Today we buried my stepfather, Alan Romm. He died Tuesday morning, having lived ninety good years, the last thirty-three with my mother, and we gave him a good send-off and are sad. We talked about him a lot, at the funeral in the temple on the Upper East side, the burial in New Jersey, and back in the city, hanging out in their apartment over bagels and lox. One thing that came up again and again was his curiosity. He was a mensch and he was a curious man, curious about the world and about you. When you saw him, whether you hadn’t seen him in six months or had talked to him on the phone six days ago, he was full of questions about what you were up to, how school or work or life was, what you thought the future held for you. And the curiosity about the world, like the curiosity about you, wasn’t bullshit. At first, I thought it was, but I soon realized I was wrong. He really wanted to know.
Flying to New York Wednesday morning, I was thinking about this quality of his. I was also thinking, separately, about the state of higher education in the US, as I often do these days, in particular about recent efforts in states like Florida and Idaho to infringe on the freedom of instructors to teach as they see fit, and I was reminded of an infuriatingly wrongheaded essay that had been reprinted earlier in the week in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Jonathan Haidt (originally appearing as a Heterodox Academy blog post) in which he announced his resignation from his scholarly society because of its attempts to address DEI concerns (by impertinently asking a question, one on a form containing many, about how his work might promote anti-racism). In a masterpiece of special pleading, Haidt claims that the university’s “fiduciary duty” to truth cannot coexist with these efforts to promote “social justice.” I realized that the conversation about the right’s attempts to outlaw teaching it doesn’t like reminded me of Haidt’s exercise in intellectual dishonesty posing as principled, voice-in-the-wilderness bravery because neither seems interested in accounting for something that is at the heart of higher education, the thing that was also at the heart of the man my family buried today: curiosity.
Ron Desantis, whoever it is who is telling employees of the state of Idaho that they can’t discuss abortion, and Christopher Rufo and all the other culture warriors who have made full-time jobs of attacking education do so for various reasons. Those reasons include a heartfelt belief that children need to be protected from extra-biblical ideas (ideas outside of their cramped interpretation, anyway); a base strategy to throw the red meat of racism, homophobia, and the fantasy of the persecuted Christian to the base; a desire to destroy public higher education in order to keep potential voters from asking too many questions. Curiosity–asking questions about the world–is anathema for all of these people just as it is anathema to the authoritarian personality and the authoritarians who take advantage of it.
The attitude of conservative politicians toward the modern research university is fluid. They love the university when it’s producing future workers and hate it pretty much all the rest of the time, except maybe at tailgates. They tolerate it when it’s throwing up STEM-devoted buildings they can put their names on and when it sticks to producing employees for the businessmen who keep them in power. They hate it when the faculty it employs and the students it charges tuition to question their policies and the ways of seeing the world that informs those policies.
Unfortunately for them, questioning is what universities are for. I don’t think Jonathan Haidt’s “truth” is quite right: truth might be one way of framing the telos of the university, as he puts it, its end goal, but it’s a mistake to think it’s anything but a distant goal. Outside of the hard mathematical and scientific facts on which we build our machines and fix our bodies (facts which themselves do get revised as science advances), there is “truth,” and nobody should think they’ve reached the truth, that they possess it; that’s for religious fundamentalists and people who think the Laffer Curve is a real thing. Truth is the thing we work towards, endlessly, by asking questions about the world and what we think we know about it. We test what we think we know, confirm it until somebody else finds a new way to test it that disproves it. We construct ways of seeing things that work for us until somebody shows things to us from a different angle, in a different light. And then we work from there. The work of scholarship–the work of the university–is the work of finding new questions to ask and teaching students how to ask them too.
The curiosity at the heart of this work, like my stepfather’s curiosity, is a whole orientation toward the world. Alan let you know he loved you by the way he asked endless questions of you; the questions he asked about the world were how you knew he loved the world. Working to keep people from asking questions is also a whole orientation to the world, and it’s not just wrong in itself, it’s opposed to the love the people who ask the questions have. It’s about mastery, about domesticating, about pinning the world down and sitting on its chest; it’s not about loving the world, about expressing the joy of exploring it, getting to know it, not thinking you’ve got it all figured out and can safely ignore it.
It’s a tradition at Jewish burials for each mourner to drop three shovels of dirt onto the casket after it’s lowered. It’s a hard thing to do, but as the rabbi today put it, it’s a reciprocal act, returning the care shown to you. As I took my turn, I noticed two thick roots cut off at the end of the hole; they seemed to come from an evergreen growing just behind the plot. Another tradition of Jewish burials is to be buried in a plain pine box, one that doesn’t interrupt the returning of the body to the earth. I’m not a believer, but I believe in this practice because of what it does for the earth and what it says about our relation to it. When I think of today, I will think of his orientation to the world, of the cycle of curiosity and care, and of those roots. And I will remember that the root of curious is care.
I spent part of the morning just now trying to put together a roundtable for the upcoming Modern Language Association convention on the subject of nationwide attempts to control what instructors in higher ed (though of course not just in higher ed) are allowed to teach. Then I got an email from my textbook publisher granting me access to a digital sample of the new edition of the composition textbook I author. So of course I immediately shared a blurry shot of the new cover on social media (with a link to the publisher website because once a salesman, &c.). Then as I was scrolling through the sample, I ran across a new section we’d added to the introduction and, reading it, saw some connections.
