What it turned out to be was essentially an exercise in hobbyhorse riding, with people tending to express a few ideas about whatever is their area of interest (Edward O. Wilson wrote on science, Sam Harris on how much he truly scoffs at religious faith, etc.), before moving on, in many cases, to say whether or not they think the “American idea” will come to represent (or continue to represent) something “good” or something “bad.” (In fairness to the participants, it must be pointed out that all of them, with the exception of Tom Wolfe (!), were allowed only 300 words.)
I found George Will’s piece to be more provocative than many. It should come as no surprise that he registered as one who generally finds good things to say about the American idea. But what captured my attention came near the end:
[T]he greatest challenge to [the American idea] is the false idea that American patriotism is inextricably bound up with the notion that being a normal nation is somehow beneath America’s dignity. Belief in American exceptionalism is compatible with the idea of American normality: Our nation is exceptionally well-founded and exceptionally faithful to an exceptionally nuaced system of prudential political axioms.
Though I recognize that Mr. Will was making a different point, what is interesting to me is his definition of American exeptionalism. I, at least initially, found his claims to be appropriately circumspect and, for the most part, unobjectionable. Knowing full well, however, that no self-respecting liberal academic should be sympathetic to the dual intellectual sins of engaging with American exceptionalism and agreeing with George Will, I assessed my options and found them to be three. Either a) people should be more accepting of the idea of American exceptionalism, b) George Will’s definition of the term is wrong, or, c) while his definition may be acceptable, it is not true that the U.S. consistently lives up to the terms that the definition sets.
The one I find most nagging is the third. Reminded of the pointless argument about whether the U.S. was “founded on” the principles of theism or secularism, I am troubled by–read “ambivalent about”–Will’s use of the phrase “exceptionally faithful.” The fact that I am sympathetic to the claim that the U.S. embodies its own ideals only shows, in my opinion, the effects of acculturation; those who grow up in the U.S. are told this so often that it eventually seems like common sense. But one need not adopt a Zinnian framework (in which the U.S. is exceptional in its disrespect for the principles of autonomy, equality and freedom) in order to be puzzled by Will’s claim.
Putting aside the question of whether the principles are themselves noble ones (which I, personally, would be willing to accept), the nation’s early embrace of democracy and decentralized power doesn’t seem obviously any more central to its nascent identity than does slavery and military conquest. Only a tiny fraction of the early American citizenry could vote, and the franchise was not fully secured for all adults until nearly two hundred years later. Why are those facts the deviations from, rather than the core of, “the American idea”? (I believe that this line of thinking is pretty similar to the one articulated by Rogers Smith in Civic Ideals, but I have not yet actually read that book. No claims of originality are intended here.) Is it possible to construct a narrative that incorporates both the truly inspiring ideals of American democracy and the often ugly behaviors that have also characterized life in the United States? For whatever reason, speaking only for myself personally, it does seem difficult to think that way.
Professional historians seem to have largely reached a consensus that the debate over American exceptionalism is stale and meaningless. Perhaps that is why I was taken aback upon seeing George Will, by most accounts a reasonably intelligent guy, taking it up again. Even more surprising, perhaps, was how easy it was for me to fall into rethinking the issue myself.
About a month ago or so I became aware of the bi-annual journal Proteus (I think via an H-Ideas CFP). After an unsuccessful search for its website, I contacted Proteus‘s editor, Terry DiDomenico, for more on the journal’s mission and motivations. He responded with the information below.
Knowing the angle of my inquiry, Proteus is clearly open to submissions from those who write about U.S. intellectual history. – TL
Proteus, A Journal of Ideas, is an interdisciplinary journal published twice per year, spring and fall. Each issue is devoted to a theme and within that theme explores the possible facets from a number of viewpoints. The journal is peer reviewed. We have a number of editorial board members who review manuscripts in addition to reviewers for each issue. These reviewers are selected after we have the submissions to make sure we have reviewers for the areas covered by those submissions.
Proteus is a member of the Council of Editors of Learned Journals, and is indexed in the MLA International Bibliography, PAIS International, America: History and Life, ISI Web of Knowledge, Arts and Humanities Citation Index, and Historical Abstracts. Past issues are available from ProQuest, Information and Learning.
The journal has been in existence for more than 20 years. At its onset, it was modeled after Daedalus.
Proteus – at – ship.edu
Proteus, A Journal of Ideas
1871 Old Main Drive
Shippensburg, PA 17257-2299
I received the flyer below today from a colleague. This is short notice, but if you live in the Chicago area it looks like a fascinating paper.
The American Cultures Colloquium at Northwestern and Early Modern Group are pleased to present:
“JOHN LOCKE, NATURAL LAW, AND NEW WORLD SLAVERY”
Tuesday, November 6 at 5:00pm
University Hall 122
(Reception to follow)
James Farr has recently joined the faculty at Northwestern as Professor of Political Science and Director of the Chicago Field Studies. Lockean and American political theory-as well as civic education in the history of political science-have been the focus of his recent research and teaching.
Co-sponsored by the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, the Departments of English, History, Political Science, Radio, Television, Film and Center for Screen Cultures, and the American Studies, Asian American Studies, and Comparative Literary Studies Programs.
Here’s a calendar of future American Cultures Colloquium events at Northwestern. – TL
This spring I will be teaching a course called “Technology, Society and Values.” I’ve been told I can do whatever I want with it (it’s actually listed in the philosophy department), so I plan on treating it as a cultural and intellectual history of U.S. responses to technological developments. But the area is way out of my sphere of expertise. Does anyone out there have any ideas regarding primary texts or secondary texts–both for me and to assign in class–or even relating to assignments or lecture topics? If so, I would be very happy to hear them. Please respond on the blog or to me directly at email@example.com.
