What Would JB Do?

A few weeks ago, a trip through a very good work of intellectual history led me to take a fresh poke at post-structural theory. (as one does from time to time!) I was revisiting Judith Butler through whatever was available to me on Google when news of the killing in Orlando came out. Over the next few days, I found myself compelled to take a deep dive into one of Butler’s books in particular: Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, a collection of essays written in the time period that followed 9/11.

As I’ve written before, my own intellectual pursuits have been heavily influenced by writers like Michel Foucault and Nikolas Rose, those who in parts of their work have sought to identify, uncover, or deconstruct geneaologies of the idea of the liberal Enlightenment self. Jamesian and Deweyan pragmatist philosophy, that which posited that social experience is what constitutes the self, even pops up when I’m writing about Captain America and the Avengers. And such philosophy, as James Livingston writes, points in a straight line towards Judith Butler and feminist theory.[1]

Continue reading “What Would JB Do?”

Tweep’s Agreement

Starting work on a new essay about the politics of Jews in Hollywood during the blacklist era, I started thinking once again about the 1947 Best Picture winner Gentleman’s Agreement. Historians nearly universally dismiss the Elia Kazan film as dramatic and preachy and staid. They favor the other philo-Semitic “message” picture of that year, Crossfire, because that film oozes with noir style. They are, of course, absolutely right. But to dismiss Gentleman’s Agreement because it’s boring is to miss a great deal. Kazan’s picture is a greater success if only because it is so overstuffed with messages, it is a remarkable distillation of Popular Front ideas about the intersection between ethnicity and social justice.

Consider one scene in which Gregory Peck’s goyish journalist protagonist Phil Green, who is writing an expose on anti-Semitism, encounters a scientist at a dinner party. The scientist’s features are clearly modeled after those of Albert Einstein, one of the physicists that were wildly celebrated in the press in the immediate postwar years. He is on a “crusade,” the scientist remarks, to deny his Jewishness to those that he meets, not because he is ashamed or ambivalent about his identity, but instead because he looks so stereotypically Jewish that such a remark would be a provocation to others to rethink their assumptions about race and “type” (what we call “ethnicity”). He then casually changes his mind however, telling Green that he must abandon his crusade because to claim Jewishness is a necessary moral principle, at least until anti-Semitism ceases to exist.  He explains that Jews today don’t claim to be Jewish because they are religious – he is not – but because the world makes it harder to be one. Nothing in Hollywood since has so shrewdly conjured the tensions and complexities among religious, ethnic, and humanistic or cosmopolitan identities.

Continue reading “Tweep’s Agreement”

On Pragmatism and Principles

Ever since reading James Livingston and Louis Menand some years back, I’ve enjoyed some sympathy with the ideas of pragmatism.[1] In short, the philosophy articulated by Charles Pierce and William James posits that ideas cannot be separated from the contexts in which they operate. There is no objective truth; what is true is whatever is most useful or functional in a given time or place.

I’ve just begun reading Kim Phillips-Fein’s history of the anti-New Deal movement among businessmen, and I never cease to be struck by how at the nadir of the Great Depression, free market advocates adhered to certain truths, or principles, in their discourse. When Roosevelt sought to create the Securities and Exchange Commission, the du Ponts of the Du Pont corporation were horrified, understanding such an institution to threaten, as Phillips-Fein puts it, the “inevitable risks at the heart of life.”[2] As a quarter of Americans were out of work, the du Ponts were concerned about an imagined future where Americans would be too safe and comfortable. Continue reading “On Pragmatism and Principles”

Against Free Speech

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been over a year now since I’ve set foot on a college campus. And feeling a bit removed from academia, when the matter comes up I feel somewhat reluctant to share my views with my colleagues about the present debates surrounding campus politics.

But the latest wave of headlines, those that have centered on events at the University of Missouri and Yale University, have orbited to varying degrees around the idea of free speech. And having thought quite a lot, and published just a little, about civil liberties, I do feel qualified to throw in my two cents. Continue reading “Against Free Speech”

Are We Liberal Enough Yet?

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court voted in favor of same sex marriage rights, and this week, the South Carolina government voted to take down the Confederate flag, and these are good things, and they probably represent progress.

It’s a mistake, however, to imagine that progress as proceeding on a line that extends as part of a 1 dimensional spectrum, from “conservative” to “liberal.” Such a construction flattens the terrain on which people’s ideologies and identifications stand. And it ignores the ways in which progress towards tolerance is fundamentally different than towards structural and material change.

Of course, historians and cultural critics are no strangers to the idea that some forms of progress are easier made than others. Scholarly works such as Nancy MacLean’s Freedom is Not Enough and Jodi Melamed’s Represent and Destroy illustrate how tolerance and multiculturalism have worked in some ways to strengthen the systems that undergird inequality. Perhaps my favorite work that illuminates the two forms of progress is Wendy Wall’s Inventing the “American Way.” Wall’s argument is centered around the difference between governing discourses of “civility” versus those of “equality” (by which she means equality power and/or material wealth). At mid-century, prominent Americans in business, government, and even labor evaded the need for programs of equality by focussing on those that stressed civility.

The aforementioned progress that we’ve seen in the last few weeks may prove to be powerful symbolically, but for now, they’re changes towards civility more than equality. And the idea that progress in the former ultimately leads to progress in the latter just doesn’t bear out in recent history.

Furthermore, such an idea ignores the long history of liberalism in the United States. Commentators have recently been asking, somewhat incessantly, “is the Supreme Court ‘liberal’ now?” in a manner that elides the meaning of the term. It’s the right question being asked for the wrong reason. The court is liberal because it privileges an individual conception of the self, one which sees a person’s ability and right to enter into contracts with one another as the beginning and end of meaningful social interaction.