The new section was added at the request of my editor, who felt that it was an important subject to broach, and I think she was right. I’m going to share it here.
The roundtable, should it make it into the program, will be framed as a response to a speech by the Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo delivered at Hillsdale College on April 5, 2022 entitled “Laying Siege to the Institutions.” In the speech, Rufo, the architect of the campaign against public education using the attack on the largely imaginary presence of Critical Race Theory in our schools, broadens his attack on education to explicitly call for universal school choice in K-12 education and for state legislator control over public higher ed institutions. That control, in Rufo’s vision, can be exerted in a number of ways, from the more direct tightening of purse strings, to the more indirect surveys of faculty’s beliefs, establishing of conservative centers within state university flagships, and removing requirements for K-12 teachers to hold advanced degrees in education.
The goal of Rufo–and DeSantis and Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and the many other Republicans he’s influenced–is to dismantle public education in order to defuse the dangerous powder keg that is an informed citizenry. That isn’t quite the way they’d put it, of course. A state senator from Missouri, speaking on the floor of the state house yesterday, said just as important to him as saving the unborn is fighting back against the dangerous radical left-wing ideology that’s infecting our schools (and he did use most of those words, and also he’s a doctor).
As I say in the introduction to the new edition of my textbook: counter to what the anti-“CRT” operatives and politicians believe, as long as do it with respect, empathy, and honesty, we should be able to talk about any subject in the classroom. As Bill Germano and Kit Nicholls say in Syllabus, empathetic engagement is at the center of what we do: we learn together. It’s what knowledge is. Storming school board meetings and state houses, passing laws that impose penalties on instructors and institutions for teaching what those in power don’t want taught: that’s not learning. It doesn’t produce knowledge. And it certainly isn’t about community. It’s about control.
Sid Jacobson, writer of comic books such as Casper the Friendly Ghost and Richie Rich, died on July 23rd; his obituary ran in The New York Times today, under Olivia Newton-John’s. He was also the writer of The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, a book I gave a talk about fifteen years ago that I am graphically adapting for my blog today because I returned to it this morning after seeing the obituary and thought that, in spite of its many flaws, it might have a couple of useful things to say to us today. (Offered with apologies to Sid Jacobson and the late illustrator Ernie Colón, who were just doing their jobs, and to whomever is offended by egregious violations of copyright law).
No Alternative: The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation and the False Promise of Genre (MLA 2007, Chicago)
“A comic book about what?” In 1986, when the first volume of Art Spiegelman’s Maus brought alternative comics and longer graphic narrative to the attention of a broader public, this was the question asked first and loudest. A comic book about the Holocaust? Others followed: Jews as mice? Nazis as cats? Will anyone be wearing a cape? The same kind of response met Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón’s 2006 The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation (which I’ll refer to as the Adaptation) when it was published last August. A comic book about 9/11? But for many, especially in the academy, in particular those in English departments, Maus had taken care of that response. The intervening decades had seen not only the critical and pedagogical canonization of Maus but also the appearance of works by many graphic narrative writer/artists who took on history, the political, and other topics once not thought of as comics material (including, in 2004, one about 9/11, Spiegelman’s own In the Shadow of No Towers, about which Dana will have much more to say). I mention this because with the adjustment in generic expectations came another assumption: that longer graphic narratives were subversive, that they were outside the mainstream in their ideological orientation, that they were alternative or oppositional. In their introduction to the 2006 special issue of Modern Fiction Studies dedicated to graphic narrative, Marianne DeKoven and Hilary Chute see the alternative in the very essence of the form. They argue that graphic narrative “always refuses a problematic transparency, through an explicit awareness of its own surfaces,” that it can take on “complex political and historical issues with an explicit, formal degree of self-awareness.” In this same issue Gillian Whitlock, citing Spiegelman’s Towers as a prime example, writes that comics “can free us to ‘imagine differently’ in a time of violence and censorship.” Kristiaan Versluys, writing elsewhere about the same text, calls it a “counter-narrative.”
Graphic narrative is often seen as alternative, I think, partly because it is true of many of its best examples and partly because these are the kinds of things many of us (and I include myself) like to find in the works we study. I mention this now not because it is true of the Adaptation, which could only be more official if Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton, Chair and Vice Chair of the 9/11 Commission, had not just written the foreword but had also written and drawn the entire book themselves. However, the moment of generic confusion that happens to graphic-narrative familiar readers when they first encounter the Adaptation—knowing it’s an adaptation of a government report yet somehow still expecting subversiveness—can be a productive moment. While the Adaptation offers no alternative, reading it with an eye opened to questions of genre can help us think about the ways in which this work, also a representative of the genre of historical narrative, is, like its source, a narrative whose shape is heavily influenced by another genre, the unofficial but dominant narrative of national history. In the next few minutes I will argue that by laying it out in condensed and graphic form, the Adaptation lets us more easily see how the story of 9/11 as it appears in The9/11 Commission Report (which I will refer to simply as the Report) and in many other texts and other media has been made to fit into the story the nation likes to tell itself about itself.
