The American Studies Association Goes to Politics

Americans dislike and despise politics and politicians, of course—it’s virtually axiomatic—and yet alongside a generalized disgust with the swampy mash of corruption that “Washington” signifies, it would also be safe to say that when Americans actually talk, think, and do politics, a strange lack of cynicism suddenly sweeps over us. No candidate for high office will admit to being “from Washington”—especially if they want to move there—and the only candidates we will allow to take up the reins of state are those who can convince us they don’t want to do so. Therefore, since “politics” is a dirty word and politicians are dirty people, Washington’s job is to clean up Washington. Sarah Palin and Barack Obama (and every other candidate, if he or she is yours) is different somehow, or can become the vessel of hope and change, precisely to the extent that they can convince you that they are, in fact, different somehow, that they are not from Washington, not political.

They are lying, of course, and they know they are. We know they are. But the fact that politicians are hypocrites—or that we are hypocrites in pretending that we don’t know they are hypocrites—is not news either. It’s a cliche, an obvious point; politics is bullshit, and all the more so when we allow ourselves to pretend we don’t know it to be so, and to pretend that we don’t know we are pretending.

This is the interesting thing. What is it about “politics”—and the people who do it professionally—that produces these sets of nested disconnects?

Part of it, it seems to me, is our desire to produce ourselves as not hypocritical, even while we understand—better than anyone else—exactly where and why and how our own actions do, in fact, come unspooled from the reasons we pretend for them, or rationalize afterwords. Why did you vote for x candidate? voters are asked by exit pollsters, and everyone then pretends that the answers which are given are, in some way, to be trusted. As if anyone’s account of their own motivations is trustworthy! As if we ever really understand ourselves (or would leet ourselves). This part of the campaign is as scripted as every other part; post-facto explanations for why you voted the way you did can only be articulated in the same vocabulary by which you were encouraged to vote in the first place, a recognition of the candidate’s argument (and framing) which won out. Did voters always want “Hope and Change” in 2008, or did they choose it because that was the more appetizing choice on the menu? What might they want if their choices weren’t already laid out for them?

Embracing the choices you were given might be a way to overlook the fact that they weren’t ever your choices, to convince yourself that you are free by overlooking your chains. If you pretend that the menu of democrat or republican really does express the fundamental political questions of the day—rather than eliding them, by taking things like socialized health care (or Not Doing The Forever War) off the menu—then you can overlook the fact that you really do not live in a Democracy, that you neither consented to live under this form of government nor have any particular say in how it is changing. You know that you didn’t and don’t, of course. But this isn’t an easy knowledge to have—like knowing that all of us are going to die, eventually—so it’s a thought we generally don’t entertain, however true we might know it to be.

In this way, we’re all of us unknowing hypocrites, in all sorts of different respects, and “ideology” is a good enough word for the way we protect ourselves from knowing about our own inconsistencies, a knowledge that would impede our ability to enjoy them. See, for example, the press corps that talks a good talk about having an adversarial relationship to power and then has a lovely time at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (or the leftist/progressive who has one set of attitudes towards labor practices, in theory, and a very different practical relationship to actual labor practices in their own workplace). But the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is only one of the most egregious example because we understand the necessity of an non-corrupt media (at least in theory; in practice, we find ways to live with the one we have, and journalists find ways to be it). And calling journalists “hypocrites” is not wrong, it’s just unhelpfully moralistic. Sure they are, and so are you; the interesting question is not who but, rather, how? And why and to what effect?

Understanding how and why it happens, at a systemic level, is a better way to think about avoiding it than making it into a question of character, or of presuming that you would be different, in their place. Maybe you would, but let’s be real: you probably would not. People do and say different things because there are systemic forces pulling them in different directions, and we pretend that we are singular and consistent because we would prefer to pretend otherwise. If you are a journalist, the chances are good that your paycheck needs you to do different things than your idealism would like to do, and there is a deal with the devil that you can deny and disguise, but you can’t avoid it. If you are a tenured professor, your academic freedom derives from an infrastructure that denies it to others, systemically: because your job is safe, the jobs of others are precarious (or vice versa). But “guilt” and “blame” is precisely the wrong way to think about this. You didn’t invent the institutions of journalism or academia or the nation-state or global capitalism; they invented you. It’s only when we identify ourselves with them, whole-heartedly—when we decide that By God! I AM a Journalist/Professor/Democrat (or whatever)—that you trick yourself into believing that you chose this, and that this world came about because you wanted it this way. You know it’s bullshit, but you pretend otherwise. This is what we have to do to get by.

