Saturday, October 23, 2010

Rightwing productions of history

My dissertation advisor David Hollinger, about to assume the Presidency of the Organization of American Historians, has a terse rebuttal to the Wall Street Journal's claim that the Tea Partiers are promoting a more accurate version of the past than that produced by professional historians. While such a brief rejoinder is probably the organizationally appropriate response of the President of the OAH to such slander, I thought it would be worthwhile to provide a little more context for this skirmish between the official head of professional American historians, and what we might call the counter-professional version of American history that is widely promoted in places like the the op-ed pages of the WSJ or the Washington Post.

Over the last forty years, the production of American historical memory has been quite radically transformed. With the effective victory of a capacious, polysemous understanding of the past - which is the hallmark of professional history today - those who prefer a smaller, more politically or religiously sectarian view of the past have withdrawn into (or perhaps less pejoratively, have developed) their own historical epistemology, one that is barely in dialog with what professional historians do. The creation of this parallel, unprofessional historiographic universe is a politically self-conscious project of the American right, central to their effort to roll back the twentieth century's expansion of political inclusiveness, social tolerance, and the welfare state.

Producing an American past usable for the political right constitutes a sizable industry, one with far more influence than most professional historians realize - certainly more than I realized when I was in school. For example, I can't tell you how many people I meet - people who think of themselves as passionately engaged with the past - who really believe that, say, Mark Moyar's absurd interpretation of the Vietnam war, or Amity Schlaes's ridiculous interpretation of the New Deal, or Paul Johnson's tendentious interpretation of the Enlightenment [sorry, I refuse to link to such tripe], define these episodes wie sie eigentlich gewesen. Some such readers know that professional historians take such books about as seriously as professional athletes take the participants in "Wipe Out"; but insofar as they are even aware of the dismissiveness of the professionals, such readers tend to regard the attitudes of the professionals as merely typical of "liberal, elitist bias."

Despite certain notable exceptions, the political right in this country has largely given up even trying to fight with professional historians over the meaning of the American past. Rather than try to battle over truth using accepted professional standards of evidence and argument, the political right has taken their partisan interpretations of the past directly to the people, for example via the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal or the Weekly Standard, where one well-argued piece can gain a wider readership (and more political influence) than a hundred articles in the Journal of American History.

There's an underlying irony here, which is worth underscoring: while the political right has largely lost the interpretive battle for the American past among professional historians, they remain far more sensitive than the political left to the political importance of dominating popular understandings of key episodes from the past. They understand that inculcating the belief that the New Deal was somehow constitutionally illegitimate, or that the Civil Rights movement somehow represented federal overreach, or that the Vietnam War was somehow winnable but for perfidy at home are crucial in order to be able to promote the policies that they prefer in the present - whether it means rolling back the welfare state, ending affirmative action, or promoting aggressive neo-imperialist wars. This is precisely why partisan bloggers like Jonah Goldberg, Michelle Malkin, or Stanton Evans write books like Liberal Fascism (about contemporary liberalism's genealogical roots in interwar fascism) or In Defense of Internment (which describes FDR's internment of Japanese-Americans as his finest moment) or Blacklisted by History (which argues McCarthy was good and right about domestic Communism, and has been unfairly maligned by quisling-ish liberals and academics).

While such arguments might seem so grotesque as to be not worth dignifying with a reasoned rebuttal, we should not let scientific-professional judgments obscure the political influence that such books and arguments command among the hoi polloi. Though measuring these things is difficult, I strongly suspect that texts such as these have far more impact on the popular historical memory (and thus on contemporary politics) than virtually any Bancroft prize winner, appalling as that may be for professional historians to admit.

The reason why these books have such political impact is simple: it is because they are conceived and written first and foremost with a contemporary political intervention in mind.1 Indeed, the whole point of these para-historical productions of the right, their whole reason for being written, is not to "get the past right" but rather to influence contemporary politics. From a methodological perspective, right-wing popular historiography starts with a contemporary political or policy objective, then chooses an historical episode through which to convey the critical contemporary political point, and finally selectively marshalls evidence to support their contemporary political purpose. For these "historians," creating an accurate and complete representation of the past is entirely beside the point. (Indeed, even raising the issue of objectivity or balance is likely to get you labelled a liberal-biased pettifogger.)

The contrast with professional historians' standards of evidence and argument couldn't be sharper. Closeted positivists all, professional historians consider it their duty to capture the nuance, contradictions, and unknowability of the past, even where that conflicts with or complicates the usability of their conclusions for contemporary left-liberal (or any other) politics. Indeed, most academic historians are vaguely - or more than vaguely - embarrassed when they see such similarly partisan texts for "our side" of the political debate. (Just consider how most of us regard, say, Howard Zinn; or how our instinct is to bicker and quibble with a book like Nixonland.)

