Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Books of My Life: Beyond Chutzpah

Norman Finkelstein often goes to places where other academics and intellectuals fear to tread. Finkelstein's The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (Verso) explored the polemical use of the Shoah, the Holocaust, as a political, economic, and cultural weapon in certain apologetics and polemics, the Holocaust Israel. Finkelstein's Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005) explores, in part one, the rise of a new anti-Semitism in the works of Nathan and Ruth Perlmutter (The Real Anti-Semitism), Abraham Foxman (Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism), Phyllis Chester (The New Anti-Semitism: The Current Crisis and What We Must Do About It), and, Alan Dershowitz (The Case for Israel), in part two, explores, the claims at the heart of Dershowitz's book and their incompatibility with human rights reports, and, in an appendix, explores Dershowitz's citation failings.

There are a number of things I liked about Beyond Chutzpah. Finkelstein clearly shows that the "new Anti-Semitism" is, in its attempt to link any kind of criticism of Israel to anti-Semitism, a "new" kind of apologetic and polemic aimed at demonising Israel's "enemies".  Finkelstein nicely shows how Dershowitz's The Case for Israel is an apologetic and polemic that is generally at odds with the reports of Israeli and international human rights organisations. But then Dershowitz is a lawyer, after all. Finkelstein nicely shows that Dershowitz's book is full of citation problems. Finkelstein nicely notes that the "empty land" and "primitive inhabitant" discourses of  Israel's apologists and polemicists are the same ones used by European settlers in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to dispossess the First Peoples, the First Nations, the aboriginals, and the Maori. All this said, I found Beyond Chutzpah somewhat disjointed. Finkelstein's focus on the new anti-Semitism doesn't always sit well with his often devastating take down of Dershowitz's claims that Israel, which seems the saintliest of nations in Dershowitz's apologetics and polemics, is following international law when it demolishes the houses of Palestinians, targets Palestinians for assassination, "tortures" Palestinian prisoners it holds in its gaols and detention centres, and "annexes" Palestinian land.  Still Finkelstein's book is definitely worth a read if you have any interest in apologetics and polemics, how ideology constructs reality, conservatism, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the modern and post-modern world.  

Friday, May 25, 2018

The Books of My Life: The Revolution Was Televised

Alan Sepinwall's The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers, and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever (New York: Touchstone, 2012) explores what Sepinwall calls the television revolution.  Sepinwall, a former TV critic for the Newark Star-Ledger, argues that the increased diversity of American television with its smaller target demographics, its ever expanding number of TV channels, its ever increasing number of TV networks involved in the TV fictional programme business, and the increasing complexity of television programmes allowed television to, as he puts it, step out of the shadow of cinema and reach its full revolutionary potential (pp. 5 and 8).

As Sepinwall makes clear the more complex and niche targeted TV shows he explores in The Revolution Was Televised didn't come out of nowhere. Between the early 1980s and mid-1990s Hill Street Blues, St Elsewhere, Cheers, Miami Vice, Wiseguy, Twin Peaks, Homicide: Life on the Street, NYPD Blue, The X-Files, and ER (pp. 7-17) laid the foundations for a TV revolution that "officially" began with Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1997. It was on the scaffolding of Buffy, Sepinwall argues, a dramatic, comedic, and tragic show on a largely ignored new network or netlet, the WB, that because it was new and small allowed for the creative freedom that would become a hallmark of the revolutionary TV shows that followed in its wake on cable and, later, on the over the air networks, shows such as Tom Fontana's and HBO's Oz, David Chase's and HBO's The Sopranos, David Simon's and HBO's The Wire, David Milch's and HBO's Deadwood, Sean Ryan's and FX's The Shield, Lloyd Braun's and ABC's Lost, Joel Surnow's and FOX's 24, Ronald Moore's and SciFi's (now ScyFy) Battlestar Galactica, Peter Berg's and NBC's Friday Night Lights, Matthew Weiner's and AMC's Mad Men, and Vince Gilligan's and AMC's Breaking Bad.

I enjoyed reading Sepinwall's book immensely. It is well written. It avoids the theoretical language that makes so much academic literary, film, and television difficult to read for some. And it goes where academic film and television studies articles, monographs, and books generally fail to go, to primary source material. Sepinwall draws on interviews with the individuals and corporate personnel who created and commissioned the revolutionary television shows he praises. Sepinwall's book is not without its problems, however. While Sepinwall admits that other TV shows before Hill Street Blues debuted in 1981 helped lay the groundwork for the revolutionary TV shows that followed and which he focuses on (p. 7), Sepinwall, for instance, doesn't explore TV shows like The Rockford Files, which he mentions as a precedent only to allow it to disappear in his discussion of precedents of the revolutionary TV programmes he explores. Nor does he explore other important and revolutionary shows like The Wonder Years, My So-Called Life, Star Trek Deep Space Nine, Freaks and Geeks, and Tales of the City all of which contained many of the things Sepinwall praises in the later revolutionary TV shows he focuses on such as memory, arcs, and greater realism. For some reason Sepinwall places Buffy, the show that he notes that preceded and paralleled what was about to happen on cable TV beginning with Oz ([. 192) as Chapter Seven in his book rather than as Chapter One. Sepinwall focuses exclusively on American TV shows, a parochialism common among American television critics and academics. This parochialism means that Sepinwall misses the fact that British TV shows like Doctor Who, The Good Life, Butterflies, and Pride and Prejudice and particularly British TV literary adaptations in general, have long had a memory and have been arc driven making them precedents for the revolutionary TV shows in the US that followed as well.

