Down These Mean Streets I

thomas_mean-streets2The story Piri Thomas tells in his memoir Down These Mean Streets is a story of cultural and ethnic confusion. Thomas, the US-born dark-skinned son of Puerto Rican immigrants, grows up in a multicultural and multilingual Harlem marked by “the roar of multicolored kids, a street blend of Spanish and English with a strong tone of Negro American” (121). Everyone lives cheek-by-jowl, and yet the streets are also carved up into jealously-guarded territorial units. The family moves three blocks, from 111th to 114th Street, and they find themselves on “Italian turf” (24). Immediately picked on by the local gang of Italian kids, Piri wins their respect by obeying a cross-cultural code of omertà and not squealing on them when things go too far and a fight ends up with him half-blinded and in hospital. He has passed a rite of passage, and it turns out that “Italianos wouldn’t be so bad if they spoke Spanish” (39).

However “mean” these Manhattan streets are, they are infinitely preferable to the Long Island suburbs to which the family move later: “a foreign country [that . . .] looked so pretty and clean but it spoke a language you couldn’t dig. The paddy [white] boys talked about things you couldn’t dig [. . .]. No matter how much you busted your hump trying to be one of them, you’d never belong, they wouldn’t let you” (88). The mixture and confusion of the city might be violent and dangerous, but it is better than the cloying hypocrisy of the suburbs, where a girl at a dance treats Piri politely enough to his face, only for him immediately afterwards to overhear her telling her friends: “Imagine the nerve of that black thing” (85). If in Long Island he is repeatedly put back in his place, in Harlem he feels that place might still be somehow up for grabs.

Struggling to stake out his role in a context defined by poverty and social antagonism (in which the disadvantaged are constantly at each others’ throats), Thomas has to resolve the contradiction that he is seen as black even though his family, and particularly his similarly dark-skinned father, insist that as Puerto Ricans they have more in common with whites, that they are perhaps half-white or almost white. His father even accentuates his Puerto Rican accent if it will help distance him from the stigma of blackness. Yet as Piri points out, the dominant white culture tries to maintain an image of purity and inviolability: “Poppa, they don’t care how you feel inside. They don’t care if you look white. No mix, no mingling–for Christ’s sake, even your shit gotta be practically white!” (150). Lambasting him for his self-denial, Piri tries to instill in his father some notion of black pride: “You gonna have to wake up to the fact that you ain’t white, but that’s all right, Poppa, that’s all right. There’s pride galore in being a Negro, Poppa” (151). It is not yet clear, however, that Piri himself quite believes this.

Still confused or torn between different possible identities or identifications, Piri decides to head south, as though he could gain some kind of clarity the other side of the Mason/Dixon line. As he explains to his friend, Brew, an African American who has moved north: “It might just set me straight on a lotta things. Maybe I can stop being confused and come in on a right stick” (127). Brew reluctantly agrees to accompany him, “but only on the condition you cool your role” (128). Yet the heat or passion that Piri feels seems to come precisely from the fact that he does not yet feel he has a “role.”

Nor does the first stop on the journey south enlighten him much; if anything, it just adds to the confusion. In Norfolk, Virginia, waiting for a ship to take them down the coast, Piri and Brew meet a man, working as a waiter, who is almost Piri’s mirror image or distorted double. For this Gerald Andrew West is also a northerner who is seeking some kind of clarity in the south, in his case expecting to discover “the warmth and harmony of the southern Negro, their wonderful capacity for laughter and strength [. . .] the richness of their poverty” (170). Moreover, Gerald, too, has constructed this romanticized image of blackness from a position of marginality and mixture: he is not exactly white, although, “tan-colored” he is “not really very negroid-looking” (170). Yet he is much more certain of his own identity, arguing that this should be a matter of choice and affective affiliation: “I have the right to identify with whatever race or nationality approximates my emotional feeling and physical characteristics” (176). As Piri observes, “Gerald had problems something like mine. Except that he was a Negro trying to make Puerto Rican and I was a Puerto Rican trying to make Negro” (177). They are choosing different roots out of a shared confusion.

