As the weather cools and the holiday season approaches, treat yourself to one of our great new December titles!
In On Paradox, Elizabeth S. Anker contends that the faith in the logic of paradox has been the watermark of left intellectualism since the second half of the twentieth century, showing how paradox generates the very exclusions it critiques and undercuts theory’s commitment to social justice.
Piro Rexhepi explores the overlapping postsocialist and postcolonial border regimes in the Balkans that are designed to protect whiteness and exclude Muslim, Roma, and migrant communities in White Enclosures.
The contributors to Turning Archival, edited by Daniel Marshall and Zeb Tortorici, trace the rise of “the archive” as an object of historical desire and study within queer studies and examine how it fosters historical imagination and knowledge.
In Feltness, Stephanie Springgay considers socially engaged art as a practice of research-creation that germinates a radical pedagogy she calls feltness—a set of intimate practices of creating art based on touch, affect, relationality, love, and responsibility.
Ain’t But a Few of Us, edited by Willard Jenkins, presents over two dozen candid dialogues with Black jazz critics and journalists who discuss the barriers to access for Black jazz critics and how they contend with the world of jazz writing dominated by white men.
In Poverty and Wealth in East Africa, Rhiannon Stephens offers a conceptual history of how people living in eastern Uganda have sustained and changed their ways of thinking about wealth and poverty over the past two thousand years.
Examining a wide range of photography from across the global South, the contributors to Cold War Camera, edited by Thy Phu, Erina Duganne, and Andrea Noble, explore the visual mediation of the Cold War, illuminating how photography shaped how it was prosecuted and experienced.
Through close readings of slave narratives, scrapbooks, travel illustration, documentary film and photography, as well as collage, craft, and sculpture, Jasmine Nichole Cobb explores Black hair as a visual material through which to reimagine the sensual experience of Blackness in New Growth.
The contributors to New World Orderings, edited by Lisa Rofel and Carlos Rojas, demonstrate that China’s twenty-first-century rise occurs not only through economics and state politics, but equally through its relationships and interactions with the Global South.
Focusing on his personal day to day experiences of the “shelter-in-place” period during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, Alberto Moreiras offers a meditation on intellectual life and the nature of thought under the suspension of time and conditions of isolation in Uncanny Rest.
In Ruderal City, Bettina Stoetzer traces the more-than-human relationships between people, plants, and animals in contemporary Berlin, showing how Berlin’s “urban nature” becomes a key site in which notions of citizenship and belonging as well as racialized, gendered, and classed inequalities become apparent.
Veit Erlmann examines the role of copyright law in post-apartheid South Africa and its impact on the South African music industry in Lion’s Share, showing how copyright is inextricably entwined with race, popular music, postcolonial governance, indigenous rights, and the struggle to create a more equitable society.
Rumya Sree Putcha uses the figure of the Indian classical dancer to explore the complex dynamics of contemporary transnational Indian womanhood in The Dancer′s Voice.
In Feminism in Coalition Liza Taylor examines how U.S. women of color feminists’ coalitional collective politics of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s is an indispensable resource to contemporary political theory, feminist studies, and intersectional social justice activism.
Hiʻilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani Hobart charts the social history of ice in Hawaiʻi in Cooling the Tropics, showing how ice and refrigeration underpinned settler colonial ideas about race, environment, and the senses.
The contributors to Siting Postcoloniality, edited by Pheng Cheah and Caroline S. Hau, reevaluate the notion of the postcolonial by focusing on the Sino-sphere—the region of East and Southeast Asia that has been significantly shaped by relations with China throughout history.
Rupal Oza follows the social life of rape in rural northwest India to reveal how rape is a language through which issues ranging from caste to justice to land are contested in Semiotics of Rape.
Today is National Coming Out Day. We offer an excerpt from historian John D’Emilio’s new bookMemories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood, in which he talks about his own coming out while he was a college student at Columbia in the 1960s.
The summer of 1967, I had a job at the Federal Bureau of Customs, whose offices were in Lower Manhattan near Battery Park. The job was available through a federal Great Society program designed to provide work experience for college students. In my case, the job was a farce. Assigned to the personnel division, I was pointed by my supervisor to a long row of filing cabinets containing the personnel folders of every bureau employee and was told to put them “in order.” He didn’t provide any substance for the phrase, and so I began arranging the files alphabetically and putting the materials in each file in chronological order. Soon, I was taking longer and longer lunch hours, and no one seemed to notice. I used those midday breaks to explore a part of Manhattan that was unfamiliar to me—the streets of the financial district, the waterfront at Manhattan’s southern tip, the huge construction site from which the World Trade Center would soon rise. And as I walked, I looked. Nothing ever emerged from that cruising, since all of us were on lunch hour and could not retreat anywhere for a sexual encounter. But it did confirm in my head that this was the path I was on.
After nine months in a dormitory, living at home that summer was not easy. I couldn’t talk to Mom and Dad about anything that mattered to me. Politics, religion, and, of course, sex: none of it was safe ground. The dinner conversation about family happenings that had so engrossed me as a child no longer held my interest. More and more, I found myself staying in Manhattan after work and not getting home until it was almost bedtime. Mom and Dad expected me to account for my whereabouts if I didn’t come home for dinner. There were many evenings for which I did have a story to tell. I often hung out with Regis friends who were back from college for the summer. But more than a few times I had to invent something, since I had stayed in Manhattan to wander the streets looking, and sometimes finding. Besides the Times Square area, I had noticed on one of my movie nights at a theater in the East Fifties that Third Avenue was, perhaps, an even heavier cruising area than Times Square, so it, too, became a hunting ground.