Sepinwall ends his book by noting that revolutionary TV, Quality TV, or nerd TV, call it whatever you like, is alive if perhaps not thriving on American over the air and cable TV. One of my favourite nerd TV shows at the moment is Jason Rothernberg's and the CW's The 100 with its remarkable exploration of the moral quandries, moral compromises, nativisms, ethnocentrisms, purges, and psyhological damage that comes with war. The 100 has all the hallmarks of Sepinwall's revolutionary television programmes, the TV programmes I most enjoy watching, even if it doesn't have the audience, the critical acclaim, and the critical obsession of another "revolutionary" show Sepinwall mentions, HBO's Game of Thrones, a show, whose gender politics, unlike that of The 100, seems to be heading, at least in part, in the wrong direction. Here's hoping that the TV revolution continues.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Books of My Life: Public Access

What stands out to me about my recent reading choices is the fact that all of the books I have been reading lately have something to do with the American right. Recently, I have read books on right wing perceptions of anti-Americanism, the White separatist and White supremacist right wing, and the conservative Christian right wing. What can I say, it is the age of Trump after all. Given all this it should not be surprising that my most recent read, Michael Bérubé's Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics (London: Verso, 1994) is, in part, focused on the American right wing as well.

 Bérubé's Public Access is one part post-World War II cultural studies and literary studies, one part post-1960s cultural studies and literary theory, one part post-1960s cultural studies and literary studies history, one part post-1960s cultural studies and literary studies in action (including a compelling reading of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey), one part exploration of post-1960s right wing attacks on post-1960s cultural studies and literary studies, and one part call for liberal-left political activism. It is the critique of right wing apologetics and polemics part of Bérubé's book that I want to concentrate on in the rest of this essay.

Bérubé's book does a good job of enlightening its readers about the contemporary American culture war right. Most of the right wing culture war right, as Bérubé notes and documents, are remarkably ignorant of post-1960s cultural studies and literary studies despite their claims to be the vanguard manning the barricades to protect America and America's young from its postmodern acids raising the question of how one can critique something they don't really comprehend and, in some cases, haven't even taken the time to read. This is, by the way, hardly the first time demagogues have claimed to be protecting someones from something they know very little if anything about. Think of all those anti-Marx folks who never read one sentence of Karl Marx's many writings. Most of the right wing culture war right, as Bérubé notes, have a tenuous relationship with empirical facts and empirical reality. The culture war right has consciously manipulated and lied about the writings or conference presentations of those they oppose as a strategy in the contemporary culture war knowing that few of those they aim their screed at will bother to ascertain whether the claims the culture right demagogues make about the "egghead left" are accurate or not. Most of the right wing culture war right, as Bérubé recognises, may claim to be warriors for free speech but the only free speech they vow to protect is their own politically correct right wing speech. Most of the right wing culture right, in other words, are more then willing to limit and ban the speech of those they disagree with and banish those who speak it to a kind of Foucauldian hell. Many in the culture war right, as Bérubé notes, have no interest in partaking of the rational back and forth of scholarly argument or the be fair to arguments you disagree with aspects of scholarly work. Jürgen Habermas we hardly knew ye.

None of this, by the way, is a surprise to me. I have personally seen and heard again and again ignorance, flat out lies and manipulations from the culture war right along with attacks on the speech of the "egghead left" on social media sites like Facebook. To state the obvious, one shouldn't expect anything else from a group of apologetic and polemical demagogues who self-righteously, arrogantly, and calculatingly see ignorance, a lack of empiricism, and demonisation as the means to the end of the right wing conquest and domination of America.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Books of My Life: Imperial Designs

Gary Dorrien's Imperial Designs: Neoconservatism and the New Pax Americana (New York: Routledge, 2004) is, like another book I recently read, Betty Dobratz's and Stephanie Shanks-Meile's The White Separatist Movement in the United States: "White Power, White Pride", quite timely thanks to the election of Donald Trump to the American presidency. This is true in spite of the fact that Dorrien's book, like the book of Dobratz and Shanks-Meile, was published over ten years ago.

