MyAmericanFuture

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Saturday, November 30, 2013

November 30-December 1, 2013: November 2013 Recap

[A recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]

November 4: Berkshire Stories: Vincentini’s Photos: A series on stories from the Berkshires region of Mass. starts with the photos and photographer that represent unique American identities.
November 5: Berkshire Stories: Monument Mountain: The series continues with the impressive natural site through which multiple American stories can be traced.
November 6: Berkshire Stories: Lenox: Three stages in a small town’s evolution into an artistic and cultural center, as the series rolls on.
November 7: Berkshire Stories: The Housatonic: Three complex and compelling sides to a New England river.
November 8: Berkshire Stories: The series concludes with how an icon’s hometown doesn’t remember him, how it does, and how it could.
November 9-10: AmericanStudies Wants You!: A welcome post and a reminder of three ways you can contribute your voice to the blog.
November 11: Veteran’s Week: A Veteran Performance: A Veteran’s Day-inspired series kicks off with the under-remembered film that embodies how we should remember our veterans.
November 12: Veteran’s Week: Band of Brothers: The series continues with thoughts on nostalgia and nuance in one of our best recent representations of war.
November 13: Veteran’s Week: The Red Convertible: The powerful story that embodies but also challenges one of the most widely understood aspects of veteran’s experiences, as the series rolls on.
November 14: Veteran’s Week: African Americans in World War I: Two opposed yet crucially interconnected ways to remember a community of veterans.
November 15: Veteran’s Week: Veterans Against the War(s): The series concludes with the longstanding veteran’s community we hardly ever recognize—and my personal connection to them.
November 16-17: Crowd-Sourced Veterans: Crowd-sourced responses to the week’s posts and other thoughts and ideas from fellow AmericanStudiers.
November 18: Times Like These: 1963: A series on bitterly divided times like our own starts with the extremism and political violence of 1963, and today.
November 19: Times Like These: 1935: The series continues with the debates over Social Security and how history repeats itself—but also doesn’t.
November 20: Times Like These: 1886: A year that was good for corporations, bad for workers and immigrants, and important for us, as the series continues.
November 21: Times Like These: 1860: We come to it at last—the most divided moment in our nation’s history, and what we can learn from it.
November 22: Times Like These: 1800: The series concludes with the moment that changed things in post-Revolutionary America—but also, fortunately, didn’t.
November 23-24: Times Like These: Public Scholarship: Some meta-reflections on my own role and work, in times and spaces like these.
November 25: Giving Thanks: AmericanStudies TV: A Thanksgiving series starts with the renaissance in great AmericanStudying TV shows.
November 26: Giving Thanks: New Releases: The series continues with highly anticipated new works from old friends—and new ones.
November 27: Giving Thanks: Fitchburg State Colleagues: Three of the many reasons why I’m very thankful to be part of the FSU faculty, as the series rolls on.
November 28: Giving Thanks: Expanding Horizons: On the challenge facing my university, and an office and colleague whose work in addressing it I’m very thankful for.
November 29: Giving Thanks: Future AmericanStudiers: The series concludes with an amazing and inspiring conversation between past and future Americas.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!

Friday, November 29, 2013

November 29, 2013: Giving Thanks: Future AmericanStudiers

[A Thanksgiving series on some of the many things for which this AmericanStudier is thankful. Add your thanks-givings in comments!]

