Following up on Anthony Chaney’s lovely and enticing preview of the neighborhood surrounding the conference hotel, I wanted to offer a few words about the social environment of S-USIH conferences past. (And like Anthony, I want to encourage you to be getting your proposals in.) Continue reading
One of the first books I picked up after I turned the diss in was William Clare Roberts’s Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital, which I think it’s safe to say is already making quite a stir. (You can read the whole introduction here [pdf].) Not only did Andrew Hartman assign it to his History of Capitalism course, but David Harvey reviewed the book for Jacobin, and he expressed some fairly strong reservations regarding Roberts’s understanding of what kind of book Marx’s Capital is. Roberts has defended his method and arguments in three blog posts (1, 2, 3), which also serve nicely to highlight some of the more contentious and original aspects of Marx’s Inferno. Continue reading
Year’s end lists generate a great deal of ambivalence, at least for me. “Best of” lists are useful, but, for novels or television, frustrating. Catching up is impossible, and the pleasure of reading someone else’s list of the best to offer from the last twelve months is generally vicarious. It’s nice that someone gets to read/watch these wonderful things! “Best music of the year” lists are much more enjoyable (here’s Erik Loomis’s eclectic, very knowledgeable list at Lawyers, Guns, and Money). I can catch up much more quickly, and the joy of discovery outweighs any lingering shame that I am no longer as au courant as I was in college. Film lists are somewhere in between. Especially in December/January, many of the critics’ picks are not widely available to the common viewer, but one can at least plan on seeing whatever makes its way to a streaming platform or to one’s public or university library.
What I find much more valuable are people’s reflections on the best books they read during the year prior: not necessarily books published that year, but books that finally maneuvered their way to the top of the to-read pile. Even if I do not end up reading these books, reading about them broadens my awareness of what’s out there (at least if it’s a good list) and I can file away some notes on what books might be useful if I need to research a particular topic. (Here’s a good example at Crooked Timber.)
So beneath the fold I’ll talk about a few books that I feel are worth flagging, and I’d like to invite you to do the same in the comments. What books that you read merited the notice they’ve received or deserve to be better known (and perhaps also more widely read)? Continue reading
Post-mortems of the 2016 Presidential election continue to come in as new data become available, but a primary line of interpretation seems to be already set. A new analysis by Nate Cohn of the New York Times came out just before Christmas, and it is full of data which fall neatly in place alongside that congealing story: Hillary Clinton’s fundamental campaigning flaw was that she abandoned the white working class to Trump; if she had made a serious play for these voters, she would have added a victory in the Electoral College to her (ample) popular vote win.
Cohn’s article is titled “How the Obama Coalition Crumbled, Leaving an Opening for Trump,” and in a sense it is as much a revision of standard narratives about what the “Obama coalition” was in 2008 and 2016 as it is an analysis of 2016. “Campaign lore has it that President Obama won thanks to a young, diverse, well-educated and metropolitan ‘coalition of the ascendant’ — an emerging Democratic majority anchored in the new economy,” relying particularly on a surging demographic bloc of Latinx voters. However, hidden in this triumphal narrative was a sticky fact, possibly obscured by bad exit polling: Obama’s electoral base was surprisingly dependent on the support of “whites without a college degree,” who made up 34 percent of Obama’s voters, a share “larger in number than black voters, Hispanic voters or well-educated whites.” Cohn underlines this surprising fact with two astonishing data points: “Mr. Obama would have won re-election even if he hadn’t won the Hispanic vote at all,” and he “would have won Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin” in 2008 and 2012 “even if Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee had been severed from their states and cast adrift into the Great Lakes.”
There are many facts which seem to be routinely “lost”: we know them, but we forget that we know them until we are reminded of them. That Richard Rorty’s grandfather was the quintessential Social Gospeler Walter Rauschenbusch is one of those facts, in part because Rorty seems to exist at such a great distance from Rauschenbusch, both chronologically—is the Progressive Era really only that long ago?—and ideologically: while not a Dawkins-like secularist, Rorty’s avowed secularism was such a fundamental part of his philosophy and his public life that we may have trouble seeing him as the grandson of a person so devoted to bringing the Kingdom of G-d to earth.
Two weeks ago I argued that it is unwise to call Rorty a prophet for what amount to political reasons: doing so canonizes his “prophecy” as a privileged interpretation of “what really happened”—because he “predicted” our present, he must have had some kind of privileged knowledge or more penetrating awareness of the trends and tendencies of the world which led us here. Those reasons, I hope, are good enough to make us hesitate before laying the mantle of prophet retroactively on Rorty’s shoulders, but there are other reasons as well more specific to Rorty’s own self-understanding and his understanding of the nature of the United States and its history that should make the title seem singularly inappropriate. This post explores those reasons and goes on to show—I hope—why Rorty’s antipathy to much that goes along with prophecy is equally inappropriate both to our present and to the nation’s past. Continue reading
Prescience is not a category historians should trust. That is a first principle you may not agree with, but it is a principle I hold and I feel I should set it out before anything else. On the other hand, I don’t think one needs to cleave to such a doctrine in order to consider or even accept the rest of what I have to say.