Dorrien, who is currently the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, explores, in Imperial Designs, the rise of neoconsevative foreign policy ideologues in the wake of the Cold War, apologists and polemicists like Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, John Bolton, Richard Perle, Charles Krauthammer, and Robert Kagan, the sects that make of the post-Cold War neocon faith, namely, neocon realists and neocon interventionists, and the important role these neocons, particularly those of the interventionist Wilsonian variety, played in the administration of Bush 43 promoting, as they did, wars against Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, North Korea, and even China. It is this, the neocon polemics for war against Iran, Syria, and North Korea, that makes Dorrien's 2004 book timely again. After all John Bolton, one of the neocon Wilsonian polemicists of the Bush the second era, is currently a National Security Advisor in the Trump administration and appears to be preaching the same neocon interventionist gospel he and other neocon Wilsonians preached in their years in the wilderness during the Clinton era and during their years on the inside during the Bush the 43rd administration.

There were a number of things I liked about Dorrien's book. I found his close textual reading of American neoconservatism and his typology of the various forms the neoconservative movement took in the US to be particularly enlightening. I also found Dorrien's book helpful in understanding the Trump administration, an administration that seems to be, at least for the moment, a hybrid of various paleocons and neocon interventionists all at the same time.

There were a few things in Dorrien's book I found somewhat problematic. In the fifth chapter of Imperial Designs, for instance, Dorrien explores the tensions between interventionist neocons and old Cold War and post Cold War palecons like Pat Buchanan, who, by the way, in retrospect seems like Donald Trump before Donald Trump. In chapter five Dorrien, like neocon polemicists such as Canadian David Frum, feathers all paleocons with the tars of nativist and anti-Semite (see pages 200-202 and 220). Personally, I think it is helpful to see anti-Semitism as similar to two other antis, anti-Americanism and anti-Mormonism. There are, I think, reasonable and valid criticisms one can make of the state of Israel, of the US, and of Mormonism. There are also unreasonable and invalid polemics and apologetics one can engage in with respect to the state of Israel, the US, and Mormonism. The former are not species of anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, and anti-Mormonism. The latter are. Somewhat ironically given Dorrien's claim that all paleocons are anti-Semites, Dorrien's discussion of the paleocons in his Imperial Designs suggests the opposite, namely that not all contemporary paleocons appear to be flaming anti-Semites.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Books of My Life: That Old Time Religion in Modern America

I have long had an intellectual interest in religion and religious groups like the Quakers, the Mormons, and White American evangelicals. My academic career, in fact, reflects these interests. I have a B.A. in Religious Studies, an M.A. in Cultural Anthropology, and a Ph.D. in History. I wrote my master's thesis on Quakers. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Mormons.

My interest in religion and religious groups, particularly religious oriented social and cultural movements, is not purely grounded in an interest in religion and religious groups per se. I have long had an interest in culture and ideology and how culture and ideology create and continually recreate socially and culturally constructed realities. There seems no better place to look at how culture and ideology creates reality than in religious groups.

One can readily see the role culture and ideology plays in the construction of reality and identity in the history of White American evangelicalism. There have, of course, been several books that have explored the history of White evangelicalism since the 1960s when they reemerged out of their self-imposed wilderness and became an important fraction of American  conservatism and America's post Jim Crow conservative party, the Republican Party, most notably George Marsden's Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1980 to 1925 and Joel Carpenter's Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism, both published by Oxford University Press. There has, however, been a dearth of books on the history of American White evangelicalism generally. D.G. Hart's That Old Time Religion in Modern America: Evangelical Protestantism in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: Ivan Dee, 2002) attempts to fill that gap.

There is so much to like and admire about Hart's book. Hart explores, both emically and etically, how America's White evangelicals tended to want to make the world look like the church and simultaneously tended to want to make the church look like the world, a contradiction, as Hart notes, at the heart of White evangelical culture that has structured White American evangelicalism's history of seemingly endless and repeating cycles of worldliness and separation from the world,  of not yoking themselves to unbelievers and of trying to make America into the image of itself. Hart's book explores the evangelical fetishisation of the Bible. It explores the evangelical fetishisation of modern American nationalism and ethnocentrism. It explores the evangelical fetishisation of modern American capitalism. It explores how White evangelicalism became the unofficial official religion of America from the 19th century to the mid-twentieth century when immigration turned the US from a WASP nation into a more religiously, ethically, and culturally diverse nation. It explores the inability of America's White evangelicals to come to grips with America's increasing ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity after 1965. It explores American White evangelicalism's modern traditionalism and traditional modernism.

