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Thursday, December 31, 2015

December 31, 2015: AmericanStudying 2015: Campus Protests



[In my annual end-of-year series, I’ll AmericanStudy some big stories from the year about which I didn’t get to write in this space. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these and any other 2015 stories!]
On two ways AmericanStudies can help us support the current wave of college protests.
I get that the protests which have swept across many of the nation’s college campuses in the second half of 2015—and which are mostly, if unfortunately not entirely, linked to the #BlackLivesMatter movement—are complex, and as open to critique as any social movement (especially one led by 18-22 year olds). Indeed, such critiques are vital if the movement is to endure, grow, and fulfill its possibilities as a part of American higher education and society. But at the same time, to my mind far too many of the critiques have treated the student protesters as simply out-of-touch, spoiled brats, looking to turn college into a “day care” or the like. Such reductive responses not only elide many of the serious issues and events on campuses to which the protesters are responding (a list that seems to grow longer every day), but fail to recognize the historical parallels that can help us see this latest wave of protests for the significant movement they are.
For one thing, those reductive responses to these 21st century college protests echo quite closely many of the official responses to 1960s college protesters. When protests erupted at New York’s Columbia University in the spring of 1968, for example, police were brought in to violently remove the protesters and the remainder of the spring semester was cancelled, an excessive administrative response that could logically follow from the refusal to hear or negotiate with college protesters that the “This is not a day care!” college president embodies. And while the shootings of student protesters at Kent State two years later represented of course another level of excessive response, I would argue that they were on the same spectrum of official rigidity and overreaction as Columbia’s actions. In each of these cases, as in too many of our current ones, dismissals of student concerns and voices led directly to an overt desire only to silence and shut down these protests, rather than to consider the sources of their grievances and how they might be engaged. History has not looked favorably on the 1960s official responses, a lesson that current administrations and officials would do well to learn.
And then there are those football players at the University of Missouri. The team’s protest was frequently compared to the most famous moment in which sports were linked to social protest: the Black Power salute of athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Yet the very comparison reveals how rarely American athletes have been at the center of such protests—and since Carlos and Smith were protesting as amateur individuals, rather than as a team connected to a powerful and wealthy football program and its public university, I would argue that the Missouri protest was in many ways even more striking and radical (not least because it had the support of the team’s head coach as well). While big-time college football often seems to embody the worst of American higher education in the 21st century, there’s no reason why it can’t also become part of movements to improve that system and the society of which it’s a vital part—and the Missouri protest represented an inspiring move in that direction.
Last 2015 story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other 2015 stories you’d AmericanStudy?

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

December 30, 2015: AmericanStudying 2015: Bernie Sanders



[In my annual end-of-year series, I’ll AmericanStudy some big stories from the year about which I didn’t get to write in this space. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these and any other 2015 stories!]
One AmericanStudies reason I’m not quite feeling the Bern.
Most everything I’d want to say about Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the presidency, I said way back in May for The Conversation. When it got picked up by Newsweek online, they gave it an unnecessarily incendiary title: “He Can’t Win, So Why is Bernie Sanders Running?” As the original title (“Run Bernie Run … But Why?”) better illustrates, and as I hope the piece itself makes clear, I wasn’t trying to make predictions about whether Sanders can or will win the candidacy nor a general election; instead, I was arguing that his campaign can contribute significantly to our political and national conversations regardless of such outcomes. I stand by that argument, and believe that we’ve seen many such contributions over the campaign’s first eight months.
At the same time, as a public AmericanStudies scholar, and one particularly interested in our collective memories and national narratives, I think there’s something to be said for symbolic identities and the very real things they can mean in our society and culture. And in the first post-Obama presidential election, and one in which so many of the defining issues have to do with the battle between exclusionary and inclusive images of America, between polar extremes like #BlackLivesMatter and a resurgent white supremacy (to put it bluntly and reductively, but not inaccurately), I think the difference between a candidate who would be the first woman to run as a major party’s presidential nominee and a 74 year old white man is not an insignificant one. (It’s worth adding that Sanders is Jewish in heritage, but is in his own words “not very religious”; and also that Joe Lieberman’s multiple prominent presidential bids make the possibility of a Jewish president far less striking than it once would have been.)
Hillary Clinton might not be a revolutionary candidate or president in many ways, that is, but in one very important way she most certainly would be—and would represent an unquestionable broadening of what our highest office, federal government, and symbolic national identity can and would include. That’s not the only reason to vote or not vote for a candidate, of course—but even a cursory study of American history reveals that we overlook such symbolic narratives and images at our peril. Symbolic doesn’t mean insignificant, and indeed (as Benedict Anderson knew full well) nations are in many ways constituted out of symbols and narratives. If electing a candidate like Donald Trump would represent one kind of symbolic extreme, electing our first female president would certainly represent another. In what feels like a crucial, constitutive moment for America, that’s a possibility we should keep in mind.
Next 2015 story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other 2015 stories you’d AmericanStudy?

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

December 29, 2015: AmericanStudying 2015: Trump



[In my annual end-of-year series, I’ll AmericanStudy some big stories from the year about which I didn’t get to write in this space. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these and any other 2015 stories!]
How history reveals what’s not new about the presidential hopeful, what is, and how to stop him.
As I wrote in this piece for Talking Points Memo, the longtime adoration for Donald Trump among many Americans (an attitude without which his current run for the presidency would have been unthinkable) is inextricably linked to a far more longstanding American narrative: our equation of wealth with success, and thus our admiration for the very wealthy (or often, as in the case of Trump, those who can appear very wealthy whether the facts bear out those appearances or not). I wasn’t trying in that piece to equate Trump to Ben Franklin, and of course the ever-increasing bigotry and ugliness of Trump’s campaign makes clear just how much he is not like that flawed but still very admirable founding American. Yet at the same time, there’s a national throughline between the two men, and it’s what Franklin called “the way to wealth.”
On the other hand, I would argue that Trump does represent something new under the sun—not in his familiar and all-too-American exclusionary and bigoted rhetoric, but in the 21st century forces that have created a built-in, sympathetic audience for even his most extreme ugliness. As I wrote in the piece for The Conversation at that last hyperlink, from the earliest moments of his candidacy Trump has found a vital base of support on Fox News, the network on which he had appeared for years as a candidacy. Josh Marshall of TPM has called Fox News Trump’s Leni Riefenstahl, and I couldn’t agree more with the analogy; not because Trump = Hitler, necessarily, but because at no prior point in American history has there been such a perfect symbiosis between a propaganda network and a political figure. Fox News and Trump’s 2016 candidacy represent, to my mind, something different from any prior presidential campaign—and that’s a very worrisome shift indeed.
Studying American history doesn’t only reveal those longstanding and new sides to Trump’s popularity and campaign, though. It also, and most importantly, reveals how to stop him: voting. In the years immediately following the Civil War, African Americans and their allies voted in elections throughout the South, and African Americans were elected to offices with regularity. With the subsequent rise and dominance of Jim Crow and white supremacy in those states, denying the vote was a vital way through which the worst bigots and bullies kept their power. And when the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed and African Americans were finally able to vote once more, many the worst such leaders (such as Sheriff Jim Clark of Selma, Alabama) were voted out of office. No amount of public scholarship or journalism or activism in other arenas could come close to achieving, in opposition to Trump and much else of the current extremism, what widespread voting can and will do. Fighting for that right for all Americans remains one of the most American and vital battles for the year ahead.
Next 2015 story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other 2015 stories you’d AmericanStudy?