Monday, August 29, 2011

Building the Perfect Echo Chamber: The 1970s and Political Discourse in the 21st Century


Just before Bob Dylan breaks into “Like a Rolling Stone” on his 1966 Wembley Hall Bootleg series album, one audience member yells “sell out” while another cries “Judas” -- both references to Dylan’s famous transformation from earnest urban folkie to ironic electric hipster. Dylan growls into the microphone, “I don’t believe you,” then as several moments pass by bellows, “You’re a liar!” As the band cranks into the song, you can clearly hear an angry Dylan scream “Play it fucking loud!” Ten years later, during his Rolling Thunder Revue (1975), a crowd member sarcastically begged Dylan “to play a protest song.” The audience laughed and Dylan and the Band ripped into “Oh, Sister.” Not quite the ideological heights of 1966.
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Regardless of one’s musical preferences, one can agree the career of Bob Dylan spans several decades, often reflecting the currents of the time. If the 1966 concertgoers mirrored the self-righteous sincerity of the 1960s, Dylan’s jaded ironic 1975 audience epitomized the kind of altered consciousness of the decade that followed. As Bruce Schulman has noted,“[s]eventies sensibility then offered a kind of antidote to the melodrama of Sixties sensibility, an antidote devised by a generation of youth just plain sick and tired of being told how they missed out on the glory days.” (158) In many ways, the 1970s laid the groundwork for the mi x of ambivalence and divisiveness that have come to characterize late 20th century and early 21st century American life. Swaying between ironic indifference and froth mouthed partisanship, it would seem Americans either check out completely or are compelled to descend into sharp divide.
For those born in the latter half of the 1970s, for much of our lives, Republicans and the New Right seemed to be the driving force in American political and cultural life. Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton (zing! Ok, not fair, but undoubtedly Clinton’s agenda was heavily influenced by Reaganite philosophies that even former members of the New Left felt obligated to adopt or engage) and both Bushes served as presidents for the vast majority of Generation Xers’ lives. It would be foolhardy to claim that it had no effect; my own understanding – and I suspect others born within a similar time frame – was colored by this experience. From birth to adulthood, America appeared to be center right, conventional, big business oriented, and increasingly privatized. Culturally, outside of L.A., NY, San Francisco, and a handful of other U.S. cities, America seemed more invested in conservatism than the avant garde or bohemianism.
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Of course, this view ignores the long trajectory of 20th century political history. In fact, for decades the New Right appeared an unattractive aberration to the largely Democrat-led consensus governments that ruled throughout much of the postwar period. From some vantage points, the 1970s appear liberal to a fault. Even looking at the high school yearbooks of some of my older high school teaching colleagues revealed a very different America from the one most of Generation X experienced. One of my coworkers shared her early 1970s yearbook with me pointing out thinly veiled pot jokes - the kind that would have earned me a suspension in the 1980s or 90s- and odd sexual innuendo. Politically, both presidents Nixon and Carter seriously considered decriminalization and even legalization of cannabis. While the medical marijuana issue continues to gain converts, for much of the 1980s and 1990s, the drug remained an anathema. Three relatively new books examine how, as Professor Alex Cummings related in an email to the author, “white, straight, homogeneous, New Deal-era American culture began to fragment in the 60s and 70s": Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, John McMillian’s Smoking Typewriters, and Edmund White’s City Boy.

If one wanted to think about this more simply (like primate simply), consider popular culture. Children coming of age in the 1980s had St. Elmo’s Fire, Wall Street, Ordinary People, and The Breakfast Club. Adolescents and adults of the 1970s had Five Easy Pieces, Easy Rider (okay, not quite the 1970s but pretty damn close), Chinatown, and Breaking Away. So what happened? How did a country that appeared worried about endemic corruption (Chinatown) and viewed the promise of the American dream warily (Easy Rider/Five Easy Pieces) become a nation of navel gazing yuppies (St. Elmo’s Fire/Breakfast Club) that only occasionally deemed the actions of big business as nefarious (Wall Street)?
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Certainly, economic shifts of the 1970s had a deep effect on American culture and politics. As T of M has explored, many historians trace the shift to the early 1970s connecting deindustrialization, the end of Fordism, stagflation, government corruption and a brutal energy crisis as the driving forces of this change. In addition, the rise of New Right figures such as Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley, and Bill Kristol harnessed a right wing movement, once populated by John Birchers and anti-Semites, into a political juggernaut that would dominate the country’s politics in the last third of the century. Yet, by the 21st century, the conservative movement of the 1970s no longer satisfied modern day right-wingers. Richard Nixon would probably struggle to win a Republican primary today, let alone a national election. Where did this shift begin? How did the “Silent Majority” emerge? Who were they responding too? What countervailing forces affected it? What about those who placed themselves outside the suburban Silent Majority, who chose to reside in New York City, the epitome of 1970s decline?

Nixon and Smoking Typewriters .
Nixonland: it is the America where two separate and irreconcilable sets of apocalyptic fears coexist in the minds of two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans … Nixonland is what happens when these two groups try to occupy a country together. By the end of the 1960s, Nixonland came to encompass the entire political culture of the United States. It would define it, in fact, for the next fifty years. (Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, 46-47)

Modern day America, if one were to oversimplify, often seems split between those who watch Fox and those who watch MSNBC . I guess everybody else watches CNN or more likely just doesn’t pay attention. “The parties have reorganized themselves along ideological lines, as white conservatives have abandoned the Democrats and northern liberals the Republicans,” a recent Economist article observed. “The ideological factions have built mighty propaganda machines stretching from Washington think tanks to the studios of Fox and MSNBC. And ideologues have resorted to previously taboo weapons, such as the threat of default.” (Economist, “American idiocracy”, Aug 13, 2011) How we got here is the subject of Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.
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The value of Nixonland lies in Perlstein’s ability to contextualize Nixon within the zeitgeist of late 1960s and early 1970s America. In reality, Nixon was less ideologue than political operator. According to Perlstein, Nixon’s main interest lay in foreign policy. In Tricky Dick’s mind , domestic politics served as little more than political theatre. Speaking to Theodore White Nixon once opined, “I’ve always thought the country could run itself domestically without a president.” (393) However, Nixon utilized the stage as few others. In language eerily reminiscent of today, Nixon castigated the “liberal media,” gave cultural but not economic recognition to the working class, and critiqued anti-war protesters and others by claiming their work emboldened the enemy. Take Nixon aid Bob Haldeman, for instance, telling Barbara Walters on the Today show that “Democrats still opposing the president were aiding and abetting the enemy of the U.S.” Nixon followed this up shortly after arguing that Democratic opposition regarding his decisions in Vietnam, “might give the enemy an incentive to prolong the war after the election.” (623) Sound familiar?

Perlstein portrays the late 1960s and early 1970s as a rapid fracturing of the American public. The Vietnam War, leftist and rightist radicalism, and a faltering economy combined to place strain on the very seams of public life. Though many writers highlight the violence of the extreme left like the Weatherman, Perlstein points out, far right extremists employed similar tactics just as frequently but the media reported on these events far less frequently. Perlstein illustrates how a chastened media felt compelled to represent America’s great middle classes more equally. When journalists critiqued Mayor Daley’s handling of the 1968 Democratic Convention, letters poured in chastising the media and praising the aggression of the Chicago Police Force. When in 1972 National Guardsmen shot dead four Kent State University students, citizens opposing the student protests provided their own response. “I extend appreciation and whole hearted support of the Guard of every state for their fine efforts in protecting citizens like me and our property,” wrote one. Another lamented “When is the long suffering Silent Majority going to rise up?” A local resident speaking to a researcher uttered a common feeling for many of the period. “Anyone who appears on the streets of a city like Kent with long hair, dirty clothes, or barefooted deserves to be shot,” related the Kent City citizen. (489) Letters and responses greatly circumscribed media coverage in the decades that followed. Nixon successfully exploited this hostility.
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Contrary to popular belief, youth movements of the day were not dominated entirely by leftists. At Queens College, where radicals “rampaged” through the library and occupied administration buildings, another conservative group referred to as the Students Coalition held a sit in in the registrar’s office in order to protest the “college president’s failure to call the police to evict the students occupying the administration building.” (380) Similar scenes unfolded on other campuses as well. As Perlstein points out, the Left did not monopolize youth. Roger Ailes, Pat Buchanan, Ron Ziegler, and others were only in their mid to late twenties when Nixon plucked them from obscurity.