For anyone looking for a wonderfully written and very readable history of White American evangelicalism, this is the book. For anyone looking for an exploration of the role White American evangelicalism has played in American history, American culture, and American politics, this is the book. Highly recommended.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Books of My Life: The White Separatist Movement in the United States

I have long been fascinated by a number of things, too many, in fact, something that has made my academic sojourn far more complicated and far longer than it had to or needed to be. Three of the things I have long been interested in are social movements, culture wars, and the role both play in identity and community construction. This is why I picked up and eventually read Betty Dobratz's and Stephanie Shanks-Meile's wonderful book The White Separatist Movement in the United States: "White Power, White Pride" originally published by Twayne in 1997 and republished by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 2000 with a new preface.

There were several things about Dobratz's and Shanks-Meile's book I really admired. I liked the fact that Dobratz and Shanks-Meile engaged in both emic and etic analysis. I liked the fact that they explored the White separatist movement from the inside by reading movement literature and talking to movement members.I liked the fact that Dobratz and Shanks-Meile let activists speak for themselves providing readers with a glimpse, in the process, into the diversity of the White separatist movement, a diversity that the sensationalist driven media invariably misses. I liked the fact that Dobratz and Shanks-Meile explored the White separatist movement from the outside by engaging social movement theory. Finally, I liked how informative, enlightening, and prescient the book is particularly from the vantage point of Trump America.

I highly recommend Betty Dobratz's and Stephanie Shanks-Meile's The White Separatist Movement in America to everyone now that Trump is president of the United States and many groups and individuals in the White Separatist movement have come, so to speak, out of the closet. My only reservation is that for the general reader the material in each chapter on social movement theory and the White separatist movement may be a hindrance rather than a help in reading this excellent book. Don''t let it stop you.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Books of My Life: Anti-Americanism

Once upon a time I was a Biblical Studies major. I was less interested in the theology or dogma surrounding the Bible, however, than its history and its prehistorical and historical contexts. Little did I know when I switched from Biblical Studies to the social sciences that I would still be reading theological and doctrinal works and dealing, in my teaching, with theology and dogma on a fairly regular basis in my history and history of television classes.

Several years back I read Hungarian born sociologist Paul Hollander's book Anti-Americanism: Critiques at Home and Abroad, 1965-1990, published by the American arm of the venerable Oxford University Press in 1992. Hollander's book proved less an analysis of anti-Americanism than a dogmatic and doctrinal study of irrational anti-modernism and irrational anti-capitalism. In Hollander's world, anti-Americans weren't reacting to what imperial America did. They were irrationally reacting to what America was, modern and capitalist, and were thus a primitive throwback to an earlier period of world history.

Recently I read another book on anti-Americanism, Andrew Ross's and Kristen Ross's edited collection Anti-Americanism published by NYU Press in 2004. Ross's and Ross's collection, which originated out of a conference held in February of 2003, is everything Hollander's book isn't. It is, in other words, less theological, less doctrinal, and more empirical and historical. I found a number of the essays in Ross's and Ross's collection interesting and enlightening. Historian Greg Grandin's essay helpfully typologises various forms of anti-Americanism. Kristen Ross's essay explores elite and more popular forms of anti-Americanisms in France. Timothy Mitchell's essay on anti-Americanism in the Middle East is particularly enlightening on how the United States has used war and radical Islamist groups to try to gain imperial traction in the Middle East and to try to stave off socialism in the Middle East. Mary Nolan's essay explores the history of post-war German anti-Americanism. John Kuo Wei Chen's essay explores elite America's use of the claim of anti-Americanism to demonise the "other". Linda Gordon's essay explores the iron cage of anti-Americanism that America's conservative apologetic and polemical elite and intellectuals have caged liberals and the left in. All of these essays show what should be obvious to any dispassionate observer, that the vast majority of forms of anti-Americanism are a rational response to post Spanish-American war imperialism.

Personally, I have long seen anti-Americanism as similar to something I researched for several years, the claim among intellectual Mormons that all criticism of Mormonism was grounded in stereotypes and caricatures of Mormons. It is true that some varieties of anti-Mormonism are grounded in stereotypes and caricatures.Evangelical Ed Decker's various attacks on Mormonism, most notably his attacks on Mormons and Mormonism in The God Makers, is filled with hatred of Mormons and irrationality about the Mormon faith. The Tanner's many tomes on Mormonism are problematic given that they apply methods to the analysis of Mormonism that they would not apply to their own evangelicalism because the results would be the same. There are, however, also valid criticisms of Mormonism, for example,the historical and empirical contention that the Book of Mormon provides the answer to virtually every quandary in 19th century American religion and so is probably a product of 19th century America. The latter is simply not anti-Mormonism, though you don't have to be Michel Foucault to understand why Mormon apologists and polemicists might want to categorise it as such, just as it is understandable why America's elite and their polemical and apologetic courtier intellectuals, like Paul Hollander, might want to categorise any criticism of America as irrational and backward and demonise it.