Skip to comments.The Difference Between Criticism and Hatred (Anti-American Studies)
Posted on 02/05/2003 8:53:32 PM PST by Utah Girl
Foraging near the hut that he built with his own hands, cultivating beans whose properties provided him with opportunities for speculation, gazing into the depths of the local pond, Henry David Thoreau seems to epitomize a long-standing American worship of nature. And so he was read by generations of students, whose teachers assigned Walden as an illustration of the intensity with which America was seized in the nineteenth century by a transcendental sensibility protesting the intrusion into pastoral harmony of the forces of industrialization and urbanization. Understood this way, Thoreau looks back to Jefferson and forward to John Ford. Walden was revered as a text of regret, a lament for a world soon to pass out of existence.
Then Leo Marx came along in 1964 and published The Machine in the Garden, which questioned this view of Thoreau and, in so doing, challenged the way Americans had understood themselves. Marx's Thoreau was anything but a pastoralist. He was sometimes ambivalent about the mechanization that he saw around him and sometimes downright enthusiastic. "When I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder," he proclaimed, "shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils (what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put into the new Mythology I don't know), it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it." Mechanization was not a false turn; it was our fate, an "Atropos that never turns aside." Far from symbolizing a withdrawal from the world, Thoreau's decision to leave Concord for the woods re-engaged him with the busy clatter that he had seemingly abandoned. Out there in nature, civilization no longer seemed threatening. Documenting his expenses to the last half-cent and providing a full record of his purposeful energy, Thoreau discovered that the power unleashed by the machine is not that different from the power required to transform the wilderness into a productive garden.
For Marx, Thoreau's ambivalence toward nature was nothing less than a leitmotif in American consciousness. Tracing his theme from obscure colonial pamphleteers to twentieth-century classics such as Faulkner's "The Bear," Marx tried to show how American writers--and at least two American painters, George Innes and Charles Sheeler--grappled with the desire to remain pure and uncorrupted while still taking full advantage of what Henry Adams would call "The Dynamo." None of our great artists ever reconciled the contradiction, Marx concluded, because finally the question of what kind of nation we were to become could only be answered politically. Yet this does not mean that they were artistic failures. On the contrary, Marx's extensive analysis of works such as Moby-Dick and "Ethan Brand" provided a framework for understanding Ahab's obsession and Brand's self-immolation. The kiln into which Hawthorne's Brand throws himself, like the line used to rein in the white whale, represents what Marx calls "the attempt to know the nature of nature" as well as the inevitable loss of mystery that accompanies our alienation from paradise.
Looking back, one is struck by the absence of women among these writers. With that significant exception, however, the founders of American studies were a diverse group. Many were Jews whose explorations into American literature and history were a way of coming to terms with the decision taken by their parents and grandparents to move to the new world. One of them, Franklin, was African American, and another, Arvin, was gay and would suffer the indignity of a vicesquad raid on his Northampton home. Far from engaging in what C. Wright Mills would denounce as "the great American celebration," these intellectuals were often dissenters from the trends that they saw around them: Riesman and Marx were critics of nuclear brinkmanship, and others, even those who would become quite antagonistic to the New Left, could not abide Senator McCarthy and never made a sharp shift to the political right. The ambivalence that Leo Marx discovered in our national literature was shared by all these writers who interpreted our culture and contemplated our character: they appreciated America for its invention and energy while deploring the excesses that our way of life produced.
American studies still exists as an academic discipline. If anything, it can be found in far more colleges and universities now than during the 1960s, and it attracts significant numbers of graduate students, and its practitioners publish innumerable books and articles. Yet the third generation and the fourth generation of scholars in the field not only reject the writers who gave life to the discipline, they have also developed a hatred for America so visceral that it makes one wonder why they bother studying America at all.
