In a review of Mark Danner’s latest book, Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War, Samuel Moyn questions the focus of Danner’s polemic: where Danner sees American war efforts around the world as a result of a “state of exception” generated in the early part of the War on Terror, Moyn contends instead that US military action is anything but exceptional—it is regulated, legalized, and controlled and therein lies the problem. “What if,” Moyn argues, “stigmatizing atrocity, making military sprawl less offensive to many even as it transcends all known chronological and territorial limits left the conflict harder to rein in? Indicting dirty war by itself [as Danner does in his book] does not reach the core of our spiral—indeed, doing so may help it continue to spin.” Continue reading
The following guest post is by James Perosi-Doughty, Université Bordeaux Montaigne: Culture et littératures des mondes anglophones (CLIMAS).
The year 2001 holds various degrees of significance depending on the context or the person asked. It was the official start of not only the 21st century, but also of a new millennium; a millennium that was to be the promise of hope and new beginnings. By all literary and cinematographic accounts, mankind was supposed to have flying cars and Space Odysseys. Of course, it was none of those things. If anything, the start of the new millennium made mankind, especially Americans aware of the limits of their beliefs, power, and more importantly, their security. Continue reading
September 11, 2001 began, for me, with vague news about a “plane accident” involving the World Trade Center. This is all my Chicago NPR station gave me before leaving for work. At that point it wasn’t about a large jet, commandeered by terrorists, being used as a bomb to destroy a major symbol of American prosperity and strength in the heart of its biggest city. It was just an unusual incident. Details were scarce.
Everything changed in about 30-40 minutes. After arriving at work the purported accident had transformed into a major catastrophe. There were only a few of us in the office, but our individual browsers were filled with images of horror and dread. One of my colleagues wheeled out a television, and we began to watch events unfold together. It reminded me of a January afternoon in my high school freshman English class. After the space shuttle Challenger disaster, our teacher, Ms. Thomas, had us watch the coverage and discuss the events. In 2001, it was my Loyola colleagues and I, with no guidance, feeling our way through another televised disaster in the sky. I was a part-time graduate assistant learning to advise students at Loyola’s adult education outpost, Mundelein College. Thankfully business was light that day. Continue reading
Paul Croce teaches History and American Studies at Stetson University. An earlier version of this essay appeared in The Orlando Sentinel, September 11, 2012.
Led by that same president, the US took another path, fighting fire with fire, seeking revenge on Osama Bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda terrorists, and declaring an endless War on Terror, directed at hiding terrorists, and then expanded to warfare in two nations, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Just before Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, I wrote a post about the disappearance of the White House intellectual, a peculiar, semi-official position that John F. Kennedy created for Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and that continued in various forms during the Johnson, Nixon, and Ford presidencies, before being silently eliminated by Jimmy Carter, never to be revived again (at least so far).
Of course, while Presidents since Carter have not designated a single “intellectual in residence,” they have certainly involved themselves publicly and privately with intellectuals, both as sources of policy and political ideas, and (in their more public engagements) as a way of refining and burnishing their political brands. Despite receiving a lot of support from intellectuals as intellectuals in 2008, and even prompting James Kloppenberg to write a book (much discussed on this blog) on Obama as an intellectual, Obama has not made as much of a show of involving intellectuals in his White House as many of his predecessors have.*
Like White Houses, presidential campaigns often involve intellectuals, both behind the scenes as sources of ideas, and publicly as surrogates and as embodied promises of what the American people might expect should a particular candidate win. But this year, such figures seem conspicuous in their absence, at least from the campaigns’ public faces.
In the past, both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have made the support of intellectuals and the adoption of their ideas an important aspect of their campaigns. In 2000, John McCain adopted the rhetoric of what was known as “national greatness conservatism,” a neoconservative vision of America-in-the-world that in many ways eventually became embodied in the policies of his primary opponent, George W. Bush. As a candidate, however, Bush was more closely associated with Marvin Olasky and the idea of “compassionate conservatism.” Bill Clinton, in 1992, adopted the centrist, “third way” rhetoric associated with thinkers like Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck. And Barack Obama, in 2008, assembled an array of intellectual supporters and advisers, including, among others, Lawrence Lessig, Cass Sunstein, Samantha Power, and Austan Goolsbee, whose places in the campaign suggested to many that Obama was not only interested in intellectuals, but that he might become one of the tiny handful of presidents who have been intellectuals in their own right.
This year, however, neither the Romney nor the Obama campaign seems very interested in the conspicuous display of intellectuals or their ideas. The most obvious explanation for the change involves not a change in the place of intellectuals in American life or politics in general, but rather the nature of this year’s presidential race. Unlike 2008 (or 1992 and 2000), this year’s election features an incumbent. As Nate Silver recently noted, Romney, like most challengers in such races, wants voters to see this election as a referendum on Obama. And as we saw a couple weeks ago at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, the heart of that imagined referendum is the economy, framed by Ronald Reagan’s famous question from 1980: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” This is not a question that requires the (real or symbolic) presence of intellectuals to answer or highlight.
