Last week I wrote about the importance of the 1990s to current trends in intellectual discourse. Today, I’d like to zero in on one story of the decade: Bill Clinton’s attempt to handle race relations during the 1990s. We would do well to remember how a Southern Democrat, facing a country continuing to wrestle with the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, navigated the intractable problem of racism in modern life. His 1997 Presidential Commission on Race, which “celebrates” its twentieth anniversary this year, is the best example of how he tried to deal with race. The fact that the commission is virtually forgotten, despite the participation of notables such as historian John Hope Franklin, speaks both to the tumultuous nature of Clinton’s second term, and the nation’s forgetfulness on the recent history of race and American society.
Two recent essays have caught my eye in recent days, forcing me to think even harder about the importance of history to modern political and cultural debates. Both illustrate to me the reason why recent history is such a crucial aspect of the historical profession. While it is often easy to use comparisons to the nineteen-sixties when talking about the chaos of modern politics—and we should all brace ourselves for next year, which will mark numerous fifty-year anniversaries for the calamitous events of 1968 (you were warned)—or the “malaise” of the nineteen-seventies, it is time to also think about historicizing the nineteen-nineties. Events in that decade say as much about our current predicaments as much as referencing the Cold War, the Civil Rights/Black Power era, or the “Age of Reagan” of the eighties.
I spent the past two weeks at the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University, where I attended a Summer Institute on the history of economic thought. The institute’s program itself was extremely intellectually generative and I may say something more about it in a later post, but I also did some research at the Rubenstein Library’s excellent collection of the papers of various economists. I spent most of that time looking at the papers of Tibor Scitovsky, a Hungarian-American economist who was at Stanford for most of his career and is probably best known for his 1976 work The Joyless Economy: An Inquiry into Human Satisfaction and Consumer Dissatisfaction, which is fairly well summarized here.
Most of Scitovsky’s papers are from the 80s and 90s, and something stood out to me: there were almost no references to Ronald Reagan, but Bill Clinton had a considerable presence. I found that this result was somewhat duplicated as I leafed through correspondence from those two decades in the collections of a few other economists, though admittedly my browsing among those boxes was much less thorough. And yet we have tended to think of the 1980s as peculiarly dominated by the personality of Reagan, while I have never heard anyone speak of the 1990s as the “Age of Clinton” or the “Clinton Era.”
I certainly don’t want to extrapolate this little oddity into a full-blown theory, but it dovetails with a trend that I’m starting to see in the historiography of the 1980s, and below the fold I’d like to muse a bit on a paradigm shift I think may be under way. Continue reading
First off—Happy Black History Month! Traditionally my favorite time of the academic calendar as a young boy, Black History Month offers plenty of new things for everyone to learn. As intellectual historians, we should think about African American History Month in context of the ongoing struggle to make black history central to American history. Our colleagues and friends over at Black Perspectives have already offered provocative pieces on the history of black history. Today I wish to offer a bit to chew on regards to how we think of post-World War II African American history.
Yesterday Black Perspectives published a fascinating essay on the importance of black bookstores to the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Joshua Clark Davis’ piece, a summation of a chapter from his larger book coming out this August titled From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs, is a reminder of the importance of intellectual spaces to intellectual history. I was intrigued by the essay—not just because of its fresh perspective on the intellectual history of Black Power, but also because African American bookstores played an important role in my own intellectual development. And as we begin to think about African American intellectual history in the 1980s and beyond, I suspect we will find that black bookstores continued to play an important role in the development of many African American intellectuals.
Recently, the shuffle on my computer’s playlist scrounged up a track from one of my favorite bands, Oingo Boingo. Endearingly titled “Wild Sex in the Working Class,” the song proceeds from the point of view of an industrial worker who endures their work day by focusing on the sweet sweet love they are going to make to their partner once their shift is finally over.
And I may be greasing the wheels of a noisy factory
And I may be hunched over metal machines
Watching the gears as they move
Just reminds me of bodies in motion
The sweat and the sound
As I listened, I wondered what such a song, from the viewpoint of the average “working class” employee, might read like today. Certainly any lyrics about the grit and grime of a factory would sound nostalgic at best. To have any ring of authenticity, it would have to read something more like this:
In 2007, Andrew Sullivan wrote a cover essay for The Atlantic in which he argued that the rise of Barack Obama to the national stage meant an end to the divisive cultural politics that defined American politics since 1968. Sullivan argued at the time, “he could take America—finally—past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us.” Reflecting on the events of the last eight years, it now seems this assumption about Obama’s rise was naïve and misplaced. Now, as we transition from an “Age of Obama” to an “Age of Trump” everyone has spilled much ink—both real and digital—trying to explain how we got here.
‘Tis the season for wise men and wise women bearing marvelous gifts.
Recently, I received such a gift from such a person: a couple of reams of archival materials spanning about seven years of curricular change at Stanford, from the mid 1980s to the early 1990s.
The first installment of this serendipitous archive came to me in 2015, when I was still working on my dissertation. The most recent installment came earlier this month, when my generous friend discovered another stash of materials in the back of a filing cabinet.
These were the teaching files and curricular committee meeting files of an instructor in the Western Culture program. Through a friend of a friend, s/he had heard that I was working on the “canon wars” at Stanford, and s/he generously offered to send me whatever s/he had still kept from those years. Continue reading
I find myself unsure of what to write about on this day, only a few days after the surprising victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. At this point, I have read far too many essays debating what went wrong for Clinton, why Trump won, and what the Republican nominee’s victory means for the future. On these, and other 2016 campaign questions, I have some thoughts—but no easy answers. Frankly, anyone who exudes confidence about his or her own prescription about what to do next, or how the Democrats could have (and, perhaps, should have) beaten Trump, should at the very least acknowledge that history has disrupted many similar “sure ideas” time and time again.
Guest Post by Mike O’Connor
By most metrics, the success of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94) dwarfed that which its predecessor Star Trek had received on NBC during its initial 1966-69 run. While the first show had to be rescued from cancellation after its second season by a viewer letter-writing campaign, its successor ran for seven years with solid ratings. Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) substantially enlarged the core audience for Star Trek and eventually its characters and time-frame replaced those from the original series as the focus of the feature films. (Since then, the movies have come to feature younger actors playing the characters from the original series.) Yet TNG had a mission beyond delivering ratings and making money for its studio. Star Trek was more than a television show: it embodied a particular philosophy that was one of central aspects of its appeal. Gene Roddenberry, the auteur behind Star Trek who is widely credited for supplying the “vision” that characterized the Star Trek universe, described the show as his “statement to the world” his “political philosophy,” and his “overview on life and the human condition.”[i] (Roddenberry created TNG and worked on its first few seasons. His declining health and increasingly erratic personal behavior led to him being eased out of positions of authority before his death in 1991. The extent to which Roddenberry was personally influential on the vision of Star Trek: The Next Generation is a subject for debate; but the larger significance of his philosophical and ideological blueprint is beyond question.) Media scholar Henry Jenkins explained that the new series “had to carefully negotiate between the need to maintain continuity with the original series (in order to preserve the core Star Trek audience) and the need to rethink and update those conventions (in order to maintain the programme’s relevance with contemporary viewers and to expand its following).”[ii] Philosophically, this meant that the later show had to distinguish between those ideas that were central to the ethos of Star Trek and those that needed to be modified or even abandoned to keep up with the spirit of the times.