American Studies dates back to such consequential scholars as Vernon Louis Parrington, Perry Miller, and F. O. Matthiessen, who wrote monumental books in which they took note of recurring myths, images, and themes in the works of American imaginative artists and thus helped generations of students to understand what made, for example, American painting or literature distinctly American. There was always something of a “progressive” tilt to the discipline (not a few of its early practitioners were outright Communists), but for the most part American Studies was rooted in a genuine appreciation for America and its culture. American Studies programs in universities around the world helped many foreigners to recognize that America's cultural achievements went far beyond the productions of Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley, and perhaps today's most accomplished and versatile living writer about American culture, Tom Wolfe, was a protégé of an American Studies professor who, working “[m]ore in the tradition of anthropology than literary scholarship,” according to Wikipedia, taught Wolfe to “look at the whole of a culture.” When you peruse Wolfe's oeuvre – from his chronicles of the 1960s counterculture in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Pump House Gang to Radical Chic, from his takedowns of modern art and architecture in The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House to The Right Stuff (to say nothing of his sprawling tapestries of American life in the novels Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full) – it's hard to sum up his body of work except by using a term like American Studies.
Today, alas, American Studies has devolved into yet another of those academic “studies” – Cultural Studies, Queer Studies, and so on – that exist for no other purpose than to brainwash naïve, ill-educated students into embracing far-left ideology and hating their country. Accordingly, the emphasis isn't on America's accomplishments but its purported offenses. For these folks, the West is synonymous with colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism – all of which they view as thoroughly abhorrent phenomena – and America is the very Ground Zero of evil, the heart of the West's darkness. (Meanwhile other civilizations are viewed as the West's innately benign, guiltless victims, whose offenses are justified as understandable consequences of, or legitimate reactions to, Western exploitation and oppression.)
The introduction to the program of last year's ASA conference, held in San Juan, made it clear to potential attendees what they were in for:
The very location of this year's conference is a powerful call for reflection—reflection on indigeneity and dispossession; reflection on the course of U.S. empire; reflection on rich histories of resistance; reflection on American Studies as a set of interpretive and pedagogical practices in that zone where Indigenous Studies, Atlantic World, Caribbean Studies, Diaspora Studies, and Pacific Rim all come together. Claimed by Columbus on his second voyage in 1493, these Taino lands were the site of colonization, slavery, and near extinction before becoming collateral damage to U.S. imperial designs in 1898....
And so on. (Yeah, that's why they chose to hold their conference in San Juan in late November, when the average high temp is 86º F. – because it offers a great opportunity to contemplate poverty and imperialism.) If the American Studies classroom is a site of professional proselytizing, the annual ASA conference, as the program makes blindingly clear, isn't about exchanging ideas (these profs have nothing fresh to say to one another) but about foregathering, much like the College of Cardinals, to recite together the canonical prayers and creeds, all of which recycle, in a mindless mush, the same handful of terms. A sampling of session titles: “Imperial Epistemes," “Comparative Colonialisms,” “Aesthetic Capitalism and the Waning of American Empire,” “Pedagogies of Empire,” “Technologies of Empire and Resistance,” and “The Trauma of Empire, Race, and Resistance.” (In addition, the conference also included such diversions as an “Environmental Justice Tour” and an “Anti-Imperialist Film Festival.”)