In contrast, as we saw in Charlotte last week, Obama wants voters to see this election as a choice. But the nature of that choice is framed in stark terms by Obama’s 2012 slogan: “Forward.” The implication, made explicit in a number of Democratic National Converntion speeches, is: we want to go forward; they want to go back. Like Romney’s framing of the election, the choice presented by the Obama campaign does not especially require sophisticated ideas or their human signifiers.
There are, of course, ideas connected to these two campaigns: the RNC emphasized individualism (“We Built This”); the DNC, a kind of mild communitarianism (we are at our best when we work together). But each of these sets of ideas is being sold as both common sense and utterly, traditionally American. Neither message has the complexity (or pseudo-complexity) or air of innovation (or pseudo-innovation) that would be helped by an association with one or more intellectuals.
In the past, presidential candidates have linked themselves to intellectuals to seem youthful and innovative (JFK), sage and sophisticated in policy matters (Nixon), or simply to lend an air of gravitas to a candidate who might otherwise be dismissed as a lightweight (George W. Bush). But these are not the challenges facing this year’s candidates, each of whom, in rather different ways, has to struggle against attacks that suggest that he’s somehow out-of-touch and not like the American electorate. The symbolic function of intellectuals is not much help in such a situation.
But I suspect that candidates in the future will, once again, find themselves in political situations for which a visible brain trust will seem like a solution, and then the campaign intellectuals will reappear in force.
Last week, author and educator Earl Shorris passed away at the age of 75 from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His New York Times obituary rightly focuses on his creation of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, the program he created in 1995 to bring a broad, liberal arts curriculum to the economically disadvantaged, which earned him a National Humanities Medal in 2000.
But the first thing I thought of when I heard of Shorris’s passing was a piece that he wrote for Harper’s, published in June, 2004, entitled “Ignoble Liars: Leo Strauss, George Bush, and the Philosophy of Mass Deception” (.pdf available here). Shorris’s piece was one of a series of popular works from the middle of the last decade that sought to blame Leo Strauss and his acolytes for all that had gone wrong during the Bush years. In May, 2003, Seymour Hersh had argued in The New Yorker that a Straussian cabal was responsible for cooking U.S. intelligence on Iraq to bring about war, a charge echoed that same month by James Atlas in a New York Times op-ed. This flurry of articles, in turn, inspired the actor Tim Robbins to write Embedded, a play that premiered in L.A. in July, 2003, which dramatized the notion that Leo Strauss was pulling the strings of the Iraq War from beyond the grave. Shortly after Shorris’s article appeared, in the fall of 2004, the documentarian Adam Curtis’s The Power of Nightmares premiered on BBC television, arguing that Leo Strauss had not only been the intellectual font of neoconservatism, but had also inspired American policymakers to invent Al Qaeda.
How do these attempts to argue that Leo Strauss was the power behind the Bush throne hold up almost a decade later? How does Shorris’s piece fare among them?
My provisional answer is to the first question is that these articles, plays, and documentaries explained both too little and too much. On the one hand, they were part of a much larger tendency to see the Bush Administration–especially post-9/11–as representing a much more radical break with the past than it in fact did. The too-little-acknowledged continuities have become clearer now that we have had three years during which a Democratic administration has not, in fact, reversed many of the policies that critics found so appalling during the Bush years. Discovering a previously obscure, foreign, reactionary thinker as the secret cause of an administration’s actions nicely fit the view of the Bush administration as a radical break from the past. The focus on Strauss and his followers as the secret power behind the Bush administration tended to produce elaborate explanations for fairly historically common phenomena, like administrations’ lying to the public about wars, while providing far too shallow critiques of other phenomena, such as long-standing problems with the national security state that had developed during the Cold War and lived on long after its end. Stories of the trahison des Straussians also uncomfortably resembled a long tradition of anti-intellectual counter-subversive narratives, the most famous modern examples of which involved Communists during the Cold War.
All that being said, Straussians have played a smaller, but nonetheless important, role in modern American conservatism. The fact that some false conspiracy theories have been constructed about them no more makes them unimportant on the right than the falsity of most anti-Communist conspiracy theories means that Communists weren’t important in the Old Left.
In the context of the popular anti-Straussian writings of the Bush years, Shorris’s piece is measured and interesting, if nonetheless off-base in many typical ways. Shorris makes his share of sloppy mistakes, some of them understandable and basically unimportant (e.g. identifying Strauss’s hometown as “Kirchheim” rather than “Kirchhain”) some of them significant and less defensible (e.g. identifying Grover Norquist as a Straussian).