According to Donald E. Pease and Robyn Wiegman--he of Dartmouth, she of Duke--previous efforts to understand the United States committed two unforgivable sins. One was "spatialization." Marx's generation of scholars claimed that there existed an entity called America, that is, an actual society with borders to which one either did or did not belong, and they further claimed that the land within these borders was somehow "exceptional" from other societies around the world. In so doing, writes Janice Radway, also of Duke, "the early consensus in the field tended to elide the idea of America with the culture of the United States." The "imperial gestures" that these assumptions produce are obvious to her: "they unconsciously erased the fact that other nations, groups, and territories had already staked their own quite distinctive claim to the concept and name American." Each of my three children discovered, usually around fourth grade, that Canada and the societies of Latin America have a legitimate claim to be called American; but Radway delivers the same point as a major idea. (Similarly, Amy Kaplan, the president-elect of the ASA for 2003- 2004, has a chapter in the Pease and Wiegman volume in which she "poses the question of how the ideology of separate spheres in antebellum America contributed to creating an American empire by imagining the nation as a home at a time when its geopolitical borders were expanding rapidly through violent confrontations with Indians, Mexicans, and European empires.")
The other sin of the earlier generation was "temporalization." Scholars in American studies divided up the history of their society into periods such that each constituted a progressive advancement over the other. In so doing, they left the impression that the United States no longer required radical reform, let alone revolution, since continued progress in the future was assured. Yet they also did the exact opposite simultaneously, imagining the history of their society as timeless. "In proposing that every moment of historical time constituted the occasion for the potential repetition of the sacred time of the nation's founding," as Pease and Wiegman put it, "the national mythos supplied the means of producing what Benedict Anderson has called the empty homogenous time of the imagined national community."
A body of scholarship produced in this way, in the view of Pease and Wiegman, is bound to be suspect. "American literature and American history tended to homogenize the popular memory that they also produced, and literature and history departments supplied the institutional sites wherein the field of American studies collaborated with the press, the university system, the publishing industry, and other aspects of the cultural apparatus that managed the symbolic field and policed the significance of such value-laden terms as the nation and the people." Poor Leo Marx. He may have thought of himself as a lover of literature, but it appears that he was really a cop, and a corrupt cop at that.
>ease and Wiegman are actually among the more temperate and jargon-free voices speaking on behalf of what John Carlos Rowe of the University of California, Irvine, calls the "new" American studies. Consider the views of William V. Spanos, founding editor of a publication called boundary 2. It is one thing, he writes, to call attention to "America's tenacious historical privileging of the imperial metaphysic perspective as the agent of knowledge production, that perspective, synchronous with the founding of the idea and practices of Europe, which, in perceiving time from after or above its disseminations, enables the spatialization of being and subjugation or accommodation of the differences it disseminates to the identical, self-present, and plenary (global/planetary) whole." But things are worse even than that. For we must also consider "America's obsessive and systematic refinement and fulfillment of the panoptic logic of this old world perspective in an indissolubly related relay of worldly imperial practices, the intrinsic goal of which is not simply the domination of global space but also of thinking itself." From this perspective, writers like Marx were not merely trying to police ideas, they were trying to run them out of town.
For these radical critics of American studies, nobody's revolutionary credentials are good enough. The revolt against the American studies of the immediate postwar period was led by people such as Paul Lauter, who teaches at Trinity College in Connecticut. An unrepentant Marxist, Lauter believes in the class struggle and wants to see professors of American studies join janitors, teaching assistants, and other exploited workers in their confrontations with academic administrators. Yet perhaps because he has a sense of humor--he knows that he sounds "like an opera libretto by Leonid Brezhnev," he writes at one point--Lauter comes in for substantial criticism from fellow members of his discipline. John Carlos Rowe finds that, for all his leftism, Lauter is "finally still nationalist," which means insufficiently committed to postcolonial criticism of the United States for its imperial pretensions.