But in other ways, Gerald’s and Piri’s strategies will turn out to be the same. What is interesting is that, in addition, Gerald defines himself as a potential author: he is “writing a book on the Negro situation” that he hopes will eventually “contribute in some way to the Negro’s cause” (171). For we know, thanks to the evidence of the book we are reading, that Piri, too, though at this stage he does not know it, will end up a writer. And though, half-way through the memoir, it is still unclear what kind of resolution he may find for his sense of confusion, we do know that it will take the form of the text that we are holding in our hands.

American Dirt II

american-dirtThe recent and ongoing controversy over Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt concerns the politics of literary representation and taste, publishing and canonization. Why should a non-Mexican author whose grasp of the detail of Mexican culture is sometimes precarious be rewarded with both financial capital (with a seven-figure advance) and cultural capital from the arbiters of literary value and media prominence (Stephen King, Oprah Winfrey, and so on) for a text that distorts Mexican reality by serving up gringo fantasies of the country’s trauma and pain?

These are important issues, and the critique posed to the book (and more broadly to the media and publishing business) is timely and significant. But amidst all the fuss it seems to have escaped most people’s attention that the novel’s heroine, Lydia Quixano Pérez, is, before she is forced to flee the threat of narco violence, herself a bookseller. Moreover, her relationship with the antagonist, a narco boss named Javier Crespo Fuentes, is structured through their common appreciation for the written word. As such, this is a text that in some ways anticipates some of the criticism it has received, and that outlines its own vision (which may equally be subject to critique) of the role of literature in depicting or mediating social antagonism.

Lydia sells everything. As a bookseller, we are told, she is well aware of the basic tension between what the market wants and literary value. But she tries to maintain some kind of personal integrity (however unseen or invisible) by stocking her store not only with “books she wasn’t crazy about but knew she would sell” (let alone the para-literary ephemera of “notecards, pens, calendars” and so on) but also with “books that she loved” (24). This latter category includes “her best-loved secret treasures, gems that had blown open her mind and changed her life [. . .] that she stocked anyway, not because she expected she’d ever sell them, but simply because it made her happy to know they were there” (25). She sells books, in other words, as though they were any other commodity, but within this mechanism of merchandising she quietly insists on the presence of a stubborn countervailing logic, a sort of silent protest against the market.

In other words, Lydia somewhat quixotically (against her own interests of profitability and commercial success), clings to other measures of literary value and purpose that are not reducible simply to exchange. As the novel explains: “Now and again when a book moved her, when a book opened a previously undiscovered window in her mind and forever altered her perception of the world, she would add it to those secret ranks.” Yet her efforts go unrecognized, unappreciated by a public that cares more for the best-sellers and notecards: “In the ten years she’d been doing this, only twice had Lydia experienced the pleasure of a customer approaching her counter with one of those books in hand, unsolicited” (25). Still, she persists.

There is already enough here of the fantastic: Lydia’s habit is obviously enough a compensatory device that enables and obliquely justifies the work in which she is mainly engaged as a bookseller, which is precisely that of the commodification and trivialization of the aesthetic project. It functions something like ideology, though at no point is Lydia deluded about the quality of the goods that she is mostly purveying. But there are also at least two other fantasies encapsulated here: either that one day there might arrive another reader appreciative or worthy of this other set of texts, this restricted canon; or, implicitly, that a book might turn up that would somehow transcend this divide by both “open[ing] previously undiscovered window[s],” altering our “perception of the world” and selling in quantity to the public at large.

Within the novel, it is that first fantasy that (briefly) comes true. A customer enters Lydia’s shop and picks not one but two of her secret list of non-marketable titles. She is dazzled and seduced by this unheralded event, and invites him to linger or return to discuss the books further, though he immediately warns that “sometimes the experience of reading can be corrupted by too many opinions” (26). Yet the source of the corruption here is elsewhere. We soon learn that this ideally receptive reader, one in a thousand or a million, is the feared capo of the cartel that has recently taken over the city. And it is he, Javier Crespo, who is responsible for the massacre of Lydia’s extended family with which the book opens. So much for the civilizing power of literature!

