MyAmericanFuture

MyAmericanFuture
MyAmericanFuture

Saturday, June 30, 2012

June 30, 2012: Crowd-Sourcing Summer Jobs

[Following up the week’s series with any and all responses, experiences, and ideas from readers and fellow American Studiers. Add yours, please!]
Maggi Smith-Dalton shares a “summer job as director of an arts camp which included getting kids to do their own Jack Kerouac scroll.”
Former student and future teacher Matt Marchetti shares this amazing story of his summers at a Connecticut pizzeria. And speaking of Matt, check out this analytical piece of his on horror films and American society, and please send me pieces of yours for that page on the website!
Rob Gosselin shares this compelling account of a summer job at an impressionable and important moment in his young life.
Former student, photographer, entrepreneur, and mom Megan Clemens shares this story: “I had a job being a dining attendant at an assisted living home for a year in high school. At first, I hated it because I was carrying stacks of really heavy plates from room to room, pushing a cart with broken wheels that would snag on everything, and washing dishes in scalding water in the summer without air conditioning. I really thought I was in hell. There were between 12 and 20 residents at a time and they ate meals in a family-style dining room. Sometimes as I was carrying the heavy plates or burning my hands on hot dishes I would wonder what these people’s lives were like before they lived here and how did they come to end up here. Some days I would punch out and go visit residents or they would come and chat in the kitchen, and I had the opportunity to learn about their lives. One woman, Kay, was married for three years and had four children before her husband was deployed and subsequently killed a month into his deployment. She raised four very young children by herself and had a job in the factory despite what other mothers thought of her in the 1950s, and told me she never remarried because her husband was her soul mate. Another woman, Barbara, was only in her sixties but lived there because she was afraid to live alone and didn’t have any family to live with. She wanted children but never got married, so on holidays I send her a card and I went to see her before prom to show off my dress. When I would visit the residents’ rooms they would take the time to show me all of their pictures and special belongings and tell me where and when they got them and so on. I wish I could remember more than I do about them, but it changed my perspective of the people I share the world with from just people walking by me to people with an identity and a life that is unique, and that was something I really valued.”
Monthly recap tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Add your summer job experiences and perspectives in comments, won’t you?
6/30 Memory Day nominee: Lena Horne, the unique, talented, and beautiful singer, actress, and performer whose civil rights activism helped change American culture and society.

Friday, June 29, 2012

June 29, 2012: College Prep

[As summer gets underway, this week’s series will be on American Studies topics connected to summer jobs I’ve worked. Your experiences, thoughts, and job stories—good, bad, or ugly—very welcome in comments, and for another crowd-sourced post this weekend!]
On the illusions shattered and yet the ideals confirmed by my summer teaching in a pre-college “bridge” program.
I’ve highlighted in various posts here the many reasons I had a great graduate school experience at Philadelpha’s Temple University: my peers and colleagues, my mentors, my other professors, and, perhaps most of all, my students. Temple was founded as a genuinely local and urban institution, one hoping to cater to the city’s own young people; although its identity has of course evolved and changed over the century and a quarter since that founding, I would certainly argue that it remains one of Philly’s most genuinely local and grounded institutions, a part of the city’s history, identity, and community in a way that continues to define it into the 21st century. And while there are many reasons for that continuity, I would say that a crucial one is this: as Philadelphia’s only public university, Temple offers a unique, affordable, and irreplaceable educational opportunity for the city’s more disadvantaged residents.
Some students who come to Temple from those more difficult situations need a bit of extra work to prepare them for college, and so are required to participate in the Summer Bridge program before they begin their studies. During my last summer in Philly, I had the chance to teach writing for Summer Bridge, and to meet about fifty of these incoming local students. Yet I have to admit that many of the moments from that six week period which stand out the most for me do so because they were deeply disheartening, particularly in what I learned about the students’ lack of preparation. To cite only the most shocking such example: I had three different students tell me, on three completely separate occasions, that they had been told by high school teachers to cut and paste material from websites as part of their papers; that such work, far from being the plagiarism that I was trying to convince the students it was, represented “research,” finding and using resources in their writing. I fully understand the challenges with which inner city (and all public) high school teachers were faced then and face just as fully (if not more so) today; yet I was still blown away that, in at least these few cases, students were being instructed to cheat, presumably in order to achieve a certain level of writing without, y’know, actually doing the writing themselves.
But if such shocking and disheartening moments stand out individually, my overall takeaway from my summer with the Bridge program was precisely the opposite: a deeply inspiring sense of just how much this group of young people cared about the opportunity to attend Temple, just how much they valued their educational opportunity and how determined they were to take advantage of it. During the summer, while their peers were earning money at summer jobs or going to the beach or watching daytime television, these students were taking intensive courses in writing and reading, math and critical thinking, not for a grade or credit but simply for the chance to attend college. It was an incredibly diverse group in race, ethnicity, community, and other aspects of identity (which was pretty inspiring too), but it was very homogenous in this one key way: every single student wanted to be there, and demonstrated that desire in class every single day. However much I was able to give to them, I guarantee that I took away even more from, was better prepared for the rest of my college teaching career by, the chance to work with them for those six weeks.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend, so add your summer job experiences and thoughts please!
Ben
PS. You know what to do!
6/29 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two very distinct but equally courageous and influential 20th century political and social activists, Julia Lathrop and Stokely Carmichael.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