Nor is Lauter truly committed to the task that American studies must adopt in this den of white privilege and capitalist exploitation. "Lauter's program for university reform consists only of a very general set of guidelines," writes Eric Cheyfitz of the University of Pennsylvania in disappointment. Lauter, along with other advocates of class struggle within the university such as Cary Nelson and Michael Bérubé, fails to realize that capitalism has already destroyed the idea of university. Dismissing these advocates of university-based class struggle as possessing "an ideological relationship in which the privileged class, as in the pastoral, dress up in the costumes of the dispossessed and perform a play we call `multiculturalism,'" Cheyfitz would have American studies join with Frantz Fanon and "move cultural capital out of the closed circuit of the university" and into the hands of the poor and oppressed.
Even those academics who consider themselves indelibly stained by the original sin of the whiteness of their skin--a group I had once considered about as left-wing as it is possible to be--are insufficiently radical for the new American studies. In the view of Noel Ignatiev, one of the founders of "whiteness studies," we have to recognize that "the United States is an Afro-American country," which means that "the adoption of a white identity is the most serious barrier to becoming fully American"; as Ignatiev once put it, "the most subversive act I can imagine is treason to the white race." But now Robyn Wiegman dismisses Ignatiev as just another practitioner of American exceptionalism: his mistake is that he "displaces the historical white subject as the national citizen-subject for a narrative of national origins cast now as black." So long as you believe in the existence of the United States, even if your belief envisions a society in which the descendants of slaves become masters of national identity, you are contributing to the creating of a "resignified nation," which is nearly as bad, it would seem, as the pre-signified nation that already exists.
Take this kind of thing far enough and before long you develop the mentality of the purge, the humorless, relentless quest to check the bona fides of everyone and in so doing to trust the bona fides of no one. William Spanos sums up this spirit by detecting counter-revolution not only in the scholars of Leo Marx's generation, but also among the New Leftists who followed them. The scholars of the new American studies may seem radical, he writes, but their work "remains vestigially inscribed by the ideology of American exceptionalism even as it criticizes it and tries to transcend its confining parameters." I have never known anyone to use the term "vestigially" in such a context who was not at heart a sectarian.
Oddly, though, Spanos has a point. Enthusiasts for the new American studies have clearly been influenced by the multiculturalism and the identity politics that have marked American society since the 1960s. When they sought a home in academia, as radical political movements always do, multicultural activists realized that all you had to do was add your ethnic and racial identity to the word "American" and you had created a new academic field. In this way, proponents of Asian American studies or Native American studies or any of the other myriad programs now found in higher education, including even "whiteness studies," by giving the term "American" equal billing with the name of the group seeking recognition, paid homage to their society, as well as to its capacity to assimilate many different kinds of experience. And this, in its way, is a tribute to America. It is the tribute that the America-hating Spanos eagerly sniffs out.
Still, once the intellectual energy passes to these "subaltern" movements, as all of these writers hope will happen soon, the question remains of what should happen to the original American studies out of which they grew. For Pease and Wiegman, American studies, owing to its neo-colonial drive to obliterate all potentially competing ethnic and racial cultures, has little choice but to suppress the insurgencies led by women, gays, and people of color. "American studies became the Other against which cutting edge scholarship was to be defined," they write, "and national identity movements and anti-imperial discourses became the Other the field excluded to effect coherence." While the first half of the comment is true--nobody doubts that adherents to the new identity politics scorned the generations that preceded them--the second half of it is way off the mark. The academic discipline called American studies, at most colleges and universities in the United States, has enthusiastically welcomed identity politics into its ranks, to put it mildly.