But is not American Dirt itself, at least as packaged and advertised for our consumption, an instance of the second fantasy, of the best-selling book that might also “open [our] mind and change[ our] life”? Of the book that would combine critical and commercial success as so few other texts have? (It is telling that a later communication between Lydia and Javier comes via the pages of Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, one of the few that might be said to have achieved this same “magical” feat.) Hence the extraordinary blurbs from figures such as Sandra Cisneros: “It’s the great world novel!” Hence the choice to feature it in Oprah’s Book Club. This is a novel that aspires to combine the accessibility and readability of the thriller with the transformative aesthetic power associated (again, however fantastically) with high art.

But hence also the controversy. It is not hard, after all, to puncture such fantasies. If it had aimed for just one or the other goal (either a thriller for the masses or enlightenment for a limited readership), it would not have attracted such attention. But attention it has, and the book’s critics are keen to point to the tension between its success already as a commodity (that million-dollar-plus advance; the forthcoming movie deal) and the high-minded ambitions to which the text implicitly or explicitly aspires (“But then, I thought, If you’re a person who has the capacity to be a bridge, why not be a bridge?” [382]). No wonder Cummins has received such grief. Who does she think she is? Not that some of her justifications or protestations have helped her case much. After all, when it comes to fantasy, it is easier for an author’s characters to be eloquent than for an author to be so.

As for the real value, if any, of American Dirt–not that it is up to the critic to determine this, and such judgments are the least important and most banal of critical interventions–it is surely not that it depicts the “truth” of contemporary Mexico. But how could it? It may, however, reveal something, even despite itself, about the reasons why we might ever imagine that a literary text could or would disclose such truths. Like many other similar texts, it may tell us far more about its readers, and their hopes, fears, and desires, and about the impact that they envisage reading can or should have, for better or for worse, on themselves and the world around them.

But for those contrasting the work of going elsewhere and experiencing otherness with simply reading about such alterity, Javier Crespo already has a warning: “Books are cheaper than traveling, but they’re also more dangerous” (24).

The Squatter and the Don II

ruiz-de-burton_squatterIn the second half of Ruiz de Burton’s novel, almost all the characters find themselves, at one point or another, struck down by some debilitating illness or accident. Mercedes, for instance, collapses as she vainly tries to call back Clarence as he precipitously leaves the Alamar residence under what he feels is a cloud of disgrace: “’Oh my darling is gone,’ said she, and the ground swelled and moved under her feet, and the trees went round in mad circles, and she knew no more” (262). This fainting spell, what is more, leads to a fever and months of bed rest; “I think the parting with Clarence has nearly killed her,” observes family friend, George Mechlin (267). Clarence’s sister, Alice, succumbs at the same time, running up a “high fever” and becoming “delirious” while “calling for Clarence most piteously” (271). Then George is shot and injured by the squatter, Mathews. Don Mariano contracts pneumonia (“followed by a lung fever” [294]) after being caught in a snowstorm while herding his cattle, bought by Clarence, towards Clarence’s mines. The same snowstorm leaves Victoriano, Mariano’s son and so also Mercedes’s sister, with a “strange malady” (294) that apparently weakens his extremities and makes him unsteady on his feet. Both father and son continue to be affected for the next year or so: in Victoriano’s case, “every two or three months he had attacks more or less serious of the same lameness which deprived him of the use of his limbs” (300). At the same time, William Darrell (the squatter and Clarence’s father) is equally incapacitated, in the wake of the confrontation with the Alamars that provoked all this disruption in the first place: he has bruises that only get worse; he can “scarcely walk”; and he has “a fever to intensify his pains” (277). Not to be undone (though unaware of the sickness and incapacitation that he has left behind), Clarence himself soon succumbs to something or other, exacerbated by the heat of Arizona where he is inspecting his mines, and ends up “with a raging fever that seemed to be drying the very fountain of his young life” (278).

