Tropics of Meta’s Best of 2012


It has been a big year for us at ToM, as we rebooted and redesigned the site back in March and welcomed many new contributors.  (Hi, Jude, Lauren, Maryann, Nick, Adam, John, Jonathyne, & co.)  We were also lucky to see several of our pieces circulated more broadly in the online world, such as Alex’s look at the politics of Atlanta’s Beltline, Ryan’s analysis of sexuality in the films of Wes Anderson, and our roundtable discussion of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.  Meanwhile, the manic, occasionally psychotic antics of the US election cycle prompted both mild laceration from our friend Clement, who covered the presidential conventions and debates, as well as the periodic spike in interest in whichever proud American lunatic happened to be in the news. (Our Ted Nugent retrospective, “Fuck Ted Nugent,” pulled in the most hits of any piece of the year, thanks in part to the Motor City Madman’s habit of making “colorful” remarks to the press.)  In any case, here are some of our favorite pieces of the year, followed by a list of the most-read posts published in 2012:

“A Citizen, not an American”: Obama, Santa Claus, and the Language of Identity

In the aftermath of the 2012 election, many conservatives found themselves groping for explanations for the shocking and unexpected defeat of GOP nominee Mitt Romney.  Rush Limbaugh, predictably, attributed Obama’s victory to his pandering to parasitic dependents such as the poor, African Americans, Latinos, and women, but Neal Boortz searched for an even deeper explanation to this inexplicable series of events.  While eschewing birtherism, he nonetheless declared that the President may be technically American, but not truly, authentically, culturally American—which explains why his statist, secularist policies seem so incomprehensibly alien to the real Americans who listen to Boortz’s show.

The Sexuality of Whimsy: Gender and Sex in the Films of Wes Anderson

Sure, Wes Anderson’s work rings with twee and whimsy, yet his movies, though stuck in heteronormative frames, express a sexuality that exudes naivety, disappointment, euphoria, and sadness.  While Anderson deserves the lion’s share of credit, those around him–from actor Bill Murray to his writing partners Owen Wilson, Noah Baumbach, and Roman Coppola–have also contributed to Anderson’s well rounded depiction of sexuality from awkward enthusiasm of adolescence to the somber experience of adulthood.

This Wall Wasn’t Dead: Public Art in Atlanta

This photo essay takes viewers on a tour of visual culture in Atlanta, focusing especially on the murals and other works included in the second annual Living Walls festival.  It also touches on the sensitive politics of street art, graffiti, and gentrification in the empire city of the South.

Sparkling Music for a Dishwater World: The Shins and the Limitations of the Indie Rock Narrative

Kenneth Maffit joined us for this probing assessment of the oeuvre of the Shins, urging readers to discard the lazy, empty category of “indie rock” and resituate the band in a longer tradition of pop music, influenced by the classic songcraft of the 1960s, psychedelia, and the British invasion.  In the process, he suggests that Wincing the Night Away, the Shins’ under-appreciated third album, deserves a second look from listeners who stopped paying attention after Chutes Too Narrow.

Robert Wiebe and the Search for Order

As part of our yearly Dog Days Classics series, in which contributors revisit their favorite scholarly works, Jude Webre looked back to Robert Wiebe’s celebrated 1967 book — a text that remains a must for many history grad students, at least in the more old-school departments.  Jude goes beyond the familiar trope of the “organizational synthesis” that emphasizes the Progressive Era’s love of order and efficiency, showing how Wiebe’s interpretation does more than portray Americans of the early twentieth century as bureaucrats and “bloodless policy wonks,” trapped by “the procedural vacuity of cubical life.”  Rather, Wiebe probes into the deeper human experience of people who “clutched what they knew” in an effort to comprehend a rapidly changing, industrializing world of urban diversity and concentrated power.  And he did so with some of the finest prose of an era when historians still wrote fluid, engaging texts (much like another ToM favorite and Wiebe contemporary, Richard Hofstadter).

The Food Truck Conundrum: Urban Politics and Mobile Eats

If food often provides an insight into broader cultural issues, what do the debates about food trucks tell us about the state of the American palette in 2012? In D.C., food trucks draw the broad support of most District residents and the ire of many of its restaurants.  These “movable feasts” suture political divisions as both the left and the right love them, but highlight the difficult economics of staying alive in the ever changing food industry. You won’t look at your fusion Korean BBQ corndog the same way again.

