Monday, August 1, 2011
August 1, 2011: What’s the Point?
I had a pretty unpleasant Facebook-thread argument recently—in the immediate context of the debt ceiling nonsense and President Obama, two topics about which I have nothing more to say at the moment—with a leftist political activist (not someone I know personally, but such are the promise and peril of Facebook and the internet) who feels that “academic liberals” are “the lamest, most clueless, most useless motherfuckers in the world.” Since he said this to me directly, after I had offered him what he admitted was “unreciprocated civility,” the line certainly reflects most centrally the guy’s particular and unattractive online voice and personality. But leaving the insults aside, his broader points, which focused on how academic liberals (and perhaps liberals more generally) don’t have the will or tenacity to do whatever it takes to “win” political arguments and thus are ultimately powerless in the face of win-at-all-costs conservatives like those currently running the show in DC, are ones I have myself considered often, including in and in regard to this space.
For example, much of my April 19th post focused explicitly on the question (in response to a few prompts, including William Hazlitt’s still relevant 1820 essay “On the Spirit of Partisanship” and the work of Reconstruction-era activist and writer Albion Tourgée) of whether liberals should fight conservative fire with fire or with complexity, should (at least at times and when necessary) abandon the high roads of historical awareness and knowledge and context (among many others) and play dirty in order to take on conservative movements that seem often to rely heavily, even depend, upon propaganda and misrepresentations and bald-faced lies. Since that time I have, I will admit, included more contemporary and political topics among my focal points here, but I have not, I devoutly hope, abandoned even a fraction of my desire for nuance and context, for awareness and knowledge, for connecting such issues thoroughly to the long and multi-part threads that can be traced from them to so much of our national history and identity and narratives. As I wrote in that April 19th post, and as I still believe, trying to provide all of those layers is the right thing to do, but what my Facebook interlocutor might ask (if with more vulgarity), and what I certainly ask myself frequently as well, is whether it’s the best thing to do, at least for those of us seeking to enter into and even ideally influence broader national conversations.
I’d be lying if I said I had the answer to that question. But I think a news story from today (available at the first link below) illustrates, if I do say so myself, the real and urgent need in our national conversations not only for the voices of public AmericanStudies scholars in general, but in this particular case for the argument at the heart of my recent book specifically. In this story, the despicable anti-Muslim bigot Pamela Geller, about whom I wrote in my July 25th and July 26th posts, comes out in support of Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik; Geller makes that disgusting case in a variety of ways, but in one particularly telling comment (later scrubbed from her site but caught in a screen capture also available at that first link) she captions a photo of the kids at the Norwegian youth camp (taken the day before the shooting) by asking her readers to “note the faces which are more Middle Eastern or mixed than pure Norwegian.” Geller may think that she’s making a point there about Norway specifically or European societies more generally—and certainly she, like Breivik and the rest of their anti-Muslim ilk, are indeed intertwined with social changes and concurrent hate movements throughout the continent—but to my AmericanStudier’s mind the loudest echoes are of deeply American narratives about who is and is not a “pure” or “real” American, narratives which have been and continue to be constructed in direct response both to immigration and to racial and cultural mixture. And narratives, yes, that represent precisely a crucial inspiration for much of my own attempt to define American identity precisely through the concept of such mixtures, to make them the most “pure” version of who and what we have been and are.
If I had to guess, I’d say that my Facebook conversant would argue that the best, and perhaps the only, way to respond to somebody like Geller is to publicly attack and shame her, to put her bigotry and vitriol on display for all to see—and to make clear at the same time how deeply interconnected she and they are to the current Republican party (note the photo of her with House Majority Whip Eric Cantor in that linked article). Again, he might well have a point. But to me, responding by first noting the deep-seated national narratives to which her bigotry and vitriol connect, and then positing some alternative and more genuinely communal narratives in their place, can and, I still believe, will ultimately allow us to move into a future where we all stand a better shot of winning, maybe not immediate prizes of power or influence but fundamental and more meaningful ones of equality and hope. At the end of the day, I’m going to keep making that point, here and everywhere else. More tomorrow,
PS. Four links to start with:
1) A story on Geller: http://thinkprogress.org/security/2011/08/01/284011/pam-geller-race-mixing-breivik-right/
2) A collection of great, and very broadly accessible and meaningful, resources and documents on race and identity in America: http://www.pbs.org/race/007_Resources/007_01-search.php?orderby=title&getonly=all&searchheader=All%20resources&queryfrom=url&page=8
3) Speaking of public conversations, the first posts are up on the NEASA pre-conference blog, at http://neasaconference.blogspot.com. Check ‘em out, and please feel free to add your voice and ideas into the mix through the Comments there (or to send me such responses if you’d rather they be posted by someone else)!
4) OPEN: What do you think?