It is no wonder, then, that when Mercedes’s (and Victoriano’s) brother Gabriel is down on his luck in San Francisco, his wife, Lizzie, who is also George’s sister, hesitates before relaying the news to those back home in Southern California “for it was a noted fact, well recognized by the two families, that misfortunes made them all more or less physically ill” (339). But she can no longer keep quiet when, forced into the menial labor of a hod-carrier by financial desperation, George then slips and falls while working on the construction site of a Nob Hill mansion. As an entire social order once anchored by the Californios’ possession of land now disintegrates, the disaster is registered on the bodies of those affected. It is as though, if the plight of the Alamar family and by extension all other Hispanic Americans cannot find words (for, as Mariano observes early on, “the conquered have always but a weak voice, which nobody hears” [17]), it must still find expression, physically and affectively if necessary.

The problem is that not everyone is equally moved, not everyone’s bodies are sufficiently sensitive to register the affective impact of the Californios’ slow-motion dispossession. On the one hand, the families of squatter and Don alike show themselves attuned corporeally to their surroundings. This is demonstrated most often in blushes and tears; there is more blush in this book than in your average make-up store, and there are tears enough to fill a good-sized swimming pool. It is Mary, Clarence’s mother, who opens the blushing in Chapter I (11). Then Mercedes, when she first meets Clarence (“Her face was suffused with burning blushes” [54]), who is affected in turn (“her blushes being immediately reflected on Clarence’s forehead” [56]) and soon “blushe[s] redder yet” (56). Indeed, blushing tends to be contagious: Mercedes, for instance, “could never see any one blush without doing the very same thing herself” (135). And so when her would-be suitors from the East Coast blush–and they do, of course–so does she. But again, even if she is the most prodigious of blushers she is hardly alone: later it is “Doña Josefa’s turn to blush” (152); likewise, both Lizzie and Gabriel (340). Tears, on the other hand, are regularly and copiously drawn from Mercedes and Clarence (with Mercedes’s “lovely face often bathed in tears” [242] such that Clarence even fears “she would make herself ill with weeping” [359]), but also Mercedes’s sister, Elvira (90, 286, 343), Doña Josefa (341), Mrs Mechlin and her daughter (Lizzie’s sister), Caroline (343), Lizzie herself (354), and at one point the entire Alamar family (336). Even Mr Darrell both blushes (198, 283) and weeps (345, 358), a sign that he is not all bad. Indeed, the fact that both squatter and Don can be moved is what distinguishes them, and ultimately cancels out their antagonism, in the face of the pernicious lawyers (the worst of whom, Roper, is repeatedly described as “unblushing”) on the one hand, and monopoly capital on the other. For the “mighty monopoly” of the railroad represented by Leyland Stanford and others is by contrast a “soulless, heartless, shameless monster” that has “no heart for human pity, no face for manly blush” (314).

In the end (as Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita also note), the opposition between squatter and Don fades as they are both portrayed as suffering, sensitive victims of a corporate capitalism that shows neither qualms (at bribery and corruption, for instance) nor sympathy of any kind. What happened to the Californios, Ruiz de Burton is arguing, will also happen to the Californians as a whole unless they can make common cause and find some “Redeemer” (375). But we end the novel with no great hope that this will happen any time soon. The sickness can only spread.

The Squatter and the Don I

The title page of María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s first novel, Who Would Have Thought It? (1872), omits mention of any author, though Rosaura Sánchez and Beatriz Pita tell us that in the Library of Congress it is listed under Ruiz de Burton’s married name, “H. S. Burton” or “Mrs Henry S. Burton.” No doubt there are good reasons why the first Mexican-American novelist to publish in English–a woman, what is more–should wish to be coy about her identity, not least (Sánchez and Pita point out) because “the novel is a bitingly satirical novel, a caustic parody of the United States during the period of the Civil War” (12). It may have seemed wise to hide behind the protection of anonymity, or at least to stress the author’s association with her husband Burton, an officer in the US Army who had led a detachment of volunteers during the Mexican-American War, and later served as commander of the military garrison at San Diego, just north of the new border drawn between the USA and Mexico in the war’s aftermath.

