Subscribe via RSS Feed

Tag: "books"

Reading in Prison

[ 85 ] September 25, 2016 |


Above: A man too dangerous for Texas prisoners

The U.S. prison system is primarily designed to lock up people of color, control their labor, and humiliate them. There is very little about justice in the criminal injustice system. Anything that potentially empowers prisoners is something to be eliminated. In Texas especially, that includes reading anything that might possibly inspire prisoners.

Paul Wright, executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center and editor of Prison Legal News, says Texas has 15,000 banned books but the list “is growing exponentially. Once a book goes on it never comes off.”

The Texas list is not just long but diverse. It includes former Senator Bob Dole’s World War II: An Illustrated History of Crisis and Courage; Jenna Bush’s Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope; Jon Stewart’s America; A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction; and 101 Best Family Card Games. Then there are books banned for what TDCJ calls “racial content,” such as The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, the Texas football classic Friday Night Lights, Flannery O’Conner Everything That Rises Must Converge, and Lisa Belkin’s Show Me a Hero, which depicts the struggle to desegregate housing in Yonkers, New York in the face of institutional racism.

But don’t worry: Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, David Duke’s Jewish Supremacism, and the Nazi Aryan Youth Primer are all kosher. (Clark would not directly respond regarding this issue.)


Book Notes

[ 7 ] July 5, 2016 |


As I am desperately trying to write the draft of my book on strikes, one of the things I’ve had to sacrifice is writing book reviews here. They take too long to do well. But I did want to note a few relatively recently published books I’ve read recently that could be of interest to you.

Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time

This book got a lot of press, mostly for good reasons. Katznelson’s point that FDR had to rely on the South if he wanted to get any of his legislation passed and therefore had to compromise on all of it to preserve the racial order is highly useful, especially given the purity politics of the contemporary left that complains about incrementalism and then cites incredibly flawed and compromised New Deal legislation as counterexamples. So this is an invaluable point, richly detailed and also useful to show that many southern legislators could be quite economically progressive if the only beneficiaries were white people. But the half of the book on World War II really doesn’t add much to the story or the historical debate. And I’m really confused as to why, after a whole book on the Democratic Party needing to please the South, Katznelson does not discuss Truman’s decision to integrate the military in 1948.

Shannon Elizabeth Bell, Fighting King Coal: The Challenges to Micromobilization in Central Appalachia

Despite this book reinforcing my usual frustration with anthropological methodology (I get why people wouldn’t want their names used in a study like this. But if you are going to write “the largest coal producing county in West Virginia,” just name the damn county), this book asks a really vital question. We have lots of books on why people become activists. But isn’t the more useful question why don’t people become activists? Exploring the fight over mountaintop removal in West Virginia and the loyalty of West Virginians to coal despite what it does to their health and their land without actually providing many jobs, Bell helps answer this question. Very useful book. Highly recommended to those who take activism seriously.

Bruce Levine, The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South

Levine doesn’t exactly break new ground here, but this is a very good overview of the Civil War era, told with a focus on Southern planters watching their world fall apart around them. Reading the schadenfreude is not only interesting and insightful, but amusing too. Pretty good book. General readers will enjoy this.

Nancy Woloch, A Class by Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers

This is a very good overview of the complexities of sex-specific labor laws in the twentieth century. Did they protect women or do they hurt women by being paternalistic and cutting them out of jobs? Mostly, as Woloch demonstrates, they proved useful as wedges to creating broader labor law that covered both sexes. Unfortunately, people like Alice Paul and the National Labor Party saw it the other way and turned politically conservative, fighting not only sex-specific labor law, but all labor law. Woloch extends the book to the cases of the 1970s and 1980s where companies tried to exclude women workers by not allowing them to labor in hazardous jobs.

Food History Reading List

[ 26 ] April 28, 2016 |


Backlist has published an excellent food history reading list for those of you interested in those sorts of things. I did a labor history reading list for them a few months ago. These are good lists and excellent primers for smart readers like you who want to read more history and support the efforts of poor historians through your generous readership.

