Thursday, December 1, 2011

December 1, 2011: What’s At Stake

While I’ve moved on to a new book project and with it (and with other new articles and possibilities) many other scholarly questions in the fields of American literature and AmericanStudies, and for good and necessary reasons—most of all because I think all of the best scholars, and certainly all of my models in this profession, have continually turned their attention and interests to new and evolving topics—it’s fair to say that hardly a day goes by that I’m not viscerally reminded of what’s at stake in the questions of how we define American identity on which my second book focused. I identified a number of such issues in the “What Would Change” posts that are collected under the “Book Posts” category here, as well as in parallel Meta-Posts like “Why We’re Here, Still.” That particular post seems especially relevant these days, with Newt Gingrich suddenly the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination—Gingrich has always been particularly willing to talk (with that destructive combination of ignorance and certainty) about sweeping historical issues like what he called, in the speech I quoted there, “what it once meant to be an American”; and that phrase sums up quite precisely the question for which Gingrich’s deeply mythologized and oversimplified narrative (one which would posit details like “European and Christian” as central parts of that founding American identity) continues to provide an answer for far too many Americans.
Gingrich’s goals, whatever his pretensions to scholarly or intellectual rigor, are of course drastically different from mine; he wants political power (and, yes, money), whereas I hope (among many other goals) to contribute something to our national conversations and narratives. That doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t engage with his ideas publicly—as I’ve argued many times in this space, one central reason why I created this blog was my growing feeling that public AmericanStudies “scholarship” had been ceded for far too long to the Gingriches and Becks and Bartons of the world—but it might make it seem like my ideas line up smoothly with what most of my fellow, more genuinely scholarly AmericanStudies peers might argue. I’ve felt that way at times myself, as when colleagues have highlighted for me prominent, inspiring, and publicly embraced examples of cross-cultural relationships and transformations; at moments like those it can seem as if at least we AmericanStudies scholars are in this together, doing our part to nudge our national narratives toward cross-cultural complexity and conversation. And then I start to read about the most recent work by one of our contemporary moment’s most famous and successful historians, Niall Ferguson, and I’m reminded of what’s at stake in every current arena, scholarly ones very much included.
Ferguson is about as successful as an academic can get, however you want to define success—holds a couple different prominent faculty positions at Harvard, as well as one at Oxford; has published multiple best-selling works of history, particularly on histories of the financial world from the medieval era up to the present; and is a public scholar who writes a column for Newsweek, among other similar venues. I confess to not having read or even prior to this week known much about his most recent book, Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011), which is apparently already slated for an accompanying 2012 PBS series; but at least as distilled into this article for Newsweek, the book’s core arguments are pretty much exactly as mythologizing and oversimplifying as Gingrich’s (and, through Ferguson’s insistence on using tech terms like “app” and “operating system” to describe historical concepts, perhaps even more annoying). For a thorough dismantling of the article’s arguments, I direct you to this exemplary blog post; I’ll just note here, as that blogger and economist Noah Smith also does, that Ferguson’s most significant and salient error is a direct conflation of “Western civilization” with “European white folks.” That might work for the England in which Ferguson grew up (although I’m not saying that it does, only that I don’t know enough about England to disagree), but the central goal of my book’s redefinition of American identity is to make clear just how much of American identity and culture, past and present, such a cultural and racial conflation elides. To cite only one, particularly glaring example from Ferguson’s own essay (one also cited by Smith): Ferguson uses as proof in his argument that America has lost our supremacy in “work ethic” the assertion that “you don’t have to spend too long at any major US university to know which students really drive themselves: the Asians and Asian Americans.”
I don’t know that it gets much clearer than that. For Ferguson, Asian Americans are non-western, categorically different (presumably no matter how long they or their families have been in America, although that shouldn’t matter in any case) from the culture he’d put at the heart of that description. It’s not enough simply to say in response that Asian Americans are as centrally and constitutively American as, well, Anglo Americans like Ferguson; I believe that to be the case, but would go, as I go in the book, one step further. My boys—the sons of an Anglo and Russian-Jewish American and an Asian American, the products of the kinds of cross-cultural transformations that are at the heart of America’s unique and crucial form of civilization—are the most centrally and constitutively American of all. Ferguson’s ideas and success and public forum only further strengthen my sense of how much that redefinition of America is still needed. More tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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