Monday, April 26, 2010

“Cherish Your Memorized Weakness”: The Politics of Pavement

Designed to raise money for AIDS awareness, 2009’s Dark Was the Night featured two discs of music by the likes of indie darlings Grizzly Bear, Feist, Yeasayer, Spoon, and the National, to name a few. Pitchfork critic Scott Plaganhoef reviewed the album positively, but characterized the contributors as representing the “heavy hitters of the NPR wing of indie music." Notably, the National, arguably one of the most prominent representatives of middle class hipster musical aesthetics, contributed the track “So Far Around the Bend,” in which lead singer Matt Berninger provides a timely shout out to legendary indie rockers Pavement: “You’ve been humming in a daze forever/Praying for Pavement to get back together.”

One year later, Pavement released its greatest hits, and’s Zach Baron announced the end of the Boomer deathgrip on pop culture. “Indie-rock fans shouldn't act so surprised that their music is in ascendance,” Baron wrote. “People who were into punk rock in 1980 or Pavement in 1993 are all old enough to be pushing the cultural buttons now—working at newspapers, writing for TV, booking musical guests, A&Ring at labels, and, ahem, writing pieces like this one for national magazines. We were bound to knock boomers and their culture off at some point. Why not right now?”

Sixteen years earlier, though, the transition from Boomer to Gen X hegemony was far from complete. Of all Pavement’s records, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain best captures the tensions in early 1990s indie music, giving voice to anxieties about class and race, generation and fame more clearly than any other. For many fans, the 1994 album also represents a sort of sweet spot between the band’s dissonant, lo-fi origins and the more sedate sound of its final two records. The early Pavement was surrealistic, random, tinny; the Pavement of Brighten the Corners and Terror Twilight tended toward softer sounds, more conventional song structures, and even some straightforward lyrics. “The check when it arrived, we went dutch, dutch, dutch, dutch” is somewhat more concrete and understandable than “Lies and betrayals, fruit-covered nails, electricity and lust won’t break the door,” isn’t it?

Apart from the strange and polarizing detour of 1995’s Wowee Zowee, this is more or less the arc of Pavement’s career, and some would say Crooked Rain marked a high point along the way.

Hindsight (hindsound?) being 20/20, the album might have sounded different upon its release in 1994. The production values were higher than on the band’s celebrated debut, Slanted and Enchanted, and the sound was, for the most part, mellower. The band’s sonic palette had expanded to include piano and steel guitar. There was a distinct sense of wistfulness and anxiety about the record, yet lyricist Steve Malkmus retained his reputation for aloofness and sarcasm – SPIN once praised him for cutting through “alt-rock emotionalism like so much pizza dough.”

Of course, one might argue that this lack of emotionality sustained Pavement among ironic, hipster types, while driving the formation of a new offshoot of late 1990s indie rock: Emo. In Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo, SPIN’s Andy Greenwald sets up Pavement as the indie rock straw man for the rising Emo movement. For example, New York rock critic Chris Ryan recounted his own experiences with the band and how it led him directly to Emo. Moving to New York in 1996, Ryan was little more than “another indie rocker clutching his Pavement bootlegs to his chest and looking for whatever was next,” noted Greenwald. (37) Ryan’s experience with Pavement both in the comfort of his own home and live seemed to operate as his musical foundation, especially as Greenwald uses Ryan’s memories to construct a band that seemed to fuel Emo positively and negatively.

For Ryan, indie rock lacked “thematic urgency” and often appeared “emotionally cold.” Evasions by indie rock singers regarding song meanings and the like frustrated fans like Ryan. “I was always an inquisitive music fan …. And always wanted to find out what my favorite songs were about,” noted Ryan. “I would read interviews with [Pavement’s] Stephen Malkmus or [Archers of Loaf’s] Eric Bachmann and they would dismiss the question or say the songs were about Glenn Miller or a Civil War colonel and I’d be like, no! Make it about me! Why can’t you just admit to that.” (37) Even Pavement’s live act left Ryan wanting. Remembering a 1995 show, which drew approximately 800 people, Ryan recalled sparsely attended Emo shows of the same period more fondly: “Now I was seeing shows in someone’s basement with forty other people and it was considered a hugely important event.” (38)

Perhaps Ryan’s most damning critique came when he reconsidered the 1995 show. “The thing about Emo shows is that there seemed to be a complete lack of pretense,” he says. “Not to harp on it, but that Pavement show in ’95, it followed a pattern: the houselights went down, the crowd yelled – it could have been an REO Speedwagon show.” (40) No self respecting indie rock band wanted to be compared with “the Wagon” unironically.

Still, some writers have connected this lack of emotion to the wider ethos of Generation X. Writing this month in the Los Angeles Times, music critic Scott Timberg, “Gen Xers grew up buried in talk about Woodstock, the British Invasion, ‘Happy Days,’ ‘Gilligan's Island’ and the soundtrack for ‘The Big Chill.’” Certainly, one can locate moments on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain that seem to echo this point. On “Hit the Plane Down” the repeated “Hit the plane down / Hit the plane down / Hit the plane down /There's no survivors” suggests images of tragic, but clich├ęd rock n’ roll demise. In “Newark Wilder,” Malkmus shouts, “It’s a brand new era, it feels great, it’s a brand new era but it came too late.” When coupled with the farewell of “Filmore Jive”’s exhausted narrator, “Good night to the rock and roll era, cause they don’t need you anymore,” Pavement’s jaded, ironic sensibilities seem obvious. Irony might be the perfect antidote to boomer self-congratulation and their “earnest” memories of the “revolutionary” 1960s. However, as Timberg points out, it might also go some distance in explaining Pavement’s lack of outward emotion, “Gen X nostalgia, then, is essentially different from the [Boomer] brand, in that it's private, sub-cultural, instead of the mass-marketed public group hug that marks the boomer version.”

Regardless of the reason, Pavement’s ambivalence about itself and indie rock remained. With a higher profile, a bigger recording budget, and the potential for upward mobility, Pavement looked ahead warily, as can be seen by several key songs. Anyone going to college in 1994 might have related with the opening track, “Silence Kid,” which reminds the title character that, “There’s no one to remind you.” No one to remind you to do your laundry, or to eat your vegetables, perhaps? “This is the city life,” Malkmus sings. “Don’t listen to your grandmother’s advice,” he adds. The portrait seems to be one of a person off on his own for the first time – like a band that’s had its first taste of improbable success, or a college kid who can do what he wants but doesn’t know exactly what to do yet.

In a later track, Malkmus says, in faux bluesman mode, “Hey, you gotta pay your dues before you pay the rent.” The song, “Range Life,” is best known for a trenchant dig at some monsters of alt-rock, but it is actually one of the most plaintive in the Pavement catalog. Malkmus sings of wanting to settle down, skateboarding on summer vacation, and running from “the pigs, the fuzz, the cops, the heat,” a panoply of antique street lingo, probably copped from reruns of Hawaii Five-O. But in the final verse, the bomb drops. “Out on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins, nature kids, I/they don’t have no function,” Malkmus mumbles. “I don’t understand what they mean, and I could really give a fuck. And Stone Temple Pilots, they’re elegant bachelors, they’re foxy to me, are they foxy to you?”

If anything, this lyric seems to convey less Pavement’s disdain for the bands than their own discomfort with attaining the success and status the Pumpkins and STP enjoyed. “I will agree that this is absolutely nothing, nothing more than me,” Malkmus seems to say at the song’s close. “Dreamin', dream, dream, dream…”

Recently, Malkmus expressed his reticence to recite those critical swipes at Billy Corgan and Pearl Jam lite. “I just didn't feel like singing those words,” he said. “It seems so dated now. At the time, it was an attempt to be topical, kind of like an ironic rap song and a way to make fun of the whole indie 'We're cool, you're not cool' thing. But I probably wouldn't do that now."