June 28, 2012: Mass Market Fiction

[As summer gets underway, this week’s series will be on American Studies topics connected to summer jobs I’ve worked. Your experiences, thoughts, and job stories—good, bad, or ugly—very welcome in comments, and for another crowd-sourced post this weekend!]
On the worst and best things I was asked to do during my summer at a Waldenbooks.
There are all sorts of reasons for those us who care about literature to resist creating or reinforcing any strict or clear dichotomy between “literary” (or “highbrow”) and popular literature, but perhaps the most significant is this: such a dichotomy simply doesn’t stand up to any knowledge of actual literary history. Some (if not indeed the vast majority) of the most consistently canonized and studied authors, those whom we most associate with “literature” itself—from Shakespeare to Dickens, Dante to Flaubert, Hawthorne to Faulkner—were deeply concerned with popular success and sales; even those authors who were more overtly and famously ambivalent about those questions, such as Emily Dickinson, tended (as did Dickinson) to hope for an audience, to work to find one, to seek publication. To write, in many ways, is quite fundamentally to entertain those hopes and goals (among many others, of course); and while they mean very different things for distinct authors, eras, genres, and situations, it’s simply inaccurate to suggest that they are relevant only to certain “popular” genres or authors.
Yet if you spend a few months working at a Waldenbooks, as I did in Lexington, Massachusetts in the summer after my junior year in college, you do come to see some of the least attractive sides to the business of popular literature. Waldenbooks, like its main competitor B. Dalton (both of which are no longer in business, forced out mostly by Amazon.com), was a prime example of what I would call “mall bookstores”—small stores designed not for browsing or discovering, and certainly not for reading or lingering, but for finding and buying the moment’s most popular books. And one of my weekly jobs at the store reflected those priorities with particular force—I was provided with a list of particular books to pull off and our shelves, those that were not selling well enough; and when it came to the mass market paperbacks on the list, I was asked moreover to tear over the covers, return only them, and throw the books themselves away, guaranteeing that they could never be legitimately re-sold. It was a genuinely painful thing for me to do, piling all those books in a giant trash bag each week—and it felt like the ultimate illustration of what a bottom-line mentality can mean for bookselling.
That mentality was clearly driving Waldenbooks as a corporation—hence my other least-favorite required role, asking every single customer if they wanted to buy one of our frequent buyer cards and being rewarded or penalized depending on how many I sold. But it didn’t necessarily drive my daily interactions in the store, my conversations with the customers, and in fact those interactions tell a very different story. Time and again I would be asked to recommend new authors or books, to build on an existing experience (“I really enjoyed book X,” “I’m a fan of Y,” and so on) and help a customer find new passions. The experience allowed me, after a few years of studying literature in an academic setting, to remember the core of the literary experience: pleasure reading, the enjoyment and power that creative works of all kinds can and do provide for us. And it reminded me that at the heart of popular literature is neither sales nor publishing, nor the bottom lines of corporations, but the enduring and vital nature of that experience, on an individual and a communal level. Sure, I would have loved to keep all those cover-less books and leave ‘em in boxes out front, to find new readers as well; but Waldenbooks renewed my faiths in reading and in books much more than it undermine them.
Final summer job connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Jobs in and around the literary or writing worlds you’d highlight?
6/28 Memory Day nominee: Esther Forbes, the talented and prolific novelist whose children’s books, set both in her native Worcester (MA) and in some of the most significant eras of American history, won her numerous awards and have continued to find an audience into the 21st century.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

