20 Questions: Jenna Joselit

Jenna Joselit is an author, columnist, curator and a professor at Princeton University. This summer, she has been conducting research as a scholar at the Kluge Center in the Library of Congress.

What exactly does your work at the Library of Congress involve?

I’m trying to suggest that the Ten Commandments are something that goes very deep into the American imagination. It’s daunting but kind of exhilarating because I never know what I’m going to turn up. It’s like being on a treasure hunt; I meet up with different people whose field is music or rare books or prints and photographs or stained glass. You’ve got the whole world here in this building. My research is quite thrilling.

What’s the strangest artifact that you’ve found so far?

My very favorite was of an expectorant — you know, a cough medicine — that featured Moses in the bulrushes with some Egyptian woman. I just thought that was a hilarious way of appropriating the biblical narrative. Instead of using it for religious purposes you’re using it as a way to sell cough medicine.

What are you hoping to do in D.C. that is not work-related?

All I do is work. I go home, go to work, go home, go to work. I’m just enjoying being in Washington; for me it’s kind of exotic, kind of heady being on the Hill, thinking you’re so close to those great instruments of power.

Have you gotten to interact with some of those instruments?

Just on the Metro.

Do you consider yourself religious?

Do I obey the Ten Commandments? Yes, let’s put it that way.

Can you recite all Ten Commandments?

Don’t press me! [Laughs] I just finished teaching a seminar on the Ten Commandments in modern America. One of the things I had the students do was go out on campus and see if people could recite the Ten Commandments. I’m sure you won’t be surprised that they couldn’t. Even some congressmen who are all in favor of the Ten Commandments being publicly displayed could not recite them all.

What about posting the commandments in the Capitol?

I love the Ten Commandments when they pop up in popular culture, in song or in film, but not on governmental property. I think they’re sufficiently part of the American matrix that they don’t need to be posted, wouldn’t you say?

So that whole controversy with the judge putting the Ten Commandments in his courtroom, what did you think of that?

It shows that there are lots of people who are different than me, who feel very strongly that the Ten Commandments should be as forthrightly positioned as possible. The big question is why do they feel so strongly? Why isn’t it enough that the Ten Commandments be in the church or in a home or around someone’s neck, you know, why does it need to be in a public space? That speaks to a sense of fear, to cultural anxiety about change in American culture.

With regard to the Ten Commandments and the scandals in Congress, do you think we need to look again at the dos and don’ts?

It wouldn’t be a bad idea to be more attentive to the moral strictures of our culture. But it has to be voluntary, not an act of Congress. You want it to be something that is a pleasant exercise, reminding you who you ought to be.

We shouldn’t put “Don’t commit adultery” into our laws?

We should know that.

But don’t you think something like “Do not steal” should be part of our laws?

Well, obviously it is.

What do you think of people singing “God Bless America” at baseball games?

I don’t have much of an opinion about that. If these things are sung with good intentions, as a way to welcome and embrace, they’re wonderful. But if they’re designed to exclude and keep people out and create a sense of America as a closed culture, then they’re not such a wonderful thing.

How about your political stance?

I’m pretty left-of-center. Do we need to get into that? I’m a good New York liberal, how about that?

Well, then, who are you rooting for in the presidential elections?

I don’t know yet. Remember, I’m a good ole New York liberal — so you connect the dots.

What do you think is the future of American politics?

Increasingly [it will be] more heated and contested. I’m an historian, so I’m really good at predicting the past but I’m terrible at predicting the future, because things change so radically.

Do you see evidence of a short-term memory on the Hill?

I don’t think they have too much of an institutional memory. Given the press of business you need to reckon with what’s happening now. So much is happening now that it’s hard to stop and remember, but that’s what I try to do — take a pulse of the past and see if it helps us for a better understanding of the future.

So these members’ offices need some historians.

Sure. Anything that brings more power to history.

You’re a curator. I’m wondering what one of your favorite exhibition spaces in D.C. is.

Oh, gosh. I live in New York so I haven’t been here all that much. At the moment I love the modernism show at the Corcoran. I like that a lot. I like anything at the Phillips.

You like art museums more than history?

No, I like them both.

How many hours are you working these days?

A lot.

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