Emily White Killed Vic Chestnut

In a year of ludicrous controversies and microwaved sideshows (hello Sandra Fluke, Donald Trump), it might be easy to forget the furor that erupted last Spring over the naively honest posting by an NPR intern about her vast, unpaid music collection.  Though everyone in America has been taping songs from the radio, gifting mixtapes, and swapping flash drives containing huge numbers of MP3s for as long as anyone can remember, acknowledgment of this free music extravaganza was always best kept out of polite company and public discussion.   This piece explores the explosive debate that emerged about artists’ rights, listeners’ obligations, the ethics of the music business and the future of music as a whole in the aftermath of Emily White’s blog post, placing the discussion in a broader history of piracy and free music.

Civil Society and Mass Incarceration

Joel Suarez looked at the growing literature on racism and criminal justice in the United States, notably the work of Michelle Alexander, Heather Thompson, Christopher Glazek, and Frank Wilderson.  As the prison-industrial complex has generated a “new Jim Crow” that affects the lives of millions yet functions as totally invisible to many other Americans, the reconstitution of a racist system of inequality in the post-civil rights era has begun to draw serious and sustained attention from scholars.  

Why Santorum Won in Iowa: A Historical Perspective

Keith Orejel drew on his own study of the rural Midwest to explain the upset victory of former Senator Rick Santorum in the crucial Iowa caucuses—a phenomenon generally attributed Santorum’s support among evangelical social conservatives.  Keith looked at political and economic dimensions of the candidat’s message that were otherwise little discussed or understood in most coverage of the nomination process.

The Municipal Military: The Impact of the Armed Services on Urban America

Too often we think of military history as the story of tactical battles, advanced weaponry, and aging generals.  Yet, post WWII military expansion has come to influence the physical, social, and economic development of numerous metropolitan areas around the nation.  From Seaside, CA to Fayetteville, North Carolina, to Columbia, SC, military personnel, families, and policies have exerted a clear influence.  Here ToM looks at what this has meant for these municipalities. Along with John Southard’s 2012 contribution, Crayons, Fraternities, and Military Historians: The Perception and State of Military History, ToM hopes to expand on people’s preconceptions of what the military’s place in American society is and what this means historically.

Requiem for a Heems: An Obit for Das Racist

“They called us joke rap, we kinda weed rap, We just like rap, we don’t even need rap.” Joke Rap? Weed Rap? What exactly were Das Racist? Maybe the best demonstration of hyperreferentiality since the Beastie Boys and certainly one of a handful of groups to really push the issue of race in directions we haven’t seen before, Das Racist’s disbanding this year marked the end of an admittedly short, but fantastic run: two stellar mixtapes and a more than solid album. ToM looks back to figure out what all the fuss was about.

Apocalypse on the Lower East Side: Zone One Zombies

Zombies. ‘Nuff said.

Black Power Pruitt Igoe Mixtape: How Two New Documentaries Make Sense of 1970s Urban America

Over the past decade or so, documentaries have emerged as one of most effective means of reaching an audience with a story or message. In the case of late 1960s and 1970s urban America, we’ve witnessed the blossoming of the field with new additions like 2011’s The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975 and 2012’s The Pruitt Igoe Myth, each pushing back against dominant perceptions regarding the Black Power movement (the former) and public housing (the latter).  Along with earlier contributions like 2002’s The Weather Underground, a new narrative regarding the radical politics of the late 1960s has formed as have new understandings regarding the legacy of public housing.

Most-Read Posts of 2012

  1. Is the Beltline Bad for Atlanta?
  2. The Sexuality of “Whimsy”: Gender and Sex in the Films of Wes Anderson
  3. The Specter of Revolution in “The Dark Knight Rises”
  4. “When She Talks, I Hear the Revolution”: Looking Back at the Riot Grrrl Revolt
  5. Joy and Pain: What Jeremy Lin Tells Us about 21st Century American Race Relations
  6. So You Say You’ll Change the Constitution: Seven Historians Respond to “Lincoln”
  7. Did the Broken Windows Theory Work?
  8. L.A. Confidential: California History and the 2012 Whitsett Seminar
  9. Subculture Rub: Tracing the Winding Path of Street Art
  10. Emily White Killed Vic Chesnutt

See also last year’s Best of 2011.