Thursday, August 24, 2017

Whitney Strub

Whitney Strub teaches history at Rutgers University-Newark, where he co-directs the Queer Newark Oral History Project. His latest book is Porno Chic and the Sex Wars: American Sexual Representation in the 1970s, which he co-edited with Carolyn Bronstein.

Recently I asked Strub about what he was reading. His reply:
Like many Americans, I’m still trapped in a sort of Nightmare Groundhog’s Day in which I keep returning to that awful moment last November, when the most toxic, hateful aspects of U.S. history coalesced to give us this rancid Trump administration. I spent 2016 devouring all of Toni Morrison’s novels, too many of which I hadn’t yet read. Shortly after the election, I found myself staring down the harsh truths of Paradise, her story of the women who set up an autonomous household in rural Oklahoma and the men who punish them for it. I’ve read a lot since then in 2017, but nothing I’ve read, nor any of the activism I’ve seen and participated in, has stopped this from haunting me:

“A backward noplace ruled by men whose power to control was out of control and who had the nerve to say who could live and who not and where; who had seen in lively, free, unarmed females the mutiny of the mares and so got rid of them.”

That’s Donald Trump, that’s Mike Pence, that’s Jeff Sessions, and as a U.S. historian, I reluctantly add, that’s much of U.S. history writ large. The sheer magnitude of its horror is simply staggering.

And so, in a desperate attempt to understand what went so wrong, I recently read Wayne Barrett’s Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth, originally published in 1992 but reissued last year. It’s an astonishingly well-researched compendium of the narcissism, greed, racism, corruption, incompetence, and belligerence that define Donald Trump, a man with effectively zero redeeming qualities. Barrett is meticulous when it comes to detailing the repeated failures of Trump’s early career, from New York City development to football schemes to Atlantic City; over and over again, he was bailed out by his wealthy father or saved by his willingness to resort to sociopathic levels of aggression, rather than talent or smarts. When the book was originally published, its title was actually Trump: The Deals and the Downfalls—he was already washed up by the time Bill Clinton took office, before his counter-miraculous reality-TV reinvention.

The whole book is stupefying (I had to read it in daily ten-page doses), but if one small anecdote stands out as the perfect apotheosis of Trump’s utterly corrosive personality, it’s a minor moment in 1986 where he does one of the few good things he’s ever done, the renovation of the ice-skating rink in Central Park. All he has to do is hold a press conference, share credit with city officials, and smile, and he’ll win good press and repair his fraught relations at city hall. His advisers beg him to take the high road. Of course, he can’t do it, can’t find it in himself to deliver a few short moments of graciousness, and so instead he smirks, he gloats, he brags—and he alienates Mayor Koch, who says, “If you’re dealing with Donald Trump, you’re gonna get screwed.” Koch was right, we’re all stuck dealing with him now, and Barrett’s book unexpectedly resonates with Toni Morrison’s in offering two very different lenses on the same deep ugliness at the center of American history.

Next I need to read about Audre Lorde or Noam Chomsky or Michael Stipe or Fannie Lou Hamer to remind myself of the other side of that history, the one worth fighting for!
Visit Whit Strub’s blog, and read more about Porno Chic and the Sex Wars at the University of Massachusetts Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Porno Chic and the Sex Wars.

--Marshal Zeringue