On an amazing and inspiring conversation between past and future Americas.
A few weeks ago, I had the chance to take my boys to Plimoth Plantation (and its related sites, including the Mayflower II on the docks in nearby Plymouth) for the first time. As that blog post indicates, Plimoth is one of my favorite American sites, and so the chance to share it with the boys (for the first of what I hope and believe will be multiple visits) was something I had long looked forward to. And it delivered, in lots of ways but especially in a series of moments and images I’ll long remember: the boys resting on animal skin blankets in the large house at the Wampanoag Homesite; each straddling a cannon on the top level of the 1627 English Village’s fort (probably not allowed, but hey, engaging with the past, right?); and, most memorably of all, our nearly thirty-minute conversation with a young historical interpreter in one of the Village houses.
The interpreter was embodying an interesting historical type, a single young man who (as a second son who was thus not destined to inherit his family’s farm) had come to Plimoth on the Mayflower to make his fortune and had found himself increasingly connected to the community’s other families; when we met him he was making a fire in the home of one such family whose young daughter was (he told us) ill and in need of hot water. Perhaps because of his age, perhaps the fact that we were alone in the house with him, perhaps simply the vagaries of 7 and 6 year old moods, the boys were extremely interested in what he had to say—they sat down in two chairs in the house and quizzed him for, again, almost half an hour on who he was, what he was doing, what was in the home, and many other aspects of life for the Plimoth community nearly four hundred years ago. I had little to do other than watch, taking in this conversation between a 1627 Anglo American man and two 2013 Anglo German Jewish Chinese American boys.
I’m thankful for far more about my boys, and the opportunity to be their Dad, than I could possibly express here. But high on that list for sure is my gratitude for the chance to watch them grow into their own kinds of AmericanStudiers—not necessarily in scholarly ways (although we’ll see!), but as 21st century Americans, engaged with every part of their community and nation and world, past, present, and future. If the Expanding Horizons students about whom I wrote yesterday offer me one very definite source of hope for our future, my boys of course offer another—and I’ve never felt that hope more clearly or strongly than as I listened to their questions and conversation with this representative of one of the founding moments in America’s past.
November recap this weekend,
Ben
PS. Who or what do you thank?

Thursday, November 28, 2013

November 28, 2013: Giving Thanks: Expanding Horizons

[A Thanksgiving series on some of the many things for which this AmericanStudier is thankful. Add your thanks-givings in comments!]

On one of the biggest challenges facing my university, and the office and person leading our efforts to transcend it.
I imagine that there are many universities across the United States struggling to increase diversity, to create a more multicultural, multi-ethnic, and generally multi-faceted student population—but the challenge feels particularly acute and salient at Fitchburg State University. Located in a city that’s significantly diverse—a city with the state’s first Asian American woman mayor, with sizeable Asian, Hispanic, and African American populations to complement numerous European American communities and heritages—Fitchburg State’s undergraduate population is (or was as of a 2011 report, at least) nearly 90% white non-Hispanic. It’s an amazing community of students, and a diverse one in many ways to be sure—but amplifying this cultural and ethnic diversity is certainly a real and meaningful goal.
There are of course numerous external factors in play, including many facing Fitchburg’s public schools (which would be a logical source for FSU students), and it’d be na├»ve to think that the university (or any single institution) could address those factors. But Fitchburg State has taken a very significant step, creating a number of offices dedicated to furthering this mission of diversification and, perhaps even more importantly, to providing support and community for FSU undergraduates once they’re on campus. At the top of that list would be Expanding Horizons, an office that helps recruit and support students from disadvantaged economic backgrounds, who are first-generation college students, or who are dealing with similarly challenging circumstances as they join the FSU community. And while the Expanding Horizons office includes numerous dedicated and impressive staff members, I’ve worked most closely with one, the office’s inspiringly passionate and committed academic advisor, Sarah Sadowski.
I’m thankful for Sarah and her efforts for lots of reasons, including the series of individual students in whose work and lives I’ve seen her contributions time and time again. But if I had to boil it down, I would say that Sarah, those students, and the Expanding Horizons program have done more than any other part of my community to remind me of why what we do matters, of the true and incredibly meaningful stakes of higher education. I know full well the numerous problems plaguing American higher ed, and have no definite sense of how (or even, to a degree, whether) we’ll move into the future successfully. But Sarah and her office remind me, with force and passion, that there’s nothing more important than what education can offer and mean, for individuals and communities and cities and nations, and so nothing better that we can do than contributing whatever we can to such an educational community. Happy Thanksgiving, Sarah!
Next giving of thanks tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Who or what do you thank?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

November 27, 2013: Giving Thanks: Fitchburg State Colleagues

[A Thanksgiving series on some of the many things for which this AmericanStudier is thankful. Add your thanks-givings in comments!]

