The Changing Cultural Mainstream: Set-Up

Colin Powell | Biography & Facts | Britannica

The United States is a large nation of 333 million people with a welter of regional, ethnic, racial, immigrant, urban, suburban, and rural subcultures. At the same time, there is a national culture that is dividing into “mainstream” and “white conservative” wings. Indeed, cultural division is becoming as much a feature of American life as it is in a country like Lebanon. With Trumpism, much of the media and academic attention has been focused on the rapid changes in cultural conservatism, especially the rise of the conspiracy world and its overlapping with the religious right and gun culture. But outside conservative critics, there has not been as much focus on the mainstream part of the cultural divide.

A word on the term “mainstream.” So much of American culture is tied up with the country’s destabilizing politics. Democrats like to stigmatize conservatives as ignorant, uncivilized, and bigoted if not dumb, and pay special attention to statements like Donald Trump falsely claiming below that Thomas Jefferson was an author of the Constitution.

From Twitter

But in thus treating conservatism as “the other,” Democrats do little reflection on their own symbolism, practices, and loyalties and how those have changing. For their part, conservatives have terms like the “left,” “woke,” and “intolerant” by which they criticize political opponents and also American culture more generally as opposed to conservatism. Tim Carney of the conservative outlet The Washington Examiner complains that the “Left’s domination” of the media, academia, and corporate life make all these institutions uncomfortable and unfriendly places for conservatives like Kevin Williamson (fired by The Atlantic), Bari Weiss (resigned from New York Times), and Meghan McCain (quit The View).

However, opposition to “woke” workplaces does not say much about the nature of the cultural commitments of the media, academia, or corporations. Likewise, Tim Carney’s critique of the media, academia, and corporate America more generally, any “major non-conservative institution” is an indication that he’s not speaking about a kind of disposition or mood of these organizations. They’re not “just” hostile to conservatives. Likewise, it’s not a regional phenomena, a tech thing, or some sort of conspiracy stemming from “George Soros and his allies.” The “dominance of the left” is also much bigger than the political left in the sense that it would apply to corporations that support the Republican Party and it’s policies of lower taxes on the wealthy and restricting the electorate. It’s also bigger than the Democratic Party. What Tim Carney is chastising is mainstream American culture and its values, practices, and symbols rather than just the “left.”

More to Come!

A Different Kind of Otherness

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With the “Jim Crow” act of T. D. Rice, black people became one of the dominant figures of “otherness” in popular culture. Before 1830, black people in Philadelphia were not acknowledged as having enough status to be defined as the other. Women were defined as a physically weak, vulnerable, and penetrable “other.” Seducers, drunken sots, and immigrants could also be portrayed as the “other,” but black people were portrayed primarily as being outside the “self-other” relationships by which society was constituted.

That changed with Rice and Jim Crow.

In the picture above, Rice’s “Jim Crow” includes many features that whites at the time viewed as “degrading” about black men. That includes their dark skin, the worn hat, “wooly” hair, rumpled jacket and shirt, pants ripped in several places. and shoes so worn that his left foot was sticking out the front. Jim Crow also s+poke in “black dialect” and had the “loose” kind of gait associated with black people.

In the idea of women as the “other,” any association with female qualities was felt to be deeply humiliating and strenuously avoided. The workingmen had felt especially degraded when representing their own bodies as feminine in the sense of being seduced or subject to vampires and incubuses.

Rice’s version of “Jim Crow” was a full figure of black “otherness” to white men. But instead of avoiding association with the “degradations” of blackness, Rice completely “embraced” blackness, eagerly “displayed” himself as a full black man for his performances and sang songs, told jokes, and danced as a “black” man. The performances of Rice were “displays of degradation.”

Black “otherness” in “Jim Crow” was more complex than previous forms of otherness in the popular culture of white laboring men. Otherness in the case of both women and black people was created out of stereotypes, but instead of avoiding “blackness,” Rice internalized the full range of black stereotypes and employed those stereotypes to transform himself into a different kind of man and performer–“Jim Crow.”

Given that Rice built the “Jim Crow” character out of racial stereotypes, he internalized “fantasies of blackness” rather than the diverse reality of black people in cities like Philadelphia and New York. At the same time, blackface fantasies of blackness became important enough to the popular culture and identity of white laboring people that the blackness existing outside the fantasy became a serious threat to white stability.