December 3, 2015

The New Nativism

It’s been a half century since John F. Kennedy declared this “a nation of immigrants,” since his successor Lyndon Johnson threw open the doors to a broad parade of people from all over the world ...

It’s been a half century since John F. Kennedy declared this “a nation of immigrants,” since his successor Lyndon Johnson threw open the doors to a broad parade of people from all over the world with the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.

That bill did away with a hundred-year history of ‘national origins’ exclusions — a long, legal attempt to keep American society mostly white and European. But it did not do away with a twisted feature of the American identity. This “nation of immigrants” has the homegrown double-standard of a nation of settlers, says our guest Aziz Rana, historian of The Two Faces of American Freedom. We have built exclusivity, and racial and nativist preference, into our idea of what’s American — even if we don’t recognize it.

First it was Protestants in, Catholics out; then it became white men in, people of color out. The first “illegal immigrants” weren’t Mexican, who were once allowed to pass seamlessly into the United States — they were Chinese first, then Jewish. Even LBJ’s liberal coup ended up cutting the legal limit for Latin American immigration by more than 90%.

The tide seemed to have turned: more people have left the U.S. for Mexico since 2009 than have entered the country. Pollsters believed that immigration wouldn’t be a big issue for voters in the 2016 election. They weren’t counting on Donald Trump whipping up a whirlwind of old-fashioned anxiety and anger at newcomers and outsiders, real and imaginary.

So as the nation of immigrants grows bigger, browner and in many ways more inclusive, the part of it that obsesses over the real America never quite goes away.

Then we’ll close out the show with a look at the special case of Mexico. Our guests Helen Marrow and Claudio Lomnitz look sympathetically at our younger, poorer neighbor to the south: at its people, who work hard, assimilate well, and seem sometimes to be victims of their own success in the United States, and at its culture — saturated with death, precariousness, and new kinds of freedom unknown north of the border.


Mexican women entering the United States, photo by: Dorothea Lange, June 1938

Podcast • March 15, 2011

Alan Lomax and the Salvation of American Song

We’re listening in awe and gratitude to the all-American sounds that Alan Lomax recorded and saved for all time. There’s outlaw minstrel Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly, singing a cocaine ode “Take a Whiff ...

We’re listening in awe and gratitude to the all-American sounds that Alan Lomax recorded and saved for all time. There’s outlaw minstrel Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly, singing a cocaine ode “Take a Whiff on Me” in 1934. Then Woody Guthrie accompanying himself, Pete Seeger and others on “Bound to Lose,” playing a guitar with a label on it: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” And then there are the strangely uplifting choruses of prison work songs from the Angola Convict Sugar Plantation in Louisiana and the Parchman Farm Penitentiary in Mississippi — songs like “Rosie,” which Lomax recorded in 1947 with prisoners, “C. B. and the Axe Gang.” As John Szwed writes in his vivid biography of the protean Lomax, “This was as close as twentieth-century people were going to come to the sound of slavery.”

Alan Lomax (1915 – 2002), The Man Who Recorded the World in Szwed’s subtitle, was the son of a proper folklorist at the University of Texas. The old folklore compiled texts; the new would revel in the truth of sound that had body language in it, too. Together in the early Thirties, father John and his teenage apprentice had set out across the South with early Edison recording equipment on what John Lomax used to call a “hobo-ing” trip. What Alan ended up compiling was a sort of unofficial, non-commercial people’s soundtrack of the Great Depression. Homegrown songs of spirit seem in retrospect to be pouring out of the suffering soil wherever Alan Lomax turned. Makes you wonder: what is the music of the meltdown today, and where’s to find it?

