Art had the voice

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I have mostly given up reading Salon. I find its strident, braying liberalism and misleading clickbait headlines as tiresome as the Daily Caller’s chest-beating conservatism and misleading clickbait headlines.

But occasionally Salon surprises me with an actual gem. Like this morning’s long interview with Art Garfunkel, whose soaring angelic voice gave range and depth to the poetry of Paul Simon’s lyrics. As a duo, Simon & Garfunkel created music that allowed them to transcend the folk revival of the 1960s and secured for them a place in the pantheon of musical greats. They were, and remain, peerless artists.

The interview with Garfunkel is full of wonderful moments. It’s not even really an interview. It’s alternately a reverie, a monologue, an inner dialogue externalized. There are occasional questions and lengthy, sprawling, often poetic replies. Like this:

You know, I walked across America so I got a real feel for the geography. Bloomington’s near the middle of the state, near Indianapolis, right? So this is very American. The land is kind of flat with a little bit of curvature—a very sweet curvature to the land, yes? We think of Bloomington as a college town, correct? So fall means back to school in a very rich way. It’s wonderful, that back-to-school feeling of September. It’s a rebirth. The air gets autumn keen and the spirit sharpens up.

As I mentioned, I’ve walked across the U.S. and now Europe, so I know the land. There are many different version of the land: industrial, wasteland, uninspired land. But campuses are a Walt Disney movie. They’re a dream come true. They’re such a cut above almost all of it. Campuses are so pretty, if only the kids realized it. The rest of the earth is something less than that. The skyscrapers downtown, the used-car lots, the hamburger chains, everything that makes up the normal American scene. But not the campuses. They’re pretty. Those trees …

There’s a lot more like that.

Do you know this about musicians? Making music is a place we go to. It’s a real comfort zone. On the Monopoly board, it’s the box marked Go. When you pass go, you get $200. It’s our favorite box. When you go into a song, when you respect your own God-given talent, there’s something automatic about flexing those muscles. You go to that comfort zone and lo and behold, you find other musicians there. That’s the great thing about making music, but it’s also why Paul and Artie can be very squirmy around each other. We’re so damned different, but when the song and the music is happening and Paul is playing guitar—and Paul Simon plays brilliant acoustic guitar—you go to that place comfortably.

I could post any number of Simon & Garfunkel songs, but for me, none displays the crystalline beauty of Art’s voice as well as “For Emily Wherever I May Find Her.”

Dr. Seuss: Propagandist, racist, American

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seuss 4Theodore Seuss Geisel — Dr. Seuss — published his first children’s book, the charming and whimsical And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Streetin 1937, followed a year later by the equally delightful The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. By 1940, as World War II was engulfing Europe and Asia, Dr. Seuss, as he was already  known, had turned to drawing political cartoons. By 1942 he had devoted his work to aiding the American war effort.

That work is astonishingly racist.

This always comes as a shock to my students. For them, as I suspect for nearly all of us, Dr. Seuss is a beloved children’s author and illustrator, the creator of the Lorax, and of Horton, the keen-eared elephant who hears a Who, and the Grinch, who in the end learns that Christmas doesn’t come from a store.

I show my students examples of Seuss’ wartime artwork as part of our exploration of the ideological foundations of American foreign policy. In his brilliant book Ideology and US Foreign Policy, historian Michael Hunt argues that a belief in the hierarchy of races is one of the three fundamental ideas at the core of our conduct of foreign affairs. “Inspired by the struggle of white Americans to secure and maintain their supremacy under conditions that differed from region to region,” Hunt writes it is the oldest of these ideas, deeply embedded in how Americans think about ourselves and our place in the world.

I read Hunt’s book for the first time as a graduate student, and I have assigned it to my own students ever since so that they too can wrestle with the ideas that shape our foreign policy. Race is perhaps the most powerful of those ideas.

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As Hunt writes, the 17th and 18th century folk wisdom shared by our founders, their contemporaries, and passed down to subsequent generations, a system of belief which placed those with the lightest skin atop a hierarchy of races, was reinforced in the 19th century by “scientific” investigation which purported to confirm the physical, intellectual, and moral inferiority of those with darker skins.  “Blacks above all others,” Hunt argues, “served as the anvil on which Americans forged this notion of racial hierarchy and the attendant color-conscious view of the world.”

