The End of Social Movements?

European social movements over the past hundred years have been largely out to change the values of one or more societies. These movements include Communism, Socialism, and Fascism and, more recently the drive to unite Europe into a federation and the counter-movement to reassert various European nationalisms. There are exceptions to this European pattern, such as the suffragette movement and the environmental movement, but the generalization holds. The United States, on the other hand, has over the course of the century from the 1880’s to the 1980’s had its history filled with movements that are interested in the issues that concern one or another particular section of the population, and that may account for the fact that American history is not regarded as a history of ideas while European history is so regarded. American movements for that period included the labor movement, which was out to protect workers; the reaction in the South against Reconstruction, which was out to re-entrench white minority rule; the temperance movement, where women wanted to save their husbands from drink; our own suffragette movement; and more recent movements, like the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement and our own environmental movement. But all that has ended. There has been no significant social movement in this country in nearly forty years, and the question is why that is the case.

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Cultural Moments, Cultural Amnesia

Before going on to discuss the present cultural moment, the Age of Trump, let us get straight the definition of the concept of cultural moment.

A cultural moment is the period of duration of a uniform set of preoccupations, emotions and meanings within a community. It consists of the things that people regularly allude to in their thoughts and their talk regardless of what is happening in their personal or work lives. These topics, feelings and images seem to the people of the community to be inevitable references and so not require people to explain why they are so preoccupied. A war, such as World War II, is a public event which defined a cultural moment that lasted from Pearl Harbor to past V-J Day. There may be overlapping events which are fads of the period, that associated with the moment. For World War II, that included swing music and Bond Drives and rationing. There also can be remainders of previous moments that conflict with the prevailing cultural moment but appear to be as such because they are allusions to alternative moments of public consciousness. Labor conflict, a theme from the Thirties, could not hold its own as a legitimate context of experience during the World War II culture, as John L. Lewis found out when public support for strikes disappeared in the context of war production patriotism.

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First World Colonialism & Cultural Rebellion

We continue to understand colonialism in a nineteenth century way. We imagine it as economically advanced European Countries and the United States exerting economic, military, social and cultural influence over peoples in Latin America and Africa who are intimidated by the rifles and the religion of the dominating country, that applying even to China, which had been in decline, though no one knew how badly until their defeat in the Opium War which opened them up to granting even more foreign concessions. The economically advanced countries could think of themselves as carrying out the White Man’s Burden of bringing civilization to places whose own cultures and economies were backward or had deteriorated to the point that they could no longer be responsible for their own welfare. Ex-colonies are still in the process of getting over the time they were occupied by developing economies that allow for them to be independant and build a culture which produces a literature that looks to themselves rather than, let us say, to English models. But that is not what colonialism meant before the Nineteenth Century. The Low Countries, in the Fifteenth Century, became an appendage of Spain through dynastic inheritance, but when the new government arrived to take over, the Spaniards marvelled at the material wealth of the Lowlanders. Spain might occupy the land but the people did not need Spain’s culture or economic support. The same could be said of that other about to become new nation, the English colonies on the east coast of North America. Let us illustrate that fact and spell out its consequences.

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Catskills Vacations: Cultural Rituals

The men would arrive at the bungalow colony in the Catskills every Friday night to spend the weekends with their families. They would take over the pool, and expect a big dinner, and would entertain one another with stories about how difficult the traffic had been, and whether it would be better to leave late Sunday night or early Monday morning so that they might most easily get back to their jobs in the garment district or the post office.

After dinner, the men congregated on the lawn again and talked candidly, or so it seemed to an eavesdropping teenager, about growing up in the Depression, and the paths not taken. The furrier had trained to be a lawyer; the civil servant took an examination that would settle his life just because some friends were taking it. The wives sat on the arms of the patio chairs in skirts and sweaters listening attentively before going off to put the children to bed. The men would stay up longer, exchanging smutty stories and confidences about their bosses before joining their wives and their sleeping children in the little cottages that surrounded the central lawn.

