Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

January 14, 2009

Spheres within Spheres

Filed under: Historians,Media,Political culture,Popular culture — Benjamin Carp @ 12:24 pm

I watched “The Visitor” last night, which I recommend for anyone looking to catch up on their Oscar-bait before the nominations are announced.  It’s not the most uplifting portrayal of the life of a college professor, but the acting is great, and the movie also deals with some important themes.

The movie plays with American iconography, particularly the iconography of post-9/11 New York City, in a really striking way.  On the one hand, you have characters who embrace the symbols and meaning of America in touching ways (the Statue of Liberty, the embrace of diversity, etc.); on the other, the movie mocks this iconography by showing aspects of the United States at its worst: soullessly bureaucratic, callously xenophobic, arbitrary and perhaps even tyrannical.

Most historians (I think) try to convey these ironies to their students and their readers.  I was myself caught short when reading this piece by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen (which you should check out if you have a passion for media criticism):

The sphere of consensus is the “motherhood and apple pie” of politics, the things on which everyone is thought to agree. Propositions that are seen as uncontroversial to the point of boring, true to the point of self-evident, or so widely-held that they’re almost universal lie within this sphere. …

Consensus in American politics begins, of course, with the United States Constitution, but it includes other propositions too, like “Lincoln was a great president,” and “it doesn’t matter where you come from, you can succeed in America.” Whereas journalists equate ideology with the clash of programs and parties in the debate sphere, academics know that the consensus or background sphere is almost pure ideology: the American creed.

Wait—”Lincoln was a great president”?  Didn’t I just say that in a post this week?  Anyway, Rosen goes on to show how difficult it has been, in the American mass media, for people to air viewpoints perceived as being outside the conventional wisdom.  He writes that the internet is weakening journalists’ ability to define the boundaries of legitimate debate—which is a good thing, because journalists had never acknowledged their role in defining the debate.

Academics also struggle with “spheres of consensus,” although American historians tend to be particularly skeptical of “the American creed.”  In any case, it’s food for thought.

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