Our America: Everything that Rises

Blogger: 
Jim Hicks

In his debut novel, John Barth admonishes people who pause when the world presents them with coincidence: “Nature,” he observes, “seems at times fairly to club one over the head with significance.” The sun suddenly appears, to rhyme with our newfound hopes; the road to the cemetery is a one-way street. “The man. . . whose palate is attuned to subtler dishes,” the novelist notes, “can only smile uncomfortably and walk away.” On the other hand, Lawrence Weschler, a writer hardly lacking in subtlety, has dedicated an entire book to such convergences, finding them unexpectedly rich and resonant. That I’ve lifted my title here from him, and only incidentally from Flannery O’Connor, suggests where I stand. Every thought I’ve ever had, I sometimes think, began in juxtaposition.

On a single day, roughly two weeks ago, I learned two things had happened. A historian, one of the academics and intellectuals I most admire, had died—a few weeks earlier, as it turned out. Marilyn Young, best known for her study The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990, was an activist scholar whose opposition to US imperial ambitions and militarism never flagged; her later publications included the edited volumes Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam, or How Not to Learn from the Past (with Lloyd Gardner, 2007) and Bombing Civilians, A Twentieth-Century History (with Yuki Tanaka, 2009). My wife happened to hear these tidings at a reading group discussion that included Leah Glasser, a dean at nearby Mount Holyoke College and Marilyn’s sister. Earlier that day I’d gotten some other unexpected news: the Massachusetts Review apparently had a new follower on its Twitter feed. POTUS.

I thought I knew why POTUS might suddenly have decided to stalk us. So I called my managing editor into the office and gave her a high five; as Erri De Luca has observed, certain forms of attention from the state are equivalent to winning a literary prize. A few days earlier, Emily’s searing riposte to the latest Republican assault on the Affordable Care Act had indeed been prizeworthy. She, however, reminded me that, after all, ever since the election we have been running a blog series called “Our America”—so who knows what happened to catch the Eye of Providence? POTUS, or a minion, may have being doing his homework.

What I really want to describe here, however, happened over a decade ago; the events mentioned above simply prompt me to tell you about it. There has already been a substantial obit for Marilyn in the New York Times, as well as a detailed and heartfelt portrait in the Jacobin, but few folks know the story that follows.

In May of 2007, as the concluding event of a three-year, State Department-funded partnership between the University of Sarajevo and Smith College, an academic conference was held in Sarajevo. It brought American Studies scholars from Massachusetts’s Pioneer Valley together with academics from the former Yugoslavia and other countries in the region. My opening remarks at the conference included a statement that, even today, sounds somewhat strange to my ears. You’ll have to imagine the sideways smile that accompanied them.

I told our multinational, multicultural, multiconfessional audience that “the most fundamental thing which the scholars in this room today have in common is a very simple thing. We love the United States of America.” Patriotism, I added quickly, what not at all what I had in mind. Instead, following Harry Frankfurt, I cited Spinoza, who said that “Love is nothing but joy with the accompanying idea of an external cause” (Ethics, Part III, Proposition 13, scholium, Trans. Edwin Curley). As professors who study the United States, I commented, we were fortunate in the way that all professors are fortunate. Our profession, unlike so many others, allows us to experience joy, and that joy is brought to us in large part externally. Its cause is our object of study. Why else would we do what we do? Why else had we come to Sarajevo?

When Harry Frankfurt cited Spinoza, he did so, not in order to describe a patriotic or chauvinistic love of country, but in order to describe the love of truth—the book where he quotes Spinoza on love is called, quite simply, On Truth. When Frankfurt describes the place where the pursuit of truth brings us, he pulls no punches. That place, he reminds us, “may not be a very attractive or inviting locale [. . . .] The realities that it will require us to confront may be both dangerous and ugly [. . . .] Some people [he adds] would advise us that there may be realities so frightening, or so discouraging and demoralizing, that we would be better off not knowing anything about them” (57-58). And yet, he comments, “hiding our eyes from reality will not cause any reduction of its dangers and threats; plus, our chance of dealing successfully with the hazards that it presents will surely be greater if we can bring ourselves to see things straight” (58).

In opening a conference, you certainly want to welcome the participants, but you also need to set a tone conducive to the discussions ahead. (I hadn’t actually anticipated—though I should have—that there would also be a representative from the US Embassy in the room.) While planning these remarks, I’d reflected on my experiences over the past three years of directing this program, of trying to herd a fractious bunch of academics in what could pass for a common direction. The overall dynamic had been complex, but intriguing. For the senior Sarajevan professors, the US American Studies scholars often appeared to be left-wing extremists, with a Stalinist-seeming politics as their cultural litmus test; to the Americans, those same Sarajevans often resembled postwar US triumphalists, wielding a conservative literary canon as their cannon. Of course, both sides had to be simplifying the views of their other. After all, the Americans were citizens of a country with most powerful economy and military on the planet, and they were traveling on their government’s dime. Whereas the Sarajevans had been educated, and spent their formative years, in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. All this, for me, is what made our project worthwhile.

The topic of the conference’s final panel was “The Model Country: Yesterday and Today.” This session was moderated by the sociologist and anthropologist Peter I. Rose, and the panelists were Jon Western, Five College Professor of International Relations and Dean of the Faculty at Mount Holyoke College and Alessandra Lorini, a historian at the Università degli Studi di Firenze. The latter spoke on “An Early Case of Off-Shore America: Cuba, 1898 –1912” and the former on “American Responses to Anti-Americanisms.”