As Hayden White and others have argued, history is always just a narrative. The historian takes her material—“facts”—and then has to, in White’s words, “choose, sever and carve them up” in order to create a story. The choices made in American historical narratives are often shaped by a larger national narrative about victoriousness and righteousness, what’s been called the triumphalist narrative, which, when faced with experiences and deeds that don’t fit that storyline, elides them in the interest of maintaining itself. (To see what is indicated by the triumphalist narrative, think of what James Berger in After the End argues is opposed to it, the traumatic, which does not leave out those moments of defeat and violence and thus is truer, if less comforting.) Individual historical narratives that have a wide audience can have a wide impact on the health of the larger triumphalist narrative, and the 9/11 stories have been widely disseminated: in addition to the free version downloadable from the Internet, the Norton version of the Report (there were also at least two others, from Dunne mass market and Public Affairs) sold, according to Publishers’ Weekly, 1.43 million copies in 2004, the year of its publication. According to someone at Farrar Straus & Giroux, the Adaptation has had over 100,000 combined hard and soft cover sales; in addition, the online magazine Slate put the entire book up on its site.
In their foreword to the Adaptation, Kean and Hamilton say their purpose in the Report was “not only to inform our fellow citizens about history but also to energize and engage them on behalf of reform and change, to make our country safer and more secure.” It is not the case, despite their good intentions, that they succeeded in doing this. The Adaptation, five times shorter than the Report, condenses and simplifies, but does not stray from its parent text. The chapters, narrative line, and most of the words come directly from the Report. The end result of what is by all indications a sincere attempt to put the commission’s conclusions before a wider audience through the use of graphic narrative is, unfortunately, an intensification of its failure to inform about the past; however, I believe, again, that this intensification helps us to see the triumphalist narrative at work in it and in histories like it.
As Benjamin DeMott wrote in Harper’s shortly after the Report appeared, it “had to be the real thing,” weighing in as it did at 567 pp, with 100+ pages of footnotes and the U.S. Seal on the cover, the product of massive research, including over 2.5 million pages of documents, public testimony from 160 witnesses, interviews of 1200 people in ten countries, all gathered and written up over a period of 20 months with a staff of nearly 80. Despite this access and this effort, though, the Report is hamstrung by a fear of the appearance of bias. In DeMott’s words: “In the course of blaming everybody a little, the Commission blames nobody—blurs the reasons for the actions and hesitations of successive administrations, masks choices that, fearlessly defined, might actually have vitalized our public political discourse.” Instead, he continues, “Issues of commitment and responsibility are time and again reconfigured as matters of opinion, or as puzzles of memory, or as pointlessly distracting ‘partisan’ squabbles.”
This refusal to blame and desire to spread responsibility around for things not done marks the entire Report. One of the more important examples of the refusal to blame is that concerning the now-famous August 6 Presidential Daily Briefing, or PDB. When interviewed in April 2004, Bush said he didn’t know terrorists were in the U.S.. This was a lie, as numerous officials’ testimony indicated. When Bush asserted in his testimony that the August 6 PDB, with the famous section unambiguously titled “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S.,” was “historical” in nature, he was also lying, and the Report glosses over this moment, missing the opportunity to plainly state what the briefing actually said and to point out the discrepancy.
Other examples include the refusal to challenge the president’s explanation for his remaining in the classroom he was visiting for seven minutes after having learned of the first plane—he is reported to have said he “felt he should project strength and calm until he could better understand what was happening”—or to challenge the White House obfuscations about the Vice President’s decision to issue the shoot-down order he was not empowered to make (which Scooter Libby described Cheney making “in about the time it takes a batter to decide to swing”—and he meant this as a compliment). The desire to spread responsibility around, regardless of facts and historical context, also results in the attempt to apportion blame equally between the Clinton and Bush administrations, which, as countless analysts point out, is inaccurate, as it ignores the difference between the historical contexts, in particular the opportunities which presented themselves to the Bush administration and did not present themselves to Clinton’s.
The Adaptation shares these faults of the Report, and its visuals reinforce them. some examples:
Refusals to come to conclusions about responsibility (which sometimes appear under the heading “conclusions”) appear next to tricky but outright evasion and more subtle forms of attention-deflection. Practically buried in the narrative, in two small boxes, is a semi-conclusion about a large matter, the Atta trip to Prague to meet with an Iraqi intelligence officer, which concludes that it didn’t happen while avoiding mention of who “alleged” that it occurred in the first place or any discussion of why it would have been alleged.
Even more subtle is the lack of visual interest in the two panels devoted to Bush’s self-serving and dishonest testimony about the August 6 briefing. The August 6 Report wasn’t historical in nature; that he said he did not recall discussing it doesn’t mean he didn’t; he had been advised that there was a cell and he hadn’t done anything. It’s worth noting that the murkiness of the language is the result of the White House insisting there be no direct transcription if Bush and Cheney were to testify.
These aspects of the Report and Adaptation can be explained, in part, as due to White House attempts to undercut the commission’s work by asserting that some of its members—Democrats—were partisan. There was also a campaign to discredit Richard Clarke, as well as other critics. Beyond these attempts and the commission’s being in a difficult position from the start, having to fight with the administration over who would appear, and how, over funding, over time, was the commission’s desire for unanimity. Elizabeth Drew reported on this desire, writing: “The main partisan division within the commission, I was told, was over how hard to press the White House for information that it was holding back. In its effort to achieve a unanimous, bipartisan report, the commission decided not to assign ‘individual blame’ and avoided overt criticism of the President himself.” The upshot of all this was, in DeMott’s words, that the commission’s report “can’t call a liar a liar.”
