Saturday, September 19, 2020

Downsizing Democracy

In 2002, I reviewed this book for PopMatters. The book by political scientists Matthew A. Crenson and Benjamin Ginsburg (no relation to Notorious RBG, of blessed memory) takes note of judicial and executive appointments as the new battleground of partisan politics, given all of the other repressions of the democratic process. Since the publication of this book and my review, that point has only become apparent.
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In the 1970s, feminists rallied to the phrase, "the personal is political." In Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined Its Citizens and Privatized Its Public, Johns Hopkins University political scientists Matthew A. Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg propose the reverse is now true. In an age when a president can be selected by judicial decree rather than popular consent, politics has become personalized. Government no longer operates on behalf of citizens but instead caters to individual "customers" with services geared to the needs of special interests.

This contrasts to the government of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which relied on the active participation of the public. For decades after the nation's founding, there was no professional civil service. The Federal government was staffed through the spoils system while many local jurisdictions used volunteers. Putting together large blocs of voters was the bedrock of political legitimacy. National turnout for presidential elections in the late 1800s, for example, averaged a whopping 80% of eligible voters compared to less than 50% today.

Voter apathy in the present is the product of the public's marginalization by our political leaders, Crenson and Ginsberg maintain. Quite simply, ruling elites don't need and don't want broad-based voter consensus in putting their agendas into action anymore. They now rely more heavily on lobbying and litigation instead. Negative advertising and other smear tactics of recent electoral campaigns are designed to discourage voting by members of the opposition, not rally the support of believers.

The roots of this dilemma date back more than 100 years. In an attempt to rescue government from cronyism and corruption, the Progressives created the civil service system (based on merit rather than patronage) and established regulatory agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve Board to oversee commerce and the economy. These moves were supposed to put government under the authority of politically neutral technicians who would act in the public interest rather than by party loyalty. Yet they had the perhaps unintended effect of disengaging the state from its democratic foundation. (If nothing else, old-time machine politics tied leaders directly to their support base, however venal the relationship.)

Further aiding the professionalization of the government bureaucracy were the Revenue Act of 1942 and the Current Tax Payment Act of 1943, which enabled government to expand without direct citizen participation. The first piece of legislation broadened the nation's tax base, doubling the number of eligible taxpayers. The second provided for withholding income tax payments in advance of year-end filing, providing for a more predictable, steady cash flow. Prior to their passage, government relied on revenues raised through various use taxes and debt issues, augmented by the voluntary support of primarily affluent individual taxpayers.

Mobilizing larger voter masses under the New Deal, in response to the economic crisis of the 1930s, also only went so far. Franklin Roosevelt courted blue-collar workers in the North, but he did not challenge the feudal system in the South. Agricultural labor was exempted from minimum wage laws and New Deal management was delegated to the state level, allowing public funds to be kept away from Blacks, to appease the landed aristocracy of the former Confederacy.

When Great Society liberals sought to expand the New Deal coalition by embracing civil rights, the stage was set for the "New Politics" of today. Mobilizing the Black vote pushed many Southerners, including Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, out of the Democratic Party and alienated northern working-class whites. This broke up the left's constituency and shifted the electorate rightward.

In the place of high citizen involvement, New Politics introduced what Crensen and Ginsberg call "interest-group democracy." Public interest law firms, nonprofit think tanks, and other advocacy groups funded by foundation grants, private contributions, and government contracts trade on insider information and peddle influence within the Beltway on behalf of a plethora of constituencies, which may or may not exist in the national body politic. The judiciary and executive branches of government are the primary battlegrounds of these much less public skirmishes. And within the more discreet corridors of power, partisan politics are still being waged.

The government bureaucracy tends to be staffed ideologically according to function. Departments devoted to social welfare (health, education, housing, urban development, the environment, etc.) tend to attract career employees with more liberal leanings. Departments involved with commerce, security, and the military tend to attract more conservative ones. Recent efforts to reduce "entitlements" and their governmental infrastructures have had the bonus effect of solidifying power for conservatives within the government bureaucracy, Crensen and Ginsberg claim.

Another area where partisanship is still at play is in judicial and executive appointments. With more and more policy decisions being made through litigation and lobbying, controlling judges, department heads, regulators, etc. has become all the more important. Approving nominees for these positions has broad implications on the direction of government for a public that for all intents and purposes is being left out of the loop. In the case of the Federal judicial bench, for example, this includes the power to set case law and influence legal decisions for years to come.

What's to be done about this dysfunctional situation? Unfortunately, Crensen and Ginsberg don't give much cause for optimism. The withdrawal of the average citizen from politics cannot be easily reversed. "If citizens are to be roused from apathy to action," they write in the conclusion, "someone in a position to arouse them must have an interest in doing so." But there isn't really anyone in power today whose interests would be served by doing that. The best they can offer is to lift the guilt laid on by moralists that the decline of mass democracy is simply the result of the couch-potato solipsism the nation has supposedly slipped into during the age of Beavis and Butthead.

Still, Downsizing Democracy is an important book. One that anyone wanting to understand the sorry state of the nation these days will want, even if all you can do is read it and weep.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

PopMatters published my review of the new Library of America volume on Richard Hofstadter today, which also happens to be US Constitution Day, as well as the ninth anniversary of Occupy Wall Street.

