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Thursday, April 24, 2014

April 24, 2014: How Would a Patriot Act?: Yung Wing

[To follow up Monday’s Patriot’s Day post, I’m going to steal my title from Glenn Greenwald’s great book and briefly highlight five genuinely and impressively patriotic past Americans, one per post-contact century. Please nominate your own choices to contribute to a collectively patriotic weekend post!]

Today’s genuinely patriotic American is Yung Wing.
I’ve written a lot, starting with that linked post (still my favorite blog post to date) and continuing into my third book, about Yung Wing’s amazing story and the many significant and powerful American stories to which it and he connect. Yung’s work founding the Chinese Educational Mission exemplifies his contributions to American identity on many levels: from the idea for the school, to bring more than one hundred young Chinese men to America and help create a trans-national and cross-cultural community through such connections; to the requirement that the students be allowed to attend West Point as part of their experiences; to the Celestials, the baseball team that the students formed and through which some of their most inspiring and heartbreaking (and profoundly American) moments occurred.
But Yung’s individual story and life feature many equally amazing American moments, and I want to reiterate and highlight two here. The first is his attempt to volunteer for the Union Army at the outset of the Civil War. Yung had been in America for less than two decades at that time, had graduated from Yale only a decade before (in 1854), and was still ostensibly a diplomatic representative of the Chinese government; yet at this moment of extreme national crisis, when many of his fellow Americans would buy their way out of enlistment, Yung volunteered to serve. He was turned down, which just goes to show how frequently our official national narratives (of patriotism and much else) have failed to recognize the best of what our nation is and can be. But official bigotry shouldn’t and can’t elide his individual patriotism and courage.
The second moment I want to highlight came even more directly in response to such official bigotry. As I traced at length in that blog post, the discrimination leading up to and culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act destroyed Yung’s American life on two significant levels: it forced the closure of the Mission and the departure of its students; and it led to the revoking of Yung’s citizenship and his own forced exile from America. But when his younger son Bartlett was graduating from Yale in 1902, the next stage in the family’s multi-generational American story, Yung returned to attend; he came as a diplomatic guest, but from what I can tell he then stayed as an illegal immigrant, spending much of the final decade of his life in Connecticut (with, I devoutly hope, his wife and family). Am I arguing that an illegal immigration—during the first years when that concept had any meaning—was an inspiringly patriotic American act? You’re damn right I am.
Final nominee tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

April 23, 2014: How Would a Patriot Act?: Quock Walker

[To follow up Monday’s Patriot’s Day post, I’m going to steal my title from Glenn Greenwald’s great book and briefly highlight five genuinely and impressively patriotic past Americans, one per post-contact century. Please nominate your own choices to contribute to a collectively patriotic weekend post!]
Today’s genuinely patriotic American is Quock Walker.
I wrote a lot about the Revolutionary period’s African American slave petitions for freedom, of which Quock Walker’s is one of the most famous, in the blog post linked at his name above, and won’t repeat those specifics, or my sense of why those petitions embody the best of what the Revolution and its ideas and ideals meant, here.
But I will take things one step further, and ask this: what if we thought of Walker, and his fellow petitioners, as the Founding Fathers (and Mothers)? After all, the Declaration and Constitution were (as we’ve long acknowledged) based on existing ideas and writings, given new American form; and that’s exactly what Walker et al did with their petitions, taking the Declaration’s language and ideas and bringing them to powerful, eloquent, vitally American life.
Walker’s case is credited with helping end slavery in Massachusetts (a complicated question as they always are, but it contributed for sure). Using the Declaration to end part of the national tragedy with which it was intertwined? That’d be plenty patriotic enough on its own terms. But if we go bigger, if we see Walker and his peers as the true Founders, the most genuinely and impressively Revolutionary Americans, then our whole legacy of patriotism has a different, and even more inspiring, point of origin. Works for me.
Next nominee tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

