The Public (Anti-)Intellectual

By now, I’d imagine that you’ve read (or read about) Nicholas Kristof’s column on how academics just don’t know how to talk to regular folks. Kristof criticizes academics for being out of touch, overly specialized bloviators who are more interested in quantitative analysis and technocratic jargon than reaching out to the public. I don’t really want to do a point-by-point analysis, not least because my friend and CUNY colleague Corey Robin did such a terrific job a few days ago on his blog. Corey’s analysis gets to the heart of the issue: there are, in fact, first-rate writers putting out excellent analysis on-line, but they’re not neoliberal blowhards like Kristof who have the bully pulpit of the NYT.

Moreover, as several people have pointed out on Twitter, a major way that academics speak to “the public” is that we teach. I don’t know how many of my students read Nick Kristof on a regular basis, but thousands of them have studied  with me over the past 20 years that I’ve been teaching. And a significant part of my work is encouraging my students to think of themselves as intellectual actors rather than just recipients of knowledge.

But beyond the specifics of whether academics do or don’t have anything to say in the public square, I’m more interested in the theme itself, which seems to reappear every now and then. In a nutshell, it’s this: oh you eggheaded academics! Why can’t you talk to the common person about interesting things? This is hardly a new development. Richard Hofstadter wrote the groundbreaking Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in 1966, for God’s sake, and he traced complaining about people who think they’re smarter than everyone else back to the very beginnings of the American Republic.

I’d argue, though, that the culture’s highly ambivalent relationship to knowledge production is not just about intellectualism but a horror of ambivalence itself. In his 1837 Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard University, on the theme of “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson (no plain-spoken pragmatist himself) railed against scholasticism and leveled the same charge of monasticism that Kristof lobbed. “Instead of Man Thinking,” Emerson argued,” we have the bookworm. Hence, the book-learned class, who value books, as such; not as related to nature and the human constitution… Hence, the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomaniacs of all degrees.” The problem was not just with bookwormdom, though — it was the feminizing of the American intellectual class, which abjured”the rough, spontaneous conversation of men.” Even as refined and complex a thinker as Emerson recognized that the nuance, specificity, and self-consciousness of responsible intellectual work conflicted with the increasing identification in the nineteenth century of masculinity with spontaneity, physicality, and certainty.

Anti-intellectualism, after all, is a refusal to dwell in the unknown and the unknowable; the hallmark of the most anti-intellectual US presidents, from Andrew Jackson to Teddy Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush has been declarativeness. Jackson’s famous (if possibly apocryphal) response to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall’s rebuff of Indian removal – “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it” — is the archetypal argument of physicality against intellect. Marshall might be handing down decisions from the empyrean heights of the Supreme Court, Jackson reasoned, but he wouldn’t last a minute on the ground against the guns of the US Army, which, of course, carried out the brutal removal of the Cherokees and other indigenous people in violation of the Court’s mandate.

More recently, military violence has alternated with a kind of cultural violence to clear away any kind of doubt or questioning of public policy. Reagan’s invocation of “welfare queens” in his 1976 presidential campaign wasn’t just deceptive (although it certainly was that as well). Rather, it was Jacksonian in its certainty and its willingness to victimize a population in order to achieve a political goal. And W’s most characteristic bon mots about the “axis of evil,” “mission accomplished,” and “either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists,” borrow directly from Reagan’s playbook.

In this context, it’s hardly surprising that the New York Times, home of such czars of certainty as Kristof and Thomas Friedman, didn’t run an obituary of one of the finest public intellectuals of the post-1945 era, Stuart Hall. While news outlets such as Al-JazeeraThe Guardian, NPR, and even that bastion of Thatcherism The Telegraph, issued lengthy analyses of Hall’s impact on not just  British intellectual life but leftism, anti-colonialism, and liberation movements worldwide, the Times was conspicuously silent. Hall’s legacy, to my mind, is not just his immense contribution to analyses of culture, media, and representation, or his commitment to public intellectual discourse, characterized by his work with the Open University. What I found most remarkable about Hall, and most impressive, was his willingness to change his mind, to listen to criticism, to open up conversations in new directions. That is, his openness to not being right all the time.