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As he prepared to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March 1965 on what was to become known as 'Bloody Sunday', the late civil rights leader and one-day congressman John Lewis prepared for what he anticipated would be his arrest by packing an apple, an orange, toothpaste, and a toothbrush into a knapsack, along with two books. One of those was The Seven Storey Mountain, the Trappist monk's autobiography in which he relates his quest as a young man to find spiritual fulfillment; the other was The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It by historian Richard Hofstadter where he argues that, sectionalist conflicts aside, American politics has been characterized by a 'shared belief in the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, [and] the value of competition' that runs across the political spectrum. 

The then 25-year-old Lewis famously lost that knapsack and its contents while being beaten nearly to death by police on that fateful day, but the Library of America is now ensuring that Hofstadter's legacy at least will be preserved by collecting his work from the mid-1940s to 1970 in a three-volume series edited by Princeton historian Sean Wilentz. The first of these surveys Hofstader's middle period, from 1956 to 1965, during which he published some of his most famous work and was at the height of his reputation as a public intellectual along with the likes of Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, and Daniel Bell. The book presents two complete works, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and The Paranoid Style in American Politics, along with a decade's worth of previously uncollected essays, including several appearing in print for the first time. It is a volume that is timely in tracing the history of ideas and cultural currents that continue to be alive and well in American society today.

Published in 1963, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life seeks to trace the hostility toward the intellect and intellectuals in American culture dating back to its roots. It is conceived as what Michel Foucault would term 'a history of the present', a genealogy of the ideas that explains current circumstances, in this case as revealed in the wake of McCarthyism and the defeat of the 'egghead' Adlai Stevenson in the US Presidential elections of 1952 and 1956.

Anti-intellectualism in America is older than the nation itself, going back to the Puritans who traveled across the ocean from the Continent in order to escape from the strictures of organized religion and all of its trappings and inhabit what they took to be a 'pristine' wilderness where pure and direct faith could reign, in which they could be free to accept Jesus as their own personal savior. And according to Hofstadter it is to evangelism that we must look to discover the origins of American anti-intellectualism.

To be sure, most of the first generation of Puritan clergy were educated men with Oxbridge pedigrees. It was not long after John Winthrop arrived to lead the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 that what is now Harvard University was founded. Hofstadter identifies a class aspect to this, however, with the learned scholar-ministers comprising an upper stratum living a somewhat more rarified existence over a generally uneducated laity. Puritanism's intellectual foundation also needed to be balanced with deep emotion, which was required of the faithful in order to maintain their piety. 

This delicate balance overseen by the professional ministerial class was to be challenged by 'inspired' preachers of the First Great Awakening of the mid-1700s, setting the stage for the anti-intellectualist strain in American culture to emerge. It is also the moment where the democratic impulse awakens in the leveling aspect of every individual, regardless of station, having the right to choose the religion that best suited them.

The colonial frontier was especially ripe for revival grounded in emotion. As people moved away from the more settled areas, they left the institutions of 'civilized' society behind, including those of religion. Communities, such as they were, often had no schools or churches not to mention books. And as Hofstadter writes:

[M]en and women living under conditions of poverty and exacting toil, facing the hazards of Indian raids, fevers, and agues, and raised on whiskey and brawling, could not afford education and culture; and they found it easier to reject what they could not have than to admit the lack of it as a deficiency in themselves.

This resentment helped to foster the embrace of a more 'primitive' and thus ostensibly purer form of Christianity for which the Good Book alone would be the final arbiter and which traveling, often self-appointed evangelists with no formal education would propagate. This emphasis on faith over reason continues to inspire evangelism and has often influenced politics over the course of the nation's history.

Similarly to the early Puritan clerics, the generation that founded the American republic were learned men who formed a patrician elite. And as Hofstadter wryly notes: 'It is ironic that the United States should have been founded by intellectuals; for throughout most of our political history, the intellectual has been for the most part either an outsider, a servant, or a scapegoat.' But the patrician elite soon fell out among one another, opening the door for factionalism, often with little regard for propriety.

The first victim of attempted political assassination was Thomas Jefferson at the hands of the Federalists. He was attacked for being a 'philosopher' given to 'abstract theories' who lacked the character to lead; worse, he was a Francophile. And as a Deist, he was a threat to Christianity. One allegation was true, that he 'kept a slave wench and sired mulattoes', though that was commonplace among the enslavers of Black people, so it's uncertain why that would have been perceived at the time to have any negative consequences.

Anti-intellectualism became firmly embedded in American politics with the rise of Andrew Jackson in the 1820s, which twice pitted the 'natural genius' of 'Old Hickory' against the patrician intellectualism of John Quincy Adams. Jackson won a plurality of votes in 1824, but not enough electoral votes to secure the Presidency. The House of Representatives in a contingent election selected Adams who almost immediately proceeded to disregard the democratic impulses to which Jackson had appealed by proposing a series of national initiatives for educational and scientific improvement that even his own Cabinet at times would not support. Four years later, the unlettered Jackson, 'nursling of the wilds' according to one contemporary encomium, beat Adams in a landslide with his supporters founding the modern Democratic Party in the process.

