I suspect some of you may have some answers to the following query.
I’m thinking of proposing an essay for an upcoming CFP for the journal Rethinking History.
The CFP is very much attuned to intellectual history. The journal, in the words of the editors, is “invit[ing] proposals for a themed issue entitled ‘Liberalism, Conservatism, Radicalism, and Historical Materialism.’ The purpose of this issue is to reconsider the relationship between political ideas and historical practice. We seek essays representing a variety of approaches and disciplines.”
I might propose an essay that seeks to compare and contrast recent leftist historical interpretations in relation to conservative historiography. My presupposition is that historians with overt political bents must reckon with political appropriations of the past. For instance, leftist historians have been forced to reexamine their broad historical theories to account for the failure of socialism to lay deep roots in most societies, especially in the US. I think this has led to some very creative and innovative interpretations. In the realm of intellectual and cultural history I might examine the work of Michael Denning, Perry Anderson, Mike Davis. I might also examine the work of Gabriel Kolko in diplomatic history. His work represents an innovative break with more traditional Marxist approaches to foreign relations.
I harbor doubts that conservative historians have had such a renaissance based on the fact that history has supposedly confirmed their worldviews. This does not mean that political conservatives have not written interesting and lasting work. But the trajectory of the conservative oeuvre has not been forced to reckon with failure to the same degree, and has thus not been as theoretically innovative. Am I crazy here?
My question to all of you: Who would you consider to be equivalent of these leftist historians? I was thinking of comparing John Lewis Gaddis to Kolko for diplomatic history. But in terms of intellectual/cultural history, who do you consider to be the most important historians working from a clearly conservative perspective? I’m considering writing about John Patrick Diggans, although Diggans considers himself a centrist liberal. Maybe Paul Johnson? My colleague and fellow student of conservative thought Chris Hickman (who, by the way, has voiced interest in joining the USIH collective) suggests that I examine the work of James Wilson and perhaps Richard Posner. Any thoughts?
I look forward to your comments and suggestions.
This is an invitation to any reader of this blog who would like to discuss liberty and democracy, two mythic symbols of both the American mixed enterprise system and the limited tyranny we call a constitutional democracy. I would like to inquire about the manner in which we justify our negotiated positions using arguments more appropriate to the polar positions. In dialectical terms, does the synthesis in the particular struggle between liberty and democracy have any theoretical support aside from the arguments of the thesis and the antithesis?
I hope that such a discussion will help me clearly think about a course I am designing for the fall semester, so I am deeply appreciative of any clarifications, speculations, and bibliographic guidance. Aside from this selfish motive, one of the initial intentions for this blog was to provide a low stakes space for debates and discussions of just this sort. And a dialogue about the internal contradictions between democracy and liberty may be fruitful for others as well. (Besides, how much more “low stakes” could this opportunity be, with the possibility of even anonymous comments?)
The set up: If “pure” democracy is, at its essence, a system by which a majority wields power over a minority; and if “pure” liberty is, essentially, the state of being free from the oppression of any other group or individual, then is it far fetched to describe democracy and liberty as near opposites, at least in their ideological forms? A libertarian goal may be to restrict the tyrannical devices of a majority, thereby protecting the liberty of even the smallest minority. And a democratic mandate for the “greater good,” may ignore injustices done to a minority.
The compromise that has been successfully struck between liberty and democracy to form rather workable (if constantly renegotiated) systems of economy and governance seems to function despite any legitimating arguments of its own. Certainly we could all argue the justifications for democracy as a legitimacy-providing-approach. And we can all, presumably, argue the case of freedom, especially the freedoms of “life, liberty” and the pursuits of things like pleasure and profit. But libertarian ideas and democratic ideas have been used against the compromise positions, the syntheses, such as “constitutional democracy” and “state regulated free enterprise system,” the very compromise positions that make the whole system function.
And I recognize that nothing yet in this observation is new. We have heard some decry regulations of industrial emissions on private property using libertarian arguments involving property rights and free enterprise. And we have heard others argue to empower elected officials to impose motorcycle helmet laws, decency standards, and birth control regulations on society, under the notion of electoral will. But how can we use either utilitarian or libertarian arguments to justify the magnitude of the compromises? How progressive should be a tax policy? How much head protection should be enforced on motorcycle riders? How many crude expressions can be tolerably included in the script of a PG-13 film?
My question might involve positivism, pragmatism, or utilitarianism, in this struggle against the synthesis by the alliance of the thesis and the antithesis. And I must admit to being unsure of how to phrase the question.
But when we apply this struggle between liberty and democracy to economics, my yet un-phrased question may become clearer. Living in a hypothetical cardboard box, I may wonder why my neighbors’ homes are all MacMansions. The democratic ideal of “equality” might suggest to me that unequal distribution of wealth is wrong. If each of us has an unalienable equal vote, then ultimately the only way someone might succeed in gaining more than one share of society’s stuff would be through the mechanism of voluntary relinquishment.
