Tag Archives: America

Marx sets the boundaries

I would say that 99% of the time, in the various sort of mentions of Marx, the implication is that this is a critique of the United States. In fact, I will argue that one of the reasons that Marx continues to be received in the United States, read in the United States, and an important what I call ‘alter ego’ in American political culture, is precisely for that reason. If you want to be critical of the United States it is a good source to turn to. But there have been really important theorists such as Marshall Berman who wrote this book called All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, in which he argues that Marx is this theorist of modernity and that American culture is as modern as it gets and so the two can be sort of read together. Berman was a Marxist so he was obviously critical of capitalism and American capitalism, but he is not seeing the two as antithetical. I am trying to think through where I stand relative to that, and it really is hard to think about an American identity that would embrace or incorporate Marx, and I think one of the reasons that Marx is important is that he sets the boundaries of what it means to be an American. There have been intellectuals throughout American history since Marx began to be received in the United States who have wanted to argue for an American Marx, but I think that is a pretty difficult proposition.

–Andrew Hartman, Marx in the United States: An Interview

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“Maybe for you, but not for the country.”

I think Black Lives Matter is, in the larger pattern of history, where Occupy energies went and what that Occupy moment gave way to. And Occupy understood itself as a re-manifestation and derivative of the Arab Spring. Each new formation does what a predecessor couldn’t do, didn’t know to do. It shifts to completely new populations and causes — but it preserves the continuity of a Movement. Occupy was beaten by police, both literally and figuratively, even though police had no real stake in its concerns; and maybe it was defeated too by a white bourgeois ethos. Black Lives Matter does what Occupy couldn’t, or wouldn’t; and it invites people into the Movement in a larger way, while pursuing its own necessary ends. I don’t know about the mood of the young people I see as a whole, but my mood is pretty optimistic, and optimistic in their presence above all. There are always new people coming into the world, and that means the possibility that they’ll see how this world is not the way it could be. Not the way it should be, to be worthy of them. I think this happens to be a singularly good time. Every time I read another headline, “Is the Country Coming Apart?,” I think, Maybe for you, but not for the country.

As for my students and the young, I sometimes do think they believe too much of what they hear without really pressing on it or sitting on it for a while. How could they not believe too much? It is very difficult to distinguish a true from a false authority. And you’ve been told so many things. I think you have to take it slow, and keep checking yourself. In the book, I mark a difference at one point between extraordinary revolt and ordinary defiance. It’s the latter which I think we are most in need of, and it’s within reach.

–Mark Greif interviewed by Greg Gerke, True and False Authorities


Three categories: American and Muslim and normal

While these clips may be designed to give Muslims a face and voice, they do so in a way that can undermine their aim.The videos include few traditional or conservative Muslims whose dress, accents, or descriptors are far from the norm. The implication that these Muslims are “normal” by American standards allows little space for Muslims who are not “normal”—even if that just means they don’t like Christmas movies. The Americanness of Muslims should not be predicated on their ability to blend in.

One of several response videos, which itself went viral, specifically critiques the mollifying aspect of these videos, preferring to assert political differences many Muslims may have. One participant sums up the response well: “I’m Muslim, but I don’t need to prove my loyalty to you or anyone else.”

That seems to be the fate of all Muslims’ efforts to blend in: rejection. These efforts can only bring exhaustion, along with the loss of distinctive elements of Muslim culture. Only by organizing politically, asserting themselves in the most American way of all, can they hope to make their true voice heard and eventually ensure their relative safety. They should not be afraid of displaying their customs, views, or practices that may appear different.

Muslims should not shy away from the fact that their religion is different from the norm of their supposedly secular country. Rather, they must demand that their country accepts them as they are, for all the contributions they make, even if that means failing to look, sound, and act like what America has deemed “normal”.

–Nafisa Eltahir, Muslim Americans Should Reject Respectability Politics


“Liberal society, not just America, relies on a kind of citizen that it doesn’t produce.”