Another purveyor of anti-intellectualism has been the business class whose proprietary interests in property and profit that have facilitated consensus in American politics going back to the Founding Fathers as Hofstadter argued in The American Political Tradition. Through what Hofstadter terms 'the practical culture', the business class, particularly since the onset of the industrial age, has bent the intellect toward strictly technological, materialistic, and above all utilitarian ends. Its view of education is essentially vocational, a matter of career preparation to be measured in terms of return on investment. The need for technical training becomes more pronounced toward the end of the 19th century with the rise of large-scale bureaucracies, which resulted in the creation of business schools to instruct in the principles of management, finance, and other aspects of the commercial enterprise. Alongside it, interestingly, grew the whole field of self-help to promulgate development of personal characteristics necessary for success, a secularization of the evangelical spirit epitomized in the exhortations of Norman Vincent Peale.

Rather than serve as a bulwark against this trend, American higher education has participated in the leveling down of the intellectual. Part of the dilemma has been the need to balance unencumbered intellectual inquiry with access to the knowledge necessary to sustain a functioning democracy. The democratization of higher education has been well-suited to the anti-intellectual and utilitarian impulses within American culture. However, here Hofstadter is not arguing against the democratization of education so much as attempting to open it up to the embrace of more 'playfulness', as he terms it in the book's introduction, in the sense of being amenable to 'the quest for new uncertainties' and equipped with the ability and the desire to turn 'answers into questions'. This disposition is not one that can be easily grasped through standardized testing or inculcated through strictly technical training.

The anti-intellectualism of American culture provides the fertile ground in which the subject of Hofstadter's follow-up book has taken root and flourished. The Paranoid Style in American Politics is a collection of essays, written over a 14-year period, once again in the shadow of McCarthyism but this time imbued with a new sense of urgency in response to the rise of the far right in American politics as embodied by the ascension of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater to the Presidential candidacy of the Republican Party in 1964. The collection is divided into two parts, the first dealing with the American right and the second with other considerations of the modern era. While contemporary readers may not be especially interested in Part II, Part I still reads as a Foucauldian history of the present.

The title essay started out as a lecture given at Oxford University in November 1963, the day before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and it was published in abridged form in that month's issue of Harper's Magazine. For Hofstadter, the paranoid style is not the product of a disturbed mind, but 'a mode of expression', the articulation of a way of seeing the world, deployed by 'more or less normal people' for political purposes.

Feelings of persecution are central to the paranoid style and conspiracy theories abound within it. As if he were writing of the present moment, Hofstadter begins by observing that:

Although American political life has rarely been touched by the most acute varieties of class conflict, it has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds. Today this fact is most evident on the extreme right wing, which has shown, particularly in the Goldwater movement, how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.

It must be noted that the paranoid style is not necessarily a function of the right or the left—as Hofstadter notes, the Moscow Trials of the Great Purge of 1938-1939 under Joseph Stalin were steeped in the paranoid style—but an ideological construct that can cut both ways.

While many examples of the paranoid style can be cited, Hofstadter, as an historian of American thought, was primarily concerned with the American case and in particular its expression on the right. Again in providing a history of the present, Hofstadter traces the paranoid style back through the Goldwater movement to McCarthyism, anti-Catholicism, the anti-Masonic movement, and back to the earliest days of the nation. Among the early purveyors of the paranoid style was Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, whose 1835 screed Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States railed against 'the popes and despots' operating at the behest of Austria through the Jesuit order among the unsuspecting citizens of the Republic.

Contemporary right-wing thought, in Hofstadter's estimation, can be characterized by three primary claims, which with some elision can still be discerned today: (1) the conspiracy to undermine free-market capitalism as epitomized by the New Deal, or in its present-day manifestation, 'the nanny state'; (2) the infiltration of top government by socialists, in the age of Brietbart and QAnon, the subversives of 'the deep state'; and (3) the network of leftists in education and the media conspiring to undermine the 'real' America.

Hofstadter began mapping out the paranoid style in the mid-1950s, represented in the collection by the 1954 essay 'The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt'. Hofstadter picks up the term 'pseudo-conservative' from the 1950 book The Authoritarian Personality by Frankfurt School critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno and his associates written while he was living in exile in California during and shortly after the Second World War. Hofstader's argument is that pseudo-conservatism is a product of the rootlessness and heterogeneity of modern life and the striving for status and identity that it engenders. Like the members of the Tea Party surveyed in sociologist Arlie Russell Hocschild's 2016 book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, 'The pseudo-conservative always imagines himself to be dominated and imposed upon because he feels that he is not dominant, and knows of no other way of interpreting his position'.

Pseudo-conservatism gets updated in the 1965 essay 'Pseudo-Conservatism Revisted', the writing of which was prompted in large part by the Goldwater Presidential campaign. In the ten years since introducing the concept, Hofstadter notes that the far right has grown in organization and influence, a statement that resonates today. He walks back the emphasis on status anxiety a bit, as well makes a few other corrections, including admitting to have understated the importance of nativism and fundamentalism to the right, which also seems increasingly relevant to today. Again, Hofstadter relates some history of the present by looking back to the likes of anti-Semite Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s (who continued to serve as a parish pastor into the mid-1960s and for whom my best man was an altar boy) and of course Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, as well as the John Birch Society.

