Friday, 3 February 2017

The Supreme Court might just be the biggest loser in the battle over Gorsuch

Dr. Emma Long takes us through the political ramifications of Trump's decision to nominate Neil Gorsuch as Supreme Court Justice.

Candidate Trump promised to nominate to the US Supreme Court a conservative jurist who would follow in the footsteps of his or her predecessor, Antonin Scalia.  Someone who would adhere to a strict construction of the Constitution, an originalist understanding of that document’s meaning, and a generally conservative judge.  In Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, currently sitting on the Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, that is exactly who President Trump nominated. 

Given other events of the past week which have seen Trump’s executive orders go further than even many conservative Republicans had predicted, the nomination of Gorsuch was perhaps the most moderate, least surprising development. His name had been on the second list of potential nominees released by the Trump campaign last fall, he had emerged as one of the leading candidates in the last few weeks and as the frontrunner in the last few days.

His record is largely unsurprising for a man nominated to the nation’s highest court by a Republican president.  His legal career, suggests a friendliness to business, he has been supportive of claims of religious freedom from conservative Christians, supported the death penalty, opposed assisted suicide and euthanasia laws, and written of the “inviolability” of human life which suggests a tough stance on abortion. 

So Gorsuch does not fit with most liberals’ image of the ideal Supreme Court Justice.  But he appears eminently qualified for the role.  He has a law degree from Harvard and a PhD from Oxford, which he attended as a Marshall scholar.  He clerked for Supreme Court Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy, worked on corporate law in private practice and was appointed to the 10th Circuit in 2006 by President George W. Bush. As Trump noted in his announcement, Gorsuch has “outstanding legal skills, a brilliant mind … and has earned bipartisan support.” 

And that looks increasingly likely to be the problem.  Even before Tuesday’s announcement, Senate Democrats had indicated that they would be likely to oppose a Trump nominee.  Still smarting from Republicans’ refusal to hold hearings on Judge Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee to the Court, Democrats are now threatening to employ the same tactics.  If they do, not only are they likely to lose, but the battle could cause long term damage to the Court itself, because their opposition is not based on Gorsuch’s qualifications for the role but his political and legal views.

The Supreme Court is a legal institution, first and foremost; its members are judges.  It is also a political institution: its place as one of three co-equal branches of the American government and its role in interpreting controversial aspects of the Constitution mean it cannot avoid being so.  But too often in recent years politicians and commentators have discussed the Court in explicitly partisan terms.  The effect has been to imply, and sometimes to overtly state, that the Court’s members made decisions as Republicans or Democrats, not as judges whose political and legal worldviews might lead them to support one party over another.  From here it’s a very short step to argue, as Ted Cruz and other Republicans did last year, that they could not allow the Court to be “lost” or “taken over” by a liberal majority.

But the Court is not a branch to be “captured” by one party or another.  And the Senate’s job is not to assess a nominee’s qualifications based on his political views but upon his ability to undertake the role to which he has been nominated.  This has too often been forgotten in recent years.  Since the 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade which protected, within limits, women’s right to terminate a pregnancy, potential nominees have been judged, in part, on their views on particular “hot button” issues, particularly abortion, the death penalty, and gun control.  This process arguably reached its nadir in the 1987 hearings on President Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork to the Court.  Intellectually capable, Bork was rejected because his politics were considered unacceptably conservative for the Court at that time.  In 2006, Justice Samuel Alito found his nomination hearings more challenging than Chief Justice John Roberts just a few months earlier, in part because he was a legal conservative nominated to a seat held by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, considered to be at the Court’s ideological centre.  The process has been a gradual one, and Republicans and Democrats have both played their part, but it has been corrosive nonetheless. 

The consequences of this gradual politicization of the Court have become clear in recent years.  Traditionally enjoying greater public approval than either the president or Congress, the Court has seen its approval ratings plummet. A July 2016 Gallup poll showed public approval of the Court at 42%, well below approval ratings of the 1990s.  The politicization of the Court also threatens the Court’s legitimacy.  Unelected and serving life terms, with no power except their institutional role and persuasion to convince the country to abide by their decisions, historically the legitimacy of the Court and the Justices has rested on the idea that the Court upholds the rule of law, that there is some distance between interpreting the law and making political decisions.  If Americans come to believe that politics is the only deciding factor in the Court’s decision-making, the Court’s legitimacy, and thus its ability to compel compliance, may weaken.  If that happens, all Americans lose, regardless of party affiliation.

