Friday, April 27, 2012

Coming Soon: Religion and Media Blog Tour (also, some Friday thoughts)

Next week Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg is holding a two-week blog tour in connection with its new concentration in religion and media studies... and Uncle Sam's Attic is the tour's Thursday stop.  Dr. Mary Hess of Luther Seminary, an accomplished scholar in the fields of education, religion, popular culture and new media, will reply to a question I have posed to her--and will pose one for me to respond to, in turn.  Please join us next Thursday, May 3, and share your thoughts!  For more information and a complete list of tour sites, click here.

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Meanwhile, and at least tangentially related to the topic of the media, I was struck by an article I read the other day regarding Republicans' concerns about the negative effects of the party's protracted primary campaign.  Some notable Republicans are worried that presumptive nominee Mitt Romney will be unable to effectively transition from an "anti" politics toward articulation of a positive vision for the future of the United States.

I was reminded of Democrats' success in identifying Republican nominee Barry Goldwater as an extremist in the 1964 presidential campaign.  While such media milestones as the infamous Daisy Ad were notably uncharitable toward the Arizona senator, Goldwater didn't do himself many favors with his reputation for "anti" politics (i.e., opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964), and his impassioned proclamation at the Republican National Convention that "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice."  Unable to break out of the vice of negativity--and, quite possibly, insurmountably handicapped by national sentiment following John Kennedy's assassination the previous fall--Goldwater was buried under a landslide of votes for Lyndon Johnson.

But.  The 1964 election was notable for another speech.  In the closing days of the race, a former actor and General Electric spokesman by the name of Ronald Reagan gave a televised speech in support of Goldwater called "A Time for Choosing."  Reagan was polished; Reagan was articulate; Reagan looked nice, and friendly, and presented a positive vision for the future.  While 1964 looked like a dismal failure for the conservative wing of the GOP, in a broader sense it marked the foundation of what would become its most notable success.

Positive vision?  That, Reagan could do, regardless of how Americans have felt about his politics.  And it was remarkably effective for both the man and his party.  Whether Romney can channel similar vision remains to be seen.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Women and Politics

Historian Mary C. Brennan recently posted an interesting commentary on the History News Network site devoted to discussing how politicians, and especially (although certainly not exclusively) conservatives and Republican politicians, have been eager to use wives and women as symbols of motherhood, domesticity and family values.  As she points out, this usage has not been historically static (see the activist roles played by Lou Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt before this trend accelerated in the tumultuous years of the '60s and '70s)--nor has it reflected the true range of female participation in the body politic.

Indeed, as Brennan alludes to and as she and many others have demonstrated in greater detail elsewhere, women were foundational to the growth and development of the postwar conservative movement precisely because they were willing to overstep the boundaries of home and family to become fervent advocates of political causes in which they believed.  In a reflection of the complexity of the time--and of life in general--many times they rationalized their activism in the context of their roles as wives and mothers.  Certainly this was nothing new (see Adams, Abigail, et. al.).  But it was women who organized much of the anticommunist agitation of the 1950s and '60s (Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors [ 2001] remains the outstanding exposition of this trend).  It was women who were mobilized--and in turn mobilized each other--as single-issue campaigns became the heart of conservative activism in the 1970s.

Furthermore, as Catherine Rymph describes in her Republican Women (2006) and I have found in my own research, women have formed the backbone of campaign apparatus since long before the rise of second wave feminism in the 1960s.  I came across a particularly interesting case in the story of Jean Young, a Republican activist in Oregon from the 1940s through her death in 1992 who was active in fields ranging from education and the state wage-and-hour commission to electoral reform.  She was a longtime vice chairwoman of the Multnomah County GOP, a state-level party official, a delegate to numerous Republican National Conventions and a tireless campaigner on behalf of candidates for local and state office.