Hofstadter directly engages Goldwater and pseudo-conservative politics in the essay that rounds out Part I of The Paranoid Style in American Politics. The first statement Hofstadter makes is that the success of Goldwater and the pseudo-conservatism he represents is not an accidental effect of moderate Republican ineptitude, but the result of an organized effort within the party. And like the Republican party of today, moderates were at pains to distinguish between 'the conservatism represented by Senator Goldwater and his followers and the conservatism that conserves'. And as if speaking of President Donald Trump, Hofstadter observes of Goldwater:

[H]ow are we to explain the character of a 'conservative' whose whole political life has been spent urging a sharp break with the past, whose great moment as a party leader was marked by a repudiation of our traditional political ways, whose followers were so notable for their destructive and divisive energies, and whose public reputation was marked not by standpattism or excessive caution but with wayward impulse and recklessness?

It should also be noted that it was Goldwater who pioneered 'the Southern strategy' in an attempt to capitalize on the white backlash against the civil rights movement not only in the former Confederacy but in the North, as well. And like the 'dog whistle' politics of recent election cycles, the Goldwater campaign used the coded language of urban street violence, corruption (AKA 'the swamp'), and the ostensible threat to women (today comfortably ensconced in the suburbs) to turn out the vote.

From an electoral campaign perspective, the plan didn't work. Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson, carrying only five states in the Deep South and his own state of Arizona, in the largest landslide since James Monroe defeated John Quincy Adams in 1820. But as Hofstadter notes, the Goldwater faithful and their pseudo-conservative fellow travelers were apparently satisfied in having established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in American politics and especially in their ability to attain leadership of the party from a minority position. And while the Southern strategy didn't deliver results in 1964, the appeals to racial animus and fear have proven highly effective in subsequent Republican victories from Richard Nixon to Trump. Even when out of power the right has been successful, as Hofstadter predicted, in its obstructionism, creating 'a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible'.

The uncollected essays contain two additional reflections on Goldwater, one written before the results of the 1964 election and one written after. The first discusses Goldwater in the context of the two-party system, the historical emergence of which Hofstadter takes up in one of his last books, The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of a Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780-1840, published in 1969. The essay ends on a pessimistic note with the thought that Goldwater need not win the election in order to continue to control the Republican Party and disrupt the system to the point of mounting a second campaign for President.

The second essay muses on what Hofstadter terms 'the Goldwater debacle'. The sound drubbing that Goldwater and the rest of the Republican Party took in 1964 was evidence to Hofstadter that the center ultimately did hold and that what Hofstadter's friend from his younger days, the sociologist C. Wright Mills, terms the power elite 'threw its preponderant weight on the side of responsibility'. Hofstadter closes the essay with a charge to the 'moderates' of the Republican Party to regain the political center in order to establish a position within the broader consensus of the American public and yet carve out an identity to distinguish themselves from the Democratic Party. 

Hofstadter died of leukemia in 1970 at the age of 54 and did not live long enough to see that although Goldwater did not personally maintain control of the Republican Party, the pseudo-conservatism he represented continued to gain force in American politics despite its minority position. Inklings of this were apparent by the late 1960s, which Hofstadter did recognize in the Nixon campaign, though the scale of it over time is something he may not have imagined. Rather than move toward the center, the Republican Party has doubled down on pseudo-conservatism, using racial politics, voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the unequal representation of the Electoral College to win elections, with the last two Republicans attaining the Presidency doing so while losing the popular vote.

The remainder of Part II of The Paranoid Style in American Politics and the uncollected essays delve into other aspects of American culture, politics, and thought, representing a broad range of Hofstadter's interests and opinions as an historian and a public intellectual, and demonstrating the breadth of his erudition. (I'm a sucker for all things Tocqueville and greatly appreciated Hofstadter's appreciation of the French aristocrat of whom it is said wrote the best book on democracy, which is also the best book about America.) 

The final essay, written around 1962 and previously unpublished, is a personal note of Hofstadter's on his origins and evolution as an historian and a thinker, and makes the case for history as a literary practice and not just a recitation of facts. (And indeed, Hofstadter is a master stylist.) The entire volume from the Library of America is assiduously annotated by Wilentz, a formidable historian in his own right, with notes on persons, events, and references that may not be well known to contemporary readers. There is also a chronology of Hofstadter's life.

In the 50 years since his premature death, Hofstadter has come in for criticism from the right and the left. It can be argued that he was a liberal elitist with a rather reductive view of populism and reform, that his notions of the American body politic didn't acknowledge what we now call 'intersectionality', that some of his interpretations of the facts don't hold up to present-day scrutiny, not too mention that some of the facts themselves have been subsequently called into question. But in the main, Hofstadter's contribution to our understanding of America's past and its relevance to the present still command attention. The current volume from the Library of America is a testament. The subsequent volumes in development, one of which will include The American Political Tradition, promise to reaffirm that.