In contrast to the era that spawned Leo Marx and his colleagues, the ASA now routinely elects women and members of racial minorities to its presidency. Of the fourteen presidents chosen since 1990, ten have been women, and of the four men, one is Latino and one Asian American. (The only two white males elected during this period were Paul Lauter and Michael Frisch.) To talk about the exclusion of minority voices and dissenting voices from the discipline, Pease and Wiegman must ignore the contents of their own book: the chapter by Janice Radway stems from her presidential address to the ASA, and in her musings she builds on the analysis of her predecessor, Mary Helen Washington.
mong those presidents, certainly, can be found individuals who love their country for its inventiveness and its diversity, and in turn love American studies for its innovative character. In her presidential address to the ASA in 1996, Patricia Nelson Limerick took great joy in the free-form nature of her discipline. "Thank heavens, then," she enthused, "for American studies: the place of refuge for those who cannot find a home in the more conventional neighborhood, the sanctuary of displaced hearts and minds, the place where no one is fully at ease. And here is the glory of the ASA: since no one feels fully at ease, no one has the right or the power to make anyone else feel less at ease.... The joy of American studies is precisely in its lack of firm limits and borders." But no such pride in anything associated with America is permitted among the contributors to the Pease and Wiegman volume. Russ Castronovo of the University of Miami accuses Limerick of offering "an entrenched narrative of national administration." Her crime, it seems, is to present a point of view that "hinges on a rhetoric of interpellation that accepts the nation as the ultimate collective arena for citizenship."
If we discard the idea of an American nation, as Castronovo and other contributors to this volume want us to do, there certainly cannot be any such thing as American studies. "In order to promote work that would further re-conceptualize the American as always relationally defined and therefore as intricately dependent on `others' that are used both materially and conceptually to mark its boundaries," Radway asks, "would it make sense to think about renaming the association as an institution devoted to a different form of knowledge production, to alternative epistemologies, to the investigation of a different object?" This, it turns out, is not a simple question to answer, for once she starts finding imperialism in one place, Radway sees it everywhere. We in the United States, after all, expropriated the name America from the Latin Americans, but they, or at least their elites, were Europeans who aimed "to name geographically dispersed lands that they themselves had imperially expropriated for their own use from indigenous peoples who named the locales they occupied in their own, diverse, and distinct languages." Radway is dissatisfied with all proposed names for the field: even "inter-American studies," which suggests equality between all the components of what is now called the Americas, strikes her as insufficient because it leaves out Singapore and India. "What is to be done?" she asks, echoing you know who. The answer is: not all that much. Having twisted herself into corners from which she cannot escape, Radway concludes rather lamely that we might as well leave the term "American studies" in place and urge everyone to learn more languages.
Retaining the name "American studies" does not mean keeping the approach that long made it distinctive. If we keep it, we must tame it. For one thing, American studies can take a secondary role to those who study America's constituent groups. The field, writes John Carlos Rowe, cannot be allowed "to compete in adversarial ways with other disciplines and methods that complement our own work," and he provides a list of more than twenty such disciplines ranging from women's studies and folklore to Dutch and Korean. It also might be permissible to use the term, Rowe continues, if we modify it slightly by calling it "U.S. studies" or "North American studies," so long as we include Canada in the latter. And we cannot allow American studies to find themes in our literature and culture that tell us who we are, as previous scholars had hoped; its more proper role, Radway instructs, is "to complicate and fracture the very idea of an American nation, culture, and subject."
he difficulty that these writers experience in naming their field stems from the difficulty they have in naming anything. There is a finality about naming; once a phenomenon has been named, it takes on a form that distinguishes it from other phenomena whose names are different. But this relatively simple act of finalization is alien to many of the practitioners of the new American studies. For all their political dogmatism, they are reluctant to be pinned down on whether terms such as nation, culture, literature, citizenship, and gender have specific meanings.