YL: You can’t have a free society without people who are responsible. How do you make people responsible? The liberal society by itself doesn’t do that. It does it by making room for institutions to do it, and they’re not liberal. The family is not a liberal institution. The church and synagogue, I would say: they’re not liberal institutions. They’re just not. They’ve modernized in ways that make them compatible with the liberal society, but ultimately . . .

JS: I totally agree. But it might be helpful to clarify: What do we mean when we say they’re not liberal institutions?

YL: They don’t think that choice is the very essence of legitimacy. They draw their legitimacy from a prior commitment that is understood to be above choice and true whether we like it or not. That’s just not how we think about most free institutions. We obey the law because we’ve consented to the system that’s created it. At some level we have a lot of choice. I don’t think we obey God for that reason. It’s just not how we think about it.

–Yuval Levin in conversation with James K. A. Smith, Openings in Our Fractured Republic


Environmental imaginations: providential, utilitarian, ecologial

The important category in After Nature is one Purdy borrows from Lawrence Buell: “environmental imagination.” The environmental imagination is the “everyday metaphysics” (7), all the beliefs and essential metaphors with which any people perceive, account for, and in turn, shape their natural environment. Historically, Purdy argues, Americans have moved through three modes of imagining their environment. First was the “providential.” The New World was a chaotic waste which God intended its Old World immigrants to shape into a garden. This way of thinking predominated through the end of the nineteenth century, when industrialism and a growing population presented social and environmental problems of vastly greater scale. An emerging “utilitarian imagination” largely replaced the providential. According to the utilitarian perspective, natural resources could be managed by the procedures of rational science. This was part of Progressives’ re-thinking of the American project, “a technocratic approach to social and economic life that turned political questions into scientific ones” (179).

After World War II, and especially beginning in the 1960s, the “ecological imagination” began to take hold, aided by the rise of the holistic science of ecology, the recognition of an interconnected web of life, and a persistent discontentedness with the failures of modernity, which included the plain facts of environmental deterioration. This third mode proved a watershed. The early seventies saw a brief consensus during which laws were passed to clean up the air and water. Despite some successes, however, bad news about the environment continued to mount. The so-called culture wars that followed can be explained as a conflict between “constituencies of the new ecological laws and those that remained invested in earlier American approaches to the natural world” (213). This is a way to organize thinking about the last forty years of American history that recognizes the importance of an environmental turn. Although Purdy is not so explicit, a reader can readily identify in those “constituencies” still devoted to the providential and utilitarian modes of imagination the Christian fundamentalist and neo-liberal branches of the American right.

–Robert Greene II,  A Case for the Artifice of Politics: Jedediah Purdy’s After Nature


Unified, lawful, intelligent

It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?–Never! Towering genius distains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.–It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.

Distinction will be his paramount object, and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm; yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.

—Abraham Lincoln, The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions: Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. January 27, 1838.


Courageous people doing awful things

“In militaristic societies like the United States, it is almost axiomatic that our enemies must be cowards—especially if the enemy can be labeled a “terrorist” (i.e., someone accused of wishing to create fear in us, to turn us, of all people, into cowards). It is then necessary to ritually turn matters around and insist that no, it is they who are actually fearful. All attacks on U.S. citizens are by definition “cowardly attacks.” The second George Bush was referring to the 9/11 attacks as “cowardly acts” the very next morning. On the face of it, this is odd. After all, there’s no lack of bad things one can find to say about Mohammed Atta and his confederates—take your pick, really—but surely “coward” isn’t one of them. Blowing up a wedding party using an unmanned drone might be considered an act of cowardice. Personally flying an airplane into a skyscraper takes guts. Nevertheless, the idea that one can be courageous in a bad cause seems to somehow fall outside the domain of acceptable public discourse, despite the fact that much of what passes for world history consists of endless accounts of courageous people doing awful things.”

David Graeber, “The Bully’s Pulpit”