How the Hollywood Blacklist Gave Us the Term “Witch Hunt”—And Why the Phrase Would Be Best Forgotten

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Daniel Day Lewis stars as John Proctor in the 1996 film adaptation of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

Editor’s Note: Before you read this post, here’s a weird story about how it was almost published elsewhere.

I initially wrote this essay, and sent it off to various online publications to see if it might be posted somewhere a little more prolific than my humble WordPress site. After many solicitations, I found an editor that was interested, who emailed me to say that they “would be delighted” to publish the essay on their website. That editor and his publication will remain nameless, but suffice it to say it was the website of a relatively venerable magazine of the left. Continue reading “How the Hollywood Blacklist Gave Us the Term “Witch Hunt”—And Why the Phrase Would Be Best Forgotten”

Should I Throw Out My Gradebook? Part Two: Not for Now

I don’t think I’ll be throwing out my gradebook, at least for now.

I liked experimenting with the specifications grading (or “specs grading”) model for a semester—I wrote about it first here—and I still think there is much to say for the approach. But there are also some drawbacks, and I want to write about some of those here. Then I’ll write briefly about my attempt to give rubrics a try in lieu of specs grading. Continue reading “Should I Throw Out My Gradebook? Part Two: Not for Now”

Postmortem on My “Hail Caesar Project”

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Gee, thanks Robert Picardo playing the rabbi in Hail, Caesar! (2016/Working Title Films)

I’ve gotten in the habit of writing about some of my essays here when they go live, so I thought I’d share some random thoughts about my latest, “‘Sometimes a Bee Can Move an Ox’: Biblical Epics and One Man’s Quest to Promote Jewish Values in Blacklist-Era Hollywood,” now online at the journal Modern American History (MAH), which, in a reflection of the paper’s provenance, still sits in my computer in a folder labeled “Hail Caesar Project.” I like to write these postmortems just to get some of my thinking on the record, so to speak, but if you’ve already read the essay and might like to know a little more, please do read along. Continue reading “Postmortem on My “Hail Caesar Project””

Popular Culture Fatigue

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I have no opinion on this show. (Brooklyn Nine-Nine/Fox)

There’s a kind of fatigue on display in social media these days, at least among the circles that I follow, that suggests people are tired of parsing the deeper meanings and dangerous discourses of popular culture, and it’s manifested in a malaise and backlash to the criticism surrounding Kanye West and Brooklyn Nine-Nine specifically. In the maelstrom, meanwhile, I think some basic premises are being lost. I’m going to enumerate them here, briefly, not because I’m invested in either Kanye or Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but because I think the moment can remind us about what we find valuable about cultural criticism, cultural studies, and other disciplines and methodologies that teach media literacy.

1. It’s ok to like popular culture.

Being a critic doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy popular culture. Roxane Gay reminded us when discussing the new Roseanne reboot that it’s fine to enjoy entertainment that might be nevertheless “problematic.” Critics and scholars exist to start conversation, to open our eyes to new and different ideas, and in terms of poststructuralism and queer theory, to lay bare the ways in which power works through media, and specifically, the way it reveals how that which is understood as normal is in fact contingent, and rooted in histories of chance, opportunity, inequality, and domination. Continue reading “Popular Culture Fatigue”

Class-Race Reductionism

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Ida B. Wells wrote about the intersections of economic anxiety and racial oppression in the 1890s.

There’s an ever waging war, in academia, activist circles, and lest we forget the most important, on Twitter, on whether or not it is class or race that is most significant. And “most significant” usually collapses a couple of concerns (at least): what got Trump elected? And what should be the basis of social justice activism and rhetoric?

To say that such discussions are reductionist is both incredibly obvious and, for some reason, something that one apparently can’t reiterate enough, if one is to take the rhetoric on the internet seriously. Of course, there are people writing in skilled ways on this matter: for example, David Roediger’s new collection of essays takes up the problems of race and class. So does Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s excellent book on Black Lives Matter. But once again the media is abuzz over the latest study that apparently proves that economics weren’t the reason for Trump’s election, “identity” was. As if the two aren’t related. Continue reading “Class-Race Reductionism”

Why I Dislike the Word Illiberal

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Was the Tea Party movement a manifestation of “illiberal democracy” or “undemocratic liberalism”? (2009/public domain)

I want to expand a bit on my recent comments on why I dislike the word “illiberal” and the phrase “illiberal democracy,” terms that appear to be nearly ubiquitous in contemporary popular political discourse.

In part, this is because I’m delighted to discover that there is an existing debate over this that I was entirely ignorant of. It seems that there is a cadre of political scientists—at least according to Wikipedia—who question the use of a phrase that seems simply to mean “undemocratic democracy.” Continue reading “Why I Dislike the Word Illiberal”

Haunted by Churchill: Civic Nationalism and Churchill-Philia

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Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, here addressing the British House of Commons in 1940.

Winston Churchill wasn’t a saint—he was anti-labor and pro-imperialism, and responsible for a famine in India and an ethnic cleansing in Kenya. But I don’t need to tell you this. Since the latest Churchill biopic, Darkest Hour, began earning accolades and awards in late 2017, plenty of columns have been written to remind us that Churchill is not worthy of our veneration.

These columns are worth your time if you are not familiar with Churchill biography. But for cultural critics to write solely about what gets left out of our present day American conversations about the British prime minister is to perform a kind of critical dodge. We should be asking: What is it that makes this moment ripe for a renascent Churchill-philia? What is it about the story that is being told about Churchill that seems to be resonating with American audiences and critics? Continue reading “Haunted by Churchill: Civic Nationalism and Churchill-Philia”