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My New Book!

Friday, July 11, 2014

July 11, 2014: ALA Follow Ups: The ALA and the FRC

[In late May, I had the chance to make a quick trip to Washington, DC, to attend a portion of the American Literature Association’s annual conference. I wasn’t able to stay as long as I would have liked, but did have a chance to attend some very interesting panels while I was there. So this week I’ll highlight a few of them, as well as a couple other contexts for the conference. If you were there, I’d love to hear your takeaways for a crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the jokes, the ideals, and the realities of a strange juxtaposition.
In the same hotel as ALA, and often in immediately adjacent rooms and spaces, was some sort of convention for the Family Research Council, James Dobson, Gary Bauer, and Tony Perkins’ evangelical, conservative political and social organization. That led to lots of jokes from ALA attendees about comparisons between the two organizations, and since I just linked to a Southern Poverty Law Center page on the FRC, you can guess that I made a few of those jokes myself. (“We all have our sacred texts,” I noted; “Mine just happen to be by Chesnutt, Faulkner, and Silko.”) Since I find the FRC, at the leadership level at least, to be neither Christian nor conservative according to any meaningful definition of those terms, I don’t feel badly about making those jokes; but at the same time, I recognize that they’re not the ideal perspective to take on this coincidental juxtaposition.
To put it bluntly, if I’m serious about trying to produce public AmericanStudies scholarship—and I am—then I have to be willing and able to talk to audiences, individual and communal, whose perspective on any number of issues and on America itself is different from my own. I hope and believe that some such audiences have been part of my year of book talks, and that the talks have felt respectful and engaging even to those audience members who might disagree with many or even all of my ideas. But those would be random such audience engagements, unplanned and haphazard and difficult to assess—here was the opposite, a chance to connect with a built-in, clearly identified audience who are overtly interested in American identity and community and yet hold such distinct, contrasting perspectives on those topics from mine. I’m not saying I should have walked into their prayer breakfast and started declaiming (even if I would have been allowed to do so); but rather that I could have easily stopped an individual or two with the FRC badge and asked if we could talk for a bit about both of our perspectives.
So that would have been the ideal—but I have to be honest, I literally couldn’t and can’t imagine actually doing so. Does that make me cowardly, or unwilling to put my words into action? Maybe. Does it instead make me not a total loud-mouthed jerk? Also maybe. But what I’d really say it makes me is realistic about one of the most frustrating but undeniable elements to 21st century American life: the way in which different communities exist in almost entirely different realities. How can any individual shift in historical understanding make a dent in a distinct reality and the worldview that comes from it? How can any nuanced, subtle change in perspective compete with such defining ideas and ideologies? I simply don’t know—but if I’m going to keep moving forward with these public scholarly goals, I’d better keep thinking about possible answers.
Crowd-sourced follow ups this weekend,
PS. So one more time: were you at ALA? If so, what stood out to you?


  1. I worry, and always have worried, that "American Identity" is a subjective term. And while it is subjective, as all historical perspectives are, it's the idea that some subjectivities are more valid than others. That while I consider myself a "flaming liberal" others could easily put me in a conservative camp. My 10th grade history teacher, who was an is a misogynistic jerk made a great point one day inbetween bad-mouthing title 9 and pointing out that women destroyed the single-income economy. He said that all scales must be put in proper perspective, that my views of gender equality (and neutrality, as I have been very lucky to work with some brave young people whose gender of the mind and body conflict have helped me re-term it) are actually quite conservative, as I see a citizen's rights as paramount. The idea that the government would want to ban abortion is very liberal when looked at through the lens of government invading on the individual's freedoms and rights.
    With that in mind I worry that our nation's "trend" towards fundamentalism (which is really what this all boils down to, and I am speaking as a proud culturally-catholic person) will allow a narration of American Identity that is trying to define the terms liberal and conservative to their own standards and remove that sliding scale that my history teacher (whose name I can't recall, how's that for respect?) spoke of.
    But the biggest fear is that this new 'historiography' denies the most important fact that any historian must be aware of at all times. They are being subjective. And through that acknowledgement of subjectivity comes a larger tolerance to contrasting ideas, theories, accounts and philosophies. But without this little reminder that "we can't keep ourselves out of the narration so at least admit you are throwing yourself in the narration" we lose that goal of objectivity.
    I worry about my students growing up in a country with a very strange definition of itself, but what worries me more is that they are growing less and less aware that those coming up with the definition are doing so with an agenda.