Sunday, January 30, 2011

Facebook Scores Lucrative Sponsorship Deal with Egypt Protesters

We want tweets

With the emergence of a diverse and spontaneous popular movement in Egypt, it is a good time to revisit the idea of the "multitude," the much-discussed (and often challenged) political concept developed by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.  Although it is too soon to arrive at any conclusions about the uprising in Egypt, it may offer a compelling example of what a decentralized political figure like the multitude could look like.  We reviewed Hardt and Negri's work on the tenth anniversary of the publication of Empire last April:

Thursday, January 27, 2011

From Bethlehem to Baku: Bandali Jawzi and the Origins of Postmodernism

In Interpreting Islam: Bandali Jawzi’s Islamic Intellectual History, Tamara Sonn brings new attention to a figure who has been mostly forgotten in Western historiography, at least until recently. The details of Bandali Jawzi’s life remain murky, but its trajectory offers a remarkable vantage point on the political and cultural convulsions that roiled the early twentieth century. With little more evidence than an unpublished dissertation from an Azerbaijani university and a footnote in a 1973 text, Sonn had to piece together the writer’s origins. One scholar had heard that Jawzi was a born a Tatar in the Russian city of Kazan. Another source indicated that Jawzi was an Arab Christian from Palestine; indeed, it turned out that he was born in Bethlehem in 1872.

Over the course of a career that took him a monastery in Tripoli to the University of Baku, Bandali Jawzi led the way in rethinking the intellectual history of Islam in the early twentieth century. Many Arabic reformers hoped that Western-style liberalism would help free them from imperial domination and economic stagnation, yet betrayal of their aspirations for independence by France and the United Kingdom after World War I dimmed the possibility of reform along the lines of liberal democracy. With the Russian Revolution unfolding in the late teens and twenties, Marxism began to look like an attractive alternative for political change in the Arab world. Although the militant atheism of most Communist parties gave many Muslims pause, Muhammad and Marx could cohabitate if political circumstances favored an alliance; as Sonn points out, Muslims in Azerbaijan made common cause with the Bolsheviks in order to throw off the cruel oppression of the Czarist empire, but the partnership quickly fell apart when the victorious Communists determined that class unity (i.e. Russian hegemony) was far more important than Azerbaijanis’ aspiration for self-determination.

Jawzi, who moved to Soviet Azerbaijan in the 1920s, wrote his most famous work in the midst of this churning tumult. The History of Intellectual Movements in Islam (1928) reevaluated the long history of theological schisms within Islam from the perspective of ideology and political economy. He also unleashes a withering reading of European scholarship on Islam, pointing out the vain disregard for evidence or specificity when Orientalists made sweeping claims about the unchanging nature of society and culture in “the East.” This analysis came fifty years before Edward Said indicted Western scholars for creating a warped image of the Islamic world in the classic text Orientalism, and both authors made their case in strikingly similar terms. A sardonic Jawzi blasts revered European historians like Ernest Renan, who stated unequivocally that “It is nothing but the terrible simplicity of the Semitic spirit which oppresses the brain of man and obstructs the way of all free thought and scientific investigation, exchanging for all that the boring repetition of the shahada [the Muslim declaration of faith in God and Prophet Muhammad].” The Orientalists make an error of synecdoche, Jawzi suggests, confusing the part with the whole. For example, one concludes that all Arabs must believe in astrology or reject the scientific method if some can be found to do so. He also condemns Western scholars for identifying Eastern cultures with their most ancient form, and disregarding any new evolution of the tradition as either irrelevant or a degradation of its original state – a mistake that was common in Western scholarship prior to the self-critical reorientation of anthropology in the late twentieth century. “According to this view, one need only know a short period in the life of an ancient eastern nation,” Jawzi writes. “One can extrapolate from that to discover its overall conditions, regardless of how long it has existed or how many internal changes it has undergone.”

In fact, as Sonn makes clear, this critique only makes up a small part of Jawzi’s work. Most of History of Intellectual Movements focuses on the failings of past Islamic scholars, not Orientalists. In this spirit, Jawzi looks at new religious movements in Islamic history as vehicles of protest and reform, despite the fact that authorities in the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties were quick to brand unorthodox groups as liars and thieves. Instead, he asks if movements like that of Babak Khorram-Din (795- 838 CE), the Isma‘ilis, or the utopian Qaramatis (tenth century CE) served as vehicles for economic discontent and a search for social justice. The Babakis, for instance, have often been characterized as a movement to assert greater Persian cultural identity under the domination of the Abbasid caliphate, based in Baghdad. Jawzi sees the Babaki movement as a quest of peasants in what is present-day Iran for social justice and economic improvement, as the farms they worked were owned by large landowners. Islamic rule had not brought a better life than an earlier regime, and the luxurious decadence and inequality of the caliphate seemed to contradict Muhammad’s original message of social justice.

In hindsight, it seems possible that Bandali Jawzi was projecting a quasi-Marxist, economic determinist interpretation onto events that do not quite warrant it. As the saying goes, when you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail. This is true of nearly all schools of thought. A historian of sexuality is likely to find a sexual dimension to any historical event or social struggle; a tut-tutting Washington pundit is likely to view everything in terms of partisanship and a personality-driven horse race. Certainly, scholars influenced by Marxism will want to find the basis for a religious insurgency in material conditions of the economy: production, property ownership, taxes, and so forth. Movements like the Isma‘ilis, who trace their lineage back to the time of Muhammad and remain a potent social force today, emerged as a result of genuine theological differences and raw political power struggles as Islam wrestled with the problems presented by geographical expansion in the years after Muhammad’s death. That economics played a role in such struggles can hardly be discounted, but the main terrain of conflict was ideology.

Moreover, this tumultuous period gave rise to theological conflicts in part because the interpretive flexibility and openness of Islam in its early days gradually gave way to a hardening orthodoxy over the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries. Sonn lucidly explains the importance of ijtihad, the practice of using independent reason to interpret Islamic principles and apply them to new circumstances. News of this practice may surprise many westerners, especially Americans, who have the impression that Islamic law has been fixed and immutable for all Muslims for all time. In the first centuries of Islam, Muslims standardized the scriptures and attempted to figure out how to apply the model of the Prophet’s ideas, sayings and actions to changing social conditions. As the implications of Islamic law were worked out by jurists and philosophers, though, some began to believe that all the major questions had been answered satisfactorily, and further interpretation or speculation was unnecessary. Much of this hardening orthodoxy undoubtedly owes to the tendency of institutions to become more conservative and risk-averse over time, as well as the natural inclination of people to think the horizon of their own lives and times marks the limits of the world. (Remember when Americans patted themselves on the back about the “end of history” and the permanent triumph of capitalism back in the 1990s?)

In any case, it is not surprise that groups with differing interpretations would be suppressed, as they have been in so many religious traditions, as one viewpoint takes power and attempts to demonize and marginalize its competitors. Such competitors, of course, may also espouse equally unusual economic ideals and have their own material interests. The Qaramatis, for instance, set up their own government in eastern Arabia at the end of the ninth century CE, where land was distributed more or less equally and a council of six governed by consensus. While Jawzi cites this as an ancient model of socialism, Sonn is quick to note that the Qaramatis’ egalitarianism did not extend to the many Black slaves they used to work the land. Slavery was, of course, common in the ancient world at the time, and Jawzi judges the group leniently for at least attempting to implement a kind of equality and social justice among their own people. (Slaveowning democracies from ancient Athens to the antebellum United States might make for fair comparisons.)

Jawzi wrote in the context of his time and place, and much of his work drew on Soviet scholars who, despite the Marxist coloration of their work, were often far less prejudiced and blindered than Orientalists in the United States and Europe. Indeed, Jawzi’s career put him in a unique position to survey both the intellectual history of Islam and the contemporary scene. Despite being a Christian, his work expressed clear admiration for what he saw as the Islamic principles of social justice and equality. He studied at a Russian university and ultimately taught in Communist-controlled Azerbaijan, on the ethnic, religious and political fringe of the new Soviet empire. His is an unusual and oft-neglected perspective on the world of the early twentieth century, marked by rising and falling empires and shifting ideologies. The climate of anti-imperialism and insurgent socialism, from the Arab world to the Communist bloc, appears to define his intellectual stance.