John Szwed [Martha Rose photo]

Alan Lomax brought a roaring confidence to new fields opening up in the 30s. There was something of the great Edison in Lomax’s recording chops as the tech kept improving. He had something of John Hammond’s talent-spotting gift in the period when Hammond was signing Billie Holiday and the Count Basie band for Columbia Records. “He’s got an infallible ear for the un-commercial,” Hammond said dismissively. There was also something of Orson Welles in Lomax’s showmanship — maybe something of Elvis Presley in Lomax’s fantasies. Lomax was open to rock’n’roll, despite its commercialism, and he was soft on Elvis — not least, John Szwed remarks in our conversation, because Elvis did what Alan wanted to do: liberate the white man’s hips! Even as he coopted so much black musical style, Elvis was the herald of a great healing shift in racial cultures.

Alan Lomax grew up to be a walking trove of all the world’s musics — especially its songs. By the end he’d built “folksonomies” of song elements and delivery styles, a whole anthropology in which the ways people sing marked the main links and differences between the cultures of continents. John Szwed is talking about an ecstatic genius whom many friends found “oppressive” if only because of his certainty that nobody anywhere knew what he knew about songs. “But Lomax was arguably one of the most influential Americans of the twentieth century,” Szwed writes, “a man who changed not only how everyone listened to music but even how they viewed America.”

Podcast • April 30, 2009

Angles on Empire: Book Week at Brown

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with James Der Derian and Catherine Lutz (46 minutes, 21 mb mp3) We’re taking two fresh measures here of the United States as military colossus — in two new ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with James Der Derian and Catherine Lutz (46 minutes, 21 mb mp3)

We’re taking two fresh measures here of the United States as military colossus — in two new books from the Watson Institute this spring. Two common points here: you won’t forget these perspectives once you’ve taken in the view; and you won’t see them anytime soon on page one of the New York Times. One is about our military real estate: 900-plus US military bases around the world — many of them toxic, more and more of them under local protest. The other is about the cultural process of war: the technology, media, narrative story line, TV and digital graphics of military power into the 21st Century. The anthropologist Catherine Lutz edited The Bases of Empire: The Global Struggle Against U.S. Military Posts. Political theorist James Der Derian wrote Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial Media-Entertainment Network.

I asked James Der Derian to take apart the pun in his title about virtue, virtuality, virtuosity…

JDD: I was hoping that “virtuous war” would be a felicitous oxymoron — the tension between the idea of war, which is bloody and dirty, and the whole idea in the virtuous that you can do good through something so blunt as warfare. Part of it comes out of the humanitarian intervention systems that evolved out of earlier administrations; we shouldn’t put this all on the doorstep of the Bush administration. You see it coming together, the virtual and the virtuous, both in doctrine and technology. The idea that what we can do should determine what we should do is part of the notion of “virtuous.” At one time the words “virtual” and “virtuous” were synonymous. They went down separate tracks in the Middle Ages. They always contained this idea of producing an effect at a distance, which technology can do; but it was about producing a good effect. Christ was in some ways a “virtual” tool of God. The notion also in Greek thinking as well of how the gods operated carried the idea of “virtuosity.” So in the United States it becomes almost a “deus ex machina” — to use war — in particular, a high-tech, low-casualty (at least for our side) form of warfare — to solve some of these intractable problems.

CL: What is the connection between the “war on terror” and your “virtuous war”?

James Der Derian: virtual virtuosity

JDD: It speaks to the virtualization of the enemy During the Cold War we had a fairly obvious enemy other. General Powell at one point said we’re being deprived of enemies: all we had left at one point was the North Koreans. In one way when you talk about the War on Terror, it’s to recognize that the old models, the old paradigms of war (particularly the idea of organized violence among and between states) no longer holds. And yet the master narrative continues. So you’re looking for some “other” to plug into this notion of “the enemy.” One reason why the President and others use the term “war on terror,” as absurd as it sounds, is that we didn’t want to recognize the face that you could have 19 terrorists spend about $500-thousand and incur close to $25-billion in immediate destruction, not including the Iraq war that followed, which is going to top out probably around $1-trillion before we get out of there.

CL: Is it possible that Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda mastered virtuous or virtual warfare before we did?