One evening, walking on Third Avenue, my eyes locked with someone. His name was Luis, and, as with Jose, he was a Cuban who had fled the revolution and now worked at the un. He lived nearby and took me to his apartment, where we had sex. But instead of my leaving immediately afterward, which had always been the case with the few experiences that did not involve public sex, Luis invited me to stay for dinner. Maybe because I had now turned a corner and was seeing myself as homosexual, I began talking to Luis about my life. I told him that I was a student at Columbia, that I was hoping to major in religion, that I had always lived in New York. Luis made me comfortable enough that I felt the freedom to share the struggles I was having. He listened patiently, talked about the hard times he had gone through earlier in life, and assured me that things would change. I so wanted to believe him. He gave me his phone number and encouraged me to call; as I was about to leave, he signaled to me to wait. He walked to a bookcase in his living room and pulled out a thin volume.
“You should read this,” he said as he placed it in my hands. “A friend gave it to me a few years ago. It offered a comfort that I badly needed as I was struggling with my love for a man. Maybe it will help you too.”
The book was De Profundis, by Oscar Wilde. I knew a little about Wilde. His play The Importance of Being Earnest was a standard work on literature reading lists. He was the only historical figure I was aware of who was identified as homosexual, and I knew that the scandal surrounding this had resulted in a prison sentence. I thanked Luis, we kissed goodbye, and I took the subway home to the Bronx.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. The conversation with Luis had left me awash in feelings. Finally, I got up and tiptoed quietly to the living room, closed the door to the hallway so that I wouldn’t wake anyone, and turned on a light. I opened De Profundis, began reading, and finished it in a single sitting. Fifty years later, I still place it among the most profound pieces of writing I have ever encountered. Nothing else that I have read changed my life to the extent that it did. Yes, James Baldwin made me realize that there were men who desired men. David Hume made me question whether God existed. But Oscar Wilde’s words allowed me to see my sexual desires in an entirely new light and to imagine a life with integrity.
Written while he was still in prison and composed as a letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, De Profundis detailed the story of Wilde’s love for Douglas and how it led ultimately to his trial and imprisonment. Wilde is unsparing in his criticism of Douglas. And yet, even though his passion for Douglas brought complete ruin, De Profundis is very much a paean to love and, surprisingly, one that Wilde grounded in the story of Jesus. To Jesus, according to Wilde, “love was the first secret of the world.” His power resided in the way that he projected love wherever he went. The lessons Wilde drew from the moral vision of Jesus spoke to me directly. “The real fool,” he wrote, “is he who does not know himself.” Wilde’s peroration, repeated many times in the course of the text—“whatever is realized is right”—was like a clarion call. I read it as a command to recognize the rightness of my deepest feelings. Reading those pages, I considered for the first time that loving men might be morally good. It is barely an exaggeration to say that De Profundis saved my life.
At one point in the text, Wilde declared that “to speak the truth is a painful thing. To be forced to tell lies is much worse.” Anyone aspiring to a Christlike life “must be entirely and absolutely himself.” His frequent invocation of Jesus allowed me to embrace my sexual desires and still retain a sense of myself as an ethical being. It was possible both to be gay and to live out the values that I had so deeply internalized in my Catholic upbringing, even if the church as an institution no longer had a place in my life.
One sign of the indisputable power of Wilde’s words over me is that, a few days later, I “came out” for the first time, though I didn’t yet have those words to describe what I was doing.
In a letter that I addressed to both Bob and Vinny in seminary, I wrote that I was now approaching life and religion “from a path previously unseen.” I described my reading of De Profundis and how it had wrenched my soul. But the melody of Wilde’s message, and especially his presentation of Jesus as love personified, also was like a revelation. As I explained to them, it was allowing me to recognize that the attractions I had long felt for men, but had never revealed except to priests and a psychologist, were natural to me. Acknowledging some of the encounters that I’d had in the last two months, I brashly declared, “I don’t feel guilty anymore.” But although I was opening up to them, I asked them not to reveal it to anyone else. “Of course, it’s still a secret thing,” I wrote in closing. “It has to be.”
John D’Emilio is Emeritus Professor of History and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and the author of many books, including The World Turned: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and Culture, also published by Duke University Press; Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin; Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940–1970; and Queer Legacies: Stories from Chicago’s LGBTQ Archives. Save 30% on Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood with coupon code E22DEMIL.
My mother chose not to talk about my father’s second marriage with anyone beyond a couple of her siblings and nieces. Nor did she even hint at it in her interviews in the 1990s and in her written memoirs. My father had kept his second family a secret from the first to his dying days.
