Friday, February 1, 2013

Singh’s Problematic History

By John Bain

I want to start by introducing myself a bit, since I joined the class
late and was not able to do so on the first day. I am studying
international affairs and history, and this class is the first english
course that I have taken in my four years at GW. The perspective from
which I have approached our readings so far has been that of a student
of international affairs and history, not english. Things such as
poems are almost like a foreign language to me. I see other people
decipher the meaning of poems with an impressive fluency that I do not
have. This is what has intimidated me about english courses for the
past four years. So when we began the course with Singh’s book I was
relieved, because we were starting with a style of writing I was
familiar with.

What I found when I dove into Singh’s book was that I agreed with much
of what he said in principle, but his narrative of imperialism was
particularly problematic for me. The problems started from the very
beginning with what seemed to be Singh’s assertion that Martin Luther
King’s decision to come out against the Vietnam War was radical. Singh
presents the reaction of the Johnson administration as somehow
evidence of King being persecuted by a “court of public opinion”. This
event is framed as King coming out against a “colonial war in Vietnam”
(a term that I find very flawed), making Johnson’s reaction equal to
that of a colonial government subjugating a collaborator who comes out
against a colonial policy.

My main issue is with this narrative of colonialism, which begins with
this example of King’s opposition to the war and continues throughout
the book. The decision by King to come out against the war in the
spring of 1967 was hardly radical. Opposition to the war had already
been growing as US casualties in Vietnam mounted and the war was
broadcast to American living rooms. It is hard to view Martin Luther
King’s decision to come out against the war in 1967 as radical when
you consider that by March of the following year Walter Cronkite had
come out against the war, Eugene McCarthy nearly won the New Hampshire
primary on an anti-war platform, and President Johnson chose not to
seek reelection as anti-war opposition within his own party made it
seem unlikely that he could make it through the primaries.

So King may have been one of the earlier public figures to come out
against the war, but his decision to do so was hardly radical.
Further, given the rising public opposition to the war, the reaction
of the Johnson administration can hardly be seen as evidence Singh's
narrative of American colonialism. Instead it should be seen as the
reaction of a desperate administration that was rapidly losing

I am not trying to argue that the United States has no colonial
history, westward expansion and the occupation of the Philippines are
clear examples of such a history. The opening example used by Singh to
set his narrative of American colonialism is just one of many he uses
throughout the book. Some of his examples I find more credible than
others. The flaws with the opening King example, however, illustrate
what I see as a cherry picking of historical information throughout
the book that ultimately undermines, rather than supports, Singh's
narrative of American colonialism.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for introducing yourself, John. The context and your perspective are greatly appreciated. Hopefully the class will convert you to a more regular critic and reader of poetry.
    Singh’s reading of King’s activism and anti-Vietnam stance is intended to make a particular kind of intervention into how we understand King, his memory, and how to frame to political risks Singh argues he was willing to take after the passing of the Civil Rights legislation. I disagree with you that King’s position was not radical. I think the terms on which he was grounding his disagreement were fundamentally radical for several reasons, but primarily because, as outlined in the “A Time to Break Silence” speech, he was calling the U.S. out on its particular brand of hypocrisy and in the framing of its larger imperial goals. Also, there were real costs for King’s stance, not least of which was his life. His stance threatened the political capital he had achieved as an integrationist by arguing that the U.S. is relying too heavily on the bodies of those who the country might deem as largely dispensable, troops who were poor.
    However, I think your critique of Singh’s work might help open up larger conversations about this period that we need to pursue. I would love for you to bring these to bear on the blog and in class more often as we consider the messages that poets, musicians, playwrights and novelists make for social change. How do we characterize the U.S. during this period? How does literature help us understand a historical period? How does it hinder a fuller picture of history? I have several more questions that I am still formulating, so there may be more to come…


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