Saturday, November 23, 2013

November 23-24, 2013: Times Like These: Public Scholarship

[In such bitterly partisan and divided times, it can be easy to feel as if things have never been this bad before. Without downplaying the genuine challenges presented by our own moment, however, it’s well worth AmericanStudying other similarly polarized eras. So this week I’ve highlighted five such moments, and thought a bit about what we can learn from them. This weekend post takes a step back to consider the role, responsibility, and limits of a blog like this in times like these.]

On the question I keep getting, and the two very different responses I could give.
At the risk of sounding like David Carradine in Kung Fu, as I’ve wandered the land for these past few months, giving book talks and saving innocent villagers and whatnot (okay, yeah, that was straight out trying to sound like Carradine), I’ve gotten one particular audience question far more than any other: so what would you say about immigration policies and debates in our own moment? How, the implication and often the direct question goes, would better remembering histories like those on which my book and talks focus (the Chinese Exclusion Act and its era; broader American histories of immigration, law, and diversity) impact these contemporary concerns? And, usually unstated but very much caught up in those questions, is a more self-reflective kind of query: is it your (my) responsibility, duty, and/or right as a public AmericanStudies scholar to connect my histories and stories and analyses to these present issues and debates?
The answer I’ve generally given is roughly the same one I advance in my book’s conclusion (which is entitled “So What?”), is also roughly the same one I’ve articulated at various points in describing this blog’s primary mission, and is certainly something I believe: that my central role is to connect us more fully and in more depth, more accurately and with more complexity, to our past and identity, our history and community, to what America has been and meant and included (in the worst and the best senses, and everything in between) throughout its existence. As I’ve indicated in those answers, I most definitely believe that having a more full and accurate understanding of all those topics would and will impact our contemporary conversations and debates as well—but I also have tried to make clear that I don’t think those impacts would have to lead to any one definite position or perspective, that there’s any one overt lesson for our present in these better memories and understandings. The key, I’ve said and meant, is that as long as our conversations seem so a-historical, so disconnected from our past and identity, they are at best extremely limited and partial.
And yet. There’s a part of me that wants to answer differently, to note that when it comes to immigration history, any accurate understanding leads to one very clear conclusion: America had an entirely open immigration policy and border for most of our history; and when we developed immigration laws, we did so solely and purely to discriminate, to try to exclude certain communities from immigrating and being part of our national community. So in this particular case, I kind of want to say, better remembering the histories would indeed seem also to point to a definite argument about policy in the present and future. To be clear, I don’t think that’s always, or even usually, the case, with any of the histories and stories I try to better remember in this space (or elsewhere). But as perhaps this week’s series illustrates, if and when it is the case I’m having a harder time lately feeling that I shouldn’t connect my analyses to those present and future meanings. Perhaps that evolving feeling is another part of becoming a public scholar more fully—and in any case, I don’t much want to fight it.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?

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