Guns and American Political Topoi

Columbia reaching out to viewer. Original design for the “Be Patriotic” poster by Paul Stahr, ca. 1917-18. By Paul Stahr [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons”
In a recent provocatively-titled piece following the Aurora shooting on July 20, 2012 at a screening of the new Batman movie, New Yorker columnist John Cassidy asks “Is America Crazy?” He points out that the latest iteration of the national discourse about gun control following such an act of violence, whereas many argue for buying more guns and against stricter regulations, highlights that attitudes towards guns are an “American shibboleth:” a widely-shared cultural-political national myth that evades rational discourse. Cassidy continues to give a list of what he considers to be such topoi:

1. Gun laws and gun deaths are unconnected.

2. Private enterprise is good; public enterprise is bad.

3. God created America and gave it a special purpose.

4. Our health-care system is the best there is.

5. The Founding Fathers were saintly figures who established liberty and democracy for everyone.

6. America is the greatest country in the world.

7. Tax rates are too high.

8. America is a peace-loving nation: the reason it gets involved in so many wars is that foreigners keep attacking us.

9. Cheap energy, gasoline especially, is our birthright.

10. Everybody else wishes they were American.

Social Psychologist Stephen L. Klineberg on the Changing Face of Houston and America

On June 14, 2012, Stephen L. Klineberg, social psychologist and Co-Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, visited American Studies Leipzig as part of the Fulbright lecture series. Houston, Texas is one of Leipzig’s sister cities.1

Professor Klineberg, who has been co-directing the Kinder Houston Area Survey for thirty-one years, talked about socio-demographic developments in the  Houston area and its implications for the US in the twenty-first century.

Panoramic view of the Houston skyline.
Panoramic view of the Houston skyline. By Hequals2henry (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) , via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Panoramic_Houston_skyline.jpg
For most of the twentieth century, the primary source of wealth for the Houston area has been its geographic nearness to the oil fields of East Texas. According to Klineberg, in the twenty-first century, Houston will transition into a center of biotechnology, nanotechnology, and information technology industries.

If this is to become a reality, Houston needs to lure the best and the brightest into its centers of academic research, and develop ways to turn new knowledge into profitable ventures. In order to succeed in the emerging knowledge economy, the city needs to become attractive for an international mobile elite that could—at least in theory—live anywhere in the world. In this context, quality of life issues are taking on a central role for the economic success of the city as a whole.

Geography and Demographic Developments

With merely one third of LA’s urban density, Houston is the most spread-out city in the US. Harris County, TX covers a land area of 1,703.48 mi² (4,411.99 km²) is the fifth largest metroplex in the US and the third most populous county, inhabited by around 4 million people. It is a city of automobiles, open spaces, and suburbs. The latter are largely the result of the post-World War Two baby boom.

By 2035, the population of the Houston area is estimated to grow to around eight million inhabitants.2

But despite the reliance on cars, mass transit by other means has become increasingly important. Since 2004, Houston has a light rail line, the METRORail, covering 7.5-mile (12.1 km) and catering to approximately 34,000 daily commuters, something that has long been a common sight in European cities.

In the last decades, living in the city, as opposed to suburbia, has become more attractive. Surveys have traced the growing popularity of smaller homes closer to the city centers, where the workplace and other infrastructure is within walking distance.3

Demographics, Klineberg holds, is the key cause for this development. Today, less than one third of all households has children living at home.

All of this constitutes a trend towards “walkable urbanism.”

New Immigration, Ethnic Diversity, and the Face of Twenty-First Century America

Historically, Houston has essentially been a bi-racial Southern city. But today, it is the most culturally diverse metropolitan center in the US. In 2010, Houston’s population was 40.8% Hispanic, 33% Anglo, 18.4% Black, and 7.7% Asian.4

Race and ethnicity 2010: Houston By Eric Fischer  [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Race and ethnicity 2010: Houston By Eric Fischer [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0). Maps of racial and ethnic divisions in US cities, inspired by Bill Rankin’s map of Chicago, updated for Census 2010. Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Yellow is Other, and each dot is 25 residents. Data from Census 2010. Base map © OpenStreetMap, CC-BY-SA. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Race_and_ethnicity_2010-_Houston.png
The new immigration from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean has prevented population loss in Houston, which has been a problem in other major US cities.

In some ways, Houston today hints at the future of the US in general. By 2045, so the U.S. Census Bureau estimates, a majority of the population will be of non-European descent.5

Professor Klineberg is optimistic about the prospects of the US population dealing with this fact. Looking at Houston, with its great ethnic diversity, he points out that anti-immigrant sentiment is less pronounced here than in other places in America.

