In the U.S., ‘Where are you from’ can be a loaded question. It took me a while to realize this. It could range from : a) genuine curiosity about your origins b) ignorance about who you are OR c) An arrogant assumption that you are an ‘outsider,’ even if you are more ‘native’ than the person who asked you this question. The question also is an exercise of power – especially when the question is posed to someone who seems ( apparently, at least) is member of an ethnic or racial minority group. Roger Shimomura’s talk at the National Portrait Gallery last night brought to fore this question. As someone who is interested in ethnic identity issues, I was curious to hear what Shimomura had to say.
Shimomura is an artist who spent his early childhood in a Japanese internment camp and this experience, more than any other seems to have shaped his thinking. As a consummate collector, he seems to have collected not only items – which he introduced us to – but also experiences, both pleasant and unpleasant. The paraphrenalia that he collected, ranging from salt and pepper shakers to miniature shoes and also mannequins, one of which adorned his bathroom all seemed to introduce us to the mind of an eccentric artist; who is not afraid of being ‘himself.’
Shimomura recounted several anecdotes but one stood out in my memory. This involved a stranger approaching him in Lawrence, Kansas and asking him ‘Where are you from,’ to which he replied ‘Seattle.’ Not to be undone by this innocuous answer, the stranger again asked him ‘No! That is not I meant, what I meant was, ‘Where are your parents from.” To this query, Shimomura replied ‘Seattle’ again, given that his parents were second generation Japanese-Americans and he was a ‘Naesae’ Japanese, a third-generation one. His grand-mother arrived to the U.S. in the beginning of the twentieth century, as a ‘picture’ bride and she, more than anyone seems to have instilled in him the need for documenting one’s identity and personal narrative. Speaking of the line of questioning of this stranger, Shimomura pointed out that no matter how long one lives in the U.S., sometimes, one is always a stranger – particularly, if one is a minority – or Asian American in his case. This persistent ‘othering’ is a phenomenon that seems to be at the heart of his work.Whether it is kicking the mickey-mouse characters or donning the Superman suit, Shimomura’s art has it all.
All of his work seems to challenge our stereotypes of what it means to be an Asian, an American and also how one can break away from this ‘framing.’ While he did not talk much about how one can move away from such framing, that is imposed by others; he did allude to the exoticization of one’s identity and the need to challenge it. One example he offered is that of ‘Yellow Rat Bastard,‘ brand of clothing. This slang term was used during WWII to refer to the Japanese, at the height of suspicion about Japanese-Americans’ loyalty to America. This term has stuck and it is surprising that the most avid consumers of this brand of clothing in NYC are Japanese tourists, mused Shimomura. Ironic? Perhaps so, or is it just that racism, when made to appear ‘cool’ seems to take on life of its own.
One of the more subversive one of his paintings is titled ‘Shimomura crossing the Delaware,’ based on George Washington’s famous crossing the river. Speaking of the original painting of the founding father, Shimomora asked “How might American history have been different, if it was the Japanese who were founding fathers of the U.S. or if those accompanying Washington were Japanese?”.
Shimomora’s oeuvre seems to have a strong message of battling stereotypes. Whether it is the plays/ performances based on his grandmom’s diaries or his own art-work that is very strongly reminiscent of Andy Warhol – improvizational, eclectic and very pop culture inspired, this artist forces us to re-look at the images and stereotypes that we hold in our minds.
I came away with a few ideas and a better appreciation for the Japanese-American experience and also a more nuanced understanding of what identity really means. As an immigrant myself and also as the husband of a first-generation Mexican-American woman, ideas of ethnicity and identity are constantly making the rounds in my mind. Shimomora added a dash of color and style to these perspectives and I am glad we went to his talk. More importantly, I will perhaps stop asking ‘Where are you from,’ unless it is absolutely necessary. That question, as I learnt last night, carries more power than we realize.
Religion in the public sphere has not always been problematic, as American history demonstrates. Clergy have taken both the ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ positions when it comes to issues such as civil rights, anti-war protests etc. This is seen as in the 1960s, when the clergy lead demonstrations for civil rights while in the 1980s they vehemently protested abortion. This hard-nosed pragmatism is a feature of American public life and will likely continue, says Robert Wuthnow, Princeton University Professor of Sociology in his essay The Religious Right and Symbolic Politics (1991). In analyzing the effectiveness of the Religious Right in American public and political sphere, Wuthnow asks: What worked for the Religious Right and what did not? An answer to this may point to the direction in which the future leaders of the Religious Right may strategize, he suggests. Further, Wuthnow shows that the Religious Right has consistently tried to mold public policy, defined as the outcome of the political process with respect to specific substantive issues. While the stated position of the Religious Right has consistently been to ‘uphold morality’, the way to achieve this has varied, depending both on the power that the groups have enjoyed as well as the relations between local and national politics.
