Cultural Mutation

Cultural mutation is a way to understand what is happening in a number of politically charged issues from race relations to foreign policy even though social scientists do not usually treat culture as something subject to spontaneous or creative change. Culture is usually regarded by anthropologists as the continuing way of life of a people, embracing customs, laws and beliefs, and so very stable and self-perpetuating and arising for unknown reasons, while sociologists emphasize the way culture reinforces the social structure that exists because it is transmitted by institutions that are answerable to the structure, as when television transmits what its advertisers will approve of, social media  a maverick in that there opinions percolate up from the people, and there is an understandable reaction by which government and other institutions of culture, such as the press, want to see the social media controlled so that they do not promulgate unpopular opinions. Culture is also taken to be a bridge or the medium through which change takes place in that culture diffuses innovations across a population, as when it spreads knowledge of vaccination, even though it is not responsible for original ideas. These theories are contrary to the perspective of humanists, which sees culture as the source of new ideas, whether in science, as when Darwin and Newton invent new perspectives because of their own ruminations while building on precedent thinkers, Darwin a mutation on Malthus and Lyell, while Newton was contemplating Copernicus and Galileo-- and vaccination was, after all, invented by a particular doctor in England on the basis of his observation of cows and the lack of smallpox among cow maids. Ingenuity and insight count. The humanist perspective can be applied to current events.

I knew Gov. Ralph Nordham of Virginia was lying at the time of his press conference and not just because he contradicted what he had said just a few hours before, which was that he took responsibility for the photo of him in blackface that had appeared in his medical school yearbook. What clued me in was the inappropriateness of the emotions he was expressing. He said that he had nothing to do with the photo appearing there, it wasn’t him in the photograph, and he apologized for the fact that it was there and asked forgiveness. So what was he asking forgiveness for? If his story were true, then he would have expressed outrage that the photo had been put on his yearbook page without his permission and wanted an apology from the medical school for that having taken place. The issue should of been that he had been besmirched unfairly, not whether he was the person in the picture. Maybe it is just that in parts of Virginia as late as the mid-Eighties the idea of blackface was not yet verboten but survived as a symbol of being transgressive, which is what it had been since Stephen Foster’s time, when minstrel shows made up of white entertainers in blackface performed ditties and patter and dances so as to emulate what was then taken to be the happy, carefree lives of slaves, however contrary that was to the facts, southern slave owners never having done a study to find out if their slaves were happy but just presuming so because it fit into their ideology that slavery was a necessary part of social structure rather than an abomination that had to be extirpated from American life. The slave owners were willing to fight a great civil war rather than give up on that premise.

So when did blackface become not a symbol of emotional liberation but a representation of racial hatred? That was, as best I can figure out, between 1943 and 1945, which is not so very long ago. Prior to and close to that time, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland had all appeared in blackface. And then there was a major change. There were black soldiers marching off to war, as well as a “Harlem” musical number inserted in wartime musicals to indicate that there was a separate but not quite equal culture of Negroes in American society. And then that self same Judy Garland appeared in a non singing role in Vincente Minnelli's 1945 “The Clock” which may be the best depiction I know of concerning just how unsettling it was to live through World War II, not at all presented as a comedy, the way other World War II pictures about life on the homefront made the material easier to handle, as in “The More the Merrier” in 1943 which showed people crowded together in apartments in wartime Washington, but love coming to the rescue. Garland, for her part, is a harried worker in New York who shepherds around a Dennis Morgan so naive and clueless one wonders how he qualified for military service, falls in love with him, and goes through the problems of finding a way to marry him while he is on a weekend pass before separating from him at the same Grand Central Station where she met him two or three days before, she then, as he had at the beginning of the movie, swept up by the crowds. There are a number of military people going through Grand Central, as would be expected with so many people in uniform. Minnelli pauses to give his audience a look at a black soldier and his family tenderly taking part from one another. There is a message there. If you were a soldier, you were a human being, not a symbol of transgressive feeling. Minnelli, through this cultural moment, was portraying a transformation occasioned by the war that made the integration of baseball two years later and of the armed forces four years later all but inevitable. It was in keeping with the sentiments surrounding the 1949 “Lost Boundaries” which showed a black man who had passed as a white doctor in a small town having to face up to his heritage because he is not allowed to take up his commission as a naval officer because of his race. There is something wrong with that. The ability to fight for one’s country, as Japanese Americans also learned, is predicate for becoming recognized as a full scale citizen. “Gentleman’s Agreement”, which lambasts anti-Semitism in 1947, has as its Jewish figure a John Garfield who had been an officer overseas. So the war changed racial relations in America, but it took the push of popular culture to make that understood, which is to say an experience with which white audiences could identify, and so blackface has been bad ever since even if not, as I say, in parts of Virginia well into the Eighties.

