[On April 28th, 1967, Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the U.S. army and was stripped of his heavyweight title. So this week, I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for moments and acts of civil disobedience, leading up to Friday’s post on Ali’s activism.]
On civil disobedience, public scholarship, and where the two forms of activism intersect.
For much of this blog’s six and a half year history, when I wrote about scholarship and political activism in this space I tended to treat the two things, as I did in this meta-post, as distinct and even at times (to my mind) opposed options for any AmericanStudier (or other academic). I certainly still believe that to be the case when it comes to classroom teaching; espousing a particular political party or candidate in the classroom (which, as I wrote in this post nearly five years ago, I believe that very few of us teachers do, despite cultural stereotypes of indoctrinating liberal professors that have recently found new life at the highest levels of education debates) is for me anathema to complex, contextual, historical and cultural and literary and analytical and above all student-centered course work. Yet in a scholar’s work and career outside of the classroom, it’s entirely possible to be both a committed political activist and (what I have increasingly come to define as) the best kind of public scholar, a fact that’s exemplified by my friend and English and AmericanStudies colleague, Wellesley College Professor Lawrence (Larry) Rosenwald.
Larry’s particular kind of political activism has brought him a (relatively) good deal of attention, both because it’s unusual and because it’s at least potentially illegal: he is a tax resister, and specifically a war tax resister, an American citizen who refuses each year (at least those years when the US is fighting a war) to pay the portion of his taxes that he has calculated go to support our defense and military spending. Yet while these actions and choices are certainly individual, political, and in response to contemporary issues and realities, they are also, as Larry argues with great nuance and impressiveness in this essay, deeply scholarly and analytical, connected to a line of American philosophy and writing that extends back at least to Henry David Thoreau and his practice and ideas of civil disobedience (about which more later this week). That essay of Larry’s is in fact a model for me of public AmericanStudies scholarship, a piece that does full justice to an American literary figure and historical moment and philosophical and political narrative, while at the same time foregrounding and engaging directly with Larry’s own and our national contemporary connections to all of those focal points.
That activism and essay would be more than enough to merit Larry a place in this week’s series, but they’re far from the only, nor even necessarily the central, impressive public scholarly works of his. Larry has also made at least as valuable and critical a contribution to our national identity and conversations with his book Multilingual America: Language and the Making of American Literature (2008): that text acts as a very thorough and comprehensive survey and analysis of the multilingual canons and traditions that have been part of our national literature and identity from their origins; and at the same time makes a compelling case for redefining both that literature and our identity precisely through multilingualism. In other words, the book has a great deal to offer to students, literary critics, cultural historians, interested AmericanStudiers outside of the academy, and educators who work with multilingual student populations, among many other potential audiences; public scholarship, as I have tried to articulate in this space on multiple occasions (including this post), entails not only certain kinds of focal points and methodologies but also and at least as importantly broad and deep connections to a variety of audience members and communities, and Larry’s book, like his work in general, fits that definition perfectly.
I suppose my main takeaway here, and (I have realized more and more over these six years) one of my main purposes for this blog, is that public scholarship is on a core level inherently political activism. That’s true when it aligns directly with overt activism, as with Larry’s performance and analysis of civil disobedience; and is true when it comprises instead a sustained illustration of and argument for a distinct and crucial vision of our national and cultural identity, as with Larry’s book. But even if you disagree entirely with those points of mine, Larry’s multifaceted AmericanStudies work is exemplary and well worth our communal awareness and response. Next civil disobedience post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other contexts for civil disobedience you’d highlight?
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