As with any era of intellectual history, the post-civil rights period (or whatever future historians will call this era) requires significant scrutiny of its works of art, literature, and general culture. Several novels have been released in the last year that offer great detail of the black experience across the African Diaspora. Covering genres as vast as literary fiction, science fiction, and alternate history, these novels will no doubt be studied by intellectual and cultural historians for what they say about what it means to be black in the early 21st century.
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. Continue reading