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Charles Van Doren

Gabe Pressman, then as for a very long time after that a reporter for WNBC-TV, came up to Columbia University in 1959 to interview undergraduates, of which I was one, about Charles Van Doren and the quiz show scandals. Pressman was surprised to see how protective the students were of Van Doren. Pressman said that it was his job to cover the story. It was the opinion of many undergraduates that looking through the window slats at someone's national humiliation was not a moral way to earn a living, much less to further one's career. That episode, I think, suggests why Robert Redford was overly glib in his handling of the Van Dorens in his movie Quiz Show, whose appearance, some twenty years ago, reminded me of events that, until the movie, I had remembered with sadness rather than anger.

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A Nazi Dedication: How hHistory Can Be Normalized

Here is a dystopia that came awfully close to coming true and which shows how history can be normalized by rhetoric and so come to be just the substance of the familiar and the everyday.

Remarks at the Dedication of the Berlin Center for Judaic Studies (1994):        

In the Spring of l950, when the Fuhrer was taken from us, worn down by his years of service to the European peoples, it would have surprised the world that the international system he put in place would still be in place, stronger than ever, half a century later. His dramatic and memorable declaration of l945, "The Channel is deeper than the Atlantic", had allowed the British to accept the bitterness of their inevitable defeat: their armies decimated in Africa; their cities devastated by the Luftwaffe; their population demoralized; and a grand army about to be lifted by the then newly invented jet transports in an invasion by airbridge over the now militarily meaningless Channel. Let the British and their American and Commonwealth allies control the intercontinental oceans, the Fuhrer was saying. They shared a similar bourgeois way of life-- and a similar set of economic problems. The Continent, however, would achieve its rightful unity as the Federal Republic of Europe, a destiny which had eluded it since the collapse of Christendom as a unifying ideal some five hundred years before. Fratricide in Europe was finally over.

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Cab Confessions: Ethnic Ripostes & Making Assumptions

Memorable conversations with cab drivers are an emblematic New York experience available to both tourists and long time residents. A few days ago, I climbed into a cab whose driver began by telling me how crowded with traffic were New York streets because of all the construction of new residential buildings. I demurred that new building was a sign that New York was prosperous, whatever the state of the Great Recession, and the new residents supplied more business for cab drivers such as himself. He said he would prefer less traffic and fewer customers. He said that the city was filthy and stank, which I readily agreed was particularly true in the summer, but a small price to pay for living in this glorious city. He said he was going back to his native Armenia after his thirty years here so that he could live in comparative quiet and calm. I said no one had to live here.


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Art, Entertainment & the Distinction Between

Renee Fleming was singing a second act aria during her well reviewed performance as Manon. A member of the Metropolitan Opera audience yelled "Spectacular!" after the first chorus; there was a brief murmur in the rest of the audience. The same man interjected another "Spectacular!" after the next chorus; the murmur in the audience was intense and unfavorable. Why criticize the man? After all, the stars pause after their arias to receive applause, and thereby break the notion that the audience is overhearing a story rather than present for the performance of a story. The singers also take bows after every act and the intermissions at the Met go on and on, breaking whatever mood might be sustained over a shorter intermission. What the man had done was break the conventions for suspending the performance, that's all, but in theatre, we abide by the conventions, for otherwise we would not know what we were up to.



Opera is a performance in that we have come to hear the singers do their stuff, whatever their material, and to take pleasure from their skill and only secondarily take pleasure from what is signified by the use of their skills, which is the experience and appreciation of the conventionalized sentiments that accompany the plot and the music. Music critics, by and large, accept the hackneyed or contrived plots or the melodramatic emotions so as to concentrate on the spectacle of the singing and the setting, mentioning the acting as an afterthought--this singer also something of an actress. Otherwise, it would not be possible to see these old warhorses--really, chestnuts--over and over again.


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