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”

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”

The Enlightenment Philosophy of “Hillbilly Humanism”

Last week on my favorite radio show, On the Media, Nadine Hubbs appeared to talk about the scholarship on class, politics, and country music. On of the things she and the host discussed was the theme of “hillbilly humanism,” the persistent trend in country music that pays attention to the lives of lower-class and non-elite Americans, and insists on their “dignity” and their worthiness for “compassion,” as Hubbs writes in Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music (76-78).

I took a brief detour into studying the politics of country music a few years ago—that research project is now on indefinite hiatus I suppose—and I’ve been thinking a great deal about humanism, so this gave me some food for thought. I haven’t read Hubbs’s book, so take any of my ruminations not as a questioning of any aspects of her book, but a way to frame some of my own thoughts in a new light offered by her brief appearance on the radio. Continue reading “The Enlightenment Philosophy of “Hillbilly Humanism””

Abraham Polonsky and the Contest of Metaphysics vs. Realism

I came across a 1947 Abraham Polonsky essay recently, that includes the following critique of American culture, where he contrasts a realist approach with a metaphysical one:

In treating social events it is necessary to know their precise historical conditions in order to evaluate the operation of moral choices. In a metaphysical inquiry we are mainly interested in defining the abstract terms for logical manipulation. Nowadays, a whole literary school has arisen, antirealistic in nature, which is devoted to deciding whether organization-as-such is evil (not whether this organization is evil or not), and whether man’s inner agony is a condition of physical existence (not whether this social existence or that creates terror and anxiety in his spirit). [1] Continue reading “Abraham Polonsky and the Contest of Metaphysics vs. Realism”

Against Centrism

Well it’s not like I’ve ever been accused of being a centrist. But this isn’t an argument against centrism per se, but rather an argument against the idea of a center. It’s something I tend to think about whenever I receive reader comments. I’ve found several times that my anonymous peer-review readers, through no fault of their own, approach my work within a certain paradigm that sees liberalism as a center.

This presents a couple of interrelated concerns. First, that liberalism is understood only as the in-between of the left and right. (This itself can manifest in one of two ways: that which sees liberalism as a common-sense leftism, or one that sees liberalism as the dead-center bisection between left and right.) The problem here is that political culture is necessarily then understood on a flat, two-dimensional spectrum with immutable sets of beliefs or policy positions on each end. For example, one assumes that if one is anti-racist, he/she is also a civil libertarian suspicious of state power. (I’ve written about the ways this particular conflation manifests here.)

Continue reading “Against Centrism”