In an insightful remark Wuthnow captures the paradoxes of American life : “ The American public does not want our public policy makers to be devoid of value considerations, but neither does it want its seminaries and churches to become halls of public administration.” (p.89). By this he means that while there is a great desire to see values reflected in the public sphere, Americans deeply pragmatic in several ways, and are conscious of keeping the separation of Church and State. Americans do not want Clergy to run be Surgeons, nor carry out bureaucratic functions, he reminds us. At the same time, he reminds us that one of reasons the Religious Right was successful in the 70s and 80s was because of its ‘outsider’ image, of being the ‘Moral majority’, standing up for what was right, and being ‘anti-establishment.’ When this gave way to being ‘inside’ the corridors of power, the legitimacy that they enjoyed began to wane. The reason for this is that the anti-government sentiment among most Americans is still prevalent among most Americans, who are ambivalent about the ‘over-reaching’ aspects of the federal government.
Also, this moral majority succeeded post-Watergate and other business scandals of the 1960s and 70s’, when Americans were worried about growing immorality, drugs and teenage pregnancies and a drop in general morality. The ‘flower children’ of the 1960s had grown up and were becoming responsible adults. Further, he argues that it may be prudent to look to the Right for lessons by considering some of the ways in which it influenced public agenda. This theme is well developed and illustrated in his book Red State Nation (2012), where Wuthnow argues that the Republican Party and the centrist conservatism of the state’s two religious denominations – Methodism and Catholicism- in Kansas State actually deterred radical religious and political movements from gaining ground during most of the state’s history. Though Kansas is a paradigmatic case for how the Republican party has established a strong hold, there are many internal debates, inconsistencies and struggles between the Religious Right groups that are not fully appreciated, Wuthnow reminds us. For instance, the tension between Methodists, Catholics and Baptists is not taken into consideration, when we speak about the Religious Right. Nor is the ‘moderate’ side of the Republican Party itself, which in many cases goes against the extreme Republican perspective.
The ‘moral majority’ of today seems to be decidedly liberal, by many measures. As recent studies have shown, the fundamental structure of American family is changing. As this in-depth report by NY Times argues: “Yet for all the restless shape-shifting of the American family, researchers who comb through census, survey and historical data and conduct field studies of ordinary home life have identified a number of key emerging themes. Families, they say, are becoming more socially egalitarian over all, even as economic disparities widen. Families are more ethnically, racially, religiously and stylistically diverse than half a generation ago — than even half a year ago.” The report goes on to say that increasing intermarriage between races, religious denominations is causing a shift in how people conceptualize kinships. “ In increasing numbers, blacks marry whites, atheists marry Baptists, men marry men and women, Democrats marry Republicans and start talk shows. Good friends join forces as part of the “voluntary kin” movement, sharing medical directives, wills, even adopting one another legally. Single people live alone and proudly consider themselves families of one — more generous and civic-minded than so-called “greedy marrieds.” This level of mingling, complication of associational life has not occurred before, according to observers. While there is little doubt that this is impacting the shift towards a more liberal and plural outlook towards moral values, the exact shift is yet to be determined.
Hobby Lobby and the debate about religion
Several important legal cases in the past few months have made the issue of pluralism salient, in the American public consciousness. Issues related to marriage equality, Immigration and most recently, healthcare have brought forth some deep underlying tensions in American society, to the fore. While these cases are about particular issues, I would argue that they are ultimately about defining the scope of religious pluralism in America. This case, like the others is about what Wuthnow has called ‘symbolic politics,’ i.e., the strategy of gaining attention for symbolic issues and ensuring that the Right Wing’s agenda stays in the public policy realm. The decisions that courts reach in deciding these cases will have far-reaching implications on how the future generations come to understand the limits of religion. Also, these debates involve ‘factions’, in this case, special interest groups, that are often accused of undermining democratic participation.
