“All we can do is stand and leer at the distance of another year.”
As 2015 comes to a close, ToM’s writers provide that last, merciful blast of best of’s from historical callbacks to new discoveries of older things, we aim to bring you info about life you really don’t need.
Best historical callback: The hysteria around terrorism and reactionary violence against Muslim-Americans evokes the tragic case of Japanese-American internment, the struggles of inclusive citizenship and the troublesome notion of the permanent alien.
Favorite discovery: Hassle-free membership plans at the YMCA (take that fancy gyms). And modular synths. But not necessarily together.
[Editor’s note: I think they totally belong together.]
Favorite public institution: Chadwick Gibson’s ever brilliant http://smartobjects.la/, one of the best new art spaces in LA. Gibson’s vision addresses artistic practice after the internet, and art curation beyond the gallery and art fair system.
Favorite frivolous enjoyment: Salad bars at Whole Foods, and deserting on free samples.
Best Meme: Confused Travolta
Can we all just choose which #GOPDildo pic is our favorite? Consider this my submission:
Best meme: I still #FeeltheChafe
Lauren MacIvor Thompson
Best historical callback: When Obergefell was issued in June, and the amicus curiae briefs from historians like Nancy Cott basically schooled the entire country on what role marriage has played in relationship to the state and the individual in American history. Hint – it ain’t only about men and women having babies.
Favorite discovery: Grocery delivery from Instacart. The “sharing economy” gives you milk and bread in under 2 hours! Yikes?
Favorite public institution: I got the chance to visit and do research at the New York Historical Society earlier in the year. Their library is great. And best minestrone soup in the café. I would go again just for the soup.
Favorite frivolous enjoyment: OUTLANDER IS NOT FRIVOLOUS, OK?
Best historical callback: The attempt by states to block the federal government from resettling Syrian refugees within their borders recalls the Negro Seamen Acts of the 1820s, in which southern states refused entrance to free black people who arrived in port. The laws share a similar foundation—irrational fear. The Negro Seamen Acts were passed in the wake of the alleged Denmark Vesey conspiracy—Denmark Vesey being a free black and having (again, allegedly) conspired with slaves to kill all the white people of Charleston before commandeering ships to sail to Haiti. Like frightened politicians today, the frightened slaveholders of yesteryear equated the (again, alleged) sins of one free black with all free blacks and forever barred their entry. Like the governors’ proclamations of today, the Negro Seamen Acts were patently unconstitutional, as they contravened federal law and treaties, but the southern states kept the laws on their books in spite of rebuke from the president, Congress, and even the one Supreme Court justice who hailed from South Carolina. Such defiance was, however, more for show than substance. The laws were never really enforced by the slave states, even though the politicians talked a pretty good game. Kind of like today.
Favorite discovery: The Sopranos. This is what life without cable gets you. You come back to The Sopranos.
Favorite public institution: Congress. If you make me pick, I’d say the House over the Senate.
Favorite frivolous enjoyment: Unprincipled criticism.
Favorite discovery: the word “teacherage.”I found the word in reading oral histories about Raleigh, Durham, and Cary, NC, in which interviewees reflected on life during the 1950s and 1960s, but I had never heard it in any other context. I was familiar with the idea of a parsonage—a home that’s usually paid for and maintained by a church for a pastor’s family—but the idea that institutions should support housing for people entering unremunerative professions (such as teaching or the clergy) seems more and more apt today as inequality spirals out of control and somebody has to teach these kids. Here’s a story that suggests that may be happening in 2015.
Favorite public institution: Georgia’s DeKalb County Government. Between former county executive Burrell Ellis’s conviction for extorting contractors for campaign donations and current CEO Lee May’s investigation by the FBI, DeKalb has nourished my appetite for political folly in 2015—a craving that was once satisfied by the spectacularly dysfunctional government New York State. Pass the popcorn.
I will give a shout-out to the IRS, though. They said we owed more in taxes this year, we sent them all the documentation to explain why they had made a mistake, and the problem happily went away. Leslie Knope would be proud.
Favorite frivolous enjoyment: They just opened an Arby’s across from the History Department!
