Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Paranoid Style Never Goes Out of Style

I risk beating a dead horse here, but it's still deflating to see Richard Hofstadter's "Paranoid Style in American Politics" cited over and over again by present-day pundits and writers. Yesterday on Salon, Laura Miller proclaimed that the essay "never seems to get old." The current up-swing in anti-Muslim sentiment, she writes, is another manifestation of the paranoia cycle Hofstadter describes. Journalist Will Bunch's new book on the Tea Party movement similarly relies on Hofstadter in its analysis of the movement's rank-and-file.

I am not dismissing "The Paranoid Style" as a piece of work -- it is an excellent essay. Furthermore, I admire its author a lot. Hofstadter was the kind of public intellectual that is rare today, unfortunately. But working historians moved beyond his psychologically-centered analysis of the Right decades ago. Why? First, the value of Freudian analysis has dimmed considerably in the humanities. Let's just leave that issue alone for now. More importantly, scholars like Hofstadter had a particular way of looking at American history that has fallen out of favor within the profession. He was among the "Consensus school" of historians of the 50s and early 60s who believed the country was on a historical path toward becoming an ever-more just, tolerant, and liberal society. Its recent triumph over fascism was a validation of that belief, and the nation's conflict with Communism would bear it out once again. What the right-wing anticommunist fringe of Hofstadter's era didn't appreciate was that Communism was dangerous to the nation only if it failed to live up to its liberal democratic ideals, enshrined in a post-New Deal political order. As the United States became a more equitable society, such conservatives lashed out at the process of leveling out of their own personal insecurities.

The problem with this mode of analysis, as scholars like Michael Rogin, Leo Ribuffo, Michael Kazin, Alan Brinkley, and a whole host of contemporary historians of post-1945 conservatism have pointed out, is its assumption that the nation truly is on a developmental arc in the first place, let alone a liberal democratic one.  It obscures powerful contra-narratives created by conservatives out of their own understanding of American history, which have co-existed with those of liberals for decades. These are the narratives about personal freedom, limited government, and human imperfection that the Tea Party or other hard-Right conservatives are tapping into to attack the Obama Administration. These narratives include tacitly (or actively) racist and classist interpretations of American history and individualism, echoes of the Reagan-era critique of Cadillac-driving Welfare Queens. But these narratives are constructed not out of anxiety, but from the impressions and personal experiences that form the world views of everyone, no matter their politics.

The reason to dispense with Hofstadter "status anxiety" crutch is because it encourages progressives to see the Tea Party and their ilk as freaks. They are not a spectacle at the end of the American political boardwalk for the rest of us (who know so much better) to gawk at. If we read American history from outside the friendly confines of the Consensus School, we discover something very different indeed about progressive or liberal values -- that the belief in racial and gender equality, economic justice, an active government that intervenes on behalf of individual rights and the greater good, and a social safety net are the outlier ideas through much of our existence. In many ways, we are the freaks.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Does America Need to Commemorate 9/11?

On Saturday, college football coaches whose schools have shoe contracts with German-based Adidas will don specially-designed shirts and hats featuring the Stars and Stripes to commemorate the 9th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Notre Dame, not to be undone, will also sport special patriotic logos on the back of players' helmets as they take on Michigan and its star-spangled coaching staff. The Cincinnati Reds, meanwhile, will commemorate the anniversary with a Navy SEAL team demonstration -- but only after honoring the anniversary of Pete Rose's record-breaking 4,192nd hit.

The folks at a local Lubbock, Texas bank decided to tone down their usual 9/11 tribute this year and will plant only 1,000 American flags in a local field instead of the usual 3,000 - approximately one for every victim of the attacks. "We wanted to get away from the sadness of a memorial and make it sort of a field where you can come and remember our loved ones, police officers, firefighters, veterans," a bank employee explained.

So that's where we are nine years later. While the gesture of burning books draws all the attention, the more mundane, if not outright militaristic commemorations continue on. So, too, do the claims and counterclaims of politicizing the anniversary, or sullying its memory by not politicizing it in just the right way through the requisite spirit of detached reverence.

Like the public commemorations of the attacks on Pearl Harbor in the 40s and 50s, the nation is compelled to make some public acknowledgment of enormous human losses. 9/11 shares with Pearl Harbor Day the sense as well of simmering revenge. Because the attacks were perpetrated by foreigners, it is a moment to reflect on what they did to us. In this way, the historical memory of 9/11, just like Pearl Harbor, has become inherently political. They could do this to us because people in charge failed in some way -- either to fully appreciate the strategic ramifications of the American oil embargo on Japan, or to apprehend an international criminal syndicate on a suicide mission. They became inherently political also as a rallying cry to avoid similar calamity the next time, even in vastly different international contexts with different foreign players.

But loss and revenge do not a patriotic holiday make. I couldn't even tell you the date of the Battle of Antietam or the sinking of the Maine. We remember the Alamo as a John Wayne movie. And we no longer commemorate Pearl Harbor Day. In due time, September 11th may become just one more historical factoid morning TV show anchors mention before kicking it over to the weather guy.

I actually want that to happen. No important message about national community will come out of Rich Rodriguez wearing a red-white-and-blue shirt. It will simply acknowledge that people died and other people are fighting because of it. Perhaps it will go a step further and celebrate heroic American manhood in the form of firefighters, cops, and soldiers, and oblige fellow citizens only to offer their ill-defined "support" for such figures. But these kinds of gestures, far from the scenes of the smoldering wreckage of that Tuesday morning, merely enable those who pour their own political meaning onto the day and appropriate the site of the World Trade Towers as a perverse hallowed ground -- a site too valuable to leave free of commercial redevelopment it must be acknowledged, as Jack Shafer brilliantly does. Most of America should just let it go.