Their silence posed for me, throughout the work on this project, the unresolvable ethical dilemma that many (auto)biography writers and memoirists have noted. As Nancy Miller has put it, “Memoir writers necessarily blur the lines between autobiography and biography, self and other, especially when a child tells the parents’ story.” Telling these stories is “to retrieve a past that is ours but not ours alone.”1
What right did I have to write my parents’ story when they had chosen silence? Shouldn’t I respect my father’s secrecy and my mother’s desire for keeping its knowledge confined? I understood my father’s keeping the second marriage a secret to have been an effect of a middle-class modernist and Baha’i embarrassment, if not shame, over his bigamy, his way of living his love for Mansureh under circumstances that had made that option no longer a publicly accepted practice. As Deborah Cohen has put it in a different context, “Secrecy guaranteed both security and authenticity.”2 In my father’s case, the authenticity of his being a modern Baha’i, whose new faith emphasized monogamy much more strongly than his old faith and practices in his parental generation had, and security from the possibility of losing Fari and the custody of his two children (me and my sister, Farzaneh), a possibility that had been shaped by my mother’s education and professional life, as well as the support she received from her family (inclusive of her sister’s husband who was my father’s uncle too) — secrecy guaranteed both.
I understood my mother’s desire for keeping a relative silence over that belated knowledge as her way of saving face, of remaining respectful as many relatives had said, in circumstances where things going wrong in marriage were by default seen as shortcomings of the wife. But things mattered only if they were known. Keeping silent made keeping face possible. I thus justified my desire to tell their story as my way of attempting to open up the possibility of reducing injury and disrespect, embarrassment and shame, over their life choices.
It is at times said that historians are motivated by the desire to speak of the dead and, even more, to speak on behalf of the dead. Some of the recent decades of recuperative historiography have indeed been informed by this desire to compensate for silences in history and give voice to the silenced. Yet what of the desire of the dead to remain silent? What of the lives made possible through keeping silent?
Quite early on, when I first started thinking about this project, I contacted one of my maternal cousins to inquire about memories of our mothers and our grandmother. She was reluctant to talk; she wrote that her “first reaction was that I wanted to ‘protect’ them and their legacy. Would my mother or yours want to have the public exposed to the ‘family secrets’?” What right did I have, she insisted, to tell the stories of “family members unable to speak for themselves”?
At the time, I shrugged this objection off, largely because I was thinking of my writing as an act of empathy with these lives, not as critical judgment of their choices, decisions, and lives lived. As my work developed, I was even more certain that I could write in total empathy with all my characters; though at times empathy with my father would become challenging!
Nonetheless, my cousin’s early warning remained an echo in my head that wouldn’t go away. Conversations with other relatives would bring it back in new contexts. A paternal uncle talked about several incidents he had heard about: two related to my father’s “scandalous behavior,” apparently propositioning other women from the family, but several were about other people —so many Najmabadi men’s scandals . . . we began to joke about whether this was a genetic trait! Each time, he made it clear that none of these stories were meant for re-telling. He emphasized that even though he talked about these stories to me, this had been a very rare thing for him to do; he definitely would not want any story to be re-told.
Another relative told similar stories about Najmabadi men, repeatedly prefacing each story by saying, “I don’t engage in gossip, astaghfar allah [may God forgive me], but . . .” The repeated disavowal of gossip, in conversations with Arafat Razzaque and his dissertation on ethics of speech in the formation of early Islamic piety, brought forth another layer of this shadowy weight on my writing.3 I too had grown up within an ethics of speech centered on restraint of the tongue, hifz al-lisan. This ethics was not simply located within the high Islamic culture of texts and teachings on piety, within books of ethics and injunctions to the pious. I too had grown up with cautions concerning excesses of talking that seeped through often-repeated advice: Why do you think God has given you two ears and one tongue? Hear twice before you talk once.
Most severely, the narrative attributed to the Prophet on gossip was often repeated: alghibaashaddu min al-zina, roughly translated as “gossip is worse than fornication.” Given that telling about someone else’s sinful deed is considered a sin, and perhaps even a more severe sin than the committing of the sin itself, how does one go about telling other people’s lives — sins and all? Given the culture of keeping things unsaid, letting things pass rather than be told and re-told, how ethical is my writing of other people’s stories? If we take gossip itself as a critical “way of knowing,” indeed, at times, as a “weapon of the weak,” as an important source for historical cultural understanding, how do we deal with the shadow of shame hanging over the knowledge generated through gossip?
Within this kind of cultural ethos, how does one write about family secrets in a way that does not do harm to others’ sensibilities? Is there a way of telling a story they had chosen not to tell that would open up possibilities of reducing injury and disrespect? Do I just not tell things that were “too scandalous”? Clearly my father didn’t want the family on this side of town to know about the family on the other side of town. His story had, of course, already come out after his death because of legal requirements related to inheritance division, but even then, it had remained known only within a limited circle of people. Yet over the past years, my pursuit of his story has made
it known to ever wider circles of people. Each time when I started a conversation with another relative by saying, “Did you know my father had another wife?,” I made that circle of knowing larger. Writing and publishing a book would make it known to an even wider circle.
The ethics and politics of retrieving a past “that is not ours alone” is not simply a memoirist’s dilemma, of course. This is what historians do all the time. Usually, we have no reason to assume that the stories retrieved are objectionable to those whose stories we have retrieved. But we also usually have no information on whether it would not be objectionable. For characters unknown to us personally, we tend not to worry.
What are the ethics of using what we save, or have been entrusted to keep? My parents had come to London in the winter of 1980 to visit me and my family. They had planned to stay a month or so, then go to Phoenix, Arizona, to visit my sister. The visit became an immigration: we insisted that they were retired and both their children were abroad; life in Iran, especially in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of a small town, during the early revolutionary years of upheaval and with attacks against Baha’is, seemed to be too risky to return to, even though my father’s conversion might not have been locally known. Why not stay for a while in the United States until things calmed down? We kept them abroad.