Best meme: Not #KimDavis memes (some variation of “Doesn’t agree with _____, does job anyway”) but this meta-#KimDavis meme:
Also, in the wake of escalating Islamophobic hysteria, #MuslimAmericanFaces was pretty good too.
Best historical callback: Between ISIS, the global migrant crisis, the San Bernardino shooting and the American troglodyte crisis (i.e. the Republican’s field of candidates), the antipathy toward Muslims in this country is right there at post-9/11 levels. Trump is often depicted as this insane racist, while people like Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush want to only allow Syrian Christians across our borders. Every day on Facebook and Twitter I see stories about Muslim storeowners being beaten up and Muslim kids feeling threatened. This shit is disgusting and reminds me of all the chickenhawks who liked to talk tough after 9/11 about taking out “radical Muslim terrorists.”
Favorite discovery: John Updike’s Rabbit series: This canonical four-part series follows Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom through his mid-twenties to his mid-fifties, weaving in period-specific politics and pop culture. Today, many would be turned off by Updike’s penchant for misogyny (as I noted in a piece for TOM earlier this year, David Foster Wallace referred to Updike as a “penis with a thesaurus”). Updike is right there with Phillip Roth, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer as pillars of 20th century American literature, each of whom has been accused of a penchant for being unfair to female characters. Nonetheless, I would recommend the series to anyone. Updike’s prose is so florid and enriching, it can be difficult to put these books down sometime. Ultimately, I think Updike aimed to demonstrate that there is a way to live a meaningful and fulfilling life as an average, middle class American. But, yeah, he’s also no Norman Rockwell.
Favorite public institution: Ok, I’m going to go with a non-public museum…so ToM editors will have to deal with it. I went to the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore this summer and found it to be one of the most unique, interesting museums that I’ve ever been to. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who has the chance to go.
Favorite frivolous enjoyment – The Fantasy Focus podcast from ESPN is a staple of my podcast diet as I spend 17 weeks in a fever state during the NFL season trying to construct the perfect team. The show is about as lighthearted as it gets and helps pass the time during long metro or bike rides.
Meme: I’m going to talk about my least favorite meme of 2015. More than ever this year, I’ve seen hundreds of these all over the Internet. “It’s wine o’clock, ladies!” “Time for wine!” “Wine for women is like duct tape for men, it fixes everything!” “A good man can make you feel sexy, strong and able to take on the world, oh wait… sorry, that’s wine.” To anyone who has ever posted one of those, please, please fucking stop. I can’t bear it anymore. Please enjoy your wine, and please shut up about it.
Best historical callback: While the “witch hunt” comparison is grossly overused, and generally overused in a twisted way to vilify people for chasing after actual bad guys (like, you know, rapists, racists, etc.), I think its use in the conversation about academic freedom is at times appropriate. The question of how we should handle professors who espouse unpopular views, some of which rightly qualify as hate speech but some of which are just not the bandwagon liberal views of the moment, is a sticky one. The side standing on “freedom of speech” makes a mistake to equate social and university pressure toward fairness to censorship (politely asking students to show some sensitivity in choosing Halloween costumes isn’t censorship, it’s social pressure to remind us of our obligation, as humans, to one another). And looking at http://www.thedemands.org, it’s clear that most of the demands being made are entirely reasonable. University leaders who have knowingly condoned racism and racial violence on their campuses should apologize and step down, and students demanding that they do are not “blaming and shaming” or performing witch float tests. These demands are entirely reasonable.
On the other hand, we risk going down a dark road of something that would be a witch hunt when we ask individuals to take personal responsibility to apologize and step down from their positions for the entire legacy of institutionalized racism that they inherited. Perpetuating it is blameworthy. Inheriting it and working to change it are not. What I really fear will become a witch hunt is a bandwagon mentality on the left when it comes to acceptable views. I’m sure the right has its own version of this issue, but I’m talking about the left because I’m on the left. Saying that women who engage the debate over whether fetuses are persons are all women-haters is a problem. I’m all for abortion, and a lot of people who are against abortion are women-haters, but it’s possible to have a real moral concern about the personhood of fetuses. Questioning the validity of the DSM-IV categories doesn’t make someone a stigmatizer of people with mental health issues. Arguing that rifles and shotguns serve a purpose in rural areas that they don’t service in urban areas (and that handguns and semi-automatic weapons serve nowhere) should not mark someone as a card-carrying NRA member and conservative. To return to the point, witch hunt, I think, is a really useful term for the left to think about this year, even if it does generally get used as a downplaying mechanism against the left by the right. If we want to continue to have thoughtful intellectual views in academia, we need to be prepared to hear nuance, whether it matches today’s popular opinion or not, without bringing out the pitchforks and torches. That doesn’t, by the way, mean that I think we need to tolerate, in the name of academic freedom, hate speech and the targeting of oppressed groups.