Bernie Sanders has taken flak from some corners of the media for his approach towards talking about race. But he appears to be the only candidate in the race that understands that liberalism is not the solution. A recent article on the New York Times website makes some of the problems around the usage of the term “liberalism” clear. In one of the many, many reasons why I’m loving Bernie Sanders right now, the socialist presidential candidate says “I’m not a liberal. Never have been.” And yet Nate Cohn, the author’s article dismisses the distinction as “slim” and proceeds to throw the word “liberal” around rather recklessly.

Commentators like Cohn write as if Sanders (and Elizabeth Warren) exist only to make Hilary Clinton “more liberal.” I maintain that the last thing we need is for our presidential candidates, or anyone for that matter, to become more liberal.

American Things

The night before the killings in Charleston, I watched the film American Sniper, and I found it very difficult to get it out of my head.

I had no notion that I would enjoy the movie, but I figured I had to wrestle with it at some point on a critical level. And when I was a graduate student I spent time working on my advisor’s project, which included a good amount of research on Clint Eastwood, the film’s director, and so I was curious to try to understand it in terms of his imprint. Eastwood, I read recently, had declared the film to be “anti-war.”

American Sniper is no Letters from Iwo Jima. In that film, Eastwood told a war story from the perspective of the doomed, and did so, at least for American audiences, from a perspective of the “other,” one that could avoid the nationalism that inevitably comes with identifying with the onscreen protagonists. In perhaps my favorite scene, a flashback scene set at a banquet, Ken Watanabe’s character dines with his American counterparts before the war. They all declare their common humanity while at the same time acknowledging how they would fight one another to death if their country told them to do it. The irrational nature of jingoism is laid bare. It’s anti-statism at its most humanistic and cosmopolitan form: internationalism.

American Sniper examines the cost of war on an individual level. It shows how Chris Kyle, the film’s red-meat eating, Muslim-killing hero becomes consumed by vengeance, and when he came back to the states, suffers from a lack of outlets for his rage. But he is ultimately redeemed when he finds a new purpose: helping injured veterans. And where Letters from Iwo Jima seeks to humanize combatants on both sides of a conflict, American Sniper is wholly uninterested in doing so. The action scenes are damn good — way too good. It may be that Eastwood was trying to be clever. One could argue that he sought to seduce the audience with the war, in its videogame-like excitement, in order to then show the effect it had on its hero, who was seduced too. If this is the case, Eastwood either severely misunderstood the power of his own imagery, or he was somehow simply blind to the need to humanize non-Americans. Kyle is arguably anti-authority; he challenges the orders of his superiors (and always turns out to be correct). Yet if American Sniper questions the state at all, it does so in the most backward, individualistic way: by reifying Americanness. And this itself is an American thing.

Every antagonist in American Sniper is cartoonishly villainous. And every Arab is an atagonist. Every woman and every child walking Iraqi streets turns out to be bomb-wielding member of Al Qaeda. And outside of the action scenes, the dialog serves to reinforce these ideas; Kyle insistence on calling Iraqis “savages” and declaring the U.S. “the greatest country on Earth” goes unchallenged. In the film’s central metaphor, it suggests, as previous Eastwood films do, that heroes are needed to act as “sheepdogs,” keeping the “sheep” safe from the “wolves.” I don’t know if these came from the book or if it was cooked up for the movie, but all I could think of was how closely it aped the central metaphor of Team America.

There’s nothing ironic or clever about the titling of the movie or the book from which its name comes. But make no mistake, Eastwood’s focus on the problems of the individual, and his elision of the problems of his subject on the national and global levels, are what make American Sniper an undoubtedly American thing. By exploring the toll of war but refusing to source its roots, his narrative draws on the tradition of “American innocence” cited by Marita Sturken in Tourists of History, in which the author explores how our culture explores tragedies such as 9/11 and the Oklahoma City Bombing.

The killings in Charleston were many things: a tragedy, an act of terrorism, a lynching, a pogrom. But I think its what came next that made them an American thing. Because so many commentators, in the interest of preserving American innocence, sought to extricate the event from the woven nest of discourses, symbols, and histories on which it lay. Politicians and commentators defended the Confederate flag while they lamented the attack as one on religious liberty. Like Eastwood in American Sniper, they willfully ignored not just the discursive and material structures that define men and women on the basis of Americanness, but also those forces that alienate the very people who, through their acts of violence, at once heinous and desperate, make those structures intelligible.

Years ago, I was introduced to Tony Kushner’s essay “American Things,” and it still gives me chills when I read it. It’s an old-school celebration of dissent, of Stonewall, and the New Deal, of “traditions [that] exist in opposition to those which make fixed fetishes of democracy and freedom, talismans for Reaction” (9). He concludes, “the frazzle, the rubbed raw, the unresolved, the fragile and the fiery and the dangerous: These are American things” (11). But I’m not sure they are.

And I’m not sure we should care at all about American things. Maybe if folks spent less time trying to find the “American way,” for example, they might have an easier time reconciling the relationship between gun ownership and murders with their own worldviews. They might adopt socialized medicine, or sustainable transportation infrastructure, or any number of un-American things.

Sure let’s keep American Splendor, and American Psycho. Let’s keep The Quiet American and Americanah. These all take as their subject American things in ways that are ironic, humble, comedic, or cosmopolitan. But right now, after watching American Sniper, after watching the events in Charleston, the message is clear, the problem is an American thing.


Before Bibi, There Was Winston

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.[1] 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.