Of course, while the mainstream press seemed fixated on the antics of leftists, left leaning editors and writers in what became know as the Underground Press (UP) purposely sought to make waves. In Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, John McMillian explores the milieu of radical journalists and publishers of the period. McMillian tracks the initial emergence of radical newspapers like the Free Press (Los Angeles), the Rag (Austin, Texas), Berkeley Barb (take a guess) and the Paper (East Lansing, Michigan aka Michigan State) noting that in the very early stages each operated in isolation from one another, a symbol of the very uncoordinated leftism that emerged in the mid 1960s and early 1970s.
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However, with the establishment of Underground Press Syndicate (UPS) and the Liberation News Service (LNS) all that changed. For McMillian, the underground press played a vital role in institutionalizing the New Left: “Although historians are fond of referring to an overarching ‘youth community’ in the 1960s, before the advent of the underground press, the youth revolt was marked more by fragmentation than cohesion.” (McMillian, 73) Though UPS came first and provided much needed organization, the LNS proved even more influential. “A kind of radical alternative to the Associated Press,” McMillian writes, “LNS aimed to centralize news gathering and dissemination in the underground media.” (83) The ability of LNS to distribute materials widely served as critical factors when reporting on major protest events like the 1968 Columbia University Revolts.

Though the journalistic practices of some UP writers remain questionable, they nonetheless highlighted aspects of protest that New York Times an others ignored or purposely obscured. Moreover, the UP projected a culture that united readers. “Underground newspapers functioned as vital institutional bases for radical political and aesthetic communities,” McMillian argues. “In their pages, they replicated the creativity, zaniness, humor – and otherworldliness – of the youth movement at large.” (81) Through their influence, the world of alternative weeklies developed soon after, often eschewing the kind of politics the UP celebrated but clearly shaped by the UP’s successes and failures. Without the UP, publications like the Chicago Reader probably would not exist.

Considering the level of paranoia that pervaded both the Left and the Right in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the UP’s radical take on political affairs had to rankle and frighten many a conservative. In all likelihood, the promotion of Marxism and bohemian lifestyles did little to ease the fears of the Silent Majority. The fact that many writers and UG editors professed a desire to shake things up only added to the tensions that had been mounting.

City Life

During this period, few sites elicited trepidation like cities. Many of the UPs developed on college campuses or in urban settings. McMillian acknowledges this development, noting, “many of the ideas that gave rise to New Left journalism had an important material context – they were generated in urban spaces.” (36) Moreover, while many fled cities for the suburbs, others took solace in the caverns of metropolises like New York City. In his 2008 memoir, City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and ‘70s, Edmund White recounts his own experiences, recasting New York as a space of danger but also artistic and social ferment:
It is difficult to convey the intensity and confusion in our minds back then in the sixties and early seventies as we tried to reconcile two incompatible tendencies – a dandified belief in the avant-garde with a utopian New Left dedication to social justice, both of which in my case could be overruled by an admiration of the simple humanity of the Great Russians or Singer. Looking back now, I’d say that because we were Americans emerging from the stultifying 1950s, we were extraordinarily naïve about both politics and esthetics – humorless, unseasoned, dogmatic – because untested. (White, 38)

White’s memoir reveals the complexities of identity for those the Silent Majority deemed unworthy. White’s homosexuality would have clearly stigmatized him among the suburban masses that Nixon attempted to woo through naked patriotic tropes. “Not that concepts like ‘patriotism’ meant anything to me,” White recalls. “As a gay man I didn’t think that I was American or that I belonged to a society worth defending … I felt powerless to affect national policy, and I also knew that any policy might be devised by any government present or future would contain a clause condemning me as a homosexual.” (24) As White notes later, it was to the city they felt devoted, a city that nurtured the artistic creativity and sexuality of himself and others: “Perversely, we were proud to be New Yorkers but not Americans.” (211) As a native Midwesterner, White came from the very stock that made up the Silent Majority. However, despite his own origins, White claimed that Midwestern transplants like himself were the only ones who truly loved the city. As White recounts, 1970s, New York “was so shoddy, so dangerous, so black and Puerto Rican, that the rest of white America pulled up its skirts and ran off in the opposite direction.” (210) Ignoring White’s gendering, the longtime literary critic and author represents a central irony of the “Silent Majority”. Its dissidents, self perceived outcasts like White – whether due to sexuality, political beliefs, or other like factors - provided the very life blood to the nation’s symbol of urban decay. Throughout City Boy, White continually returns to this theme. For White, “no one loved New York except us, the gay and the artsy misfits from the Midwest.” (210)

If many Americans portrayed New York as a city of negative energy filled with malcontents, criminals, and angry minorities occupying public spaces White saw it differently. Clearly, White agrees with Perlstein’s assertions regarding violence. “Suburbia, television, and the automobile had isolated everyone – perhaps a good thing in such a potentially violent country.” (224) Still, also like Perlstein, White points to the kind of mindset that befell American suburbanites, people in gated communities “miles away from the nearest ghetto” so petrified they fortified their homes with weapons or karate training. In fact, despite White’s own proximity to the alleged urban trouble spots, “it was precisely in those places that were the safest that the sheltered populations most often expected imminent violence.” (224) To be fair, White himself acknowledges that simmering tensions in New York meant that by the late 1970s, the 1977 blackout revealed “how racially divided we were, how much anger seethed just below the surface, how rapacious and every man for himself we’d become.” (225). The larger point here is how fear and anger had pervaded the nation especially in places where violence and protest seemed a distant possibility.
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Whether Perlstein hangs this on Nixon or simply positions him as a knowing conduit through which fear and anger could be broadcast remains less important than the fact that regardless of where it originated, the divisions that seem so stark today emerged then. If Bob Dylan’s sarcastic ironic audience of 1975 seemed comfortably ambivalent, other citizens felt anxiety ridden and furious. Vietnam, assassinations (Bobby Kennedy, MLK to name only two), campus protests, Kent State, the 1968 DNC, various rights movements, and the resentments of the “Silent Majority” collided. In the years that followed, Americans increasingly placed themselves in camps that operated like political and cultural echo chambers. John McMillian’s Underground Press at the outset provided the New Left with a vehicle for a clarion call of beliefs that initially won converts, but soon after devolved into the very echo chambers that plague public discourse today. Responses to recent events such as the London Riots illustrate this tension as Conservatives harnessed arguments that blamed the riots on immorality and a bureaucratic nanny state, while liberals portrayed all rioters as victims who simply needed more government intervention. The best remedy to these issues is probably something between the two poles: one that accounts for law and order, but also provides social and economic measures that address poverty and racism. Unfortunately, when the only voice you hear is an echo of your own, real solutions become that much harder to divine.
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Ryan Reft

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Madison on the Mediterranean: What Lies Ahead for Libya?


[Note: I write this not as a scholar of Libyan history or an expert on the Middle East and North Africa, but as a person with family in Tripoli who follows events there closely.  If I have erred on the facts or the analysis, let me know in the comments.]