But these failures can also be understood as the result of the influence of the triumphalist narrative on this history’s construction. This influence can be traced throughout the Adaptation, even from its cover’s inclusion, next to the title, of the image of the fireman with his hand over his face, an echo of the popular desire to find heroes, evident in the way people called the office workers who dies in the Towers “heroes.”
It can be seen even in the most visually striking and in some ways least problematic sections of the Adaptation, the twenty-page timeline following the four flights on the morning of September 11 and the closely following six-page timeline showing when various agencies on the ground knew what was happening. Set against a black background, tracking the relentless forward movement of time toward four conclusions we already know about—and doing it twice—the timelines offer a textbook example of graphic narrative’s ability to spatialize time.
Already evident, however, is the triumphalist influence, in elements which emphasize the superhero story roots of graphic narrative, including cartoonish rendering of sinister, swarthy bad guys and use of sound renderings.
But more important than the demonized enemy element of the superhero genre influence (an influence which is more relevant to what we actually get in the Adaptation than the alternative comic or subversive graphic narrative) is this emphasis on the heroic. In addition to the cowboys and Indian language of some of the reproduced testimony, we get Bush as head cowboy. It’s everywhere, but you can see it here, in the heroic clenched fists (especially in contrast to Clarke) and bomber jacket; note also the progression down the page from Congress to Bush to soldiers, presenting the military action as the will of the people.
The heroic self-image central to what Tom Engelhardt calls “victory culture” is evident in these moments from the Adaptation. What this comic-book version of the Report makes plain (with apologies to more sophisticated graphic narratives and those who love them) is the comic-book quality of the triumphalist narrative. The infantilizing two-dimensionality of the worldview insisted upon by American triumphalism is too flat for dissent or complexity. Its influence on historical narratives of 9/11 cannot be overstated. This influence can be seen in the cover’s fireman even more than in the rancor toward those who tried to understand the enemy, such as Susan Sontag or Bill Maher, a rancor driven by what Joan Didion (in her short book Fixed Ideas: America Since 9/11) calls a “belligerent idealization of historical ignorance.” Triumphalism must have “evildoers,” but it needs heroes more, and complicated accounts blaming our own are not welcome. The reason it needs heroes more is evident in an image in the section on commission recommendations towards the end of the Adaptation.
This nightmare, the smoking gun that could turn out to be a mushroom cloud, as the president’s men and women argued in the run-up to war, is an old nightmare and, as Paul Boyer and others have demonstrated, a powerful cultural force. The sense of vulnerability awakened since our use of the atomic bomb is at the heart of post-45 triumphalism. And it is also key to our reaction to 9/11, as Engelhardt argues in a recent essay, because the image of the towers’ destruction resembled our imaginations of nuclear apocalypse. Pointing to the immediate references to Pearl Harbor and nuclear winter, the naming of the World Trade Center site “ground zero,” and the discrepancy in reactions to events at that site and to those at the less apocalyptic-seeming Pentagon, Engelhardt argues that the histories constructed of that day and of what led to it would have been very different (as would events since) if unconscious fears of the nation’s vulnerability had not been so played upon by the visual impact of the Towers’ collapse.
Reading histories right—that is, reading accounts of the past critically—requires attention to the larger narratives informing those accounts, sensitivity to the fantasy stories and nightmare visions that shape them. If you’ll pardon the pun—and I’m not sure I would—the Adaptation is a good illustration of this necessity.
Sometimes it is just a fight. Sometimes, regrettably, it is just us and them, good and bad. It’s never good and evil–I can’t think of a less helpful term for characterizing the people you disagree with than evil–but sometimes it’s not possible to characterize the struggle over the future of the place we live and of the lives of the people with whom we live in it as anything other than a battle.
I’m thinking this now because I watched the January 6 hearings yesterday and because I’ve just read a couple of excellent pieces about Yascha Mounk and other anti-woke warriors from the right and the center. There are those who attack people in politics and in higher education who value and work for diversity and the rights of the marginalized from a position that is explicitly against those things, and there are those who do the same from a position they describe as less extreme, claiming to support those ideals but against what they call the extremes on the left.
These are people who are actively hostile to education and to the larger democratic ideal of a diverse society. (The telos to which Warner refers is the pursuit of truth in higher ed, but it’s not hard to see that it’s about more than that, that it’s about everything.) Then there are the Mounks, who flatter themselves by thinking of their discomfort with the angry left as a sensible bid to save democracy rather than a both-sidesing staking out of a middle ground that doesn’t exist, between two positions whose extremism can only falsely be called equivalent. As Ian Beacock writes of Mounk’s new book:
Sometimes you just are on the side of the good cause. Addressing the history of how people in power in this country have treated groups with less power–addressing it in education and in politics–is the good cause. Fighting against these things in a way that allows you to convince yourself that you are on the side of what’s right, even when you are simply helping right wing extremists who may not be as far to the right of you as you think (and not because you don’t understand them)–this is being on the wrong side.
