Belonging Where?

By David Trend:

Throughout its existence the United States has shown a strange tendency to turn against itself, dividing citizens against each other with a vehemence rivaling the most brutal regimes on earth. Some have rationalized the resulting crisis of “belonging” in America as an understandable consequence of cultural diversity, economic stress, and global threat. After all, haven’t there always been “insiders” and “outsiders” in every culture? Aren’t competition and aggression wired into human nature?  Or is there something peculiar about the personality of the U.S.?  Could it be that prejudice is the real legacy of the “American Exceptionalism,” in traditions dating to the genocide of indigenous populations, the subjugation of women, the rise of slavery, the scapegoating of immigrants, and more recent assaults on the poor or anyone falling outside the realm of normalcy?

I discussed selected aspects of America’s divisive pathology in my book A Culture Divided: America’s Struggle for Unity, which was written in the closing years of the George W. Bush presidency.  Like many at the time, I had completely given up on the idea of “common ground” amid the residue of post-9/11 reactionary fervor and emerging economic recession. Media commentators were buzzing constantly about red/blue state polarization.  Opinions varied about the cause of the divide, attributing it to factors including regionalism, media sensationalism, partisan antipathy, or all of these combined. Also joining the fray were those asserting the divide was fabricated, with evenly divided elections showing most people in the middle of the curve on most issues.  My somewhat contrarian view was that the “problem” shouldn’t be regarded problem at all. After all, America always had been divided––through war and peace, boom and bust. Division was the country’s national brand.  But as a book about politics, A Culture Divided didn’t get to the roots or the lived experience America’s compulsive divisiveness.

Speaking at the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches, President Barack Obama described America as an incomplete project––a nation caught between ideals of a perfect union and the lingering realities of their failure. While citing advances in civil liberties since the bloody apex of the Voting Rights Movement, Obama also spoke of a federal report issued just days earlier documenting structural racism and misbehavior toward African Americans by police in Ferguson, MO, where months before law enforcement officers had killed an unarmed black teenager. “We know the march is not yet over.  We know the race is not yet won,” the President stated, adding, “We know that reaching that blessed destination requires admitting as much, facing up to the truth.” Continue reading “Belonging Where?”

Creative Magic

By David Trend

“The central question upon which all creative living hinges is: Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures hidden within you?” With this entreaty, author Elizabeth Gilbert introduced her recent bestseller Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, which offered an artistic cure for an anxious American culture.[i] Speaking directly to widespread feelings of disaffection and powerlessness, Big Magic romanticized artistry in Gilbert’s signature blend of sentiment and cliché––packaging familiar views (human creativity, divine creativity, etc.) with a self-help twist about creating one’s “self” in new and better ways.  While one easily can write off Big Magic as yet another feel-good advice book (which it surely is), I think it’s time to take Gilbert’s approach to creativity seriously and ponder why such ideas now get so much traction.

Publicity doesn’t hurt. Reviewers effused over Big Magic as a “book-length meditation on inspiration” (Newsday) to “unlock your inner artist” (Woman’s Day) and “dream a life without limits” (Publishers’ Weekly).[ii] This message resonated well with the rising chorus promoting creativity as an innovation engine and economic tonic.  While no one would dispute the positive benefits of a little artistic dabbling, at what point does such wishful thinking begin to border on delusion? Or put another way, when does fantasy paper over reality? Might it be that America’s fondness for make-believe is party behind the nation’s political confusion and disaffection? Do fairy-tale versions of life infantilize a citizenry that should know that answers don’t always come easily?  Certainly the fantasy-version of reality offered by certain politicians would fail any thoughtful analysis. But instead, many leaders continue treating their constituents like children, with entire governments encouraging populations to set worries aside and simply “Be Creative.”

In Magical Thinking and the Decline of America, historian Richard L. Rapson took a long look at the nation’s romantic idealism. “Probably in no other society of the world can one write the script for one’s life as completely as United States. This fact has made the nation the ‘promised land’ for much of the world over the past two centuries,” Rapson wrote. “The flight into endless self-improvement and innocent optimism has a long lineage in our past.”[iii] Perhaps anticipating Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” sloganeering, Rapson pointed to the disconnection between America’s self-image as an “exceptional” driver of human history, and the growing evidence of the nation’s falling fortunes. This has led to what Rapson described as a growing “flight from knowledge and reality into faith and fantasy,” resulting in large part from “an American public increasingly in thrall to the fairytales told by the mass media.”[iv]  It also promotes a “cultural fixation on the individual, the personal, the biographical, the confessional, and, all too often, the narcissistic,” and hence the rise of new “magic words” like “self-awareness,” “personal growth” and other aphorisms promoting everyone to “be all that you can be.”[v]