Libya, it seems, just went from a civil war to a revolution.  At least that’s what the title cards on Al Jazeera suggest, as “The Libyan Revolution” replaced headlines like “The Crisis in Libya” after opposition forces appeared to take Tripoli over the weekend.  Speaking of the Confederacy, Eric Foner once said that an uprising is just a rebellion until you win; only then does it become a revolution.  The Declaration of Independence gives people license to overthrow an unjust authority, but the overthrowers’ authority only becomes accepted and legitimate once they have successfully pulled off the overthrowing.  Otherwise, you are no more than a riot or a rebellion that got snuffed out – not unlike what is happening in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad’s regime has cracked down ruthlessly and relentlessly on dissenters.

Libya stands quite apart from many other participants in the so-called “Arab Spring” – a term that was coined by Western journalists, apparently alluding to the “Prague Spring” of reformism that was so brutally crushed by Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia back in 1968.  The term always seemed to evoke “Springtime for Hitler” for me, along with a sort of soap commercial way of describing political change – Get Fresh with the Arab Spring – but for whatever reason the term has stuck.  It stuck so well that you hear people speaking of a “Libyan Summer” – one stickier, uglier, and plainly more violent than its closest parallels, more so than Tunisia and Egypt, though not as vicious as the repression occurring in Syria or Bahrain.

Click to enlarge

What set Libya apart is that a protest movement rapidly shifted into armed resistance, with the emergence of a nascent rebel authority in Benghazi and the emergence of a shambolic military presence in the east, in the western city of Misrata, and in the mountains west of Tripoli.  Whereas Egyptians protested peacefully in Tahrir Square, and the military establishment felt somewhat (if not entirely) constrained in dealing violently with them, Muammar Qaddafi’s regime responded aggressively right away and the opposition moved to resisting authority on a military basis, with the result, more or less, of a civil war breaking out.

Now that the rebels have swept into Tripoli with less initial resistance than expected, the opposition appears close to gaining control of the country.  The smiling, sneering appearance of Saif al Islam, Qaddafi’s favored son, among crowds of regime loyalists Monday, after he was already reported arrested, shows how foolish it is to rush to judgments, positive or negative, about what is happening in Libya.  The eastern and western halves of the resistance, which grew up mostly apart from each other, could break out in conflict even after the regime is definitively beaten; certainly, the Transitional National Council (TNC) has been dominated by people from the eastern city of Benghazi, while those who actually stormed Tripoli were rebels from the western parts of the country like Misrata, which are closer to the capital city.  Divisions could emerge between the Benghazi crowd and everyone else; ethnic conflicts between Berbers and Arabs could erupt; and people who depended on the old regime may find themselves on the outs and seek whatever means to destabilize the new government.  All these things are possible, and more – the simple inability to keep the lights on or the water running could prove the undoing of the seemingly triumphant rebels.

The theme to Flashdance is clearly playing in his head

But Libya has certain things going for it.  It is a small country, with a population about the size of metro Atlanta’s in a space the size of Alaska (America’s biggest state).  Though tensions between Arabs and minority Berbers exist, the country is still relatively homogeneous compared to other nations in the region; it lacks the stark sectarian divisions of Iraq or Bahrain.  The leaders of the TNC have so far evinced a commitment to moderate Islam, as well as reconciliation with former Qaddafi collaborators.

If anything good ever came from the Iraq War, it is that people have learned from the neoconservatives’ tragic experiment in “nation-building” (which consisted primarily of dismantling the nation and selling it off for scrap).  Most Libyans realize that liquidating the entire police and army and disempowering anyone who had any ties to the regime is unrealistic; the US tried dissolving the security forces in Iraq and denying anyone with Baathist connections a role in the new government, but this move ostracized huge numbers of people.  In Libya, blacklisting anyone who had anything to do with Qaddafi just would not work, since anyone who held any kind of position of influence or responsibility in the country had to work with him in some way or another.  The rebels have so far shown a considerable openness to figures with ties to the former regime, though the assassination of Abdul Fatah Younis, a very close ally of Qaddafi who resigned to lead the opposition's military forces before his killing under mysterious circumstances, suggests that old scores may be settled and supporters of the dictatorship might not get off with a free pass.


Conservatives at National Review have suddenly lost interest in Arab democracy

In any case, the outcome of this conflict is sure to be rough – as the leader of the TNC said, a revolution is not a “bed of roses.”  But the profile of the opposition movement is promising, at least as far as prospects for an open society are concerned.  The instigators of this revolution are lawyers, doctors, writers, professionals – the liberal bourgeoisie, backed by untold numbers of young, jobless, frustrated working class and middle class youths in a country that had 20% unemployment before the revolution, despite having immense mineral wealth and one of the higher GDP per capita ratios in the world – if not amazing, certainly out of line with the ratio of wealth to population in most Arab and African countries. 
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The gentleman in the blue cardigan has a two part question

Libya, perhaps, has a better chance of achieving a liberal democratic revolution and public sphere than some of its neighbors.  The country lacks the same deep-set, entrenched, immovable military establishment that is inevitably a giant part of the political landscape in Egypt, even after Mubarak’s humiliating departure – the “deep state,” to borrow a term from Turkish politics.  The opposition forces say they will retain as many members of the old army and police force as possible, barring only those closest to Qaddafi and with the most blood on their hands.  Still, the possibility remains that a hardcore of loyalists will continue to make life miserable through bombing and the like.  An Iraq-style insurgency of disenfranchised hardliners could ensue, though many seem to doubt that Qaddafi has the committed ideological supporters to sustain such a campaign of resistance or terror.  My own father, who knows far more about Libyan politics than I do, seems remarkably sanguine about the prospects for a peaceful transition.  He believes that most of the people working for Qaddafi are simply opportunists, lackeys, hangers-on, and sycophants, who lack a deep sectarian or ethnic allegiance to Qaddafi himself.  He is perhaps too optimistic – indeed, those allied with Qaddafi’s family and tribe in his hometown of Sirte may be willing to fight on, for the sake loyalty or simply revenge – but it is safe to say that a long-smoldering insurgency is, at least, not inevitable.

Libya may have the ingredients for a prosperous, liberal society: a rebel leadership that claims to support religious moderation and political reconciliation; the lack of any one interest with a preponderance of power, whether military, business, feudal landowners, clerics, etc.; a highly literate population; a wealth of expatriates with skills who are ready to come back to the country; and, of course, oil.  What it lacks is a charismatic cleric, who could seize the initiative and try to steer the revolution in a more Islamic direction, as occurred in Iran’s revolution of the late 1970s.  Some Islamist groups have participated in the rebellion, and some observers believe they were behind the assassination of Younis.  But Islamist rhetoric and ideology has not been especially conspicuous in Libya’s rebellion; the TNC’s leaders have taken pains to emphasize that, while Libya is a Muslim country, it will not pursue a fundamentalist policy after the revolution.  TNC Chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil described their intentions in this way:
We are on the threshold of a new era ... of a new stage that we will work to establish the principles that this revolution was based on. Which are: freedom, democracy, justice, equality and transparency, within a moderate Islamic framework.

As many nervous observers in the West have been happy to see, protesters throughout the Arab world have eschewed religious or even ethnic nationalist language in favor of a broad rhetoric of human rights.  Pan-Arabism and Islamism have not been the dominant paradigms driving these rebellions, even if religious conservatives have backed and participated in them.  As one excited young Libyan told al Jazeera on the streets of Tripoli, he and his compatriots had no interest in “Islamists and racists.”  If religious language has suffused the rebellion at times, it is only to the extent that people of faith see a higher power guiding them in the course of dramatic events, not necessarily because of an agenda to impose fundamentalism on society at large.  It is by no means uncommon for people to see their own political struggle in spiritual terms.  In other words, the protesters who appeal to Allah in the streets are more Martin Luther King than Pat Robertson.


