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””
I took a vacation last week to New Orleans, which was a lot of fun. One morning I spent some time in Congo Square, in the Treme neighborhood bordering the French Quarter. Congo Square is where African slaves were permitted to gather in the nineteenth century on Sundays. There they danced and performed music, combining African traditions, incorporating American instruments and forms, and drawing upon the iconography of Native Americans. Over time, they created jazz in that square.
Congo Square now features the additional title of Louis Armstrong Park. It’s a beautiful place to visit, and scattered throughout the park are sculptures that tell just a few bits and pieces of the story of African American jazz in its earliest forms. Walking around this sculpture garden I unexpectedly felt a kind of weight of history. The reason, I think, was a random confluence of events. Continue reading “Space, Time, Congo Square”
Just a few weeks until the new Trumbo movie comes out in theaters, and I’m on the edge of my seat, wondering if the film will follow in a long line of Hollywood blacklist movies that obscure the political context of the era. Meanwhile, two events have me thinking about the role of historical narrative in popular culture.
First, I’m fascinated by the discussion unfolding around the new Steve Jobs biopic. Scratch that; film critics are insisting that its actually not a biopic. “Formally audacious” according to A.O. Scott, the movie eschews the “cradle to grave” narrative that make so many biopics so unbearably awful. Maybe just as important as its form, Scott and others laud the film’s critical perspective; rather than fawn over its hero or present him as an entrepreneurial genius, Aaron Sorkin’s script apparently challenges the fables of individualistic success. Just like old Hollywood did in films like Edgar Ulmer’s Ruthless (written by two fellow blacklistees of Dalton Trumbo, incidentally) the Jobs film evidently suggests that audacious greed is what gets people to the top in America, rather than generosity or a cooperative spirit. Continue reading “Hollywood vs History, Round ??”
Back when I was in graduate school, one of the longest running debates I had — with my colleagues but mostly with myself in my own head — was whether or not it is the role of the historian to judge historical actors.
I still like coming back to this idea frequently. When I raise the question among different groups of people, I often hear wildly different responses, and I find it makes for fruitful conversation. But for me, myself, I think I’ve become most assured in my response. Sure, to a degree, judgment is unavoidable. But to consider the alternative, to take seriously the challenge of moving beyond judgment, has the potential to change the function of history as an intellectual enterprise.
Andrew Hartman raises the question of what is the function of history in a way that I think is useful for this discussion. In his new book about the “culture wars,” A War for the Soul of America, Hartman nicely summarizes what cultural historians do, saying that they “decod[e] the contextually specific meaning of cultural practices in order to understand how human beings adjusted to their unique situations” (257). Cultural historians, he writes, rely on a “notion of power…in which people [are] understood to have acted on desire as much as on fear” (258). Everyone, in this paradigm, is subject to “meanings of truth,” even if they are unaware of it themselves (258). I would argue that what Hartman is highlighting here is an argument against judgment. If historical actors are subject to discourse, our scrutiny is better utilized focusing on that discourse itself than on judging individuals.
The opposite of Hartman’s cultural history, is what I have taken to calling “finger wagging” history. If I were to generalize in a way that is probably unfair, I would argue that popular, or mass audience histories are more likely to be “finger wagging” than contemporary academic texts. A finger wagging history takes a figure like Richard Nixon or Joseph McCarthy and demonizes him. Or it portrays Adolf Hitler as a “monster,” a psychologically demented sociopath unique and wholly disconnected from his socio-cultural context.
Of course, the literature on Adolf Hitler has traveled a long distance from this kind of portrayal. Most famously, in works like Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning, historians have shown how the whole of German society, and European society more broadly, was implicated in the Third Reich and the Holocaust. Moving away from “finger wagging” history — away from judgment — doesn’t mean moving away from implication then. Quite the opposite: the less we judge, the better we can see the ways in which we are all implicated in the discourses that drive historical processes. Similarly, work on the 1920s Ku Klux Klan in the last few decades, such as Behind the Mask of Chivalry by Nancy MacLean for example, have highlighted the role middle-class populism in driving the terrorist group’s acts.