You have likely seen by now the paragraphs from Richard Rorty’s 1998 book Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America which many have touted as having predicted this year’s election, particularly in terms of its class dynamics and the “strongman” nature of its victor. You can read the paragraphs and a bit of the context for the original publication of Rorty’s book in this New York Times article, titled “Richard Rorty’s 1998 book Suggested Election 2016 Was Coming.” (Or you can check out Cosmopolitan, which has also run a story, with the more click-baity title “A Book Written in 1998 Predicted Trump’s Election in a Scary-Accurate Way.”) But I want to make two arguments for why we ought not to take seriously this rapidly congealing story that Rorty’s anticipatory version of the events was accurate. First, Rorty’s story only makes sense by leaving out materially important developments that took place between 1998 and 2016, and the omission of these events from Rorty’s “prediction” fundamentally mars not only its accuracy but its explanatory power. Second—and somewhat less straightforwardly—Rorty’s particular hobby-horses and distinctive temperament (which are on ample display in the book, believe me) are almost uniquely antipathetic to the role of prophet: Rorty’s peculiar understanding of history and society, his models of cultural change and human character, are not only ill-suited to prophecy, but actively negate any kind of thinking which we might regard as prophetic. Putting him to such a use is a misreading of what he actually stood for and depends on a willful blindness to his (self-acknowledged) limitations. Continue reading
To work on a scholarly project is to be obsessed; to be obsessed is to have one’s current project turn up everywhere. For some scholars, this ubiquity is a deceptively reassuring sign of the significance of one’s work, much as a lover locates numerological assurances in the digits of a crush’s phone number. For others, these “coincidences” of the “real” and the academic come to taste like cinders and bile: we would give so much to keep the past in the past.
Although it is not the subject of my dissertation (which is about the idea of the “common man”), the phrase “the forgotten man” plays a key role in the story I tell. So when the phrase appeared in Donald Trump’s victory speech last Wednesday, the scholarly machinery in the bottom of my mind slipped into motion even as I was still consciously processing the events of the day. Trump was using the term in a manner we are likely to recognize: “That is now what I want to do for our country. Tremendous potential. I’ve gotten to know our country so well. Tremendous potential. It is going to be a beautiful thing. Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”
There is a long chain of precedents for this rhetoric, but its antecedents are also immediate, not historical: they are the people of “economic anxiety,” the “missing voters” whom the pundits assured us would not turn out but on whom Trump staked his electoral chances, the Great Lakes voters that the Clinton campaign is now being roasted for having spurned, the American Brexiters. But the history of the term is also important, for it is not quite clear whose use of the phrase Trump (or his speechwriter) might have had in mind. Continue reading
In 1963, the young historian Walter Nugent plunged into what was already a roiling debate about the putative xenophobia of the Populists of the late nineteenth century. His book, The Tolerant Populists: Kansas Populism and Nativism, opened the first chapter by asking the reader to recall the Raphael painting Saint George and the Dragon, which has been on display in the National Gallery of Art since the 1930s.
One of its [the painting’s] happiest qualities is its utter lack of ambiguity: good and evil are unmistakable; moral judgment is simple. For almost half a century, the Populist was one of the St. Georges of American historical writing. Yet suddenly in the 1950s it appeared that he was not that at all but in fact a dragon and a fierce one. The awful truth emerged that in fixing good and evil upon their canvases, historians had got the combatants reversed.
Nugent’s book was a spirited rebuttal of this new demonology, in which the Populists of the 1890s became the grandfathers of the McCarthyites of the 1950s—paranoid, nativist, anti-intellectual, and deeply hostile to change. Nugent didn’t stop there, however: he also sought to demonstrate the immense benevolence and virtuousness of the People’s Party: the Populists were St. George after all.
This fifty-plus year-old historiographic quarrel may have been on your mind as well recently—Yoni Appelbaum had a tweetstorm along these lines last month which concluded with “Five years from now, we’ll reap a bumper crop of dissertations on the Populist Party, informed by this election. Can’t wait to read them.”
But what Appelbaum, I think, sees as linking Populism to Trumpism is not so much the internal dynamics of the two movements (“Populism isn’t the same as Trumpism. But there are echoes,” he writes) but rather the similar difficulties that one faces in trying to characterize them, to plumb their motives—or even to decide whether it’s worth trying to plumb their motives. Looking ahead to the interpretive challenges which future historians will face, Appelbaum writes, “It’s easier, at a century’s remove, to pick out policy proposals that seem prescient or attractive, deemphasizing hateful rhetoric. / Conversely, it’s easy to dismiss the ‘paranoid style’ of people who’re long dead, overlooking the real concerns that animate it.” Perhaps 2083 will see a slim monograph titled The Tolerant Trumpists. Continue reading
This is not, properly speaking, a post on US intellectual history, and it is perhaps not even a post so much as a collision.
Today I read James Livingston’s brand new No More Work: Why Full Employment Is a Bad Idea, a book to which I really cannot do justice without a great deal more thought but which I encourage you to check out. Livingston’s against-the-grain scholarship is likely familiar to readers of this blog both from his own published work and from his great generosity in contributing numerous pieces here over the years, most recently an essay on Richard Hofstadter’s Age of Reform, a four-part series titled “What Is Called History at the End of Modernity?” (beginning here), and a eulogy of Martin Sklar.
Sklar’s ideas—particularly in the forms they have taken in Livingston’s work and the work of other Sklarists like Rosanne Currarino and Richard Schneirov—have been immensely important in my own work, so I was very eagerly awaiting Livingston’s new book, but it is not the book itself that I want to discuss. Instead, I was struck by a Marx quotation that Livingston uses; it is one I somehow had not come across before, and it struck me as ringing with an echo of—of all people—Edmund Burke. Maybe I am hearing things, but here it is: Continue reading