Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Gatsby, Buchanan, and racial paranoia past and present

As most of us turn away from our classrooms, the difficult and troubling resonances with The Great Gatsby, that consummate American novel, continue to come, fast and furious.

This week, it’s New York Times columnist Charles Blow, in “White Extinction Anxiety,” commenting on how Trump’s broader border policy, leaving aside the odiousness of family separation, reflects a panic about “a loss of white primacy.” Blow places Trump’s concerns within the context of Pat Buchanan longstanding ideas about the threats to whiteness, reflected in Buchanan’s Suicide of a Superpower (2011), his latest blog posts, and his comments on Laura Ingraham’s show.

Here’s a brief snippet from Buchanan’s blog:
The existential question . . . remains: How does the West, America included, stop the flood tide of migrants before it alters forever the political and demographic character of our nations and our civilization?…. We are truly dealing here with an ideology of Western suicide. 
If Europe does not act, its future is predictable. 
The population of Africa, right across the Med, is anticipated to climb to 2.5 billion by midcentury. And by 2100, Africa will be home half of all the people of the planet.
Africans taking over the planet: We aren’t in Wakanda.

The idea that white civilization is about to collapse and that Africans are about to take over the world isn’t new. Lothrop Stoddard offered the same idea in 1920, using the very same flood tide imagery to warn of the threats to the white world. In his The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, Stoddard prophesizes: “Here is the truth of the matter: The white world to-day stands at the crossroads of life and death.” (Stoddard’s text is in public domain and accessible online, but critical, relevant excerpts are available in a classroom-ready format, accompanied by discussion and writing prompts and other teaching materials, in our recent volume, Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby.)

Like Buchanan, Stoddard worried that both Europe and America, the white homelands, were threatened by “oblivion in the dark ocean” of immigrants from “the colored world.” Stoddard warns, “If the present drift be not changed, we whites are all ultimately doomed. Unless we set our house in order, the doom will sooner or later overtake us all.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald picked up on Stoddard’s nativist racial paranoia and placed these noxious ideas in the mouth of his arrogant, abusive, philandering, millionaire, Tom Buchanan. Tom argues the point, “violently”:
Civilization’s going to pieces . . . . Have you read “The Rise of the Colored Empires” by this man Goddard? . . . Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged. . . . It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out of these other races will have control of things.
Nick Carraway, Gatsby’s narrator, dismisses Tom as “pathetic” in this moment. We might be tempted to dismiss Stoddard and his ideological progeny, Buchanan, as equally pathetic.

But can we afford Nick’s complacency?

Instead, we suggest that teachers of Gatsby seize this moment, both in our broader culture and in Fitzgerald’s uncannily timeless and prescient novel, to explore the racial paranoia and its bizarre coexistence with extreme power and privilege. September and Gatsby are right around the corner. Seize the moment to plan for what Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich calls “the real, and yes, uncomfortable and unpredictable work of teaching and learning.” These difficult but important classroom conversations will make your reading of a 1925 novel more relevant and revealing.

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