For over a decade, I’ve begun my lower-division Honors course on American Social Thought with a simple exercise. After we go around and introduce ourselves, I ask the class to write down the first adjective that comes to mind when they think of the United States of America. I then go around the room, ask them to tell the class their word, and write it on the white board. When all the adjectives are on the board, I ask my students to tell me what they think the collection of descriptions they just generated says about America, themselves, and that moment in time.
I get all kinds of responses to this question. I ask them to write their words down first, because I don’t want them to be influenced by each other in the words they pick. Over the years, the collection of words has varied, fluctuating from more celebratory, to more critical as events ebb and flow. (more…)the schedule. I will do my best to stay with it. Today we proceed with chapters one and two. As noted in prior Book Club entries, my notes here are purposely not comprehensive. They’re idiosyncratic summaries in relation my interests. They focus on aspects of the chapters that catch my eye. So this, and other entries, are not traditional reviews. They are merely conversation starters. I do welcome (absolutely!) comments and observations about topics, themes, and people I neglect.
Chapter One – Born in Bloodshed: The Origins of Democracy
Chronologically speaking, this is the broadest chapter. Its survey of the precursors of pre-modern democratic thought moves us from the Greeks to Reformation Europe, and a bit beyond. It covers 500 BCE to roughly ~1600 CE. (more…)
Halfway through graduate school, I changed my emphasis from early American to twentieth century American history. I made this switch primarily because my research at the time failed to resonate sufficiently with my growing investment in contemporary politics, as I was knee deep in the waters that would eventually carry me to the left.
When consulting with my (new) adviser on what subject to pursue, they asked whether I would be interested in researching the New Right. I replied that while I definitely would be, I did not think it a good idea to make my primary sources – the stuff I would have to read day in, day out – material that would fill me with anger and despair. So instead I chose to study liberalism.
Well!, as any frequent reader of this blog likely knows, that did not go as planned. Little did I know that my exploration of postwar liberalism would lead me away from identifying as “very liberal” on Facebook to “radicalish” and then finally plain old “socialist.” Before too long, I found myself in the position of working on a project that requires me to read things that make my eyes bleed.
Searching for a fitting post for this surreal week, which will see Donald Trump’s inauguration, I stumbled upon an oft neglected Walt Whitman poem that seems to capture the carnivalesque spectacle we will behold over the next four years. Unlike Bakhtin’s carnivalesque however, this episode will most likely not prompt a challenge to the powers that be, but will rather help retrench and revanche longstanding power structures in American society.
Quite fittingly perhaps, Whitman released this poem, first entitled “Poem of the Proposition of Nakedness,” in 1856 for the second edition of Leaves of Grass, as his beloved nation was disintegrating before his eyes. This was the year that saw the election of James Buchanan, widely thought of as one of the worst presidents in the country’s history. It was also the year of Senator Charles Sumner’s infamous caning and of bloody clashes in Kansas between anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces over the future of the West.
Today we commemorate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. In our national imaginary, some days aren’t like the other ones. The ordinary rituals and regular sequences of our lives get interrupted. On national holidays, we take part in rituals observed far less often, or we experience other ways of being that are on the way to becoming ritual. For now, and for the foreseeable future, Martin Luther King Day is unique among the other momentary interruptions. Its recentness makes it more solemn than other official days. A good number of us were alive before the holiday came into being in 1983. We also have yet to reach the point where Martin Luther King, Jr. might feasibly no longer be alive had he not been murdered in 1968. He would have celebrated his eighty-eighth birthday yesterday. For reasons like these and a whole host of other, more important ones besides, we haven’t yet done the amount—nor the kind—of collective forgetting that makes most national holidays playful. There are no fireworks or parades. I’ve never been to a King day barbecue or party; a “breakfast” maybe, a ‘luncheon” or “dinner” to be sure, but not a barbecue or party. Retailers have yet to capitalize on this day like they do Presidents’ Day. They don’t offer bargains on cars or mattresses, at least not yet anyway. King Day is still a day for thinking rather than deals—now more than ever. That makes it a day for intellectual history too.