ruiz-de-burton_squatterThirteen years later, for her second novel, The Squatter and the Don, Ruiz de Burton employs a pseudonym that both occludes and hints at her identity: the book was published, in San Francisco, under the name “C Loyal.” As Sánchez and Pita explain, “The ‘C.’ stood for Ciudadano or ‘Citizen,’ and ‘Loyal’ for Leal, i.e. Ciudadano Leal, a ‘Loyal Citizen,” a common letter-closing practice used in official government correspondence in Mexico during the nineteenth century” (13). So here, while the author’s gender is hidden (or left ambiguous), the fact that the initial “C” stands in for a Spanish word, and that the phrase as a whole alludes to a Mexican practice, suggests–at least to the reader already somewhat in the know–that the author may not be so straightforwardedly an American citizen. Indeed, for all the protestations of loyalty, the hybrid formulation, half-English and half-Spanish, is perhaps better read as a double betrayal, or at least as indicating a position that straddles the line that newly demarcated the divide between Mexico and the swathes of territory (including all of what is now California) that, under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, it ceded to the United States.

The Squatter and the Don is all about the consequences of that treaty, and the ways in which (in Ruiz de Burton’s view) the USA subsequently reneged on the guarantees it gave to the former Mexican citizens who stayed put while the border crossed them. Specifically, the novel is concerned with the property rights of the Californio landowners, represented here by the “Don” of the title, one Don Mariano Alamar, who has a large ranch outside of San Diego. The problem is (as Ruiz de Burton details at length) that post-war legislation determined that all existent property claims in California should be subject to lengthy legal investigation. While this investigation (and any appeals that it might generate) is under way, other potential claimants are permitted to establish themselves on the land, marking out their own territory, building a house and ploughing fields etc. These squatters (who may well see themselves as legitimate “settlers,” simply carrying out the US state’s expansionist drive) wreak havoc on the economy of the ranches they take over, legally corralling or illegally but with impunity killing any of the ranchers’ cattle that are drawn to their growing crops. As the legal limbo drags on, even if they ultimately are able to prove their rights, the original landowners gradually lose the basis of their livelihood while they hemorrhage funds on taxes and legal fees. This is the fate facing Don Mariano, who when the novel opens has still, almost quarter of a century after the signing of the treaty that supposedly guaranteed his rights, not finally established definitive legal proof of the status of the property on which his family has been living since long before the border moved south.

By the novel’s midpoint, Don Mariano’s legal suit is finally (it seems) at an end. But there is no guarantee that the gang of squatters who have taken residence on his land will be in any mood to respect the judgment. Meanwhile, a new figure has entered the scene and increasingly taken center-stage: one of the squatters’ sons, a Mr Clarence Darrell, has fallen for and become engaged to one of Mariano’s daughters, Mercedes. Moreover, unlike his father (and the other squatters), Darrell not only is prepared to socialize and even inter-marry with the Californios, he also indicates that in any case there are other ways to make money than either ranching or small-holding. He has invested in mining, and now is minded to found a bank in San Diego, to take advantage of the economic activity that will arise when the railroad arrives and an East-West axis replaces North-South tensions. He suggests, in short, that the semi-feudal ways of a Don such as Mariano are inevitably doomed, not simply because of unjust laws or avaricious carpet-baggers, but because of the industrial modernization that is always the ace in the United States’s hand. In the meantime, or for the time being, Ruiz de Burton’s novelistic sympathies are interestingly balanced between the virtues of “Spano-American” tradition and manners, and the generative possibilities of honest entrepreneurship incarnated in Clarence, a fantasy of the American Dream if ever there was one.

The Politics of Rage

politics_of_rage

Searching for a precedent for Donald Trump’s surprising success in last year’s US presidential primaries, many people looked back almost fifty years to George Wallace. Writing for the Daily Beast, for instance, Laurence Leamer called Trump Wallace’s ”cynical heir”.