In fact, Jawzi’s analysis looks not so much like proto-deconstruction or pre-neohistoricism as a thoughtful application of Marx’s idea of base and superstructure, i.e. that the ideology and culture of a society reflects the material interests of those with economic power, as well as, more broadly, the basic arrangement of the economy itself. One could say Protestant Christianity and liberal democracy are part of the “superstructure” that sits on top of American capitalism, justifying the prevailing economic system. A feudal or slave society will have cultural traditions that legitimize the arrangements for property ownership and production in its unique form. Jawzi appears to have broken ground by bringing this kind of analysis to bear on the history of Islamic thought and political culture. Perhaps the Isma‘ilis were disparaged as hash-smoking bandits not because that’s what they were, but because such a characterization serves the interests of those in power and was likely to accepted and passed down as conventional wisdom. Looking at religious offshoots as protest movements against corrupt or oppressive caliphs makes sense in Marxist terms, as it lends a potentially economic basis for the emergence of religious culture and a political one for the demonization of dissenters and their countercultures. 

It could be that the argument is older than Said or even Marx; the idea that "history is written by the victors" is hardly new.  Sonn weaves references to Foucault, Derrida and others throughout the text of Interpreting Islam, attempting to prove that Jawzi anticipated their work and that subsequent Islamic thinkers have picked up the thread of neohistoricism and deconstruction. With the exception of Said, most of the links feel secondary and tenuous. Reading texts for their political and cultural bias was no more invented by Bandali Jawzi than it was by Jacques Derrida. But the recovery of Jawzi’s work is important; that a Palestinian Christian emerged to defend the intellectual legacy of Islam at a time when Western anthropologists still breezily dismissed the simple-mindedness of the East is a story that deserves attention.

Alex Sayf Cummings

Monday, January 24, 2011

Neoliberalism's License to Ill

“Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today.” With this remark, historian Tony Judt begins his polemical jeremiad Ill Fares the Land. The book is at once a sustained lamentation for the seemingly moribund ideals of social democracy and a clarion call to conserve the successes of the progressive initiatives of the West in the aftermath of the World War II. Judt, who passed away in August of 2010, dictated this book while suffering from ALS (commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease); a disease that eventually rendered him immobile. Judt was proudly a man of the Left, yet his encomium for social democracy is infused with a certain British conservatism. He wishes to preserve the collective achievements of social democrats in the US and Europe before they are fully eroded by the forces of unfettered capitalism. Social democracy is the best we can hope for in our current epoch. It is essentially a compromise to preserve the market while protecting those most vulnerable to its competitive forces. Not only must we alter the discourse, but we must also change our values and how we define these problems.

For Judt, the past three decades, beginning with the Reagan-Thatcher years, Anglo-American society (and increasingly other parts of Western Europe) can best be described as “materialistic and selfish.” The two decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall have been rife with rapaciousness and “consumed by locusts.” The financial catastrophe of 2008 and the attendant economic maladies—unemployment, underemployment, tightening lines of credit, the loss of homeowner equity etc.— may only be the harbinger of decades to come if we refuse to challenge the market-oriented status quo. To be sure, there are those who made it out of the crisis better off than they were before. The CEOs and executives of the major financial institutions, whose capricious and morally repugnant financial chicanery catalyzed the crash, are posting higher earning quarters and passing out billions in bonuses to their cronies. Meanwhile, unemployment in the US continues to hover near 10% and poverty rates are the highest they have been in 50 years. As inequality rises and the vast and notable accomplishments of social democrats in the 1940s, 50s and 60s crumble before our very eyes, Judt asserts “We cannot go on living like this.” No, we can’t. The ravages of unfettered capitalism and deregulation have led to a baleful present and a foreboding future.

Perhaps what is most remarkable today is the sheer fecklessness of the debate. The US government spends profligately on ineffectual military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq and simultaneously politicians upbraid any increase in public spending on social services or infrastructure improvement. Bridges are collapsing from lack of maintenance and the US public education continues to fall behind country after country in every measurable indicator. Yet, we shower the Pentagon with hundreds of billions of dollars every year. The societal effects of this are far-reaching. As social services are declining at a time period when the poor direly need them, unregulated capitalism is vampirically consolidating the wealth of the country into fewer and fewer hands. A “commitment to the unraveling of decades of social legislation and economic oversight” has resulted in conspicuously high levels of inequality. Judt utilizes a host of charts and figures that demonstrate the societal pathologies caused by high levels of inequality. Many of the ills of inequality are meaningless in our current politico-economic discourse. Economists and politicians either do not care or do not consider the psycho-maladies ramified by deep inequality. Nonetheless, a moral consideration of its effects suggests that mistrustfulness and humiliation rise in unequal societies. In short, inequality “rots societies from within.”

Thirty years of perdurable inequality have resulted in an acclimated acceptance of this state as a natural condition. The welfare states of the post World War II era eschewed the coldly materialistic notion of defining civic status in solely economic terms. Over the past 30 years, a meme has arisen and reified in Anglo-American discourse demonizing and stigmatizing government “handouts.” The epithet “Welfare Queen” perhaps best epitomizes this phenomenon. Those who crafted the policies of the New Deal and the Great Society were working to ensure that the downtrodden were not only able to survive, but able to retain a measure of self-respect. The dominance of supply side economics in the past three decades has coincided with vastly increasing levels of inequality. This is not an ideological difference; it is simply a matter of empirically verifiable fact. The study linked above notes that the top percentile now account for 23.5% of wealth (as of 2007). Since 1913, the only other year inequality was higher was 1928. Thus, 1928 and 2007, the years that predated the Great Depression and the Great Recession respectively, income distribution was at its most unequal. Inequality not only rots societies, but for those more concerned with markets, it also can shatter the foundations of the capitalist economy.

Yet, we have reached a point in our politico-economic discourse where the mere mention of raising taxes or (Reagan forbid) redistributing wealth is met with a cacophony of opprobrium. What is stunning is the inability to conceptually grasp all that has been and can be provided through the mildly redistributive policies advocated by social democrats. Judt notes, “in the US, taxes are typically regarded as uncompensated income loss.” This notion completely belies the provisions of collective goods that individuals, and in some cases small communities, could never afford on their own, such as police, post offices, schools, libraries and the military. Indeed the Democrats of the 1960’s Congress created food stamps, Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, Medicaid, Head Start, the National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This slew of publicly funded initiatives made America bear “a curious resemblance to ‘old Europe.’” The United States has also socialized the most comprehensive and prestigious higher education system in the world that is responsible for internationally renowned institutions like the University of California, Indiana University and the University of Michigan. Another triumph of American public programs is the taxpayer-financed freeway system. Today, many of these programs are crumbling as taxes are slashed and deficit hawks croon about the rising national debt. “Public programs” is a phrased more often used as a pejorative now. Judt demurs, “it has not always been this way.”

A major component of this struggle is that we simply do not know how to address or discuss these issues outside of the hegemonic discourse. Public policy is diluted, bereft of moral considerations, to issues of “profit and loss—economic questions in the narrowest sense.” This has removed the ethical questions away from political questions and couched them in the language of classical economics. As Judt notes, sanctimonious politicians in the US and UK take great pride in their “difficult choices” to welfare cuts, forgetting (or perhaps not) that the poor vote in small numbers – often rendering the political consequences moot. Policy decisions cannot continue to be made in moral vacuums and ignore “what men and women want for themselves and under what conditions those wants may be addressed.” 