The album’s most famous track, “Cut Your Hair,” also speaks to the faultlines in a rock scene that did not know how to grapple with fame. Although seemingly a joke on 80s hair bands, the song skewers the pretensions of the alternative rock that came along and consigned Motley Crue to the past. Malkmus refers to a band that’s advertising for a player with “looks, chops a must – NO BIG HAIR!” Malkmus exclaims, “I don’t care, I care, I really don’t care!” yet the lyrics are married to one of the catchiest Pavement songs, with a doo-doo-doo chorus that (almost) could have made it to radio. At the end of the song, he seems to say, “Tension [or attention?] it strains a career, careeah, careeah.” For years I thought Malkmus was saying Korea. Is it too much of a stretch to speculate that he was likening the relation between indie and the mainstream to the stalemate that resulted from the Korean War? Yes, it probably is.

Malkmus’s unease with wealth and success came across elsewhere, of course. Arguably the album’s most rocking song, “Unfair” mocks the residents of Beverly Hills, shouting, “Wave your credit card in the air like you just don’t care.” Malkmus sneers at “Range Roving with the cinema stars”; indeed, the hip-hop nod to waving your hands “like you just don’t care” could be as much a jab at gold-plated rap stars as blonde elites in Beverly Hills, or the upper-middle class California stratum from which Malkmus hailed. “It has a nice ring when you laugh at the lowlife opinion,” the song “Gold Soundz” says, half-sarcastically. Malkmus later warily describes a scene populated by punks, “jam kids on their Vespas,” “rockers with long curly locks,” and the “dance faction,” which is, admittedly, “a little too loose for me.” These populist genres of music, emphasizing rhythm, sensuality, and even excess, were regarded by Pavement with a degree of suspicion.

One of the more confounding issues confronting a band like Pavement remains the class and racial blindspots that some have ascribed to indie rock of the last 10-15 years. In October of 2007, New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones took indie rock to the mat for its failure to incorporate more black musical forms:

I’ve spent the past decade wondering why rock and roll, the most miscegenated popular music ever to have existed, underwent a racial re-sorting in the nineteen-nineties. Why did so many white rock bands retreat from the ecstatic singing and intense, voicelike guitar tones of the blues, the heavy African downbeat, and the elaborate showmanship that characterized black music of the mid-twentieth century? These are the volatile elements that launched rock and roll, in the nineteen-fifties, when Elvis Presley stole the world away from Pat Boone and moved popular music from the head to the hips.
In response, contributor Carl Wilson welcomed Frere-Jones's “provocation” but provided counterarguments for some of the article’s blindspots. Wilson pointed out notably that the New Yorker author chose his musical examples selectively, divorced music too much from larger “social dynamics” at play, and on some level “troublingly [reduced] 'black music' to rhythm and sexuality, and to elide the differences between, say, funk, soul, disco, folk-blues, Caribbean, and African influences in white rock.”

However, Wilson acknowledged all was not well in all worlds Pavement. If according to Wilson race wasn’t really the issue, class was. Tying this development to political and economic developments of the 1980s, Wilson suggested that the “‘trouble with indie rock’ may have far more to do with another post-Reagan social shift, one with even less upside than the black-white story, and that's the widening gap between rich and poor.” Wilson continued, conceding that the Pavements of the world were/are “more blatantly upper-middle class and liberal-arts-college-based, and less self-aware or politicized about it.” A 2008 SPIN interview confirms this accusation, one which apparently even Malkmus cops to. When asked about Pavement’s openly “upper class middle class” orientation, Malkmus answered honestly, “Well, we went to college -- we weren't going to hide it. Mudhoney were deliberately anti-intellectual; Sonic Youth hid it in art damage.” In more recent interviews, Malkmus has elaborated further on this issue. In the March 2010 issue of GQ, Chuck Klosterman interviewed Pavement’s lead singer presenting him with several fan theories on the band, but one in particular zeroed in on this class tension:
Theory Three: Pavement is about class dynamics. Malkmus was raised in the affluent community of Stockton, California, and he could have pursued any life he wanted—yet he chose to pursue an art form that typically represents the disenfranchised underclass. Pavement's music is about reconciling that class dichotomy.
Malkmus dismissed the theory out of hand. “That’s not true,” he said, recalling Pavement’s time in New York, where “the scene we were in was really—well, at the time, I called it preppy-scum rock. That scene was populated by really rich people—Ivy League millionaire kids who were in punk bands and noise bands.” Malkmus would admit to being the middle class son of an insurance agent, but he pointedly noted, “… we always had jobs.”

Pavement, who bristled at the possibility of being the voice of a jaded generation of middle class college kids, found themselves stuck in an ambivalent pose between obscurity and success, the Baby Boomers and Generation X, and the crisscrossing conflicts of indie rock and popular music. It may be worth recalling that they emerged at a time when the media establishment was chiding the “losers” and “slackers” for their lack of ambition – a cultural moment typified by films like Reality Bites, where the college educated grads have found themselves folding shirts at the GAP. As Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain suggests, they may have been brainy, privileged, and white, but they were also disappointed with the opportunities of their era, which, as Malkmus said, “came too late.”

Alex Cummings and Ryan Reft

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Stop me if you've heard this one before

"All in all, more taxes are going to be imposed on everybody, rich and poor alike, but mostly on people of moderate means who pay the largest share of indirect taxes and who will have to pay a greater and greater share of the direct taxes to support the most extravagant and wasteful administration the nation has ever known."

Deseret News, 27 July 1938, p. 4

Monday, April 19, 2010

Diplomatic History: The Choice is Yours

Earlier this month,
William Mangoman Williams described how diplomatic history went from being the academy’s White Knight to its Black Sheep. While Mangoman believes that the innovations of the last thirty-odd years have renewed the field intellectually, he notes that this has so far failed to reverse its institutional decline. Diplomatic history may be cool again, but diplomatic historians aren’t getting hired.

Mangoman then wonders whether these two trends aren’t related: perhaps it is precisely diplomatic historians’ newfound willingness to incorporate discourse analysis and the like that is responsible for its continuing doldrums? Maybe focusing on the culture of imperialism instead of the crisis of diplomacy has alienated students hungry for a history of diplomats, presidents, and soldiers.

The latter may be true to some degree (though I think changes have also engaged new audiences), but it seems an unlikely place to pin responsibility for the paucity of diplomatic history appointments. After all, in its initial decline, the field was a casualty of the successive social and cultural turns. I doubt that a return to an exclusive focus on high diplomacy will revive diplomatic history’s glory days. That depends on the attitude of the faculty who drive the hiring process.

What’s more, a change in that direction is unlikely, for diplomatic historians themselves seem pretty happy about the changing intellectual contours of their field. At its 2009 annual meeting, the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) held a keynote panel to decide whether it ought to find a new name for itself or its journal, Diplomatic History. Despite some hand-wringing on the H-DIPLO discussion boards and in the NY Times piece that Mangoman cites, there was little criticism at the meeting of the field’s expanded focus and new methodologies. Most felt that the term “foreign relations” was capacious enough to describe what they do and few wanted to change the name. (I should mention my favorite proposal, made in jest: the “Society for Historians of International and Transnational Studies” – think about that acronym for a second.)

It’s important to recognize that a broadening of the field does not necessarily entail an epistemological transformation. In other words, much of the “new” diplomatic history still concerns itself with what one clerk said to another; it’s just that these clerks no longer work exclusively in the State Department or an embassy somewhere, but for Amnesty International or the World Health Organization or the New York Philharmonic or Coca Cola. And the study of “power” incorporates cultural attitudes, public relations, and legal norms as well as diplomacy and war.

Nor have the “old” topics been left behind, as a perusal of the 2010 conference program indicates. Using the rhetoric of manliness to explain the War of 1898 does not mean we can't also talk about geopolitics, any more than discussing the gendered aspects of Progressivism precludes studying the 16th amendment. Yes, limited time and space demand trade-offs, but the added context gives a fuller (and I would maintain, better) picture of the past.

So it has to be counted as a good thing that our studies of how peoples and nations interact are not confined to high-level policymaking, and are more willing to incorporate economic, social, and cultural processes.

Still, if the field is increasingly broadening its appeal and attracting outsiders to publish in its journals (and vice-versa), why so little love from department hiring committees? Some relative decline in diplomatic history was inevitable. Historians are interested in more topics than they were in the 1960s. To demand that 75% of departments have a diplomatic historian—as was the case in 1975—would leave small departments without expertise in other areas that we now consider essential.

