MyAmericanFuture

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Saturday, September 22, 2018

September 22-23, 2018: Mass Protest Studying: The Boston March for Science


[On September 17th, 2011 the Occupy Wall Street protests began in lower Manhattan. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied that event and four other mass protests, leading up to this special weekend post on lessons from an inspiring mass protest in the age of Trump.]
Thanks to the Scholars Strategy Network (for which I’m a Boston Chapter co-leader) and their connection to Boston March for Science organizer Ashley Ciulla, I was able to record a video for the March’s participants, speak at an SSN event the night before, and attend the March itself on April 22nd, 2017 at Boston Common. Here are three takeaways from that inspiring and important protest:
1)      Science and Activism: In the initial stages of conversation about the national (Washington) March for Science, of which the Boston March was an off-shoot, a number of scientists expressed concerns about being perceived or defined in any way as partisan activists. I understand those concerns, but as I argued in my recorded video, the truth is that American naturalists and scientists have pursued concurrent and interconnected public activisms throughout our history. Moreover, those activisms have never been, and I would argue are not now, partisan or political in any narrow sense; instead, these are public arguments for the roles that knowledge and investigation can play in support of the common good. While I don’t believe all scientists have to link their research to such collective arguments, I think each and every one has the right to do so, and that the more who do, the stronger our society will be. I felt that strength at the March for Science to be sure.
2)      Scientific Community: I also felt there the perhaps underrated importance of science as a communal endeavor. That is, our narratives of science sometimes portray it—as I wrote in this post on our images of individual inventors—as the solitary pursuit of iconoclastic geniuses. Such individuals certainly have always played a role, but, as I argued in that post, any lasting and meaningful scientific invention or innovation takes a village to complete and sustain. The Boston March for Science featured a number of interesting speakers who shared a wide variety of perspectives and experiences, but a central thread across all of the speeches that I had the chance to hear was the importance of the scientific and social communities in which these individuals had pursued their work. And the March itself, of course, embodied another such inspirational scientific and social community, one only temporarily gathered in the same physical space but committed to a more enduring sense of solidarity among all the participants and their respective institutions and cohorts.
3)      Supporting Science: That communal spirit certainly offers one important way in which we can all support scientists and their work. But equally vital, and a significant part of the motivation for holding a March for Science in 2017, is public, governmental support for the sciences. I don’t imagine I need to tell any readers of this blog about the deep, distressing cuts to scientific funding in President Trump’s first budget—most of them just proposed at this point, making it all the more important to highlight and challenge them. But it’s also important that we confront the gradually eroding public consensus on the value (and unfortunately even the most basic truths) of scientific inquiry and knowledge, a long-term trend that predates Donald Trump and can’t be addressed simply by resisting those proposed budget cuts. The March for Science participants were, of course, a self-selected group of those who do believe in and support the sciences; finding ways to broaden and deepen those attitudes as we move forward must be a vital goal for all of us.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Friday, September 21, 2018

September 21, 2018: Mass Protest Studying: The Armies of the Night


[On September 17th, 2011 the Occupy Wall Street protests began in lower Manhattan. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that event and four other mass protests, leading up to a special weekend post on mass protest in the age of Trump.]
On a literary classic that narrates but also challenges mass protests.

The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History (1968) isn’t just (as I wrote in this post) the best book from Normal Mailer’s crazy prolific and diverse decade, nor even Mailer’s best book period; I think it’s one of the great works of 20th century American literature, full stop. There are lots of elements that make it so great, from those that I’ll admit might be somewhat particular to this AmericanStudier’s obsessions (such as the book’s structural division, as stated in the title, into two parts that mirror two different emphases of the phrase “historical novel”) to those that are more universally effective (it’s extremely funny, for example). It’s at once an incredibly detailed and grounded depiction of a particular historical event and moment (a 1967 anti-Vietnam march in which Mailer participated) and a broad engagement with many of the most significant themes and questions at the hearts of America and the 1960s. There’s no question that it’s a Norman Mailer book—the writer’s trademark ego is prominently on display throughout—but to my mind likewise no question of its greatness.

There are also, however, very specific, contemporary reasons to read Armies in our own moment. The book’s occasion is a protest, or more exactly two distinct protests: the first a reading and lecture by Mailer, based on his 1967 pamphlet Why Are We In Vietnam?; the second the following day’s anti-war march. In part the inclusion of the former protest reflects that famous Mailer ego, as it allows Mailer to feature himself and his exploits far more than would be possible in an account solely of the march (during which he was arrested, but which nonetheless featured some 200,000 protesters rather than just one drunken and belligerent writer). But in part the two protests mirror the book’s two structural sections and their interconnected yet distinct categories of history and novel: the march being, from its origins and purposes on, very much a self-consciously historical event, a grappling with the era’s biggest issues on America’s most mythologizing stage; while the lecture, on the other hand, represents a likewise purposeful and complex act of story-telling, a fictionalization of self and of history in equal measure. That doesn’t mean that Mailer necessarily privileges the lecture over the march, but it does, in my reading, allow the former to influence the latter, set the stage for the march through the lecture’s emphasis on story-telling and narratives.