On a few of the many reasons why I’m thankful to be part of the Fitchburg State faculty community.
My English Studies colleague Joe Moser recently released his first book, Irish Masculinity on Screen: The Pugilists and Peacemakers of John Ford, Jim Sheridan, and Paul Greengrass (2013). Like Joe, the book is interdisciplinary on multiple levels: combining Film Studies with English Studies, Irish Studies with American Studies, political and social arguments with aesthetic analyses, and more. I’m definitely thankful to share an office suite with Joe, and to continue to learn and benefit from his perspective (and those of all my English Studies colleagues) on American culture, on film, on history, on politics, on teaching and service and community, and on what we do on every level.
My American Studies colleague (and member of the Economics, History, and Political Science Department) Kate Jewell is still hard at work on her first book; but in the meantime, she’s created a unique and impressive digital humanities project, a crowd-sourced oral history of the Boston Marathon bombings and their impacts, stories, and aftermaths. Like Kate, who experienced her own traumatic version of the bombings from pretty close to the finish line, the project is an inspiring combination of human and historical, personal and analytical, directed and open to response and evolution and growth. I’m very thankful to have been able to team-teach an Intro to American Studies course with Kate, and to learn a lot from her (and all her fellow EHPS colleagues) about America, the humanities and social sciences, scholarship, and interdisciplinary community and collaboration.
My FSU Liberal Arts and Sciences Council colleague (and member of the Biology/Chemistry Department) Chris Picone has plenty of research projects and collaborations ongoing; but what I’ve been most influenced and inspired by are Chris’s determined and optimistic efforts to make the FSU campus more green, more energy efficient and intelligent, and more a positive part of the local, regional, and global communities and environments. Like Chris, these efforts are consistently thoughtful, friendly, and yet forceful, making sure that all of us at FSU think and act with these questions and issues as part of our perspectives—and that we feel inspired while doing so. I’m thankful to be part of a community that’s engaging with these issues, and to be inspired by Chris (and all my FSU colleagues) to be better at everything I do, at FSU and in the world.
Next giving of thanks tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Who or what do you thank?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

November 26, 2013: Giving Thanks: New Releases

[A Thanksgiving series on some of the many things for which this AmericanStudier is thankful. Add your thanks-givings in comments!]

On the exciting prospect of newly released works by old friends—and new ones.
John Sayles has a new film; if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know how thankful I am any time I can write that sentence. Jhumpa Lahiri has a new novel; ditto and ditto. In their different mediums and unique styles (and of course at very distinct points in their respective careers), Sayles and Lahiri reflect, portray, and embody much of the best of American art, culture, community, and identity as I would define them, and I’m incredibly thankful for the chance to see how their bodies of work and perspectives continue to evolve into this second decade of the 21st century. When I get that chance with these two new releases, you can be sure that there’ll be some AmericanStudying to do of both works, so stay tuned!
New releases by old friends are one of life’s great comforts (unless you’re one of those audience members who’s constantly waiting for when the favorite artist “sells out” or otherwise lets us down, in which case I suppose such releases are more nerve-wracking; but I’m an optimist in this, as in most things). But there’s also a great deal to be said for making a new friend, encountering an impressive artist for the first time and adding his or her voice and work into our lives. And for that reason, I’m very thankful for an AmericanStudies film that’s in theaters right now and that I can’t wait to see—Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave, about which I’ve heard only great things. The fact that the film’s director and its star are both British only amplifies its status as a transnational, 21st century historical and cultural text; the fact that it’s the third relatively recent film (after Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarantino’s Django Unchained) to deal with issues of slavery in American history only makes it that much more salient and significant as a part of our current cultural conversations.
I’ve spent a while trying to think of what to focus on in this third paragraph, and have decided that I want to leave it open for your thoughts and suggestions: what authors and artists have new releases (or recent releases, or upcoming releases) that you’re looking forward to? Who would you recommed I check out to expand my list of artistic friends? What, in American (or world) literature, art, and culture, are you thankful for? I’d be thankful for your thoughts!
Next giving of thanks tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Who or what do you thank?

Monday, November 25, 2013

November 25, 2013: Giving Thanks: AmericanStudies TV

[A Thanksgiving series on some of the many things for which this AmericanStudier is thankful. Add your thanks-givings in comments!]

