Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Readings: Postethnic America

David Hollinger's Postethnic America seemed an appropriate follow-up to the last reading, as the two works reference one another, and Hollinger's idea appears to flow quite naturally from the [Roediger's] idea of "whiteness studies," which documents how varied European and Middle-eastern "races" came to be considered generically white (only sometimes, as I pointed out before). Hollinger's book is more fascinating reading (shall I say more provocative?) than Roediger's--for an experienced historian. While presumably Roediger is writing to a lay audience, Hollinger is writing to a community of historians, sociologists and ethnographers, in a work that straddles the boundaries of historiography and sociology.

The first part of the book, already 14 years old, covers some familiar ground, though the way he writes it is more interesting. For example, as he talks about Americans' conscious and unconscious choices of "ethno-racial blocs" he writes that Alex Haley's choice (to seek out his African roots as opposed to his Irish ones) is no choice at all--although I think in the intervening years between Roots and now, Haley's choice has become a significantly more real one. Hollinger also (thankfully) talks a little about the different perceptions of ethnicity from the distinctly racial pentagon to a more complex and detailed approach. While it's true that in some situations, people from one "ethno-racial bloc" will not notice or care about the finer distinctions in another, I happen to think no sensitive or intelligent person would fail to try. Do I care about the difference between Dominican and Puerto Rican? Of course! Or about Abenaki vs. Miwok? Sure!

What really grabs you in this book is Hollinger's attempt to trace multiculturalism from its roots (emerging somewhat oddly out of post WWII universalist perspectives) to current (mid-90s) academic infighting about how we should understand or express our multiculturalism, having eschewed ethnocentrism and universalism almost completely. He outlines the universalist concept, and then the emerging "paradigmatic" concept of history (creating a huge objectivity question in the field) and then the beginnings of multiculturalism, coinciding perhaps, with relativism. Hollinger tracks Richard Rorty's progression through stages and incarnations of multiculturalism through to the '90s, effectively showing the sometimes comical twists and turns of the academic perspective as we try to do the right thing by our multiple cultures.

Universalism, the new multiculturalists wrote, was a manifestation of our own Western (and possibly even American) ethnocentrist perspective, and therefore even the hopeful remarks about being one human family that shares the same struggles and emotions are, in fact, false. This led, in the extreme case, to historians, anthropologists and others taking the opposite view--and concluding that we cannot impose our Western/Judeo-Christian ideas of human rights on other cultures. Taken to its full extreme, it creates ethical problems for those of us concerned with the health and quality of life of other human beings, to say nothing of liberty (which, while perhaps a Western idea, has over 5000 years of historical strength as a desired state of being.)

Complicating matters are the cosmopolitan and the pluralist movements before and around multiculturalism, which ask the question, "how do we determine the many groups which are either making up the whole, or which continue to be un-unified parts?" Hollinger's idea of a postethnic society is one where all categories, layers and aspects of identity are in question--and given equal weight. "Consciously and critically locating oneself amid these layers," where everyone has a choice as to how they identify themselves, and without external identification. Rather than wanting to eliminate ethno-identity, Hollinger hopes that ethnicity can be boundary-less, multifaceted, and part of a much larger and more complex picture. Interestingly, this has some of the positive aspects of universalism, combined with a modern interpretation of the cultural pluralist thread.

Hollinger addresses the potential problems innate in the pursuit of a postethnic world, fairly eloquently, and a 2000 postscript was added, tracking some of the changes in thought about multiculturalism and the US at the end of the century. I think--I think!--that in the last nine years, America has made that much more progress towards a non-racial perspective--not because of policy changes, different phrasing of census questions, changes in affirmative action, or anything else like this--but simply because the composition of the United States is changing. The number of "mixed" relationships and blended backgrounds, families with multiple ancestral origins, adoptions outside a specific group, and people who choose to be affiliated with groups that they have little or no blood-tie to--all these are areas of growth. If we continue to silence the undercurrent of hate (which does exist, sadly) perhaps in time that too will fade, like an unused, vestigial organ.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Readings: Roediger and Ehrenreich

I started my summer readings with a rereading of Novick's That Noble Dream, and first readings of David Roediger's Working Toward Whiteness, with a brief detour into Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed (not on the list, but which my mom was perusing for readings for her social justice class in the fall). Technically, another similarly titled Roediger book was on the list, but this was the one available here. Novick is an outlier and deserving of a full post so I will skip him for now. However, I was intrigued by the single blurb on the cover of Roediger's book, supplied by the Washington Post, "provocative." Well, I didn't find it terribly provocative--how's that for a provocative statement?