Much of this optimism stems from what Klineberg calls the “psychology of inevitability.” While the American population as a whole is aging and today’s seniors—the Baby Boomers—are mostly Anglo (or non-Hispanic white), younger generations of Americans are disproportionately non-Anglo. Furthermore, there has also been a significant increase in interracial marriages over the last decades.6 Younger Americans today are better attuned to the reality of a more ethnically diverse society than their parents or grandparents. In Klineberg’s view, the major fault line of the twenty-first century will therefore not be race but economic class.

The Knowledge Economy, Higher Education, and Inequality

In the twenty-first century, education will be the key to prosperity. The effects of globalization, automation, and government inaction have led to a decline in manufacturing jobs and put the American working and middle classes under increasing pressure.7

In the knowledge economy, both in Houston, Texas, and the US as a whole, access to higher education is therefore the crucial factor for long-term economic well-being of citizens.

Here is American Studies Leipzig’s video interview with Stephen L. Klineberg:

  1. Aktivitäten und Projekte – Partnerstadt Houston (USA). Stadt Leipzig. http://www.leipzig.de/de/business/wistandort/international/partnerst/houston/02513.shtml
  2. Houston-Galveston Area Council 2035 Regional Growth Forecast. http://www.h-gac.com/community/socioeconomic/forecasts/archive/2035.aspx
  3. Smaller homes, urban lifestyles attractive to new homebuyers: ULI. Housing Wire. March 21, 2012. http://www.housingwire.com/news/smaller-homes-urban-lifestyles-attractive-new-homebuyers-uli
  4. Harris County, Texas, 2010. State & County QuickFacts. U.S. Census Bureau. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/48/48201.html. See also the Wikipedia page on Demographics of Houston.
  5. U.S. Population Projections. U.S. Census Bureau. http://www.census.gov/population/www/projections/index.html
  6. Jordan, Miriam. “More Marriages Cross Race, Ethnicity Lines.” Wall Street Journal 17 Feb. 2012. Web. 15 June 2012. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204880404577226981780914906.html
  7. Noah, Timothy. The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It. Bloomsbury, 2012.; Pierson, Paul, and Jacob S. Hacker. Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer–and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class. Simon & Schuster, 2010.

Historian Charles Postel Talks about the Tea Party Movement

Today, historian Charles Postel of San Francisco State University and a visiting scholar at Heidelberg University, visited American Studies Leipzig as part of the Fulbright lecture series to talk about the rise of the Tea Party Movement in the US.

Postel, who specializes in populist movements in America, sees the Tea Party Movement as driven by a convergence of two different forces: ideology and economic self-interest.

The Founding Myth: The Boston Tea Party

“The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor” by Nathaniel Currier, lithograph depicting the 1773 Boston Tea Party (1846), from Wikipedia

He mentioned the myth of the original Boston Tea Party of the eighteenth century in American folklore, which is widely seen as a tax revolt, but was, according to historians, much more complex, involving political ideas about freedom and economic self-interest of Boston merchants and smugglers.

In order to illustrate the anatomy of today’s Tea Party Movement, Postel noted that federal taxes are at the lowest level since sixty years and that tax levels for the highest income groups have declined even sharper than for the average taxpayer.

Ideological Roots: Cold War Hard Right Paranoia

Postel held that much of the ideology of the Tea Party Movement derives from anti-New Deal conservative movements of the Cold War Era, in particular the John Birch Society, who saw social programs such as Social Security, trade unions, and the Civil Rights Movement as communist subversion of America. The enemies of those anti-New Deal conservative Republicans were for the most part moderate Republicans of the time.

The John Birch Society, which was the first grassroots conservative movement in the US, achieved a victory in mobilizing for Barry Goldwater as Republican candidate in 1964.

Robert Welch, the founder of the JBS, even went so far as accusing Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy as communist agents. In fact, anyone in favor of the New Deal and Civil Rights was seen as a communist.

In this video clip on YouTube, you can see Welch’s presentation (ca. 1965) of the JBS.

Other leading conservative intellectuals, such as William F. Buckley, distanced themselves from Welch and the JBS.

Welch and his allies, among them writer Leon Scousen, whose books have had a revival among Tea Partiers, built their own conservative movement on an anti-New Deal agenda.

For them, America’s fall from grace began in the early 1900s with the Progressive Movement’s social reforms.