I will briefly discuss the impact of religion in the public sphere and use the example of Hobby Lobby case that has challenged the neutrality of courts and the state in implementing laws. In this case, it is the federal healthcare law that is being challenged. While it is not possible to go into all the details of this case, a quick synopsis of this case is as follows: Two companies: Consestoga Wood Specialties and Hobby Lobby, want to be exempt from providing their employees contraceptive coverage as required under the Affordable Care Act. While these two firms are not religious organizations, their owners say that they are the ‘victims of an assault on religious liberty’, as the owners disapprove of some of the contraceptives, points out a New York Times editorial.
The question that is at the heart of this debate is whether the contraceptive coverage rule violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which says that government may not “substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion” unless it be to “further a compelling government interest.” The NY Times editorial argues that the Supreme court should not allow the corporations to get away with this, as it would mean permitting the companies to impose their views on thousands of their employees.
As the editors further argue: “If there is a Supreme Court decision in favor of these businesses, the ripple effect could be enormous. One immediate result would be to encourage other companies to seek exemptions from other health care needs, like blood transfusions, psychiatric care, vaccinations or anesthesia. It could also encourage toxic measures like the one vetoed last month by Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona that would have given businesses and individuals a broad right to deny services to same-sex couples in the name of religion. The Supreme Court cannot go there.” The arguments about religious freedom are being used to deny services to women in this case, as they were used to deny equality to African Americans before the Civil Rights movement. While this particular instance could be seen as ‘government aggression’ against religion, the principle of non-discrimination would be violated if the Supreme Court supports the corporate case.
Beyond the immediacy of the issues we are discussing and the legal wrangles involved, the big issues involved are those of the changing morality in America. This is related not only to the changing family structures, as mentioned earlier, but also increased shift in religious denominations, conversion to other religions as well as a moving away, from religion, generally. An article in The American Scholar points to the declining influence of the Evangelical Church, and the impact this is having on other denominations. Call it the ‘fall of Evangelical Church and the Rise of Catholic Church,’ if you will. As the article argues: “But the reality, largely unnoticed outside church circles, is that evangelicalism is not only in gradual decline but today stands poised at the edge of a demographic and cultural cliff. The most recent Pew Research Center survey of the nation’s religious attitudes, taken in 2012, found that just 19 percent of Americans identified themselves as white evangelical Protestants—five years earlier, 21 percent of Americans did so. Slightly more (19.6 percent) self-identified as unaffiliated with any religion at all, the first time that group has surpassed evangelicals.” Simultaneously, while the growth of ‘spiritual shoppers’- those who are religiously unaffiliated but spiritually active, grows, other religions such as Islam gain more converts and the Catholic Church also becomes an attractive proposition for the more liberal minded Millennials, we have the shift of an entire generation of Christians.
Further, pointing to the broader sociological changes, the American Scholar article claims: “ Secularization alone is not to blame for this change in American religiosity. Even half of those Americans who claim no religious affiliation profess belief in God or claim some sort of spiritual orientation. Other faiths, like Islam, perhaps the country’s fastest-growing religion, have had no problem attracting and maintaining worshippers. No, evangelicalism’s dilemma stems more from a change in American Christianity itself, a sense of creeping exhaustion with the popularizing, simplifying impulse evangelical luminaries such as Schuller once rode to success.” So, taking a cue from this, one can ask: Are the Hobby Lobby and related cases an attempt by the Religious Right to assert its ‘moral authority.’ Can it be seen as a desperate effort to claim its own moral territory, that it is afraid of losing?
A related concern that comes up, in this examination of the changing demographics, religious affiliations and moral values is: How is the notion of pluralism (pertaining to religion, ethical values, morality) shifting in this context? A careful analysis of the aforementioned factors suggests that there seems to be a gradual expansion of the idea of pluralism. Also, if the Republican Right’s strategies of using pluralism to advocate a more narrow vision of society is not working, might we see a broader vision of pluralism in America? At the level of discourse too, are we seeing a gradual relaxation of how we seek out ‘morality’ in the public sphere. As Connolly argues in his book Pluralism (2005): “ What is needed today is a cautious relaxation of discourse about the sacred, one that allows us to come to terms affirmatively with the irreducible plurality of sacred objects in late modern life. With respect to sovereignty it is important to underline the significance of acts by which deep conflicts are settled; but it is equally important not to elevate them to the level of the sacred.” (2005,p.39). By this, Connolly is referring not to the relaxation of moral norms, but the entrenchment of positions, that often goes when people are discussing deeply normative values.
