'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Ronald Takaki: Rest in Peace 

Earlier this week, UC Berkeley Professor Ronald Takaki died at the age of 70. He committed suicide after becoming demoralized from his 15 year struggle with multiple sclerosis.

Takaki was a leading figure in comparative ethnic studies. He described an Asian American experience that had long been marginalized. In doing so, he deconstructed the mythology of Asian Americans as a model minority, and thus, returned them to their rightful place within the interwoven processes of American history from whence they had been ideologically extracted. He placed this experience within the broader context of the histories of people of color and immigrants within this country, with a particular focus upon the intersection of race and class. In this respect, he resembles Peter Linebaugh, another innovative historian who identified anarchic instances of liberatory social transformation within a turbulent mix of immigrants, runaway slaves and poor white laborers created by the Anglo-American globalization of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

In other words, Takaki, as Linebaugh has done, dedicated his career to the publication of histories from below. Takaki, growing up in Hawaii, was not, unlike his continental brethren, interned during World War II. He grew up in an environmental where Japanese Americans were, by and large, considered the equals of whites. He committed the unpardonable sin of talking back, a sinfulness that only became more incorrigible as he lived through the radicalism of the 1960s. Even worse, he possessed the skill of presenting his works in a popular form that reached large numbers of Americans. His books, such as Strangers from a Different Shore and A Different Mirror, among others, were academic works that fared well in the marketplace. Predictably, he became a lightning rod from conservative discontent.

Older white historians did not appreciate the exposure of their biases and inadequacies by Takaki. Liberal Arthur Schlesinger was embarrassingly scornful of the multiculturalism represented by younger academics like Takaki. Takaki dismissed Schlesinger with a short, dry observation of his incompetence:

More than ever before, there is a growing realization that the established scholarship has tended to define America too narrowly. For example, in his prize-winning study, The Uprooted, Harvard historian Oscar Handlin presented -- to use the book's subtitle -- "the Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People. But Handlin's "epic story" excluded the "uprooted" from Africa, Asia, and Latin America -- the other "Great Migrations" that also helped to make "the American People." Similarly, in The Age of Jackson, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., left out blacks and Indians. There is not even a mention of two marker events -- the Nat Turner insurrection and Indian Removal, which Andrew Jackson himself would have been surprised to find omitted from a history of his era.

One can only imagine what Takaki said in private: how in the world can Schlesinger talk about the insidious influence of afro-centrism and the use of history as group therapy for minorities, when he doesn't know anything about the history of anyone except white people?

Of course, at a more mundane level, this dispute was a reflection of increasing competition for positions within the academy, the proteges of historians like Takaki were now being hired, while the ones of historians like Schlesinger increasingly were not. I had a personal encounter with sort of thing about 15 years ago, when I accidentally overheard a couple of old professors in the UC Davis American Studies program talking about a new Latina hire over dinner at a restaurant. They described her scholarship with the words vomit and diarrhea. Confronted with the demands of people that their heretofore buried histories and social experiences be told, such academics responded with the language of white supremacy instead of with an open, tolerant inclusiveness.

There is an irony in this. Historians like Schlesinger, and the American Studies professors that I encountered, were, no doubt, proponents of American exceptionalism, a belief that the US is a unique society that should be emulated around the world. Takaki, quite clearly, was not. Yet, it was Takaki, and the historians and sociologists that brought the experiences of women, people of color, immigrants, workers and poor people into the academic mainstream, in short, all those people who lived their lives outside the elite histories of government, geopolitics and economic development, that facilitated the creation of a new American identity. The current version of American exceptionalism now in vogue is one of inclusion, one in which the social experiences of people of various races, cultures, gender, even sexual orientation and religions are recognized, and yet remain fused in a decentralized, but firm, form of nationalism. The election of Barack Obama enshrined it as semi-official doctrine.

But the irony is more insidious than just this paradox. The new multicultural American identity, co-authored by Takaki and others, constitutes a critical ideological support for the so-called war on terror which includes the invasion, and ongoing occupations, of Iraq and Afghanistan. Our culture is purportedly inclusive, tolerant and, by and large, non-violent, in its resolution of domestic conflict. Their culture, by contrast, is not. Our multiculturalism is contrasted with the inherent violence of Islam and the peoples of the Middle East and Central Asia as a justification for perpetual military intervention and custodial oversight.

Needless to say, this is an extremely reductionist perspective about the US, the Middle East and Central Asia, but it is this, more than anything, I think, that explains the inability of many moderates and liberals to dissociate themselves from American militarism. It also creates doubt among non-whites that might otherwise be predisposed, in reliance upon memories of past national liberation movements, to oppose it. And, if there were any question about the proprietary of the project, just look at our military as opposed to their fighters, insurgents, or just plain terrorists. Our military is multi-colored, and even permits Arab Americans and Muslims to serve (only gays and lesbians are excluded as a result of an antiquated social policy that even the multiculturalists couldn't expunge), while the resistance is supposedly organized along lines of religious and ethnic intolerance. Again, simplistic and reductionist, but hard to effectively refute within the confines of limited American discourse.