To me, one of the most emblematic moments of the remarkable events of recent weeks was an interview al Jazeera conducted as rebels shocked the world by storming Tripoli far faster than most expected on Sunday evening.  The reporter began the interview by saying she would not ask for his name, but she wanted to know what he was experiencing.  Before she could finish her question, he told her he was not afraid to give his name.  She said okay, and he stated his first name.  She went on trying to ask her question, and then he gave his last name, and then he began to spell out his name for the channel’s viewers.  “I am not afraid anymore,” he said.  “It’s over.”  Not only the ability to speak his mind, but the freedom to state who he was and stand by his views was a euphoric feeling for him. He wanted to be known, perhaps for the first time.

This is the hope of a new public sphere in a region where outside experts long characterized the people as passive and the politics hopelessly stagnant.  Not long ago Mubarak and Qaddafi both looked likely to pull off the repugnant succession of power to their smooth, Western-educated sons, Gamal and Saif.  Now there is at least an opening for something better, even if remnants of the establishment hold onto power as tenaciously as possible.  The challenges of building a new, open civil society remain daunting after years of stifling authoritarianism.  Countless protesters are still being held in Egypt, even after Mubarak and some his lackeys lost power.  The military government there claims to be moving toward a new, democratic regime, but it will only let go of as much as of its power as it absolutely has to – just like Mubarak and every other venal power-hoarder in the region. 

The challenges Libya faces will be different, and the threat of tribal, ethnic, and regional conflict looms especially large.  So does the perennial problem of “petrocracy,” the inefficiency and corruption that haunts so many countries that are blessed with mineral wealth.  To top it all off, actually finding jobs for the dispossessed and frustrated youth who set off protests throughout the region will be no small order in the midst of political and economic upheaval.  But compared to its huge neighbor Egypt, Libya seems to be moving toward a kind of democracy unencumbered by the burdens of a powerful military or Islamist political constituency, and the rebel leaders represent a capable, technocratic, seemingly open-minded lot. 

University of Michigan professor Juan Cole has a list of suggestions for how Libyans could best manage the transition and minimize these pitfalls – including a proposal that Libyans avoid letting their national resources be privatized and sold off to corporate interests, as occurred in Iraq under the regency of L. Paul Bremer.  Like me, Cole is more of an optimist about the revolutions and rebellions in the Arab world.  Things could, of course, take a turn for the much, much worse, if, say, the wily Qaddafi had some kind of plan to destabilize the country even after his fall from power, or his loyalists prove to be much more determined than expected.  The old line about making God laugh by telling him your plans is especially true where the Middle East is concerned.  The Libyan people may not create a classic Madisonian democracy or Habermasian public sphere in Tripoli, but there remain many reasons to hope – not the least of which is the shocking fall of the world’s longest “serving” despot at the hands of a motley band of rebels (and, of course, NATO jets).
 
 
Earlier this week, a young man who was among the rebels to storm Qaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziyah compound captured this hope when he spoke to Sky News.  He had just raided Qaddafi’s bedroom and rather comically put on his hat and elephant scepter, looking a bit like a character from an early 90s Brand Nubian video.  His comments reflect the unifying rhetoric common among many members of the opposition, which is conciliatory, not particularly religious in character and nationalist (a “Libyan” identity that transcends tribe, ethnicity and sect) if anything:
Now we should forget all the past.  We should take a better stance, and we should work together as Libyans, the Arabians and the Berbers.  And I am sure Libyans will shock the world, because we would like to do something, since Qaddafi has put us in a bad situation these past years… I wouldn’t have this feeling to have revenge against those people that stood with Qaddafi. I would like to ask them to be with us, to shake our hands, and to start a new beginning, a new life, a new future, a new Libya, as we all Libyans would like to have.

Alex Sayf Cummings

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Dog Days Classics: Political Boss and Midwestern Pharaoh: Richard J. Daley's Chicago Legacy


Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago (1971) and American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley - His Battle for Chicago and the Nation (2001)

Few cities outside of New York have drawn the kind of critical attention like the capital of the American Midwest, Chicago. The Windy City, the City of Big Shoulders, the Second City, and numerous other titles have sought to capture the essence of Chicago. Though far younger than New York, Chicago’s historiography covers numerous ethnic and racial groups, changing as the city’s face has changed over the course of the 20th century. Harold Gosnell’s Machine Politics: The Chicago Model provided one of the clearest takes by a political scientist regarding the metropolis’s complicated early 20th century ethnic and racial politics. From its establishment, numerous ethnic and racial groups have filtered through and settled in within city limits. Polish, German, Irish, Italian, and Czech peasants hoping for better lives in the early and mid 20th century, Southern Blacks escaping Jim Crow during the Great Migration, and most recently Mexicans heading North in the 1980s and 1990s, serve as only three examples. Throughout each has had to contend with a urban political machine that took time to truly penetrate. Racial, ethnic, and class based discrimination confronted each group, though admittedly not equally.

While most political machine systems faltered, Chicago’s coalesced much later behind Czech politician Anton Cermak, who died at the hands of an assassin’s bullet in the 1930s. Still, for most Chicagoans one figure alone represents the city’s machine politics, Mayor Richard J. Daley. Moreover, few figures have captured the imagination of scholars like one Dick Daley. If the Chicago machine formed later, no other leader held as much power as Daley who held both the mayoral office and official head of the Chicago Democratic Party; a feat that would never again be repeated.

Often referred to as a “city of neighborhoods,” Chicago remains one of the most segregated metropolises in America. While Daley cannot be blamed for this state of affairs alone, he probably did more than any other individual in Chicago history in laying the city’s racial boundaries; this from a mayor who only won election in his initial three campaigns due to the Black vote. Ironically, in his early years, numerous observers believed Daley to be a reformer. Perish the thought.


When legendary Chicago journalist Mike Royko published the controversial Boss: Richard J. Daley (1971), it sent angry ripples throughout the city. Daley’s wife attempted to prevent local bookstores from stocking Royko’s work. Ultimately, the book’s popularity overwhelmed even the strong arm of Daley. Royko pulled no punches. He slapped Daley with indignance but also pointed out a key aspect about the man and the city itself: No one epitomized Chicago like Richard J. Royko noted that Daley’s belligerence matched that of Chicagoans, after all in Chitown its “belly to belly, scowl to scowl, and may the toughest or loudest man win.” Was Daley articulate? Uh no, take this famous quote, “The Police are not here to create disorder, they are hear to preserve disorder.” Again as Royko pointed out, “Chicago is not an articulate town, Saul Bellow notwithstanding.” After all with so many citizens only just removed from their immigrant roots Daley’s butchering of the English language seemed fitting. For all Daley’s good qualities, strength, loyalty, and determination, there existed equally problematic ones such as the aforementioned belligerence, racism, and provincialism. Caustic and brave, Royko made few friends with Boss. His characterization of the police force, suggesting that the best thing to do when confronted by a Chicago cop was too pull out a twenty dollar bill, as corrupt and racist probably cost him more than a few tickets. He rightly pointed out the hypocrisy of Daley’s ethnic politics, exploiting Blacks and excluding Puerto Ricans while elevating ethnic whites, though Poles often resented the paltry positions Daley doled out to their community.