JDD: No, but it you look at what Bin Laden said in a famous interview in 2004, he’s talking about how “we’re going to provoke the superpower, provoke the Crusader, and we’re basically going to beggar them.” He was very savvy about the notion of how to magnify this minuscule group of really pathological heretics within Islam into this colossus that would produce this over-reaction — would call out almost an auto-immune response where our attempt at a cure would be worse than the disease. In that case, Bin Laden was incredibly rational and savvy about how to magnify what was a pretty insignificant force into something that now can play on the same field as the superpower.

James Der Derian in conversation with Chris Lydon and Catherine Lutz at the Joukowsky Forum, Brown University April 28, 2009.

Cathy Lutz picked up immediately on the convergence of these two scholars’ perspectives.

Catherine Lutz: a fantastical system

I think that’s exactly the way to look at the American military bases — as a response that has a certain rationality but ends up being a completely overwrought response to the notion of empire — of the desire that the United States has a role, should play and can play a role in controlling events around the world. Hence this global spread and distribution of these bases with that dream behind it of global control, global surveillance, global knowledge. The assumption that there’s a lot of rationality in the system as a whole — we need to rethink that. There’s rationality in parts of it, different forms of rationality, but they form up into what we can see is a pretty fantastical system… It costs over $100-billion in the US military budget. It’s a very significant investment in a certain kind of idea of the world, and the US role in it.

Catherine Lutz in conversation with Chris Lydon and James Der Derian at the Joukowsky Forum, Brown University April 28, 2009.

Podcast • November 11, 2008

This Pariah-to-Messiah Moment: John Comaroff

The Obama Moment in America reminds the Chicago anthropologist John Comaroff of the Mandela Moment in his native South Africa in the early 1990s. The whole world has embraced the Obama Moment as its own, ...

The Obama Moment in America reminds the Chicago anthropologist John Comaroff of the Mandela Moment in his native South Africa in the early 1990s. The whole world has embraced the Obama Moment as its own, Comaroff says, because it marks “the reentry of a pariah nation into the world” on the terms of a revived democracy.

There’s a bracing analysis here from a man who makes it his business to jar our perspective — whose definition of anthropology boils down to “critical estrangement.” Anthropology won the election, Comaroff says, only half kidding. He means not just that Barack Obama is the son of an anthropologist but has a mind to stand outside the consensus when he must.

“We’ve seen something like the the birth of a counter-Enlightenment in the Bush years,” Comaroff says. “‘Give me faith, and I’ll tell you the answer. Take my heart… as sufficient justification for the Iraq War, or for judging good and evil.’ Anthropology says: ‘Wait a moment. What do we sacrifice when we sacrifice reason?’ Digging at surfaces is the anthropological act. Anthropology as a discipline has a mantra: estrangement. Take nothing for granted. Whatever appears to you in the surfaces of everyday life is not an answer to anything; its a question about something. Obama, though trained as a legal scholar, is an organic anthropologist.”

The Obama Moment is an invitation to restore politics and a public space where nationhood “in any collective sense” almost died. President Bush’s invocation of the shopping cure after 9.11 helped define “a nation of individuals held together by a market.” The Obama Moment “reenvisions America as the sum of its differences.” The Bush years gave us “lying as a national practice,” with political impunity. “Forensic journalism” marks the path back to the estate of truth. Forensic journalism — argumentative interpretation of the evidence — is embodied differently in the Nobelist Paul Krugman of The New York Times, John Stewart of The Daily Show, and Charlie Savage, who broke the Bush “signing statement” scandal for The Boston Globe. But it will take more than a few heroes to sustain the euphoria in this unfamiliar Obama Majority. The rest is up to us.

JC: I have the audacity to hope that the return to democracy is going to be about hearing. But that, of course, throws a moral obligation on journalism. I think that the press let us down very badly over the Iraq war. I think it gave a free ride to a president who didn’t deserve a free ride, even when there were plenty of critics making very strong arguments, well-backed arguments about the falsity of the claims [justifying the war in Iraq]. They were cowards. They were self-censoring. In a democracy, no one self censors.