Friday, September 11, 2020

A Tale of Two Louisses

One of the great experiences of my time in the graduate program in Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research was a class I took with Margo Jefferson and Elizabeth Kendall on representations of race and gender in American culture. One of the key things to come out of that class was the essay "Peter Williams's Black Humor," which was published in the New Art Examiner (November/December 2001). The following essay from that class was published in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, but the link to it no longer works.

In her 1931 classic study, American Humor: A Study of the American Character, Constance Rourke defines the minstrel as one of the three key archetypes of Early American culture. (The others are the Yankee trader and the backwoodsman.) According to Rourke, minstrelsy originates in the trauma of the Black Diaspora as a defense mechanism pitting triumphal humor against the brutal reality of slavery. As with the cakewalk a century later, minstrelsy was a form of “puttin’ on Massah.”(That is, Blacks mimicking white identity as an ironic posture). As Rourke notes, it was not until after the Civil War—when Blacks were ostensibly set free—that white entertainers openly took up the minstrel masquerade as a möbius strip of identity. By taking up Black satire of whiteness, the cultural anxiety of whites toward the perceived threat of unfettered Blacks could be assuaged.

An example of the double mask of minstrelsy is the relationship between the musicians Louis Armstrong and Louis Prima. On one level, the association illustrates the appropriation of a Black expressive form, in this case jazz, by white culture. Equally important, it also reveals how ethnicity serves to sublimate the construction of whiteness in America.

The connection between Armstrong and Prima would seem to be obvious. Although Armstrong was about ten years older than Prima, both were born in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. Both were trumpeters and vocalists, although Armstrong’s stature in the nation’s cultural legacy far and away exceeds Prima’s as well it should. Another similarity is the abundant use of culturally inflected humor by both musicians.

Compare Armstrong’s discography from the “Hot Fives” and “Hot Sevens” period of the mid-1920s through the mid-1930s with Prima’s oeuvre from the 1950s. There is more than coincidental correspondence in repertoire. Armstrong recordings covered by Prima include “Basin Street Blues,” “When It’s Sleepytime Down South,” “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “Lazy River,” “Just a Gigolo,” and “St. Louis Blues.” In addition to filling his songbook with Armstrong tunes, Prima modeled his performance style on his predecessor. This includes direct quotations as in the scat passages of “Lazy River” and the glissandi and smears of the trumpet solo in “Basin Street Blues.” Yet the fact that Prima mimicked Armstrong’s artistic persona generally goes unacknowledged.

Village Voice jazz writer Gary Giddens notes that Armstrong was criticized from certain quarters throughout his career for “playing the clown” onstage, i.e., for performing a kind of minstrel act. Which from a “race pride” perspective has pejorative connotations. In fact, this aspect of Armstrong’s aesthetic is much more complex than essentialist readings, as Rourke's analysis makes clear. But the criticism of Armstrong was especially virulent in the 1950s when Prima’s popularity was at its peak.

As an Italian American in the 1950s, Prima, along with a host of other performers, such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, and Frankie Laine, provided a comfortable model of cultural integration for an increasingly suburbanized white America. This deferral of the “race question” is echoed in the Hollywood westerns of the period, as in the 1950 film Broken Arrow, in which rapprochement between whites and Indians is achieved, albeit fictionally and some six decades after the fact.

Populist hagiography represents the 1950s as a culturally homogenous period, but it was also the decade in which the U.S. Supreme Court rendered the Brown v. Board of Education decision striking down the “separate but equal” doctrine that had been in force in America since the end of Reconstruction. As whites had appropriated the minstrel traditional from a century earlier, so it was again that the reclamation of Amrstrong’s Black "puttin' on" by Prima’s less intimidating Italian American “Other” allayed white anxiety toward a new threat of African American self-determination.


Ladies Sing the Blues

One of the great experiences of my time in the graduate program in Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research was a class I took with Margo Jefferson and Elizabeth Kendall on representations of race and gender in American culture. One of the key things to come out of that class was the essay "Peter Williams's Black Humor," which was published in the New Art Examiner (November/December 2001). The following essay from that class was published in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, but the link to it no longer works. 

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A fabulist or one of the more flatulent members of the so-called rock-critical establishment might write something to the effect that the blues was born at the crossroads between West Hell and Diddy-Wah-Diddy. A more down-to-earth genealogy is contained in Zora Neale Hurston’s work from the Federal Writers’ Project in Florida. Collected in the volume Go Gator and Muddy the Water, this research into the folklore of the Deep South offers an essential introduction for listening to the music performed by Black women between the two World Wars.

In the title essay, Hurston writes:

Folklore is the boiled-down juice of human living. It does not belong to any special time, place, nor people. No country is so primitive that it has no folklore, and no country has yet become so civilized that no folklore is being made within its boundaries.

Comparing the folk legends, stories and tunes collected in Go Gator with the recordings of blues, jazz and pop artists, such as Memphis Minnie, Victoria Spivey and Ethel Waters, shows how the tropes—i.e., the boiled-down juices—that registered the pains and pleasures of Black life in the South made their way out of highly segregated communities into the mainstream of American culture. In the process, grassroots traditions in the public domain were transformed into copyrighted commercial products, with anonymous work songs, such as “Mule on the Mount,” serving as precursors, in terms of themes, structure and rhythm, for such chart-toppers as Ethel Waters’ “Am I Blue?” of 1929.