Who was Wallace? He was the die-hard segregationist Governor of Alabama at the height of the civil rights movement. (It was he who oversaw the infamous incident of state troopers beating up marchers who were trying to cross a bridge at Selma in 1965.) Disparaged as a holdover from a Jim Crow South in full retreat, Wallace came to national attention and caused consternation to Republicans and Democrats alike when, running as a third-party candidate, he managed to win six states (and 46 electoral votes) in the 1968 Presidential Election. More unexpectedly still, Wallace also proved able to win support outside his regional base: running as a Democrat in 1972, he won primaries in Florida and Michigan, as well as Tennessee, North Carolina, and Maryland. He did this in part, like Trump, by casting himself as a straight-talking outsider fed up with the impositions of an unrepresentative Washington elite. Or in Jamelle Bouie’s words, “Wallace harnessed the fear and anger of millions of Americans with a pledge, in a sense, to take back their country.” His success, Bouie continues, came by “appealing to his followers in a base, almost visceral way.” Bouie cites Dan Carter’s biography of Wallace, The Politics of Rage, and his observation that the Alabamian appropriated his audiences’ affect, “probing [their] deepest fears and passions and articulating those emotions in a language and style they could understand.”

However attractive they may be, the comparisons between Trump and Wallace seem to have dried up, perhaps because of the one important difference between the two: Leamer and Bouie wrote assuming that, like Wallace, Trump ultimately had no chance; how wrong they (and we all) were. So where Wallace’s significance ultimately lies in the reactions that he coaxed out of others as (in Carter’s words) “the most influential loser in twentieth-century American politics” (474), now that Trump has actually won the presidency he much more directly has the chance to set the political agenda.

Moreover, where Trump famously has no real experience in politics, Wallace had little to none outside of it. As Carter notes, from his teenage years onwards Wallace had few if any other interests: of his time as an undergraduate he tells us that “in later life [Wallace] never mentioned one book, one course, or one professor who had shaped his intellectual development at the university. What he could remember was the precise vote on each of the half-dozen student offices he had sought” (49). Carter also makes it clear that Wallace forever effectively abandoned his wife and family for the chance to hobnob with fellow politicos or embark on yet another campaign. And when he himself was banned (by the state constitution) from running for a second successive term as governor, rather than quietly tend his garden he pushed his wife, Lurleen, into the spotlight to stand as a surrogate in his name: at what were nominally her campaign events, she would read the briefest of speeches before “the crowd roared as George Wallace bounced across the state, gave his wife a quick hug as she retreated to her seat, and launched into a fifty-minute” peroration of his own (282). He had to keep running, keep playing the political game. What’s more, “on the few occasions,” Carter tells us, “when he sat around the dinner table” with his children, he would tell them that “the only thing that counts [. . .] is money and power.” But Wallace himself, whatever the corruption of those around him, “never cared about money” (323). Power was everything.

As a result, though, politics as we usually understand it tended to fade away. For instance, Wallace had very little interest in actual governance: Carter’s conclusion is that for all the iron grip he had over state politics for so long, ultimately Wallace’s impact was minimal; he never really implemented any of his much-heralded programs for his white working-class and lower-middle class base. If anything his “one clear accomplishment,” we are told, came only during his last term in office, in the mid-1980s, when he “promised black supporters that they would be an integral of his administration, and he lived up to that pledge, appointing African-Americans to all levels of state government” (465). Indeed, in the long run the attention that Wallace had paid to national politics and his presidential ambitions over the previous fifteen years had made him something of an absentee landlord in his home state: Alabama continued to languish near the bottom of the rankings for education, public health, job growth, and per capita income. Wallace liked power, but he didn’t want to do much with it.

What is more, Wallace was barely interested in ideology–which perhaps makes his apparent apostasy from trenchant segregationist to penitent integrationist at the end of his life less of a shock. For instance, a Washington Poster reporter covering his 1968 campaign was surprised to find an “innocent–almost totally non-political–atmosphere” in the candidate’s entourage (340). He had little interest in intellectual expertise or prolonged discussion; he argued that experts had got the country into its current pickle in the first place and suggested instead that “maybe a fellow just ought to advise himself from the seat of his pants” (425). Not that this put anyone much off. Indeed, it was all part of his appeal: as Carter notes, “his rise to national prominence coincided with a growing loss of faith in the federal government” (472), and one might add in all governments as a whole. He could, then, like Trump portray himself as an outsider because what he offered was not politics as usual; in fact, it was not politics at all.

