Friday, September 24, 2010

Gerstle - American Crucible

Gerstle, Gary. American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Argument & Key Terms
(p.4-5) Gerstle argues America pursued both civic and racial nationalism throughout the 20th century. Civic nationalism (from Michael Ignatieff and others) is the idealized perception of America as an ethnic and cultural melting pot which, resting on the values of equality and liberty inscribed in the founding documents, could accept waves of new immigrants and deal with a variety of ethnicities while still growing stronger and stronger as a nation of people.

Racial nationalism was a contradictory, conflicting ideal that emphasized America as the pinnacle of global civilization as the home of the greatest race in the world, the Anglo-Saxon. "Lesser" peoples, Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, and (before the 1930s) southern and eastern Europeans could never fully assimilate and thus never truly be members. They had to be prevented from entering, and expelled, segregated or subordinated.

Theodore Roosevelt looms as the catalyst for the book's trends. Gerstle is constantly noting what Roosevelt would have thought about a certain development. Roosevelt as President and as leader of the Progressive Party attempted to balance civic and racial nationalism. He believed firmly in the supremacy of the white Anglo-Saxon race, but also valued civic ideals and believed America could absorb new immigrants provided they assimilate through rugged individualism. His alliance with Progressives grew out of his recognition of the terrible poverty new immigrants faced. He borrowed Herbert Croly's idea of "New Nationalism," which said that the poverty created by industrialization had to be addressed by a strong state that could provide regulation and relief without turning to socialism. (p.67)

Trends, by Chapter
Ch. 3 Hardening the Boundaries of the Nation, 1917-1929: Immigration restriction intensifies along with racial nationalism. RN ASCENDENT

Ch. 4 The Rooseveltian Nation Ascendent, 1930-1940: FDR, who admired his older cousin greatly, finally got the chance to put TR's visions into place. Without bending to civil rights issues, FDR implemented a massive federal program of regulation, relief, and reform. TR would have particularly loved the uniformed, masculine CCC. RN STEADY WITH HOPE OF DECLINE

Ch. 5 Good War, Race War, 1941-1945: WWII, with the army still segregated, was fought most brutally in the Pacific amidst inherent racism against the Japanese. While blacks began to vocalize the inherent contradiction of fighting for a country in which they were deemed second class citizens, other previously lesser groups gained prestige: Jews, Catholics, southerners, etc. RN STEADY FOR BLACKS, DECLINE FOR OTHERS

Ch. 6, The Cold War, Anticommunism, and a Nation in Flux, 1946-1960: McCarthyism, unlike the first Red Scare, was directed not at new immigrants but at the liberal elite. Meanwhile, America began to face the contradiction of Jim Crow as it claimed the moral upperhand in the Cold War. RN DECLINE

Ch. 7 Civil Rights, White Resistance, and Black Nationalism, 1960-1968: MLK et al appealed to civic nationalism, but black nationalism emerged as a replacement for the civic nationalist ideal, which was called a lie. CN DECLINE

Ch. 8 Vietnam, Cultural Revolt and the Collapse of the Rooseveltian Nation, 1968-1975: Amidst the cultural upheaval and LBJ's calamity in Vietnam, the Rooseveltian Nation imagined by TR and built by FDR collapsed. CN DECLINE, FIRST PANGS OF MULTICULTURALISM

Epilogue Beyond the Rooseveltian Nation, 1975-2000: Gerstle argues Reagan returned to racial nationalism, but in a subtle, acceptable (in terms of political correctness) way. White and black communities remained separate in the 80s, and income gaps increased. Multiculturalism was offered as an alternative to Reagan's model. "Hard" multiculturalists argue that America's civic values cannot be salvaged. Some hard multiculturalists argue minority cultures poses the civic values mainstream America needs. Others dispute the idea that any particular culture has the necessary values. They celebrate cultural hybridity. (350-351) "Soft" multiculturalists believe in a blend between old American ideas and new diverse ideals from America's many cultures.

Use of Culture
The films of Frank Capra emphasize the Anglo-Saxon average American as its hero. (ch. 4)
Francis Ford Coppola, on the other hand, emphasized the Italian Family unit as being corrupted by capitalist America, rather than the other way around.

The Morgan Memorial "Deja Vu - You've Seen this Before"
Benedict Anderson - Imagined Communities: Gerstle is heavily influenced by Anderson's concept of nationalism as an imagined sense of belonging to a created community. The broad trends Gerstle discuss thus affect the self-identity held by all Americans throughout the century.

This synthesis also uses Denning's Cultural Front to describe the 30s.

This book has similar strengths and weaknesses to any synthesis. Gerstle paints in broadstrokes. He also writes in an easy-to-read style that would be accessible for an advanced undergraduate. His ideas are not earth shattering, but as a synthesis of the contradictions between racism and civic values in 20th century America, this book is outstanding. The emphasis on Theodore Roosevelt feels a little forced at times, and fresh at other times.

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