This Day in Labor History: March 15, 1940

[ 39 ] March 15, 2016 |


On March 15, 1940, John Ford’s film version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, was released to universal acclaim. This was perhaps the greatest moment of the cultural left during the Great Depression. Of all the New Deal-era art that broadly made up the Popular Front, none were more well-remembered and beloved than the book and film versions of The Grapes of Wrath, despite and possibly because neither Ford nor Steinbeck was closely associated with that movement.

Steinbeck’s powerful 1939 novel was a sensation. Its tale of the Joads and their bitter journey from Oklahoma to California in search of work and a new life was a huge hit. Produced at the tail end of the worst economic crisis in American history, it galvanized attention on the plight of the so-called Okies, even if it didn’t lead to any policy to alleviate their problems, despite the fact that the book and the film both played up the Resettlement Administration camp that treated people decently, with the film even going into a closeup on the RA logo. The plight of white migrants to California had received a good bit of attention from artists, most notably in the photographs of Dorothea Lange. These migrants, more victims of New Deal farm policy that encouraged consolidation and industrial farming than the Dust Bowl, as most, including the fictional Joads, originated well east of the Dust Bowl, were part of the national crisis of the Great Depression, which led to a lot of hand-wringing, no shortage of fear, and a belated and relatively small government response to provide relief for these small farmers. The Grapes of Wrath focused national attention on their plight, especially with the release of the film.

John Ford was a brilliant choice to direct the film adaptation. Although today best known for his often racist westerns, he was more of a broad believer in a salt of the earth white populism that simply assumed a Turnerian view of history (which was almost ubiquitous during the New Deal among intellectuals, politicians, and artists. That is on full display in the film. The original New York Times review well-summarizes the popular reception to it:

We know the question you are asking, have been asking since the book was acquired for filming: Does the picture follow the novel, how closely and how well? The answer is that it has followed the book; has followed it closely, but not with blind, undiscriminating literalness; has followed it so well that no one who has read and admired it should complain of the manner of its screen telling. Steinbeck’s language, which some found too shocking for tender eyes, has been cleaned up, but has not been toned so high as to make its people sound other than as they are. Some phases of his saga have been skimped and some omitted; the book’s ending has been dropped; the sequence of events and of speeches has been subtly altered.

The changes sound more serious than they are, seem more radical than they are. For none of them has blurred the clarity of Steinbeck’s word-picture of the people of the Dust Bowl. None of them has rephrased, in softer terms, his matchless description of the Joad family’s trek from Oklahoma to California to find the promised land where work was plenty, wages were high and folk could live in little white houses beside an orange grove. None of them has blunted the fine indignation or diluted the bitterness of his indictment of the cruel deception by which an empty stew-pot was substituted for the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end. And none of them has—as most of us feared it might—sent the film off on a witch hunt, let it pretend there had just been a misunderstanding, made it end on the sunrise of a new and brighter day.

Steinbeck’s story might have been exaggeration; at least some will take comfort in thinking so. But if only half of it were true, that half still should constitute a tragedy of modern America, a bitter chapter of national history that has not yet been closed, that has, as yet, no happy ending, that has thus far produced but two good things: a great American novel (if it is truly a novel) and a great American motion picture.

Henry Fonda as Tom Joad was classic casting. With his flat Midwestern accent and good looks, he personified the prototype of the All-American young man, an image he would build upon for his entire career (and of course play against type in Once Upon a Time in the West, nearly 30 years later). His ideological transformation from rough and tumble Oklahoma white to organizer and lefty is a story of what happens to people when they are beaten down enough. Sure, grandpa dies, the brother-in-law runs away, and the family falls apart. Preacher Casey gets murdered by the farm owner thugs. But the struggle continues. Ma keeps the rest of the family together (and Jane Darwell was brilliant in this role) and Tom builds on Casey’s legacy, not as an ideological radical but as a man seeking answers to the poverty of his life.

Steinbeck himself was thrilled with the film version, writing “No punches were pulled. In fact….it is a harsher thing than the book.” And as great as the book is, the film is better as it distills the key points with great power while rewriting the book’s dark and somewhat gratuitous ending to provide some sort of hope at the end, as opposed to the flood and endless despair of the last section of the book.