This, I think, is why we all hate “politics.” We’re all hypocrites, and we all compromise with our principles, and while we all do so differently and to different extents, it is generally true that none of us quite have the means of being the person that we’d like to choose to be. It’s just not on the menu, so we do the best with what we can get them to bring to the table. But who wants to look closely at how we cooperate in making that sausage? Who wants to acknowledge that when we vote democrat—because the republicans are worse—we consented, a little bit, to the shit sandwich we’ll then go on to eat? What tenured professor wants to think about the fact that, in becoming tenured, they legally became classified as part of “management”? What journalist wants to admit that they have a job only because their employer’s existence either serves or does not unsettle the broad structure of the status quo?

In projecting our antipathy onto “politics,” in other words, I suspect we are often reflecting a basic and unsettling sense of unease with who we are, particularly because it’s in “politics” that the trade-offs and compromises and hypocrisy of everyday life become unavoidably and explicitly public. After all, politicians are hypocrites and liars because they must represent different constituencies, in the very basic sense that being elected means getting a large and discordant coalition to vote for you, and getting them to overlook, as much as possible, the fact of that necessary two-facedness. Moreover, to be elected, you must defeat and destroy the other candidate, a candidate who (typically) half the electorate prefers… and then after the election, you must pretend that you also represent that other half too. A politician succeeds when people who disagree with each other agree that they are represented by that politician, but it’s a fundamentally unsustainable contradiction. This is always true; the irreconcilable hopes for “change” that were invested in Barack Obama—and subsequently shown to be unsustainable—are only the most obvious recent example of a problem that is basic to representative democracy. Politics is the work of managing disagreement and social conflict, while electioneering is the trick of getting people to think they all agree with you together. And since getting the job and doing the job require two different and contradictory things—getting the job of being a politician requires making people overlook that you are a politician—politics becomes a very particular kind of dirty word.

When the political is warranted by not being political, the best way to politick is to deny your interlocutors the ability to name what you are doing as “politics.” No, no, you can say; This isn’t about “politics,” this is about [a more basic principle that we all hold in common,like Family, Fighting Crime, Respect, Etc.] Others might be doing politics, but *I* am simply following the dictates of [a more basic principle that we all hold in common]. In other words, because I transcend division more than him, *I* should be elected (not him).

This is both the lure of consensus, and its mystifying power. If we can just put aside “politics,” and come together, as Americans, then by the power of tautology, we will have reached consensus, as an American “we.” By expelling the dirty politicians that would seek to divide us, we can remember that we are all united. Of course, doing so only explains away the absence of a mythological animal by positing the existence of another one: You’ve never seen a unicorn before, but that’s not because they don’t exist; it’s because dragons ate them all.

And the fact that you’ve never seen a unicorn proves that dragons are real, doesn’t it!
But there is no American “we,” and there never was, and that’s why “politics” has to seem separate from the rest of American society, has to be expelled from it. If politics is the problem, then maybe “America” isn’t. We avoid noticing that we are not united by imagining into existence the reason that consensus is so hard to reach, and giving it a name: politics.

If Americans are anything, though, we are an absence of consensus. We are the political problem of our own dis-unity. Politics divides us so fundamentally that “politics” must become the name of the problem we all share, our common predicament of being Americans together while manifestly not being Americans together. Which is to say, we have in common nothing but the common problem that we have nothing in common and won’t admit it. I think this is one why of thinking about why our public discourse is so consumed by the desire for consensus, by a concern for its absence, and by a particular outrage at the putative cause of the dissensus that is us.

For that word, and for much of the thinking behind this, I blame the fact that I read Sacvan Bercovitch’s Rites of Assent at an impressionable age. Also, see Janice Radway’s “What’s in a Name? Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, 20 November, 1998”
We are the problem, so “we” becomes the solution.

This is why “politics” is what people who disagree with you are doing, when they try to insist—for their own small, petty, selfish, narcissistic reasons—that they are right and you are wrong. Politics is what you are not doing, by contrast, when you are right, when you transcend your own particular interests—your gender, your race, your class, your whatever—and observe that the facts or the greater good or the underlying principles or common sense or basic ethics (or whatever) compel us all to accept (whatever). The result is that a kind of paper-rock-scissors logic obtains: politics necessarily loses to not-politics, by simple consequence of being named for what it is. “Politics” is the burden of disproof by which you demonstrate that your not-politics are less political than the politics of the person you are arguing with, whose objections/demands/arguments are simply “political.” As “politics” becomes a problem to be solved by being less political—a transcendent not-good, almost categorically self-refuting—it becomes, of necessity, a functionally misleading analytical category. It does not, in practice, illuminate or clarify the matter it purports to describe, but transforms it, de-legitimizing the thing it describes, just by analyzing it as such. To call something “political” de-activates its ability to do the thing it’s setting out to do: politics. If you are doing politics, in other words, I am naming you in two ways: one, I am saying that you are seeking to do politics, and two, because you are seeking to do politics, you are failing at doing politics. For this reason, everyone who is doing politics must say that they are not, because if you say that you are not, you are better able to.