June 27, 2012: Not At All Temporary

[As summer gets underway, this week’s series will be on American Studies topics connected to summer jobs I’ve worked. Your experiences, thoughts, and job stories—good, bad, or ugly—very welcome in comments, and for another crowd-sourced post this weekend!]
On what I learned about a troubling aspect of my lifelong profession from my couple of summers working as a temp.
For a young man looking for summer jobs before and during his first couple years in college, temping is a pretty attractive option: moving from one position to another, getting lots of experiences without getting bored, meeting different people and being part of different communities, utilizing various skills that might come in handy later in life (I still remember the two straight days I spent transcribing hundreds of hours of recorded interviews; my words per minute definitely went up as a result). And of course I understood and still understand why temps make sense for the employers—in some cases I was subbing for an employee on maternity leave or the like, in others I was completing a brief project that wouldn’t necessitate a full-time hire, in others I was helping with a temporary increase in work (such as for the company that needed to refile a bunch of numerically ordered folders after a move), and so on. Sure, my temp jobs paid close to minimum wage and came with no benefits, but I was 19 and 20, and they fit the bill.
In the two decades since my temp experiences, the industry has expanded, becoming an integral and complicated part of many American professions. Ironically (for my own personal trajectory, that is), in no field is that more true, nor more problematic, than for higher education. The common and ever-expanding use of adjunct faculty members by colleges and universities—there’s a reason why adjuncts and other contingent faculty members have come to be known as, indeed to call themselves, the New Faculty Majority—is frighteningly similar to much of what I wrote in the previous paragraph: very low wages, no benefits, unstable and frequenly changing situations. All of those realities are complicated and yet also amplified by the fact that most adjunct faculty members have the same degrees and qualifications as their full-time and tenure-track peers, and if anything have tended to gain significantly more and more varied experience as a result of their work. Which is to say, while temping is at least ostensibly a job opportunity for younger and less-experienced workers—or was when I temped, anyway—adjuncting is far less about any difference in the people being employed and instead, far more simply and far more troublingly, purely a cost-cutting and flexibility-enhancing measure for institutions, a way to get equivalent teaching and work for far less money.
Those aspects of adjunct labor are frustratingly entrenched and constant, and will be difficult to change (although that’s a fight worth fighting to be sure). But there’s another problematic element to the profession that would, I believe, be easier to change, and here a different lesson from my temping days could be applied. Despite my temporary status in those jobs, I was consistently—indeed, in every case, as I remember—welcomed into the workplace community, made to feel (by my bosses, my coworkers, everybody) an equal part of that community. Yet far too often, and at every academic institution around which I’ve worked (both as a grad student, as an adjunct myself at two universities, and now as a tenured faculty member), adjuncts occupy a significantly separate space, literally and in virtually every other way. This has never been the fault of any individual faculty members or departments, but instead has just seemed to be the way various factors—locations of work space, schedules, types of courses, and so on—have come together to create these entirely disparate faculty communities. Yet whatever the reason, the fact is that it has consistently happened—and that it is crucial, I believe, for all academics and institutions to recognize it and to push back, by acknowledging that adjunct faculty members are not in any way temporary and by welcoming them into our communities, departments, conversations, and work in every possible sense and way.
Next summer job connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?
6/27 Memory Day nominees: A rare but well-deserved three-way tie between three passionate and inspiring activists, writers, and 20th century American women: Emma Goldman, Helen Keller, and Lucille Clifton.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