On the recent, unprecedented plethora of great AmericanStudies television shows.
We AmericanStudiers (if I may speak for the tribe for a moment) pride ourselves on our ability to analyze any and all cultural texts, including the most seemingly innocuous or straightforward ones. Take TV shows, for example: a dedicated AmericanStudier like myself would have to be willing and able to find cultural depth and meaning in nothing less than a Baywatch. Thesis: the beach both as the site of an idealized, picturesque American mythos and yet, just under the surface of those enticing California waters, as a realistic world full of dangers and threats that require a team of national heroes ready and willing to sacrifice themselves for our communal safety. (Okay, I grant you that “national heroes” is a bit of a stretch when it comes to the likes of Hasselhoff and Anderson, but it’s just a starting point.) When it comes to AmericanStudies, that is, it’s all part of the text.
But that textual ubiquity shouldn’t elide a crucial distinction: between the majority of cultural texts and those few that themselves comprise, include in and indeed make central to their own work, complex portrayals and analyses of American culture and identity. When it comes to television, the last couple of decades—a period that has been generally described as a golden era for the medium, a perspective with which I would definitely agree—have featured an incredible range and depth of such overtly AmericanStudying shows: The Sopranos, The West Wing, Deadwood, The Wire, Mad Men, Band of Brothers, Breaking Bad, Treme, Boardwalk Empire, Homeland, The Newsroom, Masters of Sex, and The Bridge, to compile only a partial list. It’s such a long list, indeed, that even this committed and pop culture-loving AmericanStudier has only been able to watch the full run of a small percentage of those shows (The West Wing, The Wire, Mad Men, and Band of Brothers) and hasn’t yet had a chance to watch any of the most recent ones (those listed between Homeland and The Bridge).
That’s one thing I’m thankful for, to be sure: how much great AmericanStudies TV I have ahead of me, still to watch and explore (nominations in comments for which of those other shows I should check out first are very welcome!). I’m also deeply thankful for all the shows and moments I’ve already been able to check out over the last few years, and how much they’ve become a part of my scholarly perspective—it’s no coincidence that I’ve cited The West Wing, The Wire, and Band of Brothers in posts on this blog, and I’m quite sure those won’t be the last times. And finally, I’m incredibly thankful for the ways in which this space—literally; and as a mode of broad, public AmericanStudies thinking toward which I’m moving more and more fully all the time—have helped me engage with every layer and aspect of American culture and society, including the many great AmericanStudies TV shows of the last couple decades.
Next giving of thanks tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Who or what do you thank?

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,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Friday, November 22, 2013

November 22, 2013: Times Like These: 1800

[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’ll highlight five such moments, and think a bit about what we can learn from them. Your thoughts, on these moments, our own, or any others, are very welcome as always!]

On the moment that definitely changed things in post-Revolutionary America—but also, inspiringly, didn’t.
It’d be an overstatement to say that the first decade of post-Constitution America was devoid of national or partisan divisions—this was the era of the Alien and Sedition Acts and their responses, after all; also of that little rebellion up in Pennsylvania—but I don’t think it’s inaccurate to see the first three presidential terms (Washington’s two and John Adams’s one) as among the most unified and non-controversial in our history. That’s true even though Adams’s Vice President was his chief rival in the 1796 election, Thomas Jefferson; Jefferson had gained the second-most electoral votes, which in the first constitutional model meant that he would serve as vice president (an idea that itself relfects a striking lack of expected controversy!). There were certainly two distinct parties as of that second administration (Adams’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans), and they had distinct perspectives on evolving national issues to be sure; but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of significant partisan divisions between them in that period.
To say that things changed with the presidential election of 1800 would be to drastically understate the case. Once again Adams and Jefferson were the chief contenders, now linked by the past four years of joint service but at the same time more overtly rivals because of that prior election and its results; moreover, this time Jefferson’s running mate, Aaron Burr, was a far more prominent and popular candidate in his own right. And this combination of complex factors led to an outcome that was divisive and controversial on multiple levels: Jefferson’s ticket handily defeated that of his boss, greatly amplifying the partisan rancor between the men and parties; but at the same time Burr received the same number of electoral votes as Jefferson, an unprecedented (then or since) tie between two Republicans that sent the election into the hands of the Federalist-controlled Congress. Although most Federalists opposed Jefferson (for obvious reasons), through a murky and secretive process (one likely influenced by Alexander Hamilton) Jefferson was ultimately chosen on the 36th ballot as the nation’s third president.
Four years later Burr shot Hamilton dead in the nation’s most famous duel, and it’s entirely fair to say that, in the aftermath of this heated and controversial election, the nation could have similarly descended into conflict. But instead, Burr and Hamilton’s eventual fates notwithstanding, the better angels of our collective nature rose to the occasion—Adams peacefully handed over the executive to Jefferson, all those who had supported Burr recognized the new administration, and the parties continued to move forward as political but not social or destructive rivals. If and when the partisan divisions seem too deep and too wide, and frankly too much for me to contemplate, I try to remember the election of 1800; not because it went smoothly or was perfect (far from it), nor because the leaders in that generation were any nobler or purer (ditto), but rather precisely because it went horribly and was deeply messed-up and the leaders were as selfish and human as they always are, and yet somehow—as untested and raw as we were—we came out on the other side. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll do the same this time.
Self-reflective weekend post tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other divided moments you’d highlight?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

