies Association will be running a pre-conference blog at http://neasaconference.blogspot.com. As you’ll see from the schedule below, each week one or two of our panels will be the focus, and panelists will be blogging about their prospective papers, parallel or related interests and ideas, general American Studies questions, and/or whatever else they want to share. As with any Blogspot blog, there will be comment sections for each post, and they’re entirely open—the goal of this blogging is not only to get conference participants talking to each other and thus get the conference off to an early and good start, but also to involve as many interested folks as possible (whether you’d be able to attend the conference or not, although of course you’re very welcome; see www.neasa.org for lots more info about it).
So starting next Monday, please check out that blog regularly (or check it out right now too, as there’s a great sample/starting point post up from a NEASA Council colleague of mine, Jonathan Silverman of UMass Lowell). The more interested AmericanStudiers we get reading and responding to those posts, the better and richer and more meaningful the conversation will be!
More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Those links again:
2)      NEASA: http://www.neasa.org
3)      OPEN: Any conference or blog questions or ideas to share?

Friday, July 15, 2011

July 15, 2011: On the Other Hand

I feel as if yesterday’s post was a bit harsh on the world of sports, especially since that world has given me a huge amount of happiness, both as a fan (particularly of the Atlanta Braves, but also of the University of Virginia men’s soccer and women’s basketball teams, among many others) and as a player (particularly on my own many soccer teams, but also tennis, cross country, and others). Of course I was focused on a very specific subset of experiences and perspectives within that world, and I hold to my take on them (and will, I must admit, be rooting hard for Japan in the Women’s World Cup final on Sunday—the combination of underdog status and what that nation has recently experienced makes it impossible for me to do otherwise). But I feel it important to highlight here one example of many of how sports can also provide moments that are truly inspiring, not only on but also and more significantly off the field.
This particular example is not only deeply inspiring, but also very surprising: former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin has been known since his playing days as one of the most extreme members of a Cowboys team full of extremes, a man whose love for drugs and women and fast cars and etc. always threatened to dwarf even his prodigious athletic gifts. In this stunningly honest and impressive Out magazine cover story,
Irvin fully owns up to that legacy, and makes it a compelling part of his narrative about how and why he came to support marriage equality (the story’s explicit focus). But even more compelling and impressive than that, and even more moving and powerful than his love and respect for his late brother, is Irvin’s worry about a conversation he might have at the pearly gates:
“The last thing I want is to go to God and have him ask, 'What did you do?' And I talk about winning Super Bowls and national titles. … I didn't do anything to make it a better world before I left? All I got is Super Bowls? That would be scary."
At times it can indeed feel that the world of sports boils down to winning, and thus, to parallel yesterday’s thoughts, to winners and losers, us and them. But as Irvin recognizes here, there’s more to it than that—and while his perspective might be said to be transcending sports, it is also coming very directly out of it, building on his successes and fame within it to make this amazing case for social and legal and human equality. As a kid growing up rooting for the Washington Redskins, I was supposed to hate Michael Irvin and the Cowboys; now? Definitely a fan.
More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Any inspiring sports figures or stories you’d highlight?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

July 14, 2011: Not a Fan

There are lots of reasons why I love The English Patient (1996; the film, that is—I’ll admit to having only read a bit of the novel after seeing the movie and being left cold), but at the top of the list is its honest and compelling portrayal of something I wrote about in my post on Dresden: the ways in which even the most noble or “good” of wars comes with so much inevitable and horrific badness, and most especially the way every war necessitates the creation of an “us vs. them” narrative in which anybody from within the wrong set of borders becomes an inhuman and unimportant enemy. Many if not all of the movie’s central storylines and character arcs drive home that point, but it’s made most succinctly in an exchange between the titular patient (Count Laszlo Almásy) and his Canadian nurse Hana. She has expressed happiness to have found by surprise a fellow Canadian in their Italian setting, and when Almásy wonders “why people are always so happy when they collide with one from the same place,” she replies, “There’s a war. Where you come from becomes important.” “Why?” Almásy counters. “I hate that idea.”
Almásy has his own very personal and very understandable reasons for hating that idea, but even without having gone through the kinds of traumas he has by this time in his tragic life experienced, I share his passion on the subject. It is perhaps human nature to identify with those with whom we share a home land in this way, and of course such communal connections have the potential for great benefit (at least if we can use them as a starting point for, y’know, actually caring about the well-being of all of our fellow community members); but those connections come, again, almost inevitably and much more dangerously with the need first to contrast ourselves with communities outside of our own and then, more often than not, to hate the individuals within those communities simply because of where they come from. It’s obvious how and why that happens during wartime, although I would still argue that too often we take it for granted or refuse to acknowledge that it’s happening, and certainly that we don’t push back nearly hard enough against it. Much less obvious and certainly much less extreme, but also less understandable and to my mind even more frustrating and ridiculous, is the way in which this happens in the world of sports.
The most overt and broadly communal example of that trend would have to be the concept of soccer hooligans (particularly in Europe), about which I know as much as you’d expect from an AmericanStudier. But here in the States we have our share of horror stories that confirm this trend—the San Francisco Giants fan who was beaten savagely outside of Dodger Stadium earlier this season, the New York Giants fan who got on the wrong bus after a game against the Jets and was likewise beaten within an inch of his life, and so on. And even if we dismiss those kinds of incidents as outliers or as caused by deranged individuals whose issues ultimately have nothing to do with sports—and I don’t necessarily do so—the fact remains that rooting passionately for a sports team seems in almost every instance to require rooting with equal passion against another, and more exactly hating not only that opposing team but its hard-core fans with the same passion. Up here in New England I hear exhibit A for that case every time the conversation on sports radio turns to the New York Yankees, but I imagine every American has a go-to example of this trend in his or her own neck of the woods.
I’m thinking of this today because of the thrilling run by the US women’s soccer team, which has brought them to the upcoming World Cup final. I’ve watched bits and pieces of their matches, and certainly have enjoyed their inspired play, particularly at the goaltending and forward positions. But I will freely admit that the constant cheers of “USA! USA!,” both among fans who have traveled to Germany to attend their matches and among many of my fellow Americans watching back here, have made me root a bit less fervently. It just seems like those chants are inevitably accompanied by boos and insults, and perhaps worse, directed at the other team, and by extension the other nation; and when it comes to that I am indeed not a fan. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      A hugely powerful moment from the film’s conclusion (spoiler alert!): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KwuHH2mDnI&feature=related
2)      An interesting scientific take on violence and sports fans: http://scienceblogs.com/cognitivedaily/2006/07/violence_in_sports_fans_1.php
3)      OPEN: What do you think?