Young was not an ideologue; rather, she was a party loyalist.  Even GOP maverick Tom McCall, Oregon's governor in the late '60s and early '70s, earned her support.  Intriguingly, however, it was in 1970 that she encountered the limits of political organizing.  Young was placed in charge of a "Women for McCall 70 Club" charged with entering a new realm of female Republican politicking: fundraising. Women had accepted the responsibility of voting wholeheartedly, she told her putative supporters; women outpolled men by two million voters in 1968.  Women were, however, lacking in another area of political responsibility: fundraising.  "I hope that we can show the men of the Party that we women can do other things that count beside fold letters and lick stamps," she told a colleague.  Unfortunately, however, Women for McCall 70 raised only about $7,500 of its $28,000 goal. (1)

With Women for McCall 70, Young came up against a significant limitation to women's organizational prowess: money.  Soliciting donors from the community of women activists ran up against the realities of female political voluntarism.  Without income, women could fold the letters and lick the stamps; they could not write the checks.

The question, however, remains: which is more important, funding or activism?  In our money-driven political system it is easy to answer "funding."  The story of political activism, and conservative political activism in particular, however, seems to indicate that the answer may not be so clear-cut.  Young failed in her fundraising endeavor, but she and many thousands of party loyalists like her--and their ideologue counterparts--played a pivotal role in determining the agenda and the success of countless campaigns around the country.

On NPR this morning I caught a quick snippet of a story about how contemporary campaigns are having a difficult time recruiting student activists in light of the poor economy and students' preoccupations with survival and jobs post-graduation.  Meanwhile, some of the female networks that earlier provided the legwork for political campaigns have evaporated in the reality of two-income families and over-scheduled lives.  Have we created a vacuum for funding to take precedence?  What does this spell for our future?  If we are unhappy with such an outcome, how might it be altered?  The answers are not clear-cut, but the historical context provides important ballast to the debate.

(1) Undated [c. 1970] form letter from Jean Young, box 1, folder "Women for McCall 70 Club I"; August 6, 1970 letter from Young to "Tip," box 1, folder "Women for McCall 70 Club I"; "Keep Oregon, Oregon.  Keep Tom McCall" Newsletter, September 18, 1970, box 1, folder "McCall 1970"; all Jean Young Papers, Mss 1863, Oregon Historical Society, Portland, Oregon.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Onward and Upward

I've been seriously derelict in posting to this blog.  I've felt long on frustration and short on inspiration lately in the world of life-more-generally, but I know full well that if I am to translate my "I should be doing x and not doing y" into actually doing x (and not y), I need to move beyond nightly self-recriminations for time ill-spent and actually start accomplishing things.  So, step one: engage in the online behavior that is constructive for me (blogging and reading other useful blogs) and cut back on the behavior that sends me into destructive cycles of angst.  Also, cut back on online time and wheel-spinning more broadly and use my hours on things more productive, like scholarly reading.  And laundry.

In that spirit, since it's a beautiful day and I should be getting back into a fascinating book by William Robbins on the subject of Oregon's recent environmental history (Landscapes of Conflict), I leave you with an example of a useful blog -- for me, at least, in my work as a historian.  The blog in question is that of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History.  While I would not categorize myself as an "intellectual historian," I do harbor a deep fascination with the ways ideas have influenced society.  I see the influence of ideas upon my own work, and would like to engage in this arena of study more deeply.  The various contributors to this blog rarely fail to leave me energized as a scholar (even if, as happens occasionally, they leave me completely bewildered).

Onward and upward... and out to the patio.  Robbins awaits.  More to come.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Mike Wallace (1918-2012)

[Photo credit]

Alas; the end of an era. As someone who named her cat after Walter Cronkite, it's hard for me to see these icons fade away. Mike Wallace was a controversial character -- and he was, above all, a character -- but I mourn the loss of a truly "national" media in the LBJ-only-needed-3-Oval-Office-TV-sets-to-catch-all-the-news sense of the term. I realize this system had its shortfalls, but I feel there was an advantage in the reality that a less polymorphous media world forced us to communicate to at least some degree with each other. Today, we speak in parallel. More may speak, and this is a good thing. But when we speak in parallel, we fail to intersect. Mediating the challenges of our multivalent existence is something we will need to come to terms with if the new world is to represent any improvement over the old.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Quote of the day

"History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do."

--James Baldwin, quoted in Daniel T. Rodgers' Age of Fracture (2011)