It is largely forgotten (or ignored) that capitalism was once saved by the economic policies, most often associated with the British economist John Maynard Keynes, that can be called nothing but socialism. The market could not always be relied on to produce equilibrium. The depression taught Keynes, and politicians like Franklin Roosevelt, Charles De Gaulle and Clement Atlee, that some measures would needed to be taken by the liberal state to address depressions. The interjection of the state into economics was not to inaugurate a socialist era, indeed it was to ensure the vitality of the capitalist system. In the 1950’s, under Republic President Dwight Eisenhower, taxes for the top bracket reached 90%. Americans paid lip service to the virtues of the free market but heavily depended upon government regulation, subsidies, price supports, and protectionism. These policies were not divisive, as Americans generally prospered during this time. The ‘American way of life’ was born in the generation following 1945 and the gap separating the rich and poor dramatically shrank in Europe, the UK and the US. In the US and much of the West, the market was viewed as unable to achieve collective ends. One mechanism for addressing this inadequacy was a progressive income tax that, through a moderate redistribution of wealth, would eliminate extremes between rich and poor for the benefit of society in general.

This was the success of social democracy. The United States flourished as a country, rising to global preeminence, largely due to the ideals of social democracy. As recently as the 1970s, it would have been unconscionable to allow the social services, welfare provisions, state-funded cultural and educational resources dissipate in the name of austerity or “freedom,” the abused concept of the modern Right. These public provisions were almost taken for granted by the post World War II generation. Judt attributes much of this paradigm shift to what he calls the “ironic legacy of the 60s.”

In the 1960s, the New Left emerged in a comfortable world with sense of political, economic and societal security. The New Left “took on a rather selfish air.” Focusing on maximizing individual freedom, the New Left ignored the collective purposes of the Left of yesteryear. Utterly ignoring the debt they owed the welfare states they were born into, the New Left’s radical individualism and the primacy it placed on private interests inadvertently merged with incipient Right. Keynes believed that an increased role for the state, including countercyclical economic intervention, was the best defense against both economic collapse and political extremism. The economists of the Austrian thought the exact opposite. The economists and philosophers of the Austrian school—notably Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig Von Mises, Joseph Schumpeter, Karl Popper and Peter Drucker-- extrapolated from the historical lessons of their own country. After a brief flirtation with socialism, Austria fell to a reactionary coup and then was invaded and occupied by the Nazis in 1938. For these men, this catastrophe had been brought on because of the Left. Socialist intervention into the economy, with its belief in historical laws and reliance on the reason of men, crippled the state and allowed it to be trampled by Fascism. Thus, the most efficacious way to protect the liberal state was to keep it out of economic life. Thus from the historical extrapolation of the Austrians, we have a school of thought that has in large part driven the ideology of political elites in the US. Judt retorts:
Thus when we recapitulate conventional clichés about free markets and western liberties, we are in effect echoing—like light from a fading star—a debate inspired and conducted seventy years ago by men born for the most part in the late 19th century (p. 102).
In the US, much less so than in the UK and Western Europe, the maxims of the Austrians have become dogma and allowed for any minor mention of state intervention to be vituperatively censured. The intellectual paradigm shift that has its roots in the Austrian school has engendered a lionization of the private sector, what Judt calls “the cult of privatization.” This cult of privatization and the concomitant derision and destruction aimed at the state has fundamentally undermined the public sector and public life in general. The evisceration of the public sector devolves society into segmented individuals. No longer is the welfare of all intrinsically connected. This myopic focus on the individual is disintegrating the very foundation of society, leading to world more and more like the Hobbesian state of nature.

The original cover of Biggie's first album

An ever-mindful historian, Judt recognizes the failures of socialism as much as capitalism. However, he wishes to disabuse the notion that capitalism is the “best” framework for organizing society or the most effective way to ensure freedom. What is freedom in a world where unregulated markets increase inequality and poverty and disintegrate society? The Right has been able to co-opt words like “freedom” and “liberty.” The working class and middle frequently vote against their own economic interests in order to “preserve their freedom.” Without being able to reclaim this lexicon the Left will continue to struggle to promulgate its message.

The question remains: Where does the Left go from here? Frankly, Judt asserts, we need to be vociferously perturbed by our present condition. This is certainly a start. The Left has become complacent as an important component, young people, has become apathetic and indolent. Blinded by consumer goods, many young people are nothing but zombies of a materialistic, self-indulgent, post-modern society, happy to float on with their iPads and vapid Twitter posts. Those of us on the Left need to stand up and resoundingly say that we do not want to live in a society where tax cuts for the rich have primacy over ensuring that all people have access to affordable healthcare and all children are given an education that gives them opportunities in life to succeed. If we are unwilling to demand a redress of these grievances we forfeit politics “and thereby abandon our society to its most mediocre and venal public servants.” We cannot rely on our elites to affect change. Look no further than the US Senate, full of political pygmies, concerned more with procedure, gossip and vacuity than legislating and addressing the challenges our country faces.

As noted above, Judt implores our society to reconsider its values. Perhaps we cannot quantify the sheer humiliation that one must experience when taking stigmatized “government handouts,” but that does not mean that it should not factor into our debate. By redistributing wealth, societies diminish social tension and provide more equal access to services once reserved for the few. This redistribution is certainly not theft and to suggest that those most advantaged by our society should not have to give back should induce a sense of moral vertigo. In the 19th century, Karl Marx believed the only way to address the inequities of capitalism was by revolution. The New Deal and the Great Society proved that we could preserve the market and find a medium between unfettered capitalism and state-controlled economies. As the successes of these enterprises have been dismantled piece by piece, poverty has risen. Concomitantly, we are experiencing the manifold pathologies of unequal societies—crime, violence, alcoholism and mental health problems have all risen dramatically.

Our values and the aims of public policy must make a tectonic shift from a myopic fixation on economic utility. Society and the state can and should be able to provide man with the necessary groundwork for a life well lived. The inability of the Left to articulate such a vision has resulted in the loss of a moral narrative. A new moral narrative, with an imperative emphasis on reducing societal inequality, is what social democrats need to craft and cultivate. While Americans on the Right continue to disparage the state, social democrats need to emphasis all the it does and the central role it has played in the rise of this country. Washington supported and subsidized American industry, from railroads to the steel industry, from the auto industry to farmers, much of America’s economic success is because of the state, not the mythical free market. Markets eventually have a self-distorting effect that only the state can save. It is simply clear that the market cannot solely provide for the collective interest, while we have seen that the mixed economies of social democrats provide a drastically superior model to promoting collective interests.

Judt believes we must get past the word “socialism” in our discourse. Its reference instantly conjures up images of Stalin and the Soviets and sullies the conversation. However, this is arguably part of the problem in our societies. The inability to recognize that socialism, in some forms, has existed in this country for decades and that it is capable of providing for the collective while preserving individual freedom is in large part due to the Left’s unwillingness to explain it. Elsewhere Judt has suggested that capitalism has not collapsed and will not. Yet, what happened in 2008? If it was not for state intervention we would have undoubtedly experienced a collapse of the economic system. Nonetheless, Judt understands that in the US, where opportunist politicians hurl invectives like “socialist” or “fascist” with alacrity, using these words renders the conversation obsolete.

There is hope for the Left and for social democracy and Judt is right when he says that we cannot yield to those who wish to dismantle its successes. The Left must conserve these gains. Moreover, people look to the state during times of great economic calamity. It was the Great Depression that made millions of Americans rely on the state in the 1930’s and 40’s. We are experiencing a time of great uncertainty with millions of Americans in debt, unemployed, and uninsured. Are we to believe that the market will provide solutions to these fundamental maladies of our society? In reality, it is the excesses and pathologies of unfettered capitalism that have caused these problems. In the closing pages of Ill Judt quotes Tolstoy: “there are no conditions of life to which man cannot get accustomed, especially if he sees them accepted by everyone around him.” We must ensure that our society and its people do not become acclimated to inequality. Judt recognized that we must conserve and build upon the successes of social democracy or our society will continue to crumble.

Adam Gallagher

Adam Gallagher is a doctoral student in political science at George Mason University.  Better Homes & Gardens magazine has described him as "philosophically overwhelming, the giant on whose shoulders Newton must have stood," while Gawker has called his work "as challenging as the cosmos itself... clearly the offal of an interconnected mind of meta brilliance."

