Is the United States a Failed Society?
Australian National University
In 2003/4 Ann Curthoys and I spent some time in the US. We left in late July 2003 for what turned out to be, after a short interlude in Hawaii on the way, a nine months' stay in Washington DC, where Ann was visiting professor in Australian studies at Georgetown University's Center for Australian and New Zealand Studies. I was attached to the Center, teaching Australian literature. Based on diary notes and newspaper cuttings, the following fragments are a record of my stay in Washington: the skewed perceptions of the outsider. Yet my observations were not aimless. I was interested in certain questions. Just before leaving Australia, in July at Sydney University, I had given a paper to a conference on genocide and colonialism, my title being "Are settler colonies inherently genocidal? Some thoughts on Raphaël Lemkin". As well as a general curiosity, then, I wished to know how much did the US think of itself as a settler-colonial society, including its scholars, its intelligentsia? Would there be an awareness of American history as a history of genocide? Is there a public culture that discusses such questions? Indeed, what sort of public intellectual culture would this society have at close quarters?
Soon after we arrive in Washington (late on Sunday 10 August 2003), I ring a friend of ours, Nick M, an art historian, originally from England, who now teaches in New York, given to acrid wit. "America," he tells me, "is completely insane; that's what you'll find". I laugh, thinking he'd laugh. But he doesn't.
Friday 22 August 2003, 6.30pm: still not sure of buses and the metro, we make our way to the Mall, to the National Museum of American History Carmichael Auditorium, 14 St. and Constitution Avenue. Here, as part of the 1963 march on Washington commemorations, we hear fascinating speeches by participants in the 1963 event, followed by singing by the Sweet Honey and the Rock choir; for the final song, We Shall Overcome, everyone stands and we link hands with African-American people on either side of us.
The next day we go to the Mall again to hear the speeches in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King so famously spoke.
Sunday 14 September 2003. We go to the Mall to the National Gallery of Art for an exhibition by the African-American modernist artist Romare Bearden (1911-1988). We had never heard of Bearden, but we quickly realize as we walk through the crowded exhibition rooms and see a film about his life, that Bearden's art is some of the most remarkable we've ever seen. A brochure explains that Bearden was born in the south, in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. About 1914, as part of the African-American Great Migration north, Bearden moved with his parents to New York City, settling in Harlem. During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Bearden's family home was a meeting place for major cultural figures such as Langston Hughes and Duke Ellington. In the 1930s Bearden studied at the Art Students League with George Grosz, an immigrant to New York from Germany where he been a major figure in Dada, and Dada's use of collage would later influence Bearden. Bearden became interested in diverse aspects of art history, in seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting, African art, Picasso. He also became interested in compositional relationships between jazz and the visual arts. As his art developed, he drew on subjects rooted in his southern upbringing and religious experience, the abstracted forms of European modernism, the poetry of Lorca, the murals of Mexican artist Diego Rivera. Biblical motifs became important for him, as well as Homeric legend, and stories from the Civil War; Mauritius , his only known sculpture, refers to a martyred Roman warrior from North Africa. Throughout his career, the beauty and dignity of the black woman was a recurring motif: from Madonna with child to lover, from teacher to healer; there were images of the southern conjure woman and Caribbean obeah woman . He became well-known for what he referred to as his collage-paintings, which combine magazine and newspaper snippets with textile fragments; and it is these extraordinarily rich collage-paintings that most fascinate us. We spend a long time at this exhibition.
Thursday, 13 November, 2003, 2pm: In Gaston Hall, a rather grand hall in the Healy Building, one of the original buildings of Georgetown University, Ann and I attend "A Special Remembrance Celebrating the Life of Edward W. Said". The event is partly sponsored by Georgetown's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, and the first speaker explains that Said over the years had come from New York to give lectures at the university, he felt a special connection with it. At this celebration is Ms Grace Said, sister of Said, and some of his favourite music pieces are played.
As we sit there we register that the large hall is mostly empty; the occasion which I thought would be so moving becomes a little depressing.
How, I think, could there be so little interest in commemorating the life of America's greatest contemporary literary critic?
Tuesday 9 December 2003: Ann and I catch train from Union Station to New York, stay near Penn Station at the New York flat of Susan S.
Now occurs one of the highlights of our stay in US: we go to 15 West 16 th Street, where is located the American Jewish Historical Society, and spend a day and a half there investigating a question that had arisen in discussion of my paper at the July 2003 Sydney University conference on genocide and colonialism. People had asked: you say that Lemkin, when he formulated the notion of genocide in 1944 in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, linked the notion of genocide to colonisation, specifically to Nazi colonisation in western Poland. You conclude from his published writings that he didn't extend the conjoining of genocide with colonisation to any histories outside Europe; but, John, what about his unpublished writings, what does he say there?
Now here we are, looking over his beautifully archived unpublished typescripts, where indeed, as we soon discover, Lemkin does, at great length, passionately, movingly, intricately, extend his definitional linking of genocide and colonisation to the European colonising of the Americas, from 1492 onwards, by the Spanish, the English, the post-Independence Americans.
Then, on Thursday 11 December, excited by the joy and scent of research, we race up on the uptown underground to the New York Public Library, to read the Lemkin archives there, and it is here that Ann makes a remarkable discovery, that Lemkin had written a chapter on Tasmania for his never-completed history of genocide (Curthoys, 2005).
The Washington Post Sunday 21 December 2003. Report of a legal play, a mock trial, staged in New Orleans to mark the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase. On trial, played by actors in period costume, are Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon Bonaparte; at issue are lingering legal and historical questions. The trial is organized by Cajun Francophone lawyers, as part of a movement to preserve the French language in the United States. Napoleon is acquitted of abandoning the people of Louisiana when he struck the land deal with Jefferson in 1803. Jefferson, however, is given a torrid time in the dock. A representative of the Native Americans asks Jefferson what he knows about the Trail of Tears, the trail of hardship and death over which the Cherokee Indians from Georgia were marched by U.S. soldiers at gunpoint 1000 miles to Indian territory in the Louisiana Purchase. The actor playing Jefferson protests that while he had heard rumours of it, it didn't happen during his administration. A representative of the African Americans reminds Jefferson that the fertile Mississippi River valley became plantation country. "You say you wanted to abolish slavery, and yet, when you died, were not your slaves sold off at auction to pay your debts?" Jefferson is found guilty of various charges: prolonging slavery, deporting American Indians, and discriminating against the French in Louisiana.
Surely, surely, good coffee is a prerequisite for an interesting contemporary society that knows how to create, within a city, necessary intimate and familiar spaces. Coffee in the US is a disaster, almost everywhere a monopoly of Starbucks, with its industrialised practices and poor pay producing an indifferent staff; Starbucks, with its disgusting practice of presenting coffee in a styrofoam cup; Starbucks, with its lack of a culture of specialised expertise, of the barista one knows and trusts, laughs and jokes with; Starbucks, with its smug and depressing coffee-mediocrity. How disappointing it is on a visit to New York--an island city I generally except from my more critical observations--to have to go to a Starbucks after a wonderful dinner we enjoy with some American friends at an Italian café near 81 St (tiny, with everyone sitting squashed together, eating beautifully simple tasty pasta dishes, the café specialising in Neapolitan cuisine). Leaving the café and looking for coffee, we find that the local coffee shop near our hotel is closed, and we have to make do with a nearby Starbucks (which itself is about to close for the evening).
For the first few weeks in Georgetown--the cute, quaint, elegant, middle-class 'European' style quarter in north west Washington where our apartment has been arranged for us--I look about despondently for a non-Starbucks coffee place. And finally, with vast relief, find one, the Pâtisserie Poupon: tradition française (I'm reading from their card, they also have a café in Baltimore), in Wisconsin Avenue (at 1645) the main Georgetown drag round the corner from where we live (in R Street, between 34th and 35 th streets). The Poupon , as I come affectionately to refer to it, is run by friendly Hispanic people, with a barista who knows what he is doing who serves me a double shot café au lait in a small cup that will do, I think, as a nine-months surrogate for the excellent lattes I'm missing from Canberra and Sydney and I've enjoyed on occasion in Melbourne. It's pleasurable as well to be drinking out of a stylish white cup as one sits reading, at the table I always choose (if I can), directly under a light.