What Wallace offered instead, Carter tells us, was something closer to faith than rational conviction or considered calculation. His campaign rallies were “more like a revival than a political appearance,” observed the Associated Press during his 1972 run for office, featuring among other things a “foot-stomping rendition of ‘Give Me That Old Time Religion’” (424). But Carter adds that a Wallace speech mixed as much of the profane with the sacred. Above all, he gave his supporters a performance that touched their very soul as he (in words also quoted by Bouie) “prob[ed] his audiences’ deepest fears and passions and articulat[ed] those emotions in a language and style they could understand.” But perhaps to say he “articulat[ed]” these affects is to overstate the case, in that “on paper his speeches were stunningly disconnected, at times incoherent, and always repetitious. But Wallace’s followers reveled in the performance; they never tired of hearing the same lines again and again” (346). He was as much a rock star–perhaps better, country music star–as a priest: “the energy flowed back and forth between Wallace and his audience in a performance molding rage, laughter, and sheer sexual energy into an emotional catharsis” (346).

What’s less clear, then, is whether Wallace was really a harbinger of the future (as the comparisons with Trump suggest) or a throwback to the past. On this point, Carter equivocates. His book’s overall thesis is, after all, that Wallace’s surprising success on the national stage led to Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” the transformation of the Democratic Party, Reagan’s populist appeal to the disaffected working class, and ultimately (by extension) to what we see now with Trump: he was “the alchemist of the new social conservatism as he compounded racial fear, anticommunism, cultural nostalgia, and traditional right-wing economics into a movement that laid the foundation for the conservative counterrevolution” (12). But equally Carter’s documentation of Wallace’s failures tells another story: that the Alabamian hitched his wagon to a social sector in deep long-term decline; that he was Dixie’s last hurrah; that he was indeed the end of the line for a style of politics that depended on barn-storming rallies and the cultivation of extensive personal contacts.

Interestingly, how you answer this question of whether Wallace incarnated an emergent or a residual force in American culture depends in large part in how you assess the role of television in his political trajectory. On the one hand it was his surprisingly congenial presence on major network shows such as “Meet the Press” that made him a national figure in the first place; on the other, he was “one of the last grandmasters of the kind of foot-stomping public speaking that characterized American politics, particularly southern politics, in the age before television” (345) and in fact TV was too often his downfall, not least because (as when footage of the brutality at Selma was rushed to broadcast on that same day’s evening news) it demanded forms of transparency that were anathema to his good-old-boys style.

But much the same questions could be asked of Trump. After all, Donald is a reality TV star whose relationship with the medium is at best vexed, if not outright antagonistic, and whose own campaign was very nearly brought down by unguarded comments made when he’d forgotten or not realized that its cameras and microphones were recording. Trump seems not to like television all that much, however much he is apparently addicted to it, which is perhaps why he took the unusual step for a sitting president of holding a campaign-style rally last week in Florida. More broadly, even now many of us find it hard to imagine that the future will be Trump, which is why there is so much talk of impeachment or possible resignation, and therefore associated anxiety about the figures who sit in the president’s penumbra (and could one day take over) such as Mike Pence or Steve Bannon.

It would be nice to think that by looking at history and studying a figure like George Wallace (or whatever other precedent we imagine set the scene for the present) we might get answers to the question of what happens next. Sadly, the worthy goal of “learning from history” is never so simple: the past is always as full of uncertainty as the future.

Occupy

Noam Chomsky is no doubt the most famous left-wing academic in North America–perhaps, in the English-speaking world–and also surely one of the most unusual. For his politics seem, at least at first glance, to have little to do with his academic work. He is, in other words, a “left-wing academic” in a very different way than (say) Eric Hobsbawm, Fredric Jameson, Ernest Mandel, or Howard Zinn, or whoever else may have been claimants to this title over the years. Hobsbawm, for instance, was a historian whose writings on History were infused with and informed his commitment to laying bare the working of Capital and the progress of global class struggle. Chomsky, by contrast, is a Linguist whose academic work has little obvious bearing on his political commitments. He is a left-wing academic in the way in which one might be a left-wing electrician or postal worker. He does his politics on the side. He is, in short, more activist than theorist or researcher.