June 26, 2012: Insurance Claims

[As summer gets underway, this week’s series will be on American Studies topics connected to summer jobs I’ve worked. Your experiences, thoughts, and job stories—good, bad, or ugly—very welcome in comments, and for another crowd-sourced post this weekend!]
On the worst and the best of what I learned in my summer working in—or at least near—the health insurance industry.
Nostalgia is a dangerous thing for a variety for reasons, and certainly that can be the case when it comes to American Studies. It can be easy, for example, for those of us who bemoan the increasingly corporatized and for-profit state of so much of 21st century American society to hearken to an earlier, more communal moment, when profits seem to have not so consistently been prioritized above people. Yet the truth is likely significantly more complicated—that profits and people have always been competitors, that every industry and aspect of society has been driven by both selfish and selfless forces since its origin points. Certainly the origins of health insurance in America, which began in many ways in the early 20th century, contains both sides: Progressive reformers argued for the need for national insurance plans in order to protect all Americans from increasing medical costs (in new, technologically advanced hospitals); while the newly formed American Medical Association and other physicians’ groups critiqued such ideas as impractical and pushed for very different, more profit-based narratives of insurance.
That history is important to remember, and not to idealize or be nostalgic about. As is, to cite a very salient second example, the history of Harry Truman’s proposal for a nationalized health plan, and the significant pushback he and that proposal received (being called a Communist, for example). These issues and problems, and the social and political debates they produce, are not at all new. Yet I also feel that they may have gotten even worse in recent decades—and I had a chance to experience some of the worst aspects of the health insurance industry in the summer after my freshman year in college, when I worked for a few months for the University of Virginia’s Health Services Foundation. My job was to follow up on insurance claims for UVa patients that had been denied or otherwise not paid, and to try to find out why and help get the issues resolved if possible. And while this is purely anecdotal, I was told by one of my colleagues, who was also a former claims servicer for a major insurance company, that the company’s policy when he worked there was for the servicers to throw out every claim the first time they received it, since at least some of the patients would not follow up a second time. I don’t know if he was telling the truth—but what he said rang true for so much of what I did experience at that job, and so much of what I have seen and learned about insurance companies in general. Which is, in and of itself, a pretty strong indictment of those companies and the system they’re a part of.
Yet that’s not all I saw and learned in that summer of work. After all, my own role, and the role of all those who were doing the job around me (including that former claims servicer), was indeed in the most communal and positive spirit of what health insurance can and should mean: looking out for those patients, trying to help them get the coverage (and the health care) that they need and deserve, making sure that they weren’t fighting that fight on their own. And to be very clear, I felt the same from all of the insurance company employees with whom I spoke, many of whom I talked to nearly every day; they too saw their jobs (whatever their companies might be telling them!) as working with people like me, trying to resolve things for these patients (not ignoring the company’s interests, but neither treating the patients as simply secondary to those interests), working to make the system work more consistently. Idealizing people can be as reductive or dangerous as idealizing the past, I know—but there’s no question that the vast majority of the people I encountered that summer had their hearts and goals in the right places. If we’re going to reform a system—as the Progressives well knew—it’s pretty important to remember the best of what people are and can be, as well as the worst of what those systems can include.
Next summer job connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Experiences and ideas you’d highlight for the weekend’s post?
6/26 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two unique, talented, and influential 20th century American women, Pearl S. Buck and Babe Didrickson Zaharias.

Monday, June 25, 2012

June 25, 2012: Ash Lawn-Highland

[As summer gets underway, this week’s series will be on American Studies topics connected to summer jobs I’ve worked. Your experiences, thoughts, and job stories—good, bad, or ugly—very welcome in comments, and for another crowd-sourced post this weekend!]
On two very different, yet equally meaningful, ways to use a historic site.
James Monroe’s longtime home, Ash Lawn-Highland, sits just down the hill from Thomas Jefferson’s much more famous Monticello, and it’s fair to say that Monroe’s home will forever be in that shadow of that most prominent Charlottesville, Virginia, and American landmark. The relationship between the two houses and sites, much like that between the two Founding Fathers and Presidents (and their neighbor James Madison), is certainly an interesting one, and could lead to plenty of American Studies analyses in its own right; but I believe that we owe it to Monroe and his home not to analyze them solely in that light. Moreover, having had the opportunity to spend two high school summers working at Ash Lawn-Highland, I came away particularly interested in the relationship between two quite distinct elements of the site.
The first, and far more traditional, is the site’s recreation of Monroe’s home and era, its role as an educational and performative historic site. There are a couple of interestingly unique components to that role, to be sure: Monroe, an alumnus of the College of William and Mary, left his house to that institution, and so its educational connections are long-term and multi-layered; and the site is a working farm, making its recreations not just performative but in many ways quite productive as well. Yet despite those unique qualities, Ash Lawn-Highland’s identity as a historic site parallels it very fully to other similar sites, from Monticello and Madison’s Montpelier to America’s many other historic houses. Such sites, as we discussed at length in this spring’s NEASA Colloquium, have their strengths and weaknesses, their opportunities and limitations in how they connect audiences to the past; they are in any case an invaluable part of our national heritage, and Ash Lawn-Highland is certainly a representative and interesting example of the type.
But every summer for many decades, Ash Lawn-Highland has featured a very different event: the Opera Festival (known, when I worked for two summers in the ticket and box office, as the Summer Music Festival). While some of the shows perfomed in the Festival are period pieces from the era of Monroe’s life, many are not—each summer includes at least one 20th century musical, for example; and many of the operas that have been performed over the years are likewise outside of the context of Monroe’s era. Yet what struck me about the festival, which for most of its run saw the shows performed on the site’s grounds (they have apparently moved in recent years to a different Charlottesville theater), was precisely what it contributed to the experience of Ash Lawn-Highland: a new perspective on the home, in every sense; a chance to sit behind the main house on a summer evening, to see it in a different light (literally and figuratively), to have an experience that felt not at all disconnected from the goals and identities of America’s founders and of the educational, historical, and cultural legacies of their lives and era and purposes of the sites that remember them. There are many ways to connect to a figure like Monroe, and the world of which he was and is a part; in the Festival, Ash Lawn-Highland highlighted precisely the variety and power of those different approaches.
Next summer job connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Summer jobs you’d highlight?
6/25 Memory Day nominee: James Meredith, the Civil Rights activist whose pioneering educational and social efforts were only the first acts in a long and complex American life and story.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