Favorite discovery: Prohibition-style bars, the more theatrical the better.
Favorite public institution: The International Human Rights Commission.
Favorite public institution: Libraries – local or otherwise. Admittedly I work at the nation’s largest library so I’m biased, but having used D.C.’s local libraries extensively and after hearing outgoing SACRPH President Joseph Heathcott wax lyrically on the subject at this year’s conference in Los Angeles only drove their importance home more. Despite nefarious “crazy ass Kentucky girls” looking for Heathcott’s scalp, the New School professor regularly trekked to his local library during his childhood for refuge and inspiration. Plus doesn’t everyone have a story about the dubious activities that unfolded in the shrouded obscurity of the “stacks” in their college library? Don’t lie to yourselves people, you know the library gave you some Tropic of Cancer moments, just admit it.
Historical callback: Fifty years ago, LBJ signed the Hart-Celler Immigration Act into law. Meant to bring more white Europeans to America, it resulted in far greater numbers of Asian and African arrivals and reshaped American demographics. It’s led to a more diverse and vibrant culture but also one filled with greater complications. Trump might be the ugly manifestation of our worst impulses, but his supporters, whatever one thinks of them, represent a large swath of the public that rightly or wrongly (I lean toward the latter, but that’s not the point) feels disenfranchised and alienated. How one brings such persons back into the rational, national fold while creating a more tolerant and accepting of America today, remains a real issue that will need to be addressed. Moreover, despite the GOP’s nativist scare tactics, the ’65 act as Matt Garcia noted in an October panel on the subject, has a much more ambivalent meaning for Mexican Americans as it unwittingly created the idea of illegal aliens by placing quotas on the migration of peoples to the U.S. in the Western hemisphere for the first time in U.S. history. The force of this development seems almost predetermined. Despite the fact more Mexican immigrants are leaving the US than coming, we’re still talking about building a wall.
Favorite frivolous enjoyment: Unfollowing but not unfriending people on Facebook. Perhaps the most cowardly of deeds; I’m three months away from my newsfeed being all cats all the time.
Favorite discovery: Fleetwood Mac, Rumors. Classic rock – with some notable exceptions (Bob Dylan especially hipster Bob, the Who, and one or two others) – gives me a rash. When I taught h.s. in NYC, I used to purposely start fights with boomer co-workers at happy hour outings with lines like “Led Zeppelin’s overrated” or “the Rolling Stones are about as exciting as our last UFT meeting.” A gnashing of teeth, hurt feelings, and seething aggression followed; honestly I dug it.
Fleetwood Mac always escaped my ire, but I was always wary. When Bill Clinton deployed the band’s music during his 1991 Presidential campaign all my suspicions about groups from that era were confirmed: outwardly rebellious, internally the establishment. Age however, is a funny thing. I kept hearing about this Rumors album (terribly titled since every town has some horrible singles bar with the same name) and the intrigue behind it as the band basically turned into a roving band of swingers; various romantic relationships fragmenting only to reform with new partners. So I picked it up this year and waded into the dark territory of Stevie Nicks, Mick Fleetwood, Lindsey Buckingham, Christine McVie, and John McVie. I’m not going to lie, outside of the song “Oh Daddy” which just kind of sucks, it’s pretty magnificent. The album is filled with melodic candy; songs about betrayal, fading love, infatuation, and determination. If my wife and I ever join a band, cheat on one another with fellow band mates, all while “finding ourselves” under the influence of cocaine, this is the roadmap.