“My argument is that it’s bad – it’s just not exceptionally bad.”
It was an attempt to comfort the audience.
Who should belong in the United States? Who will exclude or be excluded? Who deserves the benefits of citizenship? Who should access the promise of the country’s founding documents? Those were some of the big questions under consideration at CASBS on February 25, 2020, as part of the symposium “Contesting the Nation,” the Center’s second public event of the 2019-20 academic year.
The underlying context of the event was not only the sense of upheaval wrought in recent years (as examples, racially motivated shootings, mass incarceration, religion and ethnic-based immigration restriction, fixation on border walls, surging deportations, a growing white power movement, increasing urban-exurban fragmentation, deepening political polarization and gridlock), but also the debates and struggles over the very principles of nation, freedom, and citizenship that have erupted throughout American social, cultural, and political history.
The Center assembled a superb panel of 2019-20 CASBS fellows to help tease-out and make sense of that context: historian Kathleen Belew, Latin American and Latino studies scholar Catherine Ramírez, and historian Jefferson Cowie – who doubled as the evening’s comforter-in-chief. It was the first CASBS event in memory to feature an all-humanities panel, though all three are highly cross-disciplinary and CASBS director Margaret Levi, a social scientist, served as the panel’s moderator.
The timing of the event was particularly good for Ramírez, occurring during the same week in which she published an op-ed in The New York Times and an essay in the online magazine Public Books, reflecting on themes related to citizenship and assimilation, respectively. (The former piece emerged out of a CASBS-hosted op-ed workshop, while the latter was an installment in CASBS’s ongoing partnership with Public Books.)
In opening presentations, Kathleen Belew approached alternative conceptions of nation and belonging from her sub-discipline known as ”history of the present,” drawing significantly from her 2018 book, Bring the War Home. She traced patterns of violent surges, through the long run of American history, that correlate with the aftermath of combat much more than with things like poverty, populism, immigration waves, and major changes in law or the larger body politic. The aftermath of the war in Vietnam, for example, galvanized a “deeply social movement” among disaffected people that cut across gender, age, education levels, and the urban rural divide. Starting in the early 1980s, a social network of activism brought together disparate strands into a leaderless resistance against the federal government, comprised of tax resisters, neo-nazis, klansmen, and others. And it sometimes was violent – it’s this “revolutionary” social movement that gave rise to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and 2017 Charlottesville attack, as examples. Far from one-off “lone wolf” acts designed as end points, they are part of a decentralized white power movement with a clear ideological frame and with the intention of awakening others, unsettling the system, and even fomenting civil war. Accordingly, our grieving after each instance of violence is not enough; rather, we must forge ties across the communities impacted by such violence – a new social movement in opposition to the insurgent one – not just to promote an alternative vision of inclusiveness, but also to better understand some of the systemic and historic inequalities of the nation.
Catherine Ramírez drew upon the experience of Dred Scott, who was unsuccessful in suing for his freedom in the infamous 1857 Supreme Court case that bears his name, in making the point that the designation of swaths of the population today as non-citizen residents, or denizens, is not only a part of America’s unenlightened past. Indeed, about 10.5 million people, including those here under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program – its cancellation by the Trump Administration on hold until a Supreme Court decision expected in summer 2020 – are de facto denizens with no legal permanent residency or citizenship. This formalizes their marginalization, according to Ramírez.
Particularly in the post-9/11 world where movement across borders has become a heightened national security issue, many opted to to stay in the U.S. and remain undocumented and not very visible instead of risking deportation through the visa renewal process. Of course a nation’s right to control its borders is a matter of sovereignty, noted Ramírez, “yet when efforts to control our borders results in the growth of a permanently disenfranchised underclass, then we have a serious problem on our hands.” What to do?
We can deport everyone. Or we can have a two-tier society of citizens and non-citizens. Or, as she prefers, “we can rethink the category of the denizen, empowering rather than further marginalizing it.” But as we know, even citizenship does not guarantee equal rights, fair and equal treatment under the law or in every day interaction, equal protection from the state, or equal access to resources.
