Tropics of Meta’s Best of 2011

Our friend Kevin Baker recently wondered aloud whether 2012 would be the Year that Tropics Broke, after seeing our rundown of the best papers at this year’s American Historical Association meeting posted by a colleague on Facebook.  2012 might very well be the year that we auto-tune or meme our way to national notoriety, but in the meantime we would like to offer a different kind of recap: a list of our favorite pieces from 2011.  From the Mountain Goats to Melancholia, and from the inspiring scenes of the Arab Spring to the ongoing antics of the Tea Party, we have tried to offer a semi-informed perspective on the unfolding of history over the last year.  Here are some of our picks:

Fire and ICE: The Realities of 21st Century Urban Development

The first in our series on the “post-industrial society” and the role of high-technology industries in American cities, this piece focused on university-led redevelopment in New York, Philadelphia, and southern California.  Drawing on the work of Mike Davis and Themis Chronopoulos, the post examines local resistance to the expansion of New York University, as well as the increasing dependence of cities on such development to shore up their coffers and credit ratings in a neoliberal policy environment.

The Rural Roots of America’s Cities of Knowledge

Another installment in the post-industrial series, Keith Orejel’s essay urged readers to refocus attention away from the big city world of the “creative class” and toward the relationship between high-tech development and rural America.  The Sunbelt’s image of prosperity, Orejel suggests, belied the reality of poverty and population loss in the countryside, as mechanization pushed farmworkers off the land and better opportunities in cities such as Charlotte and Atlanta were taken up chiefly by educated transplants from outside the region.  Meanwhile, rural workers moved into low-wage retail, trucking, and other industries that flourished in the shadow of the New Economy’s gleaming “cities of knowledge.”

Neoliberalism’s License to Ill 

Discussing the work of the late Tony Judt, Adam Gallagher explored the damaging effects of neoliberal policies in this piece.  In the name of holding the line on spending and big government, American policymakers have, in the last thirty years, pursued a relentless course of privatization and deregulation, even as tax cuts for the wealthy fueled rising inequality and military adventurism blew up the budget deficit.  The 2008 economic crisis and the subsequent Great Recession seemed to illustrate the devastating impact of such policies, yet the resurgence of the GOP and the rise of the Tea Party showed that the US political elite has refused to abandon its allegiance to old homilies about the so-called “free market.”

How We Got Here: Stein, Cowie, and Arrighi on the Post-Industrial Economy

Continuing the post-industrial series, Joel Suarez examines the divergent approaches to economic change taken by Judith Stein, Jefferson Cowie, and the late Giovanni Arrighi in their widely read studies.  Arrighi employs the sweeping perspective of world-systems theory to explain the United States’ meteoric economic rise in the twentieth century, placing the country’s turn toward deindustrialization and finance in the 1970s as part of a long-term cycle of imperial expansion and decline.  In contrast, Stein focuses on the nuts-and-bolts of economic policy, highlighting how deliberate political decisions about taxes, subsidies, and trade favored industries such as finance, insurance and real estate (see “FIRE and ICE” above) and undermined traditional manufacturing.  Cowie’s Staying Alive instead looked at the cultural dimension of deindustrialization and changing perceptions of class in the 1970s.   Despite methodological differences, and the difficulty of reconciling large-scale and small-bore explanations, each of these scholars can concur on one point: the 1970s were a crucial turning point in the political economy and culture of the United States.

Hefner, Hughes, and Rogen: Playboy and the Origins of the 21st Century Hipster

The unending search for a definition of the hipster continues in this piece, which offers a new genealogy of the cultural type.  This piece deemphasizes the significance of familiar antecedents such as the beatniks or punks and instead ties hipsters to a different ancestor: the playboy of the 1950s, the prototypical, self-absorbed urban sophisticate.  Drawing on the work of historian Elizabeth Fraterrigo and essayist Ian Svenonius, “Hefner, Hughes, and Rogen” proposes that the most salient characteristic of the hipster is demographic; the virtually unprecedented emergence of a large, educated group of unmarried, childless twenty-and-thirtysomethings has given rise to hipster culture, as culturally savvy young people with disposable income and few responsibilities can devote time to putting birds on things and issuing cassette-only electro-pop covers of Bollywood songs.

Teaching to the Test: The Middle Class, Teachers, and School Reform in the 21st Century

In this piece, Ryan Reft and Shane Updike draw on their experience as educators to weight the implications of movements for education reform, particularly for American cities.  Charter schools, accountability, and teacher unions come under consideration, as well as the controversial career of former Washington, DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who made fighting unions and firing incompetent teachers her signature policy.