Sometimes the Poupon is a Tower of Babel, people sitting near me talking Spanish, French, German. One only feels at home amongst a babble of voices and accents.
In my 1492: The Poetics of Diaspora, I have a concluding fragment on the history of coffee, how coffea arabica was in the fifteenth century brought by Yemeni traders from Ethiopia and then spread throughout the Middle East, until coffee and the coffee house were introduced into Christian Europe and beyond. How much, I wonder, do present-day Americans ever think, as a 'coffee drinking nation', that coffee was an Ethiopian and Arab innovation in world history?
21 December 2003: The enormous size of American buildings makes me uneasy. Gigantism, I mutter to myself. Just before Christmas, having declared the year of work over, Ann and I catch the local Blue Bus from Georgetown (which because of snobbishness never acquired a metro stop) along bumpy Wisconsin Avenue and then K Street to Foggy Bottom metro stop. Then we walk several blocks past George Washington University to one end of the Mall, track over to the Lincoln Memorial, climb the steps, look at the marked spot where Martin Luther King spoke in 1963, then proceed downstairs and to the side to the exhibition area. Here we read Lincoln's ambiguous sentences about why the Civil War was necessary, he would have pursued the war regardless of slavery.... Then we walk over to Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, in polished black granite, cut into the low hillside. Set some distance away are two accompanying memorials, one composed of statues of three American soldiers, another of statues of American nurses tending a male soldier. It makes me think of Steven Johnston's interesting discussion of Maya Lin's wall, and how the two groups of realist figures came to be added to the area: pressure from veterans and their families, Reagan officials, and financial contributors, led to the constructing of the heroic Three Soldiers, while its male focus in turn precipitated the creation of the Women's Memorial designed to honour the women who served in Vietnam (Johnston 70-91). I think how uninvolving realism is; no one is looking at these two memorials when we are there. People crowd along Maya Lin's wall, sometimes touching the names of the American dead.
Down the hill from us in 34 th St. is a tiny corner shop, run by a friendly Turkish lady; here we buy wine and, if we're running short, milk; she tells us that her grandfather fought against the Australians at Gallipoli in World War I, and he later visited Australia to attend a ceremony to commemorate ANZAC.
25 December 2003. We have Christmas in Baltimore, at the home of our friends Jane and Bill. Around the table are Jane's family who have also come down from Washington; we are mindful of the privilege of having Christmas with an American family. Boxing Day: we are now in New Haven, staying at the home of the genocide scholar Ben Kiernan. Ben walks with us and his younger brother Peter around Yale. But Yale also strikes me as suffering from the sin of gigantism. I think to myself: I miss 'English' or 'medieval' urban lanes and narrow ways where might be found snug little coffee shops or book stores. Ben takes us to Maya Lin's memorial for women at Yale, a kind of round flat fountain also in polished black granite (though the water isn't running over it): brilliantly simple, like her Washington wall. Then I think: they're both small, Maya Lin's works are small.
New York Times Sunday 28 December 2003. A long article where American Vietnam war veterans tell horrific stories about what they saw and did as soldiers in 1967 in Quang Ngai and Quang Nam, provinces in central Vietnam.
(It reminds me of our trip to Vietnam in 1999, where our guide said that the Americans dropped so much defoliant on central Vietnam it changed the ecology of the area for ever.)
The Times article relates that the American public was shocked in November 1969 when the reporter Seymour M. Hersh broke the news of the My Lai massacre.
Yet white American powermakers would appear to have learnt nothing from the Vietnam War, except to try to exclude or stifle-by-inclusion the media. Graham Greene's The Quiet American (1955) remains as prescient as ever. Maybe more so: since World War Two, around the world, American governments have attempted to establish an imperium not by direct colonizing like the old colonial powers of Britain and France, but indirectly, by invading and occupying while saying they are not invaders and occupiers, and by resorting to the absurd fiction of establishing 'third force' local governments. What the US fears most is to be perceived in history as colonizers and occupiers. After all, they regard themselves as the victims of colonialism, of the eighteenth-century British empire. Hence the historical necessity of the CIA: its secret spidery arms can engulf the world, interfering, intervening, funding, assassinating, while the US disavows that it has an imperium.
As Ann has asked of white Australian colonial consciousness, how can those who regard themselves as victims ever consent to be seen, or see themselves, as the victimizers of others? (Curthoys 2003: 185-200). From each invasion somewhere, from each war, Americans emerge as perpetually innocent in history, whatever appalling revelations of their battlefield brutalities come to light, courtesy of journalists like Seymour Hersh.
New York Times 4 January 2004, article entitled "Unruly Students Facing Arrest, Not Detention". Reports that in Toledo, Ohio, more than two dozen students have been arrested in schools for offences like being loud and disruptive, cursing at school officials, shouting at classmates, and violating the dress code. An accompanying photo shows a 12 year old seventh grader, a boy, being escorted into a holding cell at the Lucas County juvenile court. The article tells of another example. When a fourteen year old girl arrived at school wearing a low-cut midriff top under an unbuttoned sweater, she was ordered to cover up. She refused. The city police officer assigned to the school then handcuffed her, put her in a police car, and took her to the same detention centre. She was booked on a misdemeanour charge and placed in a holding cell for several hours, until her mother, a 34 year old vending machine technician, got off work and picked her up.
6 January 2004: our son Ned has arrived to stay with us for six weeks or so, to pursue his research interests in Hannah Arendt and world literature. I quickly introduce him to the Poupon round the corner. We also go to the Library of Congress together. For lunch we briskly walk to Union Station, which has a quite vibrant and very crowded food hall in the basement area that he discovered on a previous research trip to Washington. Ned takes me to the stall serving piquant Cajun chicken, served by Asian-American people, with rice or noodles. We eat the spicy Cajun chicken with chopsticks. Ridiculous, Ann later says.
New York Times Saturday 17 January 2004. An article under the title "In Protest of Fingerprinting, Professor Cancels U.S. Visit" reports comments by the philosopher Giorgio Agamben in Le Monde of 10 January, where he says he has decided not to teach in the forthcoming semester at New York University. He is protesting against the new American policy of fingerprinting arriving visitors and employees from other countries, and he also calls for other intellectuals and teachers to join his protest. Alas, Ann and I have already been in the US since late July. When we return from a visit to McGill University in Montreal two months after Agamben's protest, we are fingerprinted at Montreal airport by the American authorities there, by a banally bored official.
Agamben is quoted as saying that he "deeply opposed the use of biological methods to track citizens, including procedures like finger and retina prints and subcutaneous tattooing for political purposes." "By applying these techniques and these devices invented for the dangerous classes to the citizen", governments have made "the person the ideal suspect, to the point that it's humanity itself that has become the dangerous class".
Would we have gone to the US if Agamben's call had come in early 2003, when we were planning out trip? I don't know. I think we were very curious, we wanted to see this society firsthand.
The same New York Times article refers to Nancy Ruttenburg, the chairwoman of NYU's Department of Comparative Literature, where Agamben was to have taught, saying that "she was concerned about the effect of American security policies on international educational exchange".
International educational exchange seems to be drying up in the US. We hear of the increasing practice of conferences being held in Canada just across the border, so high is the rate of overseas academics being rejected for conferences by American security tests.
The vitality of American intellectual and university life since the 1930s must owe a great deal to the influence of European intellectuals living there in exile, as with Einstein, Hannah Arendt, Raphaël Lemkin, Georg Iggers, Ernst Cassirer, Auerbach, Spitzer, or because of Middle Eastern exiles like Edward Said. Perhaps, increasingly, the flow of intellectual life will be the other way.
We enjoy the feeling that we can now get around Washington, we know what buses to catch to whatever metro we want, as when we catch the D2 or D6 to Dupont Circle, then stand on the elevator as it descends deep into the underground. Frequently, the elevator at Dupont Circle and elsewhere doesn't work and we and others pick our way carefully down the metal steps. Yet we also notice how dull the metro network is, the stations with their sameness and grey cement walls and absence of colour. Ned comments that the metro station at Dupont Circle is like a "grey tomb". I say, the fascists of the 1930s would have been proud of it. Why so ascetic, we ponder.