The other reason I’m thinking about this this morning is because I’m starting to see friends and internet acquaintances (and strangers) stating their aversion to voting for members of this administration who might be running for president in the next election. You might think seeing this would lead me to make an argument for compromise, for finding a sensible position between two extremes–for just the thing I’m arguing sometimes doesn’t exist–but that’s not what I’m thinking. Instead it leads me to want to argue for voting with an understanding of how voting works and of what the good causes are up against. There’s nothing wrong with finding some Democratic politicians distasteful for their failure to stand up for the good causes as resolutely as you’d like. What you do in this situation is fight to elevate other candidates who stand up straighter and stronger. But you do this understanding that there’s a difference between thinking about things and getting things done, and you vote for whichever candidate emerges as the nominee.
There are, again, some ideas and causes between which there’s no sensible middle ground. But elections and legislation happen on the battleground in the middle, between the good and the bad. If you want someone to fight for the good, you might have to vote for someone who is not your ideal candidate. Not doing so shows nothing but your failure to understand that between good and bad, allowing the bad to win is an infinitely, painfully, disastrously worse outcome than allowing someone less than ideal to win. They might not fight as hard as you’d like for these causes; they may be better positioned to scratch out some wins for those causes. It’s hard to know. What’s not hard to know is that the guy on the other side will be actively fighting against those causes.
So all I want to say this morning is that sometimes it really does come down to a fight between good and bad. If you think of yourself as on the side of the good but less extreme and hysterical than some of its champions, criticize the way some people conceive of the good and the way they fight for it, and the bad will win. If you think of yourself as on the side of the good and won’t support people who conceive of it and fight for it in ways different from yours, don’t support them and the bad will win. I’m putting this in simple terms because it’s simple. Like yesterday’s hearing was simple. You don’t have to think in terms of evil or of moral character: you just have to see the plain truth that there are people who for whatever reason don’t currently value democracy, diversity, equality, the rights that in this place we live have always been an ideal fallen well short of. You just have to know who’s trying to achieve this ideal and who’s not. And figure out which side you want to be on.
Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon’s sprawling 2006 novel set in the late nineteenth century and first two decades of the twentieth, paints a picture of the turn of the century and just beyond as a time of technological innovation, rampaging capitalism, and bewilderment at the pace of change and the loss of shared meaning and purpose amid labor unrest and violence, world war, and catastrophe possibly natural, possibly not. Also included prominently are the never-aging and impossibly optimistic boys of the Chums of Chance, who among many, many other exploits encounter time travelers. Learning of a dystopian future and doubting that they could continue to remain untouched by mortality, they are “ready to deal with hell itself, to betray anything and anyone if only they could be sent back to when they were young, be allowed to regain the early boys’-book innocence.”
And they do, hopping back in the balloon in which they fly from adventure to adventure, floating above the modernizing earth, escaping from its labor troubles and coming catastrophes. They fly away and continue to pursue improbable missions in their hopeful journey to their official ostensible destination, Shambala, the mythical Tibetan Buddhist kingdom, which they and other characters seek as a place of transcendence or as a source of power, depending, among other things, on whether they are well-intentioned pilgrims trying to transcend a world of power struggles or among the “capitalist Christer Republicans” turning the American West and the globe from free to exploited.
The Fourth of July is, among other things, both an act of time travel and a search for a mythical place. This is the case in any year but especially this year, when the Constitution is being torn up by elected and unelected employees sworn to defend it and its total destruction just got put on the docket. Especially in these faux originalist times, when specious references to the specifics of the founders’ intentions are used to justify the destruction of what the documents the founders wrote make clear are the larger values they intended the nation to pursue. Following the long tradition of patriotic amnesia, ramped up in an orgy of nationalism after 9/11, we pretend to travel back in time to the nation’s founding (increasingly, in the popular imagination) as a white, Christian nation. The Fourth of July is for this vision a proud celebration of a time when American men commenced kicking ass, a recuperation of a victory culture built even early in Indian massacres that’s been taking serious hits ever since, certainly in our loss in the war in Vietnam but arguably even earlier with our dropping of the bomb, an act that makes it hard to claim we’re the ones in the white hats. Our misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq are the result of these hits, part of the larger cultural imperative to be innocent and victorious, to, like the Chums of Chance, betray anything to regain innocence.
The culture war battle to keep this past out of schoolchildren’s ears is driven by this same imperative. We are the nation that doesn’t lose. The Big Lie of the 2020 presidential election is driven by this imperative too, this promotion of a Myth America where everything wrong is the fault of those who don’t love it and ought to have left it or, since we’re wishing here, never ought to have come (forgetting for a moment that that’s pretty much all of us). It’s all a wishful time-travel return to a time and place of innocence that never existed.
Those of us who want this history taught right, who insist on the harmfulness of ignoring the realities of the past and who recognize that the prosperity gospel of the GOP is nothing more than a continuation of the grand resentment-based fleecing of poor whites that gave us racial capitalism–we’re having a different kind of Fourth today. There have been some powerful reflections on what our national exercise in time travel and mythical meaning-making means to them this time around. Some of the people angry about abortion and prayer in schools and gun safety and climate warning–even people who have in the past celebrated–have announced that they will wear black, they will take a knee, they’ll skip the fireworks. Others insist that expressions of patriotism are more important than ever this year, that we can’t let the flag be taken away from us.