Critics correctly noted Royko had an ax to grind. The disgust Royko felt for Daley oozed from the pages of Boss. Several reviewers threw the word contempt around as well, which to be truthful, remains fairly accurate. Still, before Royko’s work, few writers dared challenge Hizzoner. When journalists, national ones like Walter Cronkite and others, called Daley out for his treatment of 1968 protesters and the news media at the Democratic National Convention, the public responded. The “silent majority” as Nixon came to call them, reacted angrily. Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America illustrates this well as one incensed citizen laid into Senator Abe Ribicoff at a political rally, “Those hippies … were wearing beards, and anybody who wears a beard, he deserves to be beat up.” (Perlstein, 366) Even Walter Cronkite had been chastened. During a national interview with the mayor, Cronkite was forced to kneel at the altar of Richard J. When Cronkite carefully pointed out that many of the victims of police brutality in 1968 were actually reporters, Daley retorted, “Many of them are hippies themselves. They’re part of this movement. Some of them are revolutionaries and they want these things to happen.” As Perlstein notes, “Cronkite sat and took it.” (337)

[Editors Note: As the authors of American Pharaoh illustrate as does Perlstein to a lesser extent, Daley hated Vietnam but understood LBJ’s position. Moreover, he probably hated the New Left even more, so perhaps it was battle of lesser evils for Dick Daley.]

In this way, Royko remains the first into battle. He captured the machinations of the Daley machine like no other. However, Royko’s sharp tongue and disregard for political correctness sometimes makes it a study of 1970s mindsets. More than a few times Royko’s treatment of Blacks and Latinos, though sympathetic and open minded for its time, seem less so in the light of the twenty first century.

Though I grew up in Chicago’s South Suburbs and lived in the city for several years for college and graduate school, I had never read Boss until I attended Columbia University. Luckily, I read it in conjunction with a longer and more detailed book on Daley, American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley – His Battle for the Nation and Chicago by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor.

The laziest description one can give of American Pharaoh would be to label it a Chicago version of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. While this might be tangentially accurate, it misses the depth of American Pharaoh. Cohen and Taylor successfully trace the career of Richard J. from his controversial Bridgeport roots (the authors more than suggest that Daley participated in the famous 1919 race riots, a fact Royko also noted) to the pinnacle of his national influence as Democratic kingmaker. Though Royko’s castigation of Daley remains an undeniably enjoyable exercise, he surely misses the mark somewhat in his hostility. Not unlike Caro’s Manichean take on Robert Moses, Royko sometimes fell into Evil dictator tropes, which while not wholly untrue lacked nuance. Cohen and Taylor do a better job in this regard. Though if one clear difference emerges between the character of Robert Moses and that of Dick Daley, Moses may or may not have been the tyrant Caro portrays him to be. However, in the case of Daley, no one doubts the complete control Richard J. exerted over the city. Sure he had to balance ethnic and racial politics, but this balancing act was always up to Daley himself.


If one thing becomes clear in American Pharaoh, it's that Daley screwed over everyone -- granted, not equally and usually to maintain his own power, but more than one community got the short end of the stick. The Italian community near what is now the University of Illinois - Chicago found itself treated rather shabbily by Daley as he basically told it to take a hike in favor of creating the public university for which he had long pined. Puerto Ricans resented Daley’s ignorance of their community and the CPD’s racist law enforcement. As for African Americans, well where does one start? From the purposeful use of federal monies to hem in public housing projects with highway construction, a maneuver that other cities, following in Daley’s wake, tragically employed, to his refusal to provide the resources and patronage that the Black community deserved to his masterful but morally repugnant treatment of Martin Luther King and his open housing campaign, Richard J. demonstrated a fundamental disregard for Blacks. Cohen and Taylor more or less argue that even if Daley remained racist by today’s standards, these various decisions related more to pragmatics. Integration struck fear into Mayor Daley’s heart not because he feared Blacks but because he believed white ethnics and the middle classes did. Integration would only result in white flight. His disingenuous "hands off" approach to the Chicago public schools, which resulted in severely overcrowded minority schools, serves as another example of such "pragmatics."

Though not as expansive as The Power Broker, American Pharaoh covers much more ground in greater detail than Boss. Taken together, one probably couldn’t come up with a more comprehensive understanding of Chicago politics in the post war period. Certainly, American Pharaoh promises a bit more than it delivers. It fails to really explain well enough why Daley’s plight represents a “Battle for the Nation.” Salon writer Andrew O’Hehir framed this dynamic well in his May 2000 review of American Pharaoh, pointing out that Alabama Governor George Wallace and Richard J. Daley symbolized two distinctly different yet connected dying political breeds: the rank segregationist and the patronage driven political machine boss. Though both Democrats, as O’Hehir notes, the constituents of each, “disaffected white Southerners” in Wallace’s case and “rapidly suburbanizing Northern white ethnics” for Daley, “became the bedrock constituency of the Reagan revolution and the Republican congressional majority.” Cohen and Taylor needed to illustrate this dynamic more clearly. In recent years, writers like M.D. Lassiter and the aforementioned Rick Perlstein have explored this development more effectively.
I was born in 1976, the same year that both Chairman Mao and Richard J. Daley passed on. Considering the countless times observers like Cohen, Royko, and Taylor refer to the “Soviet” like rule of Daley, the juxtaposition between China’s imperious communist ruler and Chicago’s trenchant political titan seems more than appropriate. Growing up in Chicago from age 5 to 22, I fled the city at first chance. My instinct was to run fast and far. Admittedly, I committed the sin of sins for any Chicagoan, I moved to and fell in love with New York. Yet, it was in New York I remembered my love for Chicago. Between Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto, Royko’s Boss, and Cohen and Taylor’s American Pharaoh, Chicago’s tragic yet proud history held new importance. For better and worse, Richard J. Daley, along with his son Richard M, shaped the Chicago that Rahm Emmanuel today runs. No city is perfect, no ruler faultless, but better to understand these flaws than to run blindly into the night. After all Chicago stands as a world city today, brimming with a blue collar cosmopolitanism, a burgeoning black middle and upper class, and a Mexican community that has just begun to exert its political muscle. Does its future depend on its past? Not necessarily, but it makes Chicago a lot more interesting.

Ryan Reft


Past posts in this series include:

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Dog Days Classics: Revisiting the Long Twentieth Century


Today we begin to look at more recent works that influenced us -- at least "recent" in historians' terms, which in this case means 1994.  Last week we looked at classics like The American Political Tradition (1948) and Orientalism (1978).  Today we go all the way back to Renaissance Genoa to find the origins of the current capitalist death-spiral (or, as the Germans say, the pharfignewton) in Giovanni Arrighi's Long Twentieth Century.


Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times, 1994

Historians have a habit of expanding and contracting time to suit their schema – there is the “short twentieth century,” the “long sixties,” and so forth, to capture a cultural or political moment that does not quite fit a temporal boundary like a decade or century. Americans may be more prone to this than others, given our obsession with defining history in terms of decades, even when the actual events and trends of history don’t conform – certainly, the years between 1965 and 1975 or 1978 and 1988 seem to have more in common than the years of the Sixties or Seventies do as a cohesive unit. Similarly, the depressive, grungey early Nineties have never seemed to be of a piece with the teenybopping, tech-booming late Nineties.

The late Giovanni Arrighi, a star of the political economy scene at SUNY-Binghamton and Johns Hopkins, was the kind of guy who had no taste for decadism. A Marxist with an eye for the big picture, he followed the lead of Fernand Braudel by framing history in terms of grand processes and huge tracts of time. He also collaborated with Immanuel Wallerstein, the sociologist who coined the term “world-systems” to describe the coherent, interrelated web of dependency and exploitation that characterizes the world economy in any given era; as the balance of powers and the sources of wealth shift, one world-system gives way to a new one. Arrighi belonged to the school of thought that saw incidents like the Cold War or the Scramble for Africa as mere political episodes in the much bigger scheme of capitalism’s development since it emerged as an economic system in the Italian city-states of the Renaissance and gradually moved its center of power to the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and finally the United States. “The long twentieth century” was the era when the US rose and fell as the fulcrum in the capitalist world economy, with 1970 allegedly the moment when US power went into terminal decline and American capitalism turned from productive growth to cannibalize its own wealth through financial speculation – just as the British and Dutch had done before them.