It would be crazy to suggest that Mailer’s semi-coherent lecture had as much historical or national meaning as, or even influenced its own moment or audience as much as, the following day’s march. But it would not be nearly as crazy to note that protests, like any other events, are often and mostly meaningful in direct correlation to how they’re narrated, to the representations they receive in the media (it’s no coincidence that Mailer begins the book with a quote from Time), to the stories that are told of them. In fact, such questions of narration are particularly salient for protests and other similar social and political events—since these events will always be judged through the lens of their effects, of the impacts and changes they produced, it becomes that much more crucial how they’re represented, by whom, and from what perspective. Moreover, as Mailer’s book makes clear, such narrations have at their best an ability to humanize everyone involved in and impacted by events far more than might otherwise be the case—in Mailer’s hands, not only the many different communities of protesters but also the policeman and national guardsmen become fully-realized American characters, participants in this event who not only retain their humanity, but through it become the heart of an event that illustrates the nation’s divisions but also reflects the larger community to which all Americans still belong (whether they like it or not).

I’m not a postmodernist about the past—I know that historical events happened, independent of (and more significantly than) any subsequent narration of them—and I don’t think Mailer is either; he took part in the march, was arrested in the course of it and spent a weekend in jail as a result, and in those and other ways recognizes its tangible and meaningful realities. Yet as much of my work for the last decade at least has hopefully illustrated, I believe that no political or cultural or ideological battles are more important than those over narratives, over which stories we tell and how we tell them. Mailer’s book not only exemplifies that idea, but likewise models the kinds of complex and human stories that can comprise a richer and more genuinely communal American history and identity, making it an essential American text for sure.
Special post this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Thursday, September 20, 2018

September 20, 2018: Mass Protest Studying: The Bonus Army


[On September 17th, 2011 the Occupy Wall Street protests began in lower Manhattan. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that event and four other mass protests, leading up to a special weekend post on mass protest in the age of Trump.]
On the veterans movement that ended in both tragedy and success.

Americans have a long tradition of marching on Washington in protest. And I’m not trying to seem young and talk about the 1960s like they require getting into the way back machine—I’m talking about a long tradition, one that actually predates the Constitution and even led to a particular clause being included in it. In 1781, with the Revolutionary War still ongoing but entering into a significantly less heavy phase, much of the Continental Army was demobilized without pay, and in 1783 a large number of veterans marched on Philadelphia (which was the nation’s capital at the time, so this counts), surrounded the State House, and demanded that money; Congress fled to New Jersey, forces in the regular army expelled the protesters, and four years later the Constitution was framed to include a section noting that the Posse Comitatus Act (which forbids the use of the army in civilian police work) did not apply within the borders of Washington, DC. But despite this founding presence of marches on Washington, I would argue that the 1932 Bonus Army, in its own moment and most especially in the years afterward, signaled the true arrival of this form of social and political activism.

The Bonus Army, which was the popular shorthand by which the self-titled Bonus Expeditionary Force came to be known, was a gathering of over forty thousand World War I veterans, family members, and interested parties that descended on Washington in the spring of 1932. The vets, who had not in many cases been what we would consider adequately compensated during the war, had been awarded Service Certificates by a 1924 law; but those certificates did not mature and could not legally be paid until 1945, and with the Depression in full swing and veterans hit particularly hard by unemployment and its attendant ills (as they always seem to be), the Bonus Army decided to push for immediate payments. To say that their march on and then multi-month occupation of Washington ended badly is to understate the case—in late July the Hoover administration ordered the army (led in prominent roles, interestingly enough, by Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, and George Patton) to remove the marchers, and in the course of that removal the marches (who again included women and children in significant numbers) were driven out with bayonets and poison gas, and their makeshift camp was burned to the ground. Hoover wasn’t likely win the 1932 presidential election in the best-case scenario, but these events, coming about three months before that election, likely cemented Roosevelt’s victory.

And it’s precisely the aftermath of the Bonus March, the way in which such a literal and tragic defeat became a multi-part public relations and then very real victory, that made it a potent model for future protesters. Among the Roosevelt administration’s earliest actions was an effort to reach out to the marchers, with Eleanor Roosevelt in particular working to get many of them enrolled in the Works Progress Administration. When Roosevelt balked at actually changing the law to pay out the Service Certificates early, Congress stepped in, overriding a presidential veto, and paid the Certificates in full in 1936, nearly a decade before they would legally come due. And many contemporary observers and subsequent historians have credited the publicity surrounding the Bonus Army with contributing heavily to the creation of the GI Bill of Rights in 1944, an act that made immeasurably better the reentry into civilian life for veterans of World War II. For all these reasons, organizers and leaders of the 1963 Civil Rights-connected March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom cited the Bonus Army very specifically as a key influence and inspiration, and of course many later groups have likewise taken up similar strategies of social and political protest and activism on the most national and public stage.
Last protest tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?