November 21, 2013: Times Like These: 1860

[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’ll highlight five such moments, and think a bit about what we can learn from them. Your thoughts, on these moments, our own, or any others, are very welcome as always!]

On the moment that feels frighteningly close to our own, and what (if anything) we can learn from it.
Not to get all Gandalf on you, but we come to it at last—the great (and terrible) comparison of our time. I’m not sure any informed AmericanStudier can fail to see the ways in which our moment seems so clearly to echo the culminating build-up to the Civil War: from the Illinois-based president perceived (from his moment of election, and indeed well before) as illegitimate by a substantial portion of the population; to the sense that different American communities (and, in many ways, regions) are inhabiting different realities, united by almost no shared understandings; to, most overtly and disturbingly, the near-constant talk of secession and nullification and even insurrection. You don’t have to have seen overtly and proudly Neo-Confederate sentiments on a daily basis (as I did in a Facebook group ostenisbly dedicated to pleasant memories of my Virginia hometown) in order to see the writing on the wall.
Despite that kind of contemporary Neo-Confederate sentiment, and despite the overtly racist element to many of those “Obama is an illegitimate president” narratives, I should make clear that I’m not in any way equating the two eras on the issue of race. Indeed, the simple fact that we have a mixed-race president—which is of course far from a simple fact, but you know what I mean—exemplifies how different 2013 is from 1860 when it comes to race and identity, individual and communal, in America. But to be honest, it’s precisely the contrast between how far we seem to have come in so many ways and yet how much of 1860 I see in our present moment that most unnerves me. Part of me believed that writing the prior posts on other divided eras would help me recognize that this is simply another one of those, not a specific echo of the most tragically divided period in our history—but I can’t say that my concerns about those close parallels have been much allayed. AmericanStudying fail, I guess.
So if we can’t shake the comparisons to 1860, the question becomes instead: what can we learn from them? There’s a current school of thought that had the North been more willing to compromise in those final moments, the war might have been averted; but since I think that neither would the South have gone along nor that such a compromise should have been offered in any case, I can’t agree with any part of that analysis. There’s another analysis in which the Civil War wasn’t ultimately tragic, given that it led to abolition; while I’m more sympathetic to that take on 1860, I’d still like to avoid any violent (or even just divisive) conflicts in our own era if we can help it. So I’d advance, very briefly, a third analysis: that the Civil War happened, in part, because of the South’s extremely myopic perspective, a communal understanding (of past and present, of slavery and race, of America itself) that included no room for any divergence from its vision. Which is to say: if there’s one thing that might change our current moment, it’d be education, communication of and conversations about histories and stories, knowledge and ideas, that just might shift our divided perspectives.
Final divided era tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other divided moments you’d highlight?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

November 20, 2013: Times Like These: 1886

[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’ll highlight five such moments, and think a bit about what we can learn from them. Your thoughts, on these moments, our own, or any others, are very welcome as always!]