I’m not a flag-waver; I’m an anthem-sitter. And I think I sort of understand what it feels like to know that flag’s not waving for you. But I do think there’s something to this argument. As much as we know (because they keep showing us) the dangers of nationalism and as much as patriotism manifests routinely in violations of the flag code and of basic human morality, patriotism doesn’t have to be nationalism, and pride in a country doesn’t have to be invidious or false or inspire violence. One of the things people who read Pynchon read Pynchon for (aside from the puns, the high/low mashups that in Against the Day include appearances by Karl and Groucho Mark and a dog who reads Henry James, and the beauty) is his way of exploding history so that the moments in the past that seem determinative and set in stone can be revealed for what they were and always are–moments of possibility that could have gone a million other ways.
Mason & Dixon is my favorite of his novels for the way it does this, showing that what happened could have not happened that way, that what’s happening now won’t be understood until the unknowable future happens, that the feeling of inevitability we have about history is just a feeling and not in fact the case. Mason & Dixon brought together three such moments–the 1760s, 1860s, and 1960s–moments when lines were drawn and possibilities realized or unrealized, explosions of change that came and went, pointing to future moments of possibility when lines can be redrawn or erased. The line the title characters drew turned “subjunctive to declarative,” in Pynchon’s words, but the future is always subjunctive, and moments will come around again where different possibilities can be realized.
One thing I’ve grown tired of hearing (and I’m not alone) is invocations of King’s line about “the arc of the moral universe.” He meant something particular by it, and it’s brought up to express hope, but when quoted it often carries a kind of passivity with it: don’t worry, it ends up saying, eventually we’ll have justice. We won’t–not eventually, inevitably, somewhere down the road. The long-building but sudden-seeming violence done to the legal foundation of the nation over the last two weeks should be our wake-up call. There are no laws of history or essential innocence or goodness or nugget of Declaration-declared, Constitution-constituting truth that will determine our outcome, and we can’t fly off in balloons of wishfulness or denial, refusing to look down and get our hands dirty or waiting for the revolution and pointing out the dirty hands. Maybe a dirty patriotism is what we need. A determination to do the hard, unglamorous work of democracy and compromise and resistance and to save the country for what it could be, from what its descending into becoming. Maybe it’s the only way we have to bend the arc in the right direction.
Like everyone I know who has been paying attention, I’m fucking terrified of what’s becoming of my country. In the past few days, the Supreme Court has issued decisions that leave no doubt of its illegitimacy or its lack of interest in the integrity of our system or in the right to freedom from religion, bodily autonomy, safety, a livable planet. Yesterday, we learned more jaw-dropping things about our violent, venal former president and the coup he and a small army of bottom feeders attempted. And there’s little reason to think the court wouldn’t help him or one of the many Republicans patterning themselves after him into the highest office next time.
Likewise, like everyone I know in Missouri who has been paying attention, I am terrified by what my state has already become. Because Missouri was one of nine states with trigger laws–the ludicrously named “Right to Life of the Unborn Child Act”–as soon as Roe was overturned, the law went into effect, and abortion was banned here.
Yesterday, a major Missouri hospital system announced that it would no longer provide Plan B because it wasn’t yet clear that it was still legal to prescribe emergency contraceptives and it didn’t want its doctors to get arrested. According to a statement made today by the governor’s, it is, though there are some who say an ambitious prosecutor could still test that determination. Regardless, the state house is filled with the kind of people who would name a law the “Right to Life of the Unborn Child Act,” and there is no reason to think they will be stopping at abortion or that those who think that women should have control over their own bodies and that religious belief should have no place in public policy will be able to stop them.
And just as democracy in my country has been under attack by coup plotters and election riggers, so it is under attack now in my state. The party simply ignored a popular referendum on Medicaid, refusing to accept federal money that would have helped alleviate an underfunded healthcare system. Gerrymandering has long been common practice in Missouri, and the state GOP is forever on the lookout for more ways to create long skinny, misshapen districts designed to rob Democratic voters of the chance to have the representation they should.
Today the governor signed an awful bill into law that contains a number of provisions designed to further chip away at the ability of the opposition to oppose them, from voter ID laws to procedures that make it much harder to register voters. As it is for the national GOP, democracy–elections, lawmaking, constitutions–is an obstacle, something that gets in the way of their hold on power, power that is to be used in profoundly antidemocratic ways.
It all feels hopeless for us here, just as it does for many across the country. We march, we call our elected representatives, we work to get out the vote for candidates who might better represent our interests and the interests of the state as a whole rather than a small, vocal minority. And they sometimes are able to fight back against bad legislation. But more often they aren’t. And we have our own criminal who might make it back into office, just like the country does, with his own people eager to get him there. And it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot we can do about it–if Greitens emerges from the primary, all we can do is hope he flames out. And unless the Department of Justice makes it so Trump can’t run again, unless Biden and others in DC who could make court reform happen do, unless in doing so they make it impossible for SCOTUS to continue to ignore our legal tradition and the separation of powers and to steal the White House for the GOP, we’re going to need a plan B to save us from a future we don’t want and shouldn’t have to have.
Sometimes people who don’t know The Clash and don’t listen carefully to song lyrics mistake their “White Riot” for a white supremacist anthem. But when they sing about wanting “a riot of our own,” they don’t want a race riot. Inspired by the riot that erupted in 1976 at the Notting Hill Carnival, a Caribbean cultural festival in West London, the song is about about white people following the example of the black Notting Hill rioters. “All the power’s in the hands/ Of people rich enough to buy it,” Joe Strummer sings, “And everybody’s doing/Just what they’re told to.” Instead of docility, Strummer calls for “throwing a brick.” While the song played live unfortunately caused the trashing of a lot of clubs by overexcited fans, the song is about fighting for the rights of those who haven’t had the money to buy the power, white and black and any other color, across the globe.