Warning: this next bit might sound silly. I had kind of a sudden “a-ha” moment about this several years ago, when I was reading Thomas Borstelmann’s book on the seventies. Borstelmann writes about all the ways in which American culture atomized and turned inwards. He writes about the introduction of the Walkman for example, as evidence for how media consumption became individualized. I realized that this normalized performance, of walking around with headphones on, was one that structured my own habits. Later, as I was baking a large loaf of bread and wondering how I was going to eat it all, I considered what Borstelmann’s work might tell me about how I’ve structured my relationships with my neighbors in my large apartment building, and their expectations around their relationship with their neighbors as well. There are no enemies in Borstelmann’s description of the rise of what he terms “hyper-individualism,” no one to judge or condemn, only myths and symbols, habits and norms that I had suddenly realized govern my own behavior. It occurred to me that the best works of history, read in the right context, have the power to change not just how we see the past, but how we think about the world and the way that we act within it. What would a culture look like in which I would take the extra bread that I had made to my neighbor’s door?
I thought about the matter of judgment recently when a news story erupted on the internet about Ben Affleck. The generally progressive film actor/director was caught trying to obscure the fact that his ancestors had owned slaves. People took to social media to condemn the actor for the act. But lost in the discussion was the cultural context in which he came to make such an act, as well as the question as to how others, subject to the same culture, would behave themselves. In a wonderful comment by Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the historian reminded us that “everyone’s implicated,” not just Affleck. By doing so, Muhammad suggested that the spotlight would be better placed, not on Affleck, but on American society more broadly.
So here’s a thought exercise that I came up with a few months ago: what would a work on Watergate and Richard Nixon look like if it studiously avoided the “finger wagging” paradigm of history? What kinds of dominant national discourses would it highlight or unearth? In what way would we be implicated in the discourses today?
In twenty years, the thing that I hope changes the most in the narrative of American history is the part that deals with the question of what started the “cold war.” It seems to me that our textbooks and our collective memory are ripe for developing their perspectives on this matter. There are a few distinct fronts on which I think historians would do well to advance on the question of the cold war’s origins, but today I’ll mention one: the role of Winston Churchill.
I’ll focus on Churchill for a couple of reasons. First, the recent din about Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress and his re-election as Israeli prime minister has me thinking about echoes of Churchill. Israel, like England, is supposed to be a special friend of the United States, one with which it allegedly shares a commitment to liberalism, democracy, and human rights. And yet, like Churchill, Netanyahu is nakedly imperialistic. And perhaps as was the case with Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, Netanyahu and Barack Obama have performed a strange kind of diplomatic dance, a performance of frenemies masquerading as friends. Although one could argue that in recent events, Obama has dropped all pretense of being a friend to Netanyahu.
Second, I stumbled upon a book a few weeks ago that I find rather fascinating: Dinner at the White House, by Louis Adamic. Some readers might know Adamic as an author who advocated for cultural pluralism in the mid-20th century. (Wendy Wall writes quite a bit about him in the excellent Inventing the American Way.) Adamic was an Eastern European immigrant who fit right into the 1930s and 40s worlds of Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition and the more radical Popular Front. As such, he gained an audience with Franklin Roosevelt at a White House dinner in 1942. And Churchill was there too.
I first became interested in Churchill’s role in the answer to the “cold war” question after reading up on Henry Wallace a few years ago. In the mid to late forties, Wallace spoke as if British imperialism — what he called “Anglo-Saxon Ueberalles” — was the chief obstacle of postwar peace. I was again reminded of Churchill recently when I watched the new film about Alan Turing. But as was widely reported, the film plays fast and loose with the historical record. Was my favorite part about the film — its depiction of Churchill as zealously anti-Soviet — to be trusted as accurate?
Adamic suggests that Churchill was single-minded in his belief that there would be no waning of the British Empire after the war. And he writes in an pleasant, first person form that anticipates the “new journalism” of the postwar decades. Adamic narrates his coming to the White House to learn that Roosevelt has invited him in order to try to sway Churchill towards the vision of postwar Europe on which Adamic had recently published a book. The book, he notes, “was a bit hard on the British” (23). Adamic portrays himself as being sheepish and humbled when he learns that the President and his wife are admirers of his work.
Adamic writes of the relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt: “They were obviously friends, but — perhaps less obviously — friends of a special kind… The divergent characters of their countries entered into those relations. Their own personalities were very unlike, in spite of certain similarities of background. There were tensions” (26). I won’t spoil the rest for you, but there are some humorous passages that describe Churchill and Roosevelt’s demeanor towards one another.
Ultimately, the key to unlocking the postwar world, Adamic suggested, was getting around Churchill. And the “friendship” between the US and England was in the way. Adamic writes: “There’s a Britain other than Churchill’s. F.D.R. can appeal to this other Britain if […] he and Churchill haven’t already become too great pals” (121).