The topology of the female blues singer comprises a cultural geography that extends from small-town fairs, tent shows and juke joints to urban vaudeville, cabaret and Broadway revues. Once the music moved off the plantation and out of the bayous and swamps, a process of professionalization ensued. The folk tunes Hurston collected in “The Jacksonville Recordings” are identified as to genre and regional origin only. The compositions of the professional recordings are credited to specific composers. In the cottage industry of the early blues many singer-songwriters can be found, including Ma Rainey, Memphis Minnie and Victoria Spivey. In the more popular genres, as exemplified by Ethel Waters, the division of labor of the culture industry was strictly maintained, with performers and composers serving distinct functions in the production process.

Memphis Minnie is probably closest to the purist’s definition of a country blues singer. She was born in Louisiana in 1897 and came up the Mississippi River to Chicago where she lived until her death in 1973. She typically accompanied herself on a National Steel guitar and performed with the likes of Big Bill Broonzy and Bukka White. By contrast, Victoria Spivey’s work shows more of a jazz influence, especially in terms of its instrumentation, often featuring the classic New Orleans ensemble that includes banjo, tuba, cornet and clarinet that prevailed before Coleman Hawkins established the saxophone as a legitimate jazz instrument. Both singers share an earthiness in terms of suggestive lyrics and naturalistic performance styles, which was not unusual in what were then known as “race” records.

As a “cross-over” artist, Waters’ performances are more refined than either Memphis Minnie’s or Spivey’s in several respects. Among the telling differences is a vocal technique that includes the smooth rolling vibrato of traditional European singing. Another is the use of standard popular music compositions that reflect her access to a broader audience. And another is the presence of large-orchestra accompaniments of well-known leaders such as the Dorsey Brothers and Duke Ellington.

Regardless of the aesthetic hierarchies one may erect, Black women performers of the era may all be gathered under the appellation that Harlem Renaissance philosopher and poet Alain Locke identified in 1925 as “The New Negro.” Moving beyond reactive concepts of race-pride and race-consciousness, The New Negro for Locke “wishes to be known for what he is, even in his faults and shortcomings.” In keeping with Locke’s prescription, the bawdy narratives of Black female singers—and the raucous rhythms and tonalities of brothels, saloons, and other social spaces previously hidden from so-called polite society—became openly traded cultural commodities.

From the anonymity of Southern Negro folklore evolved a legion of cultural producers who are still known to us, whose expressions, cathartic and otherwise, established a recognized place in our cultural history. Their emergence constituted an important moment in America in which as Hurston writes in her essay “Art and Such”: “The Negro’s poetical flow of language, his thinking in images and figures, was called to the attention of the outside world.”

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Notes on Invisible Man

I was asked by Cary Loren of the Book Beat to write something about Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, which was this year's WDET Book Club summer read. It was published on the store's Backroom blog on July 15, 2020.

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At the end of June, Stephen Henderson on Detroit Today announced that this year’s WDET Summer Book Club selection would be Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Published nearly 70 years ago, Invisible Man was Ellison’s first and only novel to appear during his lifetime. (A second, Juneteenth, was published posthumously in 1999, condensed by the executor of Ellison’s literary estate John F. Callahan from some 2000 pages of notes the author had written over a 40-year period; a longer version, titled Three Days Before the Shooting…, was published in 2010.) Invisible Man won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953, the first book by a Black author to do so, and it remains relevant to the current day.

Invisible Man traces the story of an unidentified narrator as he journeys from the South of his youth up to Harlem as a young adult and his many, often fantastic encounters along the way, chronicling his quest for an authentic self-identity and thus “visibility” within the consensus—which is to say white, middle class, and heteronormative—culture of midcentury America. Much more than a coming-of-age story, Invisible Man addresses social, political, and cultural issues of race and racial oppression that have confronted African Americans from before the founding of the Republic up to the present. Indeed, the novel’s climatic event reads as if it could have been ripped from yesterday’s headlines covering the Movement for Black Lives.

Yet, Ellison always insisted that Invisible Man was not a “protest” novel along the lines of Richard Wright’s Native Son. Invisible Man eschews any connection with a political ideology—the organization known as the Brotherhood that appears throughout the novel’s second half is a thinly veiled critique of Communism, which Ellison personally rejected, as just another form of exploitation of Blacks ultimately not that far removed from the more obvious types of racial oppression. If anything, Invisible Man is more closely aligned with the individualistic ethos of postwar Existentialism and its precursors, most particularly Fyodor Dostoevsky. (To be sure, in his 1981 introduction to a later edition of the book, Ellison specifically cites Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground as a model with the opening of his book “I am an invisible man” mirroring the Russian classic’s first sentence “I am a sick man.”)