One of my favourite essays by Hall is “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies” (not the grabbiest title, I’ll admit). Throughout, Hall argues that cultural studies was above all a process of learning, change, and contestation. As far as Hall was concerned, cultural studies’ best work was done when the people who thought they knew what they were doing were proven wrong — by feminism, by postcolonialism, by analyses of race. In his words,
“the so called unfolding of cultural studies was interrupted by a break, by real ruptures, by exterior forces; the interruption, as it were, of new ideas, which decentered what looked like the accumulating practice of the work.”

For Stuart Hall, the urgency of action could not, should not trump the centrality of critique, ambivalence, uncertainty. This is the exact opposite of the Kristof method, in which rescuing “victims” is more important than understanding the processes of victimization, in which intellectual care plays second fiddle to unreflective pronunciamentos.  Perhaps if the Times had printed an obit for Hall, they might have included his analysis of what it means to be a public intellectual engaged with real political struggle: “The notion of a political practice where criticism is postponed until the day after the barricades precisely defines the politics which I always refused.”

 

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Lavender Lake redux

In the wake of the disastrous chemical spill in West Virginia and the crazy weather we’ve been having across the US over the past month, I’ve been thinking a lot about climate change and pollution. I was chatting with the folks down at Revolution Books the other day, and one of them said “the only way to reverse the destruction of the planet is revolution!” Well, fair enough, but I’m increasingly convinced that right now we’re living with decisions made more than a century ago, when pollution ran unchecked. My mother grew up in London in the 1940s and 1950s, and I remember her telling me about the  pea-soup fogs she grew up with, especially Great Smog of 1952, which enveloped the city and killed about 12,000 people from respiratory illness. A lot of that air pollution was caused by coal-burning fires, which various Clean Air Acts did away with; when I was growing up in the 1970s, the London air was remarkably clear.

These kinds of cause-and-effect environmental measures are pretty easy to see: reduce the pollutants and you get less crap in the air, people can breathe more easily, and everyone doesn’t end up coated in particulates. Essentially, that’s the difference between London and Los Angeles (or, as some researchers from UCLA found, even between different neighbourhoods in LA) or, to push the contrast harder, between London and Beijing. And, as we’re finding, what pollutes in Beijing doesn’t stay in Beijing, but finds its way around the globe, with the added irony that this pollution is in significant part a result of factories in China making crap that would otherwise have been manufactured, along with the attendant particulates, in Europe and the US.

But what we’re looking at now in terms of climate change has long and deep roots. As this terrific website by the American Institute of Physics shows, we’re living with the results of events that started off in the nineteenth century and then just kept going. More importantly, we’re having to deal with the aftermath of an idea common to the beginnings of industrialization: that the damage we do is short-term and reversible. Of course, the discovery of climate change came pretty shortly after the discovery of the fact of various ice ages, which people had nothing to do with.  And everyone recognized that major environmental events like volcanoes had commensurate effects on the weather. But, as the AIP argues pretty convincingly, there was a significant lag between doing the damage and recognizing it. Soot from factories in Western Europe found its way onto the Alps, causing a glacial retreat of over half a mile between 1860 and 1930, even though the planet was going through the Little Ice Age, which caused temperatures to drop throughout Europe by almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit.

An image like this does a pretty good job of showing that the planet’s been going through climate change steadily (if unevenly) for quite a while.