On a year that was good for corporations, bad for workers and immigrants, and very important for right now.
Forgive the shorthand, but my first two points here have already been the focus of prior posts; rather than create new paragraphs, I thought I’d ask you to check out those posts. So:
In 1886, a Supreme Court decision greatly amplified corporate power, in ironic and direct contrast to the rights of the American people more broadly.
In the same year, the Haymarket Square bombing and its aftermaths weakened the burgeoning labor movement and gave credibility to anti-immigrant fears and hysteria.
Which is to say, in 1886 America was deeply divided along economic and cultural lines, divisions that would only deepen as the Gilded Age rolled on and the waves of Eastern and Southern European immigrants continued to arrive (among other complex and relevant social trends in the era). Yet the sources and symptoms of these divisions would also lead to many of the most important and inspiring turn of the century histories and activisms: the labor movement’s numerous victories; the Progressive movement’s economic and governmental reforms; and settlement houses for immigrant arrivals, among other such effects. Each of those activist histories arose out of a number of factors and influences, but it’s fair to say that dark and divisive moments like 1886 were significant catalysts for future activism. So when things look particularly divided and bleak, it’s important—if of course very hard—to try to take the long view.
Next divided era tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other divided moments you’d highlight?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

November 19, 2013: Times Like These: 1935

[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’ll highlight five such moments, and think a bit about what we can learn from them. Your thoughts, on these moments, our own, or any others, are very welcome as always!]

On how history sometimes repeats itself—and yet how it doesn’t.
The debates lasted for months, occupying both houses of Congress and much media coverage despite the ongoing, national and global economic disaster. The debates were heated and divisive, with the Republicans castigating the administration and Democratic plan as far too expensive and as creeping (or overt) socialism, and the Democrats responding by calling the Republican position extreme, inaccurate, and destructive to the American people. The debates concluded with the Democrats pushing through—critics would say forcing through—their plan to extend a significant new government program to millions of Americans, a move that was perceived and narrated as simultaneously a victory for the first-team Democratic president and an over-reach that would come back to bite him and his party down the road.
I don’t know if I entirely succeeded, but my goal in writing that paragraph was to make it impossible to know for sure (unless you cilicked on the hyperlinks!) whether I was describing the 2010 debates over President Obama’s Affordable Care Act or the 1935 debates over President Roosevelt’s Social Security Act. I’m not usually a big fan of the “Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it” frame—every historical moment is specific and distinct enough that the idea of such repetition doesn’t make a lot of sense—but the parallels between the 1935 and 2010 debates are sweeping and striking enough as to be, to my mind, inarguable. And if we grant those parallels, it becomes at least a bit harder to make the case for the ACA—which comprises a far less sweeping addition to our government and society than did Social Security—as the final nail in America’s coffin, or the moment when our national fall commenced, or whatever other apocalyptic narrative you want to trot out. Unless you want to make the same case for Social Security over these last 75 years—and precious few have been willing to go there—you’ll find your argument instantly challenged by that post-1935 history.
So remembering 1935 reminds us that history can, occasionally, seem to repeat itself. But doing so also makes clear one very simple reason why it cannot: because each and every historical event, and thus certainly each hotly debated and significant new law, does indeed change our society and future. Even at the most basic level, the Social Security Act fundamentally altered the lives of all American seniors, then and since; its existence has also substantially changed the way all adult Americans plan for and move toward the end of their lives. While it’s impossible to argue that any single historical event impacted the future more than many others, it’s similarly impossible not to recognize how much our present moment has been created out of our past, and more exactly out of the most defining and lasting influences within that history. So if this moment feels like it’s the same as 1935, with some significant justification, it’s also worth remembering that nothing has been the same since 1935.
Next divided era tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other divided moments you’d highlight?

Monday, November 18, 2013

November 18, 2013: Times Like These: 1963

[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’ll highlight five such moments, and think a bit about what we can learn from them. Your thoughts, on these moments, our own, or any others, are very welcome as always!]