It does seem, however, that we are approaching a crossroads, especially in the case of American diplomatic history. Even if there is consensus support for the importance of teaching the history of American foreign relations, broadly conceived (as I believe the field’s transformation has encouraged), it is by no means clear that the group of scholars formerly known as American diplomatic historians will be the ones to teach it. Instead, the field’s new energy seems to be splitting it in two.

On the one side we have the new “International History.” As globalization made area studies seem archaic remnants of the cold war in the 1990s and early 2000s, more departments created tracks for some form of “international history.” Often this also included “world history.” This created its own definitional problems: are we talking about the history of everything? The history of civilizations? Of globalization? Or of foreign relations writ large?

To the extent that international history becomes conceptualized as the global aggregation of the history of foreign relations, it has the potential to swallow American diplomatic history whole. U.S. foreign relations courses would then be taught by those trained in international history, with a U.S. focus. It is significant in this regard, I think, that two of the leading young international historians, Erez Manela of Harvard and Matt Connelly of Columbia, trained with John Gaddis at Yale.

On the other side is the even more amorphous “U.S. in the world.” Recent hiring committees seem to prefer some variant of this (“U.S. and the world” being one example) to replace positions that used to be advertised as “U.S. Diplomatic History.” Framing it more broadly may enable more such jobs to be funded. But fewer “traditional” diplomatic historians may be hired. Where there used to be, say 50 diplomatic history jobs, there might be 65 US in the World jobs in the future. But only 40 of those might be filled by diplomatic historians. Depending on how hiring committees define the field, almost any scholar of U.S. history might be eligible.

Diplomatic history under a different name will certainly persist. It is clear, though, that those interested in the study of American foreign relations will need to stay astride the transnational turn and incorporate a broader focus than the generations of historians who preceded them. But this is perhaps not so new. At a 1969 conference, diplomatic historians bemoaned their graduate students’ lack of language expertise, and paltry use of foreign archives. [1] In some important respects, the “new” diplomatic history may be merely a return to roots.

Ben Coates

[1] See the discussion in Milton O. Gustafson, ed. The National Archives and Foreign Relations Research (Athens, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1974)

Friday, April 16, 2010

"Your Asian Wasn't Quiet": Black, Brown, Yellow Alliances in America

Post Katrina New Orleans is not your parents’ New Orleans, or, for that matter, even your siblings’. Hurricane Katrina and the anemic government response to the tragedy reshaped New Orleans physically, but also demographically. Thousands of black residents fled to Baton Rouge, Houston, and other gulf cities. While many have returned, the city’s racial logic no longer rests strictly on a black white binary. The need for new construction has drawn thousands of Mexican laborers. If comedian George Lopez has joked that FEMA stands for “Find Every Mexican Available,” not all New Orleans residents have been laughing.

In an October 16, 2009 article, the Times Picayune reported that tensions between native born Americans and the new Mexican arrivals had begun to run so high that locals had started to complain about “'loud Mexican music' and taco trucks.” As one observer wryly noted, “"Imagine that . . . Complaints in New Orleans about music and food.” Roberto Sura, a professor of journalism at USC, explained that such tensions were completely predictable, “[they] tend to be quite high in places where the Latino population is quite small and has grown rapidly." The newspaper conceded Sura’s point commenting that “[i]n a city like New Orleans, where the population is predominantly black, tensions between African- and Latino-Americans often flare.”

Speaking on the PBS News Hour in May of 2004, Nicolas Vaca discussed the proliferation of black –brown conflict in the 1980s and 1990s. A San Francisco attorney and visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, Vaca lamented that the rights movements of the 1960s and 70s seemed to have a better grasp of their shared interests: “You know, in the '60s and '70s, even in the '80s, these two groups kind of understood their histories and their backgrounds and the fact that there was a mutual struggle at one point to work for better housing, affirmative action, et cetera, et cetera." Vaca’s recollection meshed well with current debates about the Chicana/o movement. Lorena Oropeza’s 2006 Raza Si! Guerra No!: Chicano Protest and Patriotism During the Vietnam War Era explored the transnational and relational identity of the 1960-70s Chicana/o movement while also addressing its gendered and sometimes sexist foundations. The Vietnam War encouraged Chicanos to identify with other “Third World” peoples. Transnational and translocal identities proliferated as many Asian Americans, Black Power advocates, and Chicana/os saw in themselves and each other, a colonized people.

However, unlike the activists of the 1970s, Vaca noted that newer immigrants have failed to share the same sense of unity that these movements exhibited. Deploring the lack of a perceived common history, Vaca acknowledged that “particularly with the new immigrant,” there remained no sense or no concept of the history of the African American in the United States. "I see it is going to be very difficult,” Vaca said, “particularly as the Latinos come into areas that they traditionally have not occupied, such as Atlanta, North Carolina, South Carolina, which have been traditionally African American."

Vaca’s 2004 work The Presumed Alliance: The Unspoken Conflict between Latinos and Blacks and What it Means for America addressed the conflicts he noted in his PBS interview. Incidents in Miami, Houston, Los Angeles and Compton among others, illustrate the tendency of each group to view the interplay between white-black-Latino constituents as a zero sum game. Thus, the ensuing conflict often pitted Latinos and blacks against one another. In Houston, Black Mayor Lee Brown had reached out to the Mexican and Mexican American communities in and around the Texas metropolis, yet Brown found himself voted out of office as the local Latino population chose to replace him with a young Cuban American. In contrast, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, Compton’s political establishment remained dominated by African American residents despite demographic changes that resulted in significant numbers of Mexicans and other Latinos residing in the inner ring suburb. In fact, by 1988, census data reveals that nearly 33% or 1/3 of Compton residents identified as Latino. Uncomfortable debates over the allotment of school resources for bilingual and ESL education failed to impress local black residents as did debates regarding civil rights. Local city council person Maxcy D. Filer illustrated the kind of mistrust that existed between the two populations, “I don’t remember any of them [Latinos] fighting for Blacks,” he said, “Where were they when I was walking a picket line in Compton?"

Two years after the publication of The Presumed Alliance, the Journal of Politics published Paula D. McClain et al’s “Racial Distancing in a Southern City: Latino Immgrants’ Views of Black Americans.” The work of numerous scholars hailing from Duke, the University of Chicago, West Virginia University, the University of North Carolina, the University of Connecticut, and St. Augustine Univeristy, “Racial Distancing in a Southern City” explored the very racial tensions developing in the South that Vaca’s interview alluded to. As Latinos, primarily Mexicans, began to occupy a region historically defined by a black white binary, various racial positionings unfolded. As Vaca suggested in his interview, these new southern metropolises provided a window into relations between groups. Unfortunately, the results of the study suggested Latinos engaged in “racial distancing” from blacks while expressing a greater comfort and familiarity with whites. How much of this was a move toward the benefits of “whiteness” remain unclear, after all, many Latinos bring with them their own ideas, biases, and prejudices regarding race/ethnicity.

Using Durham, North Carolina as its subject, the authors concluded that “relations between black Americans and Latino immigrants are likely to be one of conflict rather than a joining together based on shared minority status in the South.” Contrasting this recent development with its southern historical antecedents, the paper suggests that similar racial distancing occurred when Chinese laborers arrived in the Mississippi Delta in the late nineteenth century. Former plantation owners and commercial farmers in the region, attempted to supplant black labor with Chinese workers. Additionally, “Racial Distancing” takes the post 1959 increase in Miami’s Cuban and broader Latino population as a second example. In both, the authors suggest Chinese and Latino residents consciously attempted to circumvent the region’s racial hierarchy by positioning themselves away from blacks and closer to whites.