These are all very general terms, because I am really thinking about why the American Studies Association voted to support the academic boycott on Israel, and what we talk about when we are talking about it. The conversation about that issue has mostly been pretty lousy, and a lot of interesting writers and thinkers have written some of their least interesting writing and thinking about it, so I’m trying my best to come at the issue from an oblique enough angle to sidestep some of the many pitfalls. But the confluence of issues that makes the event thorny and interesting is also what lets it rise to the level of general interest: it is about politics, but it is also about academic freedom and about the question of what “America” is.

After all, what is America? Voting is a bizarre civic ritual, because it produces an apparent consensus out of ritual divisiveness, and the ASA election was a great example of how voting actually literalizes and enumerates the fundamentally divided nature of society. We prove that we are one country by precisely calculating how divided we are, and painting the map two different colors to emphasize and demonstrate that difference. This is true of the ASA’s vote: by an overwhelming 66%-30% vote, “the ASA” took a stand on a divisive issue; put differently, it calculated precisely how divided it is on the issue as a way of demonstrating its singularity of mind. It produced an official truth—that the ASA has a single position—by demonstrating and making manifest the fact that 30% of the voting members disagree with that position. And the consequent fall-out of that vote—as everyone who disagrees makes themselves known—would give you the idea that the ASA disagrees quite fundamentally with itself.

This is because it does (just as every presidential election, ever, demonstrates the fundamentally divided nature of the electorate). What, then, is the nature of this “association”? What does it mean to say that “the ASA” has a position which some or many of its members disagree with?

Now, let me quickly interject that most of the university presidents, Zionist organizations, and mainstream media pundits who have commented on this issue are basically uninterested in what the ASA is, or in what its members think. They are willfully ignorant of it, because they don’t care: they care about Israel, or about the right of universities to engage in lucrative partnerships with human right-violating states. By contrast, for people within American Studies—or at least for those who have been paying attention—none of this is really surprising. You have to be willfully ignorant of everything that has happened in American Studies over the last two decades to see this as some strange, out-of-the-blue eruption of “politics” into the normal working of academic society. It’s just that a lot of people are, and would like to remain so.

I’m not going to go into it, too much; if you want to have opinions about a thing, you should probably know something about that thing; if you want to have opinions about the American Studies Association, you should come to terms with the “New American Studies” which began (more or less) in the early nineties—as an insurgent effort to change the discipline—and which became basically mainstream by the 2000’s. But to reduce a very complicated story to a simple one, Amy Kaplan wrote the introduction to Cultures of United States Imperialism in 1993—a Gulf War I-era anti-imperialist book, dedicated to the Vietnam War-era scholarship of people like William Appleman Williams—and ten years later, she was president of the ASA, just as the forever war was was beginning in Iraq. What began as a revisionist effort to change the discipline was, by the 2000’s, pretty mainstream. In one sense, this is a story of American cultural history punctuated by wars, as always—Vietnam, Gulf War, GWOT—but the big story is what happened after the cold war ended. In a suddenly mono-polar world—confusingly characterized either by “globalization” or American hegemony—American Studies started to confront the fact that it no longer made much sense.

This basic fact became unavoidable: “American Studies” was and is an artifact of the cold war, the effort to produce a sense of “American civilization” that could be used to attain cultural hegemony (countering Leftist internationalism) and to assert “America” as another name for freedom and modernity and prosperity, and all the other things that the huddled masses of the world wanted. (e.g.) This project was the context in which it was imagined, and these conditions gave it meaning. It was a more or less explicit project of exporting pro-American propaganda, the functional equivalent of other cold war efforts like the Voice of America and so forth. That’s not to say the scholarship from that era is no good—it’s like saying Dizzy Gillespie is no good because Jazz was used to “prove” that America had no race problem—and the tricky thing about the many cold war journals and institutions that were surreptitiously funded by the state department or the CIA is that they often had no idea where the money was really coming from (and didn’t care). But we do ourselves no favors if we pretend that “American Studies” was ever anything but a nationalist project of pretending that America existed (a self-fulfilling prophecy which produces the object it had to pretend was always there), and of building a narrative about freedom and democracy that could (in its capitalism-friendly internationalism) serve to counter the Soviet internationalism of world revolution.