The white riot going on in the U.S. right now isn’t about that. It’s the people who have the money to have bought the power–the Supreme Court, half of congress and state legislatures–who are throwing the bricks in this white riot. And it wouldn’t at all be a misunderstanding to think it’s white supremacist. The Federalist Society takeover of the Supreme Court, the depths of which we still haven’t plumbed (we still don’t know why Kennedy suddenly stepped down), is absolutely about keeping power for white people–men in particular–and wielding it against the bogeymen of the Great Replacement by nonwhites and/or LGBTQ people, non-Christians, socialists, abortionists, whatever latest distraction engineered by the Chris Rufos of the world and rolled out to keep the white men who don’t actually own the power distracted, in the great American tradition of racial capitalism. The decisions coming down from the Court are preparing the way for an authoritarian theocracy, defended by unlimited guns and bigotry and the destruction of the Constitution. And it’s a court that is as much stolen as bought, just like the presidencies that made it, as, without the extraordinary extralegal intervention of the Court itself in Bush v Gore and without the interference that gave Trump his presidency, the Court wouldn’t be what it is today.
And like the Brooks Brothers Riot that gave us Bush II, what’s happening now–the theft of the Court, the overturning of precedent and principles, the attempted stealing of an election–in the end is powered by the outrage of thwarted entitlement, by the rage that comes from feeling like the country you think is yours is being taken away from you by people you think it doesn’t belong to. It’s a top-down riot where the people throwing the bricks already have the power and have recruited a lot of throwers who don’t realize they’re dupes, and they’re going to knock it over and burn it down if they have to. And who’s to say they won’t win? If Bush v Gore worked, what’s going to stop them next time?
After The Clash broke up, Joe Strummer had a band called The Mescaleros, and they had a song, “Yalla Yalla,” that begins, “Well so long, liberty let’s forget you/ Didn’t show, not in my time/ But in our sons’ and daughters’ time/ When you get the feeling, call and you got a room.” This liberty–real liberty, not the adolescent freedom to swing your fist no matter whose nose it hits–has always been imperfectly imagined and never widely enough achieved in the U.S., but there have often also been people in its institutions, from congress to the courts to higher education, who have worked to acknowledge and overcome these structural and historical failures and to try to extend the freedoms to live and work and be to those who haven’t had them. It’s hard these days to imagine that history continuing. As the song goes, after “night falls on the grove,” “you can but dream.” But I’m going to go to sleep tonight with the chorus in my ears, carrying the hope that it won’t be until my children’s time that this latest white riot will be over. According to Strummer, yalla yalla means “come on, let’s go” in Arabic, and it seems to be a call not just to go out and be free but also to work for freedom. Let’s wake up tomorrow (later this morning now), be crushed by the horrible news of the latest decisions and heartened by the latest disclosures from the investigations into January 6, and let’s go.
Doing some work in front of the TV tonight, I watched documentaries on Watergate and Alex Jones. It was something, watching an account of the moment in US history when the system held against a president who abused his power–in part because Americans learned what he’d done and turned against him–and then watching an account of the career of one of the men most responsible for making sure that Americans are unable to point to a shared set of facts about what another president who abused his power did.
It had already been a day. It started to look this morning like the pattern that’s been established for the past too many years of mass shootings failing to lead to the change an outraged nation demands might not be holding. This time, it was two events in close succession, which might have made a difference. It might also have been the state-by-state pressure exerted by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Everytown, and other groups advocating for sensible gun policy that has made this time look like it might actually be different.
It also was starting to look like the pattern that long ago emerged with Trump–a nation is horrified to learn of the latest outrage he’s committed, Washington marshals its forces to expose the depth of his abuse of power, and a fully compromised Republican party lets him off the hook–might not hold this time. Instead of impeachments that don’t lead to convictions, we might have actual criminal accountability. The January 6 committee just might have the goods and the Justice Department just might actually live up to its name.
So maybe this is the start of something. Maybe things have gotten so bad that the efforts of the Joneses and the Murdochs to ensure we can’t all be working from the same set of facts are becoming less effective–so much less that Americans’ outrage can reach critical mass and their representatives have to listen to their demands. Maybe the evidence is piling up so high that it’s overwhelming the work of the liars, the conspiracy theorists, and the politicians who might know better but in their own personal calculus have decided that the true and the right are less important than the expedient and the advantageous. It could be that decades of hoping for better gun policy and a long six years of hoping that Trump would finally be treated like the criminal he is might finally be more than exercises in disappointment. You know it seems the more we talk about it, it only makes it worse to live without it. But let’s talk about it.
If you had to answer the question of why everything is so fucked up in this country right now, you could do worse than pointing at this tweet:
I’m an American in my own home, and I’ll do whatever I want with my guns, Mr. Chairman.
I’m an American and I’ll do whatever I want with my guns.
I’m an American and I’ll do whatever I want.
I’ll do whatever I want.
The essence of this tweet is something you expect to hear from toddlers, not members of Congress. One of the most important things we are supposed to learn as we are socialized–by playing with other children, going to school, and learning how our system of government works–is that we can’t do whatever we want, because our actions affect other people. What we do sometimes does things to other people that they don’t want done to them and that we wouldn’t done to us. As we learn what becoming a member of a functioning society entails, we learn not to swing our fist wherever we want because we don’t want it to hit the other fellow’s nose.
