Monday, October 31, 2016
[For this last week before the most painful, frustrating, and potentially disastrous election season in my lifetime—and perhaps American history—concludes, I’ll AmericanStudy the histories, stories, and stakes of five prior exemplary elections. Would love to hear your ElectionStudying thoughts—or your recipes for staying sane for one more week—in comments!]
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 in and of itself reflects 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 (now more famous than ever, thanks to a certain groundbreaking musical), 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 (as, I will admit, they often feel at the moment), 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.
Next exemplary election tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on this or any prior election?
Saturday, October 29, 2016
[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
October 3: AmericanStudying The Americans: “Illegals”: A series on the great FX TV show starts with what’s compelling and what’s troubling about the show’s central premise.
October 4: AmericanStudying The Americans: Spies like Us: The series continues with what we don’t know about two high-profile spying controversies, and why it doesn’t matter.
October 5: AmericanStudying The Americans: Stealth: The historical limitations and imaginative possibilities of a secretive technology, as the series rolls on.
October 6: AmericanStudying The Americans: Afghanistan: How four kinds of cultural texts can help us understand one of our most complicated and evolving relationships and histories.
October 7: AmericanStudying The Americans: Immigrant Generations: The series concludes with how a recent plot twist helps us analyze a vital American issue.
October 8-9: Emily Lauer’s Guest Post on Super Immigrants: In my latest Guest Post, Emily Lauer analyzes immigration through superhero characters and stories.
October 10: Birth Control in America: Margaret Sanger: A series inspired by the 100th anniversary of Sanger’s first clinic starts with three lesser-known sides to the activist herself.
October 11: Birth Control in America: Esther at the Doctor: The series continues with two historical and cultural lessons from an intimate fictional sequence.
October 12: Birth Control in America: The Pill: How the history of the combinated oral contraceptive pill echoes the first two posts and how it differs, as the series rolls on.
October 13: Birth Control in America: Condom Commercials: Three telling stages in the history of advertising birth control.
October 14: Birth Control in America: Sandra Fluke: The series concludes with two ways a 2012 story extended my week’s themes and reflected their continued presence in our society.
October 15-16: Layne Craig’s When Sex Changed: I couldn’t write a series about birth control and not highlight this great scholarly book by a former colleague of mine!
October 17: Black Panther Posts: The Alabama Panthers: A 50th anniversary series on the Panthers starts with their largely forgotten inspiration, and why it matters.
October 18: Black Panther Posts: Guns and Breakfasts: The series continues with two central sides to the Panthers, and why they’re not as opposed as they might seem.
October 19: Black Panther Posts: Female Panthers: The complicated stories and inspiring legacies of three female Panthers, as the series rolls on.
October 20: Black Panther Posts: Forrest Gump: What’s bad, and what’s even worse, about the party’s appearance in a popular historical film.
October 21: Black Panther Posts: AAIHS Links: The series concludes with links to a handful of great Panther posts at the African American Intellectual History Society’s blog.
October 22-23: Colin Kaepernick and 1960s Legacies: A special weekend follow up, on two ways the controversial quarterback is extending historical influences.
October 24: American Killers: Wieland: This year’s annual Halloween series starts with two origin points in a unique and strange Gothic novel.
October 25: American Killers: The Devil in the White City: The series continues with two reasons to celebrate Erik Larson’s historical bestseller, and one critique.
October 26: American Killers: Executioner Songs: Norman Mailer, Bruce Springsteen, and cultural narratives of serial killers, as the series rolls on.
October 27: American Killers: Bundy and Dahmer: How two pop culture genres portray stories of serial killers.
October 28: American Killers: Dexter: The series concludes with antiheroes, vigilantes, and everyone’s favorite TV serial killer.
Special election series starts Monday,
PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to write? Lemme know!
Friday, October 28, 2016
[For this year’s installment in my annual Halloween series, I’ll be AmericanStudying serial killers in American culture and history. Add your boos and other thoughts in comments, please!]
On antiheroes, vigilante justice, and serial killers.
Although the character began in 2004 in the first of a series of novels by Jeff Lindsay, when Dexter Morgan was brought to TV life by Michael C. Hall across eight seasons on Showtime he fit very nicely into the dominant 21st century trend of television antiheroes. While Dexter might seem to be the worst of the bunch, given that his defining characteristic was killing people week in and week out, I would argue that he’s more representative of the type than unique; after all, Frank Underwood and Tony Soprano both kill their fair share of innocent people, while Walter White kills numerous fellow criminals in order to further his own criminal enterprise. Indeed, since Dexter only kills the guilty (something that the show makes sure its audience knows with certainty in a way that would be impossible in real life), he’s not unlike another heroic antihero: Jack Bauer, who only tortures and/or kills those whom viewers know are necessary to thwart terrorist plots. Dexter is unquestionably haunted by his actions (given tangible form through his “dark passenger,” the ghost of his adopted father Harry Morgan), but so in one way or another are these other TV antiheroes as well.
Yet at the same time, Dexter’s explicit and primary motivation is to find ways to kill his deserving (as he sees it, and again as the show portrays it) victims without being caught or stopped; if and when those other antiheroes kill, they do so as a means toward other ends (some more noble than others, to be sure), rather than the end in and of itself. That doesn’t necessarily make Dexter worse than them, but it does link him to a different cultural and American type: the vigilante, one pursuing a self-defined vision of justice outside of and opposed to the law (a narrative driven home with particular clarity and irony due to Dexter’s day job as a policeman). As is so often the case with such vigilante characters in popular culture, while the audience is given various forms of distance through which they can critique Dexter’s actions (such as the stories of his fellow police officers investigating his killings), the ultimate success of the show depends on the audience sympathizing enough with him to remain invested in his story—or, to put it another way, if the audience became more sympathetic to his victims than to him the show would quickly cease to work.
So Dexter Morgan is an antihero and a vigilante, two types we’ve seen quite a bit on television and in popular culture more broadly over the last couple decades. But he’s also a serial killer, and to my mind the only serial killer protagonist of a TV show. Contemporary TV is full of serial killers—they’re pursued just about every night of the week by the detectives on numerous procedural and cop shows—which certainly reflects our collective fascination with such characters and narratives. Yet even when those killers are charismatic or compelling (as were Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal and James Purefoy’s Joe Carroll on The Following, for example), the logic of the shows requires them to be the hunted, locating the audience as one of those hunting them. Whereas, as I’ve argued in each paragraph here, the logic of Dexter locates us in an uneasy but clear parallel to Dexter himself, concerned about what might happen to him (legally but also psychologically) but taking part in his ongoing killing spree. Perhaps the show was simply an anomaly—but perhaps it represents a next step from some of the cultural texts and narratives I’ve highlighted throughout this week’s posts.
October recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other American killers or scares you’d highlight?