However, while, “Racial Distancing” argues that historians “agree that the Chinese actively sought white approval and sought to distance themselves from blacks” more recent scholarship complicates this narrative. For instance, Moon Ho Jung’s Coolies and Cane; Labor and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation (2006) Chinese labor appears less docile and inclined to identify itself as white than previous histories suggest. Moreover, Coolies and Cane examines the complex racial dynamics that emerged as Mississippi’s racial stratification attempted to absorb a third actor. Ultimately, the position of Chinese “coolies” as contracted labor muddled understandings. Neither slave nor free, Chinese workers occupied a liminal position that undermined American tropes about free labor. Thus, when McClain et al argue that “these new Latino immigrants may behave in ways similar to the Chinese in Mississippi in the mid nineteenth century and, and the Cubans in Miami in the mid-twentieth century” identifying with whites while distancing themselves from blacks, one might maintain some skepticism. Besides the previously discussed Chinese example, postulating Miami as a “southern city” seems not altogether accurate especially considering the number of native born transplants, black West Indian, European, and various Latino groups residing in Miami. Moreover, as a sort of “American Riviera”, one might even argue more broadly that Florida fails to truly represent the Southeast as a whole.

Admittedly, some scholars point out that framing such discussions in the terms of conflict simply feeds media portrayals that paint America’s growing minority populations at permanent odds as whites take advantage of such disjunctures to maintain political, economic, and social power despite their waning numbers. Vaca acknowledged as much when a former acquaintance and fellow Chicano activist heard of the subject of Vaca’s research and responded that Presumed Alliance was “something that the Gringo wants and which he can exploit.” Soon after, the aggrieved activist told Vaca he would no longer even associate with the Berkeley professor: "He announced he was leaving and that I should no longer expect any phone calls from him.”

Recent scholarship by Charlotte Brooks suggests that demographic context mediates identities and conflicts. For example, Brooks 2009 work Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends clearly illustrates both moments of interracial cooperation between nonwhites and conflict. Brooks’ earlier article, “The Twilight Zone Between Black and White,” addresses similar issues. Following internment, Japanese and Japanese Americans resettled in Chicago with the “help” of American government programs. The “settlers” immediately recognized the “social controls” imposed upon the city’s black population. According to Brooks, they moved toward whiteness in an attempt to gain similar privileges.

However, this ultimately meant a position of inbetweenness. The city’s binary racial logic forced them into a liminal position which though unequal and imperfect, many Japanese settlers viewed as better than the alternative, “they quickly learned that being in between was far better than being on the bottom." Moreover, if the West Coast populations demonized and feared the Japanese because of their prevalence in Los Angeles and the Bay area, Chicagoans remained more concerned about the migration of African Americans from the South. Obviously, this case serves as a flip side of the California example where Brooks has shown that pre-war housing restrictions targeted Asians, specifically the Chinese and Japanese, rather than African Americans, in large part because so few blacks had settled in either city in comparison. For Brooks, this inbetweenness did not arise out of the unconscious. Instead, Japanese and Japanese Americans, in Chicago at least, knowingly positioned themselves away from blacks, “The benefits of avoidance and separation appeared to far outweigh those of acknowledging a common predicament.”

If Brooks locates conflict between non white minorities in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, scholars Danny Widener, George Sanchez, and Theresa Gaye Johnson dispute such historical extrapolations, arguing that interracial movements existed for decades prior to the “culture wars” of the 1960s, 70’s and 80s. Like Vaca, they acknowledge the interracial activism of that period but suggest, that the racial divisions of the 1940s and 1950’s that Brooks and others highlight existed alongside equally arresting examples of cooperation. Widener’s “Perhaps the Japanese are to be Thanked? Asia, Asian Americans and the Construction of Black California”(Positions: East Asia Critique special issue, 2003) places the development of Californian African American identity not in terms of differentiated individual groupings but rather in a complex interplay between the West Coast’s rising Asian population and its Black citizenry. Marked by exclusion and inclusion, Black Californians came to define themselves in relation not only to whites but to Asians as well. Placing such identities within an internationalist framework illustrates the importance of transcending national boundaries even when exploring domestic interracial alliances. Black leaders such as W.E.B. Dubois championed the anti-European colonialism of the Japanese despite the obvious contradictions contained therein. Once again, as with Brooks, transnational and local factors influenced identities. Widener points to the long interaction between groups, hoping to better understand Black self-identity but also to illustrate the interracial couplings that existed prior to the more familiar movements that unfolded after the mid-20th century.

Likewise, George Sanchez reveals similar developments in the once diverse Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights. In “What’s Good for Boyle Heights is Good for the Jews”: Creating Mulitracialism on the Eastside during the 1950s” (American Quarterly, 2004), Sanchez pursues a similar agenda to that of Widener. Using the formerly pre-dominantly Jewish Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights, Sanchez notes the conscious interracial efforts made to foster a multihued coalition during the 1930-1950s. Emerging from a leftist class based political movement, Sanchez attempts to reverse the process that began during McCarthyite years in which “the history of leftist multiracial organizing in Boyle Heights would be erased.” In addition, Sanchez notes the intersection of class and race, an aspect that some historians have failed to fully explore. In fact, Sanchez’s examples illustrate that among the leftist working class Jewish population, an openness to interracial solidarity persisted to the extent that a portion remained in the neighborhood despite large demographics shifts. In contrast, their middle class counterparts vacated for other communities. While admittedly, some of this internal Los Angeles migration revolved around employment and identity, class surely played a part.

Theresa Johnson provides a third example of this development. Johnson’s “Constellations of Struggle” (Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies, 2008) examines the “cross racial” “inter-community” movement known as the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee (SLDC, 1943) through the experiences of two activists Charlotta Bass and Luisa Moreno. Johnson’s primary purpose is to reveal the “interracial and antiracist alliances, divisions, among aggrieved minority communities, and important insights into the intra-politics that informed and shaped a common urban antiracist culture of struggle …” In addition, Johnson emphasizes not only the importance of these alliances but also the key role women played in “the politics of education, desegregation, and gender and racial equality” regarding “urban activism in postwar Los Angeles.” Like Widener and Sanchez, Johnson’s work pushes back against recent works that highlight the role of conflict between non-white communities, most notably tensions between black-brown peoples.

While Sanchez, Johnson, and Widener provide a valuable reclamation regarding levels of alliance between non-white peoples, thickening our understanding of Black, Chicano, and Asian American identity. However, a few key factors need to be acknowledged. First, the issue of context, both in terms of international events and local demographics helps to determine the depth of cooperation and hostility. Second, as Vaca pointed out earlier, the last twenty and thirty years ushered in a new wave of immigration among peoples with more tenuous historical ties to the national polity. Similar to late nineteenth and early twentieth century American imperialism, post war rebuilding efforts in Japan and military engagements in Korea and Vietnam contributed to rising levels of Asian migration. The 1965 Hart-Cellar Immigration reform act institutionalized these migration patterns resulting in increased Asian American populations. Several scholars see Asian Americans as the solution to the interracial divisions Vaca and others point out.

Most famously, Lisa Lowe’s Immigrant Acts privileges the space of Asian American culture as a unique vehicle for enacting solidarities while questioning American tropes of citizenship and belonging. Though subjected to exclusion and restriction, immigrants serve as “agents of political change, cultural expression, and social transformation.” Additionally, the presence of Koreans, Vietnamese, and Filipinos disavow the linear developmental anti imperial history of the US domestically and abroad. Forced to “forget” Asian wars while adopting national tropes constructing the US as a benevolent international force opposed to colonizing projects, the “political fiction of equal rights” falls into question. As Lowe comments, “the “past” that is grasped as memory is, however, not a naturalized, factual past for the relation to that past is always broken by war, occupation, and displacement. Asian American culture “re-members” the past in and through the fragmentation, loss, and dispersal that constitutes the past.” Thus, Asian American culture critiques the nation state, occupies other spaces altering national terrain, reconceptualizing narratives and historiographies, while establishing techniques that birth “new forms of subjectivity and new ways of questioning the government of human life by the nation state.”

Glen Mimura’s 2009 Ghostlife of Third Cinema: Asian Film and Video builds on Lowe’s assertions. If Lowe argues that Asian American culture serves as an especially unique site for resistance as a result of its own experiences with fragmentation and erasure, Mimura extrapolates this point suggesting that the cultural production of Asian American cinema illustrates both “resistance and creativity, of both visual poetry as cultural resistance and cultural resistance as poetic act, not only to challenge ongoing domination but also to individually and collectively imagine new possibilities for a more radically democratic present and future.” For both authors, Stuart Hall’s “politics of difference” provides the basis for such hopes. Both view the promises of equality and the race neutral language of multiculturalism as false. Instead, multiculturalism obscures real material deprivation that many groups endure while presenting a rhetoric that conveys the impression of equal rights and access to services/resources that fail to match the reality. As well, Mimura and Lowe view the benefits of liberal democracy negatively, though the growth of identity politics seems less a pejorative than for other writers. Unlike many other scholars, Lowe does not view identity politics negatively. Rather, Lowe notes the dialectic between “the politics of difference is … of utmost importance, for it opens terrain on which to imagine the construction of another politics”.

