When we think about our divided country, social media seems to be a prime culprit: my column last week addressed the ongoing revelations about Facebook, and the use of social media data to micro-target divisive messages to the American electorate during the 2016 Presidential campaign. Experts and ordinary voters are still turning over the Rubik’s Cube of our national puzzle: how was Donald Trump was able to surmount so many barriers — character, elocution, intellect, sexual behavior — to his winning the presidency? Many theories are floating around out there, all of them probably wrong. But what nearly everyone agrees on is that this country is more ideologically divided than it ever has been, whether it is the gender war, racial division, class struggle, regional interests, or so-called native-born people activating resentment against immigrant newcomers. Most of us agree, however, that new media exploits these divisions for political gain.
But is social media the cause? Despite the power of algorithms to match like with like, I don’t think so. In fact, I would argue that social media does what all media has always done, only better and more quickly. No media creates division: it expresses differences. To paraphrase my colleague Robin Pacifici-Wagner, what media does is make dynamics that already exist visible, to the extent that a moment of change — rendered in media — becomes an event, interrupting our lives from far away. Such an event is a rupture in time, one that expresses our relationship to a particular moment in history. But does it do that at the expense of suppressing our consciousness about a longer past that made the event possible?
The death of Martin Luther King, Jr. was just such an event, a stain on American history that is simultaneously unique and, as we know from the history of lynching and contemporary gun violence against African-Americans, tragically commonplace. Today, on the fiftieth anniversary of King’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, it is worth reminding ourselves that this country could not have been more at war with itself in 1968. It was racially divided, and racially segregated. The United States was also an extremely violent place, and would only become more so in the next decade.
For those of us who lived in and around major cities, one of the questions that always arose this time of year it was: would it be a “long, hot summer,” the term that had come to describe the toxic mix of poverty, oppressive heat, unemployment, and police violence that put urban communities on a hair trigger. You could drop a match and the divisions in this country would erupt in African American neighborhoods. And people often literally did drop a match once things got going. Whether you want to call them urban riots or insurrections, major cities burned in the 1960s, and many of them — Newark, Jersey City, Detroit are a few — have never fully recovered to this day. Should they return to prosperity eventually, it will not be because the vibrant Black and Jewish neighborhoods of these cities have once again flowered, but because real estate developers, sometimes capitalizing on the storied past of these cities, will have built enough glass and steel towers for the bourgeoisie and haute bourgeoisie, along with privatized parks, charter schools, and art galleries.
I remember Martin Luther King’s death quite vividly, although sometimes — because I was ten — it gets muddled in my mind with the murder of Bobby Kennedy only eight weeks later. Although the two were assassinated for very different reasons, and their historical trajectories had been quite different, that eight weeks between April 4 and June 5 represented two crucial events that, for many, also represent the metaphorical death of a history that never reached its promise. That moment is known by historians as the turn from “the good sixties to the bad sixties.” King was moving left, embracing the anti-war movement and a sharp critique of capitalism; and Kennedy, a McCarthyite and former Attorney General who had failed to intervene more dramatically in the violent suppression of the civil rights movement, had undergone an even more radical intellectual metamorphosis, and was untangling the calamity that liberalism had become.
Could King and Kennedy together have reckoned successfully with the national divisions that had become hyper-visible in the media, most prominently the “new” technology of television, in the 1950s and ’60s? We will never know, particularly since, if we are being honest, these decades themselves were the stage for playing out the consequences of an even longer past, one in which the separation of citizens by race, nationality, class, and gender had been baked into American history and law. These hurdles to national unity included Jim Crow segregation, laws that had been in place for over eighty years in some places by the 1960s; the formal and informal exclusion of Jews from educational institutions, neighborhoods and public facilities; nativisms once expressed through the early twentieth century Asiatic Exclusion League and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which sought to end non-European immigration; the late nineteenth century confinement of Native people to arid, inhospitable “reservations;” the Constitutional, ideological and racial struggles that resulted in the Civil War; in slavery; and the Naturalization Act of 1790, which limited citizenship to “free White persons of good character.”
Who can help but think of the language of that first law to follow the ratification of the constitution today when migrants from nations south of the Rio Grande are routinely characterized as inherently criminal and lazy, and Muslims are targeted by our government as potential terrorists?
It is also important to point out that the question of “character” lurks not so far in the background of the long exclusion of homosexuals from full citizenship, and the rationale for turning back Jewish refugees in the 1930s, sending them back to Europe to their deaths? And as we approach the centenary of woman suffrage, can we forget that all women were not granted the vote in 1920, nor did voting advance the legal and economic equality of women as a class for another fifty years? Furthermore, as I and others pointed out in a forum over at the Chronicle of Higher Education this week, the project of gender equality is radically incomplete in its own way.
In my essay, I point out that affirmative action — which is largely responsible for my admission to a formerly gender-segregated Ivy League university, and for my career as a professional historian — was transformational. But that transformation had a cost: the agreement to suppress a far older truth “That all-male, all-white faculties were never the natural order of things, but the outcome of decades of exclusion of women and people of color from jobs for which they were qualified. The failure to confront this moral wrong implicitly makes women, and people of color, second-class university citizens to this day.”
The sexual harassment scandals of the fall illuminate the fact that the cost of women’s progress has been simmering male hostility: similarly, mobilizing angry working class whites is not a twenty-first century phenomenon. The so-called “Hands Ad,” produced by conservative political consultant Alex Castellanos for Jesse Helms’ 1990 Senate campaign, expressed a toxic racial message that predicted the white identity movements that have been reborn in the 21st century, reflected racial resentments that were both kindled and suppressed by affirmative action, and drew on a century of fear that competition with black labor would disadvantage white working class men.
The viciousness of this ad shows that, while every media form has its own dynamic and effects, the argument that social media has “caused” the eruption of particularly toxic divisions in this country is quite wrong, even though it has produced a lot of exceptionally bad, even alarming, behavior, as followers of my Twitter feed last weekend would probably agree. (If you were blocked, and think you shouldn’t have been, drop me an email and let me know.)
Media, even digital media deployed against us by bots, Russian agents, and corporate political consultants, is not the problem. The problem is our failure to confront the fact that our country is historically — not temporarily — divided. Finding your location across these divisions is a characteristic of what it means to be American, even though each eruption, and each event, is new and surprising — even newly traumatizing. Instead of muting and papering over our divisions, perhaps we need to be thoughtful, together, about what has allowed us all to survive them, how we memorialize them, and what we as citizens are willing to do to put our media tools to use to understand and embrace our common history.
Claire Potter is a professor of history at The New School, and executive editor of Public Seminar. You can follow Claire on Twitter.