The film and the book both make one huge and regrettable error, which is erasing non-white labor from the land. California was not this agricultural paradise where everyone could eat all the oranges they wanted. Those farmers had always sought cheap, exploitable labor, whether Mexican, Filipino, Japanese, or Okie. It was to serve these farmers that Mexico was exempt from the 1924 Immigration Act. They recruited labor from the Philippines after Japanese migration ended. Those immigrants would play a key role in the history of farmworker organizing. The Bracero Program would be a solution for the disappearance of white labor from the fields during World War II. But neither Steinbeck nor Ford had any interest in these non-whites at all and their stories and histories are a very conspicuous absence.

In the past, I’ve wondered what would have happened to Tom Joad in the future. I still say that had he not been thrown in jail for life by the cops or killed as an organizer, he would have fought in the Marines in World War II. Had he survived, he and his family would be working in the California defense plants like many other Depression era migrant whites, he would have bought a home in Orange County, and probably voted for Goldwater in 1964.

This is the 173rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

History for the Masses

[ 87 ] December 29, 2015 |


Yesterday, in a different forum, our valued commenter Bijan Parsia complained about Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Basically, his complaint, if I may summarize, is that it is awfully simplistic. I agree, as I have stated before. The basic problem with Zinn is that while it was a very useful book in 1980, it is badly dated today. All those stories about the rich exploiting the poor, women, and people of color and all those stories about how people rose up to fight their exploitation have been explored in great depth by historians. The appeal of Zinn today is the idea that history teachers and professors don’t teach that stuff–but of course most of them, at least at the college level, very much do teach a bottom up history today. What often happens though is that the student is not ready to hear that history when they taking a 100-level intro U.S. history course at the age of 18. So Zinn still feels fresh to some readers. But to others, who do know some of this material, A People’s History reveals little but its own limitations. That’s not really a criticism–it’s a 35 year old book. Most 35 year old history books have limitations to today’s reader.

But there isn’t a ready text to replace Zinn either. Perhaps the closest is James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, which covers some of the same ground from a similar perspective. It has great value, but also is not a one-volume overview of U.S. history from a leftist perspective that takes into account the vast historiography of the past 50 years.

I told Bijan I’d provide some reading recommendations. Here are a few books I think any reader of this site would find useful and interesting. These are well-written and often argumentative books that provide a lot more complexity than Zinn offers and also are well-written. As I’ve said a few times, we are in a renaissance of good historical writing from scholars appealing to popular audiences and providing a lot more complex looks at tough questions than authors like Ron Chernow and David McCullough. People love those guys and that’s fine, nothing wrong with that. But they are also both basically celebrity biographers of historical figures that aren’t really forcing audiences to confront the dark side of American history in the way that Zinn does. On the other hand, we are lacking in good overarching synthesis. I suppose one might look at Eric Foner’s two-volume textbook as a possible synthesis, but it’s a college-level textbook and that style simply doesn’t lend itself to the same sort of writing and audience, as good as it may be. It’s also priced like a textbook.

Anyway, here are some books I think are really accessible to modern readers that provide pieces of what Zinn purports to do.

1) Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. I’ve reviewed it here. Some don’t like it because it is so openly political, but that’s hardly a problem for me or for most of you. An angry history of the Gilded Age written from the perspective of the New Gilded Age.

2) Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. We actually really need a new synthesis of Reconstruction and historians to challenge Foner’s dominance over this field, but this remains a wonderful book that retains great value today. See also Foner’s The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.

3) Joseph McCartin, Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America. Simply a great book on a key issue in modern history.

4) Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. I’m not sure that a short list like this should have a companion book to the McCartin, but the 1970s is blowing up in the recent historiography and this is a wonderful work of history.

5) Tiya Miles, The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story. You might not think a book about a house in Georgia would be that amazing, but this is a fantastic microhistory that introduces readers to whole words of Cherokee history, domestic violence, trading networks, changing racial standards, white supremacy, and displacement. A must read.

6) James Green, The Devil Is Here In These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom. Green’s new book centers the story of West Virginia coal miners right smack in the middle of the American freedom struggle, challenging historians for leaving them out. I reviewed this professionally so I can’t really go into it too much here, but if you read one 2015 history book, read this one.