A particularly sad example of this refusal to put boundaries around concepts is provided by José Esteban Muñoz's essay in the Pease and Wiegman book--and the term in question is one that ought to be crucial to anyone who identifies with the political left. The term is "exploitation." Muñoz is describing a gay bar in Jackson Heights, Queens called the Magic Touch. (How American studies moved from reading Hawthorne to venturing into gay Queens is another good story.) During the show, judges, chosen randomly, pick out the most attractive dancers, who have stripped down to their G-strings. Money, in the form of tips, is thrown around as mostly older men buy the sexual favors of mostly younger dancers. This kind of prostitution has the whiff of oppression, and Muñoz quotes an anthropologist friend of his to the effect that it is. But Muñoz himself will make no such firm declaration. "From another perspective," he writes,
we can see this as something else, another formation: this economy of hustler/john is an alternative economy where flesh, pleasure, and money meet under outlaw circumstances. This economy eschews the standardized routines in which hetero-normative late capitalism mandates networking relations of sex for money. This economy represents a selling of sex for money that does not conform to the corporate American sex trade on display for us via media advertising culture and older institutions like heterosexual marriage.
Not only does Muñoz resist naming prostitution for the exploitative relationship that it is, he also conflates it with heterosexual marriage, a conceit that allows him to normalize sex trade in a gay bar without perhaps realizing that, in so doing, he acknowledges that conventional marriage is still the gold standard against which all other kinds of sexual relationships must be compared.
Intention substitutes for conclusion when academics are reluctant to define anything definitively. The essays in Pease and Wiegman's book follow a convention widely used in the humanities these days. "I want to call attention," begins one of Radway's paragraphs dealing with the interaction between work in American studies and that found in many subaltern disciplines. "I want to suggest," starts the very next paragraph, claiming that the new work constitutes a fundamental challenge to the old. One after another of the contributors to the Pease and Wiegman volume adopt this way of making their argument; even Muñoz's claims about the normality of prostitution begin this way. This is scholarship as trial balloon: the writer who adopts this convention signals to the reader that what is about to follow is a highly contentious point that lacks sufficient documentation to be proved. To "call attention" and to "suggest" is not to establish or to demonstrate. Postmodernism influences the new American studies as much as identity politics, and postmodernism encourages a lazy, catch-as-catch-can approach to the study of whatever it touches, as if studying something means acknowledging that a real world does exist that can be studied--a lethal concession for postmodernism which destroys its controlling fantasy that reality is subordinate to its interpretations.
For this reason, only a few of the contributors to The Futures of American Studies actually engage specific texts. One who does is Nancy Bentley of the University of Pennsylvania. Like Muñoz, she does so to make the point that heterosexual marriage is not what it seems, but at least she discusses an actual historical situation--Mormonism--and the literature to which its practice of polygamy gave rise. Filled with the usual trappings of contemporary scholarship in the humanities--"Mormons were refused the status of white people," she writes of a religion that excluded African Americans from its priesthood--she nonetheless introduces her readers to Maria Ward's The Mormon Wife (1855) and Mary Hudson's Esther the Gentile (1880), popular novels that exposed the exploitation of women subject to plural marriage. To be sure, Bentley does not introduce them for that purpose; her aim is to suggest that if Mormon wives consented to plural marriage, then we ought to question the consent implicit in conventional marriage. Still, hers is one of the few chapters in the Pease and Wiegman volume in which the reader can learn something new.
"As American Studies reconceives its intellectual project as the study of the many different societies of the western hemisphere and of the influences of the different border zones that constitute this large region, such as the Pacific Rim and the African and European Atlantics, it will become a genuinely 'postnationalist' discipline whose comparativist methods will overlap and thus benefit from the work of other comparativists." So writes John Carlos Rowe. Once upon a time, American studies existed to re-discover a literature and a culture capable of rivaling Europe in the power of its artistic imagination. For the writers of Leo Marx's generation, this discovery liberated intellectuals from the Babbittry of those politicians and journalists who claimed that the greatness of America lay solely in its capacity to produce consumer goods. Now, we are told, the answer to the question of what makes America great is that nothing makes it great.
The reason that America is not great is that America, strictly speaking, does not exist. Revealing America as non-existent is supposed to ease the task of those oppressed groups that are struggling to overcome its hegemony. It does not occur to these revolutionaries that the groups they hope will conquer America cannot do so if there is no America to conquer. Let the nation die, and all who aspire to its perfection die with it.