Dupont Circle has Kramer's Bookshop, where, the story goes, Monica Lewinsky bought presents for President Clinton; heroically, the bookshop would not divulge what the books she bought were to investigating authorities.
Dupont Circle also has an excellent fish restaurant, Johnny's Half Shell, which we only discover late in our stay.
Sunday 8 February 2004. Ann, Ned and I go for lunch at Booeymongers, in Prospect Street in Georgetown, down the hill from us, nearer the Potomac, a restaurant street. We had been to this Booeymongers before, for a late breakfast, very relaxed, though the coffee is terrible. We sit down. All around us sit young white Americans, probably Georgetown University students. Inevitably we the curious traveller-flâneurs listen as we start to eat. They tell long stories (with "like" and "awesome" prominent). No laughter, no jokes. As we walk away, we say to each other how baffled we are by the literal mindedness and humourlessness of so many of the white Americans we've encountered.
Lunch is disappointing: so heavy, so coated and soaked in (mediocre) cheese. We try to eat some of it. For hours afterwards, we feel ill, dehydrated, craving water and fresh fruit.
Tuesday 10 February 2004. I take the local MARC train to Baltimore, to give a lecture to Jane Bennett's politics class at Goucher College. My talk is on "Are settler colonies inherently genocidal?" Afterwards we drive over to Johns Hopkins whose politics department Jane is soon to join. A newly appointed scholar who has come from Europe is giving her first seminar paper; in the crowded room, Jane asks a question, why are you invoking Levinas' notion of radical otherness, it doesn't seem to add anything to the argument.
I nod agreement, and think to myself, why is Levinas so revered as the great theorist of otherness, to be magically invoked as if his very name signifies complex ethical thinking almost beyond compare, when I find his thought detestable. I think of the page or so in my 1492 book where I refer to Levinas, appointing himself as a kind of unofficial ideologist and philosophical guide for the Israeli government, lordly advising Ben Gurion not to lift the excommunication on Spinoza that the Sephardi community of Amsterdam in 1656 had imposed on its young dissident: Levinas, the great philosopher of responsibility for the other, would like Spinoza to be permanently othered in history (Docker 2001: 113).
Then I realize the seminar is still going on around me, I try to catch on to what's being talked about.
That night I talk to Bill's postgraduate students about an essay I've written on the Enlightenment that's just appeared in the Journal of Genocide Research (Docker 2003). I confess my love of Spinoza as fountainhead of the Enlightenment.
Levinas' interview "Ethics and Politics" recorded in the aftermath of the 1982 Sabra and Chatila massacre, particularly irritates me. Here an agitated Levinas, in response to a question that for the Israeli the other must above all be the Palestinian, makes the startling admission that his definition of the other is "completely different", that for him the "other is the neighbour, who is not necessarily kin, but who can be" (Levinas 1989: 294). Levinas, then, sees the other as a figure who exists primarily within one's own religion and ethnos, amongst neighbours and kin. How other is such an other? What a reduced notion of otherness is this! Isn't this an other enclosed within ethnocentrism? In the interview he defends Zionism and Begin as if Israel's settler-colonial violence and othering of the Palestinians doesn't exist (Israel only defends, never attacks--this during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon), while Begin's notorious racism towards Palestinians is of no interest. He also evokes the Bible as if it is ethically unproblematic, declaring that "the Bible of course teaches us" the "honour of responsibility" for the other. Now that we know that the other cannot be Palestinian, and cannot be outside one's immediate ethnos, it is no surprise to register that throughout this interview Levinas shows not the slightest interest in the Palestinians as the victims of Sabra and Chatila (nor does he concede Israeli responsibility for the massacre) (296). His only concern is the supreme ethical standing of Judaism which might now be thrown into doubt. His only concern is that we should recognise that Sabra and Chatila is an exception to foundational Jewish ethics and to the history of Zionism and the state of Israel. He cannot even name the "Palestinians". In Derrida's terms, the interview is a supplement that undoes the universal pretensions of Levinasian ethics, reveals the cruelty of a binding ethnocentrism. Further, Levinas's anxiety was prescient: Israel's moral standing in the world never did recover from Sabra and Chatila and its brutal invasion of Lebanon (Kimmerling 2003).
New York Times 21 February 2004. Are letters pages the test of a good newspaper? The letters in the Times (those they choose to print from those who know how to write to have a chance of being included) are passionless, pallid, few.
How do we explain the New York Times ' vast inferiority to the British Guardian and Independent (which every morning I glance at on the Net, along with the Sydney Morning Herald online)?
The New York Times in general is flagrantly pro-Zionist. The Times offers not journalism but ideology, the defence of Israel at all costs, which now also means supporting the neo-conservative Iraq war project. But the Times is supposed to be a US liberal flagship of higher quality journalism. How to look as if you're liberal while supporting Zionism and the regnant neo-conservatives? Hence evasiveness. Hence dullness.
21 February 2004. I'm reading at the Poupon , at my favourite table, under the good light. The Poupon is wonderfully tiny.
On my left, a middle-aged Englishman is talking to a middle-aged American white woman; he is being caustic and angry about something they are discussing. "Back off," she says, "you're upsetting me." Don't be demonstrative, always maintain an even tone, never be ironic, sarcastic, expostulatory. On my right, a younger American man is telling a younger American woman, quietly, relentlessly, the advantages of the Atkins diet, they must stop eating grains, etc.
22 February 2004. I walk around the corner to the Poupon . For the first time, the barista an Hispanic young man makes my coffee without asking me. We both smile. The Hispanic waitresses now smile at me; one touches my arm. It's crowded. I sit on a stool in the bar area and finish off reading Zizek's The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity. I'm having to read it to write a review for Political Theory, along with Talal Asad's Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Docker 2005). Then I spy that my favourite table is vacant. I move across coffee cup, water (no ice), heavy leather jacket, and my two faithful scarves I feel I need for Washington's winter, far colder than anything I've experienced in Australia. I scrawl some pithy notes about Zizek's distasteful book on the back inside cover, then open Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career for my forthcoming "Twentieth Century Australian Literature" class. It's the spring semester and I'm teaching my course to fourteen undergraduates, all American except one, an Australian, a forthright young man.
Thursday 26 February 2004. At 3.30 I give a seminar paper at the Holocaust Museum, downstairs in one of the teaching rooms that have no windows. I've been kindly invited by Wendy Lower, then of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, an historian who is an expert on Nazi colonization in Ukraine and Russia.
The original title I'd offered was: "Are settler colonies inherently genocidal? Re-reading Lemkin". A couple of weeks before I give the paper, I'm informed that there has been some unease within the Museum at this title. A new one is given to me: "Raphaël Lemkin's History of Genocide and Colonialism".
In my preamble to the talk, I say I'd best clarify my terminology. "The term 'settler colony' which I will be deploying today," I remark, "does not seem to be a term often used in the US, in any case its mention often seems to elicit a puzzled look. In Australian historiography, the term 'settler colony' is usually associated with the expansion of the British Empire: a settler colony, as in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, was a colonial society where the indigenous population was reduced to a small or tiny proportion of the overall population, whose majority population becomes composed of colonizers/migrants. There is, however, no 'pure' model. By contrast, British India was a colony of exploitation, wherein the Indian population remained the overwhelming majority."
What I'm trying to do in the paper is refute what I'd argued in Sydney in July 2003, that Lemkin had been Eurocentric and had ignored European colonizing round the world as examples of genocide. Now I draw upon our research into Lemkin's unpublished manuscripts, the invaluable notes we took in New York in early December.
The seminar is well attended, and in discussion lively. One question is returned to, by Aron Rodrigue the scholar of Sephardi Jews in the Middle East and working now on the Armenian genocide: John, I'm trying to work out why Lemkin would apply the term concentration camp to the way the Native Americans were incarcerated by white authorities, is that the right term for him to use, is it anachronistic? I had referred to Hannah Arendt's distinction (which I'd drawn from Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's biography) between a detention camp and a concentration camp, where the latter is an attempt to change the human being itself. I talk about this distinction again in my attempted answer, and why I think Lemkin can justifiably invoke the term concentration camp for what happened to the Native Americans, not least in terms of his notion of cultural (and religious) genocide.