If this sounds like heady and grandiose stuff, that’s because it is. Especially for a first-year grad student who knew Marx 101 and not a lot more. I encountered Arrighi’s book in Carol Gluck’s “Telling the Twentieth Century” class at Columbia, in my first semester. It was paired for the first week with Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes, the fourth in his brilliant series on world history since the eighteenth century. Gluck chose these two because Hobsbawm coined the idea of the “short twentieth century,” arguing that a distinct historical epoch stretched from 1914 (the beginning of the world war that would spawn the Bolshevik Revolution) to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Everything after was the start of a new era, while the outbreak of WWI shattered the belle époque of capitalist expansion and relative peace that had reigned in Europe for much of the late nineteenth century (i.e. “the long nineteenth century”). In the same way that you might say the Sixties didn’t really begin until the March on Washington or the Beatles performed on Ed Sullivan, the twentieth century did not really begin until the triumph of Communism in Russia began to define the course of world events for the rest of era. For Hobsbawm, a committed partisan of the British Communist Party, history was defined ultimately in political terms, in the troubled life of the Marxist project and the ultimate failure of its contest with Western capitalism. As a Marxist, he still saw big economic processes driving change all over the world, but as a historian he framed time politically.


For Arrighi, long economic cycles of growth, expansion and speculation were what really shaped history, while the fortunes of presidents, nations and empires unfolded as a rich pageant in the foreground. For instance, the Vietnam War was an epic tragedy cooked up by politicians and generals in Washington, DC, not by vast economic forces; but failure in the war was the midwife of a near-inevitable decline, which showed that the US economic model had exhausted its productive possibilities and American hegemony over the world’s political and economic affairs was no longer assured. In an age of rising competition and diminishing returns, “financialization” ensued, as money was reinvested in money over and over again, creating the fictitious, debt-driven kind of growth of the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush years – the bubble that just burst, with such ruinous effects on people throughout the world. 

I can see MCM' from here

Arrighi wrote The Long Twentieth Century in 1994, and it has justifiably become considered a classic. By tracing capitalism’s arc from Genoa to Foggy Bottom, he seemed to forecast the epic collapse of 2008, pointing out the flimsy basis of much economic growth since the crisis of the 1970s. Yes, advances in telecommunications, particularly the Internet, did generate real gains in productivity during the 1990s, which Arrighi could not have foreseen when he was writing his magnum opus (gains that Tiny Tower and Facebook are steadily trying to erase); also, the opening of the Second World, the old Communist domain behind the Iron Curtain, created new vistas for capitalist accumulation that had previously been unavailable, offering a temporary, feel-good shot-in-the-arm to the world system. Capitalism is still hunting for the next source of unexploited wealth, and in the last book of his career, Adam Smith in Beijing, Arrighi gave a rather optimistic take on the shift of capitalist power from the West to the East, the beginning of a new and different cycle of production and speculation. (The new center of the world economy would not be Japan, as expected in the 1980s, but China.) 

I quit Gluck’s class after the first week, but I failed to take Hobsbawm or Arrighi back to Labyrinth Books in time to get a refund. So the books sat on my shelf for several years before I decided to give them a try, and eventually The Long Twentieth Century's lovely cover image by Paul Klee drew me back in. I was writing about a long twentieth century of sorts, looking at the rise of music piracy since the dawn of sound recording in the 1880s, and I was keen to see a different interpretation on the period. Arrighi offered a grand synthesis of Marx, Braudel, Wallerstein, Schumpeter and many others who have tried to figure out how capitalism works; as Joel Suarez argued on this site before, Arrighi offers a radically different take than Judith Stein, who also wrote about the shift of the US economy toward finance in the 1970s and 1980s but attributed the change almost entirely to political machinations and the ins-and-outs of tax policy. Surely the amount of depreciation that the IRS lets companies write off on their manufacturing equipment is not the driving force of economic history – important, yes, but not the lever that moved the world.

On the other hand, Arrighi’s approach makes the policies of LBJ, Carter, or Reagan seem completely incidental to the grander sweep of economic forces, where one politician gets credit for the much longer evolving and almost predetermined turns of economic expansion and contraction that happen to occur during his term in office. I have heard conservatives like Rush Limbaugh argue that it takes “twelve years” for economic policies to have an impact – the point being that the economic boom under Clinton was obviously the result of Reagan’s policies – but Arrighi is thinking in far bigger terms, ones that make the twists of economics and domestic policy seem even crueler and more capricious. Certainly Barack Obama seems to be the prisoner of global economic forces beyond his control. As Arrighi would have it, he is merely overseeing the imperial decline of the US, where the animal spirits of capitalism have no more life in them and can no longer reawaken the domestic economy.

It's just that simple

This approach is helpful to the extent that it causes us to take a step back and realize that every law that is passed or every election that is won or every social movement that emerges (hi, Black Power; hello, Tea Party) is the most important factor defining the subsequent course of events. As Braudel sought to show in his epic study, The Mediterranean, time moves at the level of daily politics, larger-scale economic shifts, and much vaster climatic and geological change all at once. But reading Arrighi one wonders what difference one president or one citizen can do to change anything, seeing as we are caught up in the centuries-long grinding of world capitalism. Not to get all chaos theory on the poor readers who have made it this far, but one really good sniper in Zawiyah tomorrow could take out a number of Libyan rebels, who might have been crucial for planning and executing an assault on Tripoli, which gives Muammar Gaddafi enough breathing room to shore up his forces and survive until NATO allies lose heart and give up the campaign, which humiliates Barack Obama and David Cameron and adds to the political misfortunes that ultimately result in their failure in the next election, which… you get the point.

Cyclically insignificant

There is some room, but not a lot, for such a sniper in The Long Twentieth Century. As excellent as the book is, it leaves a reader asking, “Is that all there is?” It also calls to mind Marx’s famous saying that men make their own history, but not under circumstances of their own choosing. Arrighi’s worldview might be better rephrased as, Economics makes its own history, but not with the men of its own choosing. In any case, there might be room for one really good sniper to make history in the long twenty-first century that has only now begun.

Alex Sayf Cummings

Past posts in this series include:

Monday, August 15, 2011

Making the Spectral Real: Asian American Film in Glen M. Mimura’s Ghostlife of Third Cinema


“What is Asian American cinema?” asks Glen M. Mimura in Ghostlife of Third Cinema. As other scholars in related fields have addressed Asian American citizenship, housing segregation, and racialization, Mimura explores the cultural production of Asian American film and its relation to the transnational Third Cinema. Mimura describes Third Cinema as a “revolutionary international movement,” radical in its politics and form. Emerging in the 1960s, the Third Cinema proliferated over the following two decades. According to Mimura, it helped to develop community based film centers and independent Asian American cinema, while also creating spaces for previously marginalized identities, notably queer sexualities. Drawing on the work of Paul Gilroy, Nayan Shah, and Lisa Lowe among others and exploring the film and media productions of numerous Asian American artists/filmmakers, Mimura focuses on “the meaning of Asian Americans’ discursive occasional presence” a constant vacillation between foreign threat and “conciliatory Model Minority.” Along the way, Mimura engages in discussions of modernity, spectrality, and erasure.