Democrats have every right to feel aggrieved about Republicans’ tactics over Garland, and to rue the loss of the chance to appoint a Justice of their choice to the Court.  But both parties need to think carefully about how they handle Gorsuch’s nomination if they want to avoid causing irreparable damage to the Court.  Republicans would do well to show some humility: winning the presidency does not lessen the taint of their tactics in 2016.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s criticism of Democrats for proposing similar tactics to his in opposing Trump’s nominee smacks or rank hypocrisy.  Democrats, for their part, might well have to accept that while they don’t like Gorsuch’s politics, he is qualified to be on the Court.  In losing the battle, they might just help protect and preserve the Court for the future.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Election Roundtable

In association with the UEA American Studies Society, we're hosting an Election 2016 Roundtable on Wednesday November 2nd - 3pm in Lecture Theatre 3. Get your burning election questions ready! See you there!

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

February 24th: Professor Russ Castronovo

Next week, Professor Russ Castronovo is delivering the inaugural US Embassy American Studies Lecture (with thanks to the US Embassy in London). Details below - all welcome!

Wednesday February 24th 2016

The US Embassy London American Studies Lecture

Professor Russ Castronovo
Tom Paine Professor of English and Dorothy Draheim Professor of American Studies, 
University of Wisconsin-Madison 

“Sex and the Conservative Girl: Consent, Masochism, and Ayn Rand”

Arts 2.02, 4pm. All Welcome.

Monday, 15 February 2016

“Formation” as Homage to Storyville?

Mollie LeVeque muses on the "Storyville Portraits" and Beyoncé

After I saw Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, I said to my fiancée – the wonderful, long suffering partner of a neurotic PhD student – “Someone is bound to notice references to the Storyville Portraits!” Granted, I’ve been researching these enigmatic images of New Orleans sex workers for years; they are the driving force of my doctoral thesis. I wrote my MA dissertation on them, too - though I made mistakes, constantly disagree with myself whenever I reread it, and dislike my casual use of the words "prostitute" and "whore." (Retrospect.)

The so-called Storyville Portraits are a group of photographs created by French Quarter native E.J. Bellocq during the early 20th century. They portray sex workers from New Orleans’s most infamous red-light district – nicknamed “Storyville."

On February 12 my Facebook feed was inundated with links to Moira Weigel’s piece “The Iconic Images Behind Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’ Video.” I was pleased to see them garnering discussion in a new context, and she provides a pithy summary of the images’ history. Evidently, too, friends were excited that my mildewed research topic finally made contact with the “real world” of contemporary popular culture. As Weigel says, “It is not hard to see how Bellocq’s portraits might have appealed to Beyoncé and her team.” They provoke many questions.

Bellocq resists classification despite the way his images have attained a supposedly “iconic” status. His work still remains a niche topic. Aesthetically, it’s haphazard. At times, it’s uncomfortable to view. (It’s also beautiful, in my opinion.) Yet Bellocq didn’t publish any of these portraits - they remained hidden for years. Some researchers claim they were used as advertisements; I come down more on the side of skepticism.

As a white historian of early 20th century sex work in a place where many of the sex workers weren't white, I’m nervous that we moralize, or whitewash, these images at the expense of histories that are – because of the stigma against sex work, and a further marginalization of black sex workers (and sex workers of color) – often ignored. The majority of women Bellocq depicted are anonymous. This isn't accidental.

Between the 1950s and early 1970s –  when the Storyville Portraits were being rediscovered, and later exhibited (notably by Lee Friedlander and John Szarkowski) – little thought was given to what the women might have thought about their labor. When the photographs were exhibited again at various venues in the early 2000s, they still inspired maudlin reviews. Sentimentality – or an assumption that the models were victims and Bellocq somehow "saved" or "humanized" them – should not be intrinsic to interpretations of these portraits. Seeing echoes of them in a music video is refreshing, even if those echoes are perhaps accidental.

