[This week I will be highlighting five of the year’s most significant events, and noting some of the ways an AmericanStudier might contextualize and analyze them. This is the fifth and final post in that series.]
The fall’s most significant political and social news story resonates powerfully across many of our most tumultuous historical moments.
If the Penn State scandal came out of nowhere to dominate many of the fall’s headlines, the season’s other most prominent story, the protests of the Occupy Wall Street and corollary Occupy movements, represented instead a continuation and culmination of many national trends and issues. I considered some of those issues, and their AmericanStudies connections, in back to back October posts on Gilded Ages (then and now): my October 13th post on Robber Barons and the Gospel of Wealth; and my October 14th post on the narrative of the self-made man. No analysis of the Occupy movement specifically or of 21st century issues of inequality, wealth, and competing economic narratives more generally can afford not to engage with all that the late 19th century can tell us about such moments and conversations in American politics and society.
The Occupy movement isn’t just about its focal themes and subjects, though—it’s also a very complex and conflicted but without question significant continuation of national legacies of protest, civil disobedience, passive (yet also sometimes violent) resistance, authoritarian responses, and so on. As I noted in this Thanksgiving-week post, such protests can and in the aftermath of the UC Davis violence did bring out some of the best of American identity and community. But they can also bring out some of our most fundamental and longstanding divisions, as illustrated by the frequent descriptions of the Occupy protesters as (literally) dirty slackers who just need to get a job—descriptions that often echo quite directly such 1960s critiques of the anti-war and hippie movements as Ronald Reagan’s nasty and disturbingly bigoted definition of a hippie as someone who “looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane, and smells like Cheetah.” Even in the Gilded Age, no single event was more polarizing than the 1886 May Day Haymarket protests and bombing, and the public arrest and trial of “anarchists” that followed them.
These economic, social, and political fault-lines—and protests that both reflect and deepen such divisions—go back even further than the Gilded Age, however. One of the most significant events of George Washington’s presidency, and thus of the era in which the new nation’s political and social identity was beginning to coalesce, was Washington’s use of military force to quell the Whiskey Rebellion, a complex economic and social protest that echoed the Revolution in many ways; the event also highlighted administration’s own parallel fault-line, with Alexander Hamilton advocating for the military response and Thomas Jefferson opposing it. And a century earlier, Bacon’s Rebellion likewise illustrated and exacerbated 17th century divisions between landed gentry and indentured servants and slaves (among other communities) in early colonial Virginia. Neither of those rebellions is identical to the Occupy Movement, to the hippies, to the Bonus Army protests about which I blogged in this post, nor to any other moment of social unrest—but I would argue that we cannot understand any one of them outside of the context of this long legacy of American protest.
What significant events will 2012 bring? The future is the hardest thing to predict—but I can promise I’ll do my part to put them in AmericanStudies contexts and conversations. Two weekend posts—a recap and a 2012 teaser—coming soon,
PS. Any 2011 events you’d highlight and respond to?12/30 Memory Day nominee: Bo Diddley, one of the most influential 20th century musicians and an artist whose style and works provide through-lines between all of the truly American musical genres (blues, jazz, rock and roll, and more).
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