We are thus left with a profound irony. On the one hand, because professional historians basically support their view of the past, the political left for the most part doesn't bother to produce popular histories designed as interventions into contemporary politics. On the other hand, the professional historians fail to return the love, producing histories which are full of complexity and nuance, rather than pointedly partisan talking points. On the contrary, professional historians' efforts to capture the ambiguity and contradictions of the past tends to render problematic any simple lessons for the political present. It's only a small overstatement to say that professional historians, whatever their politics, are in the business of trying to render the past politically unusable. Ultimately, appreciating the perplexing richness of the past, which is what professional historians do, makes it difficult to produce historical narratives that serve a politics of slogans and zingers.

By contrast, the one-sidedness of the right's interpretations of the past is precisely what makes it politically powerful: having dispensed with the difficult task of trying to get the past right, the right finds it far easier than the left (with its crotchety insistance on empirical truth and complexity) to produce a past that has obvious and unambiguous political implications for the present.

1. Right-wingers assume that professional historians approach the past from the same (e.g. primordially political) perspective as they do, and that therefore what they are doing is simply providing a corrective to the leftist political bias of the academy. But in fact, contemporary political questions are almost never the point of intellectual departure for professional historians. Rather, professional historians usually begin in one of two ways: either they begin with a body of evidence historical evidence - an archive of some sort - and are seeking to make sense of it in some way; or they begin with some historiographical debate - trying to extend, rebut, or revise some existing (professional) historical perspective on whatever the topic at hand is. As a result of these approaches, professional historians tend to be much more fixated on methodological and evidentiary issues, which also helps explain why they tend to be less interested than popular writers in creating narratives focused on dramatically compelling characters and "events."


Mark LaRochelle said...
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Mark LaRochelle said...
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Mark LaRochelle said...
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Mark LaRochelle said...

You write that "bloggers like ... Stanton Evans write books like ... Blacklisted by History."

You should probably be aware that the author of Blacklisted by History is named Medford Stanton Evans, or M. Stanton Evans. If he is, as you assert, a "blogger," perhaps you would care to identify his blog?

You add that Evans' work seems "so grotesque as to be not worth dignifying with a reasoned rebuttal."

In contrast, John Earl Haynes, a Soviet espionage expert in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, writes: "Evans does an excellent job of correcting excesses in the historical record — the unthinking, near-hysterical, and far too common demonization of McCarthy.... So comprehensive is Evans’s research that it will be a foolish historian who does not consult Blacklisted by History when a question arises over some person or event that comes into the McCarthy story."

Anonymous said...

And now from the left...

So the point of history is to emphasize "unknowability" and "contradictions" of the past? To fetishize complexity? Not in my book.

Maybe the point of history should be to sort out the muddle to create a coherent explanation. Perhaps we should aim to explicate how things that look like contradictions are not, to make sense of the world in a way that explains as much of that world as possible.

Furthermore, you have an extremely problematic view of change in the history profession (and you should read or reread That Noble Dream). The reason why professional history has an increasingly capacious view of the past is because people who wanted to intervene in the politics of the present on issues like civil rights, gender, and foreign policy entered the profession and wrote from their point of view. Just talk to them, or look at what they wrote in leftist publications back in the sixties and seventies.

The reason that their innovations in subject matter and methodology stuck is because a)they hued reasonably well to standards of academic evidence and b)they rose through the tenure stream to become the power brokers of the profession.

On the right, they emphasize b). Elsewhere, a).

Nils said...

@Mark - not sure what either of your points does to my argument. The point is that Evans is not a professional historian, and is engaged in a political project first and foremost, to which his historiography is merely a vehicle. Of course such things take place on the left too (and did much more in the past, I would argue), but the difference is that there is no active, extra-professional coterie of leftist intellectuals who sit around and write history books in order to support their political agenda. There is such a coterie of rightist intellectuals, and Evans exemplifies it.

Nils said...

@Anonymous, I've of course read (and even re-read, lord help me) Novick's book, which is a great. I assume you're reacting to my line about "closeted positivists all" - the last word is obviously an exaggeration.

I agree that back in the 1970s there was a lot of activist-oriented academic historiography, but my key point in this post is not to argue about whether or not that stuff was better or worse than the stuff being produced by the right today. My main point is that those leftists took the fight to the profession because they believed that they could win the arguments by hewing to accepted professional standards of argument and evidence. Rightwingers today bypass professional gatekeepers.

As for charge that I am fetishizing complexity, I don't think that's fair. I'm certainly happy when I read a book that makes sense of the muddle. But I think the difference I am trying to point out is that anyone who has spent time in an archive knows that there is a lot going on, and a lot you can't know based on the material that's in there, and that one of the things that professional historians are taught (or at least, that I was taught, and that everyone I know was taught) was to be rigorous about separating the shit one knows from the shinola one doesn't or can't.