Letting go will be especially hard for the New York City area (where I grew up) and DC (where I live now). Hundreds of people in my native Morris County, New Jersey, died in the attacks, and many people in the DC area knew Pentagon victims personally - like my wife's old youth soccer coach. I'll never forget watching F-15's circle over my girlfriend's (now wife's) apartment in Arlington at low altitude weeks later, guarding Washington from further attack. Nor will I forget the different meaning the American flags seemed to have on the overpasses and in people's yards in New Jersey than in central Virginia, where I was living at the time. The Jersey flags seemed so much more personal. They said "we are the America you attacked -- the lovers of a vibrant, brash, and heterogeneous megalopolis. And we are still here. And in our sorrow, we will endure." Elsewhere, the flag seemed so much more jingoistic, a flag-by-Toby Keith, "Let's Roll" banner. Still, even in the cities that suffered anger persists and will persist. In heading to the ATM machine in Providence two August ago I was surprised by the sign "Closed for Victory Day" on the door. The state of Rhode Island, its proud maritime tradition leading so many of its young men to watery graves in World War II, still commemorated the defeat of the Japanese. It did so, however, not on the day Japan surrendered but on the anniversary of the obliteration of Nagasaki. Some grudges last a long time.

As I was researching the commemoration of Armistice Day in the 1920s and 30s for my book, something an American Legionnaire in Iowa wrote about the day having a complicated meaning for veterans struck me in this vein of thought. He mentioned that for the veteran, Armistice Day had two meanings -- a public celebration of victory, and a more somber, personal, and private reflection on the comrades lost. The two could not be reconciled in a way the public would understand, at least in the American context of World War I in comparison to say, France, or Germany or Great Britain, whose losses were astronomically higher. Those personally affected by 9/11, even those who are simply natives to the metropolises attacked, probably feel the same way. Their local-level commemorations have an important meaning to their communities. Their dead remain absent. But the rehashed patriotism of the rest of the country does little any more to foster national unity and simply enables the further politicization of the event --as veterans of the Great War were careful to do themselves annually on November 11th.  

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

On Burning the Qu'ran

I hate controversies like the one surrounding that idiot's desire to violate the Gainsville, FL fire code on the anniversary of 9/11. Unsurprisingly, that idiot displayed cultish tendencies in his last attempt to explain the divine nature of the Universe, making his sudden prominence in America life all the more depressing. It's not every day somebody ministering to a congregation roughly the size of one of my old discussion sections figures out a way to get condemned by the Secretary of State, the US Attorney General, and a wartime theater commander. I just want this guy and his stupid Grover Cleveland mustache to go away.

By injecting himself into the national -- and now international -- consciousness, the good minister rekindles tired old debates. Muslims around the world get to probe once again the unfathomable depths of their victimhood at the hands of disrespecting westerners. Americans debate whether such a fiery gesture is consistent with their ever-shifting standards of First Amendment rights. Essentially, that question is a debate about civil liberties by proxy since only a tiny fraction of Americans really care about the thing getting burned, unlike other objects like like the American Flag or the Bible. (Perhaps this is an inopportune time to recall Secretary Clinton's campaign-season support for the flag-burning amendment.) The rest of us can battle over the depths of our outrage over this affront to the nation's poorly-understood tradition of religious tolerance.

Some Americans don't feel outrage as much as smug satisfaction, pointing out that the act of burning the Qu'ran in many countries, even European ones, would be a criminal offense --never mind that the United States, too, has a long history of blasphemy law. Other conservatives have opposed to burning not because it will increase the very real threat of violence against Americans overseas but rather because it will heighten the very unlikely risk the nation faces from advocates of sharia law here.

It's true, conservative politicians so eager to condemn the "9/11 Mosque" have been reticent on the Qu'ran immolation. But let's not act so surprised. One of their media darlings just channeled Billy Graham, circa 1952, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, calling on America to return to a Judeo-Christian god that dispenses their natural rights. I've written before about how Newt Gingrich and Jim DeMint have said the exact same thing, a sentiment that has echoed through the conservative movement since before the Goldwater campaign of '64. This idea is not any less of a politicization of religion than sharia. Each sees human nature as inherently corrupt and try to limit individual behavior according in their own way. While differences in culture in our modern era make these limits remarkably dissimilar, the world view is nearly identical: a special relationship between god and man determined through a prophetic intermediary. Each see themselves as the one true faith, as a message that must conquer the world, and this verisimilitude drives the conflict of those obsessed with their own righteousness. For Christian conservatives, Islam is "of the devil" rather than Buddhism or Hinduism because it is on the same mission and it seems unencumbered by methods Christianity abandoned centuries ago -- because of the very same values they now say are theological in nature. The debate we should be having is not how to add one more religious faith into the national tolerance hopper but whether a divine conception of rights and obligations in any form are useful at all.  

When blue-collar pride became identity politics

When blue-collar pride became identity politics

Read past the book summary to Joan Walsh's conversation with Cornell labor historian Jefferson Cowie, which is very interesting.

Fun Fact! I was once on a conference panel with Professor Cowie. My paper was described by the panel chair -- one of the fathers of labor history -- as "plausible."