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But these numbers don’t include other kinds of equally common pollution from the nineteenth century, whose legacy we’re still living with now, water pollution in particular. Before the Clean Water Act of 1972, Philadelphia’s sewer system dumped raw and partially treated sewage into the Delaware River. As this website shows, creating a sewage system in the city may have spared Philly residents the horrors of typhus and cholera, but it also took over creeks and tributaries to establish sewage lines, and before filtration the sewers did little more than remove waste from homes and redistribute it into various rivers and streams.  Nearer to home for me, the Gowanus Canal was a nasty soup of effluvia — sewage, industrial waste, and paint factory run-off, within a few decades of its construction in 1869 (apparently, it was so disgusting and weird-looking, it was nicknamed “Lavender Lake.” I had no idea).  It’s hard to know what people thought would be the end result of all this dumping. It’s possible that they just didn’t care, or that they assumed that cities had always been repositories of different kinds of filth, and this was just the most recent incarnation of that. Certainly, the focus of the American Transcendentalists (taking a leaf from the book of their British and German Romanticist predecessors) on the purity and sacredness of nature allowed ruling class Americans to essentially write off urban and industrial areas as inevitably tainted, and focus instead on the unspoiled parts of the landscape. Plus, as a recent article by Jonathan Rosen about the extinction of the Passenger pigeon suggests, white Americans just assumed there’d be more of whatever they screwed up available: more land, more water, more resources.

It’s the combination of these beliefs that seem to endure today, with a nice dose of neoliberal individualism and climate denialism thrown in for good measure. In the late 1920s, when Monsanto starting dumping PCBs into the Hudson, it’s not clear that anyone thought that the river couldn’t just clean itself. Strip mining and mountaintop removal were accompanied by assurances that once they were finished, coal companies could put the landscape back together again: no harm, no foul (and lest we think that strip mining is a thing of the past, this article shows that it’s still kicking).  Likewise fracking in Pennsylvania and, if gas companies have their way, New York State.

My kids are thrilled for the snow day they’ll be getting tomorrow. Taking the longer view, I’m less inclined to see smooth sledding.

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“Intolerance and Fearfulness”

I suppose it’s time to talk about partisanship and acrimony here, no? We’re a week into the government shutdown, and tempers are flaring. And needless to say, people are starting to talk that history talk. Here at The Longest View, we approve of taking a historical perspective, but most discussions don’t go much further back than the 1995 Clinton/Gingrich shutdown, or at most back to the 1980s.

At the same time,  I’ve noticed a desire, especially on the part of the right wing of the Republican Party to enlist the Founding Fathers as spiritual supporters of the Congressional stalemate (Newt Gingrich‘s take is especially bracing). In fact, in the years of the early Republic, the question wasn’t whether the government was going to shut down, but whether the country itself was going to hold together.

The political conflict that simmered during Washington’s presidency, but that the reverence in which Washington was held kept under wraps during his two terms, erupted in the 1790s: private and public discourse was, in the words of John R. Howe, characterized by a “spirit of intolerance and fearfulness that seems quite amazing,”  and partisan distrust was rampant.

Once Washington was out of office and John Adams took over the presidency, the rancor grew exponentially.  By the mid-1790s, disunion was discussed openly; and as soon as threats to secede became part of the national conversation, it seemed increasingly likely. Sectional antipathy between North and South grew and every crisis brought with it talk of impeachment, from the signing of the Jay Treaty in 1794 to the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. Among all social classes, a furious debate raged over the legacy of the revolution. Those who had been radicalized by the struggle for independence challenged the social and political elites, claiming that they violated the spirit of republican democracy.

The anti-federalist, populist Democratic-Republican societies that formed between 1793 and 1794 (and became the foundation of Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican party) characterized the years after the revolution as a tragic betrayal, in which the the democratic promise of the “Spirit of ’76″ had been corrupted by too much money and power concentrated in too few hands.  The repeated theme of these clubs was that the “lower sort” – artisans, labourers, and small farmers – were not reaping the benefits of democracy that the new nation promised.  And while there was certainly overlap between the grievances voiced by the Democratic-Republicans and the participants in both the Whiskey and John Fries’s Rebellions, and both groups emerged around the western frontier of Pennsylvania, Democratic-Republican societies were not primarily organized around economic issues. Rather, they challenged the political corruption that they believed had come to infect American life. Ironically, as US democratic process became more routine, it seemed increasingly under threat.