The problem with ideology-primary productions of history (of the sort the American right specializes in today) is that you start with a contemporary political position, and then go cherry-pick the archive for evidence to create an argument about the past that would appear to support your political position in the present. That's a fundamentally dishonest way to approach the archive,

To paraphrase a line that I believe appears in Novick's book, "It's OK to be Whiggish about the questions you ask, but you need to be Tory about the facts."

Mark LaRochelle said...

You may be right in your assertion that there are now more conservative than liberal amateur historians, or at least more current books by conservative than liberal amateur historians. Conservatives certainly are underrepresented among current academics, and the gap has been growing, according to faculty surveys by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.

However, I would like to see some data to support your assertion. To an interested layman like myself, a great deal of current academic work (including history) appears tendentiously political, although I would hesitate to be so categorical as you about the motives of the authors.

One cannot conclude that a book is bad history on the basis of ad hominem comments about the author's politics or speculation about motives; one must point out where the author falls short in terms of research, scholarship or professionalism.

Richard Vinen, a historian at King's College, London, recently wrote, "The best history is always written by non-historians."

My point in quoting professor Haynes was that he, a professional historian of some standing in the field, disagrees with your assessment.

To many people, it seems that professional history today is often not capacious or polysemous enough to make room for understandings that dissent from current liberal orthodoxy.

Nils said...
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Nils said...

First, no doubt conservatives are underrepresented on the faculty of major research departments. With that said, I don't think that these departments are ideologically monolithic, or that the work these historians produce is "tendentiously political" to nearly the same degree as the conservative "amateurs." To make the same point again: for better or worse, these professionals' primary motivation is to impress tenure committees, not score political points in the agora. I would argue that it's "for better" in terms of quality and rigor, and "for worse" in terms of political impact. But your mileage may vary.

Second, as to the quality of the nonprofessionals' historical productions, this post was clearly not meant to provide a review of those works. I agree that nonprofessionals in principle can and in practice sometimes do produce wonderful works of history, indeed sometimes precisely because they are liberated from the strictures of academic practice. I'm thinking of people like Barbara Tuchman, Frances Fitzgerald, Richard Rhodes, and so on. (Europe has an even more wonderful tradition in this regard; the greater prominence of independent intellectuals in Europe is the flip side of the worse quality of their universities, cf. Russell Jacoby.) I think most fair-minded people would agree, however, that the likes of Goldberg and Malkin are not exactly in this league, and the reason is simple: their motivation is not historiographical, it is nakedly, politically presentist. And I doubt they would even disagree themselves very much with that assessment.

Mark LaRochelle said...

I think you are right that the "primary motivation" of those academics who do not yet have tenure is "to impress tenure committees." That's why it's so unfortunate that social science faculties (with the notable exception of Economics departments) have come to be dominated by such a narrow segment of the spectrum of opinion. It's not necessary to attribute political motives to academics; even sincere truth-seeking may be deformed in such an atmosphere of groupthink.

It is possible that someone with whom you disagree politically may be motivated by a desire to address evidence which he or she believes has been neglected in the current academic atmosphere. I know that Evans sees his work in this way, and I would not be surprised to learn that others whose conclusions you find equally objectionable see their work the same way.

Anonymous said...

Just because someone sees their work as dealing with issues that have been neglected by the academy doesn't make their work legitimately historiography. I'm sure David Irving, just as much as Evans, sees himself as correcting a PC plot.

Mark LaRochelle said...

Actually, Evans does not believe in the existence of "a PC plot." He concedes that the writers whose views he challenges are sincerely trying to do history.

However, Evans agrees with Irving Janis that when any institution is dominated by a particular philosophic, ideological or political perspective, that perspective tends -- without a "plot" or any conscious intent -- to shape the way questions are framed, and to influence the criteria of selectivity.

I suppose most fair-minded people would agree that if the academic community were dominantly conservative, this would have some impact greater than zero on the scholarship produced by that community.

My point was not that Evans is correct, but that Nils' speculation about his motives is, to put it mildly, mistaken.

Anonymous said...

Quote "the political right has taken their partisan interpretations of the past directly to the people,..."

Shock, horror ... history books should, of course, be examined by govt approved scientists and censored if need be, so that the hoi polloi are protected from false history.

The public should be content with gender and transgender history, native American history, the history of worker`s movements etc. shouldn`t it?

Interesting conception of what history is for.

Sorry to butt in so late but I just couldn`t resist.


Anonymous said...

Mark, the point is that you've got the causality backwards. It's not that people in the academy start out as reflexive leftists and then write their history accordingly. It's rather that if you study history properly - that is, if you look at who actually did what to whom, under what circumstances, and to whose benefit and loss - it's very hard not to come away with a "left" perspective on the world. In fact, creating a usable past for the right requires the active suppression of the silencing of the historical experiences of women, ethnic minorities, violence, labor conditions, and so on.