Here is an even more significant case, as if that were possible, that is still unfolding and so therefore speculative, about a cultural mutation that is transforming social structure rather than the other way round. That cultural mutation is as a result of what Donald Trump has done to the image of the Presidency. Prior to Trump, the role of the President in foreign policy had been expanding ever since World War II, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. could properly characterize it as “the imperial presidency”. The authority of the President in foreign policy was virtually unbounded. Truman waged a war in Korea that cost 45,000 lives by simply declaring it to be a “police action”. Everyone granted that the President had the authority to unleash nuclear warfare on the Soviet Union on his say-so alone that we were faced with incoming missiles. Attempts to hamper the President by Jacob Javits’ War Powers Resolution simply meant that the President would have to go to Congress only within thirty days after a foreign venture had been initiated if it were not over by that time and that meant, of course, that the facts on the ground would now dictate whether Congress would authorize further action rather than Congressional approval required to authorize prospective action. The deliberately vaguely worded authorization by which Congress legitimized the war on terrorism remains in place some eighteen years later as our leading directive guiding the President, and Congress does not seem in a hurry to provide new authorization, as if that would be required even for the war in Yemen or Syria or parts of Africa where American forces are operating at the behest of the President.

Then comes Trump, who says he will draw down troops from Afghanistan and Syria, and that has to be talked back by even his hawkish Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton. From whom do they take their orders? It seems that the President does not ride very close herd on his appointees unless it catches the attention of Fox News commentators. So the President is out there spinning his own stories, unmoored to either what the intelligence community says or, mostly, to what his high level appointees are doing. The country has never had the experience of having to deal with a President who seemed so out of charge and out of control on foreign policy, not at all given to have a considered even if wrong opinion about the world. Ronald Reagan had George Schultz and George W. Bush had Dick Cheney to run things foreign. Someone was in charge.

And so Republicans are very uneasy about this most un-imperial but very independent minded President and the nation is reliant on his fecklessness, that he is all talk and very little action, though he does seem, of late, to have the courage of his impulses and so would withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan as well as make unspecified deals with the Russians, a clue to which may be the fact that both Trump and Putin have managed to arrange for the destruction of the intermediate missile ban that had been in place since 1987. How do the Republicans respond to a President of their own party who acts in this unprecedented way? First, they pass a resolution through Congress that disapproves of the withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan and then they verbally back what the intelligence agency heads said to Congress about what are the real threats to the United States even if Trump disparages his own agency heads. Obviously, the President outranks his intelligence agencies, as indeed should be the case in that they gravely misinformed the White House about the Bay of Pigs and that they said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq even if they were cajoled into saying that by the Vice President. Now, so conservative a Senator as John Shelby of Alabama feels compelled to say on yesterday’s talk shows that the President should have respect for what his intelligence agencies say.

What could be the consequence of such a profound change in the way the Presidency is perceived, no longer the place where good sense prevails, but rather where it superficiality has to be constrained? I can imagine a Secretary of State or a National Security Advisor relying on a Congressional resolution, even if it does not have the force of law, as the authority upon which to base resisting the President without surrendering their offices unless the President overtly fires them, in which case the Congress might take that as grounds for impeachment, as it did with Andrew Johnson. I can also imagine intelligence agencies freely communicating with their oversight committees in Congress so as to get from Congress the go ahead for one or another operation, and so leaving the President out of the loop. Either way, the Presidency would be diminished in its foreign policy powers, which might be just as well, now that we have entered an age where it is possible for people without any capacity to govern to become elected President, however long that condition might last, Howard Schultz entering into the 2020 Presidential fray even though he, like Trump, has had no previous service in elective office or in the higher ranks of the military. Maybe only serious people will get the nominations of their parties in 2020, but, then again, maybe not, and so a recalibration of the relation of Congress to the Presidency is required in our ever evolving Constitution.