Saturday, April 4, 2009

On War Brides and bottomless idea pits

"The construction of white men's power in comic books."

This is just one of few bottomless idea pits I had the opportunity to peer down yesterday afternoon as I nibbled on a ham sandwich and a sugar cookie.

The occasion: Andrea Friedman, associate professor of History and Women & Gender Studies at Washington University, presenting on her project "Democracy in (Cold War) America: Gender, Race, and the Problem of Citizenship at Mid-Century."

What was I doing there, peering down bottomless idea pits while muching and sipping on a soda (I couldn't get an ale served in a campus seminar room)?

Andrea Friedman is among the current batch of Faculty Fellows with the Center for the Humanities at Washington University. The competitive program cuts three faculty free of teaching each semester to work on a book project. One of the things they have to do, in addition to work on their book, is give a public lecture.

This was Andrea Friedman's public lecture as a Faculty Fellow. The bit about the comic books and the construction of men's power - construction done, from my knowledge of comic book writers and artists, by some of the most physically powerless men on the planet - was hers. But she didn't get into all of that yesterday.

Yesterday she told us a story. She told us about Ellen Knauff. A German Jew who lived in Prague, she escaped the Nazi sweep of Europe while the rest of her family died in the camps. She served as a Red Cross nurse in England, then worked for the Royal Air Force and the American military government.

She enters history for real after marrying an American citizen and attempting to come home with him as a War Bride, arriving August 14, 1948. After questioning by an immigration official, she was detained at Ellis Island, and within two months she had been excluded from entering the U.S. on grounds that admitting her would be "prejudicial" to national security.

Quite a story. It comes to involve Supreme Court tussles and game-changing journalism by The Post-Dispatch in its Pulitzer heyday, back when it was an advocacy paper for the downtrodded and oppressed, rather than for the Mayor of St. Louis and the Superintendent of the City Jails, who get the Post's love these days.

I'll just share the nuggets of language that caught my ear and that I jotted down.

"She gave maps to pilots, so she knew where they would be bombing." - Andrea Friedman, on Ellen Knauff's service to the Royal Air Force.

"Security is like liberty in that many are the crimes committed in its name." - Justice Robert Jackson, in his dissenting ruling on her Supreme Court case.

"You get single women complaining about War Brides." - Andrea Friedman, on the cultural context at that time, which led another abserver to muse on the tabloid elements of the story.

"Queers, Communists and Jews bleed into one another." - A post-graduate student everyone referred to as "Benjy". The bleeding here is metaphorical, and he clearly was using the often perjorative word "Queer" in the spirit of reclaiming it from the bigots.

Finally, my favorite: "Can you re-gender into that line of argument?" Said by the woman next to me at the seminar table, this reflects the continuing faddishness of gender as something to consider in an academic setting.

For all I know, this may introduce a new verb to the language. "To re-gender" (v): to get gender back into an argument or analysis and thereby promote the likelihood of publication by an academic journal or university press.

Just joking. No sour grapes here. I got into the gender and "Queer" studies fads as a graduate student, and I was amply rewarded in my academic labors for as long as I could stick it out. Then rock & roll called, and I ran away to join that circus instead.

So, what was I doing back on campus, peering down into these bottomless idea pits?

My former professor, mentor and program director (when I became a professor myself) at Washington University, Gerald Early, tabbed me last year to join the Advisory Board for the Center for the Humanities, which he directs.

Gerald has always tried to say yes to me, and I always try to say yes to him. I said yes. It's been a fun ride so far, and I am proud that we are supporting Andrea Friedman's project.

My advice to her was to share her work with some members of the Missouri Supreme Court who might be interested and, when book blurb time comes, with U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill.

I also suggested she get an op-ed out of the theme of mainstream journalism as advocacy journalism, using the case of the Post and Ellen Knauff, when she has a book on the way and is looking to sneak its name into the public domain without paying for an ad. Very old publisher's trick.


WWII War Bride "nose art" on a B-17 from a site devoted to the U.S. Air Force 303rd Bomb Group.

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