In her 1998 work Immigrant Acts, Lowe argued Asian American culture, due to its experiences with fragmentation and erasure, provided a unique site for resistance. Mimura builds upon Lowe’s assertion suggesting that the cultural production of Asian American cinema illustrates a resistant creative agency that challenges hegemony. Third and Asian American cinema’s development during the 1960s and 1970s influenced their collective political leanings. Shaped by events, the two film communities pay close attention to politics, social justice and transnational solidarities. Rising from the Bandung Conference and the non-alignment movement, Mimura argues that “Third Cinema shares complex histories and relations with the Third World . . . “ (Mimura, 29) The community of Third Cinema exists more as a membership of political ties than geographical localities. (Mimura, 29) Mimura identifies Third Cinema as an intensely political project committed to “a democratic, participatory, socialist cinema” that challenges traditional ideas. (Mimura, 30)

As with other authors incorporating transnational perspectives, Mimura points to the increasing interconnectedness of peoples, movements and ideas in the last half of the 20th century. Invoking Saidian Orientalism, Mimura notes that as late as the mid-twentieth century, many western imaginaries considered Asia “the last refuge from history.” This primordial designation works to legitimate western hegemony while inscribing inferiority on non-westerners. Undoubtedly, the issue of modernity functions as a key factor in conceptualizing diasporic communities. Furthermore, observers attentive to transnational histories and peoples have altered understandings of what and who is “modern.” How Asians fit into the racial hierarchy of western imaginaries remains a fluid issue. In the past, “Asianness" emerged as analogous to blackness … “as the West’s redemptive other. (Mimura, 3) However, Mimura argues “Asia has also been figured as ambivalent,” a term occupying a space between “black and white.” This has been particularly notable in regard to Western discourse on sexuality. Accelerating in the early 1990s, the deconstruction of binaries has served as a central task of many scholars. The pervasiveness of binary thinking fractures our understanding of history, while obscuring peoples, events, processes and interactions. Mimura attempts to uncover the very erasures binary thinking has hidden.


Undoubtedly, the process of globalization influences Mimura’s work. As a process it performs the paradoxical task of both expanding and contracting community. On the one hand, increased interaction and interdependencies draw people closer but critically this also serves to differentiate. Supralocalisms are sometimes enacted, confining membership to very specific local contexts that exclude as many as it includes. Moreover, as Arjun Appadurai argues, globalization unfolds in various ways, affecting various peoples in equally diverse manners. The process of globalization fetishizes localities. Lowe adds that “it obscures a much longer history of global contacts and connections.” (Lowe, 120) Earlier connections and interactions deserve attention as they reveal spaces of resistance and cultural politics. In an intriguing reversal of Adam McKeown’s “globalization” argument, Mimura suggests that today’s globalization and the perceived reduction in racism or prejudice serves not as evidence of improved race relations “here” but rather “because middle class (primarily white) consumers are now going there.” (Mimura, 79)

The dispersal of labor globally contributed to the growth of diasporas. Paul Gilory most famously suggested that there exists a “Black Atlantic” which postulated that diaspora existed as a space for countermemory. (Mimura, 26) Similarly, Mimura explains Asian American film and Third Cinema as a similar space. Despite their obvious relationship, few scholars have explored the relationship between the two, which Mimura credits with helping to create a cinema that was “politically, aesthetically, and institutionally self aware as Asian American . . . ” (Mimura 45) According to Mimura, Asian American film served to both “articulate” many of the goals within Third Cinema but also to critique its tendency to “fold gender into class, feminism into socialism and to regard sexism as a residual social inequality to be resolved by authentic class solidarity and consciousness.” (Mimura, 45) Asian American filmmakers addressed these inadequacies, most notably in the 1990s, as feminists and queer filmmakers produced works exploring issues of sexuality, gender, and subjectivities in an attempt to reorient, rework, and engage with “the politics of representation.” (Mimura, 45)

In this way, Mimura points toward diasporas not dependent on race and ethnicity alone. The contours of Asian American sexuality often excluded queer and transgendered voices. Since the 1990s, independent Asian cinema has promoted these voices. Harnessing Stuart Hall and to a lesser extent Lowe, Mimura credits the “politics of difference” for opening up a space “for the margins to gain visibility as dominant discourses . . . ” (Mimura, 124) Accordingly, the fissures of identity politics need to be attended to, considering the potential problems that may arise from intersectionality. Intersectionalities serve as a source of strength when viewed through this prism as “the politics of difference” enables numerous subjects, even those “marginalized simultaneously by race, class, gender and sexuality, ” to gain intelligibility. Clearly, Mimura shares a fundamental distrust of liberal democracy. The promises of multiculturalism and liberal democracy serve as levelers that obliterate valued differences, while erasing our understanding of the longer history of peoples.


Unsurprisingly, Mimura addresses the spectrality of Asian American representation. While Mimura acknowledges the scholarship of Ronald Takaki and the aforementioned Lowe and Shah, he also incorporates more theoretical works by Avery Wood, Bliss Lim, and Derrida. (See Wood, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination; Lim, “Spectral Times”; Derrida, Spectres of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International.) Spectrality haunts Asian American representation and identity as Asian Americans flicker in and out of public visibility, often representing a foreignness placing them outside of time. (Mimura, 64) Attempts by Asian Americans at claiming “political or cultural subjecthood” result in reactions of “disbelief, skepticism, disavowal,” responses not unlike those of a “scientific, rational, secular society to the presence of ghosts, and the fantastic more generally.” (Mimura, 68) The emergence of ghosts threatens the normal historical consciousness, undermining the idea that modern history remains stable, progressive and linear. Like Lowe and others, Mimura rejects multiculturalism, arguing it symbolically embraces Asian Americans culturally while failing to address the social, economic, and political “material exclusion” imposed them.


Conflicts arising within Asian American media illustrate the film’s ability to disrupt traditional normative forms, enabling previously excluded voices to thicken our understanding of histories. Mimura juxtaposes the goals of the Japanese American Redress and Post-Redress movements. The difference between the two categorizations rested on epistemological concerns rather than chronology. To put it succinctly, the Redress movement focused on broadening mainstream history to include Japanese Americans as soldiers, advocates for Asian American riots, draft resisters, and so forth. In general it embraced an Americanism that continued to privilege liberal democracy, neoliberalism, and the nation state. Critics argue Redress’s maintains a reductive approach that squashes internal complexities in favor of uniformity, thus, silencing segments of Asian America, while failing to account for the long term psychological trauma imposed on those who experienced it and their children. Moreover, many in the Redress movement “privileged heroic, therapeutic stories.” (Mimura, 88) In contrast, Post Redress works address the continuing effects of internment on Japanese families, while avoiding the silencing of voices that Redress’s uniformity required. Post Redress conventions often employ non-linear fragmented approaches, reaffirming, as Mimura points out, that “remembering is itself a generative, creative, fictionalizing act.” (Mimura, 95) For Mimura, Asian American politics of the 1960s and 1970s, the same politics that informed Third Cinema, rejected the “silence in Japanese American history.” Asian American history more broadly exhibited a “short circuiting” of collective memory. According to Mimura, the danger in the Redress approach meant “relegating Japanese American life to historical artifact, we are not confronting racism today, and we are failing to confront the tremendous changes in our own cultural identity.” (Mimura, 116) Focusing on family life and more personal, less stereotypically “heroic” examples uncovers the pervasiveness and meaning of the internment experience.