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Rural Roots of America’s Cities of Knowledge

Since Alex has provided a detailed and insightful review of Margaret Pugh O’Mara’s Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley (2004), I will forgo a lengthy discussion of the book’s primary arguments. Rather, I would like to examine the emergence of “cities of knowledge” in relation to America’s declining rural sector. As O’Mara argues, the transformation of high-tech knowledge-based industries into the premier sector within the American economy was part and parcel of the same processes that enabled the suburbs to become the dominant form of national spatial organization. The marriage of high-tech companies to suburban settings that defined the modern “research park” formalized the postwar synthesis that capital, power, and privilege would move out of industrial cities and into their formerly rural peripheries. While O’Mara gives substantial consideration to the devastating effects these developments had on urban areas, she pays much less attention to the equally important, but less well-known, impact that suburbanization had upon rural places. Indeed, the ascendance of America’s “cities of knowledge” cannot be explained without the historical processes that divorced rural places from agricultural practices.

In the quarter century following the end of World War II, American agriculture achieved remarkable levels of productivity. Fueled by scientific advances and New Deal dollars that allowed for greater capital investments with fewer acres in production, American farms went from small commercial units still primarily reliant on family labor to heavily mechanized large landholdings capable of achieving economies of scale for national and international markets. Postwar trading policies pitted farmers throughout the globe against one another in the world market, driving down crop prices and creating a highly competitive atmosphere where only the largest and most efficient producers could survive. These economic forces pushed smaller farm units out of production and created a crisis within rural zones as displaced farmers were forced to look for new economic opportunities outside of the agricultural sector. Concomitantly, the loss of resources from the farm sector robbed local businesses of customers and placed rural institutions—schools, hospitals, local governments, etc—under stress from declining tax bases.[1]

The decline of family farming within America laid the groundwork for the emergence of research parks located in suburban communities. With declining crop prices, farmers looked for more profitable ways of utilizing their non-productive land. Real estate developers, offering returns greater than if the land was under agricultural production, capitalized upon the distress of American farmers by snatching up cheap land for new suburban installations. This cheap land became the primary enticement for the location of research parks outside of centralized cities. The space required to create aesthetically pleasing environments and luxurious housing options capable of luring scientific talent could only be achieved once agricultural production was no longer economically viable. The decision by Stanford administrators to develop their landholdings was no doubt influenced by the declining rents commanded for extractive industries.

The relocation of American industry—both manufacturing and knowledge-based—to the suburbs served as a magnet for impoverished ruralites in search of jobs. This outmigration placed rural areas in even more dire straits as population loss, especially of young ambitious individuals, resulted in a smaller labor force and aging citizenry. During the 1960s and 1970s, many rural areas attempted to stem the flow of its people outward by attracting knowledge-based industries, especially biotech, to their local communities.[2] Hoping to entice companies with cheap labor and land, rural Americans saw high-tech companies as a possible economic savior. However, as Bruce Schulman has argued, in the case of the Sunbelt South, the new knowledge-based economy offered little to displaced ruralites who lacked the educational requirements and skills to find work in high-tech industries. The inability of the southern educational system, due to decades of underfunding, to provide the labor force required for high-tech industries resulted in what Schulman refers to as the development of “place over people.”[3] While the South (as a geographic unit) prospered, the Sunbelt’s growth created jobs that could only be filled by transplants from other regions. The failure of integrating rural Southerners into the booming economy highlights the variety of ways in which rural decline mirrored that of America’s inner cities.

The conditions of rural America presented inhabitants with painful choices. Ruralites could either leave their homes, towns, and regions in search of greener pastures in the growing suburban economies, or face deprivation, poverty, limited social services, and declining economic opportunities as the price for staying rooted in rural places. In the case of the Sunbelt South, the term “rural poverty” seemed redundant to many, as poverty became the defining characteristic of rural life. Due to its structural nature, rural poverty knew no racial boundaries[4]. White Southerners suffered along with their black co-inhabitants, although the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow meant that rural African Americans remained poorer and less likely to gain a foothold in the new suburban Sunbelt economy.[5] These examples shed light on the darker side of the Sunbelt success story as the very high-growth ideology that gave birth to the region’s renaissance was predicated upon the simultaneous decay of the rural economy.

Attempting to deal with the crippling void left by the decline of occupational farming, rural Americans came to fill many of the low-wage jobs meant to service the needs of suburban consumerism. Recent historical scholarship has shown how rural areas (most famously the Ozark Mountains as the birthplace of Wal-Mart) provided the fertile ground for the growth of mass retailing institutions that offered impoverished former farmers cheap consumer goods (low prices) and low wage jobs. Companies, like Wal-Mart, made massive profits by monopolizing rural markets, undercutting local competitors, and achieving huge turnover.[6]  Similarly, Shane Hamilton has shown how the trucking industry offered an outlet for displaced farm laborers who then helped to connect corporate agricultural with the new mass consumption institutions of suburban American—such as super markets and shopping malls.[7] All of these works highlight that the suburban good life that defined the new “cities of knowledge” was based on post-agricultural rural labor and would not have been possible without the declining circumstances of the traditional agricultural sector. 

Despite the obvious interrelationship between rural, urban, and suburban spatial developments, the postwar historical record for rural America still remains shockingly under investigated. While rural anthropologists and sociologists have done an excellent job of documenting the major economic trends within rural America, these studies have been noticeably deficient in their coverage of rural politics. We still do not have a clear idea of how the death of the farming economy affected rural politics (in both local and national arenas). While historians, including Robert O. Self, Matthew Lassiter, Lizabeth Cohen, Kenneth Jackson, and Kevin Kruse, have thoroughly documented the contours of postwar suburban politics, we have almost no comparable studies of rural America. This gap in our scholarly knowledge provides new research opportunities that will hopefully be taken up by historians of modern America.

Keith Orejel

This post is part of a series on the "post-industrial society" and the role of high-technology industries and universities in recent American history.  Past posts include Looking for the City of Knowledge and FIRE and ICE: The Realities of 21st Century Urban Development.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Getting to the Mountaintop: The Suburban Dreams of African Americans

In January of 2000, Ice Cube released his second movie in the infamous Friday trilogy, Next Friday. The plot loosely revolved around relocating Ice Cube to a suburban environment in order to escape his nemesis Debo, who had just escaped from a Los Angeles correctional facility. Though not as original, funny, or entertaining as its predecessor (New York Times critic Lawrence Van Gelder summarized a few of his objections early in the review, “it is notable chiefly for feeding a stereotype of blacks as shiftless layabouts interested mainly in recreational drugs and irresponsible sex"), Next Friday provided a pop culture visual for a distinct national metropolitan reality, Black suburbanization.

While Kenneth Jackson’s seminal work, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (1985) was not the first to examine the suburbs, Jackson’s insights crystallized a field of scholarship on suburban history. Jackson detailed the various motivations that drove suburban growth from the understandable – better sanitation, more space -- to the egregious – race and class driven prejudices. Additionally, Jackson clearly documented the federal government’s role in establishing segregated suburban communities. Two years prior, in Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940 – 1960, Arnold Hirsch unveiled Chicago’s dim history regarding segregation, violence, and race based urban renewal. Hirsch shined a light on the machinations of Chicago’s business elites, working class white ethnics, and municipal government. Through urban renewal efforts, local violence, and municipal housing policy, the great Midwestern metropolis successfully created one of the most segregated urban populations in American history. Like Jackson, Hirsch’s observations influenced writers for the next three decades. Each work remains relevant and vital to practitioners of urban history. Would Sugrue have written Origins of the Urban Crisis without Hirsch and Jackson? Doubtful.