April 22, 2014: How Would a Patriot Act?: Squanto

[To follow up Monday’s Patriot’s Day post, I’m going to steal my title from Glenn Greenwald’s great book and briefly highlight five genuinely and impressively patriotic past Americans, one per post-contact century. Please nominate your own choices to contribute to a collectively patriotic weekend post!]
Today’s genuinely patriotic American is Tisquantum, better known by the Anglicized name “Squanto.”
It’s fair to say that the whole tone of William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation—and also, quite literally, of the Pilgrims’ first experiences in America, as Bradford describes them at least—changes with the arrival of Squanto (paragraph 136 in that edition). From that first mention it’s clear that this is a man with a complex identity and perspective: he is described as “a native of this place” but also one who has “been in England,” and with his two languages he connects the Pilgrims to the local Wampanoag chief Massasoit, with whom they make their first peace treaty. And Bradford finds Squanto’s experiences, as a kidnapped slave turned explorer and translator, compelling enough to spend most of the rest of this chapter quoting another Englishman’s narrative of them.
Partly Bradford’s extended focus is due to his culturally myopic sense of Squanto as literally a gift from God, “a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.” Yet if we set aside the paternalism and, again, myopia necessary to define another person as an instrument for one’s own good, Bradford’s descriptions, coupled with the history provided in the extended narrative, can help us realize a striking and crucial fact: Squanto turned a horrific and traumatic set of experiences, ones based directly on cultural conflict and oppression, into a perspective and life that worked toward and indeed modeled cultural conversation and connection. He did so, it seems clear, for the good both of the Pilgrims and of the Wampanoags, and more exactly for the good of the new community that came into existence the second those two peoples met. What’s more patriotic than that?
As will be the case for all of this week’s focal figures, there’s plenty more, and more complexity and even tragedy, in Squanto’s story and what it symbolizes than I can get into here. The arc of the 17th century in Massachusetts was not, after all, toward justice. Yet if I have one overarching argument here, it’s the same one that’s at the heart of my fourth book: we can’t seek our ideal America, nor our ideal Americans, by eliding the darkest histories; instead we have to look to precisely those histories and find the genuine and impressive patriots who lived and engaged with and responded to them. Tisquantum’s a great place to start.
Next patriot tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Any nominations?

Monday, April 21, 2014

April 21, 2014: Patriot’s Day Special Post

[In honor of Patriot’s Day—a holiday up here in New England, at least—here’s my annual post on the easier and harder forms of patriotism. A series on complex, genuine American patriots will round out the week!]

On the only time and way we can be patriotic.
One of my favorite literary exchanges of all time, and the one with which I begin the Introduction to my recently completed fourth book, occurs in the opening chapter of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones (1996; the first book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series that has been adapted into the popular HBO show). Seven year-old Brandon “Bran” Stark is riding home with his father and brothers from his first experience witnessing one of his father’s most difficult duties as a lord, the execution of a criminal; his father insists that if he is to sentence men to die, he should be the one to execute them, and likewise insists that his sons learn of and witness this once they are old enough. Two of Bran’s brothers have been debating whether the man died bravely or as a coward, and when Bran asks his father which was true, his father turns the question around to him. “Can a man be brave when he is afraid?” Bran asks. “That is the only time a man can be brave,” his father replies.
On the surface the line might seem obvious, an appeal to some of our very trite narratives about courage in the face of danger and the like. But to my mind the moment, like all of Martin’s amazingly dense and complex series, works instead to undermine our easy narratives and force us to confront more difficult and genuine truths. That is, I believe we tend to define bravery, courage, heroism as the absence of fear, as those individuals who in the face of danger do not feel the same limiting emotions that others do and so can rise to the occasion more fully. But Martin’s truth is quite the opposite—that bravery is instead something that is found through and then beyond fear, that it is only by admitting the darker and more potentially limiting realities that we can then strive for the brightest and most ideal possibilities. I find that insight so potent not only because of its potential to revise oversimplifying narratives and force us to confront a complex duality instead, but also because it posits a version of heroism that any individual can achieve—if everyone feels fear in the face of danger, then everyone has the potential to be brave as well.
HBO recently premiered the fourth season of their award-winning series A Game of Thrones; the first season covered all of that first book of Martin’s, the second moved on to book two, and so on for subsequent seasons. I’ve watched season one and have mixed feelings, but no matter what the series has brought Martin’s works and themes to a far wider audience. But if that’s one reason why I’m thinking about this exchange today, the other is the aforementioned Massachusetts-specific holiday: Patriot’s Day. As with our narratives of courage and heroism, I believe that far too many of our ideals of patriotism focus on what I would call the easy kind: the patriotism that salutes a flag, that sings an anthem, that pledges allegiance, that says things like “God bless America” and “greatest country in the world” by rote. Whatever the communal value of such patriotism, it asks virtually nothing of individuals, and does even less to push a nation to be the best version of itself (if anything, it argues that the nation is already that best version). So in parallel to Martin’s line, I would argue for the harder and more genuine kind of patriotism, the kind that faces the darkest realities and strives for the brightest hope through that recognition, the kind that, when asked “Can an American be a patriot if he/she is critical of his/her country?,” replies, “That is the only time an American can be a patriot.”
Happy Patriot’s Day! The patriotic series continues tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Saturday, April 19, 2014

