We’ve finally meandered our way into the presidential debate cycle portion of our Election ’12 cycle. I’m grateful to finally see what the media has built up to be a match between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Giants! Not really, of course. But from standpoint of political reporters and pundits alike, tonight’s first debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney might as well be a sports event.
In the end, though, this isn’t as much a presidential debate as it is a personality contest with questions and psychologists’ interpretations of nonverbal communication. It will be more hype than substance, more stiff than an overbaked souffle. One of the men — most likely President Obama — will win this first debate, though it won’t be clear how significant this “win” will be, given the trends for the past couple of months.
I am reminded of another debate, one that occurred in my Comparative Working-Class Formation graduate seminar at Carnegie Mellon University in the fall of ’93. It was taught by Professor Wendy Goldman, wife of Marcus Rediker, both decidedly Marxist, but in Goldman’s case, Marxist without any considerations of race at all. It was a course that turned into a debate because I’d already grown tired of professors at Pitt who believed race and gender to be identities subsumed under the long, hard human battle over class inequality (see my post “Dairy Queens, Dick Oestreicher and Race” from February ’11).
All semester-long, there had been a three-way tug-of-war between me (and occasionally, my former Pitt grad school colleague who decided to hop across the bridge to Carnegie Mellon to take this course), ten brown-nosing students who’d agree with her despite the evidence (led by Mike and Mark, the “M&M Boys,” as I labeled them for my friends and colleagues) and Goldman. I didn’t expect my now fellow Carnegie Mellon grad students to take my side. But I did expect them to read E.P. Thompson and Sean Wilentz and other folks with a critical eye and not just to get an A out of our professor. There may have been one or two other classes I dreaded more in three years of grad school. Yet I’d never been around a professor more unaware of their own biases than Goldman (see my “Crying Over E.P. Thompson” post from September ’09).
It all came to a head when it was time to discuss David Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness (1991) and, indirectly, Sean Wilentz’s Chants Democratic (1984) on the last Thursday in October ’93, which happened to be my mother’s forty-sixth birthday. Both authors looked at the formation of the White American (and male) working-class in the first half of the nineteenth century. Goldman, as usual, took the stance that the only ideology of significance was one that proclaimed class inequalities the predominant issue explaining the radicalization of the American working-class.
Finding this a bit laughable (a mistake on my part), I pressed my argument that at least in the case of US history, race and class distinctions have been and remain intertwined. So much so that a typical neo-Marxist analysis of the American working-class couldn’t apply. The next two hours were me and my Pitt colleague against the M&M Boys, the other brown-nosers and Professor Goldman. Luckily in my case, I could not only quote Roediger and Wilentz, but Herbert Gutmann, W.E.B. Du Bois, and a host of other scholars to press home my counterargument. At the end, our professor said to me, in utter exasperation, “I guess we should just go back to original sin.” It meant that I was being a racial determinist, which I guess was supposed to be an insult as well as her version of “No mas, no mas!”
Aside from the fact that America’s “original sin” really was the taking of Native American lands and the systemic destruction of Native American peoples and culture, I really didn’t have much of a response to Goldman’s excited utterance. I finished my argument with a final volley that included Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction (1935) and Roediger, and class adjourned sooner thereafter.
My brown-nosing classmates looked pretty beat from the class session, while me and my colleague from Pitt were both energized from the three-hour class. Still, we couldn’t help but discuss Goldman’s Moment of Surrender at the end of the class. Of course we knew what her “original sin” comment meant when it came to race and slavery. The comment, though, seemed small and petty coming from a professor, one that was too personal, and not professional.
Still, the worst thing I learned is that it took Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness to confirm ideas that Du Bois had begun writing about in 1903 and 1935. That, for me, made me apprehensive about wanting to work with scholars who may well see me and my work as well-intentioned, but inferior to theirs. At the same time, I learned that, for better and for worse, that not going along to get along can be a good thing, especially after years of ridicule from people of all stripes for doing so.
My “original sin” of not going along with whatever Goldman said forced a debate, one of the more exciting times I had in grad school, certainly at Carnegie Mellon. How could that be bad?