Individualism lies at the heart of American idealism, dating to the country’s Enlightenment Era origins, when the autonomous subject was invented as a counterpoint to deific and royal authority. Necessary as individualism was (and remains), no one could have predicted how its value could be magnified and distorted in neoliberal times.  The initial affirmation of personal identity, which encouraged people to vote and participate in society, soon morphed into “striving to get ahead” and “winning at any cost.” Eventually the “self” would become an American obsession of theological proportions. “The purpose of nearly all the current gospels is to put believers ‘in touch’ with themselves,” Rapson further explained.[vi] This new brand of secular “faith” also comports well with the religiosity many Americans still profess, especially evangelical strains that promise economic gain to dutiful worshippers. Continue reading “Creative Magic”

Elsewhere in America: The Crisis of Belonging in Contemporary Culture (Routledge, 2016)

It’s not always easy living up to one’s ideals, either personally or as a nation. Americans like to think of the United States as a welcoming place where everyone has equal chance. But historical baggage and anxious times can make such generosity difficult.0001Behind the America’s mythic open door, newcomers often find that civic belonging comes with strings attached––riddled with conditions, limitations, and in some instances, punitive rites of passage. And for those already here, new rationales emerge to challenge civic belonging on the basis of belief, behavior, or heritage. This book uses the term “elsewhere” in describing conditions that exile so many citizens to “some other place” through prejudice, competition, or discordant belief. Even as “diversity” has become the official norm in American society, the country continues to fragment along new lines that pit citizens against their government, each other, and even themselves.  Yet in another way, “elsewhere” evokes an undefined “not yet” ripe with potential. In the face of daunting challenges, elsewhere can point to optimism, hope, and common purpose.

Elsewhere in America uses the concept of “belonging” to frame a uniquely multidisciplinary exploration of division and marginalization in the U.S.––in a study encompassing material conditions, discursive contexts, and affective states. Through 12 detailed chapters, Elsewhere in America applies critical theory in the humanities and social sciences in examining recurring crises of social inclusion in the U.S.  After two centuries of struggle and incremental “progress” in securing human dignity, today the U.S. finds itself riven apart by new conflicts over reproductive rights, immigration, health care, religious extremism, sexual orientation, mental illness, and fears of terrorists. Why are U.S. ideals of civility and unity so easily hijacked and confused? Is there a way of explaining this recurring tendency of Americans to turn against each other? Elsewhere in America engages these questions in charting the ever-changing faces of difference (manifest in contested landscapes of sex and race to such areas as disability and mental health), their spectral and intersectional character (as seen in the new discourses on performativity, normativity, and queer theory), and the grounds on which categories are manifest in ideation and movement politics (seen in theories of metapolitics, cosmopolitanism, dismodernism).

A Culture Divided: America’s Struggle for Unity (Paradigm, 2009)

Worries about a “divided” America are no secret. In the wake of several evenly divided election campaigns and polls showing vast public disagreement on vital social issues, fears are arising that the once “united” states are being riven apart by conflicting views on issues like gay marriage, immigration, and the war in Iraq. As a recent report from the Pew Center for the People and the Press put it, “The red states get redder and the blue states get bluer, and the political map of the United States takes on the coloration of the Civil War.”A lengthy debate on the subject has been taking place in American society for much of the past two decades, touched off by a handful of books published in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The most influential of these were Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, and E.D Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know in 1987. Both books argued that America had been weakened by a declining cultural values, specifically by the abandonment by schools of the great books and traditions of Western Thought.

These debates were summarized in James Jefferson Hunter’s 1991 book Culture Wars. Hunter’s book, whose title gave the conflicts a name, asserted that a new and expansive discontent had taken over the country. “The contemporary culture war is not just an expression of different ‘opinions’ or ‘attitudes’ on this or that issue, like abortion,” Hunter wrote. “The culture war emerges over fundamentally different conceptions of moral authority, over different ideas and beliefs about truth, the good, obligation to one another, the nature of community, and so on.” Several years later, Hunter warned the controversies might even trigger violent conflict. With the dawn of the 2000s the culture wars moved from the margins of academic discourse to the center of mainstream debate and concern. Search the term “culture war” at the Harvard University library and you’ll come up with 1308 entries. The Library of Congress posts over 10,000 books with titles like Culture Wars, Culture War? Beyond the Culture Wars, Is There a Culture War?, Culture Warrior, etc.

A Culture Divided explores both the symptoms and causes of these contemporary divides in the United States, illustrating how differences of perspective and opinion have persisted throughout the nation’s history––from the earliest days of the revolution to the most recent events in international diplomacy. A Culture Divided takes the somewhat contradictory position that the divided character of the American nation is both a curse and a blessing, giving rise to some of the nation’s most vexing social and political problems, but at the same time imbuing the United States with a freshness and vitality that have kept its values relevant––or at least potentially so. Continue reading “A Culture Divided: America’s Struggle for Unity (Paradigm, 2009)”