So maybe we don’t live in a functioning society anymore. A good portion of us root our identity in the idea that other people and their noses can go fuck themselves, that our freedom to swing our fists wildly with our eyes closed because it makes us feel good is sacred. For those among us who think this way, people who voice complaints about how their noses keep getting smashed are too sensitive, are snowflakes, should be mocked. America doesn’t owe them anything other than the chance to become nose-smashers themselves. Trump is their hero because he could give a rat’s ass about the effects of his actions and just wins wins wins. And Trump, in his red white and blue uniform, is America.
America can’t lose, Trumpist, triumphalist thinking goes, unless un-American Americans hold it back, like (this line of thinking goes) in Vietnam, or in business, or in elections, or in defending itself against the immigrant hordes or the enemies within. If real Americans are just allowed to hang onto their guns and their prejudices and do whatever it takes–and not do things they don’t want to that might help others, like wear masks or allow people to do things they think their religion just can’t tolerate–they’ll win.
Along these lines, if you think that tweet isn’t the answer, try this shirt:
America is flag-draped death heads and guns. America is swinging fists and fuck your noses. America is good guys with guns, lots and lots of guns, all the guns you can eat.
I’m sick to death of people thinking it’s American to do whatever you want. We’ve always had this attitude as one part of who we are, as colonizers and enslavers, bosses and con men, but now it seems like all the strains encouraging selfishness and destroying the impulse to work toward the public good have combined in a toxic stew of America firster, neoliberal individualist, love-it-or-leave-it ignorance and bigotry. Aggression, lack of empathy, and narcissism used to be the hallmarks of a sociopath. Now they’re job qualifications to be a Republican member of congress. Or someone who votes for one.
How do we pull out of this neoliberal tailspin? Is there any righting of the plane? Can humanities professors save us? Why are you laughing? Looking at my notes taken yesterday for a talk I’m writing about the humanities, I see this passage from Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution: “as increased use of casual academic labor, online instruction, and neoliberal governance erodes research-faculty control over curriculums, degrees, and major requirements, the last force within public universities potentially sustaining the ideal of the well-educated citizen, the liberal arts professoriat itself, will be dramatically diminished in both size and power to assert its vision.” As the state defunds higher ed and the culture devalues it, Brown argues, as people stop believing that democracy depends on educated citizens who put the public good over individual freedom, it is becoming harder for those within universities who understand this to save their institutions from becoming the kind of places that are no longer interested in producing that kind of citizen.
The same holds true for institutions and individuals everywhere in America. We are all supposed to be looking for positive ROI, in our workplaces and in our lives. It’s becoming harder and harder to talk or even think about what’s just, about the greater good, about the good at all, when everybody’s competing with everybody else, when everyone and everything is ranked. I’ll argue in my talk for the possibility of working against the economization of everything within higher ed, for the idea that there are things we can do in higher ed that might fight against neoliberal rationality in higher ed and outside of it. I’d be foolish to imagine such efforts could have any effect on people like Greg Steube who think there’s any appropriate response to the mass shootings of May other than finding ways to protect the lives of the people they represent. But if public higher education could be saved as a place where future potential members of Congress and future potential voters could learn alternative ways of thinking, ways that don’t make the very notion of the public good absurd, maybe that could be something. And if others could do whatever they can to affect their own institutions, to show that things don’t have to be this way, that could be something too.
A friend just posted a video from YouTube of a time lapse map of Europe covering 1000 years of its history.
It’s really something, watching the formation of states and empires, the slow and then sudden swallowing up of the former by the latter. It makes you think not only of the flows of people and cultures and foods and riches but of the human costs, of the lives lost every time a border shifted, and of the motivating hatreds and resulting long-lived grudges.
It also made me think of the response I’ve gotten to my last post and especially to the Op Ed that came out of it in Sunday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which has been gratifying and a little overwhelming, or if that’s too dramatic, certainly eye-opening. Many of the emails and messages I’ve gotten are about how the writer shares my reaction to the war in Ukraine and the curious experience of figuring out how to balance their support for Ukraine against Russia’s invasion with the historical memory that comes with being an American Jew.
It is of course a complicated thing, and to hear from so many people I know and so many I don’t, people who have also been struggling with this, strengthens my sense that there are good and bad ways to deal with the complications of historical memory–complications this amazing moving map illustrates well. With the flows of refugees and with borders shifting under people’s feet from generation to generation, it’s no wonder that family histories and national histories in Eastern Europe become confused, roots become tangled or severed, and that some of these lives growing in this soil–individual, familial, ethnic, national–emerge twisted, bearing bitter fruit, not growing toward the light the way they should. And it’s no wonder that others who grow up in different soil far away, transplants, look back bewildered at the land they came from.
Before I get any more Chauncey Gardneresque, I’ll leave you with an invitation to stare some more at this map (embedded below) and think about the history it shows and the history that’s happening now. It’s a good way to deal with it.*
*On dealing with history rather than not dealing with it, thinking about it rather than not, letting it be taught to your children rather than fighting to keep it from them: here’s a long Twitter thread I’ve been keeping for nine or so months, on efforts in this country to make sure our own history is taught and efforts on the other side.