Yet for all the credit Hirsch, Jackson, Sugrue, and others deserve, in each of these works, despite being central to events, Blacks occupy secondary roles in the narrative. Readers come to know quite well, the feelings, beliefs, and prejudices of whites, but less about Black motivations, understandings, and biases. Moreover, the traditional suburban history narrative often focuses on white resistance to black suburbanization, thus, implying that Blacks remain trapped in declining urban areas and foreign to the suburban world. As San Diego State historian Andrew Wiese points out “historians have done a better job excluding African Americans from the suburbs than even their white suburbanites.” (5)

In order to eliminate this blind spot, the past fifteen years have witnessed increased attention by social scientists and historians to this once accepted line of conventional wisdom. Sociologist Mary Pattillo-McCoy’s Black Pickett Fences: Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class (1999) serves as one example. Pattillo-McCoy’s ethnographic study of Chicago’s South Side middle class black community, Groveland pushes back against the pervasive belief that middle class blacks abandoned their economic inferiors by relocating to the suburbs. In Black Picket Fences, Pattillo-McCoy reveals a prosperous Black middle class that struggles to keep their community from tipping point as their spatial proximity to lower income areas places them at permanent risk for the very dangers their white middle class counterparts fear: lower property values, increased crime, and community dissolution. Furthermore, Pattillo-McCoy points out that many Black middle class families have extended relations that have not been able to reach middle class status. Some of these relatives remain in working class and lower income urban neighborhoods, thus, subject to the kind of forces –- drugs, crime, little medical care -- that undermine economic and social mobility. This reality makes Blacks more aware of and sensitive to (emotionally and economically) the possibility of financial decline. Clearly, such circumstances affect how Blacks view middle class status and homeownership, what it means more broadly, and even how homes are valued.

A recent New York Times article provides a clear example of Pattillo-McCoy’s argument. Though Queens remains one of the most diverse and transient of New York’s five boroughs, East Elmhurst Queens has been long established as a primarily urban Black middle class enclave. Bucking the trend of constant movement, journalist Joseph Burger outlines the neighborhood’s unique permanency. Unlike New York’s countless other constantly rotating neighborhood populations, “residents of an East Elmhurst census tract stay in their homes the longest of residents of any of the more than 2,000 census tracts in New York City, according to an examination of recently released data from Census Bureau surveys from 2005 to 2009. The median move-in date for homeowners there is 1974 — more than 36 years ago.” Any New Yorker worth his or her salt know this is rarity in the Big Apple. Located near LaGuardia airport and consisting of “unfussy” two level homes, many of East Elmhurst’s early arrivals were municipal employees – train drivers and park attendants- who in Burger’s words, stitched “together down payments for their first houses — an opportunity that drew them to the neighborhood in the first place.” Though the experience of racial discrimination bonded many in the community together, as Burger illustrates much of the neighborhood promotes a vision that sounds reminiscent of traditional middle class homeowners. Making direct reference to a homeowner identity, Burger writes, “most residents, though, say they are devoted to the neighborhood for the same reasons that any homeowner might cite. They relish the pleasures of a grassy backyard, the quiet of not having neighbors piled on floors above and the views of the Manhattan skyline.” Property values remain important as well. Local resident and Queens Borough President Helen M. Marshall speaking to Burger acknowledged this. Marshall surmised that long time residents “ took their last dollars to buy their house and they want to protect that house and they want their neighbors to do the same.” Solid local schools and an active civic life (numerous political organizations, homeowner associations and the like remain active in East Elmhurst) also serve as important draws. Yet in both Burger and Pattillo-McCoy’s examples, such Black communities remain located within city limits. So what about the suburbs?

Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century (2004) by the aforementioned Wiese helps to answer this question. Contrary to popular beliefs, Blacks, like other groups, moved to suburbs even in the early decades of the twentieth century. According to Wiese, during the early decades of Great Migration (1910-1930) hundreds of thousands of African Americans moved North and West with one in six migrants destined for northern cities settled in a suburb. Southern cities further illustrated this tendency as Blacks moved to “fringe” areas that though lacking public utilities, sanitation systems, and the like, provided a rough suburban existence. As the twentieth century progressed so to did Black suburbanization. By the 1960s, 2.5 million African Americans could call themselves suburbanites. This fails to include the “millions of others” Weisse argues that resided in the previously mentioned fringe areas.

Unlike in the postwar period, in the century’s early decades, working class blacks established suburban communities. Wiese divides them into two categories, each reflecting occupational realities: industrial and domestic service suburbs. Occupational differences resulted in sharply gendered suburbanization. Industrial suburbs featured majority male populations while the opposite was true of domestic service communities. This in turn affected leisure, local environment, work, migration, and support/kinship networks. For example, industrial suburbs offered Black women few employment opportunities, thus many, like white ethnics in the nation’s cities, took on lodgers. In contrast, Black men in domestic suburbs struggled to find work. The physical environment differed as well. Domestic service suburbs often located themselves in proximity to leafy affluent white communities while their industrial counterparts frequently featured rougher conditions as factories lacked the benefits of middle and upper class white neighborhoods. Predictably, the type of work breadwinner’s engaged in differed as well. Factory employment dominated industrial enclaves such as Detroit’s River Rouge while domestic service provided economic sustenance in places like Evanston, Illinois.

Dutifully, Wiese recounts the rise of zoning laws, racial covenants, and other forms of discrimination that arose in response to the Great Migration. Such efforts affected Black and white conceptions of space. For whites, the purchase of a suburban residence carried with it “a concept of space in which racial segregation and white superiority were taken for granted.” However, Wiese also notes the complexity of class issues. Here, Places of Their Own appears reminiscent of Becky Nicolaides’ My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920 – 1965. In My Blue Heaven, Nicolaides explores how class affected the manner in which housing was judged. One fundamental difference between white working class suburbs and their middle or upper class counterparts lay in how homes are valued. As Nicolaides points out, many working class suburbs placed value in the land use or productivity of their home rather than its worth as a commodity in speculative real estate markets. Predominantly wage earning, most of South Gate’s early citizenry constructed their own homesteads while utilizing backyard gardens or domestic industries to make ends meet. Wiese suggests that African Americans held similar though not necessarily identical viewpoints as race did intervene as did regionalism; “Looking at these aspirations more carefully reveals the outlines of a working class suburban vision rooted in settlers’ experiences in the South as well as their expectations for life in urban areas.” (84) None the less, across racial and ethnic lines, working class suburbanites utilized domestic production as a central part of their existence. Moreover, as with white counterparts, many Blacks who moved to suburban areas expressed discontent with city conditions. Additionally, the nostalgia induced by environments reminiscent of southern or rural childhoods proved a powerful draw for Blacks.

Black suburbanization occurred for economic and political reasons. Though some in the black community reached middle class status in the postwar era they could not fully share in the sensibilities and social formations of their white counterparts. Discrimination made Black social mobility, visibly represented by a home in the suburbs, a political act. In this context, not only does Wiese reevaluate African American homeownership but also the role and beliefs of Black real estate agents. This insight matters.

Often, the actions of both white and black real estate brokers accelerated the racial transition of neighborhoods. The traditional narrative follows that once a Black family moves in, agents begin pressuring white families to sell before property values drop further, often at prices that favored the agent. The agent then resells the house to a black family at a higher price. Numerous historians have documented how “blockbusting” as it is known wreaked havoc on race relations contributing to hostilities expressed by working class and white ethnics, who saw Black encroachment as a threat to the investment they had made in their home. The fact that historically working class families have held fewer diversified financial investments meant that any threat to housing values punished these families more than their middle or upper middle class counterparts. Therefore, in the 1940s and 1950s, due in part to this increased economic vulnerability, working class whites resorted to physical, symbolic, and emotional violence. Like others before him, Wiese remains critical of “blockbusting”, but his views on Black real estate brokers mitigate his argument as will be addressed momentarily.