The antipathy of the 1790s dissipated after Jefferson’s election in 1800 (although there were significant fears that Jefferson’s inauguration would lead to secession for real, fears that resurfaced in the debates over the War of 1812). At no point, though, did either Federalists or Republicans argue that government itself was the problem. These men actively hated each other. They spread scurrilous rumours about each other, drank toasts to each other’s deaths, encouraged insulting newspaper reports, and even dueled to the death.  They had very, very different ideas about how the new country should be run: who should be able to vote, how political power should be distributed.  But they were deeply invested in the success of the government, a system that they had seen come into being.

Of course, one can take this analogy only so far. The Congress itself was constituted very differently at the beginning of the 19th century, not least because the Senate was elected by each state’s legislature (a practice that seems terrifying now, given the way many states have fallen into effective one-party rule). The electorate was much smaller, much more homogenous. And yet, there were still deep and hostile political divisions that fell along partisan lines that became more calcified as the nation settled into itself.

The splits we’re experiencing now have been a part of American political life from almost its very beginning.  But the belief that politics should somehow devour the government that make them possible is a new development, and a striking one.  Without government, there would have been no American politics: indeed, we might argue that US politics have been so acrimonious over the history of the nation because Americans have been so invested in government, local and national. To shut down the government, as the Republicans are finding, is to shut down political discourse, to shut down the ground on which partisanship itself is laid out.  Without government, political conversation stops.

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Black struggle, white violence

The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington got me thinking about another summer anniversary that had race at its core: the 150th anniversary of the New York Draft Riots, which took place over three days in July of 1863. The MoW, the Draft Riots, and the rolling back of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court this summer are chapters of a much longer story of race and racism in the U.S., a story that is riven with white violence.

I’ve taught a course on violence in the United States a few times. Apart from the fact that it’s profoundly depressing, and as the weeks go by all of us in the room feel like we’ve been run over by a truck, it’s surprisingly revealing of how closely aligned physical violence in the United States has been to white racism, from “race riots” (a term that for most of US history meant white people running rampage through black neighbourhoods, like this one, this one, this one, this one, and this one) to lynching, to frontier violence, which included the forceful expulsion of Chinese from their homes.

The Draft Riots are a blueprint for much of the anti-black violence that floods US history. Essentially, it’s a story of how white working-class animosity towards urban elites gets translated into racist attacks on black working-class communities. In New York, which was a mostly anti-abolition town run by a powerful Democratic party machine, anti-slavery reformers were identified with the city’s ruling classes. The Draft Riots were sparked by exactly this class conflict. After Congress imposed a draft in 1863, they allowed for one way out: draftees could either find a substitute or “buy” one by paying the government $300 (about $5,000 in today’s money). This exemption was far beyond the reach of working-men in New York, given that a middle-class income averaged about $800 annually, and that inflation steadily rose throughout the war, topping out at 180% by 1865.

White working people in New York were hurting, especially since the war cut off trade with the South, with which the city had had a long and profitable trade relationship. New York was famous as a pro-Southern city (Lincoln had won less than 35% of the city’s vote), from the journalistic elite, who editorialized about the benefits of slavery, to the white working classes who saw free blacks as direct competition in a dwindling job market, competition that would work for lower wages. To add to the tension, bosses had used black workers as scabs in a Irish dockworkers’ strike earlier in 1863.

The riots erupted on the day the draft began: protestors attacked and burned the Provost Marshall’s office, where the lottery was taking place. Pretty quickly, though, they turned their attention to the small black community that lived in downtown New York. While they did focus on symbols of the elite — they looted Brooks Brothers, for example, and attacked the home of pro-abolitionist newspaper editor Horace Greeley — black New Yorkers were their major target (Virtual New York City has an amazing day-by-day breakdown of the riots). On the first day of the riots, the Colored Orphan Asylum (pretty much what it sounds like) was burned to the ground, and over the next few days black and Native American people were lynched, and other black New Yorkers and those who tried to defend them, were beaten and robbed.