This new politics engages rather than squashes “heterogenities of gender class, race and nation, yet” also perpetuates forms of unity enabling “common struggle.” Lowe notes that they are a “politics whose vision is not the origin but the destination.” If intersectionalities undermined earlier movements (as Orepoza points out in reference to the Chicana/o movement), “the politics of difference” views intersectionality as a source of strength, using difference to build solidarities.

For both authors, transnational labor flows, distressed migration, war, and various other factors shaped Asian American existence in vitally important ways. These developments parallel the driving forces behind Latino immigration to the United States. In this way, Lowe sees the history of Asian American immigration as a model for thinking about current fears and prejudices regarding Mexican immigration, “Asian American culture is the site of ‘remembering,’” Lowe says “in which the recognition of Asian immigrant history in the present predicament of Mexican and Latino immigrants is possible.”

While the importance of Lowe’s scholarship remains obvious, one might question the universality of this approach. After all, it would seem demographic and transnational contexts complicate her argument. After all despite consistent growth, most of America’s Asian American population resides in one of four cities: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. Of course, this is not to say Asian Americans are non-existent in other parts of the United States, but rather their largest and most significant concentrations remain in these cities. Their absence in southern cities like Durham seems to at least pose a complicating factor when trying to apply Lowe’s thesis.

In his 2006 opening address to the Pacific branch of the AHA, Stanford Professor Alberto M Camarillo waded into the discussion. Camarillo noted the disturbing trend among media outlets to highlight African American- Latino conflict over less sensational examples of cooperation. Camarillo did not dismiss such stories as irrelevant or false but did note “but it is only one aspect of a much more complicated story in what I refer to as the “new frontier” in ethnic and race relations in American cities and suburbs of color.” (Camarillo, “Cities of Color: The New Racial Frontier in California’s Minority Majority Cities”, Pacific Historical Review, 2) Unlike many of the examples above where whites remained demographically dominant, California cities like Compton and Lynwood were “majority minority”.

Ironically, despite the fundamental demographic shifts, the battle over political power, resources and the like, still leans heavily on techniques and language from the civil rights period. As Camarillo notes “the new racial frontier of the late 1900s and early twenty-first century reveal significant differences, not only because the overwhelming number of people are of color, but also because the issues that spark conflict and motivate cooperation are deeply influenced by legacies of a civil rights ideology and a commitment to inter-group collaboration in a diverse, multicultural society.”

What does this leave us with? Obviously, the complexity of multiracial interaction regarding solidarity, conflict and everything in between continues to bedevil historians and others. While Asian American experiences provide useful ways to begin thinking about these apparent conflicts, it may not be the ultimate answer. Earlier examples show that context, such as demographics and foreign policy, clearly affects how people interact with one another. The problem remains that as America ultimately moves toward a majority minority society, scholars have few American examples from which to extract. Brooks, Sanchez, Widener, and Johnson’s work, though important and useful, maybe be unique to their particular periodization. For example, as previously discussed, post-Katrina New Orleans now claims numerous residents hailing from Mexico. This new population along with the returning trickle of its older white and black residents may reshape the city politically, socially, and economically. How much of this will revolve around conflict and cooperation remains to be seen. Perhaps, Lowe, Hall, and Mimura’s “politics of difference” can light our way. However, if this approach serves as our main means of going forward, Professor Camarillo cautions historians to honestly face the kind of conflicts that seem to be continually emerging. Take for example the dismay of a Seaside, California councilwoman and newly appointed school board member. Unable to hand out fliers celebrating Martin Luther King Day because they lacked a Spanish translation, the exasperated councilwoman asked aloud, “Is this America, Baby?” Whatever the answer maybe, it will be one requiring patience, understanding, and a new language of difference.

Ryan Reft

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Scenes from the Feminist Movement in the 1970s

The Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance archive contains a series of zines and newsletters published throughout the United States, ranging from the Dayton Women's Liberation News to the Los Angeles-based Everywoman. (I was looking for the Research Triangle Women's Liberation Newsletter.) The collection, available on microfilm, offers a look into the fascinating print culture of the feminist movement, particularly in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and reveals the issues and actions taken up by women in local communities -- prodding universities to set up daycare centers and make contraception available to undergraduates, setting up judo classes and monitoring politicians and journalists for expressions of sexism, to name a few. Below are a few striking images from the collection (you can click on them to enlarge):

This notice, from the Female Liberation of Durham-Chapel Hill Newsletter in 1970, shows that some things never change -- namely, the evilness of Columbia University's administration, and the perennial excuse that academic jobs are too demanding for women to balance research and teaching with family life.

In this piece, a member chides others for "liberating supplies" from the local universities, where numerous contributors to the newsletter appear to have worked.

A theme I have noticed in many of the zines is an anger that concerns of African Americans regarding racism received more consideration from the Establishment than issues of sexism. This snapshot cites gender stereotyping at the American Association of University Professors (and also ponders the possibility of American kibbutzim):

An article that purports to explain how to find an abortion is derided as a "typical liberal cop-out."

There were many other images and excerpts I would have liked to have copied, but I ran out of time.

Alex Sayf Cummings

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Diplomatic History: Bringing Sexy Back

Diplomatic history, the famous quip goes, is the record of what one clerk said to another clerk. Or so it was. In 1959 William Appleman Williams published
The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, igniting a ferocious debate about American empire. While at least a generation of diplomatic historians were busy arguing about Turner’s Frontier Thesis, the Open Door notes, and who’s most to blame for the Cold War, other historians were revolutionizing the way history was written by studying topics like gender, race, and ideology. Diplomatic history was at its peak of popularity during the most violent years of the Vietnam War, but soon after the conclusion of the war the subfield realized it had been left behind.

In 1980, Charles Maier decried the languishing state of diplomatic history, arguing that its published works revolved around tired one-dimensional arguments that paled in comparison to the serious work of other subfields. Not long after Maier aired his critique of the field, diplomatic historians began exploring the role of ideas and culture in U.S. foreign policy, perhaps most prominently in the publication of works such as Michael Hunt’s Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy and Emily Rosenberg’s Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890-1945. Today, diplomatic historians have come to fully embrace the old “new” ways of examining history. Indeed, recent winners of one of SHAFR’s most prestigious book award have gone to titles such as The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, The United States, and The Philippines (Paul Kramer), Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940 (Mary Renda), and Outposts of Civilization: Race, Religion, and the Formative Years of American-Japanese Relations (Joseph Henning).

While the embrace of new ways of writing history helped improve the profile of diplomatic historians within academia, diplomatic history has also benefited greatly from the latest fad of the ivory tower: transnationalism. As Thomas Zeiler notes in his state of the field essay of 2009, it is not uncommon to see diplomatic historians publish in specialized journals outside of their field or, equally as important, scholars from other fields publishing in journals like Diplomatic History. Quite conveniently, in Zeiler’s cheerful opinion, historians’ newfound interest in transnational trends complements diplomatic history’s relatively recent diversification of intellectual pursuits. “The field of diplomatic history has now entered the stream of cutting-edge scholarship, all while retaining the distinct characteristic of privileging the study of power in the international arena.”

Unfortunately, despite all the advances recently made in diplomatic history, it still suffers from a serious problem of relevancy. In June of last year, Patricia Cohen of the New York Times published an article examining the troubles of diplomatic history. Zeiler is cited in the article arguing that “The shift [to studying culture, discourse, race, gender, etc.] does not necessarily mean students aren’t learning the material, he noted, but rather that a new approach to teaching it has developed.” The numbers Cohen cites, however, challenge this assertion. Cohen notes that “Fewer traditional courses in the subject are taught, fewer articles are published in refereed journals, and graduate student training has changed”:
In 1975, for example, three-quarters of college history departments employed at least one diplomatic historian; in 2005 fewer than half did. The number of departments with an economic historian fell to 31.7 percent from 54.7 percent. By contrast the biggest gains were in women’s history, which now has a representative in four out of five history departments.