In all seminar discussions, one usually gets a 'left-field' question that one flounders about with. At one point, a young scholar who works at the Museum asks whether the American war in Vietnam was genocide in Lemkin's terms? I pause, and think what will I say, and finally mumble that I don't know what the Americans were doing in Vietnam, they killed two million Vietnamese and wounded some five million more; but I'm not sure it was genocide in Lemkin's sense of trying to destroy the essential foundations of life of Vietnamese society as a society, and replace that society with another society. I say from memory Sartre in the public trial of the USA conducted by Bertrand Russell had referred to colonialism as in itself genocide, but were the Americans trying to colonize Vietnam? (Sartre 2004: 181-5)
I still don't know what to think, except perhaps to identify the massive defoliation perpetrated on Vietnam by the Americans during the war as a kind of genocidal attack on the country's ecology and future population in terms of deformities. In their illegal war on the Vietcong and North Vietnam, the Americans did endlessly appalling murderous things--but were they attempting genocide? What were they trying to do? (Jacobs 2004: 222-4)
Friday 5 March 2004: it's late in the day, I have a sore tooth, at one moment I sway with pain, then the pain goes, resurges. This is awkward, because we're just about to have a tourist-weekend in Philadelphia. When we get to Union Station, I confess to Ann that I have a bad tooth ache. We like Philadelphia, go to the Rosenbach Museum where we see in a glass cabinet a manuscript page of Joyce's Ulysses , which Rosenbach the collector had purchased in 1924 (Ellmann 1983: 559). Also drawings by the children's writer and artist Maurice Sendak, a patron of the museum. Also the Marianne Moore Room based on her Greenwich Village living room. Then we stroll to Rittenhouse Square and have lunch at a nice coffee shop. We are staying near Philadelphia's Chinatown, so for one lunch we have a duck soup with noodles, become nostalgic for Australia and its imbrication with south-east Asia. We visit a museum to see the famous 'cracked liberty bell', ponder how appropriate that is to American democracy, conceived and launched by owners of slave plantations. We spy a pharmacist and find some emergency tooth pain relieving medicine.
My tooth ache turns out to be that traveller's nightmare, root canal. The following Wednesday, after visit to dentist the day before, I have "root canal therapy" (as if it is a psychological condition) at a practice specializing in endodontics, near Dupont Circle. Isn't as terminally tedious or as lengthy a procedure as I fear and have heard stories about. The endodontician is a pleasant Canadian woman, who rings that night to see how I am.
Having a sore tooth reminds me of Vronsky near the end of Anna Karenin, Anna dead, Vronsky desolate, about to travel to a war front, indifferent whether he lives or dies, a tooth aching. Whenever I wear the long overcoat that Bill my friend from Baltimore has given me, I also think of Vronsky in this scene (Tolstoy 1964: 813-15).
19 March 2004. I'm invited to Eastern Michigan University, at Ypsilanti near Detroit, to give a paper on "Is History Fiction?" The event is designed so that I talk and then a locally-based poet Raymond McDaniel speaks about his own poetry and its notions of history and memory. Ray says he wants to produce a book of poems without page numbers so that the poems can be read in any order. Most questions are directed not to my musings on Herodotus and Ranke but to Ray, practical questions about how such a book can be bound or not bound, how it can be produced. That night, I'm taken to Ann Arbor for dinner. I tell my hosts, as we stand drinking in a bar before going to a restaurant nearby, that Ann Arbor looks an enjoyable place to live in or be near to. No, John, they say, this is all there is, Ann Arbor is just a few blocks, a few cafés and bar and independent cinema and bookshop, and then there is nothing for hundreds of miles.
In many ways, Ann and I had an exciting time in the US, invited to give papers at diverse places. From conversation, I would judge that American academics usually despise and fear the small university towns they are forced to live in. I make this observation on the phone to my friend the acerbic Nick M: why are there so many places in America where the college is the town, like Oberlin, surrounded by hundreds of miles of Ohio. He replies, thinking of earlier twentieth-century anti-semitism in the US, that the original idea of such college towns reveals a Nordic or Aryan fantasy, of body and mind in healthy surrounds as far away from nefarious cities as possible.
New York Times , Saturday 10 April 2004: A photo under the title "Modesty in the Garden" shows concrete statues of women where breasts and hips are covered with strips of velvet. It appears that when the G & L Garden Center in Hartsville, Tennessee, stocked the statues to add glamour to neighbourhood gardens and backyards, some customers and passers-by objected to the nudity and asked that they be consigned to a rear area. The owners instead took to strips of velvet.
Few societies in history have exhibited such ludicrous public puritanism. When Janet Jackson, during a half-time performance at the February Superbowl, found her breast revealed, Ann and Ned and I happen to be watching. "Was that", I venture uncertainly, "Janet Jackson's bosom?" "Yes," says Ann, "I think it was." In the next few days various US authorities and regulatory bodies issue dire threats, saying they are looking into what happened, maybe charges would come out of it. It's announced that when Janet Jackson is to be interviewed by David Letterman there will be a seven second delay, and indeed when he presses and presses her on what happened in the now famous wardrobe malfunction incident, she is blipped when at one point, exasperated, she says, "Jesus". Can't have blasphemy. There is fear that at the Academy Awards an actress might do a Janet Jackson, there will have to be a time delay for the broadcast.
The rest of the world is amused by the Janet Jackson incident. Not so the US.
As many have observed, the US's ludicrous public puritanism is accompanied by an adoration of righteous violence.
Academics don't seem to offer an alternative, more libertarian or bohemian, culture. At a dinner party, a chicken tagine is served. "Do you want," everyone is asked, "light or dark pieces?" You mean, we ingenuously exclaim, a breast or thigh or leg or wing? Our hosts look embarrassed at our explicit language; they don't say anything, just ask the question again, light or dark pieces?
New York Times Saturday 10 April 2004. Article entitled "Fears (Real and Excessive) From Pollution Warning on Tuna", tells us that American doctors are concerned that because federal authorities have warned about mercury in tuna, people will stop eating fish altogether.
We immediately stop buying tins of "albacore", some kind of white tuna, at the giant Safeway store near us in Wisconsin Avenue. It's tasteless anyway. Most of the food we buy at the local Safeway is tasteless, from poultry and lamb to tomatoes and eggs, even the spices, the ground coriander and cumin.
Americans prefer beef to lamb, and bafflingly refer to lamb as having a "very strong taste". There is not much lamb to choose from at the local Safeway, and it's usually labelled "imported".
Accompanying the Times article about polluted tuna, we see a photo of a young man at lunch in San Francisco, who used to love "tuna melts"; now he is about to open his jaws to a gigantic "avocado and turkey sandwich" instead.
The Safeway on Wisconsin Avenue is built for people to arrive in cars. It stands by itself, there are no specialty shops around it of any kind. Inside, there is no one to answer a question.
Wisconsin Avenue at or near Georgetown is not like an English high street: there is no row of individual shops Londoners or people in Melbourne and Sydney might recognise, the fruit shop, the butcher, the fish shop, newsagent, hardware store, cake shop, delicatessen; the high street where one can get to know the shopkeepers, say hullo, ask for advice, appreciate the specialized knowledge exhibited in the range of offerings on display, request particular things, individual cuts.
On one occasion protesters stand in Wisconsin Avenue in front of Safeway. They hold up placards with the logo "UFCW, a voice for working America". We ask them what they are demonstrating about; they say they've come from California to protest Safeway health care policies; they are asking people not to shop there. They give us a leaflet, which says: "Safeway and its CEO Steve Burd have forced tens of thousands of Southern California working families into the streets in a fight to save affordable health care at work." Ruefully, we say we haven't got a car and have nowhere else to shop.
14-17 April 2004. The campus of the University of Texas at Austin is the most attractive of any American we have visited. We're here to give lectures and seminar talks. Austin appears to be a very interesting city; everyone we meet says it is the only city that is bearable in Texas, that they enjoy living there, and that it has a great live music scene; they warn us not to go to any other place in the lone-star state.