April 19-20, 2014: Animated History: AnneMarie Donahue’s Guest Post

[AnneMarie Donahue has a Master’s in English from Fitchburg State University, and is now pursuing one in History as well. She’s a wonderful teacher, a historical interpreter and performer and researcher and writer, and a novelist, among her many talents. I’m excited to round off the week’s series on animated histories with her Guest Post on a too-forgotten American animator!]

What we Owe Ralph Bakshi: Or One Doesn’t Simply Rotoscope Into Mordor!
                Wizards, hobbits, drugged out punks, over-sexed cats and mixed media, that’s what little girls’ dreams are made of. Okay, well that’s what mine were made of.  As a child I was introduced to Ralph Bakshi through his strange cartoons played only on Thanksgiving. As a child I was more captivated by the movement of the animated figures that would appear too fluid and then suddenly become jerky, as if they were more alive than Tom and Jerry.  The figures moved with the same unpredictable nature that people did, and the backgrounds were not the endless hall ways that cats chased mice down, but pictures and footage from the history channel and PBS.  I wouldn’t know until a little later that Bakshi’s approach to using animation for adult purposes is part of Bakshi’s fame. He would first shoot his principals, then draw carefully over them creating the animated character and the setting to fit the story as needed.  From there the background would be toyed with, this created a separation of principal and setting to keep the audience’s eye from sitting too still on one characters.
                For example, his animated film Wizards, the story of two brothers born of one woman but from opposite magic fight across a post-apocalyptic landscape for control over the world.  The good son, a natural wizard who embodies the use of natured-based magic, intrinsic talents that are only found in those worthy of possessing them, battles his brother, the second son, who, lacking in natural magic abilities, turns his mind to that of resurrecting the ancient war machines of the Third Reich.  The allegory is clear and arguably overt.  Bakshi, the dirty hippie, sides with the return to a natural way of magic, a natural way of life and by surrendering the characterization of the enemy to Nazi Germany argues against a man-created war machine.  His use of the story is simple, but it’s his ability to tell it as a series of backdrops masterful.
                Within the story Wizards the brothers travel to find and destroy one another, the backdrop of the destroyed landscape is made from found footage of abandoned cities.  Signs of man’s greed and inherent violence can be seen in the burnt out Texaco signs.  Bakshi, not even attempting to hide these behind a cleverly painted overlay, simply enhances the image around it, so that the roots of trees, mutated and warped through years of exposure to fallout, grow up around the sign, bending it unnaturally but never actually tearing it down, nor eclipsing it from the viewer’s sight.
                The final battle between brothers ends in animated footage fighting over the stock footage of World War II aerial battles.  With Avatar, the good son, finally destroying Blackwolf, with the help of more Tolkein-inspired creatures (a very voluptuous fairy, a hot-blooded Weehawkan Elf and a robot fighting against its programming… Windows Vista?).