Traditional civil rights era suburban integration narratives feature middle class black families. Wiese acknowledges this development pointing out that “most pioneers were members of an economic and professional elite, well educated and experienced with white institutions and integrated settings.” (Wiese, 13) One of the more insightful aspects of Places of Their Own lay in Wiese’s ability to illustrate the connection between this burgeoning black middle class and its working class antecedents that first established suburban footholds in the prewar period. Crediting Black pioneers for their efforts, Wiese also discusses the importance of the Black Press and Black real estate brokers in creating avenues for Black suburbanization. The press encouraged readers to conflate housing choice with basic civil rights, while reporting redlining, restrictive covenants, and private sector discrimination.

More surprisingly, Wiese explores the role of the Black real estate industry with a complexity not often seen. As discussed, real estate brokers, Black and white, emerge for many writers as, if not immoral characters in suburbanization, amoral entrepreneurs. Wiese urges readers to rethink such formulations or at least to consider them in greater depth. According to Wiese, Black real estate agents openly advertised their efforts to integrate communities. When viewed from this perspective, bringing racial transition to a community served as a “source of special pride in Realists’ efforts to expand the African American housing market.” (Wiese, 133) Black brokers saw “race progress” as a “class responsibility”. Of course, the question follows, how much of this was about racial progress and how much was an advertising ploy? Ultimately, Black brokers balanced two central motivations that need not be mutually exclusive: integration and profit. In fact, judging from the work of Wiese and others, it just so happened that the two could co-exist. Considering the rise of advocacy consumerism from the GAP to Starbucks, those modern observers wanting to condemn Black brokers, blaming them for exploiting white fears and black desperation, might want to pause and think about if buying free trade coffee is all that different. In this context, does the ability to profit or somehow financially benefit undermine the legitimacy of such acts? The odd intertwining of capitalism and advocacy/social justice raises as many question as it answers, however, Wiese’s argument serves as a provocative example of this juxtaposition.

By the 1960s and 1970s, the growing Black middle class increasingly took on suburbanization as a political statement, yet many of their reasons buying a home in the suburbs mirrored those of whites: better schools, improved social opportunities, and superior housing. Thus, through Oak Park, Illinois’s Wheeler family, black suburbanites of the period acknowledged the importance of place: “The family recognized implicitly that location was linked to inequality, that some areas, all of them reserved for whites, routinely produced the kinds of social success that they envision for their children. Like other middle class families, they wanted access to these advantages.” (242) If the Wheelers chose to move to Oak Park, they represent one form of Black suburbanization in the 1970s. Spillover represents another. Though Wiese examines East Cleveland’s difficulties through the 1970s and 80s, his example encapsulates a modern day suburban dilemma: the “spillover” of inner city residents into inner ring suburbs. “Inner ring suburbanization” occurred in metropolitan regions with smaller city cores such as St. Louis, Washington D.C. or Newark, N.J. Growing incomes, continued migration form the South, and the destruction of urban housing, most often through renewal projects, resulted in Black neighborhoods expanding into suburbs closest to the city core. Recent housing innovations like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit and HOPE VI have accelerated this process as public housing nationwide has been transformed into mixed income housing featuring both affordable homes and those at market rates. While the impact of these policies remains under debate, research has shown that many former public housing residents have moved to inner ring suburbs, though the results as some writers have pointed out remain at best unclear and in some circumstances deleterious.

One of the difficulties with summarizing Black suburbanization remains the unique way in which it manifests itself in each metropolitan region. Wiese delineates between northern and southern variants pointing out that southern Black suburbanization illustrates some clear differences from its partners to the north. For example, from 1940 – 1960, though federal policies, economic changes, infrastructural development, urban renewal and local annexation by municipalities led to a decentralization of cities nationally, this proved especially true in the South. As Wiese notes, the southern Black middle class had long established a suburban existence in the fringe or expanding areas of cities. This meant some existed within city limits and others just outside. However, with annexation many more found themselves a part of the growing municipalities they abutted. Moreover, though we often think of the single family home as the epitome of the suburban lifestyle, multi family housing emerged as a common means for southern Black suburbanization. Exploiting these forms of housing, Blacks “participated to a greater extent in the decentralization of southern cities than in any other region of the country,” writes Wiese. (165) Simultaneously, many African Americans in the region developed clear ambivalence about issues of integration choosing to focus on the pragmatic or “what was possible within the existing racial system.” (165) To many southern Blacks, undermining segregation could be achieved not through integration but rather housing equality, as Wiese explains that this meant “new housing, expanded homeownership, and a residential landscape common to middle class suburbs nationwide -- and they believed they could achieve it on a separate basis.” (166) Wiese’s insight helps to explain the archipelago of racially distinct, Black and white, suburban enclaves surrounding Atlanta and other prominent southern cities.

As Wiese approaches the last decades of the 20th century, he notes a peculiar development. Though poverty rates in Black neighborhoods fluctuated around 50% and crime rates rose while social capital declined, at the same time arose a wealthier and more prominent Black middle class. As of 1998, 33% of Black households exceeded the national median of $35,000. The linked fate that had long bound working class and poor Blacks with their better off peers, though still present, faded. Matthew Lassiter illustrated this tendency in The Silent Majority when he noted the response of middle class blacks to the busing efforts of Charlotte, N.C. Some middle class Blacks have openly protested busing for their children as one resident explained, “if I wanted my children to attend school with kids from the projects, I’d have moved next to one.” (Lassiter, 218)

In on the joke?

Nor has this necessarily led to greater integration. Writing in the March 2008 issue of Urban Affairs Review (Vol. 43/No.4), Mary J. Fischer employs the work of Wiese and others to explore how Black suburbanization has affected integration rates. In “Shifting Geographies: Examining the Role of Suburbanization in Black’s Declining Segregation,” Fischer identifies changes in racial attitudes, growth of a Black middle class, regional population shifts, and rising levels of metropolitan ethnic and racial diversity as the main four factors accounting for declining segregation. Fischer argues that Black suburbanization should be added to this list. While Blacks remain underrepresented in suburban areas, when they do achieve suburban status, these communities often exhibit lower rates of segregation when compared to Blacks living in the inner city. Of course, segregation levels remain significant as Fischer points out, “Blacks who have made the leap to suburban living still experience much higher levels of segregation than do other groups …” (Fischer, 478) As well, among minority groups, Blacks remain at the bottom of the housing hierarchy meaning Asians and Latinos often reside in greater spatial proximity to whites. “Differential patterns of segregation by racial/ethnic group, whereby Blacks are the most segregated from Whites and Asians are the least segregated, provide some evidence that a racial hierarchy is being played out spatially.” (Fischer, 479) Still, as previously noted, even these segregation levels are an improvement over those living in the inner city. Metropolitan areas around Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago, inner cities known for high levels of segregation, have increased black white interactions for black suburbanites “relative to their central city counterparts”. (Fischer, 480) One reason for lower segregation levels in venues like historically race driven Chicago, is that suburban integration levels remain within “Whites’ tolerance limits for minority contact.” (Fischer, 480) Fischer too notes regional variation suggesting that segregation in the West and South exists at levels lower than in their Northern and Eastern counterparts. This juxtaposition means that the answer to reducing segregation in each region depends on differing solutions attuned to local conditions. Moreover, in some metropolitan areas suburbanization, the very process that had attempted to exclude Blacks for decades, provides the greatest hope for homeowner integration.

Ryan Reft

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The World in 2011

As regular readers know, we at Tropics of Meta try in all things to be as much like The Economist as possible.  For this reason, we have consulted a distinguished panel of historians, political scientists, fishmongers and Daley machine hacks to weigh in on their expectations for the year 2011.  Their predictions range from likely events in academia and politics to music, fiction, and fast food -- and sometimes a combination of these fields.  So without further ado, we give you the shape of things to come:


The writers of the defunct TV show Lost will admit they were just kidding and air a new sixth season.

Columbia University will outrage animal rights advocates and community activists by showering the site of its new West Harlem campus in a rain of tiny frog fetuses.

To deflect mounting criticism over its monetary policies, the Federal Reserve will plant a rumor on Politico that former chairman Paul Volcker was replaced by a lookalike actor some time in the early 2000s. The “Paul Volcker is dead” theory will become an unexpected viral phenomenon.