My Australian Literature class host is an actual Texan (most academics on campus are from elsewhere in the US), who later takes us to a Mexican restaurant in the old segregated part of the city where African-American and Hispanic people live. I think the café was called the Azteca. Here I follow my host in eating goat enchiladas; around the walls, with that casual self-parodying excess of much popular culture, are near-soft-porn posters of beautiful naked young maidens about to be sacrificed to an Aztec god; near us as we eat is a small shrine with figures enacting a similar activity.
The following day (a Saturday), we meet Angela M and Michael M, two African-American children's writers who have contacted Ann concerning her Freedom Ride book while we've been in Washington. They're to take us out to lunch. What sort of food do you like, they ask uncertainly. We say, we like spicy food. Mexican? No, we had Mexican last night. OK, we know where to go then. They drive to the old segregated area of the city to a southern comfort ("soul food") restaurant, where we impress our hosts by eating with them hot sausage and blackened pork. They beckon the restaurant owner over, he had been at university with Michael. "These are friends from Australia; they're Caucasians who can eat spicy food." The African-American owner says hullo and goes into a long disquisition on the importance of chilies for every part of the body, then orders very hot spicy chicken wings for us on the house. We feel inordinately proud. We attack the chicken wings. Afterwards, Angela and Michael drive us to the airport. We gaze at black birds circling in the sky. They say they're vultures, waiting for road kill. Michael is driving too fast (thinking we might be late), Angela says slow down, hotfoot. Angela and Michael are the wittiest quickest people we've met in North America. We struggle to keep up.
Sunday 18 April 2004. We catch the train in the afternoon to visit Jane and Bill in Baltimore for dinner. They've invited along two Indian colleagues of theirs, a couple. Conversation, lively and enjoyable, quickly turns to matters Indian, to the Dalits (he is writing a book) and the harem in Mughal times (her book).
Jane comments the next morning that it was interesting to observe how immediately well the Australians and Indians got on, the way you laughed and joked together, "perhaps because you'd all once been part of the British Empire". Her implication was how isolated Americans were and are in the world.
I think of my occasional perverse defence of empires as supra-national entities.
Every morning one vainly looks at the New York Times front page to see if there is any concern for the Iraqis dying in Iraq: nothing, the only concern is for the American soldiers. If it's not in the Times , where else in the US's print media would it be?
Many of the impressive speakers at the huge pro-choice rally on the Mall in Washington DC (25 April 2004) plead with the million people present to vote and get others to vote, otherwise "we will lose our country, our America". They raise the spectre of a return to the seventeenth century, of a resurgent nexus of state and religion, along with a wide-ranging attack on American women's bodies. Some banners are not reported the next day in the stuffy lifeless prose of the New York Times . "Bush, get out of my bush". "My oval office is not your oval office." "My oval office is not free."
A group of us (two visiting Canberra friends, and two Americans, Susan S and her husband Gowan, all staying with us while the event is on) sit under a tree and eat the lunch we've brought. Round the circle comes a card from Ann, a bright yellow card with the logo "Guerilla Girls on Tour", sub-titled: "Changing the World, One Sexist City at a Time". On the back Ann has scribbled, "John, can I have an oatmeal biscuit? A."
On a scrap of paper Ann notes the names of speakers, which include: Hilary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Whoopi Goldberg, Ashley Judd, Gloria Steinem, Susan Sarandon, Carol King, Julianne Moore; some names Ann didn't catch, including a Latina organiser of farm workers, a writer on Thelma and Louise, the lawyer who when young helped win Roe v. Wade, and a powerful African-American speaker.
The African-American speaker, featured on a huge screen, reminds the audience of Sojourner Truth, who a hundred and fifty years before spoke of the assault on African-American women's bodies. Now, she says, the total control once exercised in slavery against African-American women is being threatened against all women in contemporary US.
In liberal America there is impending terror.
New York Times 27 April 2004. Paul Krugman, the only commentator (along with Maureen Dowd) on the Times op-ed. page worth reading (the rest being the usual roll call of conservative commentators servile to state power), writes that with the Bush-Cheney presidency, the US now has "a sort of elected dictatorship: a system in which the president, once in office, can do whatever he likes, and isn't obliged to consult or inform either Congress or the public". If the presidency was ever once considered in US history as largely titular or honorific compared to Congress, the trend now to a kind of serial monarchy appears irreversible. The White House itself has become the forbidden palace.
George W. Bush is a serial monarch. Kings of old could be child-kings, or idiot-kings, to be guided by a regent (Cheney) and various other non-elected courtiers (Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice, and, more shadowy, neo-conservatives like Perle).
Americans oddly refer to their modified form of eighteenth-century monarchy as democracy, apparently ideal and to be followed by the rest of the world.
One clear advantage of the British Westminster system is that the prime minister, and his or her ministers, have to engage in parliamentary debate, preparation of arguments, replies to criticisms. In the US system the king-president can be an embarrassing fool (whatever the reverence before the office of the president as semi-divine) because he never has to perform in a parliamentary setting. Similarly, state governors, as in the risible election of Arnie Schwarzenegger, are not answerable to any parliamentary forum, and they usually form the pool for presidential candidates.
28 April, 2004, 12.30 pm. A lunchtime meeting in the English department at Georgetown, of a recently called discussion group on critical race theory. I arrive there a little early, and talk with a Caribbean-English member of the group, who is teaching in the English department; he agrees with me when I say I find my Georgetown students unwilling to offer opinions, the same thing happens in his classes.
The group assembles, starts talking as in the previous meeting, as if --and this includes the African-American critics there--no other society on earth exists. I think why not say something, we're leaving the US soon. I take a deep breath, and launch into a speech suggesting that the book set for discussion, on critical legal race theory, while admirable in many ways has worrying limitations. It begins by saying that critical legal race theory is an international scholarly movement, yet then goes on as if it only occurs in the US or only its manifestations in the US matter. At one point, I say, it mentions African-American historical figures, yet doesn't include Malcom X (Delgado and Stenfancic 2001: 4).
I question why a book on critical legal race theory has nothing on international law--for example, the UN conventions against genocide and crimes against humanity. I rush in with a quick mention of Raphaël Lemkin and his argument in his unpublished manuscripts that slavery in post-1492 Spanish America was part of the genocide of Amerindian peoples, that slavery has a very long history in European colonisation of the Americas. I mention that I have just been reading Talal Asad's Formations of the Secular, in which Asad contrasts Malcom X's call to bring the US before the United Nations as a violator in international law of the rights of African Americans, to Martin Luther King's language which, however powerful and prophetic, locks African Americans into the internal American Dream and the American Judeo-Christian vision of itself as one of God's chosen peoples (Asad 2003: 141-47).
I then say there is a whole literature in postcolonial theory that critiques Exodus as a settler colonial narrative, a narrative that ends with the destruction of the Canaanites, the indigenous people of the land. I say that King's acceptance of the Exodus story, while so moving, is also necessarily an acceptance of Puritan-shaped white American colonialism and its destruction of Native American societies. In the American Exodus story, where are the Canaanites?
After my outburst, there is a short silence. One of the African-American critics says, yes, it is odd that Malcom X's name is not there. They then resume their discussion of nineteenth and twentieth-century American history.
New York Times Saturday 1 May 2004: a front page article entitled "Bush Voices 'Disgust' at Abuse of Iraqi Prisoners"; subtitle "Photos of Americans Degrading Captives Stir Arab Anger". But no photo or photos illustrate the story on the front page. Curious sub-title, I thought: what of world anger at the photos? The story about the Abu Ghraib photos continues on page five. Now we see two of the notorious photos, one showing a prisoner hooded and standing in a crucifixion position on a box with wires attached to his hands; the other, a pile of naked bodies with, behind them, a male and female American soldier grinning with delight and satisfaction for the camera.
The article says that most American newspapers refused to show the photos, except for the Daily News of New York, the Baltimore Sun , Newsday , and the Washington Post .