I have an enormous respect for forensic journalism. Forensic journalism is basically anthropology for the public: the kind of journalism that precisely takes as its obligation the probing of surfaces: why are we hearing what we are hearing, why are we being told what we are being told, who is asking the questions on our behalf. I think that journalism is the first estate, not the third or fifth or whatever, it is the first estate—the estate of truth. And it can only be the estate of truth to the extent that it represents its population. We know now that politicians don’t–they represent capital, they represent capacity to turn financial assets into votes in congress. They don’t necessarily, when they vote, represent us… But, the press is always there and always ought to be representing us.

CL: Wouldn’t Rupert Murdoch claim that he is practicing forensic journalism at Fox News?

JC: I have never heard news on Fox, I have heard representations of partial realities… We’re in the tragic situation, as Jon Stewart once said, where we get our news from Comedy Central. We certainly don’t get it from Fox.

CL: Is Jon Stewart practicing forensic journalism?

JC: Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert did a service during the Bush administration. They were really very serious people by pointing out the contradictions, the stupidities of administration speak—of regime speak. They weren’t producing the news but they were producing a forensic discomfort about it that made one think… They served notice about what it was we were not seeing by virtue of it being half-hidden by the likes of Fox and the liberal press, which didn’t do much better. A return to forensic journalism is about news analysis. It is about the relationship between the production of fact and its interrogation, after all the fact does not float free in space. The fact is as manufactured as anything else. And understanding the process of its manufacture and asking how we are being fed these kids of representations. Of course Obama must be held accountable, too. Otherwise we live in a world made totally of spin.

CL: Is it possible that Google has killed journalism?

JC: I think it is a threat to journalism. It poses the threat of trivialization, which is to say that we live in an oversupply of information and an under supply of facts and analysis.

I really think that this is a wonderful call for the universities to reassert their relevance. We have seen the trivialization of the university as an institution. Sarah Palin was talking about just cutting funding for research without knowing what that research was about. We need bridges into the recesses of knowledge; we need bridges into the reeducation of America, which has become de-schooled in fundamental ways since the 1980s. I think that the university’s own obligation is not only to policy (a cheap way of looking at the application of knowledge) but to critical analysis. Think about public culture in Germany or South Africa, some of the more enlightened states in the world, where critical analysis is a public obligation. The levels of discourse are so much higher, the notions of trying to understand what is going on in the world are so much higher. The conversations that I cannot have outside of the university in America, which are perfectly comfortable in Berlin, or perfectly comfortable in Barcelona and perfectly comfortable in Johannesburg. The vast majority of Americans have no idea what anthropology or sociology or economics really are. We have business schools, but that is something else entirely. In that sense we have lost our purchase on enlightenment: the notion that understanding the world makes it a better place. That goes back to strategic optimism about Obama. He is a truly intelligent and enquiring mind and that could bring the focus back to education because there is enormous cultural capital there.

The American empire is threatened: we are threatened by the economies of Russia and China, we are threatened by the resurgence of the Middle East and, in a sense, Europe. The notion that the American economy will triumph in the end is deeply under threat. How are we going to restore it? We are going to restore it not simply by investing money in the stock market but by investing money in human beings. That is how value is produced.

If we are to reenter the world as a positive force, a force that doesn’t presume that we can civilize others but instead learn from the civilizations of others… If we realize that the global moment is an opportunity to learn. If we understand that there are other points on the planet that are far in advance of us: in understanding the history of capitalism that we are living through; the history of democracy we are living through; the threats to world order; the identity politics that are surfacing. The moment that we begin to take those seriously is the moment we reenter the globe as equal partners, neither as dominators nor as pariahs. Domination and pariah status kill nation states, they don’t make them.

John Comaroff in conversation with Chris Lydon, November 7, 2008