Harvard historian Jill Lepore will a conduct a drive-by shooting at Gordon Wood’s Providence residence. Spokespeople for the New Yorker will claim that condescending rhetoric played no role in the year’s increase of white-on-white violence.

You think you big time?

Teaching to the test will no longer confine itself to high school education but will apply to STDs as well.

Robot rights will become a major subject of political debate and ethical concern. Conservatives will complain that the Obama administration values robot life more than human life and warn that FEMA is building an army of clones to imprison Christians. John McCain will express skepticism about laws protecting “the health of the robot.” And in an unexpected reversal, Markos “Kos” Moulitsas will appear on the Sean Hannity show, insisting that “guns don’t kill people, robots with laser eyes kill people.”

Secret genius

Failed South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Alvin Greene will be revealed to be the lead character in Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest mockumentary. Joaquin Phoenix will subsequently slide into a Brian Wilson-like spiral of depression. 

University of Wisconsin wunderkind Jeremi Suri will reveal that he has been leading a Montanaesque double life as Canadian pop sensation Avril Lavigne for the last ten years.

A dance craze that mixes elements of the Dougie and the John Wall will sweep Baghdad’s nightclubs, as well as some of its hottest spider-holes.

Surprisingly large influence on Grizzly Bear

Slayer’s South of Heaven will replace Pet Sounds as the new hipster soundtrack, leading to pentagrams constructed out of hand-crafted woodland creatures.

In order to make up for loss of state funding, the University of California system will begin charging students fees for hope.

Zoolander will emerge as the new foundational text on child labor and globalization.

Tron III will be as incomprehensible as Tron I and Tron II, but it will look great.

The Honda Fit will be the new Pinto.

Jury duty will be outsourced to South Asia.

Spoiler alert: the author was dead the whole time

Foucault’s unpublished novel Biographies Are for Losers will make The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo look like a self-published farce.

Sociologists utilizing the ideas of Habermas will create new theories regarding public space and elevators, proving that rapid vertical travel serves as modern day social mobility.

Eating Irish babies will become the new black.

During a press conference on the Obama administration's “new detention policy,” George W. Bush's Barack Obama costume will accidentally unzip while at the podium.

Olbermann smash

Keith Olbermann will die of a heart attack during an on-air “Special Comment” in which he expresses righteous indignation at Sarah Palin's seventh grade paper on reproductive rights.

John Lewis Gaddis will win the Socialist Workers Party’s Excellence in Truthful Reporting about the Boss Class award.

“I brake for insurance fraud” bumper stickers will become a national phenomenon.

Heroin chic and competitive eating will merge for a new sport: competitive rehab.

Alan Greenspan will be caught in the Library of Congress sexually molesting Atlas Shrugged.

His circumstance is somewhere between Cabrini and Love Jones

John McCain's hip hop album I Thought I Told You I Ain't No Mother F***** Maverick will top the Billboard charts for 40 weeks straight. Hit singles will include "Build the Dang Fence," "My Friends (and F**** Homies)," "That Hoe Palin," and "No Gays Getting Married in McCeezy's Military."

With circulation dwindling and financial insolvency imminent, Time and Newsweek, two of America's most venerable news magazines, decide to merge. The new magazine will be called Vapid.

The increasing penury of Americans will lead McDonald's to create a new "quarter menu." Items will include McPorridge, McPaint Chips, and McKetchup Packet Soup. Subsequently, Larry Summers will attack McDondald's for its attempt to subvert the free market.

The Replacements’ old mantra “straight to the middle” will become the new motto of the United States.

Richard Hofstadter will come back from the dead.  Upon seeing the state of History, he will kill himself.

Francis Fukuyama will declare The End of Political Science, and with any luck, he'll be right.

Mahmoud Ahmadenijad will try to give Angela Merkel a backrub.

Chicagoans will finally eat vegetables.

"Wrong" will finally become a social construction.

David Brooks will stimulate a conversation about our national character by observing that “America is an argument it has with itself about love.”


Twelve Months that Rocked the Intertubes

Eddie Murphy learned all of his moves from George Wallace

It has been a year since our first post on Tropics of Meta.  In that time, Democrats in Congress passed sweeping healthcare reform, the Tea Party took over the House of Representatives, and both Snooki and Hilary Duff became published authors.  (It can only be a matter of time before the Jersey Shore star teams up with Russell Brand to write a Snooki booky-wooky.) 

After twelve months of posting, some trends have emerged.  Most notably, we are big in the Philippines.  The lion's share of our hits have come from the United States, followed by Canada and the United Kingdom, predictably -- but we have also have had a substantial number of page visits from readers in Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Russia, Australia and Ukraine.  Many of our posts touch on themes relating to the built environment, the urban landscape, and human geography, with a generous dollop of race, class, and gender in the mix.  We have also done close readings of pop culture texts ranging from Half Nelson and A Christmas Story to the music of the Replacements and Pavement.  Below is a list of some of our favorite pieces:

Monday, January 10, 2011

Dreams of Redemption: The Quasi-Religious World of Conspiracy Theory

Leave it to Americans to invent a religion based on paperwork. Credit card bills. Birth certificate bonds. Form W-8BEN. The Titles of Nobility Amendment. These are the magical totems invoked by followers of something called the Redemption movement, a strange ideological offshoot of White Supremacist and tax resister causes that has ensnared thousands of Americans in a far-reaching conspiracy theory.

I was reminded of the Redemptionist subculture in the aftermath of Saturday’s horrific rampage in Tucson, Arizona, which killed six people and critically wounded a Democratic Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords. For many liberals, thoughts immediately turned to the rhetoric of Tea Party favorites like Sarah Palin and Sharron Angle, who encouraged their followers to resist government tyranny by (almost) any means necessary – “Don’t retreat, reload!” Palin declared; we may have to turn to “Second Amendment remedies,” Angle warned. One could be forgiven for connecting the dots between extreme rhetoric and an outburst of violence – perhaps a viewer of Glenn Beck was so enraged by Barack Obama’s Nazi/Stalinist dictatorship that he decided to take matters into his own hands – but most of us should probably have waited until the facts were in.

And what facts they are. The alleged killer, Jared Lee Loughner, is a 22 year old Arizona native who tried and failed to join the Army, named Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifesto among his favorite books, and posted incomprehensible musings on MySpace and YouTube. Loughner’s philosophy defies summarization. His opposition to a currency “that’s not backed by gold and silver” suggests that he might be influenced by the views of Ron Paul, but the bizarre non-sequiturs he posted on YouTube bear little resemblance to the Texas Congressman’s economic philosophy. Loughner appears to dream of starting a “new currency.” He speaks in a series of bizarre syllogisms that make no sense whatsoever, and tells viewers that “Every human who’s mentally capable is always able to be treasurer of their new currency.”

Posse Comitatus meets modus ponens

I recount these facts at the risk of amplifying the voice of a madman who may have intended to commit a horrendous act in order to promote his “philosophy,” such as it is. (His videos have already surpassed a million hits each on YouTube.) It is difficult to choose when faced with the dilemma of keeping quiet about important events or providing a platform for a violent ideology. On one hand, the suspect’s online ramblings seem unlikely to persuade or convert anyone watching at home. On the other hand, some Americans hold views that are only slightly more coherent than Loughner’s – namely, the followers of the Redemption or Sovereign Citizen movement.

Like Loughner, these individuals believe “you don’t have to accept the federalist laws.” Like the alleged killer, they believe that the original Constitution was somehow usurped or replaced by a new system of government that is fundamentally treasonous. Sovereign Citizen beliefs emerged out of the Posse Comitatus movement, a Nazi-inspired group founded in the 1960s that encouraged followers to resist paying taxes and uphold white supremacy. The ideology often included a hefty dose of anti-Semitism, directed at sinister cabals of international bankers who supposedly control the world. Sovereigns believe that the government of the United States was replaced at some point – perhaps during the Civil War, when the first greenbacks were issued, or in 1933, when the nation abandoned the Gold Standard. The new regime put in place admiralty law, the law of maritime travel and commerce. Tax expert J.J. McNab described the Sovereign ideology in a report for the Southern Poverty Law Center:
Since 1933, the U.S. dollar has been backed not by gold, but by the "full faith and credit" of the U.S. government. According to sovereign researchers, this means that the government has pledged its citizenry as collateral, by selling their future earning capabilities to foreign investors, effectively enslaving all Americans. This sale, they claim, takes place at birth.