And the New York Times ? Well, each day after the scandal broke around the world I had read the Times , and each day there had been no photos. Now the article on page 5 of 1 May quotes Bill Keller, the executive editor, saying their news desk had held off on publishing the photos because, in Keller's words, it "could not, in the time available, ascertain their authenticity".
The American print media is now also seen by the rest of the world as servile to the White House. Uncritical, self-censoring, colluding.
Those questioning of the state now write books, since publishing has retained its relative independence from state power and the corporations-owned media. But we can be sure the conservative forces with their massive wealth and influence have also noticed this anomaly in an otherwise conformist society, and will move in as soon as they work out how to do it.
New York Times Saturday 1 May 2004: article on "Demonizing Fat in the War on Weight", quotes historian Peter Stearns who says the dieting fad in US has become a new kind of Puritanism. The "frenzy over obesity", other scholars interviewed are quoted as saying, is substituting moral accusation for scientific research, and is comparable to the Salem witch trials, McCarthyism, and the eugenics movement. The article suggests it is the poor in general and racial and ethnic groups in particular who are being targeted and stigmatized as obese in contemporary US culture.
My feeling: there is evident obesity in American society, because of the obscenely large proportions that food outlets serve, usually with very high salt and sugar content.
In the Pâtisserie Poupon , the middle-class middle-aged white women, stick thin, come and go talking of their nearby antique businesses (apologies to T. S. Eliot). Coffee shops have their own rhythms. Sometimes, from 10.30 or so till 11.15 or so, I'm the only person there. I look up from my reading occasionally to observe the Hispanic women who serve the beautiful pastry, chocolates, rolls, baguettes, tasty soups (my favourite for lunch), and think, how nicely plump you are.
On TV last night I watched an episode of the less-than-amusing Friends and looked at Monica (in this episode supposedly ill with a cold but still desiring sex with Chandler), so grotesquely thin her bones stick out.
Sometimes I think: how do these white American stickwomen reproduce? How could anyone have sex with them? And maybe that is the 'unconscious of the text' in the Friends episode: Monica, denying she is ill, bones and tendons distended, trying to entice to bed Chandler who is finding her the evident reverse of desirable.
White American women seek a uniform body. How pleasurable elsewhere, in London, Scotland, Sydney, Canberra, to observe a variety of bodies.
New York Times Sunday 2 May 2004: the Times , it turns out, is not very interested in the Iraq torture story. On front page has a prominent photo of drought in the American West, with Arizona's Lake Powell drying up. On far right column of front page, a lazy article "Officer Suggests Iraqi Jail Abuse was Encouraged", mainly quoting from an article by Seymour M. Hersh in the New Yorker magazine, and also a phone interview with the US General in charge of the prison, who says she lost control of the interrogation block to military intelligence and CIA agents. She says that the military intelligence officers insisted the Red Cross not have access to the interrogations. That's it for the New York Times of 2 May 2004. No interest at all in the response of the rest of the world to the photos; no interest at all that the US stands scorned and reviled amongst the nations.
The New York Times reveals its lack of cosmopolitanism, its uninterest in looking at its own society and what its society does around the world through the multiple gazes of multiple others.
No investigative journalism of its own. No investigation into related questions: can the delight shown by the male and female American soldiers in humiliating the Iraqi prisoners be related to the contempt for Arabs as a people expressed at every opportunity by Hollywood in film and TV show? What is the daily demotic of the American soldiers in Iraq: how do they refer amongst themselves to Iraqi Arabs? Is it in the same spirit of how American soldiers would refer to the Vietnamese? Clearly these are trophy photos. Who was to get them to laugh over and keep as souvenirs? As trophy photos are they in a direct line of descent from the trophy photos of lynchings in the American South, photos to be circulated, sniggered at, treasured, passed down to the next generation?
There is much, much more to the Iraqi torture events and photos than interrogation: this is a phantasmagoria of Western racism towards, and hatred of, the Arab world. This is the theatre of Orientalism in its ugliest most despicable form. This is the absolute power to stage, arrange, choreograph, and photograph their deepest desires of what to do with Arab bodies once they have hold of them.
And more: the gulag of punishment and torture of Arabs in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and Iraq is collective punishment, that which occupiers and/or colonizers always do.
New York Times Wednesday 5 May 2004. Finally the Times has a page (an inside page) reporting "Overseas, Shock and Condemnation", including reproducing a cartoon from Le Monde of 4 May, under headline "La révélation des tortures en Irak secoue l'Amérique", with a cartoon of an American's boot on an Iraqi man's face, the soldier saying: "Repeat after me: DE-MO-CRACY!" The Times here has translated des tortures as "torture", but the rest of the Times in its bylines and wording follows the Bush administration in referring to the maltreatment as "Prison Abuse".
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in an interview on CNN's "Larry King Live" compares the "prison abuse scandal" to My Lai in the Vietnam War (NYT , 6 May, p.1).
Powell knows he will be judged harshly by history because of his appearance at the UN before the war showing alleged photos of sites of weapons of mass destruction; he knows he is already condemned to history's contempt.
Something within me has given up: the students taking my "Twentieth Century Australian Literature" course are defeatingly polite. They work hard (most of them), and read the novels. Yet through all these weeks of teaching, nothing has really changed; they still remain afraid to voice an opinion or idea, much less disagree with each other or me, the professor, even though I've invited them to. I'm baffled by them. With such extreme politeness, no lively robust teaching is possible; no Socratic swirl of exchange, the fundamental and necessary principle of university humanities pedagogy.
One of the only occasions my class becomes animated, though still preserving that tight self-control and forcewall of politeness, is in discussion of Sybylla, the sassy rebellious wild teenage narrator and heroine of Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career (1901).The young female students in particular object to Sybylla, she's ill-mannered, rude to people.
All the students in my class are of the same age, give or take a year or two. There is not a mix of ages as frequently occurs in Australian undergraduate classes, which I think has strong pedagogical advantages, with the older students, while maybe sometimes opinionated or too determined in their viewpoints, adding experience and knowledge of the world to the stock of knowledge in the class.
Over the months I'm told by various people that, while undergraduate education in the US is often derisory and kindergarten-like, those who select themselves as graduates emerge from the intensive course work of their doctoral program highly trained, certainly more highly trained than those in the postgraduate system in Britain and Australia. But, I object each time, what of the US system where the doctoral student is judged by his/her own supervisor or supervisory panel, that is, examination is a purely internal affair, unlike in Australia where there are external examiners, which means doctoral students are not so beholden to their supervisors. They can preserve a distance, they have alternatives, their scholarly world of judgment is wider. They stare at me. So I will repeat my point here: American graduate students seem to me to be necessarily infantilized. They are beholden in their examination process and lifelong in terms of references to the reputation of their supervisor and department of origin.
New York Times 7 May 2004. I read more stories of "abuse" of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib in morning, then we--Ann and I and our Canberra friends Louise and Peter (the Australians descended on Washington once it got warmer)--take the Green Line of the underground metro to Anacostia. Then we catch a bus and get off at the Frederick Douglass Center. We enter the building at street level where visitors can read about Douglass' remarkable life journey in the nineteenth century from slave, in Baltimore and Maryland, to his impact and stature as an abolitionist. We are the only whites there. A film is put on in the auditorium, a re-enactment; it shows a 'slave breaker' trying to break a young Frederick's spirit. I think the obvious: the American interrogators of the Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib are the modern 'slave breakers', in a long tradition of prison cruelty. Then we walk up the small hill to Douglass' house, a handsome two storey home with a view overlooking Washington, including the Capitol. We sit on the front steps eating sandwiches we've brought for lunch. Walking back to the bus stop, we pass a church (one of many), the Renaissance Baptist Church, with a large sign at the front featuring a black Jesus, halo above his head, on both sides his black disciples; on each side of the figures are coloured abstract patterns that remind me of Navajo rugs I've seen pictures of. A little later I notice a Malcom X centre. Then we catch the bus back to Anacostia station.
No Washingtonian we talk to has ever been there.
The US was, with its slave-owning founding fathers, born a herrenvolk democracy: a 'master race' democracy. Like the former apartheid South Africa. Like Israel is now both in relation to the Israeli Arabs and to the Palestinians in the illegally occupied territories (Kimmerling: 39).