7) James Turner, The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964. Title pretty much sums it up.

8) John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America. A classic It’s also fascinating and heartbreaking story about cultural clashes in the 18th century.

9) John Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. How the Japanese saw the Americans and how the Americans saw the Japanese.

10) Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right. Easy to read and very insightful if you want to know how the modern craziness started.

11) Eric Rauchway, Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America. A very reader friendly book using McKinley’s assassination as an entry point into a rapidly changing and very contentious America.

12) Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York. An older book but still one of the great social histories. Peiss makes it very easy to root for the immigrant kids of New York to make a new youth culture that will eventually transform the U.S.

13) Timothy Tyson, Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Wiliams and the Roots of Black Power. This will really change your view of the civil rights movement.

14) Sara Dubow, Ourselves Unborn: The History of the Fetus in Modern America. A must-read for anyone concerned with reproductive freedom.

15) Jack Metzgar, Striking Steel. Half a history of the steel industry centered on the 1959 strike and half a personal memoir of growing up in a steel family, this is outstanding.

I’m not really satisfied with this list because a lot of the books are still monographs. It also reflects my own reading, which is defined largely by my scholarly interests, so there is a lack of books on the American Revolution, about which I basically don’t care, and slavery, which I should read more of but I don’t have time. I could have included some of the new critically acclaimed studies on slavery that I have not read but I figured that would be misleading. But barring spending even more time on this post than I already have, I can live with it. However, I am sure that many of you have recommendations on excellent histories as well.

Empire of Timber

[ 43 ] October 26, 2015 |


Listen people, you have two choices. You can eat this month. Or you can buy my new book Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests, published by Cambridge University Press, at the modest price of $100. Or $80 on Kindle. Don’t ask me why. Anyway, it it available and I can only say that after working on something that long (12 years since I finished my comprehensive exams and started conceptualizing it), I’m amazed that it is out and a real thing that ended up in my hands today. No words. It will be a much, much cheaper paperback in about a year. This is the description from Cambridge:

The battles to protect ancient forests and spotted owls in the Northwest splashed across the evening news in the 1980s and early 1990s. Empire of Timber re-examines this history to demonstrate that workers used their unions to fight for a healthy workplace environment and sustainable logging practices that would allow themselves and future generations the chance to both work and play in the forests. Examining labor organizations from the Industrial Workers of the World in the 1910s to unions in the 1980s, Empire of Timber shows that conventional narratives of workers opposing environmental protection are far too simplistic and often ignore the long histories of natural resource industry workers attempting to protect their health and their futures from the impact of industrial logging. Today, when workers fear that environmental restrictions threaten their jobs, learning the history of alliances between unions and environmentalists can build those conversations in the present.

That pretty much sums it up and of course is a theme I have talked about so many times here–that workers and environmentalists are not natural enemies and that an examination of the past elucidates this point again and again.

This picture also includes a union bug timber hammer an old Carpenters union activist gave me during my research, a ponderosa pine cone from Deschutes County, Oregon, and a crack in my wall which may or may not say anything about conditions at the University of Rhode Island.

Worth mentioning as well that you can still of course buy my book from earlier this year, Out of Sight, for the “let’s steal half of Mexico to expand slavery” price of $18.46.

The Civil War’s Aftermath in Graphic Novel Form

[ 13 ] April 15, 2015 |


Above: Lincoln’s funeral

Ari Kelman and Jonathan Fetter-Vorm excerpt their new graphic novel on the Civil War. You should read it.

Black Power Revisionism

[ 70 ] March 27, 2015 |


Randall Kennedy has an interesting long book review of new biographies of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Huey Newton. I haven’t read any of them, not even Manning Marable’s acclaimed Malcolm book, but there are a couple of points worth discussing here anyway. First, Kennedy accuses each author of engaging in hagiography over proper historical analysis. I can’t judge the claim, but that does seem to be the case with the Newton book, which just seems bad from multiple reviews. As for the other two, both Marable and Peniel Joseph (who is speaking at URI next week so come out if you are around) are both outstanding historians, but it is often a problem with biography that authors start apologizing for their subject. And as Kennedy points out, there is plenty that is distasteful about both. I find that more convincing with Carmichael, whose leadership of SNCC was disastrous and who seemed somewhat less serious about what he was doing after he achieved fame (although he did largely avoid the spotlight after he went to Africa). But with Malcolm, Kennedy’s problem is the Nation of Islam. I don’t think too many people are really going to defend NOI at this point. Its murders of its own members and the rank hypocrisy of Elijah Muhammad are well known now. But while Kennedy admits that Malcolm shows significant room for personal growth, he also wants to make sure that he is held accountable for his actions before his expulsion from the organization in 1964.

