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.
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.
For what seems like half of my life and the entire time I have written at this site, I have been talking about my logging book. Well, as of today, Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests is under contract with Cambridge University Press. No official publication date yet, but it should be sometime next year and I will keep readers posted.
I received a request for a list of environmental policy/history books. I make no claims to being an authoritative source here and others will have different books, but here are 10 books on the history of environmental policy I find useful. I am thinking of these terms broadly as well. In no order:
1. Samuel Hays, A History of Environmental Politics since 1945.
Pretty self-explanatory, good overview of the issue from the dean of environmental policy history.
2. James Morton Turner, The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964
An excellent recent overview of wilderness politics after the Wilderness Act.
3. Christopher Wells, Car Country: An Environmental History
How did we become a car-centric society and what are its environmental implications?
4. Andrew Hurley, Environmental Inequalities: Class, Race, and Industrial Pollution in Gary, Indiana, 1945-80.
Who has access to clean nature and who does not? Guess what–it’s about race.
5. Karl Jacoby, Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation
What were the politics and actions behind the creation of hunting law and national parks?
6. Nancy Langston, Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES
A key book about the science and policy behind synthetic chemicals and women’s bodies
7. Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West
Water policy, which we must understand to talk about the West.
8. Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River
How policymakers and industry completely reshaped a river and its ecosystem.
9. Joseph Taylor, Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis
Fisheries policy and its many mistakes is hugely important for environmental policy
10. Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On: People, Politics, and the AIDS Epidemic.
A great piece of journalism rather than a history but it holds up as an indictment of the abject failure of the Reagan Administration during the greatest public health crisis of the second half of the 20th century.
I find this list slightly dated, which surprises me since I keep up on the historiography pretty well. It’s also I should note quite different than what I think the best books of environmental history are, although these are all good. Strictly thinking about policy.
I have no doubt there will be many great recommendations in comments as well, including books I probably just forgot.
Robert Stone, author of Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise, and many other novels, has died. Of course, he’s most famous because I once rented an apartment that he had lived in not long before.
I recently rewatched The Grapes of Wrath and then reread the book. They are both great pieces of art. Back in my social realist days of art in the late 90s and early 00s, I found the slightly more optmistic end of the movie irritating, but really the scene with Rose-a-Sharon suckling the old man was over the top and there really wasn’t much reason for the book to go on after Tom Joad leaves. And the mild sense of hope at the end of the film really is a more palatable ending. The flood offers nothing but more despair. The adaptation really is perfect as well. I know Steinbeck loved it. The superfluous characters are eliminated, even though it’s obvious in the film that there’s no way Ma Joad would have gone that long between children.
Anyway, what do you think happens to Tom Joad? Let’s assume he doesn’t killed like Casey. And let’s assume he survives the war. If Tom Joad is alive after 1945, what is his future? Am I the only who sees him becoming a conservative like most of his fellow ex-sharecropper migrants and voting for Goldwater in 64? Steinbeck makes a compelling case for Joad the populist man of the left. But of course Steinbeck’s landscape of the California fields is incredibly whitened, eliminating the Filipinos and Mexicans who had long history of work in the fields. That wasn’t entirely inaccurate given the deportations of Mexicans from California in the depression once white people needed low-paid work. But can Joad’s populism bypass the racist attitudes he grew up in and the racist attitudes of California? I guess I am skeptical given what we know about post-war California and the rise of conservatism. Maybe Joad returns from the war, gets a job in the defense factories like so many of his family members and comrades from Oklahoma, and those racial attitudes take over. Now Tom Joad didn’t buy into the religion at the heart of this, but then he’s a young man in the late 30s when the story takes place. Steady work and prosperity will do a lot to make someone forget the hard bad times that make them do crazy things.
I mean, sure, it’d be nice to think about Tom Joad as the vanguard of a left-populist movement. But that didn’t happen, nor did it come close to happening. So if we are playing the odds, I think we have to say that Joad votes Goldwater.