I finally read The Conservative Soul. I had borrowed this book more than three months ago from the library and it was sitting on my book shelf, before I decided to dig into it, to write a white paper on political theory. Given that most of my professors are Marxists, ex-Marxists or Liberals of some stripe, I rarely read any conservative writers. And given my own political leanings, which are somewhat liberal and thanks to Sullivan, I realize now, partly ‘conservative’, I have not been too attracted with screeds from conservatives. I must confess to having read my fair share of libertarians including Hayek, Mises and others of the Austrian School of Economics. This book is a good introduction to conservative thought.
What is the core argument here? Sullivan seems to be arguing that in our tech savvy, ever changing world, where uncertainty, destruction and change are the only norm, conservatism is a call for some stability. As a political philosophy, it roots people in something that is unchanging, traditional and for the lack of a better term ‘real.’ He does a pretty good job of tracing the history of the conservative movement in the U.K. (where he is from, originally) and the U.S. Given his personal background (A gay Catholic) and someone who has lived in the Western world all his life, there are a few good insights that inform his work. His take on how we are all away from home, displaced, anxious and in alien environments seems spot-on.
At the same time, he makes some fundamental errors when speaking of Islamic fundamentalism. He seems to be painting the Shii Fundamentalism of Iran in the same brush as the fundamentalism of Wahhabis. For someone who studied Political theory at Harvard, this is too great an error to conflate the two – but he does exactly this. His analysis of fundamentalism and linking it to extremism is also somewhat not fully developed. Though he does point out that there is little room for accommodation in any fundamentalist creed, is a somewhat flawed and superficial reading of the situation.
This analogy of painting all Islamic fundamentalisms in the same brush, while at the same time completely ignoring Orthodox Jewish fundamentalism – I don’t think there is a single line in the book that talks about it- smacks of either selective analysis or at worst bias. Not good in any case. Nevertheless, his analogy of different fundamentalisms is similar to an American’s concept of a mango. When Americans speak of mangoes, they usually speak of one or at best two varieties of mangoes, that are terrible, tasteless and bland (with due apologies to my Latin American friends). If one has lived in India or visited the country during the Mango season, one will realize that there are literally thousands of varieties of mangoes, each unique in its flavor, fragrance and color. Mango is considered the king of fruits in India – and with good reason. So, the concept of Mango for an American and an Indian is totally different. The same is the case with Sullivan – for whom anything with ‘Islamic’ seems uni-dimensional and reductionist. He does show some nuance with Christianity (not my specialty) so I will give him credit where it is due.
Looking at some of his other arguments, one sees that he does a good job of tracking how America became a ‘churched’ nation, as he quotes Roger Finke and Rodney Stark’s The Churching of America 1776-1990, a study that points out that prerevolutionary America had just 17 percent of the population was ‘churched’, while it grew to 30 percent in mid-nineteenth century and in 1980 was around 62 percent. This trend seems to be shifting, though slowly. As of 20013, Evangelism is on the decline, with the rise of Catholicism and other religions such as Islam, according to this insightful article in The American Scholar.
He sounds more like a pragmatist than a conservative when he says “And so contemporary conservatives accept this changed world and adapt themselves to it. May be they will try and restrain some of its worst impulses, or seize some new opportunities for growth and development. But they will start from where they are. Because there is no other place for a conservative to start.” While he supports basic healthcare for the poor and public education, he is all about small government. While Sullivan opposes progressive taxation, he offers no solution for how the government – small as it might be- should finance these very ventures that are it’s responsibility.
He also explicitly shies away from making any policy recommendations and offers a quasi-philosophical framework for analysis. His foreign policy analysis seems naïve at best, with all the cheering for Iraq war and espousing of a neoconservative line of thinking. While his support for minimal social welfare is laudable, and this is where I think he is a pragmatist, I don’t think his analysis of the securitization discourse is accurate at all. He seems to have bought into it, in total; with no doubt. When he says that international terrorism (and we know what he is referring to) is the greatest threat before us, this seems to ally with much of the discourse that came out of GW Bush’s administration. More fear mongering, so one can keep the security apparatus at an all-time alert – all to secure our borders from the ‘enemy’. Apparently, the international order, laws and conventions mean nothing to Sullivan – who lives in a world of his own making – a very dark one, indeed.
Overall, not a bad read. This book definitely provides insights into the challenges that many ‘progressive’ minded conservatives think. An easy read, but with a few gaps and undeveloped ideas. I would still recommend this book.
Sullivan, A. (2006).The Conservative Soul. Harper Collins. New York.