Are all settler-colonial societies herrenvolk democracies? What of Australia?
Yes, each settler-colonial society is a herrenvolk democracy in its own particular way. Notoriously, in the US, less than half the population who can vote do vote. One reason could be that voting in the federal elections is done on a Tuesday; in Australia it is on a Saturday. There is also no compulsory voting, as in Australia. Americans seem to feel compulsory voting is a crime against freedom. When on one occasion a prominent American political theorist (and friend) puts this view, Ann replies that when you vote in Australia you still have the freedom to lodge an informal vote; she also points out that compulsory voting ensures the working class will vote.
Many days as I sit reading in the Poupon I rarely hear anyone (except the Hispanic staff) laugh. Why this strange public joylessness in white Americans? If whites in 'America' are the masters, the herrenvolk , why are they so crippled by restraint?
13-14 May 2004. There's anguish in the US media: surely, even though the images of Abu Ghraib are horrific and should only be viewed by the elite not the mass of Americans, enough is enough, let's see no more. For: surely we Americans are still the only hope for the world. We still are. Yes. For we are the world's future.
The American gulag--the torture chambers of Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, Iraq--has brought a bedrock American fantasy to its knees. The fantasy is wholly self-generated and an object of wonder to the rest of the world. But it will probably crawl on, rise shakily to its feet, totter forward.
No tragic consciousness: here is a society whose intellectuals, even those sympathetic to what occurred to the Native Americans in terms of dispossession of a continent, comprehensively refuse the term 'setter colonialism' for American history. In discussion after discussion, seminar after seminar, American intellectuals would say to us: no, 'America' does not have a settler-colonial history.
But herein lies a problem for American intellectual life. In refusing a tragic consciousness, white Americans--including its intellectuals--limit their sensibility. They close off the potential to attain the imaginative depth that supports the most daring, most adventurous, kinds of thought and speculation; thought and speculation that often is inspired by disgust at one's nation's history, by despair, by melancholy. Until they recognise the terrible history of the US in genocide and colonialism, take responsibility for that history, and feature that history as central to their work, they are doomed to a monochrome future-centric optimism.
Report of conversation between Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the New York Times (it must have been May 2004--I forgot to keep and date it). They joke that if desegregation of American cities has occurred, it must have passed them by.
White Americans, choosing not to mix socially with African Americans, flee to boring empty car-centric suburbs, or, more recently, exurbia . Middle and upper middle-class black Americans, we learn (from a Henry Louis Gates Jr. documentary on public TV), prefer residentially to segregate themselves, with each other but away from whites.
Is this a society fit for the twenty first century? Or is this a society consumed by a continuing history of untranscendable white superiority, however concealed, disguised, displaced, or denied?
Of course, in the next few years the US will make war on someone else in the world, after an appropriate demonisation. Will the American media be more sceptical or critical the next time round? In terms of a vigorous, independent public sphere, they have become spectral. A sepulchral silence. A death. More like the media in a totalitarian society like the old Soviet Union. Clichés always have something going for them: the cliché that the US lost the Cold War (which it any case launched) because it increasingly became like the Soviet Union, has obvious truth.
As in the old Soviet Union, the contemporary US is a society of fear. If, in a public place, I become too expressive making jokes or gesturing with my hands, I immediately register a stiffening in the Americans around me: I'm breaking the first law of an authoritarian or proto-authoritarian society, don't call attention to yourself. Even the strange joylessness I keep noticing in white Americans in public is similar to what used to be said about life under the Soviets. And there is a general drabness about American life, there is not the kind of capitalist consumer brilliance of a Singapore or Hong Kong or a Sydney and Melbourne. Even New York looks largely drab. Wasn't that always said about the old Soviet Union, how drab it was, visually dispirited?
Humanities academics, I think, have become afraid to be experimental. When I give a paper on "Is History Fiction?" at Georgetown not long before we leave, an historian enthusiastically asks questions, drawing attention to the way anthropologists (like Richard Price) play with narrative. Later, as we are walking away from the seminar, s/he says, I used to love all that Hayden White stuff, but I can't afford to be seen to be different now when I go for positions, if I get known as experimental I'll never get out of my university and get closer to the east coast .
In the online Sephardic Heritage Update , its prime mover David Shasha from Brooklyn (whom I'm fortunate to meet at a conference on "Al-Andalus: The Legacy and Lessons of Islamic Spain" at Georgetown, 13 May 2004), I read that Norman Finkelstein will be on C-Span talking about the revised edition of his book Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict: Norman Finkelstein the author of The Holocaust Industry, whose academic career continually suffers for his bravery and independence. We race to the TV room and unfortunately catch only the last part of his talk. He's being filmed in a hall in Chicago. In answer to a question, he says that Israel is now an integral part of America, more so than many states in the US, such as Arizona. Neo-conservatives like Wolfowitz and Perle, he notes, equally turn their attention to matters Israeli or American because the two societies form a seamless whole. He also suggests that because of Zionism, Judaism is now morally defunct.
Later, I think: how ironic, that the Zionists who created Israel so much lauded the nationalist Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire from 66 CE (including the mass suicide at Massada). Yet increasingly, Sharon (or, if he falls because of corruption, any other extreme-nationalist Israeli leader) reminds one of a governor of a Roman province. Except now perhaps provincial governor controls Washington emperor.
Martha Nussbaum links human rights to a notion of central human functional capabilities . She offers a "list" of qualities and activities that every human must fulfill to be human: 1.life; 2. bodily health; 3. bodily integrity; 4. senses, imagination, and thought (including being able to "have pleasurable experiences, and to avoid non-necessary pain"); 5. emotions; 6. practical reason; 7. affiliations and associations; 8. concern for other species; 9. play (being able to "laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities"); 10. control over one's environment, in a material and political sense (the political involves being able to "participate effectively in political choices that govern one's life; having the right of political participation, protection of free speech and association"). In a footnote, Nussbaum tells us that the "list" she is offering is influenced "as a result of my discussions with people in India" (Nussbaum 2000: 77-80, 78 note 82).
How does 'America' measure up? Clearly, American society performs badly according to pretty well every criterion. 1: life in the US is endangered by murder, mass shootings, and execution. 2: bodily health--40 million Americans have no health insurance and many others are only partly insured. 3: bodily integrity is threatened by rape, violence, and prison guard cruelty, also by obesity in some groups, skeletal thinness in others. 4, 5, and 6: thought, imagination, and emotions are limited by literal mindedness, an obsession with practical reason, lack of irony, lack of tragic consciousness. 8: concern for other species is in tension with failure to observe international agreements on the environment. 9: play: white Americans in my observation rarely laugh, at least in public--how can they when they don't use language in ways that lead to laughter? 10: political choice and participation are minimised by an electoral system which permits only two major parties and by lack of voting by the population; free speech is less and less in evidence, everyone knowing they could be subject to ever expanding surveillance by a multitude of spy agencies; where there should be an agonistic agora, an active public sphere, public dissent, willingness to differ, there is eerie conformity.
In terms of Nussbaum's test, then, 'America' is a failed society. Dying.
For the world, 'America' now represents not the future but the past.
In her list Nussbaum refers, in point four, to the human right "to avoid non-necessary pain". In Formations of the Secular (67-8, 73, 78, 81, 89-90), in the chapter "Thinking about Agency and Pain", Talal Asad argues against Western secular liberalism's premise that pain and suffering should be progressively eliminated from life, to be replaced by pleasure. In religious history, Asad points out, suffering and pain help create subjectivity and identity, as when people participate in public ritual dramas enacting agony, in both Christianity and Islam, as in "the Passion of Christ or the Martyrdom of Hussain". Asad relates such productive experiences of suffering to the "idea of ensoulment".
The great African-American social theorist W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that African Americans always possess a kind of double consciousness, they are both American and black. This must mean that language is doubled, every word has two inflections, there is never a settled right or 'natural' meaning. No wonder, I think, African Americans we meet, or listen to interacting with each other in the local Safeway supermarket at the check-out, use language for fun, gently affectionately joshing each other, playing with meaning, parody, nuance, intonation; are obviously aficionados of word-play. As we found to our delight talking with the African-American writers Angela and Michael over lunch in Austin.