For some, Mimura’s focus on abstractions like spectrality, ghosts, and hauntings undermine what they consider more clear eyed approaches. Ghostlife is not social history. Additionally, Mimura employs terms like violence in a fashion that continues to divide academics. Older scholars and some younger ones will surely bristle at this methodological approach. Still, in Ghostlife, Mimura provides a useful synthesis and reconfiguring of transnational Asian American cultural production, placing it in dialogue with transnational forces of the last three decades, thus, adding to the groundbreaking insights of scholars like Lowe.

Ryan Reft

Friday, August 12, 2011

Dog Days Classics: Robert Caro's Controversial Portrait of Robert Moses and New York


“Surely the greatest book ever written about a city.” - David Halberstam

Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, 1974

Since its initial 1974 publication, rarely has book dominated a subject the way Robert Caro’s The Power Broker has. Caro defined Moses as an overbearing, racist, once idealistic public servant who became an obsessed power mongering city planner single handedly undermining New York’s neighborhoods and communities through massive highway and public works projects. Under Caro’s watchful eye, Moses crafted cities much as Le Corbusier might have decades earlier, all flow and no people. Minority and low income communities found themselves at the mercy of the overly officious Moses who famously shrugged off criticism from Jane Jacobs and others in crafting the New York we know today.

Despite defining the discourse regarding New York’s urban renewal, Caro’s work has drawn a fair amount of criticism from academics. However, before one delves into its blindspots, the book’s strengths deserve some attention. First, Caro goes much further than simply providing a biography of the city’s most famous city planner. Instead, Caro produced a sprawling study of New York before and after World War II. In fact, one could argue the book succeeds in documenting the career of Al Smith and the political machine from whence he came equally as well as Moses. If one actually completes its 1000+ pages, he or she will know infinitely more about New York City than when they began. Second, Caro clearly illustrates how old New York, a city of neighborhoods and mass transit, became New New York, a debt ridden, seething cauldron of ethnic/racial tension that served as America’s urban boogeyman in the 1970s. Movies like Spike Lee’s solid (if 30 minutes too long) Son of Sam represent the state of the Big Apple circa the mid 1970s well. [Editors note: reader Suman Ganguli rightly points out that better representations of NYC in the 1970s would be the film Taxi Driver and the excellent book, The Bronx is Burning.]


Yet, no work gets everything right and after 36 years, it would be surprising if someone didn’t re-evaluate Caro’s work. In 2007, Three separate exhibits – “Remaking the Metropolis” at the Museum of New York, "The Road to Recreation” at the Queens Museum of Art, and “Slum Clearance and the Superblock Solution,” hosted at Columbia University’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery – attempted to re-evaluate Moses’ career. Published in conjunction with the three exhibitions, the Kenneth Jackson and Hilary Ballon-edited Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York juxtaposed handsomely crafted photographic images of Moses’s work around the five boroughs and Long Island with short essays on the meaning of them. In particular, Martha Biondi’s essay “Robert Moses, Race, and the Limits of the Activist State” made a critical observation about Moses’s contributions. Biondi acknowledged that it remained “troubling that the man who built so much of the New York metropolitan area’s infrastructure was influenced by the long arm of Jim Crow” (121). However, Biondi pointed out “the built environment is not forever bound by Moses’s vision.” Today, after the demographic changes of post war New York recreated and reorganized communities several times over, those very pools and parks built for middle and upper class whites now serve non-white patrons. Despite his racism, Moses ended up building for the very people he disdained. A delicious irony not lost on the book’s essayists. New populations absorbed Moses’s legacy for their own uses, their own lives, their own lived experiences. At least, Robert Moses built things.

Others, like Kenneth Jackson note that blaming Moses for declining demographics, problematic public spaces, and detoriating rapid transit missed the mark. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, Jackson praised Caro’s work but also noted that New York had done well.
The fact is, New York is doing very well. Its public housing is all standing; it is not being blown up like in other cities. New York has far and away the best transit system than anywhere. The question is, again, consider the larger context: If Robert Moses was out to destroy the transit system, he didn’t do a very good job.
For Jackson, though Moses made mistakes, without him “Gotham would have lacked the wherewithal to adjust to the demands of the modern world.”


More recent observers have come to similar conclusions. Writing in a recent issue of the Journal of Urban History, Senior Editor of Planning Press, Timothy Mennel acknowledged academia’s wider reservations regarding Moses: “[E]minent scholars and critics called it 'clumsy' and shallow, with many noting Caro’s Manicheanism, naivete, weak grasp of psychology, provincialism, use of anonymous sources, and poor historiography.” In regard to Jackson, Mennel credits the Columbia Professor for being “one of the foremost and persistent critics of Caro’s work and lazy thinking about urban renewal generally …” (Timothy Mennel, “A Fight to Forget: Urban Renewal, Robert Moses, Jane Jacobs and the Stories of Our Cities,” in Journal of Urban History 37 (4): 627-634).

To be fair, I first read (well really no one reads it twice - I mean, its over 1000 pages) The Power Broker for Professor Jackson’s class in urban history at Columbia. At the time, I worked during the day as a public high school teacher, instructing the cities’ students in History and English. Needless to say, like many public school teachers nearing their 30s, I wasn’t sure where I was going in life. Jackson’s class and specifically Caro’s book completely reoriented my direction. The majesty of Caro’s vision, even if flawed, deepened my relationship to New York as I began to view subway stops, public pools, parks, roads, and bridges with a historical intensity that seemed to be previously lacking. I knew what I wanted to do; now I just had to do it. Certainly, there were other important books in that class that piqued my obsession including Jackson’s own Crabgrass Frontier, but none careened through my imagination like Caro’s. I argued with friends who worked in city planning on the merits of renewal and gentrification, I debated the importance of mass transit, I forced my high school students (well ok, the one AP U.S. History class I taught, since my regular history classes were forced to focus tightly on state exams) to produce a magazine on American urbanity. In short, I dove into urban history and policy in a way I had never before.


With that said, Caro’s work suffers from other weaknesses not already discussed. Joel Schwartz’s The New York Approach: Robert Moses, Liberals, and Redevelopment of the Inner City (1993) pushed back against Caro’s depiction of Moses as an “Evil genius” (Professor Jackson’s words not mine). Instead, Schwartz presented a more complicated picture. For Schwartz, Moses did not rule by fiat, rather, his successes came through careful negotiation and compromise. Moreover, Moses' redevelopment only occurred because of the consent by the liberal establishment that Caro argues resisted Moses much of the way. Even worse, institutions like Columbia and NYU played critical roles in undermining the city’s geography. Caro paid scant attention to these actors or he positioned them much differently. Today, Schwartz’s work appears prophetic as NYU’s expansion seems to be one of the most inflammatory issues plaguing lower Manhattan. Mennel too points this out, lamenting that Schwartz’s work seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle do in great part to the fact that Schwartz rightly saw the complicity of the very liberal resistance that Caro mythologized.
Schwartz and others explicitly assess a fair share of the blame for urban renewal’s failures on the very protagonists of the heroic resistance narratives. The community groups and activists who are so often pitched as the bulwarks against Robert Moses and his minions were themselves some of the leading champions of urban renewal, housing reform, and specific now reviled projects that were built throughout the mid twentieth century. (628)
Without a doubt, Mennel, Jackson, and others are correct, yet, Caro captured something in The Power Broker few others have. Even with its weaknesses, Caro shaped how we speak about cities and urban renewal in ways that at least brought attention to the inequalities created. Moreover, it is hard to imagine works like the excellent, American Pharoah: Mayor Richard J. Daley – His Battle for Chicago and the Nation without Caro’s example. When we read The Power Broker for Jackson’s class, the Professor clearly pointed out the book’s mistakes. No one was mislead and still the book reverberated. If it made me a better teacher, scholar, or urban planner, even with its errors, shouldn’t that be enough?
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