They had come with two suitcases. The following spring, on my visit to Tehran, I selected things to bring for them: some clothes, a few books, a selection of photographs from family albums, and a bunch of letters tied together. I recognized my father’s handwriting. On closer inspection, they turned out to be letters my father had written over the first year of my parents’ marriage when he was not in Tehran with his new bride. These also came with me. At one point, when my mother was angry at my father after she had found out about his other wife, she had wanted to throw them out. I told her I would like to save them; they became mine, though I did not read them until my familial detective journey began in 2014.
Is it ethical to use my father’s letters to my mother, which she wanted to throw out? Just because I asked her to let me keep them and she agreed? At the time, of course, neither she nor I had any reason to imagine that some two decades later I would be writing this manuscript. What makes them mine to use for this project?
Nancy Miller, “Putting Ourselves in the Picture: Memoirs and Mourning,” in The Familial Gaze, ed. Marianne Hirsch (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1999), 51 – 66, quotes from 51.
Deborah Cohen, Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day (London: Viking, 2013), 122.
Arafat Razzaque, “The Sin of Ghība in Early Islamic Thought: The Zuhd Tradition, Late Antique Religion, and Ibn Abī l-Dunyā’s Book on the Ethics of the Tongue” (PhD diss., Harvard University, 2020).
We are very excited that the second edition of our bestselling book The Mexico Reader is now available. In today’s guest post, editors Gilbert M. Joseph and Timothy J. Henderson reflect on the process of editing the new edition and explain what’s new and what’s been removed. We hope you’ll adopt the new edition for your courses or, if you’re traveling to Mexico soon, pick up a copy for yourself.
The first edition of The Mexico Reader was extremely well received by both scholars and the general reading public. In preparing the second edition, we were determined to maintain the elements that accounted for the first edition’s success while making the volume more inclusive and bringing it up to date. We dropped a few of the pieces from the earlier edition, some because they had become dated, others because the cost of the publishing rights had become prohibitive. We shortened some pieces for the same reasons, and also to keep an already hefty volume from becoming morbidly obese. We did new translations of a few pieces because the earlier translations were too expensive and/or because we felt they could be improved upon. And finally, we expanded our commitment to include riveting photos and other visual images, as well as evocative passages from contemporary poems and corridos (ballads).
We also sought to give greater attention to issues of ethnicity, race and gender. These are clearly complex topics everywhere, and certainly—perhaps especially—in Mexico. We therefore added some pieces that we hope will help readers to grasp at least a bit of that complexity. To add to our understanding of Pre-Columbian cosmologies and attitudes towards animals and the environment, we commissioned historian Andrés Bustamante Agudelo and archaeologist Israel Elizalde Méndez’s piece on Aztec Emperor Montezuma’s “Zoo.” A couple of entries (Alexander von Humboldt, Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán, and a gallery of images of contemporary mobilizations in the state of Guerrero) consider the contributions of Afro-Mexicans, a group that was largely absent from the first edition. We have also added some pieces that we hope will help readers better appreciate the challenges faced by Mexican—often Indigenous—women and gender non-conforming Mexicans (Gloria Anzaldúa, Marcela García on the movie Roma, Gabriela Cano on a transgender soldier in the Zapatista ranks, Gabriela Soto Laveaga on the career of an extraordinary traditional healer and the critical role that Indigenous midwives and medical practitioners have played during the Covid-19 pandemic). And while the first edition did feature an expansive view of “Mexicanidad”—one that included Mexicans living outside of Mexico as well as non-Mexicans in Mexico—we have added some pieces that expand and deepen that theme. These include an analysis of the mid-19th-century Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Gloria Anzaldúa on the transgressive and gendered role of language in notions of Mexicanness, Enrique Valencia’s polemical border ballad for the undocumented, “Somos Más Americanos”/ “We Are More American,” and Jorge Ramos’ op ed in the time of COVID, “Should I Die Abroad, Bring Me Back to Mexico.”.
The issue of immigration has long loomed large in relations between Mexico and the United States, and it was by no means neglected in the first edition of the reader. But the second edition was completed almost entirely during the presidency of Donald Trump, whose ferocious nativism—even at a time when Mexican immigration to the United States was near an all-time low—forced some reconsideration of the issue. Trump and his allies charged that the border was in a state of perpetual crisis and that the United States must build a mighty wall to hermetically seal it away from the threats posed by its southern neighbors. While we have strived to present a variety of perspectives in this book, and to avoid trumpeting our own views, we felt it necessary to push back against the torrents of misinformation, disinformation, and extreme rhetoric emanating from the Trump White House. We have, therefore, unapologetically included some pieces that tend to subvert the Trumpist narrative on immigration (Timothy Henderson on historical notions of a “Wetback Invasion” and incisive reporting on immigration and deportation by award-winning journalists Julia Preston and Sonia Nazario).