Death of a Nation is in fact the title of David W. Noble's contribution to the future of American studies, and Noble is in many ways the most appropriate person to write it. Born in 1925 on a farm near Princeton, Noble experienced the fall of his family into poverty during the Great Depression, only to have his life turn around after he joined the Army in 1943. After serving in Europe, he returned home to enter Princeton as an undergraduate and went on to Wisconsin for his doctorate, where his fellow graduate students included the future historians William Appleman Williams and John Higham. (Noble's first published article, which had originated as an undergraduate paper, was called "The New Republic and the Idea of Progress, 1914- 1920," a subject that was suggested to him by the Princeton historian Eric Goldman.) A precocious scholar, he joined the faculty of the University of Minnesota in 1952 and has been teaching there ever since.
In his early years at Minnesota, Noble was a colleague of Henry Nash Smith and Leo Marx, men who, in his view, "discovered a nostalgic, even elegiac scholarship committed to preserving the memory of the period 1830-1850, when, for them, there had existed briefly an autonomous and natural, national culture." (In fact, The Machine in the Garden devoted considerable space to The Great Gatsby, a novel that appeared a long time after the Missouri Compromise.) Unlike them, Noble "could not write elegies for Emerson and his generation of male Anglo-American artists and intellectuals." Marx's panoply of great writers created no timeless art, Nobel insists; their greatness, such as it was, lay only in the fact that they gave expression to what he repeatedly calls "bourgeois nationalism." Marx and Smith, searching for an America that does not exist, "did not try to evoke the ugliness, the corruption, the falsity of capitalism." Noble would have nothing to do with writers who "emphasized the beauty, the goodness, and the truth of the national landscape." America was not some virgin territory filled with innocence, he came to believe. It was an imagined community, an artifact, that came into existence only by destroying truly innocent people like the Native American tribes. "These doubts," Noble writes, "later caused me to distance myself from my colleagues in American studies at the University of Minnesota."
Noble did not distance himself from Minnesota's American studies program for long. More radical graduate students began to show up at the university, and, like Noble, they were unwilling "to worship at Emerson's tomb." Noble claims to have witnessed the "sadness" and the "pain" of Smith and Marx as students spurned them and their ideas, but he shows few regrets of his own, noting with cold dispassion that Smith "took a position elsewhere, where he would not have such an intense relationship with graduate students," and commenting with barely hidden academic snobbery that Marx "left to teach undergraduates at Amherst." Noble makes clear that Smith and Marx were simply out of touch with the newly emerging scholarship: they "did not want to think about what the relationship of American studies would be to the new world of 1946, when one could no longer imagine an isolated national culture."
obody could accuse Noble of being out of touch. He is a generation-skipper, not an uncommon phenomenon in academia. Although trained in the classic version of American studies that inspired so much of the "exceptionalist" literature, he broke with his contemporaries to join the new radicalism that was emerging in the field. His book blessedly lacks the heavy-handed jargon with which younger scholars have afflicted the field (although it shares with them their inane forms of leftist politics). And Noble can occasionally be interesting: he alone, of all these writers, seems to have a taste for music and acknowledges the existence of figures such as Edward MacDowell and Charles Ives, if only to accuse them of their dependency on a European musical tradition. (The gay composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes and the African American William Grant were just as dependent on European musical forms, identity politics or not, but Noble never mentions them.) Still, Noble adds little to what younger colleagues say in such anthologies as The Futures of American Studies. His book is noteworthy not for what it says--it is rambling and repetitive--but for what it reveals about a man ferociously eager to join the chorus of denunciation, even if those being denounced are people very much like himself.