A couple of weeks ago, I posted about Elizabeth Kolbert’s review of Naomi Klein’s new climate change book. Kolbert had her problems with it, primarily that Klein doesn’t offer a concrete path before. I was interested in this precisely because I think struggling for solutions to our problems, however tenuous or even unrealistic they might be, is really important. So in the nature of fairness, it’s worth noting that Klein is pushing back hard against that review, discussing the many concrete ideas she posits:
Kolbert’s review makes the quite extraordinary claim that my book “avoids looking at all closely at what [emission reduction] would entail.” In fact the book contains an in-depth discussion of emission reduction strategies employed by large economies like Germany and Ontario. It dissects the policies that work and those that do not and explores how international trade policy needs to change to make such policies more effective. It delves into which agricultural practices carry the most climate benefits, goes into detail about how to pay for green transitions (from luxury taxes to public control over energy grids). It calls for a revolution in public transit and high-speed rail, for shorter workweeks and serious climate financing so that developing nations can leapfrog over fossil fuels. It also calls for moratoriums on particularly high-risk forms of extractions—and much, much more.
Some of this would be very difficult to implement from a political perspective, but obviously these are the kinds of steps we need. So it’s slightly unclear why Kolbert focused so heavily on this issue in her review.
Klein goes farther on her website and wonders out loud whether what Kolbert is really doing is guarding her territory since she has criticized other climate change books for doing what she wants Klein to do.
Or maybe there is something else going on here. Kolbert’s review contained a couple of digs at my lack of earlier engagement with climate change. Including this painfully revealing line: “Back in 1998, which is to say more than a decade before Klein became interested in climate change…” (This was the set up for her invocation of the Swiss study.) So… yes, Kolbert has been writing about climate change longer than I have. And it’s quite true that, back in 1998, I was writing a book about consumption and corporate power, not climate change specifically. But does this kind of petty turf-protection really have a place in the face of a collective crisis of such magnitude? Personally, I much prefer the spirit of the slogan of New York City’s People’s Climate March: “To Change Everything, We Need Everyone.”
Writing this response has not been fun. I have long admired Elizabeth Kolbert’s vivid reporting from the front lines of ecological collapse and the climate movement unquestionably owes her a debt of gratitude. Which is why I find it particularly troubling that someone so intimately aware of the stakes in this struggle would devote so much intellectual energy to describing why change of the scale we need is a “fable.” Why should hope—even deeply qualified hope like mine—be maddening?
One would hope turf-guarding is not what is happening here. But of course sometimes this very much happens. I doubt Kolbert would agree. But people get real cranky when they think (and often are) experts on a topic. However, we need as many calls to action climate change as possible, especially by people who are already famous. One would certainly think there would be room for a range of books on the topic and what to do. If my book inspires other people to write about the problems of capital mobility but posited completely different solutions and emphasized different issues, great!
And the critique of how long one has been interested in an issue is just petty.
R.A. Montgomery, author of the Choose Your Own Adventure children’s book series, has died. It is impossible to overstate how awesome these books were when I was 10 or 11 years old. Hopefully, Montgomery’s path to Heaven or Hell doesn’t include such similarly precarious choices as the many where the Maya would kill you, which seemed to happen a lot to me when I read the books.
I dislike science fiction as a genre. While there are a couple of science fiction films I do like, they are not of the norm of the genre (Solaris, La Jetée) and I simply don’t have time for reading science fiction because I find the entire genre uninteresting.
That said, I am very interested in Cuban culture and so this article on science fiction in Cuba is quite interesting and given the interests of many commenters here, I figured it would be a good subject to share on a Saturday night.
Not that it’s surprising that any writer or reader with even reasonable taste would reject Ayn Rand as horrible writing, but still, Flannery O’Connor in 1960:
I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.
On the other hand, Rand actually liked Spillane so, well, whatever.
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Jr.’s publishing career earned him considerably less than the president’s totals. “Promises to Keep,” released in 2007, earned less than $201 in royalties last year, according to Mr. Biden’s financial disclosure form, also released on Thursday.
Mr. Vice-President, have you thought about taking a position in academia?
I don’t need to read any of these children’s books to know Rush Limbaugh deserves the Children’s Choice Book Award for his no doubt outstanding magnum opus, “Rush Revere and The Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans.” I think you know you need to force your children to “choose” this book for America and white pride.