                Bakshi’s success allowed him to negotiate the adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.  Originally meant to be done in two parts, sadly the film was never completed.  LOTR was a financial success for 1978, but the critics were uneven and studios didn’t believe that people would really care if the ring got to Mordor. Fortunately Peter Jackson was a fan. Although in an initial interview he claimed to have not been influenced by the movie, a quick look at Bilbo’s birthday will dispel any question.  Proudfoot would never had been Proufeet without him.
                The use of rotoscoping in this film is important as well, however it is more to capture human nature than human history.  Bakshi would often film the extras unaware to see what people who were “off-camera” really moved like.  For example the scene in which the Uruk-hai eat the mouthy Orc is actually a bunch of extras attacking a buffet table.  Bakshi was no stranger to the macho bravado men create in the absence of women. He addressed it head-on in his earlier films Coonskin, and Heavy Traffic.  These films address not only the issue of gendered violence, but rape, sexual abuse and gender domination.  Bakshi used some of LOTR to reflect his earlier work for a comment on gender roles.
                Bakshi would finish off a trio of films with American Pop released in 1981.  This film, following the life of Zelmie a young Jewish immigrant to American through his descendents, to watch the how the American dream is achievable only to those who will sacrifice their former identity to the new god.  Told through the development of the man, the film also follows the story of America as the country grows from an emerging financial superpower, bought for with the sacrifice of unskilled labor dying in the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire, to a global leader in World War I.  Zelmie, injured abandons his dream to sing and becomes a Jewish mobster.  His son, following in the footsteps his father hoped to erase joins to fight in World War II. Leaving behind his pregnant bride and very promising music career the young man is shot by a German soldier as he plays the piano. The son, now removed from his Jewish heritage entirely is absorbed into Italian mob culture and eventually escapes to California, leaving behind a pregnant waitress in the Mid-West.  The blond-hair blue-eyed great-grandson of the immigrant achieves the musical success only through desertion of heritage and ideals. Which Bakshi ensures will hit the audience like a punch to the gut as we watch Pete, the great-grandson, mockingly “rock out” to a rabbi singing the prayer that his unknown great-great-grandfather died to during a Pogrom.
                More than a collection of America’s greatest hits, American Pop, is really a collection of America’s darkest secrets. The use of immigrant labor, the threat of assimilation and the myth of the American Dream as an achievement of industry and labor, Bakshi takes full aim at all of these and pointedly demands his audience to fess up. Fortunately his medium, animation, kept the message from hitting too hard and becoming too preachy. At the exact moment the audience might feel too bad for “little Pete” we seem him swagger down the street as a successful and unabashed coke dealer who has no problem holding the drugs and his customers hostage until they agree to hear one song.
                                               I have to admit, I did always like Bob Seger.
[Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other animated histories and stories you’d add to the week’s series?]