When a baby is born in the U.S., a birth certificate is issued, and the hospital usually requires that the parents apply for a Social Security number at that time. Sovereigns say that the government then uses that certificate to set up a kind of corporate trust in the baby's name — a secret Treasury account — which it funds with an amount ranging from $600,000 to $20 million, depending on the particular variant of the sovereign belief system. By setting up this account, every newborn's rights are cleverly split between those held by the flesh-and-blood baby and the ones assigned to his or her corporate shell account.
Through workshops and websites, preachers of the Sovereign gospel have taught their followers that they can gain access to this account by filing a series of convoluted legal documents. In the process, they can draw on the cash and free themselves from the rules of the US government. Divided from the fake identity created for them at birth – the one that appears in all-caps on their birth certificate, Social Security card and the like – they are now free, Sovereign citizens, subject only to a common law of their own deciding. The appeal of such a vision in economic hard times, when millions are hounded by debt and despair, is not hard to understand. Sovereigns refuse to pay for hunting licenses or child support, drive with a license, or file taxes, and they assault the courts with hundreds of confusing documents that cause cases to drag on and on. Once committed to this course, believers hope to find a tax-free paradise of no rules, and some have erupted in violence when the illusion crumbles.

This conspiratorial and fantastic view of the world may seem hard to believe, but it has its followers. A group called the Guardians of the Free Republics, inspired by Texas radio host Sam Kennedy, has demanded that every one of the nation’s fifty governors step down, while declaring that it has set up common law “juries” across the country to establish a new government. Wesley Snipes appears to have embraced such theories when he declared himself a “non-resident alien” and failed to pay taxes, leading to a three year federal prison term that began last month. 

I just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance by switching to white supremacy

The Sovereign Citizen movement makes the Tea Party’s fantasies of a Marxist dictatorship look a lot less crazy, but the two groups have bled into each other to some extent. Just ask Bob Inglis, a staunch conservative who served for years as a Republican House member from South Carolina. Despite his record, Rep. Inglis suffered a crushing defeat in the Republican primary last year. Most commentators attributed the loss to a few critical words he said about Glenn Beck, and undoubtedly this misstep hurt his chances. But after the election, Inglis described some bewildering experiences he had out on the campaign trail. During a meeting at a constituent’s home:
I sat down, and they said on the back of your Social Security card, there's a number. That number indicates the bank that bought you when you were born based on a projection of your life's earnings -- I'm gonna try and not laugh here -- and you are collateral. We are all collateral for the banks. I have this look like, 'What the heck are you talking about?' I'm trying to hide that look and look clueless. I figured clueless was better than argumentative. So they said, 'You don't know this?! You are a member of Congress, and you don't know this?!'
Inglis was either part of the conspiracy or totally clueless. In any case, that particular group of voters likely had little use for him. One can sympathize with the Congressman’s confusion, as he spent years catering to a conventional checklist of conservative causes – pro-life, school prayer and the like – and did not know what to make of this baffling narrative offered by his equally baffled voters.

Historians have a stack of easy explanations for this sort of thing. We can point out the awful economy as a strain that might drive many ill-informed and desperate to a strange but promising solution to their problems. Looking further, we can see the roots of Sovereignism in the tax revolts of the 1960s and 1970s, when many middle-class Americans, particularly in the West, mobilized to fight government spending and taxation that they believed violated their property rights and squeezed them out of the American dream. As journalists and pundits often do, we can turn to Richard Hofstadter’s thesis about “the paranoid style in American politics”; in 1964, Hofstadter looked at the rise of the John Birch Society and other right-wing groups and noted that Americans had a habit of turning their anger and frustration toward imagined enemies. Some of the Populist farmers, for instance, who organized against economic injustice in the late nineteenth century blamed their problems on the nefarious doings of Jewish financiers, a common trope that has unfortunately been adopted by many American political movements.

Bernard Bailyn illuminated the deep origins of such thinking in his work on the American Revolution, showing how many colonists believed in an epic conspiracy theory about the “rights of the Englishman.” Before the Norman conquest of 1066, colonists believed, the English had lived in a state of equality, but years of political chicanery had turned the people from free men into slaves – particularly in America. The English had a special dispensation of freedom as their birthright, and the forces of tyranny were closing in from all sides. In fact, the colonial-era rhetoric about England as the last reserve of freedom in a world of despotism certainly reminds one of the truism that America is the world’s last, best hope for democracy. In any case, the emotion kernel of this view is that we are special; we have rights that have been denied by some kind of extraordinary malfeasance.

There are other sources in American culture for the dreamlike thinking of the Sovereign Citizens and a lone nut liked Jared Loughner. America has been fertile ground for new religions and belief systems, giving rise to traditions like the Church of Latter Day Saints and the Nation of Islam. Many homegrown ideologies straddle the line between cult and movement, as enterprising Americans have used their powers of oratory and persuasion to sell every kind of snake oil from Scientology to aesthetic realism. Conspiracy theories like Redemption speak to a religious sensibility that there is a world behind the world we see – the workaday life of paying taxes and getting screwed by your employer is a kind of maya, an illusion, behind which the real truth is hidden. Esoteric methods of prayer, study, or fasting can give a seeker access to this truth. For the Sovereign Citizen, the key to opening that world is a Form UCC-3 – the perfect talisman for a modern life that seems to be made up of hard luck and bureaucratic traps.

Some Sovereigns look back to a Constitutional amendment proposed, but never passed, in 1810. The origins of the Titles of Nobility Amendment (TONA) are obscure and not worth explaining in detail here, but the basic idea was that any American who accepted a foreign “title of nobility” would lose his or her US citizenship. Some conspiracy theorists believe that the amendment was, in fact, passed but has since been suppressed, and some have attempted to use TONA to expose the illegitimacy of the American system of government, as in the 2003 case Sibley v. Culliver:
These documents allege in great detail a complex conspiracy by an illegal monopoly, the American Bar Association, which resulted in a take-over of the judicial systems of this country, both federal and state, by the ABA and its related entities… It is then alleged that the ABA-controlled system is illegal and in violation of what is referred to as the "missing Thirteenth Amendment," to the United States Constitution, which stated that any person who accepts a title of nobility forfeits his United States citizenship and which Amendment was ratified but subsequently hidden or excised from the law. Since lawyers and judges accept the titles "Esquire"/"The Honorable," it is argued, they are not citizens and the entire judicial system is illegal…
Personally, I don’t find it surprising that some people refuse to believe that this Amendment never became part of the US Constitution. The authorities are often wrong, and such stubbornness reflects an unwillingness to accept conventional wisdom that, of course, can be carried too far. My grandmother once told me that George Orwell’s 1984 was a polemic meant to warn people about all the horrible things that would happen in the year 1984; when I told her that we read it in school and it was actually a fictional story about a guy named Winston Smith, she concluded that the book must have been changed to hide the truth. 

The original was better

Conservatives like David Frum and Bruce Bartlett have recently written worryingly of “epistemic closure,” in which people of any persuasion wrap themselves in a cocoon of opinions that concur with their own. People can surround themselves with entirely conservative media or entirely liberal media, hearing nothing that upsets their predetermined view of the world. In such a condition, there are no commonly accepted facts and thus no mutually recognized meanings. It’s a long way from “universal healthcare” to “death panels,” after all. In one of his strange video posts, Loughner asked a question that we may ask of many people who believe in spectacular conspiracies, like the Redemptionists or Loughner himself: “What’s government if words don’t have meaning?” 

Alex Sayf Cummings