Sunday, September 19, 2010

Exclusively free

In The Two Faces of American Freedom, Aziz Rana laments the flawed promise of the frontier -- and what has replaced it.

The following review was recently posted on the Books page of the History News Network site.

It's a truism that has now vexed generations of historians: that in the United States, the people who have tended to have the most egalitarian class politics have also tended to be the most racist, while those with the most pluralistic vision have tended to be the most elitist. In American Slavery, American Freedom (1975), Edmund Morgan found the locus of this contradiction in the colonial slaveholding south. In The Rise and Fall of the White Republic (1990) Alexander Saxton found it in the culture of the nineteenth century urban working class (as did labor historian David Roediger, who collaborated on a recent second edition of Saxton's book).  In a sweeping reinterpretation of American history from the seventeenth century to the present, Cornell University Law professor Aziz Rana locates this American dilemma on the (shifting) western frontier in an ideology he calls "settlerism." Not surprisingly, Rana laments it. But he appears to be even unhappier with what's replaced it.

Rana begins his study by challenging the premises of American exceptionalism by arguing that in many respects the United States was a fairly typical empire from the beginning -- except for the fact that it tended to expel or exclude conquered people rather than directly subjugate them. (Yet even this was not unique; he notes a similar pattern can be discerned in the development of South Africa.) What did set the United States apart was its ability to successfully gain autonomy from the imperial metropole -- an aspiration that crystallized when Great Britain sought to reorganize a sprawling empire after 1763 by homogenizing privilege and limiting expansion in ways that colonial setters considered antithetical to their errand in the wilderness.

It is this dynamic of local autonomy and imperial expansion --the two faces of the title -- that Rana says historians like Gordon Wood overlook: the democratization of American society he and others have traced overlook its dependence on the exploitation of Others. Settlerism relied on the fuel of (white) immigration to sustain it, which is why certain kinds of Europeans enjoyed surprising rights like suffrage even before they became citizens, and why non-Europeans have had a devilishly difficult time procuring them. With rare exceptions like Orestes Brownson, or the workingmens' parties of New York and Philadelphia, this freedom was understood in negative rather than positive terms: central government was the problem, not the solution. So it was that Jefferson rather than Hamilton, dominated early American politics, and the farmer trumped the merchant in the collective imagination. Abraham Lincoln? A big government guy itching to seize billions of dollars worth of property and destroy centuries of freedom (i.e. the right to own other people).

The irony, as Rana and others have noted, is that what would become a characteristically Jacksonian approach to freedom jealously checked government power but left Americans defenseless against the depredations of corporate power. This new form of tyranny cloaked itself in a free labor ideology presented as the logical heir of Jeffersonian yeomanry. After the Civil War, populist leaders like Tom Watson and labor organizers like Eugene Debs challenged this substitution by arguing for a modified form of producerism that emphasized meaningful work, not mindless drudgery. In a departure from the earlier generation of continental expansionists, many of these people began to also challenge imperial expansion overseas, for reasons that ranged from moral principle to racism. And as the frontier closed, they began to lose their enthusiasm for immigration.

But the charms of empire proved too great to resist. Meanwhile, in the decades after 1896, progressive elites decided that the best way to combat corporate power lay erecting a government apparatus that promoted the common good as something to be delivered via administrative expertise. By the time of the New Deal, "freedom no longer amounted to collective control over the basic sites of decision making; rather, it comprised security from economic want." The presidency was increasingly seen as the barometer of popular will, which justified its ever-growing power. Yet as we all know, that power has also become increasingly less accountable. It has typically been exercised in foreign adventures that are embarked upon in the name of preserving freedom, but which end up actually sacrificing it, both in terms of local power and human life.  

Rana renders this story in a sturdily constructed narrative girded by illustrations from  an array of Supreme Court cases, some well-known, others obscure, and still others, like the Dred Scott case, analyzed in a fresh light. He identifies a strand running from Thomas Skidmore through Randolph Bourne to Martin Luther King that he believes offers an alternative America of universal egalitarianism, one that emphasizes the distribution of freedom and power broadly. It does not rely, as the Civil Rights movement increasingly has, by defining social progress in terms of creating opportunities for minorities to join elites, rather than challenging the premise of elitism itself. Rana places his future hopes, as improbable as he knows they are, on immigrant protest against second-class citizenship.

This strikes me as an intelligent, honest, and decent critique of American society. I do have reservations. As a matter of style, I wish Rana would wean himself of his tendency to use the phrase "in other words," which is at best tedious and at worst engenders suspicions of rhetorical legerdemain.  I think he creates a misleading impression that late nineteenth century  farmers and labor ever achieved much resembling real symbiosis in their challenge to industrial capitalism (he fails to note mutual suspicion, and antithetical interests, like food pricing, that characterized their relationship), and I think he underestimates the degree to which managerial elites of the New Deal order were challenged in the decades since (Ronald Reagan isn't even in the index!).

My biggest concern, though, is that there's an oddly abstract air to this lament for a vanishing, albeit flawed, American freedom. Actually, I don't really know what freedom finally means to Rana. I might have a better sense if he actually took us to what he regarded as an effective New England town meeting, or visited a western town in which a real-life Jimmy Stewart was hard at work, so that we could see just what it was that he values. (T. H. Breen does this brilliantly in his new book American Insurgents, American Patriots, in which he peoples his analysis with individuals who took liberty into their own hands and made a new nation.)

For freedom is a means, not an end. And so I feel compelled to ask: What does Rana want?  He is sorry that Americans have been so ready to settle for mere security, but what else is there? One answer, of course, is the esteem that comes with publishing books with high-profile presses and teaching at an Ivy League university. But of course not all of us are as smart, talented, and lucky as he his. I myself have another answer, which among other ways takes the form of paying absurdly high local taxes for what some administrators would plausibly consider an absurdly inefficient (read: small) school district. That gives me the right to be a helicopter parent and to vote on an annual school budget. On Sundays, I can nod to a couple local policemen from my pew at church, which I hope will make a difference on a future bad day. I'm not sure how many brown neighbors I have (a few), but none of them are cleaning my house or mowing my lawn. (I do both; Rana regrets to observe at one point that one thing feminism has come to mean is a career premised on low-wage help.) No one would call this utopia. But does it count as an authentic form of freedom, albeit underwritten by the prerogatives of empire? (Really: Can freedom ever not be?) I don't imagine it would satisfy Thomas Jefferson -- I've got too much attachment, literally and figuratively, to the city. But how about Aziz Rana? If this isn't good enough, what is?

These are not rhetorical questions. However he might answer them, now or later, I honor Rana on a fine debut -- and provisionally recommend the pleasures, and maybe even the virtues, of settling for suburban living as one face of American freedom.