On the bitter divisions that preceded, and perhaps even contributed to, a tragic day.
On November 21, 1963, the day before John F. Kennedy was assassinated, numerous copies of a flyer featuring Kennedy’s picture (arranged like a mug shot) and titled “Wanted for Treason” were distributed in Dallas (most likely by members of the John Birch Society). Many of the seven (almost entirely inaccurate and ludicrously extreme) “treasonous activities against the United States” that the poster attributes to Kennedy feel, to be blunt, as if they could and perhaps have been written in the last year or two about Barack Obama with virtually no changes; but while those echoes have a great deal to tell us about our contemporary moment and its historical origins and connections, they’re not my main point here. Instead, I think the flyer helps us to contextualize Kennedy’s assassination, to realize that—whether or not Oswald had the slightest thing to do with the flyer or had even seen it or anything like it—Kennedy was governing in an era of increasingly unhinged and explicitly violent (if we remember the penalty for treason) right-wing rhetoric, published and circulated en masse, for purposes that can at best be called divisive.
One problem with seemingly “lone wolf” assassinations (like Oswald’s of Kennedy, unless you go down the Oliver Stone route of course) is that the dominant narrative of such events can make it far too easy for us to elide the culture of extreme and violent oppositional rhetoric (as in the Kennedy flyer) in which the lone wolf committed his or her crime. Which is to say, it’s usually not, to my mind, either-or. There are those assassins who are obviously and centrally driven by specific historical and social contexts, such as John Wilkes Booth in his murder of Lincoln; and there are those who are pretty clearly just plain nuts, such as John Hinckley in his Jodie Foster-inspired attempt on Reagan. But in many—if not most—cases, a political assassination represents a complex combination of these two factors—an individual who is sufficiently detached from normal reality and society to plan and commit such an act, operating within a historical and social climate that fosters violent perspectives and responses and attacks on political figures.
Which leads me to a few questions about one of the most violent moments in our recent political history. Was Gabrielle Giffords’ shooter influenced by the map on Sarah Palin’s website featuring key “targeted” Democratic Congressional districts (including Giffords’) with crosshairs over them? Did he know that Giffords’ Tea Party-endorsed opponent in the preceding election was an Iraq War veteran who featured a fundraising event where supporters could come out and shoot an M16 to “help” unseat Giffords? Did the shooter have any connection to the multiple times her office had been vandalized and she had received death threats after the passage of the health care reform bill, a bill for which she voted and to which Sharron Angle and others were in part referring when they spoke of “2nd Amendment remedies” if elections don’t do the job (and Giffords did indeed win re-election)? The overt answer to all of those questions might well be no, but I believe we cannot and should not attempt to understand his actions without at least some awareness of and engagement with these contexts.
Next divided era tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other divided moments you’d highlight?

Saturday, November 16, 2013

November 16-17, 2013: Crowd-Sourced Veterans

[In honor of Veteran’s Day, this week’s series has focused on cultural and historical engagements with this important American community. This crowd-sourced post is drawn from the response and perspectives of fellow AmericanStudiers—please add your thoughts in comments!]
Ian Wilkins writes, “I agree that the best use of a time to remember and contemplate like that which Veteran's Day encourages us to do is to broaden out memory beyond the specifics of war itself, and to consider all of the far-reaching impacts into the lives of those who were involved in one way or another.
     My grandfather’s brother, Jack Wilkins, was an all-star multi-sport athlete from the Main South neighborhood of Worcester. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, he and my grandfather signed up and shipped off immediately—into the marines and the navy, respectively. While my grandfather rode aboard a Navy fuel tanker, thankfully avoiding torpedoes and coming home safely, Jack was piloting fighters in the marines. When WWII was over, my grandfather came home to his wife. Eschewing the reported major-league baseball tryouts which had been scheduled before the war, Jack stayed on in the marines, and went to Korea a short time later.
     Less than a month into Korea, Jack’s plane was shot down. For the entire duration of the war, nobody in the family knew what had happened to him. In fact, he had been captured and was a POW. The way they finally became aware of this is that, when the war was over, there were several prisoners released. My family was watching the prisoners walk off the planes on television, and there was Jack, alive! It has become a piece of family history that is not often talked about, but the city of Worcester held a parade for his return.
     Jack moved very quickly to a warmer climate (Florida), never to return to New England. He did not like to talk about his experience; the little I know of it I learned from my grandmother.
     As interesting and impactful as this story is, it is but one of many. Jack’s experience was something that followed him for the rest of his life. My absolute favorite movie which explores the horrible things that can follow vets home in this way is
The Deer Hunter. Yes it is very long, and yes some of the stuff is absolutely crazy, but it always hits me in a very American way. Of course, there are so many great Vietnam movies which delve into the psychological toll, but the connections I feel to the America portrayed in The Deer Hunter—the small, industrial town and its inhabitants—makes it stand out for me.”
Rob Gosselin writes, “In the early 1980's I served under a United States Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sergent. He did multiple combat tours in Vietnam. In his opinion, the only movie he ever saw that looked like what he experienced was Hamburger Hill (1987). It might be worth a look.”
Irene Martyniuk responds to Thursday’s WWI post, writing, “I gave a paper a few years ago about the Irish who chose to serve in the British Army in WWI. Ireland was neutral, even though it was still officially part of the British Empire, and those who held an Irish passport were exempt from the British draft, but many (more than the Irish now want to admit) chose to serve—usually for the money. This is a topic Sebastian Barry brilliantly explores in his fiction, about which I wrote in my paper. In doing research for that work, I was quite surprised to discover that in the Republic of Ireland, there are still no clear records as to how many Irish served in WWI (they still argue about ‘who is Irish’) and how many died, and the first official memorials honoring those who served and those who died were only erected in 2004 or so!”
Responding to the same post, Stephen Railton writes, “I wonder when the monuments will reflect the black contribution to America's various wars? or the native American ones? etc?” And then he links these questions to the NAACP film Birth of a Race (1918), which in one section “shows a black man and a white man, working together in a field and then marching together in same uniform off to war. I don't think I've seen it all, just that clip, and it doesn't look very impressive as a piece of cinema -- god knows how little money they had to make it. I'm not sure it was ever shown in many (any?) theaters either. But like those un-erected monuments, it is part of the story you're helping us recover this week.”
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think? What would you add?