How have some departments sliced up the pie? At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, out of the 45 history faculty members listed (many with overlapping interests), one includes diplomatic history as a specialty, one other lists American foreign policy; 13 name either gender, race or ethnicity. Of the 12 American-history professors at Brown University, the single specialist in United States empire also lists political and cultural history as areas of interest. The department’s professor of international studies focuses on victims of genocide.
This might explain Tony Judt’s morbidly humorous recount of his experience teaching European diplomatic history at an American university:
After some probing ... [the] students would start to confess that they were actually in a state of panic. To be sure, they could expatiate at length on theories of nationalism. They had mastered the disputes surrounding the nature of fascism or the gendered impact of industrialization. They knew how to "explain" history.... But they had not the foggiest notion what happened, when it happened, who did it, or why.
One might get the impression that diplomatic historians would have had the most to gain in academia from the events of September 11th and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but it seems the increased interest in world affairs has mainly benefited political science and area studies departments. It would be a bit crass to suggest that in seeking approval from the most “cutting-edge” scholars, diplomatic historians have become as irrelevant as they are. But perhaps there is something to this. In one way, Zeiler is right. There are few who would disagree with the notion that diplomatic history has vastly improved since it embraced new analytical methods. In this sense, diplomatic history is thriving. But why has it declined so much in terms of faculty positions and course offerings?

It cannot really be said that students have lost interest in world affairs. While a straightforward answer escapes me, I sense that despite all the flaws of the scholarship put out by the revisionists and their rivals, they did have the virtue of being understandable to curious students not already versed in highbrow academic debates and jargon. It is no coincidence that Niall Ferguson and John Lewis Gaddis are part of the chosen few diplomatic historians you’ll find at a Barnes & Noble: anyone vaguely familiar with history can pick up and understand their books. Though it is perhaps best that diplomatic historians get used to the fact that they will never be as popular as they were in the 1960s, it should be urged that more complexity be accompanied with a greater effort to remain accessible to people without graduate degrees in history.

William Mangoman Williams

Monday, April 5, 2010

Bringing Asian Americans into the History of Segregation

The discourse around housing segregation traditionally focuses on the interplay and conflict between black and white communities. Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto, Thomas Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis, Robert Self’s American Babylon, Kevin Kruse’s White Flight and Becky Nicolaides's My Blue Heaven all illustrate the tensions arising from mid twentieth century housing struggles as African Americans slowly integrated into segregated white communities. Violence, coercion, legal maneuvering and flight emerged as many whites refused to accept integrated neighborhoods.

However, more recent works have explored how other ethnic/racial groups, notably Asian Americans, encountered similar barriers. Charlotte Brooks's 2009 Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing and the Transformation of Urban California contributes to this trend. Noting that “San Francisco’s Chinatown was America’s first segregated neighborhood,” Brooks points out historians' singular focus on the black/white binary when discussing housing segregation: “[Historians] associate residential segregation in the urban United States solely with African Americans.” (Brooks, 11)

The past thirty years have witnessed a proliferation of works focusing on Asian Americans. Ronald Takaki’s contributions alone include Strangers from a Different Shore, A Different Mirror, and Hiroshima: Why American Dropped the Bomb, all of which critique American racial ideology, especially its effects on discursive attitudes toward Asian Americans. Lisa Lowe’s 1997 work Immigrant Acts argues that Asian American culture exists as a site of agency and resistance against the very racialization wrought by American racial ideologies. For Lowe, the importance of Asian Americans lay not only in their own culture and history, but also in their relation to citizenship: “Asian Americans, with the history of being constituted as “aliens”, have the collective “memory” to be critical of the notion of citizenship and the liberal democracy it upholds; Asian American culture is the site of “remembering” in which the recognition of Asian American history in the present predicament of Mexican and Latino immigrants is possible.” (Lowe, 21)

Four years later, Nayan Shah’s Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown contributed to the dialogue focusing on how the efforts of public health officials helped construct a Chinese identity conflated with disease, vice, and filth. Shah emphasizes the importance of race, class, and nationality in shaping the discourse of epidemics among experts, doctors, social critics, and government officials. Like Lowe, Shah acknowledges the key role of national and local memberships in mediating such discourse, writing, “In San Francisco, the constellation of race and public health pivoted upon systems of governance and citizenship.” (Shah, 6)

Brooks’s Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends reorients housing history in San Francisco and Los Angeles to examine the demonization of Asian American homeownership, as segregation in the two California cities focused nearly exclusively on Asian Americans prior to WWII, including Chinese/Chinese American, Japanese/Japanese American, and Filipino/Filipino American. Moreover, Brooks explores the relational nature of race in Los Angeles, as the city’s racial logic grew incredibly byzantine in the face of growing diversity. San Francisco’s nativism never secured the same support in Los Angeles, but Angelenos expressed their own strain of anti-Asian racism. Finally, Brooks illustrates how Cold War foreign policies directly affected domestic issues such as housing. In this way, Asians maintained the very foreignness that prior to WWII led to their exclusion. “By the 1960s, the supposed Asian American “foreignness” once used to defend residential segregation became white Californians’ new rational for Asian American inclusion,” Brooks writes. (194) Citizens and officials began to worry that violence and discrimination against Asians undermined Cold War initiatives. This concern contributed to a public discourse that now celebrated Asian Americans' presence in society, though as guests rather than citizens.

Brooks traces attitudes toward Asian residential segregation which arose in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Beginning with San Francisco’s Chinatown, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends recounts the violence and coercion endured by west coast Asian populations. Though today Chinatown is often seen as a quaint tourist heaven, Brooks (with the help of Shah’s work) links this development to its exclusionary, race-driven point of origin. The paucity of the African American population, along with a fluctuating Mexican/Mexican American community, left both groups outside the direct concerns of many middle class white leaders. Instead, working class and middle class leaders demonized the much larger Chinese (SF) and Japanese (LA) populations. The immigrant background of many San Franciscans heightened their desire to mark the Chinese as others, thus enabling such individuals to claim the benefits of whiteness more forthrightly, which some Eastern and Southeastern Europeans believed they had been denied.

If in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, San Francisco’s Chinatown drew derisive glances from the city’s white citizenry, by the 1920s its function as a tourist destination altered perceptions. Chinese merchants and proprietors adapted to the white prejudices, presenting Chinatown as “essentialized” version of China itself. “San Francisco’s Chinese Americans faced a related dilemma," Brooks argues. "To draw middle class white tourists with money to spend, Chinatown had to at least flirt with the kinds of exotic stereoypes that frustrated and stymied Chinese aliens and American citizens alike.” (34) Of course, such developments paralleled similar processes occurring in Harlem, where white New Yorkers could drift uptown to enjoy black American life for its “exotic” appeal while confining it to the famous black neighborhood’s borders. Unlike black Americans, Chinese residents' lack of citizenship undermined their political influence. Much of Chinatown remained under the purview of local elites with the larger municipal government ignoring Chinatown, except to label it as vice-ridden and diseased. Though by the 1920s and 1930s, nativists tolerated the Chinese, they did so only if the population remained bound by Chinatown’s parameters.

Though Los Angeles shared a strong anti-Asian bias, the diverse nature of L.A. in the 1920s blunted the strength of nativists while contributing to a tortured racial logic/policy that lacked consistency. Unlike San Francisco, in which much of the population could claim recent European roots, L.A.’s citizenry hailed in great part from the Midwest and South. They brought with them racial attitudes that marginalized most of the city’s minorities, especially the Japanese. L.A’s sprawling nature mitigated some hostility, as Brooks points out: “Housing’s intensely local nature forced anti-Asian activists to invest significant time and resources in small areas that yielded only limited rewards.” (40) Still, even if San Francisco’s nativist organizations found shallow support in L.A., much of the local population shared their larger ambitions. “Like San Francisco nativists, Southern California’s most fervent anti-Asian activists sought not just to segregate the Japanese in Los Angeles but to expel them from the state altogether.” Of course, Brooks also suggests that most white residents who cooperated with activists only hoped to expel the Japanese from Los Angeles, not the nation.

