Jacqueline Foertsch lives in Philipstown and Denton, Texas, where she is a professor of English at the University of North Texas. Her most recent book is Freedom’s Ring: Literatures of Liberation from Civil Rights to the Second Wave.
How did you end up splitting your time between Philipstown and Texas?
When my nieces came into my life in 2002, I wanted to be here as they grew up, so I rented my first apartment on Main Street in Cold Spring. I was tired of imposing on my sister and brother-in-law by sleeping on their dining room floor.
Several of your books focus on American culture after World War II. What draws you to that period?
The atomic bomb. I am compelled by what it meant for U.S. and world history. In literary studies, wars are often used as starting and stopping points because literature, art and culture change so much. The bomb was such a punctuation mark. In the U.S., it became a fad with the atomic cocktail and atomic-themed pop music but also a nightmare that clouded our happy days. Three or four of my projects took off directly from this ground zero and followed the response to the bomb in literature, film, newspapers, magazines. In some ways that period is over-researched, but I try to find the nooks and crannies.
Your book examines the concepts of “freedom” and “equality.” What’s the difference?
There’s a huge difference. In U.S. history, they seem like two sides of the same coin of democracy, but, in fact, they’re locked in mortal struggle. The Constitution is a freedom machine, because freedom is free. After the war, for instance, it didn’t cost anything to let someone sit anywhere on a bus, or vote. More recently, it has become a flag-draped excuse for selfishness: My profits, my guns, my property. By contrast, equality has a huge price tag. It’s expensive to let everyone attend a good college, have a nice house, a good-paying job. Politics has become our national pastime: pitched battles between moral opposites, the same formula for stage melodrama. We focus on that instead of sitting down together to address practical questions such as how to make health care more affordable or pay a living wage, which are complicated and technical problems.
Martin Luther King Jr. said all of this. He said, OK we have the vote, we have desegregation, we have public accommodation, and now we’re going north, and what we’re going to ask for is going to start costing. He was asking for big-ticket items [to achieve equality] at the same time that Lyndon Johnson was ramping up the Vietnam War. When King pressed for equality instead of freedom, society turned its back.
You write that it’s incorrect to blame Donald Trump for “dividing the country.” Why is that?
Because it reflects amnesia. The opposition party hates any popular president. The right loathed Obama and Clinton, while the left hated George W. Bush. When I want to blame someone for Trump, I look in the mirror because I haven’t spent enough time as an American advocating for the disaffected millions who put him into office. We haven’t had a functioning economy in 80 percent of the U.S. since the 1970s. Instead of red versus blue, how about the different realities lived by those earning an hourly wage versus those with an annual salary and benefits? That’s the more important difference to me.
You describe the U.S. worker as being “forgotten.” How so?
Our capitalist system insists upon the cheapest labor possible. At the turn of the 20th century, workers from central and eastern Europe occupied low rungs on the industrial ladder, until unionization helped them gain a solid footing. With the dissolution of unions in the 1970s, these workers lost their middle-class standard and towns throughout flyover America lost their factories and economic bases. The most common political outlook pits beleaguered urban minorities against middle-America Trump voters, but these folks are in the same boat. If they ever got together, we might be able to write better laws.