Although hailed by many, including novelist Saul Bellow and critics Irving Howe of the Nation and Orville Prescott of the New York Times, at the time of its publication, Invisible Man was criticized by a later generation of Black scholars for not being revolutionary enough in its emphasis on individual self-actualization as opposed to more clearly aligning itself with the greater struggles of the Black community. Feminists have also criticized the book for its lack of positive female characters and certainly several passages of Invisible Man are jarring to contemporary eyes in that regard. Still, Invisible Man has much to recommend it for contemporary readers, particularly in light of recent events across the country and the world, making it an appropriate, provocative, and inspired choice for this year’s WDET Summer Book Club.

First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

This review was posted on Popmatters on June 29, 2020.

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One of the most often-cited quotations of Karl Marx is a riff on the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel that all world-historical facts and personages appear twice, to which he adds: 'the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce'. This observation first appears in 1852 in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in reference to, in the first place, the tragedy of Napoleon Bonaparte's seizure of absolute power in France in 1799 and, in the second, the farce of his nephew Napoleon III enacting a similar power grab in 1851. However farcical it may have seemed, the point for Marx was to reveal the bourgeoisie's directive, 'that in order to save its purse it must forfeit the crown', that the pursuit of profit rendered all other things moot, including the sovereign legitimacy of government itself.

Noted art historian and critic Hal Foster picks up on the notion to illuminate our current situation under Donald Trump, that:


[M]any American plutocrats regard the trashing of constitutional laws, the scapegoating of immigrants, and the mobilizing of white supremacists as a small price to pay for even more capital concentration through financial deregulation, tax cuts, and corrupt deal-making.

But Foster goes a step further than Marx. In this age of fake news, alternative facts, and the shameless proliferation of what philosopher Harry Frankfurt terms outright 'bullshit', Foster asks what comes next when even farce has been rendered farcical, when no attempt is made to cover up the lies, the self-dealing, and other nefarious deeds? That thought provides the inspiration for the title of Foster's new book What Comes After Farce?: Art and Criticism at a Time of Debacle.

The book comprises 18 short texts, the initial iterations of many which first appeared in the London Review of Books, Artforum, and October, the influential journal of contemporary art, criticism, and theory Foster co-edits. Written over the last 15 years, the essays, which Foster terms 'bulletins', explore various issues of and responses to the political culture and cultural politics of the present.

The book is divided into three sections, the first of which considers the uses and abuses of trauma in the wake of September 11. One of the guiding spirits here is German political philosopher Carl Schmitt, known for his analysis in the 1922 book Political Theology of the state of exception, the unforeseen emergency, provided for in Article 48 of the Weimer Constitution, that enables the executive branch to assume sovereign power in order to ensure political and social stability and which Adolf Hitler invoked in suspending democratic authority to establish the Nationalist Socialist government. Embraced by far-right conservatives of the George W. Bush administration under the guise of the 'unitary executive' and the War on Terror, the Schmittian will-to-power has been deployed to great effect by Trump's operatives where emergencies are fabricated via social media, sometimes semi-daily, to provide cover for all manner of appropriations—of capital, of public resources, of human rights, of common decency, and more.

The second section examines ways that neoliberalism—contemporary capitalism's forfeiture of the crown in the interest of securing the purse—has altered what philosopher and critic Arthur C. Danto terms 'the artworld', i.e., the network of institutions (museums, galleries, the market) and agents (curators, gallerists, artists, and yes, art historians and critics) that constitute the field. Possessing a breathtaking erudition that he wears lightly, Foster in a few pages dispatches in turn with the commodification of the art object, the dissolution of the original, the temerity of curation, and the arrogance of architecture. A highlight of this section is the last essay on Chicago-based artist Kerry James Marshall. From a close reading of a single painting, Foster unfurls a magisterial, wide-ranging argument for Marshall's work as a counterpoint to the artworld's diminished state via 'a portal to another way of seeing and being (together)'.

The son of a lawyer, Foster went to private school in Seattle with Microsoft founder Bill Gates. The final section of What Comes After Farce? deals with the brave new world that geeks such as Gates have wrought, the post-human supplanting of 'wetware' with the technics of cybernetics, the artificial intelligence of algorithms, the mechanic vision of surveillance apparatus, and the gamescape vistas of virtual and augmented reality. Starting with the rudimentary programming of the image of the player piano in the fiction of William Gaddis (whose hole-punched scrolls were the forerunners of lines of digital code), Foster moves through progressive iterations of instrumental vision and comprehension whereby human subjectivity has been called into question. The essays in the section consciously interlock, particularly in the discussion of German filmmaker Harud Farocki and his influence on media artist and theorist Hito Steyerl and American geographer-turned-photographer Trevor Paglen.

A counterpoint is offered with the example of installation artist/sculptor Sarah Sze, whose intricate works are composed of actual and fabricated pieces of consumer culture such as safety pins, string, wire, plastic, appropriated photographs, lighting, and other mixed media that complicate the experience of material fact and symbolic representation. The model worlds Sze creates are admittedly utopian, but raise important questions with respect to accepted ways of comprehending the contemporary environment in all its complexity, making them valuable in Foster's estimation.

Foster ends many of the essays in What Comes After Farce? with a series of questions rather than providing hard and fast prescriptions. Having submitted the evidence as he sees it, Foster calls upon the reader to consider their own assumptions and make their own conclusions. The final essay stakes out a position to move past what French philosopher Paul Ricoeur terms 'the hermeneutics of suspicion'—that the representations we encounter, Foster's included, are not telling us the truth—characterizing a lot of criticism, especially of the academic variety.