Well, OK, but this gets to my second point, which is about context and the passage of time. In other words, it is very easy to write in 2015 about how the Nation of Islam was horrible, how the Black Panthers were violent and cruel, and how Carmichael ran SNCC into the ground. It’s not that Kennedy forgets the context in which these people were working, but it’s also worth reiterating it. Malcolm and Newton were operating in urban centers where African-Americans had moved for the promise of a better life, but that promise had been a lie. In 1960s Oakland, Los Angeles, Newark, Chicago, Detroit, etc., police brutality was a way of life. There were no jobs. Most people could not afford a car. Public transportation was almost nonexistent. The only economic outlet for many was drugs. The Civil Rights Movement could win concrete victories in the South because it battled legal segregation, but the de facto segregation of northern and western cities made victories much, much harder to win, as Martin Luther King and the SCLC found out in the failed Chicago housing campaign of 1966. It’s hardly surprising that black pride and black power organizations, whether Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, the Nation of Islam, or the Black Panthers, would rise out of this. It’s equally unsurprising that those organizations would be problematic and violent, as violence ruled the communities from which they arose and organized.

As for Carmichael, while his leadership of SNCC didn’t work out, the overall move away from racial inclusion to black power within the student led side of the Civil Rights Movement also makes sense in context, even if it was a bad idea strategically and organizationally. Let’s not underestimate the bitterness that led SNCC to design Freedom Summer because its organizers knew that only when white kids were killed would the media pay attention to anything happening in rural Mississippi. This analysis was of course exactly right when the three SNCC workers, two white, were murdered by the KKK. Ten years of struggle, suffering, and death in the face of overwhelming violence is a bravery I can barely imagine. If people burn out and snap or turn to black power and racial exclusion, it’s not surprising at all. It says much for John Lewis’ character that he never went down this road, but it is an understandable response to the horrifying experiences of these people’s lives.

Finally, I thought this was unfair to Malcolm X:

While Malcolm X and other followers of Elijah Muhammed put on cathartic performances in safe surroundings, however, King, Carmichael, Medgar Evers, John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Farmer, Julian Bond, Bob Moses, Diane Nash, James Lawson, and others risked their lives repeatedly in face-to-face confrontations with heavily armed, trigger-happy white supremacists. While Malcolm X was taunting King and company for rejecting violence, the tribunes of the Civil Rights movement were successfully pressuring the federal government to bring its immense weight to bear against the segregationists through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While Malcolm X talked tough—“if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery”—he and the NOI refrained seeking revenge when racist police brutalized Black Muslims. While Malcolm X spoke with apparent knowingness about racial uplift, at no point did he communicate a cogent, realistic strategy for elevating black America.

But Marable is not denigrating any of those other civil rights activists. No one is saying those people did not do amazing things or put their lives at risk. They were also, outside of Hamer, college-educated. This movement Kennedy lauds in comparison to Malcolm was a decidedly middle-class movement. They came out of a different African-American tradition than Malcolm. Second, one could basically say the same thing about the relationship between W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, with the former safely ensconced in Cambridge and the latter risking his life in rural Alabama. Yet in this case, even most historians today sympathize with DuBois instead of Washington (in part because the Civil Rights Movement proved DuBois’ “talented tenth” idea correct and Washington’s rejection of political gains wrong). But mostly I don’t think this is a useful comparison to make at either time. There were many paths to African-American freedom. Some were more effective and some more problematic, but I don’t think basically calling Malcolm a poseur compared to SNCC activists is useful.