The first edition of The Mexico Reader appeared in 2002, and much has happened in Mexico since then. We have therefore added a new section titled “From the Perfect Dictatorship to an Imperfect Democracy,” which is introduced by a detailed narrative of Mexican affairs over the last two decades. When the first edition of The Mexico Reader appeared, the North American Free Trade Agreement had been in effect for less than a decade. As the second edition appears, the agreement is nearly thirty years old and has a new name (the “United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA), but it remains controversial. We have included a pair of sharply conflicting views of the agreement’s impact (by U.S. economist Mark Weisbrot and former Mexican president Vicente Fox). Likewise, in 2002, Mexico’s democracy was in its infancy. The nation’s experiences since that time bear out Wayne Cornelius’s prediction that the transition to a full democratic system would be “protracted and highly uneven,” but his assurance that this transition would “advance steadily to completion” may have been a bit overly optimistic. Corruption in government and law enforcement; a troubled relationship with the rule of law; the increased violence, brazenness, and impunity of criminal cartels, and the sometimes-reckless populism of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the epoch’s most prominent political figure—all have placed tremendous strains on Mexico’s democratizing efforts, as the new selections by John Gibler, Ioan Grillo, López Obrador, and Denise Dresser make painfully clear. Mexico’s nascent democracy has repeatedly been pushed to—and beyond—its breaking point. The human toll has been horrific, but as we also show, it has not been borne by civil society with resignation.
We sincerely hope that educators, students, travelers, and general readers will find the new edition of The Mexico Reader engaging and enlightening. Both of us find Mexico to be a complex and endlessly fascinating country, and we are aware that no one book—not even one as corpulent as this one—can really do it justice. Sadly, if folks form their impression of Mexico from its irregular mention in the polarizing U.S. media and political arena, they will inevitably conclude that it is a dark and dangerous place. We have tried to counter that impression by presenting a well-rounded and nuanced picture, providing a new generation of readers with a solid introduction to the country’s many wonders and many challenges.
Penny M. Von Eschen is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American Studies and Professor of History at the University of Virginia. In her new book, Paradoxes of Nostalgia, Von Eschen offers a sweeping examination of the cold war’s afterlife and the lingering shadows it casts over geopolitics, journalism, and popular culture.
Your introduction discusses the many ramifications of the dissolution of the Soviet Union on American domestic politics, from the rise of family-values conservatism in the 1990s to the War on Terror to Trump’s appropriation of alt-right nationalism a few years ago. What do you think it was about the American experience of the cold war that created such a lasting impact on American society?
Cold war ideology and practices encouraged an American identity structured around an enemy and a deep sense of an existential threat to the American way of life. With the disappearance of the Soviet bogeyman, prominent politicians set about the construction of new enemies at home and abroad. Looking outward, academics, policymakers, and popular culture (think of Tom Clancy and Hollywood) turned to a clash of civilizations frame where Muslim peoples in particular were seen as constituting a threat to the “West.”
Looking inward, with declining standards of living for the middle class and accelerating inequality in the global economy, many Americans began turning on each other. The conservative rhetoric of “family values” had long been a staple of the New Right but escalated dramatically in the early 1990s. Now that the US government (really New Deal/Great Society liberalism) was no longer held as a superior model to the Soviet state, government itself became the enemy, pitted against the family in the minds of Pat Buchanan and leaders of the Christian right. Since the late 1940s, cold war attacks against “godless communism” mobilized an anti-communist consensus premised on the idea that the US was a Christian nation. Those key conservative tenets of the Reagan era, the Christian right and antigovernment ideology, accelerated after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The roots of a later convergence between American and Russian conservatives can be seen in the early nineties. With the Soviet enemy gone, “family values” conservatives scapegoated Black Americans, immigrants, and LGBTQ people, and discredited government as protecting the lives and livelihoods of these undeserving groups. Rebooting the cold war notion that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, anti-government Americans found new, if unexpected cultural bedfellows from right wing Russians.
And critically, the lasting impact of the cold war on American society lies in the decisions made—and the roads not taken—in the years surrounding the collapse of the Eastern bloc. Widespread calls for political openness, a serious reckoning with the cold war past and proposed reforms to address the social, economic, and environmental costs of cold war policies were largely ignored. Instead, US foreign policy was defined by the projection of unipolar military force and a doubling down on the extractive and ecologically destructive industries that had sustained cold war militarism.
The cold war is commonly understood to be a conflict between American capitalism and Russian communism. Does this obscure the nature of the conflict and its aftermath? What other forces affected the development of the post-cold war world order?
Indeed, that view distorts both the conflict and its aftermath, and in both cases conflates democracy and capitalism in a way that doesn’t hold up under serious scrutiny. Capitalism, the pursuit of profit, entailed control of global resources that was inherently undemocratic, leading to US overt and covert interventions in countries where the US access to resources was at stake. In terms of the conflict itself, the Reagan administration had justified its support of brutal right-wing dictatorships in Latin America, Asia, and Africa—one example of many is General Augusto Pinochet’s in Chile—arguing that supporting right–wing authoritarian governments was acceptable as long as they were anticommunist. Policymakers justified such anti-democratic policies by claiming that such dictatorships could be reformed from within, whereas left “totalitarian” governments could not.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc, US policy makers began to justify interventions into sovereign nations in the name of “democracy.” But triumphalism’s conflation of capitalism and democracy helped justify radical deregulation of industry and banking, leading to the outsized influence of money in politics and severely undermining democratic institutions. There had been a genuinely utopian aspect to the cold war, with each side promoting universal values and claiming that its system could bring prosperity and happiness to its citizens and the world. After the collapse of the Eastern bloc, instead of viewing government as responsible for protecting the well-being of society, US state policies shifted to deregulation, privatization, and increased incarceration. As economic inequality increased, these shifts led to disinvestment in public infrastructure, underfunded public education, and media consolidation, making daily newspapers and independent media a vanishing resource. In the United States, politicians and journalists saw voter suppression as compatible with the idea of free elections. Economic inequality on a global scale set the stage for anti-democratic resentment in the United States and a global turn to the right. Cold war triumphalism fueled the hubris of American exceptionalism, free trade, and catastrophic wars in the Middle East. Before and after 9/11, anti-immigration policies fueled a politics of blame and xenophobia, distracting many Americans from examining the forces undergirding economic inequality.