Friday, April 18, 2014

April 18, 2014: Animated History: The Lego Movie

[Inspired by my recent viewings of The Lego Movie and Frozen with my boys, a series on what animated films (including those two) can help us AmericanStudy. Leading up to a special Guest Post on a particularly complex and under-appreciated American animator!]
On consumerism, childhood, and contradiction. [Some SPOILERS for the film follow.]
I’m sure there was some golden age when children’s cartoons weren’t directly tied into toys and other consumer products—but not so by my childhood, when I could play with my He-Man or G.I. Joe or Transformers figures while watching their TV shows and movies, when my younger sister could do the same with her My Little Ponies or Care Bears, and when one of my favorite Saturday morning cartoons featured the exploits of a line of candy bears. Indeed, in all of those cases (I believe) the toys preceded the animated shows and films, making the cultural works entirely inseparable from (if not simply a merchandising arm of) the consumer products. Which is to say, such synergies have been central to the experiences of American childhood for at least a few decades (and didn’t turn me into some sort of capitalist automaton, at least not to my knowledge).
On the other hand, even within that long history The Lego Movie (2014) could be seen as representing a new level of consumer culture. I refuse either to capitalize Lego or to put the trademark symbol after it, but both are part of the film’s title, revealing just how fully the movie is a product of, well, a product. I was in a Lego Store with my boys before the film’s release, and even then a substantial percentage of the products for sale were direct movie tie-ins; I know from experience (what can I say, I spend a lot of time in toy stores) that the merchandising has only ramped up in the weeks since. Given that the film’s ultimate themes include both an emphasis on imaginative play that refuses to “follow directions” and a direct critique of corporate culture and conformity (in the form of the film’s villain, Lord Business), such consumer connections seem hugely ironic and even hypocritical, a position at the heart of Anthony Lane’s pointed review of the film in The New Yorker.
I take that point, but would push back on it to a degree as well. After all, a great deal of childhood, now as ever, is defined precisely by contradictions: between dependence and independence, safety and adventure, rules and fun, and, yes, consumerist conformity and imaginative inspiration. Which is to say, the presence of such contradictions in a film, as in any area of life, does not necessarily reflect hypocrisy so much as simply inevitable reality. The Lego Movie is a two-hour sales pitch; it’s also an imaginative, engaging, and effective story. My boys saw it and wanted to own some of the Lego products it includes; they also came out talking about its themes, about why it was important for the protagonists (both Lego and human, although I won’t spoil it further than that) to break from the tyranny of conformity and Business and find their own path. I can’t say for sure which end of those spectrums was or is more influential, no more than I can say if my boys’ video game playing is more meaningful to their young lives or future development than our nightly chapter book reading. It’s all part of the childhood and cultural mix, and The Lego Movie is both a troubling and a thoughtful contribution to that mix as well.
That special Guest Post this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on this film, or other animated histories and stories you’d highlight?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

April 17, 2014: Animated History: Frozen

[Inspired by my recent viewings of The Lego Movie and Frozen with my boys, a series on what animated films (including those two) can help us AmericanStudy. Leading up to a special Guest Post on a particularly complex and under-appreciated American animator!]
On challenges to our expectations, less and more successful. [SPOILERS for Frozen follow!]
If the subject of yesterday’s post, The Princess and the Frog, significantly revised the existing canon of Disney Princesses, the newest and now most financially successful Disney animated film, Frozen (2013), goes further still. The film overtly seeks to revise a number of the tropes and myths at the heart of virtually every prior Disney film, including romantic narratives and their reliance on the concepts of love at first sight and true love, heroines/princesses and their arcs and goals, and even the relative importance of familial vs. romantic relationships in our storytelling. We’re not talking Who Framed Roger Rabbit? level meta-textuality here, exactly—but for a  Disney animated film, I was struck by just how much Frozen comments on and challenges those traditional tropes.
All of those challenges are interesting and meaningful, but it’s also instructive to note which ones work and which, to this viewer, don’t. In the latter category I would locate the film’s challenge to romantic narratives, which it achieves by first linking its princess heroine Anna with the dashing Prince Hans and then eventually revealing him to be a heartless villain instead. It’s true that Frozen foreshadows that character shift through multiple characters’ reactions to Anna’s instant love and connection; she is repeatedly, incredulously asked, “You’re engaged to a man you just met?!” But it’s also true that much of the early section of Frozen makes happy use of the romantic tropes, including the extended song and dance number “Love is an Open Door.” So if Hans’ sudden shift feels somewhat unbelievable (and to this viewer it did), the film’s own heavy earlier reliance on those romantic tropes would have to be seen as contributing to that effect.
On the other hand, I found Frozen’s challenges to the traditional heroine arcs and emphases very successful and quite moving. That’s true for the two individual characters, as both Anna and (especially) her sister Elsa have journeys that are far more about their perspectives, experiences, and identities than about finding a romantic partner. But it’s even more true for them as sisters, as their stories are deeply intertwined and come to a powerful conclusion that remains more about them, individually and as a pair, than it is about the love interest character or indeed anyone outside of this complex duo. To see a pair of complex women whose relationship is rich and evolving and multi-layered, and whose most powerful emotional notes depend on that familial history and bond—well, I don’t know that I was ready for a Disney film that could pass the Bechdel Test. But I’m very glad that this one does.
Last animated history tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on this film, or other animated histories and stories you’d highlight?