It’s an interesting and challenging review, but I think if anything Kennedy is moving toward hagiography toward the mainstream CRM (after all, he might well call Malcolm sexist and socially conservative, but MLK could certainly be accused of the same) and therefore overcompensates in his analysis of these people. He occasionally makes pretty easy judgements about which group was right or wrong in 1965 when in reality everyone working for black freedom in the 1960s faced overwhelming white violence and police brutality. That certainly doesn’t mean that we should take Huey Newton at his word or not question the self-mythologizing all three of these men could engage in, but, as always, everything should be contextualized and our own positions questioned.


[ 56 ] March 6, 2015 |

In 2014, I completed two books. Out of Sight is coming out in June and Empire of Timber is probably being published in March 2016 if not a touch earlier.

So what to do in 2015? I suppose I should just watch baseball for the next 8 months or find a way to relax. But I don’t really do that. The only answer at this point in my life is to write another book.

This week I signed a contract with The New Press for a book currently titled No Surrender, No Retreat: A History of America in Ten Strikes. This will be my synthesis of American labor history using ten labor actions as a entry point into the larger stories of working people that define a given era. I’m still working out precisely which ten to choose, but they will probably include the Lowell Mill Girls strike of 1845, slaves walking away from the plantations at the end of the Civil War, a couple of the classic Gilded Age strikes, the Flint sit-down strike, the Oakland General Strike of 1946, Lordstown, and the Air Traffic Controllers or Phelps-Dodge union busting of the 80s. The book will end with the Justice for Janitors campaign, which I think is the logical way to sum up where we are at now–SEIU, Latinos and organized labor becoming a movement of immigrants, service workers. The book will not be in depth discussions of the details of these actions, but rather a way to retell American history for a popular audience that centers the focus on working people.

No publication date yet obviously and it won’t be for awhile since I haven’t written it yet.

Greil Marcus

[ 64 ] March 5, 2015 |

I was going to try and write a proper review of Greil Marcus’ new book The History of Rock N’ Roll in Ten Songs for the blog. But I found myself having not a lot to say about it. Mostly, I thought Marcus’ over the top writing style and tendency to mythologize rock pioneers took over too much here. Imagining what happens if Robert Johnson lives and basically connecting him to every major musical event of the 20th century, going all the way to Obama’s inauguration seems a bit, um, far-fetched, while some of the chapters hardly make sense. There’s a lot of sections where clarity really struggles to be achieved. Plus he really likes The Doors. There were some interesting things here, such as comparing versions of “Money Changes Everything” over time from Cyndi Lauper and Tom Gray. And his discussion of Christian Marclay’s experimentation is quite interesting. But most of the chapters don’t work well.

So I guess that is some sort of review. It’s rare that I don’t like a book about music. But I didn’t like this book. He needs a stronger editor. It’s hard for a big star to deal with editors. But if you consider how Daniel Lanois forced Dylan into actually making a good album for once with Time Out of Mind and how that transformed the great songwriter’s career (once again), sometimes the genius has to suck up the ego and deal with it.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin and International Conceptions of Race in America

[ 2 ] February 28, 2015 |

Interesting essay on the influence of the racial stereotypes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin on German conceptions of American racial issues.

For Jim O’Loughlin, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a popular artefact through which changing concerns about race and nationhood can be understood, because it served as an ‘agent of cultural change for almost one hundred years.’[xi] Since this novel and its adaptations became one of the early examples for the mass circulation of popular culture, this is almost as true internationally as it is in the United States. But the process whereby Uncle Tom’s Cabin was brought to international audiences meant its racist stereotypes were not necessarily accompanied by the original novel’s redeeming feature – its antislavery message. The international cultural memory of American history presented Uncle Tom’s Cabin continues to rely on such stereotypes, which are damaging because of their clichéd contemporary familiarity.

A sense of disconnect therefore exists between the historical evaluation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the contemporary willingness to use ‘Uncle Tom’ as a politicised rhetorical device. A historical lens enables readers to at once understand the novel as a flawed product of its time and an important agent of social change. Stowe’s personal commitment to antislavery went hand in hand with the dissemination of racist stereotypes that were nonetheless common in nineteenth-century America, but the contemporary reiteration of such stereotypes in America and abroad is not an innocuous mistake. History is intrinsic to making any meaning of the phrase ‘Uncle Tom’, so those who mobilise it understand its racist legacy. This does not overlook the historical foundations of such epithets, but in fact shows a willingness to mobilise a history of chattel slavery and racial hierarchy for political gain.