Ronald Takaki was a bright, opinionated, insightful man. Chapter 1 of A Different Mirror, written in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, is one of best statements about the urgency of recognizing the realities of race and class in America that I have ever read:

What is fueling this debate over our national identity and the content of our curriculum is America's intensifying racial crisis. The alarming signs and symptoms seem to be everywhere -- the killing of Vincent Chin in Detroit, the black boycott of a Korean grocery store in Flatbush, the hysteria in Boston over the Carol Stuart murder, the battle between white sportsmen and Indians over tribal fishing rights in Wisconsin, the Jewish-black clashes in Brooklyn's Crown Heights, the black-Hispanic competition for jobs and educational resources in Dallas which Newsweek described as "a conflict of the have-nots," and the Willie Horton campaign commercials, which widened the divide between the suburbs and the inner cities.

This reality of racial tension rudely woke America like a firebell in the night on April 29, 1992. Immediately after four Los Angeles police officers were found not guilty of brutality against Rodney King, rage exploded in Los Angeles. Race relations reached a new nadir. During the nightmarish rampage, scores of people were killed, over two thousand injured, twelve thousand arrested, and almost a billion dollars of property destroyed. The live televised images mesmerized America. The rioting and the murderous melee on the streets resembled the fighting in Beirut and the West Bank. The thousands of fires burning out of control and the dark smoke filling the skies brought back images of the burning oil fields of Kuwait during Desert Storm. Entire sections of Los Angeles looked like a bombed city. "Is this America?" many shocked viewers asked. "Please, we can get along here," pleaded Rodney King, calling for calm. "We all can get along. I mean, we're all stuck here for a while. Let's try to work it out."

But how should "we" be defined? Who are the people "stuck here" in America? One of the lessons of the Los Angeles explosion is the recognition of the fact that we are a multiracial society and that race can no longer be defined in the binary terms of white and black. "We" will have to include Hispanics and Asians. While blacks currently constitute 13 percent of the Los Angeles population, Hispanics represent 40 percent. The 1990 Census revealed that South Central Los Angeles, which was predominantly black in 1965 when the Watts rebellion occurred, is now 45 percent Hispanic. A majority of the first 5,438 people arrested were Hispanic, while 37 percent were black. Of the 58 people who died in the riot, more than a third were Hispanic, and about forty percent of the businesses destroyed were Hispanic-owned. Most of the other shops and stores were Korean-owned. The dreams of many Korean immigrants went up in smoke during the riot: two thousand Korean-owned businesses were damaged or demolished, totaling about $400 million in losses. There is evidence indicating they were targeted. "After all," explained a black gang member, "we didn't burn our community, just their stores."

"I don't feel like I'm in America anymore," said Denisse Bustamente as she watched the police protecting the firefighters. "I feel like I am far away." Indeed, Americans have been witnessing ethnic strife erupting around the world -- the rise of Neo-Nazism and the murder of Turks in Germany, the ugly "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia, the terrible and bloody clashes between Muslims and Hindus in India. Is the situation here different, we have been nervously wondering, or do ethnic conflicts elsewhere represent a prologue for America? What is the nature of malevolence? Is there a deep, perhaps primordial, need for group identity rooted in hatred for the other? Is ethnic pluralism possible for America? But answers have been limited. Television reports have been little more than thirty-second sound bites. Newspaper articles have been mostly superficial descriptions of racial antagonisms and the current urban malaise. What is lacking is historical context; consequently, we are left feeling bewildered.

How did we get to this point, Americans everywhere are anxiously asking. What does our diversity mean, and where is it leading us? How do we work it out in the post-Rodney King era? Certainly one crucial way is for our society's various ethnic groups to develop a greater understanding of each other. For example, how can African Americans and Korean Americans work it out unless they learn about each other's cultures, histories, and also economic situations? This need to share knowledge about our ethnic diversity has acquired new importance and has given new urgency to the pursuit for a more accurate history.

Of course, Chapter 1 should be read in its entirety to appreciate the richness of Takaki's perspective, and as I do so, I cannot avoid the persistent questions. Did he become aware that the pursuit for a more accurate history pushed us down the road to Baghdad and Kabul? In the last years of his life, did he recognize the tragic consequences that flowed from the opportunistic expropriation of the values of multiculturalism? A social perspective motivated by a desire to further understanding about Americans from different backgrounds, and, implicitly, to further understanding about people from all over the world, was put in the service of the expansion of the American empire. All in all, a sad, humorless instance of what Lefebvre described as dialectical irony.

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