The Birchers demanded the repeal of early twentieth century reforms, the Sixteenth Amendment, which allows for the federal government to raise an income tax, and the abolition of the Federal Reserve. They also demanded that the Seventeenth Amendment be repealed, which allows for the direct election of Senators. This was subsumed under the idea that America was a republic, not a democracy.

The Tea Party Movement picks up many of those ideas. It aims at repealing the remaining elements of the New Deal. It wants to abolish the Fed and for the reintroduction of the Gold Standard. It wants to repeal the 16th and 17th Amerndments. It argues that President Obama is a socialist and points to the Affordable Healthcare Act or ‘Obamacare.’

According to Postel, Obama is actually a centrist Democrat. A health care legislation similar to Obama’s was first proposed by President Nixon in 1974. For a long time, Republicans endorsed this idea.

The Tea Party Movement sees any regulation of the health care sector as socialism.

The Comeback of Bircher Rhetoric

If the rhetoric reminds of Joseph McCarthy and Barry Goldwater, that is, Postel says, because the John Birch Society has a revival.

Leon Scousen’s books are advertised regularly on Fox News by opinion hosts such as Glenn Beck.

Right-wing corporate lobbyists, including groups like FreedomWorks or Americans for Prosperity, but also think tanks, such as the conservative Heritage Foundation or the libertarian Cato Institute promote ideas similar to those of the Birchers.

Overall, the Cold War Hard Right has made a comeback, and it has gained the upper hand within the Republican Party.

Moderate Republicans have become a pariah within their party.

[Update]: I just stumbled upon a recent example of Bircherite Tea Party rhetoric. Congressman Allen West (R-FL) suggesting that 80 House Democrats are members of the Communist Party (article from The Raw Story).

The Politics of Self-Interest: Medicare Is Fine, But Only For Me

Besides ideology, politics of interest play an important role in the Tea Party Movement.

Postel sees this embodied in the Tea Party Movement’s opposition to health care reform as fight against ‘big government.’

The size of the federal government has remained relatively stable over the last decades. Most federal spending has been shrinking in the last thirty years. The two big exceptions to this are military spending and Medicare.

Most Tea Party supporters are on favor of higher military spending.

Regarding Medicare, typical Tea Party supporters—older, better educated, white males—have in the past most profited from government programs.

In other words, the Tea Party Movement mobilizes in the name of defending Medicare for themselves.

Tea Party figures such as Michelle Bachman have argued to the effect that Obama would take funds out of Medicare to give it to younger people.

Postel mentioned that the Paul Ryan Budget, favored by Republicans, illustrated this interest: those over fify-five would keep Medicare, while everyone else will have to shop in the insurance market with private vouchers.

The Politics of Inequality

The Ryan Budget also includes tax cuts for top earners and budget cuts for social programs.

This plan is proposed within the context of rising inequality within the US. While problematic for many, Postel noted that tens of millions of Americans have also benefited from rising inequality.

So far, Tea Party-influenced legislation at the state and local level has fostered inequality, with a clear anti-immigrant, anti-union, anti-reproductive health, and anti-voting rights agenda.

Currently, about twenty percent of Americans sympathize with the Tea Party Movement.

The Tea Party Movement has links to corporate lobbyists. Postel highlighted the Koch Brothers, the fourth wealthiest individuals in the US with an industry conglomerate in petrochemicals. The Kochs bankroll the Tea Party Movement through lobby groups such as Americans for Prosperity. They founded libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, and ALEC, a legal think tank. Fred C. Koch, father of Charles and David Koch, was a founding member of the John Birch Society.

Despite the involvement of the Kochs and others, Postel said that the Tea Party Movement cannot be called purely an ‘astroturf’ or fake grassroots movement.

Postel also held that while the mass media often emphasize the Tea Party Movement’s anti-elite rhetoric, there is not very much of it on closer look. Rather, all political movements in the US since the nineteenth century have used some form of anti-elite rhetoric, out of necessity.

Blowing Up The Social Contract

For Postel, the core agenda of the Tea Party Movement is “blowing up the social contract.” While in Europe there is general agreement about the validity of some form of social contract, even among right-wing populist parties, who want to limit the beneficiaries of that social contract, Tea Partiers want to end it. To American Tea Partiers, European right-wing populist parties might look statist, which is opposite to Tea Party ideology.

Many Tea Partiers call themselves ‘tenthers,’ in reference to the Tenth Amendment, which gives established the federal system giving states all rights not granted to the federal government. Postel noted that in the US, political movements have always swung for or against states’ rights and federal rights, depending on whether the legislation in question aligned with their particular agenda.

Postel ended his talk noting that, ironically, the Tea Party Movement has nationalized politics more than anything else in the recent past.