The presence of numerous minority groups complicated any clear, rational explanation for discrimination. In fact, what developed was an uneven racial stratification where all non-whites were denied full equal citizenship, but some more so than others: “The unequal status of different nonwhite groups in Los Angeles created a legal racial hierarchy of housing opportunity in the city.” This hierarchy resulted in the growth of interracial neighborhoods such as the “racially unrestricted neighborhoods straddling Central Avenue” where both Japanese and Black Americans occupied housing. Of course, as the effects of the two great migrations became clear, white hostility to black homeownership and integration grew such that “as the city spread, the proportion of housing open to blacks shrank.” (Brooks, 60)

The previous example points to one of Brooks's key arguments -- that the relational nature of identity both between non-whites and whites and between non-whites themselves illustrates the confused nature of racial discourse for much of the twentieth century. When few blacks resided in San Francisco and Los Angeles, they failed to attract the kind of resistance that the significantly more populous Chinese and Japanese communities endured. However, as demographics shifted, so too did whites' concerns. The influence of foreign affairs and policies also greatly impacted post war shifts (see below). Finally, relations between non-white communities sometimes featured cooperation and other times conflict. For example, prewar housing restrictions in Jefferson Park allowed for Japanese residents but not Mexican or Black homeowners. Such restrictions demonstrate “how the strength of legal, federal, and white public support for residential segregation in L.A. encouraged different groups to jockey for position rather than unite for greater political power," Brooks says. (124)

Postwar San Francisco illustrated similar tensions, as Chinese elites resisted integrating Chinatown: “Most Chinese Americans deplored residential segregation in general, but they had won the promise of a project for their district by working within the Authority’s system. Few wished to lose any of the precious promised units of housing to integration especially as the city’s racial demographics changed.” (Brooks, 154) By the 1960s, Chinese American leaders viewed Chinatown as a culturally distinct space, but African Americans who had hoped to integrate the area did not agree. “To black critics," Brooks writes, "Chinatown was merely symbolic of the way Chinese Americans were adopting the same practices as white homeowners.” (226) Moreover, occupational and residential segregation meant few interactions between African Americans and Chinese could develop. Likewise, the WWII internment of Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans led some African Americans to purchase those homes and businesses formerly owned by Japanese American proprietors. The evolution of L.A.’s African American enclave of Bronzeville relates directly to the older Japanese American Little Tokyo neighborhood. Still, Brooks acknowledges the work of interracial organizations like the Citizens’ Housing Council, “a multiracial group that monitored the Los Angeles Housing Authority." (124)

The incorporation of a transnational perspective greatly enhances Brooks’ observations. The most striking illustration of Cold War foreign policy affecting domestic issues can be drawn from the post war experience of both Chinese and Japanese Americans. While the period from 1943 to 1952 saw the collapse of “urban California’s legal racial hierarchy … residential segregation of all nonwhites persisted.” The dynamics of race emerged sharply altered. Obviously, Japanese internment illustrates a clear correlation between foreign and domestic policies, but postwar housing arguments demonstrate this relationships’ persistence. For example, if Los Angeles’ Japanese Americans suffered internment during the war, American efforts to rebuild Japan along with the valorization of Nisei war service subsequently provided a direct counterweight to anti-Asian attitudes. The influx of African Americans also contributed to this shift, as anti-Japanese agitators found their biases overwhelmed by others. “In Los Angeles, which by 1942 was experiencing a massive influx of people of all racial backgrounds, the question quickly lost its immediacy after internment," Brooks says. "The issue of migration – particularly of blacks and Mexican Americans – completely eclipsed it.” (132)

San Francisco’s Chinese population - once harshly demonized prior to WWII - also experienced newfound American support. China’s WWII support along with later American military interventions in Asia made treatment of Chinese and Chinese Americans a key Cold War issue. Brooks points out that this “transnational identity” undermined Chinese claims to national membership as they were seen as permanent foreigners, albeit welcome ones. Also, as with the Japanese American example, the arrival of larger numbers of African American residents recast white homeowner concerns that now Chinese Americans came to be seen, along with other Asian Americans, as the “model minority,” to be contrasted with more “troublesome” racial/ethnic groups. Accordingly, Brooks suggests that American interventionism in Asia along with pervasive domestic fears of communist infiltration and agitation “spurred white Californians to reconsider the impact of their segregationist decisions. In the end, the deepening Cold War short circuited the emerging pattern and replaced it with a far different one” (193) White homeowners continued to exhibit a desire to live apart from nonwhites; even when they accepted Chinese or Japanese American neighbors, they did so out of a sense of anti-communism rather than any nod toward racial equality. As one white resident, who supported Nisei WWII veteran Sam Yoshira’s attempt to buy a home in Southwood (South San Francisco), commented, “My property values aren’t as important as my principles.” (Brooks, 206) Such admissions reveal not only latent racial attitudes but also the effect of FHA/HOLC housing policies that dismissed communities with nonwhites as ineligible for home loans subsidized by the federal government.

Ironically, if early Cold War policies enabled Asian American populations to move away from segregated communities, the emergence of the Vietnam War promoted solidarities with those nonwhites they “had left behind.” Moreover, as Lowe points out, the very Asian wars that served to reoriented Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and later Vietnamese American citizenship also ruptured each community's collective memory: “The 'past' that is grasped as memory is, however, not a naturalized, factual past, for the relation to that past is always broken by war, occupation, and displacement," Lowe writes. "Asian American culture 're-members' the past in and through the fragmentation, loss, and dispersal that constitutes the past.” (29) Still, the problem of race remained. As Brooks concludes, “California at mid century foreshadowed America at century’s end: a place where race was far more complicated than black and white and where international conflicts affected domestic race relations.” (239)

Ryan Reft

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Containing Multitudes: The New Communist Manifestoes a Decade Later

It has been ten years since Michael Hardt, a literature professor at Duke, and Antonio Negri, an imprisoned Italian radical, dropped
Empire on the academic world. The book has since been dubbed “the Communist Manifesto of the 21st century”; it has been assigned in graduate classes across the world; and it has enjoyed the backlash any successful work can expect to receive.

It has also been five years since Hardt and Negri gave us
Multitude, in which they tried to square their analysis of a centerless, nonstate imperialism with the violent reassertion of US nationalism that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. A lot changed after the first book’s release, and it is safe to say the world is a rather different place today than it was in 2005. How do the premier treatises of neo-Marxism hold up today?

Like its predecessor, Multitude attempts to synthesize the work of a variety of thinkers (Deleuze, Castells, Foucault) into a grand update of Marxism for the world of 21st century globalization. Though much clearer and more understandable than, say, Deleuze,
Empire could still be a dense and difficult read. Packed with theoretical references and historical and literary allusions, Multitude is comparatively more accessible and significantly shorter than its predecessor.

More importantly,
Multitude aims to show how people might resist the all-pervasive power of global capitalism. Empire suggested that conventional understandings of imperialism, colonialism, and neo- or post-colonialism were inadequate for the 1990s era, in which the US emerged as the sole “superpower” yet did not exert direct political control over other nations in the traditional sense of European and Asian empires (e.g. the British or Japanese). Hardt and Negri argued that the real “Empire” was a skein of commercial and political relationships that encircled the globe, operating without a clear center but enfolding most of the world’s people within the norms of international trade and the dominance of multinational corporations. Exemplars of this new, de-centered form of imperial rule included trade agreements like NAFTA, GATT, and the WTO, as well as the less formalized protocols of business – what Hardt and Negri call in Multitude the “lex mercatoria.” This system “originally referred to the legal structures that governed trade among merchants in medieval Europe at centers outside the jurisdictions of all the sovereign powers,” they write (169):

To the extent that corporations and their law firms develop an international and even global regime of lex mercatoria and thereby establish normative processes that regulate globalization, capital creates in its weakest form a kind of ‘global governance without government.’ The resulting regime of global law is no longer a captive of state structures and no longer takes the form of written codes or preestablished rules but is purely conventional and customary. Law here is not an external constraint that regulates capital but rather an internal expression of agreement among capitalists. This is really a kind of capitalist utopia. (170)
In Multitude, the authors attempt to show that this stateless Empire creates its own opposite – the Multitude, which is somewhat analogous to the traditional opposition of capital and labor, or the proletariat. In the same way that earlier capitalist industrialization created a regimented working class by taking people off the fields and putting them in the “dark, satanic mill” of yore, today’s boundless capitalism is linking workers all over the world through everything from telecommunications to international flows of labor, popular culture, and even foodways. In this sense, they make a similar point to the one Marx made about free trade – which he supported, only because it would expedite the development of capitalism and its (supposedly) inevitable collapse.