This doesn't mean I didn't find it a competent and readable history. It was. However, the concept of "whiteness studies" as a way of breaking the prevailing understanding of whiteness as a "norm," and the journey of Southern and Eastern European immigrants from "dark white" to "white" is not new to me. As a Californian, maybe, and a product of a parent and an historical moment concerned with ethnic origins, the sheer diversity within the category "white" has long been quite evident to me, and the origins and arrival times of various ethnic groups, along with the difficulties they faced--these stories have been with me since childhood. On top of European ethnic groups, California is also home to many Asian and South Asian ethnicities, "Black," African and Carribean ethnicities, and several indigenous groups as well. In the 70s and 80s, there was a lot of "roots" searching, and this phenomenon trickled down to schooling.

Added to this, I'm also aware that we're not living in a post-ethnic society for those deemed "white." While, on a form, a Croatian-, an Italian-, and an Irish-American may all select "white," that doesn't mean that there aren't people out there calling them "guinea," "mick" and who knows what else. There are. I've met them. And there are plenty of folks who still equate "Jew" with race or ethnicity, even though I do my best to make it clear that Judaism is a religion, and I feel strongly that that there are no "ethnic" Jews. And these things equate to a mild (or not so mild) racism, even if your term of choice is "ethnic." Some evidence (in an amusing and palatable form) can be seen in Gilbert Hernandez's comic Love and Rockets: A Rock 'n' Roll Headache from '89.

So you see it's not that I disagree with the premise of the book--Roediger is on the mark when he's speaking historically about transformations in ethnic groups arriving and living in America, and the parallel path of African-Americans, who did not have the benefit of being able to change race. But I would argue that only in some settings have certain groups effectively changed race. Another point that Roediger discusses, though it's not his main point, is the arbitrariness of the term "race." As I understand it, it is an unscientific term at best, and at worst it is a manipulation of perception. Percival Everett puts this quite well in Erasure when the character Monk talks about why society has deemed him "Black." If I felt an historical evaluation of the term "race" was the primary point of the book, and if it were written in the style of Frantz Fanon, then perhaps I would have called it "provocative."

Ehrenreich's book I also had ambivalent feelings about. I realize I am a late reader, but I'm sure it remains on reading lists everywhere. On one hand, it is an important bit of investigation, showing not only the near impossibility of rising out of the mire of minimum wage employment, and revealing the poor quality of life so many people have who are effectively "passing" for middle class. However, I felt a bit wary of someone who dips into blue collar life for a month or two, being myself someone who has been living a real honest-to-goodness blue collar life. And as my mom and I were talking about the book, we were both taken aback by some of Ehrenreich's own prejudices--she comes across as ageist, insensitive about Alzheimers patients (oddly, I thought) and at times irritatingly judgmental of people around her (which I noted that she sometimes admits to, in the writing).

We agreed that she's firmly within her own head, which makes this different from an ethnographer, or an historian, a novelist, or Studs Terkel--all of whom either make an attempt to be in someone else's head, or take the materials back to the subjects and say, "these were my impressions--am I on the mark?" There was a queer absence of follow-up with her coworkers--and I say this with the conviction that my coworkers will be lifelong friends, if they want it. At any rate, I'm sure that this book has raised some consciousnesses. But I wonder how many, as we struggle onward in the rising waters of low wages, unemployment, high rents, and outsourcing of jobs and industry to countries where we can exploit labor legally for peanuts.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Apocalyptic dreams

Okay, in the first I believe I was in a city--maybe Chicago, but not resembling any city I've actually visited. I guess I was there with my mom--maybe for a conference. At some point, I needed some item and headed for a big-box store (I don't know, maybe Wal-Mart--not because I ever go there, but because we were talking about it yesterday.) While looking for the item, I ran into 恺, and we talked for a minute, and then I saw John K., and we were talking when a large blast shattered the huge windows at the front of the store, and icy gusts of rain and hail were blowing in. I stood there for a minute in wonder, but not really thinking about the cause. At that moment, for me, it was just an isolated incident. And then I realized that this was a symptom of something much bigger. Perhaps a terrific storm that was going to destroy everything in its wake. John screamed (sorry John, just a dream) and I grabbed his hand and we ran for a bit--away--and when I looked at my cell-phone there was no service.

We stopped somewhere safe (I'm sure there were lots of people milling about in confusion still) and I pulled out a map, and we were looking at these territories (which I can't now name, but it was not local counties or states or anything recognizable). John and I talked about which place would be the safest to travel to, and then I realized I had a cell signal again, and I either called or received a call from mom, which said she would meet us at the hotel. She seemed less alarmed, and I said to John, I guess you can come with me to the hotel, or head on by yourself. And then I woke up, briefly.