You write that the vision of the cold war was and is constantly contested, both by prominent political figures but also by the public. How has one particular vision of this past come to be solidified?
The past is always being rewritten for the aims and perceived needs of the present, so in that sense, the history of the cold war has never solidified; but two dominant threads have profoundly shaped US politics. First, conservatives in the early 1990s declared that with global communism defeated, the “real cold war” has only begun. This time, the targets in what increasingly came to be viewed as a Manichean struggle, were government social programs, and in the right’s “culture wars,” all who did not fit the mold of a white, heteronormative Christian nation.
The afterlife of the cold war has shaped foreign policy, as well. Cold war triumphalist narratives—the idea that the United States “won” the cold war through military might, have shaped justifications for war from the earliest post-cold war interventions in Panama and Iraq, through the war on terror, and even to this day in Ukraine. Above all, this idea of US “victory” though military strength has elevated military responses over diplomatic solutions. This is starkly illustrated in responses to Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine. The western response has shifted from the immediate goal of defending Ukraine against the Russian invasion—a strategy where diplomacy could and should have been the centerpiece—to an expansion of war aims approaching the totalizing logic of the cold war.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seems to bring this discussion out of the realm of memory. How do you see nostalgia for the cold war affecting responses to the invasion?
The war in Ukraine is very much a contest over memory. Putin seeks to mobilize an invented and mythologized history harkening back to sixteenth century Tsarist Russia. He sees Ukraine as an integral part of Russia. Putin rewrites history, asserting a Russian, not a Soviet past. In his view, the Soviet Union betrayed Russia’s legitimate imperial claims by giving too much autonomy to Ukraine and other regions. Needless to say, his self-serving view of the past is perverse and contradictory. Putin attempts to court African countries and the global south more broadly, by claiming the legacy of past Soviet support of anti-colonial and independence movements. At the same time, he rejects the egalitarian values that these movements stood for.
It seems like, even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, tensions between Russia and NATO have been rising over the past decade. What was your experience like in writing this book during these developments?
The experience? Ongoing distress. It was claims about NATO expansion along with the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, that prompted my investigations into triumphalism and nostalgia. Like the justifications for the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, calls for the expansion of NATO relied on distortions of history; both exemplify the dangers of US triumphalism. At every juncture during the expansion of NATO, diplomatic alternatives were available. When George H. W. Bush and Gorbachev declared the end of the cold war in 1989, Gorbachev, like US Secretary of State James Baker, believed that there had been a clear understanding that NATO, viewed by both sides as a cold war creation, would not expand, and certainly not to Russia’s borders.
The expansion of NATO epitomizes the rejection of a vision of a multipolar demilitarized world in favor of the assertion of US unipolar power. Another path not taken was a burgeoning environmentalism. Instead, US policymakers doubled down on support for fossil fuel industries. In the very same week Germans dismantled the Berlin Wall, the US denounced a global climate agreement by attacking climate scientists. As US policymakers pursued control of oil reserves in the former Soviet sphere, they sought to weaken the United Nations and other multi-national organizations. Indeed, NATO expansion and undermining the UN constituted the two foreign policy pillars of the Republican Party’s Contract With America in 1994. In the victor’s history version of the cold war, diplomacy was suspect by definition, portrayed as appeasement and weakness, leaving militarism as the only solution to conflict.
In 2014, when tensions over Ukraine led to the collapse of the Obama administration’s 2009 reset with Russia, Jack Matlock Jr., the last US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, drew an analogy between the active American role in organizing street protests in Kiev, and the hypothetical prospect of foreigners leading Occupy Wall Street movements. His point was that American policy, in expanding NATO and placing military bases near its borders, had needlessly provoked potential retaliation from Russia. None of this, of course, justifies Putin’s brutal invasion of a sovereign country. But if the United States is to have any constructive role in ending rather than expanding the conflict, it would have to begin with an honest account of its post-1989 role in the region. In addition to the tragedy for the people of Ukraine and Russia, the war highlights the utter failure of the post-cold war global order to wean itself off oil, and the failure to create strong multilateral institutions that could meaningfully address global climate, health and inequality.
Agricultural History, edited by Albert G. Way, publishes articles that explore agriculture and rural life over time, in all geographies and among all people. Contributors to the journaluse a wide range of methodologies to illuminate the history of farming, food, agricultural science and technology, the environment, rural life, and beyond. The articles include innovative research, timely book and film reviews, and special features that unite diverse historical approaches under agriculture-related themes.
Summer is almost here! Kick off the new season with some of the great new titles we have coming out in June.
Perfect for vacation reading, Shola von Reinhold’s decadent queer literary debut LOTE immerses readers in the pursuit of aesthetics and beauty, while interrogating the removal and obscuring of Black figures from history.
Examining the reception of evolutionary biology, the 1925 Scopes Trial, and the New Atheist movement of the 2000s, Donovan O. Schaefer theorizes the relationship between thinking and feeling by challenging the conventional wisdom that they are separate in Wild Experiment.