The absence of this framing context, on the other hand—the confusing lack of ideological struggle which obtained after the fall of the Berlin Wall—cast into sharp relief the strangeness of the endeavor. If the world was globalizing, why study a nation? If the cold war was over, why be shills for the state department? And if the US was a nation that invaded other nations, whose imperial status was not the exception to the rule, but its proof, then maybe the proper work of “American Studies” was to check, study, and contest that imperial will? This was what William Appleman Williams had done, as a cold war outlier; this was what Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease and the rest of the “New American Studies” crew were doing during the first gulf war, and after, and this is what the American Studies Association was doing a few months ago, when they voted to observe a boycott of Israel.

Now, Israel is not the United States. But it also totally is; the “special relationship” is one of the great euphemisms of our time, but there’s a real truth buried within it, which is that Israel and the United States are not as foreign to each other as other nations are. And if there is one choice that is not on any electoral menu in the United States, it’s the choice to treat Israel like it’s just another foreign nation: for all extents and purposes, Israel is part of the American imperium (or the US is part of Israel’s). After all, Israel’s “security” is not a means to an end, when it comes to American foreign policy; the status quo (and the continuing dispossession of Palestinians) literally is an American foreign policy priority, and is pursued aggressively. Which is why, when anti-BDS people demand that the ASA should boycott the USA, if they feel so strongly about it, they are actually making a good argument in favor of the boycott: to detach from Israel would be to boycott a central pillar in the American imperial system.

If you are a Zionist, you can assert (as Larry Summers did) that this is anti-semitic “in effect, if not in intent.” When an organization of Americanists has singled out and expelled—as un-American—the foreign bodies represented by Israel, Zionists will argue the effort to be textbook anti-semitism. I am not a Zionist, and I don’t think that it is. But this is why Zionists have been so confused by what the ASA is doing, and why they are doing it (which sometimes produces a parallel disconnect on the part of pro-BDS speakers). For Zionists, Israel is compulsory: if you are a Jew, you may not care about Israel, but Israel cares about you. And Jews who don’t identify with Israel are a threat to Israel, quite literally: without its ethnic diaspora to give it a meaning, Israel would simply be a nation like every other nation. Except that it would be a nation which aspires to ethnically cleanse a region of geography, and is manifestly doing so, and which maintains separate regimes of law and order for the real citizens of Israel and for the Palestinians, and which literally exists as a function of eliminating the (semitic) non-Israeli peoples who live in the space it calls Israel. Ethically cleansing the land of the foreign and semitic bodies which live there—turning a historically diverse region into a monoculture—is Israel’s reason for existing, and the means by which it does. Zionists often pretend that it isn’t—in precisely the way that Americans pretend the U.S. is a land of immigrants and diversity, and not Anglo-Saxon Manifest Destiny—but you have to make yourself pretty ignorant to do so, quite literally. You have to ignore and un-think a great deal of history, and overlook a great deal that’s happening right now. That stuff in Max Blumenthal’s Goliath, for example, that’s not the real Israel; sure, maybe some of the settlers are crazy and xenophobic zealots—and yeah, there are mobs of racists threatening and harassing Africans (and likening them to cancerous bodies eating away at the state)—and sure, you have substantial portions of the Israeli political establishment arguing that the occupied territories are actual “Judea and Samaria,” destined to be incorporated into Greater Israel, and yes, it’s true that historically a lot of the people that used to live in what is now Israel were violently forced out because they were the wrong ethnic group, and so on and so on, but no true Scotsman that’s not the real Israel, which is a democratic Jewish state that loves diversity, and so on and so on.

Who is expelling Jews from the nation now?

All nations are fictions, and Israel is no exception: Israel is no more a “Jewish Democratic State” than the United States is a multicultural nation of immigrants or whatever we say it is. And when Zionists demand that the ASA bow down to the hobgoblin of a foolish consistency and boycott the USA too, this rhetorical master-stroke demonstrates a kind of myopia. What do they think the ASA has been doing for the last twenty years? And, yet, there is also a legitimate point baked inside of the ideology: if boycotting Israel is a means of contesting American empire—as I think it manifestly is—then it isn’t anti-semitism only if we follow it up by actually contesting the rest of American empire.