This kind of violence is notable mainly because it’s not that remarkable. White violence against black people is an inextricable part of the history of the United States, from the foundational violence of slavery through to the terrorism of race riots, lynching, and assassination. The March on Washington took place in spite of a massive uptick in white supremacist violence. Medgar Evers had been murdered only two months earlier. All that Spring, Birmingham, AL was identified with pictures of children set upon by firehoses and dogs. And these high-profile events don’t begin to represent the omnipresent threat of violent reprisals against any attempt by black people to achieve self-determination.

This is what’s been on my mind as I watched the commemorations of the March on Washington this past month. How can we tell the story of black (and interracial) activism for civil rights without acknowledging the brutal, deforming, psychically destructive, deadly violence that black Americans lived with every day for centuries, from Birmingham to New York, from Boston to Chicago? Somehow, the mainstreaming of the history of the civil rights movement has managed to focus on black bravery while erasing the ubiquity and consensus of white supremacy.

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Throw Bubbie From The Train

As someone who’s spent a fair amount of time thinking about the history of immigration, I’m always interested in the current rhetoric around immigrants, and how it’s similar to or differs from what people used to say during the last big wave of immigration about a century ago. What irritates me the most is when the descendants of the Italian, Greek, Jewish, Polish etc etc etc immigrants from the late 19th and early 20th centuries hold up their bubbes and zaydies and nonnas and yayas as examples of good immigrants, whereas the abuelas and popos of today are the worst kind of bad immigrant.

You see this in the discussions about assimilation. I don’t want to argue for or against the virtues of assimilating into the mainstream culture here. And if you read my book, you’ll see that I think that “assimilation” isn’t always the best word for the process by which immigrants get absorbed into US culture; rather, the children of immigrants carve out new ways of being American, and the culture itself changes around new ethnic practices (think about how the rhythms of dancehall and reggaetón have been folded into hip-hop, for example). For argument’s sake, let’s just accept that assimilation is unidirectional, and a good thing.

In the minds of many conservatives, assimilation isn’t happening fast enough, or political correctness is getting in the way. Some arguments you’ll see are that bilingual education is limiting English language learning, or that immigrant enclaves allow people to live in their native languages. Senate Republicans think this is a serious enough issue that they want to introduce legislation to make immigrants learn English. And while the recent brouhaha over Jason Richwine’s eugenicist arguments about the cognitive deficits of Latinos shone a light on the nastier side of anti-immigration rhetoric, the fact that he was hired by the Heritage Foundation to co-author a major study on immigration shows that he’s not that much of an outlier on the right when it comes to immigration policy.

This is when I want to take James Inhofe and Laura Ingraham, and Marco Rubio (just to pick some names out of a hat) and shake them really hard. Or I could give them a copy of Antonio Mangano’s 1917 book Sons of Italy, an amazing work of insider sociology. Mangano noted how “helpless” Italian immigrant parents were in dealing with the larger world. Robert Woods and Albert Kennedy, in Young Working Girls (1913) called immigrant mothers “totally inept” in dealing with their new environment. Anglo reformers complained about the dominance of Yiddish and Italian signs, newspapers, and theatres on the Lower East Side; they thought that immigrant neighbourhoods were so filthy and dangerous that children would be better off pretty much anywhere else, which led to the notorious “Orphan Trains,” in which kids were shipped away from their immigrant families to farms in the West.

While I don’t think that even the loathsome Ann Coulter in her most provocative would suggest uprooting the children of Mexican immigrants and housing them with, say, with the next iteration of Gingriches, most of what anti-immigrant nativists were saying in 1913 is pretty close to what analogous anti-immigrant nativists are saying today. What kills me, though, is that today’s America First-ers are the descendants of those very immigrants who were considered unassimilable. And they’re parroting the same crap that would have forced their zaydies and bubbes and nonnas into a hostile world that had no use for them.

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