Charles Postel is currently working on a book chapter for an anthology on the Tea Party Movement.

Update:

Here is a video from American Studies Leipzig featuring an interview with Charles Postel after his talk:

American Studies Leipzig Graduate Conference 2012, Day 1 (Keynote Speech)

Last weekend, I attended American Studies Leipzig’s third graduate conference, “Global Games, Global Goals: Locating America in the Cultural, Social, and Political Realms of Sports,” organized by the second year MA students. I have to say that the two days of conference were very pleasurable as a guest. Great organization, nice hosts, interesting speakers, and an impressive location: the Deutsches Literaturinstitut Leipzig. Not to mention quite a bit of tasty food and beverages, which bring me back to the overall conference topic and what I should do afterwards—sports.

On the first day, the keynote speech was held by Prof. Dr. Dorothee Alfermann of the Institute for Sport Psychology and Pedagogy at the University of Leipzig on “American and German Sports from a Socio-Cultural Perspective.”

In her talk, Alfermann traced the development of sports in the US and Germany, and highlighted the very different trajectories in both countries.

While in the US, sports tends to be more about performance, competition, and record orientation, in Germany, sports as a mass phenomenon emphasizes exercise  and recreational activity.

These general differences have a historical roots.

In Germany, for instance, the Turner Movement of the early nineteenth century around Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, underpinned by German nationalism, aimed at training young men for military service, while rejecting the competitive aspect of sports.

Nationalism in sports was not limited to Europe. In the late nineteenth century, Americans tried to forge their national identity in contrast to Europe, which also expressed itself in the development of own national sports, in particular baseball since the 1860s, American football, and basketball.

The organization of sports differs greatly between the US and European countries such as the UK or Germany. While schools and colleges play a central role in the US, European countries have historically organized sports around sports clubs.

One particularity of sports in the US is the combination of physical and intellectual education, embodied in college stipends for student-athletes. Sports becomes a means of getting a higher education, even though many aim for professional athletic careers.

Some similarities do exist about sports in the US and Germany today, Alfermann concluded. Sports contributes to (national) identity and produces heroes. It attracts huge crowds, is a big business, and men’s sports tend to be held in higher regard in the public eye.

More posts to follow soon.

American Studies Leipzig Graduate Conference 2012

Tomorrow I will be going to American Studies Leipzig’s third graduate conference, organized by the second year MA students.

This year’s topic is “Global Games, Global Goals: Locating America in the Cultural, Social, and Political Realms of Sports.”

As the website describes it, the conference

will explore different notions of sports in a forum integrating students and professionals. Since sports touches upon many aspects of life such as politics, media, popular culture, history, and health, it offers a myriad of possible research foci. In fact, American sports and sport lifestyle(s) influence cultures around the world while simultaneously being subject to influences from other cultures as well. The study of sports within an American context is thus not limited to the national level: Sports organizations, sports gear enterprises, and athletes of all possible types operate internationally, making the topic of sports highly relevant on a global scale.

As a ‘veteran’ conference organizer (I was part of the organizing team in 2010), I am of course very excited to see how this year’s MA class manages to pull it all off. I am confident in this year’s organizing team, as the previous conferences went quite well.

I am also curious about the presentations and certain to learn about many aspects of sports that I had not thought about earlier. If I find the time, I will put up some more posts after the weekend.

Parochista Khakpour: Contemporary Iranian American Literature (Leipzig Book Fair 2012 Update 2)

On Sunday, I attended the reading by Iranian American writer Parochista Khakpour, supported by the US Consulate Leipzig.

Khakpour was born in Tehran in 1978 and raised in the Greater Los Angeles Area.

At the Leipzig Book Fair, Parochista Khakpour read excerpts from her debut novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects (Grove, 2007), which is set in suburban California of the late 1980s and deals with questions of identity among Iranian immigrants to the US and their children. The negotiation and struggles of identity, both Iranian and American, is a key theme of the novel, and Khakpour noted that the figure of her father is central to treating this issue in her work.

Khakpour also presented some excerpts from an autobiographical essay titled “Camel Ride, Los Angeles, 1986,” originally published in Guernica, an online “magazine of art and politics.” In the essay, she describes the traumatic experience of being taken to a camel ride in the Los Angeles Zoo by her father.

Parochista Khakpour also spent a semester in Germany in the Winter Term 2011/2012 as Picador professor at American Studies Leipzig and worked on various writing projects. Khakpour remarked that writing about identity in a foreign country gives an author a different perspective, that she liked Leipzig as a city very much, and made friends while there.