While our treatment of Americans of African descent served as the baseline, these ideas were also manifested in the genocide of Native Americans as the infant United States expanded westward, and later as we acquired the trappings of overseas empire in the Spanish-American War that ushered in the 20th century. As we became more active and assertive in international affairs, encountered other peoples, other nations, the baggage of race was our blueprint for how to relate, how to respond.

Anglo-Saxonism, says Hunt, “the belief that Americans and the British were one people united by uncommon and common interests,” occupied the central place in our thinking about race as it related to foreign policy. Germans, as our racial cousins, like us save for their loss of the love of liberty, followed closely behind. But from there it was all downhill, from the Slavs to the “Latin” peoples of Europe (France, Italy, Spain), to the deepest, darkest depths of savage Africans, fit for nothing more than white domination.

The people of East Asia, Japan and China, enter the American consciousness in the last half of the 19th century, seen as an exotic bundle of contradictions: “subhuman yet cunning, unfeeling yet boiling inward with rage, cowardly and decadent yet capable of great conquests.” And so Americans developed two different images of “Orientals,” a positive one, Hunt writes, “appropriate to happy times when paternalism and benevolence were in season,” and a negative one, suited to those tense periods when abuse or aggrandizement became the order of the day.”

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The wartime cartoons of Dr. Seuss put these contradictions on vivid display. In the images reproduced here, Hitler is portrayed as essentially an aristocrat, his head held high in a posture of contempt of others, almost attractive and noble for all his arrogance. Not so the Japanese, shown here leering with a slant-eyed squint through thick glasses, with buck-toothed grins.  Or as inhuman monsters and insects with caricatures for faces.

The key point I am making isn’t that Dr. Seuss was a racist propagandist. He was. But he was no outlier. The attitudes on display in his wartime cartoons were the attitudes shared by his fellow Americans. They were attitudes passed down over the centuries from one generation to the next. They were attitudes that turned the war in the Pacific into the most brutal war Americans had ever fought, one which culminated in the dropping of the atomic bomb on cities populated by people we viewed as barely human. They are attitudes which we have inherited today.

Dr. Seuss was a racist, a propagandist. And American.

No religious test

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The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

So reads clause 3, Article VI of the U.S. Constitution.

James Madison, in Federalist 52, reiterates this in his discussion of qualification for election the House of Representatives, arguing that:

Under these reasonable limitations, the door … is open to merit of every description … without regard to poverty or wealth, or to any particular profession of religious faith.

Later, in Federalist 69, Alexander Hamilton contrasts the powers of the office of the President with that of the King of England in part by noting the extreme difference in their spiritual roles:

The one has no particle of spiritual jurisdiction; the other is the supreme head and governor of the national church!

It is important for us to keep these documents in mind as we think about the recent controversy surrounding Ben Carson’s claim on NBC’s Meet the Press last Sunday that Islam, as a religion, is inconsistent with the Constitution, and his declaration that:

I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.

Despite the outcry from his political rivals and Muslim-American groups in particular, Carson has tried to clarify while refusing to back down:

I said I would support anyone regardless of their background if in fact they embrace American values and our Constitution and are willing to place that above their beliefs.

The problem, of course, is that Carson doesn’t believe Muslims are capable of doing so. I’ll leave aside the question of whether Carson himself, a conservative Christian Seventh-day Adventist and biblical literalist, is capable of suborning his own beliefs to the Constitution and the values of an increasingly secular America. Nor will I point out that the comments Carson directs at Muslims are reminiscent of the very sort of religious persecution that was once aimed at Adventists themselves.

Instead, I’ll point the candidate, who seems to believe that followers of certain religions can’t be trusted to serve America with honor and distinction, defending its values and institutions, to the Veteran’s Administration, which has no such qualms. As a meme which showed up in my social media feed put it this morning, any candidate who wants to bar members of certain religions from public service should take a walk around Arlington National Cemetery and see the diversity of religious faiths represented on the headstones of the fallen.

Or just take a look at the VA’s authorized “emblems of belief” above, which are allowed to be placed on government headstones and markers. Every flavor of faith, from atheists to Wiccans to followers of the Norse god Thor are represented. Right alongside Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Baha’is …

And Muslims.