Tuesday, November 13, 2012
November 13, 2012: Public Scholarship, Part Two
[This week marks AmericanStudies’ two-year anniversary (I began the blog, not coincidentally, right after the 2010 elections). So I’m going to celebrate that occasion by highlighting five posts in which I’ve considered some of the reasons, possibilities, and issues related to public scholarship, blogging, and related work. I’d love to hear your thoughts on those questions, or any other 21st century forms and conversations, for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post!]
On what we think about our past and identity, and why it matters so much.
Today I focus on two very political stories that feel too relevant to what I’m trying to do here—as well as my ideal goals for my second book—not to engage with them. The first is a somewhat old story and one in response to which (so to speak) I’ve already written, but one that bears repeating nonetheless: Dan Severson, a candidate for Minnesota Secretary of State in the 2010 election (I can’t bring myself to find out whether he won, although I fear the worst), said in October that “There is no such thing” as the separation of church and state, that “it just does not exist, and it does not exist in America for a purpose, because we are a Christian nation.” I can’t say that Mr. Severson needs to read my earlier post on the Treaty of Tripoli, because I have a feeling he’s a lost cause; but certainly the need to counter a position like his with historical details about (for example) that Treaty, to add some AmericanStudies knowledge to the conversations in contrast to that kind of rank fiction or ignorance, makes a compelling argument that a blog like this has a role to play in our contemporary conversations.
Even more meaningful than his nonsense about the separation of church and state, however, is Severson’s final and more sweeping assertion that “we are a Christian nation.” I argue explicitly in the conclusion to that second book that what was at stake in the 2008 election, and what remains most significantly at stake in (for example) debates over President Obama’s American-ness, is a set of debates over America’s core, founding, fundamental identity; more specifically and centrally, in relation to Severson’s quote, I believe that the great majority of positions held by the contemporary right can be boiled down to corollaries of such a belief about America’s Christian (and Anglo, English-speaking, etc) origins. Along those lines, former Speaker of the House, current pundit, and failed presidential candidate Newt Gingrich argued in a March 2011 speech delivered at an evangelical Texas mega-church that “I have two grandchildren — Maggie is 11, Robert is 9, [and] I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they're my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.”
The responses to Gingrich’s quote that I’ve read have understandably focused on the tortured logic by which a secular atheist country could be dominated by radical Islamists. But to my mind, the more significant argumentative ideas here are the last and the first—Gingrich’s explicitly Christian vision of “what it once meant to be an American,” and his desire to pass down that fictitious heritage to a future generation of young Americans. On the latter general idea Newt and I agree—there’s a reason why I put pictures of my boys on each version of this blog, and a reason why the cover of my book features a photograph of young American schoolchildren (of a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds); the stakes of these debates over what we are and have always been are most definitely tied to the future, and especially to what future Americans recognize as our shared and communal and core identities. And I would add the vitally important idea, also at the heart of my book, that America has always been defined not only by multiple cultures and peoples and languages and religions—the emphasis of the multicultural historical narrative which often counters the Christian one, and with which I agree in many ways but which still defines cultures as individual and static and at least somewhat separate—but also by the cross-cultural intersections and combinations and hybrid transformations of that community.
What’s the difference between those two narratives, the multicultural one and my cross-cultural idea? I would answer that by pointing to another recent story, the census results in which Hispanic Americans constitute roughly a sixth of the nation’s population. In the Christian narrative, this is a dire trend, a sign that things are indeed changing and for the worse; in the multicultural narrative, it would I believe likewise be seen as a change, just a much more positive one (toward increasing diversity, for example). Yet in my cross-cultural vision of America, one that includes Spanish American arrivals and settlers (in Florida, in Texas, in the Southwest and California) as first and founding Americans alongside, in fact in cross-cultural mixture with, the Puritans in Massachusetts and the French in the upper Midwest and the Catholics in Maryland and the Dutch in New Amsterdam and African slaves in Virginia and Native Americans everywhere and many others besides, those census results merely highlight how much 21st century America stands, like our President, as a descendent of what we have always been, of what has always defined our most unique and significant community and identity. More tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?11/13 Memory Day nominee: Buck O’Neil, the Negro Leagues baseball star, Civil Rights activist, and all-around amazing American legend.