June 23-24, 2012: Crowd-Sourced Post on the Election

[Once again I’m following up the week’s series with a crowd-sourced post, drawn from comments and thoughts of readers and fellow American Studiers. Please add yours to the mix!]
On the Open Salon version of Monday’s post, Johnny Fever argues that it’s actually the Republicans who are poised to pass their version of the DREAM Act or similarly pro-immigrant legislation, while Paul J. O’Rourke echoes my sentiments with some additional political takes.
Rob Gosselin replies to Tuesday’s post by arguing, “I despise the fact that we live in a world where guns have to exist, and I choose not to own a gun myself. But I do know many people that own guns, and I do not fear them because they choose to keep one in their house. In fact I consider an armed populace to be a necessary, and perhaps the ultimate, check and balance to the power of government. Since we live in an educated and modern society it is hard to imagine that brutal and repressive people can use the rule of law to find their way to power. But history teaches us otherwise. Hitler and his cohorts legally rose to power. That does not mean that prudent regulation of guns should not exist. If no gun laws exist the population will live in fear of violence from people who will use guns to hurt them. There has to be reasonable restrictions on who is allowed to own a weapon. But if there is no gun ownership by a capable and law abiding populace then there is nothing to prevent the rise of tyranny. All we have to do is look at what is happening in Egypt right now. The military has taken control after an election said they couldn’t. A piece of paper, or a ballot box, will never guarantee freedom in a world where those who rise to power have exclusive access to weapons.” (And check out that post for subsequent conversation between me and Rob!)
Not a specific response to my Wednesday post of course, but I can’t pass up linking to this Robert Wright article on the latest move toward war with Iran, one unfortunately co-sponsored by both political parties.
Next series next week,
Ben
PS. What do you think? What American Studies connections would you make for this election, for our current political or social issues, for our debates or conversations?
6/24 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two almost diametrically opposed but equally influential 19th century Americans, Henry Ward Beecher and Ambrose Bierce.

Friday, June 22, 2012

June 22, 2012: American Studying the Election, Part 5

[The fifth in a series on some of the broader American Studies issues and stakes in the 2012 presidential election. As always, and doubly so with controversial topics like these, your takes are very welcome!]
On the stakes of 2012 for the American issue that can seem more abstract but has plenty of very concrete effects, and that matters most to me.
Anyone who has read this blog for a while, or who has read my second book, or who has ever talked with me about anything American Studies-related, knows how centrally interested I am in the question of how we define “American,” of what that idea, that identity, that community, means. As I argue at length in that book’s Conclusion, I believe that the debates over Barack Obama’s “American-ness,” over the question (to quote a Time cover story from just before the 2008 election) “Is Barack Obama American Enough?,” have been central to our political culture for the last four years. You can see those debates in the Birther movement, in the Tea Party cry of “I want my country back,” and in so many other moments and issues in contemporary America. And Mitt Romney has been a part of those debates for just as long, dating back at least to his statement, during the 2008 presidential campaign, that “Barack Obama looks toward Europe for a lot of his inspiration; John McCain is going to make sure that America stays America.”
It’s easy to see this issue as the least significant of the five with which I’ve dealt this week, and I’m not going to argue that it has nearly the immediate and practical relevance that they do. Certainly the question of where Obama was born, while incredibly frustrating to those of us in the reality-based community, would only be practically significant if one of the many Birther lawsuits managed to actually keep him off of a state’s ballot or the like. But I think there are any number of immediate and significant effects to each possible definition of America, from the most to the least inclusive; is there any doubt, to cite one ongoing current event, that the debate over a possible mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, depends entirely on whether we see Muslim Americans as part of “America” or somehow outside of it? Isn’t it clear, as Obama acknowledged in the speech with which he announced his DREAM Act executive order, that seeing its young beneficiaries as “Americans in their hearts, in their minds” is crucial to supporting that policy change? The second of those examples is without doubt more complex than the first, includes legal and governmental factors much more centrally; but both nonetheless hinge on precisely who and what we mean (and don’t mean) by “American.”
Yet there’s another, and to my mind even more meaningful, effect to these debates: what they mean for the identities and perspectives of each individual American. I’ve expressed before my admiration for Colin Powell’s answer, during his 2008 endorsement of Obama, to lies about Obama’s Muslim identity, his statement that while the correct answer is that Obama is not a Muslim, the “more correct” answer is: 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?” If I had to express most succinctly why I think these debates over the meaning of “American” are so crucial, I would ask precisely the same question, writ large: how do you think it feels for a young kid—a Muslim American kid, or the child of undocumented immigrants, or a kid realizing he or she is gay—to be told, implicitly but often explicitly as well, that he or she is outside of “American” identity, is an other within his or her homeland? That’s the stake of these debates—and, I believe, one of the most fundamental stakes of the 2012 election, and many of our ongoing political arguments beyond it.
Crowd-sourced post on these topics this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think? I’d love to add your voice and ideas about any of the week’s topics, or anything else election and American Studies-related, to that weekend post!
6/22 Memory Day nominee: Billy Wilder, one of America’s most talented and successful film directors and screenwriters, and one who contributed some of the 20th century’s most pioneering and important (as well as popular and influential) films.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