Friday, November 15, 2013

November 15, 2013: Veteran’s Week: Veterans Against the War(s)

[In honor of Veteran’s Day, a series on cultural and historical engagements with this important American community. Please add your thoughts and takes—on individual posts, on other aspects of veterans in American history, culture, and community, and on anything else that comes to mind—for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the longstanding veterans communities that we hardly ever recognize—and my personal connection to them.
Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) has been around for forty-six years, almost exactly as long as the National Organization for Women (NOW). But for one reason or another—perhaps the specificity of its name, perhaps the controversies and critiques that surrounded and still surround the organizaton—VVAW is not, to my mind, generally recognized as a contemporary American activist organization. Instead, VVAW tends to be treated as a part of history, a reflection of the growing 1960s divisions in American culture and society over the Vietnam War and related issues. Those historical questions certainly contributed to the organization’s founding—but just as NOW has existed long past the specific women’s movement issues and debates that prompted its 1966 founding, so too has VVAW extended its efforts and reach well beyond the end of the Vietnam War and its era.
Recognizing VVAW’s ongoing presence and activism would be important on its own terms, but it would also help us to better engage with the similar organizations that have become increasingly prevalent in late 20th and early 21st century America. I’m thinking specifically of two very distinct but equally influential groups: Iraq Veterans Against the War, which focused its initial efforts on that particular recent conflict but has gradually broadened its scope, just as VVAW did; and Veterans for Peace, which was founded in 1985 and has opposed militarism and conflict more broadly from the outset. Among the many reasons why these organizations deserve our fuller recognition, I would argue that such awareness would significantly challenge one of our most persistent recent narratives: that each American must choose whether to “support the troops” or oppose war. These anti-war veterans’ organizations reveal that schism as a false dichotomy, one that masks the possibility—the increasingly prominent possibility—that troops themselves can oppose wars.
While such anti-war veterans’ organizations seem to be a relatively recent American phenomenon, my own family history indicates that there is nothing new about wartime service producing anti-war sentiments. My paternal grandfather, Arthur Railton, was a World War II veteran and a committed pacifist, and he consistently credited his war experiences as the source of that subsequent and vociferous opposition to war. In the absence of organized anti-war veteran activism in prior generations, it might be easy to develop narratives that would (for example) contrast Greatest Generation vets with Vietnam-era ones—but such contrasts would, as my grandfather proves, be no more necessarily accurate than a purely historical understanding of VVAW. The truth is that anti-war veterans are not a product of any one moment or debate, but rather comprise a longstanding, ongoing, and significant American community.
Crowd-sourced post tomorrow,
Ben
PS. So what do you think? Last chance to share responses or other takes for that weekend post!