But it’s a start. Quoting Hannah Arendt and echoing former Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren, “In a world of nation states, citizenship is the right to have rights,” said Ramírez.
But “cheer up, it’s worse than you think.”
Another comforting nugget from Jeff Cowie in what seems to many the current moment of despair in American society and politics.
The James G. Stahlman Professor of History at Vanderbilt toured the audience through America’s “continuing story” of contending with it’s “deep, deep problem” of who’s in and who’s out – with choice quotes from Benjamin Franklin to Rudyard Kipling to Henry James along the way.
Cowie’s point: yup, things are indeed bad now, just not exceptionally bad. If we think our own time is defined by ethnic and racial tensions in politics and society, we don’t have to look very hard to see it all throughout U.S. history.
“Those who think American politics have all of a sudden jumped on some sort of xenophobic crazy train, I’m here to tell you – it’s been running for a while...”
For example, what was a four-political party sorting a century ago is two-party polarization now; in both cases and across time, according to Cowie, it’s impossible to look at the electoral map and not see the “torturously slow death” of the slave regime embedded in it.
And even the racialized anti-statist rhetoric Cowie has uncovered in examining the case of a 19th-century Alabama town subject to federal intervention – the focus of his new book project – he sees and hears today as well, with just a little tweaking, in the Freedom Caucus in Congress.
But for those who see a hopeless “tragedy of polarization” accelerating still further in the past, oh, say, three-and-a-half years, Cowie sees an upside to it, even if it’s a sort of dark upside.
“I actually think the sorting, which for now looks rather awful, unmasks a racial problem that has been obfuscated by the political system for too long. We now know. It’s in the open.”
Is there at least some point in the past that can serve as a metaphor for the future? Is there some gold standard in our history that we can benchmark against, or repeat?
Not really, according to Cowie, after proposing and then dispensing with a few possibilities. But he assured audience members that he had dragged them through the mud of American history in order to carve out some space for hope, by simply making them aware that we’ve been here before.
“There’s resilience to be found not in blind ideals, but also in something that’s sort of difficult to face,” he said. “This is a deeply flawed republic, but one we can make better.”
In the moderated discussion portion of the event, Margaret Levi pressed the panel for any glimmers of hope beyond the tiny morsels comforter-in-chief Jeff Cowie offered.
Kathleen Belew was heartened by the fact there is now a sustained conversation in the mainstream about white power activism. But, on the other hand, the political mainstream also has, in parallel, become a “live root of action” for the disaffected groups she studies, in a way that it wasn’t in the 1980s.
It was that kind of event, where every positive was counterbalanced by a thing or two that was “on the other hand.”
So, at a time where hope appears in short supply, how does America move forward in its understandings of freedom, nation, and citizenship, while reckoning with the burdens of its history? How do we deal with, as Catherine Ramírez put it, “those ghosts…those echoes, those reverberations” of historic violence, dispossession, incarceration, even genocide?
Belew stressed the role of educating a generation of students who cling to a largely fictional idea of ‘American exceptionalism’ since the 1960s, yet who have been disillusioned since the Trump election. This would appear to present an opportunity for educators to lead a more nuanced, ethical discussion of U.S. history and instill awareness of the multi-pronged efforts that have slowly delivered progress throughout that history.
“I think for me the fundamental moving heart of American history is that contradiction between the loftiness of the promise and the tension around who’s going to be included and have access… [F]rom the beginning it’s always been an exclusive promise; it was never meant to take in everybody. It was white property owning men; that was who was meant to be included. And through this democratic process we’ve managed to nudge that category [of inclusiveness] outward and outward and outward… [B]ut that has happened through mass movements and through teaching and through pedagogy and through organizing, and all kinds of other processes… [I]t did not happen by itself. It did not happened because it was offered. It did not happen because it was bestowed…”
Teaching and pedagogy and organizing. Nudging inclusion outward. Belew described an ever-forward struggle that, in that moment, sounded more hopeful than anything the audience at CASBS had heard in the previous 50 minutes.