In order to offer something of a capsule summary for our three years of activity, I’d also invited the program’s external reviewer, Myra Jehlen, Board of Governors Professor of English at Rutgers University, to the conference. Though I didn’t know it beforehand, Marilyn Young had decided to accompany Myra on her trip to Sarajevo. (Now that I think about it, I never asked why she decided to come; I tend not to ask questions when I think the answer is obvious.) Given that our third speaker for this final panel had cancelled, earlier that very morning I’d asked Professor Young if she might consider joining the group as a respondant. Marilyn, being Marilyn, accepted—without a second thought.

Sometimes you just get lucky. Lorini’s talk was long but ended with a fascinating story: the trip in 1900 of a contingent of nearly 1300 Cuban teachers to Harvard, sponsored by the Harvard alum and Cuban Superintendent of School, Alexis Frye, in a program endorsed by Cuba’s Military Governor, Leonard Wood. The latter believed that the trip would convince the group that Cuba should become part of the US; instead, as Frye perhaps intended, they learned about the virtues of independence. Lorini ended by citing Frye’s marriage proposal-by-telegram to one of the Cuban teachers, “I know that you are an anti-annexationist, but I would like to annex just a little part of the island.” The lady, María Teresa Arabuena, replied, “I cannot accept annexation, but I would be happy to accept a protectorate.”

Jon Western, who had recently visited Sarajevo and Mostar as part of our grant program’s lecture series, began by thanking the students for their engaged, critical response to his previous talks, which had in part inspired the paper he was about to present. That essay outlined four principal American responses to anti-Americanism; Western said most about the first two, which he saw as dominant. The most common reactions from Americans to anti-Americanism, he argued, are indifference and disdain. On the first, he elaborated: “Americans just don’t care about anti-Americanisms. And they don’t care because American power is overwhelming. . . The idea embedded here is that American power ultimately begets respect, in part because American power is used—in this conception—for a positive purpose, to change the world.” In some cases, however, indifference gets trumped by disdain. Western commented: “It’s not just that they’re indifferent to anti-Americanism, they really think that those who express anti-American views should be punished.”

As an explanation for such responses, Western emphasized how the views of US citizens on their home country differ enormously from those held by the rest of the world, and how deeply these American views are entrenched in a national narrative where the United States is seen as a “land of opportunity,” a “reluctant power,” a country that invariably follows the “self-executing principles of market capitalism and democracy.” When it comes to countries, he noted, self-conceptions also frame interpretations of foreign policy. “As Americans look at anti-Americanism, and they look at what America is, they see a profound sense of pride in American purpose, and [they believe that], to the extent that America projects its power abroad, it is doing so premised on essentially the same conceptions as its own historical development.”

“Parenthetically,” Western commented, “Bosnia was used as a case by many who advocated the war in Iraq—as an example of what American power can accomplish. Between 1993 and 1995, Bosnia was described by Secretary [of State] Warren Christopher as the “problem from hell,” a problem that nobody could effectively confront [. . . .] When America assumed its leadership, and used military force, the problem from hell was resolved. And so why can’t we replicate Bosnia elsewhere?” Such was the argument at the time, apparently. By 2007, when the conference was held, it looked rather different. Especially in Bosnia.

Not surprisingly, Marilyn Young’s response focused primarily on the paper given by Jon Western. “You gave a wonderful summary of the national narrative,” she noted, before turning to her own area of expertise, and to the potential fissures in this ideological fortress. She continued, “The national narrative got really shaken by Vietnam. And for about a minute and a half, it looked like that national narrative, that metanarrative, could be taken apart, stomped into the ground, and no one would ever have to deal with it again. Instead of that, it gets resurrected. And it gets resurrected as a product of tremendous effort. It’s not something that Americans sort of generate, like sweat, it’s encouraged, it’s mobilized, and not all Americans, of course, buy it, at all. It is heavily sold, not everybody buys.”

In my opening remarks, I’d also quoted Zvonimir Radeljković, Sarajevo’s senior specialist on American history and culture. Professor Radeljković had expressed the goals for an American Studies Program in his country as follows, “As much as humanly possible, we would like not to teach ideology, but rather facts. In other words, we do not want to affirm or deny anything, we do not want to judge—we want to discuss, and if possible, to understand.” For this to be possible, it stands to reason, one needs to stand and reason outside the sway of ideology, rather than simply reflect, expound, or propagate it. You need to see the fissures as well as the fortress. 

For me, though, the highlight of Young’s response to Western’s talk addressed a different point, loosening the soil around the foundation of his study; it did so by returning to the topic I’d introduced on day one. To wit, Marilyn noted how truly odd it is, “[t]his business of how Americans expect to be loved.” She continued:

“I don’t think there’s another country in the world that goes around saying things like, ‘They love us!’ or ‘Why do they hate us?’ I mean, you can’t imagine a French person or an Englishman walking into a country expecting to be loved, as an Englishman, or a Frenchman. It’s ludicrous. . . . Not that long after the war, people would come back from Vietnam and say, ‘Wow, can you imagine? They love us! Well, no, they don’t. They flatter you, that’s something else. So the expectation of being loved, and the notion that, when people have other reactions, it’s about hate, rather than about policy and any number of other things.”

It was at that moment, I think, or thereabouts, that Edina Karahasanović, a student who had done nearly all the heavy lifting in organizing this conference, leaned over to my chair and said, about including Marilyn, “This was a really good idea.” I couldn’t agree more. Yet I also can’t imagine, given the current climate in Washington, that any program remotely like ours will be funded again anytime soon.

In signing up on our Twitter feed, no doubt POTUS wished to intimidate; just a quick ping to say, Hey there, we’re watching ☺! So I figure it’s my turn to say hey back, to salute the life and the work of Marilyn Young, and to pledge that this magazine will continue the work she spent her life on. One day, who knows, we just might win this country back. For that to happen, though, we’ll need a change at the White House. We’ll have to elect someone who understands the first thing about love.


Jim Hicks is Executive Editor of the Massachusetts Review