Does this mean that white Americans in Du Bois' terms live only in a single plane of consciousness? In any case, they could not be more different in their public use of language.
In daily conversation with white Americans one soon learns not to swear. Why do white Americans deny themselves the full range of language? Yet late at night, on cable, on Larry David's enjoyable Curb your Enthusiasm , there is much swearing, even the c-word. In Hollywood movies, as when we get to Loews cinema in Georgetown on a Sunday afternoon (later to buy an ice-cream and wander next to the Potomac), characters freely say fuck . Why this disjunction?
At Loews cinema, the first fifteen or so minutes is taken up with shorts of films to come. In sheer quantitative terms, I never realized how many movies, so many clearly trash, are constantly being made in the US. Makes me reconsider my rejection, in my Postmodernism and Popular Culture, of Adorno and Horkheimer's Culture Industry thesis. Maybe I was wrong!
White American culture: a Nuremberg rally of overwhelming niceness. Everyone's nice. Polite. Practical. Whole conversations consist of practical advice.
There's very little TV to watch on the hundreds of channels we could watch (we've hired a black box to sit next to the TV), but Ann and I do enjoy looking at American Idol . What's most entertaining is the dramaturgy of the judges, the conflict between the culture of politeness in the two American judges (especially Paula Abdul but also Randy Jackson), and Simon Cowell the acid Englishman, whose often harsh comments continually upset the other two as the three sit together in a row at a table. Once he says of a song by Yasmin the young Hawaiian teenager: you're very sweet, but your song reminds me of having dinner with Paula Abdul, everything's very pleasant but overall the occasion is boring. Paula elbows Simon.
The clash of verbal cultures on the show reminds me of the conflict in Graham Greene's The Quiet American between Fowler the veteran English journalist and Alden Pyle the young American Cold War utopian, always trying to appear nice and pleasant; Pyle, who wants to appropriate Phuong from Fowler and take her back to the US to be a Nice Bland American talking exactly like, and with the same facial expressions of niceness, as all other 'white' Americans.
We're at a party in a white suburb outside Washington, kindly invited by our host, who has been to Australia. I'm introduced to a German man, a scholar who is part of a German historical institute in Washington. He suddenly says, what do you think of the friendliness of Americans? He has, he continues, been in Washington for seven years now, and while Americans are very friendly the first time you meet them, never make the mistake of thinking they want to meet you a second time. He speaks with surprising bitterness, but also as a warning to us as newcomers to the US.
In Austin, the first night we are there, we have dinner at a whites-only club, in spacious grounds, in a part of town that is very definitely not the African-American and Hispanic. Our host's wife is German; she says she likes Georgetown where we live, she worked there once in a shop on Wisconsin Avenue; she suddenly warns us, don't be fooled by Americans saying, after the first friendly occasion, come visit me. She says this once occurred at the club, many years ago now. She turned up at the American woman's door saying you invited me to visit you; the American woman looked at her in cold bafflement. Know the rules of this society, advised the German lady. We sneak looks around the dining room. Nearby are tables replete with wealthy old white men with huge cigars in their mouths (unlit), accompanied by their wives, grotesquely thin old white women.
In this club, at my advanced age, I'm introduced to Margaritas. The next night, at the Azteca in the old segregated part of town, I enjoy another, much better, Margarita. I quickly develop an absurd romance for the Margarita, keep trying to order it back in Washington in the most inappropriate, risible, circumstances.
Why do I think a society's capacity for, why a culture of, irony is so important?
In irony there is a multiplying of perspectives; irony slows one down, reminds one that anything one contemplates doing might only add to the world's enormous store of mistakes and misfortunes; irony confronts hubris; in irony one can think one might be profoundly wrong; irony preserves a play of contrasts, incongruities, incompatibilities, contradictions, quirkinesses, absurdities; irony keeps the past disturbingly alive in consciousness. Irony offers distance, from one's self, from one's world. Irony is usually attended by self-irony; one can dwell on one's weaknesses, sillinesses, faults, limitations, inadequacies, pretensions. Irony and self-irony are usually accompanied by parody and self-parody. One can laugh at the world, and be laughed at by the world.
Such is the eternal wisdom of Plato's Socrates.
Missing a conversational culture of irony, most white Americans find it difficult to talk to societies, or people from societies, which and who enjoy a wider range of language expression. With irony crowded out by literal mindedness, these Americans have isolated themselves from the world.
How has this happened? One heretical thought would be that American Independence from Britain and its supra-national empire late in the eighteenth century was a gigantic historical error. It excised the US and its citizens from world-wide conversations. It still does.
In the final weeks of our American stay, life shaded for me into a feeling of being reduced, diminished, unproductive, unfunny, unwitty, stalled, not working to a fully human scale, grey of hair, beard, mind, and soul. A feeling of being bored, pedagogically and intellectually.
On 18 May we fly to London, then to Scotland for a holiday and tracking of Ann's ancestors on her mother's side.
The Guardian 27 May 2004. Correspondent Gary Younge in New York reports that the New York Times admitted the day before that its coverage of the run-up to the Iraq War lacked rigour, particularly in adequately questioning the credibility of Iraqi defectors, exiles, and informants, with their tales of terror camps and the presence of weapons of mass destruction. Younge writes that the New York Times' auto-critique singles out its "bioterrorism expert", Judith Miller, who in a front page article in the Times of 8 September 2002 had luridly declared that Saddam Hussain's Iraq was trying to import thousands of high-strength aluminium tubes to produce enriched uranium and eventually an atomic weapon. This so-called report was used by the Bush administration, Younge notes, as a key prop in its case for war. The Times now regrets its lack of caution in presenting claims that came from a highly dubious Iraqi informant; regrets also that when intelligence sources questioned the report, their misgivings were consigned to a Times story on page 13. Younge suggests that the American media in general accepted the claim of weapons of mass destruction. They failed to bring even an elementary scepticism to the case for war.
The media's wilful gullibility and naivety in accepting whatever exaggerations, absurdities and fictions power-seeking Iraqi exiles threw at them is now a severe embarrassment.
(I request an email from Ann, a 'fragment on America'.)
As America starts to fade, with two months having passed since we left, I wonder what stands out in my memory. I think what I will value most is the friendships we did make. It's true, we found it hard to make friends at Georgetown University, but we had other options. We met outsiders like ourselves, an African-American interested in New Zealand and Australia who teaches at Howard, a Marxist New Zealander who writes about Maori neo-capitalism, an Australian-American couple, a German-American couple, a French-American couple, an American who shares our enthusiasm for Lemkin, a British labour historian, an American expert on the British Empire, a European historian of the Sephardim in the Middle East, and various Americans we'd met before we arrived. That is, there is an international academic humanities intellectual culture which in some ways transcends the national differences you illuminate. Not entirely; I remember some tricky conversations about Israel, or even Iraq, and having to stay on one's best behaviour even with old friends, dealing with the kinds of restraint you eloquently describe. Yet I'll value having made or strengthened those international friendships, for reminding me of the worldwide intellectual conversation we like to participate in, and the ways national differences can fade in the face of intellectual and personal engagements.
The other idea that stands out now is that going to America helped me understand Australia better. I now value much more than I did Australians' sense of humour, not taking oneself too seriously, a sardonic take on the world, an ability to have fun; I especially like the large gestures and loud voices. I also like with a new respect certain aspects of the media, the proliferation of individual human stories that are connected to wider processes and politics, whether it be on 'Australian Story' on ABC TV or in the Sydney Morning Herald , stories of a kind I rarely saw in the US. I like the smaller size of the population, the contacts between academics and people in other occupations, the feeling one can make a difference.
But my American sojourn also made me realise that all peoples place themselves at the centre of the universe, and Australians are no exception. Living in a country with a huge population helped me see how small the Australian population is, and how little we count in global politics. And I feel good with that in a new way.
John Docker is a cultural theorist working at the Australian National University. His most recent book is 1492: The Poetics of Diaspora (London: Continuum, 2001). His 'Is History Fiction?', co-written with Ann Curthoys, will be published in the latter part of 2005. Email: John.Docker@anu.edu.au
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