In Gridiron Capital, Lisa Uperesa charts the cultural, historical, and social dynamics that have made American football so central to Samoan culture.
Thulani Davis provides a sweeping rethinking of Reconstruction in The Emancipation Circuit, tracing how the four million people newly freed from bondage created political organizations and connections that mobilized communities across the South.
In The Small Matter of Suing Chevron, Suzana Sawyer traces Ecuador’s lawsuit against the Chevron corporation for the environmental devastation resulting from its oil drilling practices, showing how distinct legal truths were relationally composed of, with, and through crude oil.
In Discovering Fiction, eminent Chinese novelist Yan Lianke offers insights into his views on literature and realism, the major works that inspired him, and his theories of writing.
The contributors to Grammars of the Urban Ground, edited by Ash Amin and Michele Lancione, develop a new conceptual framework and vocabulary for capturing the complex, ever-shifting, and interactive processes that shape contemporary cities.
In Myriad Intimacies, Lata Mani oscillates between poetry and prose, genre and form, register and voice, and secular and sacred to meditate on the ways in which everyone and everything exists in mutually constitutive interrelations.
Working at the intersection of urban theory, Black studies, and decolonial and Islamic thought, AbdouMaliq Simone offers a new theorization of the interface of the urban and the political in The Surrounds.
Sophie Chao examines the multispecies entanglements of oil palm plantations in West Papua, Indonesia in her new book In the Shadow of the Palms, showing how Indigenous Marind communities understand and navigate the social, political, and environmental demands of the oil palm plant.
Our Spring Sale is rapidly coming to a close. You only have three days to save 50% on in-stock books and journal issues. If you’re still not sure what to purchase, here are Senior Executive Editor Ken Wissoker’s suggestions.
I don’t need to tell most DUP readers that this moment requires transformative thinking. The pandemic and the racist agenda of the last US administration are not over in the least. Rarely a day goes by where rights and conditions central to our well-being are not under attack. Thank you, SCOTUS. What can we as thinkers, readers, and publishers do to make a difference? I would start my sale recommendations there. I’m thinking about books that will help all of us get through: Sara Ahmed’s Complaint!, Max Liboiron’s Pollution Is Colonialism, Katherine McKittrick’s Dear Science and Other Stories. Tools for thinking differently.
My own thinking has been transformed this spring by Jennifer L. Morgan’s Reckoning with Slavery, which centers Black women in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, giving them agency, not merely footnoted presence. Morgan points a way for historians to restore the power and feelings of those who were of no account in the archives, while putting the numeracy of the slave trade at the core of capitalism.
Morgan’s friend and colleague Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu has shown exactly how this can be done, similarly working between disciplines and archives, but across the Pacific rather than the Atlantic. Her book Experiments in Skin won the publishing equivalent of March Madness this year, the Prose awards from the Association of American Publishers. They choose 106 finalists in categories from Mathematics to Philosophy; then 39 category winners, 4 area winners for humanities, social sciences, bio sciences, and physical sciences—and one overall winner, Thuy’s incredible book, which combines a history of imperialism and chemical warfare with that of dermatology and concepts of beauty showing how they all come together in present-day Vietnam.
In this vein, one book I can’t recommend enough is Mercy Romero’s Toward Camden, a memoir and a way of understanding raced geography at once, where the two are inseparable, and written with intense beauty and insight.
I could easily come up with another list this long (where is Beth Povinelli’s new book or Joshua Clover’s Roadrunner??) so get over to the website and look around yourself. Just do it quickly!
Use coupon SPRING22 to save on all these titles and more. If you’re located outside North and South America, we suggest you order from our partner Combined Academic Publishers using the same coupon. You’ll get faster and cheaper shipping. See the fine print here.
On May 9, the Philippines will elect a new President. For those interested in autocracy, it is a dramatic situation. The current illiberal president, Rodrigo Duterte, is not standing for re-election, but his daughter, Sara Duterte, is on the ticket with Bongbong Marcos, the son of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Once a country has an experience with strongman rule, the leader can haunt a nation for decades.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): Why do people support these violent fraudsters? In your book you talk about how the culture of fear that Duterte disseminated was actually part of his charm. Many don’t understand why these extreme figures have such devoted followings.
Vicente Rafael (VR): In the case of the Philippines, there’s a long tradition of authoritarian leaders. And people tend to think that strong male leaders are the best way to deal with the uncertainties of life. Someone like Duterte who comes in and promises to not just solve the crime problem, but basically wipe out criminals, drug dealers and drug users, can be popular.
Although of course this violence doesn’t solve the problem, but it creates a sense of false security. People feel, well, someone’s in charge, so I don’t have to worry. It’s very common to hear people say, oh, my neighborhood is really safer these days. And when you ask them, what do you think about all these people who got killed? I mean, many of them are your neighbors. And they would say, well, they were warned. They didn’t want to stop dealing or using, so they got what they deserved.
RBG: This is one way that autocrats are different than democratic leaders. Duterte came on my radar when he started talking, as a candidate, about the violence that he would perpetrate if he won the election. And in the US we had Trump warning as a candidate that he could shoot someone and not lose any followers.
VR: Duterte’s political style was really developed and honed while he was Mayor of Davao. He used threats, he hired thugs, like former rebels, and turned his police force into vigilantes. He himself liked to play vigilante. He would get on his motorcycle or borrow a taxi cab and roam around at night. As he said, he was looking for trouble he could fix.