On the other hand, now that my neighbor has finally paid off his hypothetical law school loans, he considers it only fair and just that his MacMansion is the biggest on the block. He thinks, frankly, that the cops should move me and my cardboard box into another zoning district.
Obviously, both of these attitudes, mine and my neighbor’s, can be rationalized. I shout “democracy” while my neighbor in the mansion screams “liberty.” Yet, because there are enough of both kinds of people in the social mix, mansions can exist relatively near huts. A compromise position arises. This compromise, barely tolerable to both of us, endures for so long as a majority of people eat, find shelter, and safety. Hence, the underpinning rationalization for the system seems to be utilitarian. Once the majority (or powerful enough minority) is not eating, sheltered, and safe, then the system fails, property gets redistributed, and aggregate wealth generation suffers.
So must we consider this compromise between liberty and democracy through utilitarian bifocals? Are there better justifications, rationalizations, and ethical systems “out there” that might better theorize this tentative synthesis beyond the “greater good for the greater number?” If so, can you direct me to another level of complexity in my thinking?
Comments, arguments, critique, insults, and complaints will be gracefully accepted.
One of the inspirations for this blog and the larger effort to organize intellectual historians who study the U.S. is the somewhat attenuated nature of this particular intellectual community. There are no conferences that bring together this group of intellectual workers, as, say, the Southern Historical Association brings together southern historians. There is, however, a community all the same, and I was reminded of this in a upon the sad occasion of the passing of Bob Cummings this past December 30.
Bob was an excellent intellectual historian who taught at Truman State University in Missouri. He trained at Stanford University in the 1970s and had a generally interesting and intellectually serious life (which entailed a brief phase as a Jesuit novice). He was a warm and gracious person by all accounts. I know this not only from personal knowledge (I got to know Bob when I substituted for him one year in the 1990s, my first regular academic job out of graduate school, and we maintained sporadic contact after that) but also from a series of memorial reflections that Bob’s family circulated in his honor. These accounts reminded me of why I was so saddened at his death, for he really was a good and honorable man.
For me, he was a model of keeping alive one’s research life while working at a teaching-intensive institution. Bob was an indefatigable researcher and an intellectual historian’s historian (if that clunky phrase makes sense). His doctoral dissertation concerned the early life of Dwight Macdonald. Bob had the idea of imaginatively exploring the crucial years of Macdonald’s maturation, emotionally and intellectually. Macdonald was a remarkable twentieth-century public intellectual–a critic, political thinker, and notable gadfly. He left a cache of excellent sources, consisting of copious prep school and college writings and journals, as I recall, which Bob exploited. Bob supplemented these with his own enormous and inventive research contextualizing Macdonald’s education. He seemed unwilling to leave any stone unturned in re-imagining Macdonald’s intellectual youth. It was clear Bob had a wonderful empathy for young people in all of their fitful, anxiety-ridden, and sometimes insufferable glory in order to do the study he did. The dissertation was wonderful and ought to be published. Aside from this work, Bob expended much of his energy in teaching and serving his university, although he also published an exhaustive bibliography of Christopher Lasch’s work, a favorite of his.
I write about Bob not only to honor him but also to highlight the community in which he did participate. Although his dissertation remained unpublished, Bob was generous in his assistance to others working on Macdonald, including Michael Wreszin, who wrote a biography of Macdonald, and Greg Sumner, who published a study of Macdonald’s 1940s journal “politics,” which was a remarkable example of sane and humanistic criticism of the modern power state. Both have attested to his significant contributions to their own work. And, when he died, his death was noted among the circle of his fellow practitioners. There is, indeed, a community of intellectual historians of the United States with its own sense of proprieties. I was interested to note that Michael Wreszin, although now 80 years of age, made a point to attend Bob’s wake, representing, in his family’s view, the extended, attenuated, yet very real intellectual community of which Bob was a such a valued member.
Hannah Arendt, an “American Political Theorist” from her arrival in 1941 until her death in 1975, was the first woman promoted to full rank by Princeton U. (in 1959).
U. Penn’s helpful database of literary events includes a request for panel participants at MLA 2007, in Chicago. The announcement can be read on that database, or potential participants can contact the panel organizer, JOSHUA R GOLD by email below.
Panel Subject: CFP: Hannah Arendt Today: Politics, Literature, Philosophy
Modern Language Association (MLA)>>Panel Topic: Hannah Arendt Today: Politics, Literature, Philosophy>December 27-30, 2007>Chicago, IL
Submission Deadline: March 28, 2007
250-400 word proposals to Joshua Robert Gold at email@example.com by March 28, 2007.
What kind of courses do people teach in U.S. intellectual history? How do you organize them? What do you read?
Dear USIH Readers,
Please use the comments section of this post to draw attention to any paper or document collections of interest to U.S. intellectual historians. As collections are posted (preferably with web links), I will create and continuously add to a “Relevant Collections” clearinghouse section on the right hand side of USIH.
We especially encourage notices on collections dealing under-represented populations (i.e. people of color, women, non-elites) in the annals of U.S. intellectual history.