Chomsky, Occupy

At the same time, there is no doubt that Chomsky benefits from his academic prestige and pedigree. His short book, Occupy, is less a monograph than a collection of speeches and interviews, in which he is frequently addressed as “Professor Chomsky,” with all the dignity and weight that such an appellation confers. At one point, someone even calls him “Sir” (43). So much for the egalitarianism for which Chomsky himself otherwise advocates! Yet to be fair, he is keen to play down any heroic role for himself, and quick to point to other academics (in this book, above all the University of Maryland political economist Gar Alperovitz), whose work he champions and recommends. Indeed, Chomsky would surely be the first to note that there is little particularly original in his contribution to political debate–even his best-known popular book, Manufacturing Consent was co-written by the economic historian and media analyst Edward Herman–and that his role is more as a conduit and synthesizer of the ideas of others. And in this work of relaying and popularizing what others have done, he happily turns to his advantage the renown he has gained as Institute Professor (now Emeritus) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As such it is perhaps unsurprising that, for all his reputation as a radical, Chomsky takes positions that are remarkably pragmatic. He recognizes his own limits, as well as those of the causes he supports. Of the “Occupy” movement, for instance, he has little time for the notion that it is a “precursor to revolution” (58). He argues, instead, that “to have a revolution–a meaningful one–you need a substantial majority of the population who recognize or believe that further reform is not possible within the institutional framework that exists. And there is nothing like that here, not even remotely” (59). And for all his critiques of the established political process, not least what passes for democracy in the USA, let along the party that calls itself “Democratic,” he has hardly insists on ideological purity. Several times, for example, he points approvingly to the Spanish worker-run conglomerate Mondragón, while noting that “of course, it’s part of an international capitalist economy which means that you can argue the ethics of it, since they do things like exploit labour abroad and so on” (166). But it’s clear that Chomsky himself, for now at least, has no interest in “argu[ing] the ethics.” The point is that it’s a step in the right direction.

This surely also explains Chomsky’s celebrated anarchism. More precisely, this is a rejection of Marxism. About Anarchism itself he has very little to say beyond the notion that it “has a very broad back. You can find all kinds of things in the anarchist movements” (64). But fundamentally, and despite being a thinker of systems (if not always in the most effective or interesting ways), and even despite his reiterated emphasis on the centrality of the Labour Movement to any wholesale change, his stress is always less on systematic transformation–on revolution, in other words–than on building connections and improving social relations, if in a piecemeal way. This is what he repeatedly singles out for praise from the Occupy movement: “the bonds and associations being formed” (74). And it’s perhaps no wonder that Chomsky sees this as a welcome change from the stress elsewhere on the potential powers of social media, which he sees as “very superficial” (117). By contrast, “one of the main contributions of Occupy [. . .] was that it brought people together in face-to-face contact. People were actually working together to do something in common, with mutual support, with solidarity, and that’s something that’s pretty much missing in this society” (117).

Ultimately, then, there’s something strangely conservative in this firebrand of the Left. He ends up sounding oddly like someone like Robert Putnam, whose celebrated Bowling Alone was fuelled largely by nostalgia for a postwar heyday of so-called “civil society” in which people were supposedly much more involved in (what were then often highly segregated) religious groups, volunteer organizations, sports leagues, and the like. Chomsky doesn’t have the same affection for the 1950s–for him it was when, with the onset of the Cold War and the growth of the military industrial complex, everything started going downhill–but there is enough similarity between the twin critiques of contemporary atomization and social anomie to give us pause. And so perhaps Chomsky’s linguistic postulates, which propose a “universal grammar” common to all human language, have more relevance to his political stances than one might imagine. Is he not, after all, imagining a world before Babel, before the mythic division of mankind into mutually incomprehensible and uncomprehending language-based groups?

Infinite Jest

David Foser Wallace

David Foster Wallace’s novel, in installments. See also Infinite Test.