Although I did not follow the Republican Convention closely, I did stop to listen for about a minute to a less controversial segment of Mike Pence’s speech, a moment where he was insisting that there is more that unites Americans than divides them, and ultimately, “we” are one nation. As others have pointed out in regard to Melania Trump’s plagiarism of Michelle Obama’s speech, such sentiments are such standard fare in the political rhetoric of both major parties that they can be repeated as crowd-pleasing truisms by a politician of almost any flavor and ideological persuasion. But another striking thing about such platitudes is that even in the midst of the ugliness that is contemporary conservative politics, somehow such clichés still receive thoughtful nods and encouraging applause. Meanwhile, the liberal commentating class highlights how out of joint this is with the rhetoric of fear and xenophobia, but they, too, do so in the spirit of insisting on this unquestioned and mystical unity.
Such stubborn insistence on the “one America” of Barack Obama’s (and everyone else’s, apparently) dreams is a striking illustration of just how out of touch our mainstream political culture is with reality. As others have also noted, one of the most disorienting things about the convention this week was simply watching the coverage – how bizarre to see anchors of every major news channel pose questions of posture, strategy, and “tone” as if we are dealing with minor details of appeal in a routine election that has not already long ago bypassed such pedestrian, petty “horse race” concerns. Watching the amusement with which such “analysis” proceeds is deeply frightening – with media watchdogs like these we will, eventually, get the government we deserve, regardless of which party occupies the White House.
Yet some of the key ideological notes that keep this Hunger Games-esque obliviousness humming have deeper origins than merely this particularly Orwellian moment. To a significant degree, we have the totems of “reasonable debate” and respectability politics to thank for our inability to respond adequately to the horror show that is contemporary American politics. Take, for example, Obama’s laughably inaccurate invocation, in an attempt to shame the Republicans a few years back, of how a thoughtful dialogue is apparently the way to go in securing labor rights. And in recent years, nothing has been more common than a call for respectability politics as the stalwarts of political decorum police the expressions, slogans, and activism of Black Lives Matter. Although long the norm, such finger wagging is particularly unbearable when the legacy of the civil rights movement is so frequently abused. Obscuring that in the days of Martin Luther King, sitting down at a lunch counter, organizing a march or simply going to a public school were also derided as anti-democratic and “extremist” strategies, the mainstream deployment of the liberal civil rights movement as the “right” way to do anti-repression politics propagates the lie that it was reason and moral suasion alone – rather than political pressure and calculus, in the context of urbanization and the Cold War – that led to the victories of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.
The following guest post is by Drew Starling, a PhD candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania, and Sean Nadel, a JD candidate at Columbia University.
The recent passing of Justice Antonin Scalia has given new relevance to debates about constitutional interpretation with some questioning whether originalism will simply fade away. Though the survival of originalism, absent its most renowned advocate, is still an open question, many of the criticisms of originalism will persist. Let us suppose that Lawrence Solum and Jack Balkin are right–that originalism will outlive its now-deceased standard-bearer–must it maintain the same shape that it had during his lifetime? Towards the end of Justice Scalia’s career, some legal scholars began advocating that originalists and new originalists abandon “law-office history” in favor of the methodological rigors of intellectual history. Above all, the methods advocated have been those of James Kloppenberg, Quentin Skinner, and David Hollinger, which privilege the linguistic context and semantic content of texts and, in this case in particular, the Constitution. (more…)
With the impression that the recent movie Free State of Jones did not receive sufficient attention, I decided to write a few words about a film that merits more discussion—particularly from historians. I saw the movie about a month ago without reading or hearing much about it. Perhaps one reason the movie impressed me was that I half expected it to mindlessly repeat the tedious and insidious cliché of the white male savior, whose ultimate function is to regenerate white audiences. Pioneered so deftly by James Fenimore Cooper almost two centuries ago, such narratives have served time and again to deliver white audiences a cathartic experience of sublime sorrow coupled with a sense of closure of things past. Time and again such savior tales helped transform tragedy and guilt into a sense of comfort and regeneration. In so doing these carefully plotted narratives wiped the slate clean by suggesting that we have now acknowledged our past communal tragedies and can look forward to a bright future nourished by an enduring catharsis. Indeed, even movies that did not follow The Last of the Mohicans formula to the fullest, such as The Revenant, still insisted on focusing on the white male protagonist as the focal point of a tale about the American west and the tragedy of Native American peoples.
Peters, Justin. The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet. New York: Scribner, 2016. 337 pages.
Review by Scott Richard St. Louis
Late in September 2010, a skilled programmer accessed a computer network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and executed a script designed to download JSTOR articles at alarming speed. Known as scraping, this process violated JSTOR’s terms of service and threatened to overwhelm the JSTOR servers in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Staffers at JSTOR responded by banning the scraper’s MIT IP address. However, the scraping resumed early the next morning at a different MIT IP address, and a game of tit-for-tat ensued between the JSTOR team and the MIT scraper. The problem ceased the following month, when JSTOR blocked the entire MIT campus from accessing the database on October 9. Service was restored on October 12, and the scraping ceased.
However, the problem returned late in December. A few days into the new year, engineers at MIT tracked the downloads to a network switch in the wiring closet of Building 16. There, one of the engineers discovered a laptop plugged directly into the network. The school responded by installing a surveillance camera in the closet. By January 6, the camera had captured images of a young man entering the closet to check on the laptop. Later that day, Aaron Swartz – a celebrated free culture advocate and fellow in the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University – was arrested on felony charges of breaking and entering (195-219).
At times of great political upheaval, people suddenly start paying attention to history, grasping to find past events that might provide a kind of road map for what the world is going through in the present. The last several months and weeks feel extraordinary in so many ways. The steady stream of mass killings around the world, many of which are connected to ISIS. The nomination of Donald Trump, whose candidacy is clearly unusual and seems to many unusually disturbing. Norbert Hofer of Austria’s Freedom Party nearly becoming the first candidate of the far right to win a western European presidency since World War II … and getting a second bite at the apple when the election results get thrown out. The Brexit vote and the apparent meltdown of UK politics. Cops caught on video killing African Americans in this country with seemingly little cause. The shooting of five cops in Dallas. And today an attempted military coup in Turkey. On and on it goes.
1968 seems to have emerged in recent months as the go-to historical analogy for our current global political upheavals. In the spring, it was often raised by Democrats made nervous by the Bernie Sanders candidacy who wondered if this year’s convention in Philadelphia might fall apart like their party’s 1968 convention in Chicago did. Donald Trump, too, brought back memories of 1968, though more of third-party candidate George Wallace than of Republican Richard Nixon. (more…)
Among other labors, intellectual historians attend to usage, showing how phrases, concepts, or words change meaning over time. One of the joys of doing intellectual history comes from trying to express the life-worlds of people in the past. The further back we go, it seems impossible to represent these worlds in a way that would be intelligible to those alive at a given time, but we soldier on anyway in the hopes that we might at least capture some faint echo.
Among the phrases I’ve been thinking about some lately is a commonplace I see or hear about in conversations, namely “Is that a thing?” or “Is that even a thing?” I wonder how it came to be used the way it is today, where its roots lie. I don’t have an answer, just a couple of exhibits that might eventually meet up somewhere. I apologize for how allusive all of this is. I haven’t connected the dots yet, if I ever will. I’m trying things out. I don’t have a position to defend.