This is not to say that Hardt and Negri are advocates of so-called free trade and footloose capital, freed of all legal and national constraints – nor do their anarchistic visions of spontaneous, pluralistic, non-hierarchical political organization mean that they are opposed to the traditional welfare state or labor unions, which they see as necessary safeguards of public well-being that the people have achieved through long and desperate struggle. They do, however, see the outlines of a potentially liberatory political movement emerging through the same global circuits of communication and organization that make today’s global capitalism possible.

In explaining the political prospects of the Multitude, Hardt and Negri revisit the analysis of the “information” or “post-industrial” economy they initiated in Empire. Drawing on the work of the sociologist Manuel Castells and others, the authors are careful to point out that such a designation does not mean that the majority of workers in the world, or even in the United States, work at producing information or intellectual property. Rather, they argue that the use of information technology is transforming all areas of production, from agriculture to manufacturing. They turn to the Marxist idea of the tendency, suggesting that while information industries may represent a small portion of overall labor and production, they are the most influential or hegemonic form of production in today’s world. Industrialization in the 19th and 20th century transformed the entirety of society, as farming was reconstituted along the lines of manufacturing, with the introduction of mechanical implements and chemical fertilizers. Similarly, vast numbers of people in the world remain employed in agriculture, but the research-intensive and intellectual property-owning companies like Monsanto have reshaped this sector through genetically modified seeds. Information technology has also penetrated manufacturing in numerous ways, as computers and satellite communication permit the dispersal of production around the world; meanwhile, techniques such as “just-in-time” production rely on speedy communication to customize small batches of products. In this sense, the economy has been “informationalized.”

Hardt and Negri also contend that this new economy depends more than ever on the production of “affect” and relationships, on the production of life itself. Employment in health, education, and other services is greater than in the past, as people work at maintaining and reproducing the labor force, while the production of knowledge and cultural expression hold a greater prominence – and dollar value – than ever before. The authors note that capitalism attempts to subjugate these productive forces, just as capital has always alienated workers from their labor, and knowledge and expression become commodified as “information.” (They never let the mask slip, though; Microsoft Word tells me “commodified” is not a word.)

This wholesale appropriation of language, tradition, imagery, and sensation for the purposes of property and profit is depressing, but the authors also point out that capital can never capture the full value of the people’s productivity. For example, GDP does not account for the creative labor of slum dwellers in Brazil, who clearly sustain their own lives and the lives of others through their everyday work, despite contributing nothing to the measurable economy. One could also say that the massive growth of the underground economy throughout the world in the last thirty years reflects this uncommodifiable labor, as when music and movies are pirated and circulated off-the-books, for reasons of profit or personal pleasure. The labor that goes into a church bulletin or Wikipedia is unavailable to the market. As always, labor power resides with the laborers and, Hardt and Negri suggest, in the elusive web of everyday life. This is the spring from which capital’s power flows, but it remains difficult to control. It is also the source of Multitude’s creativity, diversity, and potential power.

To show how the Multitude might make itself felt politically, Hardt and Negri turn to a curious history of revolutionary struggle. They connect the large, hierarchical “people’s armies” of Lenin and Trotsky with the industrial mode of mass production and factory labor. They then trace the development of new forms of organization, from Mao’s peasant army to Che and Castro’s foquismo, which employed a polycentric pattern of quasi-independent units of guerilla soldiers. As the authors note, this flatter form of organization was eventually reduced into a single national army under a single authority following the victory of the Revolution and the establishment of Castro’s regime. Radical groups in the 1970s moved guerilla warfare into the cities, as seen in Germany’s Red Army and Italy’s Red Brigades, but they failed to move beyond the top-down structure of traditional militaries.

Hardt and Negri suggest that the Los Angeles riots (or rebellion, if your prefer) of 1992 reflect a spontaneous form of political resistance, and they point to the Zapatista movement and the Palestinian Intifada as clearer examples of “network organization,” which “is based on the continuing plurality of its elements and its networks of communication in such a way that reduction to a centralized and unified command structure is impossible.” (82-83) They see the Intifada as criss-crossed with different structures, some directed by established Palestinian political organizations (such as Fatah and Hamas) and others springing from “poor young men on a very local level around neighborhood leaders and popular committees.” (84)

The authors take pains to contrast this kind of movement with terrorist groups and drug cartels, which are also “networks” but allegedly feature a militaristic chain of command. This point is, of course, debatable. Few of us really understand what, if anything, Al Qaeda is, and the small factions that develop (everything from Al Qaeda in Northern Europe to Al Qaeda in Northern Manitoba) may or may not be directly controlled by top commanders. Hardt and Negri’s claim about drug cartels is sounder, as they appear to operate with ruthless discipline despite their flexible and interlocking relationship with similar criminal organizations around the globe. As Castells has suggested in End of Millennium, these violent organizations are just as much a reflection of the “network society” as the Zapatistas or anti-globalization activists.

The concept of the Multitude itself remains problematic by the end of the book. Hardt and Negri imagine this political entity emerging from the diversity of political interests, cultural drives, and economic needs that characterize the whole population of the world, and, like so many leftists, they look to the Seattle WTO protests of 1999 as an exemplary moment, when black-hooded anarchists, liberal Christians, environmentalists, and union members could all converge on common positions despite their ideological differences. When the authors finally offer their political proposals, they are not very convincing – global democracy through a reformed United Nations, or global cooperation of activists through instruments like the World Social Forum. Understandably enough, no one has quite cracked the nut of how to combat capitalism on a global scale. Creating a viable (or even desirable) successor to the Communist International is not easy, but creating a lively synthesis of neo-Marxist thought is a more manageable task.

What Hardt and Negri do favor seems to be a kind of anarchism – a way for people to collaborate and govern their affairs without the domination of capital or the nefarious doings of its partner, the state. (The state, again, is available as a tool for alleviating the sorrows inflicted by capitalism, even as it is the bulwark protecting capital and the cudgel used by private enterprise to do all sorts of evil deeds, like locking down Iraq’s oil fields for Exxon Mobil.) The authors look to the identity politics of the late twentieth century with a favorable eye, as feminism, gay rights, and anti-racism movements developed ways to function without adopting a single voice or denying their own irreducible differences, to borrow a fashionable academic phrase. In many ways, this yen for a self-organized, non-hierarchical movement that unites differing factions resembles liberal pluralism, disguised behind the mask of militant Marxism. What were the WTO protests or the political projects of progressive women, African Americans, and gay rights campaigners but the essence of coalition politics in a liberal democracy?

Perhaps the outlines of a new, flexible kind of movement can be found in the netroots – the constellation of groups like ActBlue, DailyKos, and MoveOn that raise money for progressive candidates and coordinate electoral activities. VoteVets might have a different agenda from FireDogLake, but they coalesce around issues, candidates, and actions in a relatively uncoordinated fashion. Most of these groups have made their influence felt most keenly since the release of Empire and Multitude, particularly in the 2006 Democratic takeover of Congress and the election of Barack Obama. As liberal reformers, though, they may not fit the bill of the network struggle that Hardt and Negri had in mind.

The Multitude can emerge when people organize along lines of shared interests, which is how the democracy of our dreams works. Hardt and Negri might prefer that this cooperation and self-government take the form of Murray Bookchin’s municipalism or the Autonomia movement of Negri’s radical youth, but in the present day it seems to comport well with a social democratic politics of pluralism – one that always has its eye on reducing violence and enhancing the freedom and capacities of all people, in the face of stern resistance from both capital and the dead-weight of history.

Alex Cummings