Noble heaps scorn upon white male Protestants whenever he comes upon them. To his mind, the one thing that Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman, Twain, Henry James, and Faulkner have in common is their ethnicity. (Terms such as "Protestant," "Catholic," and "Jewish" never refer to religious faith in his usage, only to national origins.) How odd it seems to Noble, therefore, that so many of the literary critics and the historians who called attention to their genius were Jewish. What gives? Well, white male Jews had at least two reasons for wanting to preserve and protect a Protestant literary canon. The more innocent explanation, says Noble, is that doing so would help them to overcome their disappointment with Marxism, although there is nothing particularly Jewish in that. The more sinister--if not downright ugly--explanation is that worshipping at the altar of Protestant creativity would enable Jewish scholars to "mask the revolutionary changes in national identity taking place in the 1940s."
That shift in identity, in Noble's view, was caused by the fact that America during that decade was changing from "Anglo-Protestant" to "pluralist." Jumping around from decade to decade, as he frequently does, Noble points out that "beginning in the 1950s, Congress began to lift restrictions on Chinese immigration. The Immigration Act of 1964 made it possible for people of color to become citizens, and the country began to experience large-scale immigration from Asia and Latin America." But "many male Jews, the first group of unclear outsiders (after the south male Anglo-Protestant New Critics) to become part of the academic establishment," wanted only to "obscure" the new pluralistic America coming into being. That is why so many of them "became the leaders of the consensus school of historical interpretation that was challenging the conflict school of the 1930s." Citing Lionel Trilling, Richard Hofstadter (who was half-Jewish on his father's side), Daniel Boorstin, Daniel Bell, and Louis Hartz, he writes that "these men wanted to believe that the tradition of nationalism in the United States did not share a commitment to racial exclusiveness with Nazi Germany." Noble's coterie of white male Jewish writers had a choice: they could join with the project of bourgeois nationalism and win acceptance by their social superiors, or they could reject it in favor of the insurgencies led by people of color. Their tragedy is that they opted for the former.
Everything about this explanation is wrong. The Immigration Act was passed in 1965, not in 1964. Before its passage, all kinds of people of color had become citizens, including African Americans and Asian Americans. The 1965 act did not target immigrants from any one place; it abolished national quotas, emphasized skills, and encouraged the re-unification of families. But the most serious problem with Noble's speculation is not that he gets his facts wrong; it is that his thoroughly reductionist sociology of knowledge insults the motives of all those Jewish scholars of America who not only had perfectly good reasons to admire the United States, but who also welcomed the new pluralistic America that was coming into being.
Notice Noble's formulation of the comparison with Nazi Germany. He does not say that the United States in fact refrained from exterminating its non-Protestants, nor does he add that American lives were sacrificed to end the Nazi slaughter, both points reason enough for American Jews to love their country. All he says is that these Jewish scholars simply wanted to believe that America was better than Nazi Germany, as if it were an open question as to whether it was. At the same time, Noble's reading of what Jewish scholars of America had to say about pluralism in the 1940s and the 1950s is the exact opposite of the truth. The consensus that so-called consensus historians defended was not a vision of Protestant America, it was a vision of the melting pot. Jewish scholars such as Arnold Rose and Milton Gordon were in the forefront of defining, and defending, this new American pluralism. (Rose, as Noble well ought to know, also taught at Minnesota, worked on Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma, shared the liberal anti-communism of his state's increasingly prominent politicians such as Hubert Humphrey, and, with his wife, published America Divided: Minority Group Relations in the United States in 1948.) Where Noble sees only the "power used by a dominant male Anglo-Protestant culture to protect its cultural virginity against the agency of all the groups in the United States who were imagined as outside the fraternity of citizens in the 1830s," the Jewish scholars attracted to the study of America saw a society and a literature too filled with paradox and promise to be so single-minded in its determination.