As David S. Reynolds writes, ‘We may hope for a time when America is, in President Barack Obama’s phrase, “beyond race,” when we can erase the negative usage of Uncle Tom because it is inapplicable to social reality.’ Yet Obama himself perhaps most prominently continues to experience the legacy of nineteenth-century popular culture in a way that debunks the myth of a post-racial America. The recent Sony hacks, where executives speculated over whether Obama would like films such as Django Unchained (2012) and 12 Years a Slave (2013), the latter based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 slave narrative of the same name, show how history and popular culture are very much linked to the expression of racism in America.[xii] The Uncle Tom’s Cabin phenomenon, the success of which was intrinsically linked to the expansion of mass culture across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, demonstrates the degree to which national prejudices can be naturalised, rather than critiqued, through international circulation. When transported beyond the United States, the racism within American popular culture has subsequently been used to undermine a president beyond American borders. Uncle Tom’s Cabin remains at the locus of the referential network upon which this political rhetoric continues to be built.

The Age of Acquiescence

[ 166 ] February 21, 2015 |

I haven’t read Steve Fraser’s new book, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, but after reading this review, I sure plan to do so.

Fraser identifies a number of reasons why Americans acquiesce to the class warfare of the New Gilded Age:

Fraser explains the economics of decline effectively. The working class may have abandoned Marxian “class struggle,” but, he says, the capitalists haven’t; they have pretty much won the class conflict by destroying labor unions. But the problem for him goes beyond economics; the disappearance of the left-wing political imagination is his real concern. His analysis thus focuses mostly on the cultural and ideological.

He points to the distractions offered by consumer culture, “an emancipation of the imaginary and the libidinal whose thrills and dreaminess are prefabricated.” Consumerism and mass media offer pleasures that are private, that take people away from the political and social and economic grievances they share with others.

He emphasizes the particular idea of “freedom” that provides the heart of Republican Party ideology: Freedom in America is the freedom to succeed through individual initiative (rather than cooperative effort). Our heroes are the entrepreneurs, the “job creators,” and the enemies of freedom are the government regulations and taxes that shackle their creativity and energy (and which otherwise might go to serve social needs and the public good).

The ’60s maxim “the personal is political” meant that issues that seemed private — above all, women’s oppression — were in fact widely shared and required collective action to bring change. Fraser argues that what began as a call for liberation has today become a justification for avoiding the political, for substituting personal solutions for political ones: eat organic food, drive a Prius, send your kids to charter schools.

It’s an interesting thesis. As the review points out, Americans haven’t acquiesced on social issues–thus the gay rights movement, challenges to police violence, etc. But on economic issues, we have. And I think that’s right. Not all of us necessarily, but the capitalists did an outstanding job after the fall of the Soviet Union is discrediting even the slightest possibility that any system other than unrestrained American-style capitalism could work. Socialists were pushed back on their heels while class consciousness collapsed in American society (although it was already in decline since the 1950s). Horatio Alger myths have existed in American society since before Alger wrote them, but never before have so many people believed in them so whole-heartedly. And I don’t think student debt loads, economic stagnation, recession, and growing income inequality has really changed it that much, at least if my students are any sign.

The arguments about consumer culture and individualism I think are particularly interesting. I don’t think consumerism and resistance are necessarily counter to one another, but there is something about a society where even that resistance is heavily individualized and where one wears their politics not on their sleeve, but on their arm like a new tattoo that shows their own personally crafted politics for them. This highly individualized politics empowers people to resist on one level but also empowers them to drop out if the movement they’ve joined doesn’t take this or that position. Occupy did a lot but this atomized individualism is a big part of the reason why the same spirit and same problems didn’t allow it to continue and then didn’t reignite in some other way.

Anyway, I’ll try to review Fraser’s book for the blog and explore these issues in greater detail.

Page 1 of 1112345...10...Last »