So there was this sense that he was a hands-on mayor who didn’t hesitate to do what was needed without having to go through the bureaucracy or the judicial system. And that was the basis of his popularity. People were afraid, but also impressed that he actually went and did these things. When he became president, he basically nationalized these local practices.
RBG: Your book discusses Duterte’s brand of machismo. I’m happy to see that because I feel that we don’t take masculinity seriously enough as a tool of authoritarian rule. You capture the complex masculinity of Duterte, and his blend of fragility and brutality.
VR: Duterte talks unabashedly about sexuality, he makes these obscene vulgar jokes about rape, about women. But when you look more closely at his use of misogyny and machismo, you see they are part of complex storytelling devices. He’s a great storyteller, his way of using the vernacular is really quite amazing. It’s one of the ways he connects to people.
As an example, he might say, oh, gee, they raped the women. And it was so beautiful and I should have been first. I was the mayor. And instead I was sort of left out of the whole thing. People crack up because it’s really about how his authority was obviated. And they can even sympathize with him.
RBG: It’s beyond awful, but it’s effective in terms of him building community and legitimating misogyny and sexual assault.
VR: Another example is a story he used to tell on the campaign trail about being sexually abused by an American Jesuit while he was going to confession. I think he connects with people who might have experienced the same thing. And yet he relates this painful trauma in a humorous fashion, saying, well, I still came out on top. I was abused, but I survived to tell this story.
Duterte also expresses vulnerability when he talks about dying, about how fragile his body is. So he says, I’m going to kill all of you. But he also says, I’m probably going to die tomorrow.
RBG: This sounds nihilistic. Many strongmen have a nihilistic streak.
VR: Yes, there’s a really close relationship between authoritarianism and nihilism. It’s this idea that well, I don’t mind risking the lives of my soldiers and my citizens, because we’re all going to die anyway. Someone’s going to assassinate me sooner or later. Someone’s going to launch a coup against me sooner later. So I’m just going to go all in now.
RBG: That’s great context for Duterte stepping aside from the presidency. How does someone like that fade into the sunset?
VR: Well, physically he’s very tired. I think that’s part of the reason he wants to step down and retire. Yet he’s got this legacy. His mode of governing and the practices he engaged in will continue. His daughter Sara will be there (even though they don’t get along), and if Marcos junior becomes president, he will be surrounded by a lot of Duterte allies and cronies.
Duterte’s also empowered the police to an enormous degree. It’s really the police that run the show. In the Philippines, unlike in the United States, police are nationalized. So it’s really the office of the president that controls the appointment of the chief of police and so forth.
In addition, in the Philippines Congress designates intelligence funds, a massive amount of money, and no one knows what it’s used for, it’s never accounted for. So the economic power, the political power, and of course the military power of the police will continue.
RBG: Isn’t there also some nostalgia for the Marcos era?
VR: Yes, and it comes out of a decade of propaganda, a lot of it on YouTube, about how wonderful martial law was, and how the son will continue what the father did—the attraction of continuity. People who support Duterte will support Marcos Jr. because Sara’s there. In fact, Marcos Jr. himself doesn’t have much of a platform. He always says I’m going to unify the country. Whatever that means.
RBG: Ah, the strongman slogan for one hundred years, still going strong!
Ruth Ben-Ghiat is Professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University and author of Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present (W.W. Norton & Company). This interview is republished with permission from her Substack newsletter Lucid. Vicente Rafael’s books are available for 50% off with coupon SPRING22 through May 27.
As we approach the end of the semester, kick off your summer reading with some of our great new titles! Here’s what we have coming out in May.
Shannen Dee Williams provides a comprehensive history of Black Catholic nuns in the United States in Subversive Habits, tracing how Black sisters’ struggles were central to the long African American freedom movement.
The contributors to Re-Understanding Media, edited by Sarah Sharma and Rianka Singh, advance a feminist version of Marshall McLuhan’s key text, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, repurposing his insight that “the medium is the message” for feminist ends.
In Queer Companions, Omar Kasmani theorizes the construction of queer social relations at Pakistan’s most important Sufi site by examining the affective and intimate relationship between the site’s pilgrims and its patron saint.
In The Impasse of the Latin American Left, Franck Gaudichaud, Massimo Modonesi, and Jeffery R. Webber explore the Latin American Pink Tide as a political, economic, and cultural phenomenon, showing how it failed to transform the underlying class structures of their societies or challenge the imperial strategies of the United States and China.
In Passionate Work, Renyi Hong theorizes the notion of being “passionate about your work” as an affective project that encourages people to endure economically trying situations like unemployment, job change, repetitive and menial labor, and freelancing.
Allan E. S. Lumba explores how the United States used monetary policy and banking systems to justify racial and class hierarchies, enforce capitalist exploitation, and counter movements for decolonization in the American colonial Philippines in Monetary Authorities.
In The Lives of Jessie Sampter, Sarah Imhoff tells the story of the queer, disabled, Zionist writer Jessie Sampter (1883–1938), whose body and life did not match typical Zionist ideals and serves as an example of the complex relationships between the body, queerness, disability, religion, and nationalism.
Jodi Kim examines how the United States extends its sovereignty across Asia and the Pacific in the post-World War II era through a militarist settler imperialism that is leveraged on debt in Settler Garrison.
In Legal Spectatorship, Kelli Moore traces the political origins of the concept of domestic violence through visual culture in the United States, showing how it is rooted in the archive of slavery.