On the perils and benefits of complexity and nuance for public scholars.
I once had a pretty unpleasant Facebook-thread argument—in the immediate context of the summer 2011 debt ceiling nonsense and President Obama’s responses to it—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 yesterday’s 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 this blog began I have, I will admit, included more contemporary and political topics among my focal points here than I had initially planned; 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 yesterday’s post, and as I certainly 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 another 2011 news story 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 second book specifically. In this story, the despicable anti-Muslim bigot Pamela Geller, about whom I wrote in my July 25th and July 26th, 2011 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) 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 news story). 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.
Crowd-sourced post tomorrow,
PS. So what do you think? Responses to any of the week’s posts and questions, or any related issues, for that weekend post?11/16 Memory Day nominee: W.C. Handy, the factory worker and son of ex-slaves who became one of America’s most pioneering and significant ragtime and blues musicians and composers.
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