The latest news is that Harvard, Yale, and several other colleges have condemned the ASA's boycott of Israel. One wonders, however, how the American Studies faculties at these colleges come down on the issue. Look at the website of Yale's American Studies program and you'll find a picture of – guess what? The Statue of Liberty? Abraham Lincoln? The Declaration of Independence? No. What you'll find is a 1939 Dorothea Lange photo of several poor black men on the front porch of a shack (which, as we can tell from the ads for Chesterfields, Old Gold, Camel, and Coca-Cola, is a general store). Lange's photos of Depression hardship are an important part of the American documentary record, but American Studies today places such images front and center, in the service of presenting America – the richest country in human history – as a poverty-ridden capitalist inferno. Randomly pick a few names out of Yale's American Studies roster and look them up, and you'll soon get a pretty good idea of where these folks are coming from. Michael Denning, for example, started his career as a member of something called the Marxist Literary Group; a recent essay by him in the New Left Review began with the statement: “Under capitalism, the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited.” Then there's Inderpal Grewal, who, as it happens, gave a presentation I attended in Berkeley three years ago. Faulting the Bush administration for “utiliz[ing] feminist discourses [i.e. criticizing Islamic patriarchy] to justify the war on terror,” she charged that GIs who thought they were helping oppressed women by fighting the Taliban were, in fact, depriving those women of “dignity” and “agency.” Young Americans; Grewal suggested, should volunteer in their own communities; she didn't say outright that they should ignore the oppression of women under Islam, but that was the point. That's American Studies in a nutshell.
All of which brings us to Israel. If Muslims, in the eyes of the American Studies orthodoxy, are the blameless Other into whose lives we Westernerns should never condescend to intrude, Jews, even those who have lived all their lives in Israel, are still “us” – and thus share in our Western iniquity. Like us, they're capitalists, whose wealth, relative to their neighbors in Syria, Egypt, Gaza, etc., only confirms their turpitude. And like us – in fact, even more than us – they're imperialists, who colonized a land not their own and turned it into an illegitimate outpost of the West. When American Studies scholars look at Israel, they don't see it as a tiny embattled country, as the only democracy in the Middle East, or as one of the world's most innovative, dynamic economies; they see occupation, aggression, exploitation – a country living off the suffering and victimhood of innocent Arabs. For a representative example of American Studies' approach to Israel, check out an article in the current issue of Social Text, which describes a class offered a couple of years ago by the American Studies and Anthropology departments at the University of New Mexico. The course title fully communicates its slant: “Technologies of Settler-Colonialism in Israel-Palestine.”
Who are these people who voted for the ASA boycott? An article in Slate quotes three of them. One is Bill Mullen of Purdue – who, in a recent piece for the Socialist Worker, celebrated Purdue students who chanted at a protest rally: “Hey hey, ho ho, white supremacy's got to go.” Another is David Lloyd, a professor at UC Riverside who's contributed pro-boycott pieces to Electronic Intifida, the online home of sundry Jew-haters and terrorist sympathizers. A third is Eric Cheyfitz, a professor of American Studies at Cornell, who, explaining his vote for the boycott, exposes the hole in its twisted logic:
I am a Jew with a daughter and three grandchildren who are citizens of Israel. I am a scholar of American Indian and Indigenous studies, who has in published word and action opposed settler colonialism wherever it exists, including of course the Palestinian West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. It is worth noting in this respect that just as the myth of American exceptionalism seeks to erase the genocide and ongoing settler colonialism of Indigenous peoples here in the United States so the myth of Israeli exceptionalism seeks to erase Israeli colonialism in Palestine and claim original rights to Palestinian lands.
As Chayfitz's apologia inadvertently underscores, the question he and his comrades in arms aren't willing to face up to is this: if you're going to boycott Israeli universities as a way of pressuring Israel to give up “colonialism,” why not boycott American universities until America gives itself back to the Indians? Why target a mere outpost of the evil West and not the West's red hot center? This question is especially interesting when one considers that the European “imperialists” who made possible the founding of Purdue, Cornell, and other such institutions had no historical claim whatsoever to the North American continent, whereas the Jewish “imperialists” who founded Israel were, as it happens, the heirs of people who had lived in that very place thousands of years ago. And the only answer to the question, of course, is that if the buffoons for the ASA acted consciously upon what they claim to be their own principles, they'd be obliged to boycott their own employers, and quit their own jobs. But that ain't happening, because the ASA's action has nothing to do with principle or conscience, and everything to do with a cynical, self-serving devotion to a reality-challenged ideological party line – that, and raw bigotry.
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