Thanks very much in advance.
A Brief Morality Tale On The Foundations Of Scholarship
In writing about Bellow and racism a few posts back, I learned that he and Ralph Ellison were friends. The Chicago Tribune article I cited in the post went so far as to assert that Bellow was a great “encouragement” to Ellison—both before and after the publication of Invisible Man. Of course there are number of reasons for an intellectual historian to consider Ellison’s life and career, but that article put him further up the ladder of my interests.
So it was with great interest that I discovered, earlier today, this review of Arnold Rampersad’s Ralph Ellison: A Biography. Written by Mark Greif and titled “Black and White Life,” this is a first-rate piece published by the London Review of Books. Like any review, it previews the uniqueness of Rampersad’s latest scholarly offering.
But in many ways Greif’s piece is also a review of an earlier unknown biography by Lawrence Jackson, titled Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius (New York: Wiley, 2002). Here are some excerpts from Greif’s review that focus on Jackson’s intellectual history of Ellison:
– “The most revelatory part of Jackson’s biography was his demonstration of how much of Ellison’s intellectual underpinning and development came from the black Communist Party. In his introduction to Shadow and Act, Ellison acknowledged his education: ‘my attraction (soon rejected) to Marxist political theory’. Jackson laid out, and Rampersad confirms in detail, how this education occurred within the circles of the New York Party. Ellison became a thinker, journalist and apprentice philosopher all as a Party loyalist, under the unique conditions of Harlem life. Ellison’s initial connection to black literary culture is still astonishing. Having left Tuskegee to try his luck in New York, unsure of his direction, he had only to come up from Alabama and spend one night at the YMCA on West 135th Street: he came downstairs into the lobby the next morning and ran into both Alain Locke and Langston Hughes.”
– “Locke had essentially established the Harlem Renaissance as a force in 1925, with his anthology The New Negro. He happened to have met Ellison on a visit to Tuskegee earlier that year. Hughes, meanwhile, was a complete stranger to Ellison. But he took the young writer up and immediately began helping him. He led him to read Malraux and Thomas Mann, and also to study political economy. ‘I don’t wish to be ignorant of leftist literature any longer,’ Ellison wrote to Hughes, hungrily. This was the reader in Ellison, who had devoured the Tuskegee library while still studying music. ‘workers of the world must write!!!!’ he was insisting not much later to Richard Wright, an up-and-coming novelist with whom Hughes put him in touch. Wright had arrived in New York from Chicago – young, self-confident, aggressive and Communist – and showed Ellison a new world from his perch as a writer for the Communist Daily Worker and founder of a new journal, New Challenge. Later, Wright trained Ellison as a novelist in the most direct way possible – by showing him Native Son in the process of composition, a masterpiece which Ellison read ‘as it came out of the typewriter’.”
This last passage evokes a fantastic image. It gives us a sense of connection between thinkers and writers that are often pictured, or portrayed, as merely great individuals.
Wright’s been on my mind quite a bit this fall because I’m teaching Native Son in a Newberry Library Seminar. Having also read Invisible Man, Jackson’s connecting Ellison to Wright makes much more sense to me than the Tribune article’s ideologically connecting Bellow to Ellison. Jackson rightly locates the common denominator: communism.
Greif’s review also reminds us of the foundations of scholarship. While many familiar with well-researched books on African-American historical figures know Rampersad’s name, few likely knew of Jackson. Greif takes the matter a step further: He chastises Rampersad for not engaging Jackson’s work. This reproof is not just nitpicking: Greif points out several instances where a Rampersad-Jackson conversation was either necessary or could have been enlightening.
With this post I want to thank Greif for digging deeper. We need more public reminders of the depth of work required to build accurate portraits U.S. intellectual history’s complex figures. – TL
Next month I’ll be a part of a roundtable/panel at the annual meeting of the Social Science History Association (SSHA). Since the session is titled “The Education of Labor Intellectuals,” I figured it would be of interest to USIH readers.
I’m pleased to be a part of a group including Leon Fink, Toby Higbie, Tony Michels, Caroline Merithew, and Elizabeth Faue. The meeting is in Chicago, and the session is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 17, from 3:15-5:15 p.m. More is available at this link (near the bottom—you can click through for abstracts).
While looking up the information for my session I discovered other SSHA sessions related to U.S. intellectual history. For instance, JHI editor Martin Burke organized one titled “The Power of ‘Culture’: Culture and the Social Sciences in Twentieth-Century America.” It takes place the same Saturday as mine, but from 9-11 a.m. Here are the participants and paper titles:
* Martin Burke — Creator, Organizer, Author
* George Vascik — Chair, Discussant
* Jeffrey Sallaz — Author — “Diffusion and Distinction: American Sociology as a Bourdieuian Field”
* John S. Gilkeson — Author — “Eric R. Wolf and the Development of a Global Cultural History”
* Fred Beuttler — Author — “From Moral Absolutes to Cultural Universals: Social Science and the Moral Order in the Post-War World: 1943-1952”
* Martin Burke — Author — “The Geertzian Moment: Cultural Anthropology and American Historiography”
Again, you can go to this link and click through for abstracts (about two-thirds down).
Doesn’t the SSHA seem like an unusual place to find USIH work? I didn’t know that SSHA would welcome this subject until Caroline Merithew suggested it (confession: I didn’t even know about SSHA until Caroline’s suggestion). Of course our panel could be considered primarily one on labor.
I wonder what other unusual or intriguing places our readers have seen U.S. intellectual history panels? My hunch is that many more are out there. This gives me hope for a future USIH conference. – TL