This open-ended conclusion draws us back to the book's introduction in which Foster, reflecting on the etymology of the word farce, which originally signified the comic interlude of a religious play, describes it as a kind of in-between state, suggesting the possibility of another, perhaps more felicitous time to come, as he intimates in his observations on Marshall and Sze later in the book. That Foster maintains this perspective in light of what he presents in the rest of What Comes After Farce? is indicative of the sensibility typically attributed to Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci, namely of a pessimism of the intellect but an optimism of the will. In these seemingly darkest of times, it may just be the best shot we've got.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

On Pynchon and Monk for International Book Day

For International Book Day, April 23, 2020, Cary Loren of The Book Beat asked me to do a kind of "Desert Island" thing. I focused on the one book and the one record that I couldn't live without. I want to thank Cary for the opportunity. It was fun. To everyone else, support your local bookstore.

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Because of my writing and research, I don’t get to read much fiction. This even though I have long had the suspicion that I might be smarter if I did. Fiction seems to get at truths that are more deeply felt than the social science I need to read in order to keep up. One exception is Thomas Pynchon. I pretty much read everything he puts out, ridiculously long or thankfully short. I bought the Penguin edition of 1984, published in 2003 to mark George Orwell’s centennial, simply because Pynchon wrote the introduction. (I have to say, though, that in that case I prefer Orwell’s nonfiction, particularly his essays and the classics The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia.) 

Pynchon’s masterwork, of course, is his third novel Gravity’s Rainbow, which I have read a number of times since first encountering it in the mid-1970s. Gravity’s Rainbow is for me one of the essential American novels, on the order of The Scarlet Letter, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Moby-Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, On the Road, and Beloved. (To that list I would now add The Overstory by Richard Powers.) Novels that for me come at crucial times in American history, books that seem to capture the spirit of the nation at a turning point, for better or worse. 

If On the Road (which Pynchon cites as a Great American Novel) can be said to mark the birth of postwar counterculture, then Gravity’s Rainbow may be read as heralding its demise. Gravity’s Rainbow registers the rise of the military-industrial complex, which emerged from the ashes of the Second World War, and it presages the ultimate defeat of the Romantic imaginary that was the counterculture's wellspring. (That defeat is more directly addressed in Vineland, which not coincidently is set in 1984, the year Ronald Reagan was reelected, as well as Inherent Vice, the psychedelic-noir whose main character, the drug-addled Doc Sporto, stumbles through the beach communities of LA oblivious to the fact that the sun is setting on the hippie Elysium.) Gravity’s Rainbow is not an uplifting book, but as the critic Richard Poirier wrote, it “caught the inward movements of our time.” It’s a book I can’t imagine not ever having read or living on without.

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I have a fairly respectable record collection—close to 3000 titles combining vinyl and CDs, covering a broad spectrum of genres. But if I had to pick one record that I couldn’t live without, it would have to be Thelonious Monk’s Straight, No Chaser, first released in 1967 on Columbia. It’s one of the first jazz records I ever heard, having checked it out from the Roseville Public Library when I was in junior high and studying with Motown baritone sax player Lanny Austin at Detroit Wayne Music Studio, located at the time on Gratiot near Seven Mile. 

The vinyl pressing I currently play has been in my collection for nearly five decades, since I was a freshman in college. It still sounds great even if it’s showing a few signs of wear. (There is a certain element of the sound that’s attributable to the upgrades in my playback system over the years. While I’m still using the same Pioneer turntable from the 1970s, I’m pushing the sound through a McIntosh tube preamp/solid state amp hook-up to power Mirage bipolar speaker towers at 150 watts a channel at 6 ohms. But that just makes it all the easier to appreciate the performances, which continue to satisfy.)

While signing with Columbia offered Monk a broader audience and a mainstream imprimatur, that catalog, especially the later recordings of which Straight, No Chaser is among the last, was for decades underappreciated. Part of it may have been that for more than a decade Monk worked with the same sax player, Charlie Rouse, whose fame never reached that of Monk’s earlier collaborators—Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, all of whom went on to legendary solo careers. There is also the fact that much of the catalog reworks compositions Monk recorded during his heyday as the High Priest of Bop. Then there’s the fact that Rouse tended to play sharp, which may have annoyed some of the more “refined” listeners. But to my ear, every one of the tracks on Straight, No Chaser is about as perfect as they can be. In addition to the title track, there’s the homage to Duke Ellington, “I Didn’t Know About You,” and the stunning stride-inflected solo rendition of Harold Arlen’s “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.”

In the years since that first listening, I’ve acquired most of the Columbia catalog either on vinyl or CD, as well as recordings from the earliest days on Blue Note, Prestige, and Riverside to the last ones made in the early 1970s and released on Black Lion before Monk stop performing publicly. But Straight, No Chaser is still the one I go to the most.

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For a more in-depth and wackier reflection on Gravity's Rainbow, go to my blogpost on it.

You can also check out my review of Robin D.G. Kelly's biography of Monk at PopMatters.com.