Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Whiteness of a Different Color by Matthew Frye Jacobson (Book Review)



Jacobson contends that the concept of race is a product of politics and culture and is in fact “a modem superstition”.

The perception of race is a matter of power relationships. The Irish were considered part of a Celtic “race”, inferior to Anglo in the nineteenth century largely because they were outsiders. What made them outsiders? Certainly the long history of English occupation and Irish subjugation was a starting point, but the sticking point was probably religion. As late as 1960, with the election of John F. Kennedy, Catholics (and the ethnic groups that made up their congregations) were not considered quite American. Catholics were considered “ethnic”. In Jacobson’s terms, “not quite white”. Kennedy was attacked for being susceptible to taking orders from the Pope contrary to the good of the American people. Kennedy’s election marked the final passage of Catholics into the main stream of American life.

There appears to be a tremendous need within human society for people to “belong” to some identifiable group. Outsiders are almost by definition inferior to one’s own group in some way. Perhaps this is a reflection of identity formation. Once identified as part of what Benedict Anderson would call “an imagined community” (gang, nation, race), the cohesion of the group becomes of paramount importance to the individual. Group identity becomes the discursive boundary (“ I am an American therefore....”, “I am a Muslim therefore....”). Groups can become more inclusive if the cohesion of the group is maintained. Fear and conflict appear to be catalysts for making groups more inclusive while maintaining cohesion. Thus the Nazi threat of the 1 940s made America more tolerant of ethnic and cultural differences (“expanding the borders of whiteness”). Similarly the rise of a more militant black consciousness succeeded in papering over earlier white ethnic European differences in the face of a common “enemy”.

Inclusion in the dominant group is about assimilation and cohesion. Assimilation is the badge of acceptability. In the early days of the Saudi Naval Expansion Program (SNEP), for example, Saudis were not accustomed to dealing with professional women in the workplace. Business required women to travel to Saudi Arabia, which was unacceptable to the Saudis. Not sending them was unacceptable to the Americans. Ultimately, the Saudis declared the women, “honorary men” so that they could travel and work in the Kingdom. Because of their work status, American women had been assimilated into the Saudi world view as “men”. Jacobson correctly indicates that a similar process breaks down the barriers between different ethnic and racial groups.

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Book Review: Discipline & Punish by Michael Foucault



A truly thought provoking book on the nature and purpose of punishment. In the final analysis, Foucault argues that the purpose of punishment is to insure the docility and utility of the population in support of the goals of the ruling elite. Punishment then operates at two levels, overt and covert. Overt punishment being the police power of the state, covert punishment being the penalties of societal institutions in the society (schools, the workplace, religion.. .what Foucault calls disciplinary society). The optimal situation for a ruling elite is to have the population internalize the norms of the elite and police itself with very little external force (social order with maximum economy).

The key issue then becomes, “Who rules?” In a small, stable, homogeneous society with internalized-shared values there would be very little need for punishment. The clash of values produces deviations from the “norm”.. .and thus anti-social behavior (crime). Every crime is a revolt against the status quo.

In the post-9/l 1 world we may be seeing the emergence of the “rationalization of the means of control” over mass populations. Technology offers the tools for the economic surveillance and tracking of people. As Foucault points out, continuous surveillance is the ultimate means of insuring that no one deviates from the norm. The question becomes what values will control the deployment of such technology. There are parallels between the challenge to current American civil liberties and privacy rights posed by the emergence of new “rationalizing” surveillance technology, and the loss of traditional rights suffered by 18th & 19th century workers during the Industrial Revolution that rationalized the means of production. The book is helpful in that it establishes some fundamental questions about discipline and punishment that provide an analytical framework applicable to various societies in various times.

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That Noble Dream by Peter Novick (Book Review)



The work establishes the question, “Is objectivity possible in the writing of history”, as the central proposition of the development of the American historical profession since
1884.