According to Rex Rose, Bellocq was “a Storyville dandy” who had an aesthetic interest in his topic. He was likely friends with his models – their client, maybe – and if we are to truly engage with his images, we should focus on the women, not just their potential relationships with Bellocq. He’s one factor – I’m also interested in their circumstances, in their initiative and struggles. Weigel muses, “Because we know so little about the intentions of the man who shot [the photographs], the women come alive as subjects, not victims.” But I disagree with the idea that not knowing Bellocq's intention is what allows the women to be "subjects." They're always subjects, and they seem to be – at least to some extent – comfortable with their jobs, and with Bellocq taking photographs of them.

But many years after Storyville’s 1917 closure, a musician who had played in its dancehalls made a harsh assessment:
[The models] were very pretty, and that’s something that I never ran across in my life, was a pretty whore. I mean, that I knew of. Maybe I’ve seen some on streetcars, and, you know, busses, and they may have been. I wouldn’t know that. But I mean in any of those places, I’ve never seen anything that resembled beauty.
This is telling. Given that Bellocq was a white Creole, and by looking at his models' appearances, we can assume he worked in “white” Storyville. Facilities for black customers were separate and generally amounted to cheap "cribs:" narrow rooms with a bed and little else. Women who worked in cribs were most likely older, less conventionally attractive (including dark skinned black women, or women of color), or otherwise less marketable.

Some of the portraits’ intrigue, then, resides in what they do not confirm, not necessarily in their nudity. It's hard to say definitively without knowing exactly who they were, but Bellocq took photographs of white women, white-passing women, or light-skinned women of color who worked in more expensive brothels. These women were likely the ones featured in local directories of brothels, which would not have advertised the "lesser" establishments. Many of their stories won’t be told, simply because records don’t exist to tell such tales. (We don't really listen to sex workers, regardless.)

Still, these women left their marks. Most of them, including the poorest, would have balked at being called victims.

Storyville was a strange, dynamic place. As Emily Epstein Landau has detailed, at least two powerful madams fought to keep brothel workers desegregated (albeit for business advantages). Others were said to protect their workers from physical abuse. Some strongly influenced society life in New Orleans – to the chagrin of “respectable” ladies who campaigned in Progressive circles. R. Eric Platt and Lillian Hill, meanwhile, observe that Storyville sex workers fostered circles of learning about topics as diverse as classic literature, economics, and sexually transmitted infections.

None of this is surprising. But we need to stop being surprised, and question why these images of women almost always immediately conjure ideas of tragedy when they, on their own, do not necessarily suggest it.

“Formation” functions, at least in part, as a homage to these women. Their lives were more complex than the remaining primary sources and pervasive folklore would have us believe. They should never be underestimated or forgotten. If Beyoncé and her team meant to evoke the Storyville Portraits at all, they acknowledge a powerful lineage.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

American Studies Research Seminars, Spring 2016

Here's our line-up of speakers this semester - all welcome! With thanks to the US Embassy London.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Public Lecture - The Beatles in Miami

The Beatles’ White (Photograph) Album: Race, Class and Gender in Miami Beach, 1964

Professor Brian Ward (Northumbria University) 
Wednesday 9th December, 2015. Arts 2.01. 4pm
This event is free and open to all

This talk explores the circumstances surrounding the Beatles’ February 1964 visit to Miami, Florida, focusing on issues of race, class and gender. Whereas oceans of ink have been devoted to the story of the fab four’s triumphant arrival in New York and debut on the Ed Sullivan Show, relatively little attention has been paid to their second Sullivan Show appearance from Miami, or to their brief holiday in the Sunshine State – a state embroiled in the African American freedom struggle and beset by especially acute Cold War paranoia. Revisiting this trip, particularly its photographic archive – and even more particularly the images generated when the band met Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) – the talk hopes to tease out some of the deeper historical and symbolic significances of the band’s first real encounter with the US South, while also paying due attention to the peculiarities of race relations in Miami-Dade County.

A former UEA undergraduate, Brian is a Professor in American Studies at Northumbria University. Previously, he held the Chair in American Studies at the University of Manchester (2006-2012), served as Head of the Department of History at the University of Florida (2000-2006), and taught at the Universities of Newcastle upon Tyne (1991-2000) and Durham (1990-91). He has published widely on the issues of race and popular culture in the United States, most recently the article, “Music, Musical Theater and the Imagined South in Interwar Britain,” Journal of Southern History, LXXX, 1 (2014), pp. 39-72 and the co-edited monograph, Creating and Consuming the American South (University Press of Florida, 2015).