June 21, 2012: American Studying the Election, Part 4

[The fourth in a series on some of the broader American Studies issues and stakes in the 2012 presidential election. As always, and doubly so with controversial topics like these, your takes are very welcome!]
On the stakes of 2012 for perhaps the most longstanding and significant, yet also one of the most often misrepresented, American political debate.
The Federalist and Anti-Federalist debates over the Constitution, which lasted for over two years and featured most of the prominent Revolutionary era leaders, were big, complicated, and shouldn’t be boiled down into a paragraph of a blog post; I can’t recommend strongly enough that every American Studier read both The Federalist Papers and the collected Anti-Federalist papers to get a much fuller sense of those debates than I can provide here. Yet it’s also true that the two sides’ names were purposefully and rightly chosen, since the core of the debate can be boiled down to two relatively clear and certainly contrasting positions: a support for a present, well-defined, and at least somewhat strong federal government on the one side; and an opposition to virtually any such government on the other. So it seems to me that there are few, if any, American political subjects older or more vital than this one: what the federal government’s presence and roles should be.
On the other hand, one of the most disingenuous positions in American political history—and it too has a long history—is the one which uses the phrase “states’ rights” or its ilk to advocate not for a less strong federal government, but instead for a federal government that uses its strength in service of what particular states, and more exactly particular communities within those states, desire. For example, as James Loewen has argued very effectively, and as anyone who has read the Confederate Articles of Secession knows well, the Confederate states actually objected strongly to other, Northern states exercising their “states’ rights” and opposing the Fugitive Slave Act—what these Confederate states wanted was a federal government like the one that had existed under President Buchanan, one which would protect the institution of slavery (and even aid in its expansion) on the national level. In a different vein, Ronald Reagan famously argued in his 1981 inaugural address that “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” yet during his two terms oversaw one of the largest expansions of federal government spending in recent history, making clear that he and his supporters were referring to certain aspects of the federal government and not at all to others.
Which brings me once again to the 2012 election. It’s possible that this election will genuinely represent another debate between those who believe that federal spending and influence have a significant role to play in all aspects of American society (as Obama and the Democratic Party certainly do believe, and as I do as well) and those who believe that the federal government should be as limited and powerless as possible (as is the expressed belief of conservative forces as diverse as Grover Norquist and the Tea Party). Yet it’s also possible that the differences are more about what roles an expansive federal government would have under each potential administration—which is to say, that Mitt Romney, like Ronald Reagan (and George W. Bush) before him, might continue and even expand federal spending on defense, on support for business and corporations, and so on. Both of these are, again, longstanding American debates—over the size and power of the federal government on the one hand; over its proper focus and role on the other—but they are also quite distinct, and it would serve us well, at the very least, to push both candidates, and especially Romney, to articulate in which debate they are actually participating.
Final election and American issue tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?
6/21 Memory Day nominee: Reinhold Niebuhr, the son of German immigrants who became one of 20th century America’s greatest theological, philosophical, and cultural thinkers and commentators, and whose voice and ideas continue to influence our national converations.