There is of course a question as to what degree Dinner at the White House can be taken seriously as an indicator of the personal and political differences between Roosevelt and Churchill. But as a piece of wartime New Deal coalition propaganda, its fascinating enough on its own, I think. Over the last sixty years or so, we’ve papered over the differences, real, imagined, or embellished as they were, that clearly existed in some form between the U.S. and Great Britain in order to serve the manichean narrative of the “cold war.”
The Obama administration said last week that recent statements of Netanyahu’s might cause the United States to “rethink” its policy towards Israel. (NPR slyly suggested that the relationship between the two leaders was “complicated.”) What if Roosevelt had rethought the utility of Churchill’s perspective on world affairs? Or what if Harry Truman had rethought his country’s relationship with England in 1946, as Wallace asked?
1. John Culver and John Hyde, American Dreamer, 301.
For the record, I liked Obama’s Selma speech, that which he delivered last weekend during the commemoration of the city’s role in the Civil Rights Movement fifty years ago. As far as these speeches tend to go, this one was good.
I should say that I didn’t read or hear the whole thing. Most of what I gleaned comes from James Fallows’s write up in the Atlantic. Read it here and come back if you haven’t kept up with these things.
I’m not alone in my appreciation of the speech, but I was struck by the degree to which commentators seem to have avoided historicizing the kind of language and imagery that Obama used. The only place I heard anyone talk about the roots of Obama’s words was on Larry Wilmore’s show. Apparently, according to Wilmore, Obama borrowed some lines from Jay-Z.
As for myself, a flurry of cultural texts swirled around inside my head as I was reading. First, I thought of the Bruce Springsteen song, “American Land,” and the U2 song, “The Hands That Built America.” Both very good songs, by the way, but I’m not writing to tell you that the myths and symbols of Obama’s speech were born in the words of aging white rockers.
No, instead, I think you can look to aged white Communists. Mostly Jews. The “riff at the end” — as Fallows calls it — cribs heavily from the Popular Front genre of American history. In search of a “usable past,” writers and artists in the 1930s would merge immigrant radicalism with “heartland” populism to craft a brand of communism, that was, in their words, “20th century Americanism.” Think Thomas Hart Benton:
Or think Paul Robeson, who sung Abe Meerpol’s words in “The House I Live In“:
The house I live in, the friends that I have found,
The folks beyond the railroad and the people all around,
The worker and the farmer, the sailor on the sea,
The men who built this country, that’s America to me.
The house I live in, my neighbors white and black,
The people who just came here, or from generations back,
The Town Hall and the soap box, the torch of Liberty,
A place to speak my mind out, that’s America to me.
The words of old Abe Lincoln, of Jefferson and Paine,
Of Washington and Douglas, and the task that still remains,
The little bridge at Concord, where Freedom’s fight began,
Our Gettysburg and Midway, and the story of Bataan.
This genre of writing was part of an unprecedented flourishing of proletarian culture, a “laboring” of American culture as Michael Denning has written, that brought matters of social justice into the mainstream. It also, as George Lipsitz argues, was constrained by a kind of folksy populism that kept its radical roots at a distance, even in the thirties. “It was the reliance on the ‘Lincoln Republic,'” Lipsitz writes, “that prevented the Popular Front” from tackling the legacies of slavery, conquest, industrialization, and imperialism. And even as the Popular Front acknowledge ethnic and racial diversity, just as Obama has in conjuring Navajo code talkers and Tuskegee airmen, Lipsitz argues that such talk in the thirties “evolved into an uncritical cultural pluralism after World War II.”
I tend to side more with Denning than Lipsitz. In my own research, I’ve tracked the degree to which the discourses that the Popular Front produced — as imperfect as they were — were delegitimized and discarded in the late forties and fifties. To the extent that they survived, they transmogrified into individualistic paeans to freedom and liberty. I would argue that this was no fault of men like Robeson and Meerpol.
But given Lipsitz’s critique, one can see why Obama was able to pick up this genre. By making the speech a response to his critics’ attacks on his anti-American-exceptionalism — and here, one can see another influence, that of James Baldwin, who said “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually” — the President did as the men and women from the thirties Popular Front did. He painted a picture of the most democratic, inclusive, empathic nation that he could, and he tugged and pulled at some of its metaphorical boundaries a little, but he also let some of them lie. He kept the producerism, added in some individualism, and maybe even arguably bumped up the cosmopolitanism. But the genre, in my opinion, is plain to see.
 Lipsitz, George. “” Sent for You Yesterday, Here You Come Today”: American Studies Scholarship and the New Social Movements.” Cultural Critique (1998): 203-225.