Video, Terror, and the Politics of Reality TV 

Written in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s killing by American commandos in Pakistan, this piece compared the way that images of bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were constructed in the media after their respective downfalls.  Specifically, it discusses the lurid and humiliating use of video to degrade the formerly powerful men, who were viewed in the American media undergoing dental examinations (in Hussein’s case) and pathetically watching television (in bin Laden’s).  Such portrayals evoked practices of shaming and voyeurism that resembled those made popular by reality television in the last decade.

Pedaling Your Politics: The Variable Meanings of Critical Mass

This piece explores the controversial practice of critical mass by bicyclists in a variety of cities, considering the political dimension of the tactic and the different ways it has been received in San Francisco, San Diego, Chicago, and elsewhere.  Despite the somewhat confrontational nature of critical mass, which involves bicyclists taking over streets and other public spaces, conflicts over the practice have not deterred the growing embrace of bicycling as an environmentally friendly mode of transit or bike-friendly policies as a means of enhancing traffic and transportation in cities such as New York.

American Arab Kitsch: From Ahab to Abed and Back Again

This essay takes a long view of portrayals of Arabs and Arab-Americans in American pop culture, from the novelty songs of Ray Stevens and Pinkard & Bowden to the increasing presence of purportedly Arab characters in twenty-first century pop culture.  It considers the vagaries of politics and international affairs on perceptions of Arabs, who occupy a peculiar position between honorary white people (Lebanese Republicans such as John Sununu) and swarthy, hysterical terrorists (the Crimson Jihad in 1994’s action hit True Lies).  One of the strangest aspects of American pop culture’s treatment of Arabs is the fact that such characters are nearly always played by South Asians rather than actors of North African or Middle Eastern origin (Sayid on Lost, Abed on Community, and so forth), underlining their status as nonwhite in the American imagination.

Building the Perfect Echo Chamber: The 1970s and Political Discourse in the 21st Century 

This wide-ranging essay looks at Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, among other texts, to consider how the conflicts of the 1970s set the course for today’s hyper-polarized, Red vs. Blue political culture.  Richard Nixon saw the value of exploiting the cultural, political, and economic differences between the so-called “Silent Majority” and increasingly vocal groups such as people of color, gays and lesbians, and others on the Left. John McMillian’s history of the underground press and the New Left, Smoking Typewriters, and Edmund White’s memoir of gay life in New York, City Boy, provide further perspective on the splintering of American culture during this era, as people divided along lines of political, sexual, and cultural identity and nurtured new subcultures that became increasingly unintelligible to those outside each group.  The result was an America that looked less like a cohesive polity, capable of addressing its most pressing and intractable issues, and more like an archipelago of echo chambers, where liberals and conservatives talked only to their own kind and viewed each other with resentment and mistrust.

Decide Yourself If Radio’s Gonna Stay: A Post-Mortem of R.E.M.

This post reviews the long history of R.E.M., the Athens, GA band that defined the course of college radio and indie rock in the 1980s before achieving massive popular success and gradually sinking back into obscurity by the late 1990s.  Written from the perspective of a long-time listener from the South (“southern boys just like you and me,” as Steve Malkmus said in Pavement’s tribute to the band), the piece considers how R.E.M.’s heady mix of 60s psychedelia and post-punk energy typified the early 1980s moment of crisis in the record industry, which was stuck in its post-boomer, post-disco doldrums.  The band’s first single, “Radio Free Europe,” was not only an impressionistic take on the state of the Cold War at the dawn of the Reagan Era, but a call to arms for independent music to chart its own course — a harbinger of how indie rock would develop in uneasy tension with the mainstream of the music business.

And the Most Read Posts of 2011

  1. Demonizing Don Henley: Unwrapping the Byzantine Politics of a Boomer Icon
  2. Not Your Model Minority: The Complexity of Asian Americans in 21st Century Film
  3. Hefner, Hughes, and Rogen
  4. Teaching to the Test
  5. Market Volunteers: The Role of Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the All-Volunteer Army
  6. Learning from Tiny Tower: Mobile Gaming and the Post-Industrial Society
  7. FIRE and ICE
  8. Me and You and Everyone We Know: Newsweek’s Sex Problem
  9. Mapping the Ineffable: The Nebulous Flow of History in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas
  10. Making Sense of Mom: The Ideology of 20th Century American Maternalism