The work portrays the vagaries of a narrow, and increasingly isolated, craft guild which appears to produce historical research primarily for members of its shrinking guild, having dismissed involvement with: (1) general education at the secondary and lower levels, (2) the general lay audience with an interest in history, and (3) public history. (Pages 362, 372,373,513)

The better question for historians to ask might be, “What is history for?” Can history be used as a tool for socialization within society. . . and if so how and what are the legitimate parameters for teaching? Can history be used as a predictive tool? The study of military history suggests that history can teach predicative lessons. What about other fields?

“Good history” is as subjective a term as “good law”, both are subject to the shifting values of the time and subject to the vagaries of advocacy. Advocacy history appears no more suspect than history that is refereed by “peer review”. The peers in a peer review are either coming from one homogenous point of view (as in the early Anglo-Saxon, Social Darwinism days of 1884, the year of the founding of the American Historical Association) which makes their world view suspect in terms of it universal application, or they are coming from diverse ideological-social/racial-gender backgrounds, which make their peer review comments very much like the existing system of American legal advocacy. Just as there is “Enough law for every clients position”, so too there appears to be enough history to serve a multitude of worthy ends if one doesn’t insist on one eternal, immutable and knowable Truth. Worthy ends such as: (1) History as art (fact based expositions of the human condition much like the fictional exposition of the human condition found in novels), (2) history as predictive tool (e.g. Sun Tzu’s ART of WAR),(3) history as socialization instrument ( an inclusive and expanding public mythology for an immigrant nation).


Since his death along the bluffs overlooking the Little Bighorn River, in Montana, on June 25, 1876, over five hundred books have been written about the life and career of George Armstrong Custer. Views of Custer have changed over succeeding generations. Custer has been portrayed as a callous egotist, a bungling egomaniac, a genocidal war criminal, and the puppet of faceless forces. For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values. Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history. This book presents portraits of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn as they have appeared in print over successive decades and in the process demonstrates the evolution of American values and priorities.

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Orientalism by Edward Said (Book Review)



Perhaps a groundbreaking book in its day, Orientalism now seems rather trite in its conclusion that intellectual schemas support the political and economic agendas of ruling elites and that the Western view of the Orient (and especially of the Middle East) has been ethnocentric and self serving.

Said says that to be an Oriental (Muslim) is to know certain things in a certain way (Said,195). At the same time he argues that Huntington’s thesis concerning the post-Cold War “clash of civilizations” (Western, Confucian, and Islamic) is far from convincing because of the interrelationships and interdependence of civilizations (Said,347). The whole premise of Orientalism rests on the notion that Western scholars have been representing the East in terms of its relationship to an expansionist, imperialist, messianic West. The East is something that is acted upon, or seen in relationship to the West. Certainly during the European colonial/expansionist period the interdependence of cultures did not prevent a clash of civilizations as the European powers systematically dominated the world politically and militarily. Different cultures have different values based on their historical development. Why should it be startling that these values might come into conflict? Said, laments that Arab intellectuals have done a poor job in establishing an intellectual superstructure to counter the dogmas of modem Orientalism (Said, 301), but even if they were to do so, would not this construct represent Muslim values (i.e. to be an Oriental (Muslim) is to know certain things in a certain way)? A clear articulation of Muslim value assumptions might be the starting point for a reconciliation of value differences with the West, however, as Said points out the Muslim world is not a monolith. There are a multiplicity of values competing in the Muslim world, just as there are a multiplicity of values competing with one another in the Western world. If differing values can lead to conflict within one’s own historical cultural group (e.g. the abortion issue in the United States) how much more irreconcilable must value differences between cultures be, even if precisely articulated and the differences rationally understood?

There is no reason to believe that a Muslim intellectual superstructure explaining the Occident will be any less ethnocentric or self serving to Muslim economic/cultural/political interests than Orientalism has been to the West. Scholars are products of their cultures and can only distance themselves so far from the values of those cultures. Even if one bold spirit were to be able to truly step outside of the culture, the critical mass of scholars would still be working within the value structures of their culture.

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