When I fell back asleep, I dreamed I was wandering around some town or city, doing something innocuous, when I saw a group of goggled people leaving a theater, and I followed them. They seemed to be in varying stages of blindness, or something similar, and they seemed to be moving under duress. Somehow I became part of the group--and part of a subgroup of new people. The new people were not yet blind. We arrived at what I perceived as a prison/dormitory made from a converted building of some other type. The place itself was not unpleasant, but the imprisonment or internment was clear, as was I guess the hopelessness for the future. I saw everyone else getting settled in their rooms, and then I found 'mine;' it was not in my name, but someone else's. And then I woke up

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Uncle Silas and Cambodia

Well, I got sacked again! Not enough work. But this leaves me some extra time to fix the house, which is slowly getting improved for sale: new tile in the bathroom, new light fixtures inside and out, stained cabinetry and ceiling trim, finished tin ceiling, repainting, new cabinet handles, plants weeded, etc... Also, I'm getting a lot of non-required reading done now, as I imagine my fall reading will be a combination of histories, historiography and student papers.

The two I just finished are in no way connected. Uncle Silas is a Victorian gothic thriller (not really a 'mystery,' as it is billed) by J. Sheridan LeFanu. And Cambodia: A book for people who find television too slow, by Brian Fawcett, is a work of 'fiction' which reads like a combination of personal essay and social commentary. I enjoyed Silas, but I fell in love with Cambodia.

Uncle Silas is very much in the vein of Ann Radcliffe's work, such as The Mysteries of Udolpho, and in fact the main character Maud mentions Radcliffe more than once. However, LeFanu is not prone to writing endless descriptions of the Pyrenees or inserting three pages of poetry, and so the work is 400 pages instead of 800 pages. LeFanu also jumps right into the mystery--but perhaps this is because 1860s readers had slightly less need of books that lasted through the entire winter months as perhaps Radcliffe's readers in the 1790s had need of? However, Radcliffe is more realistic in her portrayal of courtship, I think, and her scenes at Udolpho (with Count Montoni) are quite compelling--whereas the estate at Bartram-Haugh (and Silas himself) never reach the same level of hatefulness. It drove me nuts waiting for Emily to escape, but I didn't feel the same urgency for Maud until the very end.

One interesting character, Milly, is a new one to me: a young (16-18) lady of the upper classes who has been so neglected in her childhood that she has read nothing, speaks like a 'dairy-maid' and runs freely around the estate, giving people cheeky nicknames and trespassing on neighboring properties. Some of the characters in Uncle Silas are followers of Swedenborg, and while I originally got the feeling that this was supposed to cast suspicion upon them, in fact (luckily for Swedenborgians) both Bryerly and Austin Ruthyn are blameless in the novel. I'd say this is a great book to read beside the fireplace in the dead of winter, with a cup of hot chocolate and a kitty on your lap.

And Cambodia: A book for people who find television too slow, by the Canadian author Fawcett, was totally unexpected. First of all, it changed the way I define fiction. Fawcett's stories combine the essay form, history, commentary on recent news and events, conversations with dead people, speculations or hypothetical situations, detailed explanations of the mundane functions of bureaucracy, conversations with friends and personal experiences. And they are incredibly compelling, sometimes funny, and often chilling. And on the bottom third of every page in a smaller font is an essay about Cambodia (written around 1985 about the events, mostly post-Vietnam, leading up to the Khmer Rouge regime, the Khmer Rouge, and then the subsequent Vietnamese invasion--and also about the western response and portrayal of these events.)

At the very beginning and throughout, Fawcett is suspicious of, and maybe disdainful of 'subtext,' the 'global village' and other such burgeoning concepts of the '80s. He writes about the inherent divisions between the academic 'in the know' and all others, and the growing loss of personal political involvement, the uselessness of the bureaucratic decision-making process, the lack of national memory for events like the Kent State protest/shooting, and the way globalization (perhaps in its current/capitalist form) is detrimental to many (most?). And what I assume are some personal details sneak their way in... in "The Fat Family Visits the Fair," his friend Howard (to all appearances a real person) ends up 'creating' the (non-existent) Cambodia pavilion at the World's Fair, and subsequently commits suicide. And the abruptness and reality of it hit me like a sandbag. I was knocked over.

If this is fiction--and he says it is--have I been playing it wrong. And I thought: where has this been?--why haven't I seen this before? I can't sit here and describe the stories. They pack a much better punch when you just read them. So, just read them!

Rice farmers (mew)