There was a kind of anti-Semitism around Princeton in the years when Noble grew up that worked assiduously to keep Jews out of day schools, country clubs, and the university itself. Noble would have nothing to do with it. He chose to work with Princeton's first Jewish professor, and a good part of the Protestant exclusivity that he rejects stems from its hostility toward Jews and Catholics. Still, Noble is clearly made uncomfortable by the Jewish love for America's Emersonian high culture. His detour into ethnic motivations for scholarship leaves a bad taste. How could these Jewish scholars not join him in his disgust with America, he is implicitly asking? Shouldn't they have known better? Shouldn't they have known what he, who shares "the racial heritage of North European Protestants," knows all too well, which is that the American dream is a nightmare of spoilage and exploitation?
Right-wing anti-Semites often attack Jews for failing to appreciate America. Is it all that different to single them out for loving it? Fortunately for Noble, Jews were not America's only minority group. In contrast to the exclusionary patriotism of the earlier generations of WASPs, Noble would "celebrate ... the agency of those who were previously seen as un-American." The scholars who speak on behalf of women, African Americans, Native Americans, or Asian Americans--or so Noble believes--do not have the Jewish hang-up about America. (Many of the new Americanists whom he celebrates are in fact Jewish, but they are women and therefore acceptable to him.) Here, among the crowd that makes up the anthology assembled by Pease and Wiegman, Noble feels at home. With them he can finally shed himself of his white male identity. The dream of his lifetime is being realized. The nation that he cannot abide is expiring, and he has lived long enough to provide its epitaph.
Although one would never know it from books like these, old-fashioned American studies is actually doing pretty well in America, even if it is under-represented at the American Studies Association. In theory, of course, it should not matter where good studies of America are done, so long as they are done. But in practice matters are not so simple. Critics of the old American studies are right about one thing: the field was created in the early years of the Cold War, and American foreign policymakers took an interest in what its practitioners had to say. That international aspect of American studies still exists; programs in Germany, Japan, India, Austria, Italy, and Great Britain are devoted to the study of the United States, and through its Fulbright program and its Study of the U.S. Branch, the State Department sends American scholars abroad and brings foreign scholars to the United States.
For all their attacks on American imperialism, students of the new American studies are actually rather quiet about this side of their discipline, perhaps because of the opportunities for foreign travel it makes available to them. When they go abroad to denounce America to foreign students, these scholars practice a kind of imperialism in reverse, informing young idealists abroad that the America they tend to admire is actually a fiction, and a detestable place. The results can be rather comic. One of the contributors to the Pease and Wiegman book, Dana Heller of Old Dominion University, describes her efforts to offer a Marxist interpretation of Death of a Salesman to students at Moscow State University. Fortunately for American diplomacy, her students could have cared less; they were much more impressed by an episode of The Simpsons that parodied one of Willy Loman's speeches.
This anecdote suggests that even if America-haters come to speak for America at colleges and universities around the world, students at those institutions will have enough sense to ignore them. But it also raises an interesting question of responsibility. Academics like to pride themselves on the notion that academic freedom means an absence of restraint in the topics that they choose to study and the methods with which they choose to study them. But all freedoms hinge on responsibilities, and people who choose to make the study of America central to their lives cannot avoid the fact that, spatialization or not, their country actually exists, and its actions are of consequence. Now, assuming responsibility hardly means engaging in a mindless celebration of America; the founders of the field never did that, and their books would now be worthless if they had been merely patriotic. Assuming responsibility means possessing both a curiosity about the society that they seek to understand and a capacity to convey both its possibilities and its pitfalls. Neither of those qualities is much in evidence among the bitter rejectionists who have filled the vacuum left by the retirement or the passing of Leo Marx's generation of scholars. It is a credit to our freedom that we have avoided turning American studies over to a propaganda arm of government and that we allow those who appreciate their society so little to speak in its name. If only they themselves could rise above their own propaganda, and muster just a smidgen of gratitude in return.
Alan Wolfe is a contributing editor at TNR.
Good one. You know, The Simpsons is probably the only program on TV where you need an education to get some of the jokes. Everything else has been dumbed down totally.
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