Currently she is working on her second novel and a number of essays.

Tobias Endler: US Foreign Policy After 9/11 (Leipzig Book Fair 2012 Update 1)

Now that the Leipzig Book Fair 2012 (Leipziger Buchmesse) is over, I would like to share some thoughts about my impressions. There was so much to see that any attempt at catching everything of interest was doomed to failure. Nevertheless, I managed to attend some of the readings supported by the US Consulate Leipzig, as mentioned in my earlier post.

On Thursday, March 15, I went to see Tobias Endler of the Heidelberg Center for American Studies (HCA) presenting his book After 9/11: Leading Political Thinkers about the World, the U.S. and Themselves.

The book is based on a collection of interviews that Endler conducted with a variety American public intellectuals across the political spectrum. These public figures talked at length about how they imagine the role of the US as the remaining superpower after the Cold War.

Endler mentioned that the trauma of 9/11 is still present and informs national discourse in the US. He pointed to the 2012 Republican presidential primaries which had currently reached several Southern states in the US. Within the campaign rhetoric of the current crop of candidates, both the tropes of a potential Iranian nuclear threat and the fear of terrorism featured prominently.

Endler also talked about a specifically American “revolving door of public life,” a phenomenon wherein university professors often transfer to governmental posts, then to think tanks, and finally back to university or into journalism.

This mechanism, which is often difficult to understand from a German perspective, leads to a lively public debate in the US.

The discourses of public intellectuals in the US focus on such topics as the role of the US as a superpower, or the ability to survive crises.

Endler mentioned that in the public discourse, 9/11 entailed a sense of loss of the “free” US security provided by its geographic location. 9/11 was registered as the first attack on US territory since two hundred years, except for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II.

Since 9/11, the US government has been willing to defend what it defines as American values with military force. This rationale has been put forward by the Bush administration, but also has been acknowledged by President Obama.

Endler mentioned that a look back at the past three years of the Obama administration reveals a shift towards “realism” in its foreign policy approach.

From a German perspective, he noted, US public debate often looks like a traveling circus, and seems rather strange. From the American perspective, on the other hand, this willingness to controversial discussion is seen as embodiment of democracy.

This also includes public opinion about the president, as documented by polls. Endler pointed out that recent polls show diverging evaluations of Obama as person and Obama as politician. While Obama as a person still gets relatively high approval ratings, Obama the politician is seen comparatively worse by the American public. The president also still has an image problem as he is seen as “elitist” by large parts of the population.

Endler also mentioned that in comparison, the political spectrum of the US is generally more to the right of Germany.

A few examples from the interviews with US public intellectuals underscored this point. For instance, he mentioned Michael Novak of the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute (AEI), whom he characterized as an archconservative Catholic who forms a bridge between the Christian Right and neoconservatives. Novak thought of Obama as an extreme leftist.

Endler described how many conservative public intellectuals in the US also see Obama as “great nibbler” who hesitates to tackle problems of foreign policy at the root.

On the other end of the left-right spectrum, Endler gave the example of MIT linguist and icon of the US Left, Noam Chomsky. Chomsky told Endler that there was no substantial debate going on in the US. In his opinion, the educated classes are indoctrinated. Chomsky noted broad support for the US invasion of Iraq, and the absence of a “principled objective” to invading other countries. According to Chomsky, there exists a double standard for other countries’ invasions of foreign countries. In Chomsky’s view, the nature of the discourse on the invasion of Iraq was such that the only question asked was “Does it cost US too much?”

Endler pointed out that foreign policy generally plays a small role in US elections and that war fatigue has risen among the US  public. One case in point, Endler argued, was President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address, which did not discuss foreign policy matters.

In Endler’s opinion, the dialogue between the US and the EU has been set aback lately.

He concluded that there is by and large a consensus across the political spectrum in American public debate about the status of the US as a superpower and the benefit of exporting democracy.

I found the talk very interesting, but it was unfortunately a bit short, as the whole event including introduction and questions at the end had to fit into a thirty minute time slot. I certainly would have liked to hear more about certain aspects of current US foreign policy, especially the aforementioned ‘realist’ turn of the Obama administration.

As the audience of a reading at the Leipzig Book Fair is much broader than merely American studies people, it is certainly sensible to not dwell on details only of interest to (aspiring) specialists. I am of course biased here and would have gladly taken in some more information. Then again, I am probably a little spoiled by attending readings at my university, which usually have the luxury of a ninety minute time slot.

Overall, the talk got me interested and I will put the book on my to-read list.