To his credit, Shorris sets his critique in a world in which Leo Strauss did not invent public dishonesty:
It is safe to say that neither Ronald Reagan nor the Bushes have read Leo Strauss, and certainly no politician needs to be taught how to lie by a professor of philosophy.
Nevertheless, as Shorris notes in a footnote to this statement,
we need not be concerned with proving direct lines of influence. A brief summary of Straussian doctrine suffices to demonstrate its affinity with what one might call the “mind of the regime,” whether any particular member of the Bush Administration has read Strauss or not.
But Shorris is sensibly uncomfortable at leaving the matter at merely identifying similarities between the behavior of the administration and (his understanding of) Strauss, so he continues in the main text of his article:
Perhaps William Kristol, while serving as Dan Quayle’s chief of staff, tutored the vice president in the finer points of Platonic politics. But it is unlikely. The step from philosophy to action is almost always circuitous, Machiavelli being one of the rare exceptions. Strauss’s ideas about ideas took the usual path, picked and poked and punched, mutating here, understood selectively there. At one time, Strauss wrote a sentence in which he opposed preventive war. How disappointed his followers in the Department of Defense would be to read it now in light of the wreckage they have made!
The career of Strauss’s teachings is one of the wonders and the dangers of the book, as the master himself might have said, knowing that the long life of books, unlike newspapers or television, is bound up with history in a process of indirection. The ideas in books somehow manage to wiggle through the morass of individuals and information in large modern societies and become effective. The way is not clear, but the fact of it often gives surcease to the pains of laboring in obscurity.
Two things are notable about this passage. First, it shows a much subtler understanding of the actual ways that ideas affect society than the sometimes Dan Brownish intellectual conspiracy theories that have been written about the Straussians. Secondly, there’s some suggestion that Shorris sees Strauss himself as similar to Prof. Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart) in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, whose Nietzschean ideas are transformed by a student into an act of murder. In fact, around the time Shorris wrote his Harper’s piece, a number of critics of the Straussians, including both Anne Norton and Mark Lilla, began to suggest that Strauss was not a Straussian and that the master should not be blamed for the sins of his acolytes.
Shorris himself, however, is not clear on this point. One of the striking things about his article is the poignancy of his (essentially negative) portrait of Leo Strauss. Shorris has virtually nothing good to say about Strauss’s writings (which he sees as intentionally impossible to decipher and largely dedicated to bad writing for bad writing’s sake) or about his political commitments (which he sees as reactionary, hierarchical, and anti-democratic). Yet he also sees Strauss as an essentially tragic figure, whose politics were almost entirely determined by his intellectual hero Heidegger’s embrace of Nazism, and who seemed (somewhat like Stewart’s Prof. Cadell) to have had little desire for the powers sought by his followers:
Without question he was a brilliant professor, a frightened man whose ideas, having been battered into hiding by historic events, were eccentric. He had produced some journal articles, delivered the Walgreen Lectures, never to my knowledge appeared in the “public press,” made no radio or television appearances, and during his lifetime found but a small group of readers for his books. He died obscure and far from home.
Ultimately, Shorris’s take on Strauss’s life and ideas is overly reductive, though much of the blame no doubt lies with the format–a seven page magazine article–as well as the unavailability of decent secondary sources about Strauss: although the situation would change drastically over the next five years, at the time Shorris wrote, not a single scholarly biography of Strauss had been published in English, and there were still very few scholarly monographs dedicated to explicating his thought.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about Shorris’s article on Strauss is something that goes unstated in it. Early in the piece, Shorris notes that Strauss
had but one core idea: read old books carefully. It was a stroke of genius, and nothing more invigorating or enlightening could be said about education, but it was not news on a campus run by Robert Maynard Hutchins, one of the inventors of the Great Books curriculum.
What Shorris doesn’t mention is that he himself was very much a product of that curriculum. Shorris attended U of C in the late ’40s and early ’50s, arriving there as a thirteen year-old (Chicago was known for accepting very young undergraduates) within a year or two of Leo Strauss himself. Though he left before receiving his degree, Shorris was deeply influenced by his university’s commitment to the Great Books, as his creating of the Clemente Course some four decades later attests. As Tim Lacy has written on this blog, there were many flavors of commitment to the Great Books at Chicago. And Shorris, like Mortimer Adler, was deeply attached to great books liberalism. As the Clemente Course suggests, Shorris saw the Great Books as documents of democratic empowerment. But he saw Strauss as attempting to wed these books to a doctrine of elitism and obscurantism.
Shorris’s piece ends with a call to resist the “Nietzschean dreams of power” that he saw as regnant, thanks to Strauss, in the Bush administration. He’s largely silent–other than those passing words of praise in that last blockquote, which could incorrectly be read as ironic–on his own abiding commitment to the Great Books. What is clear is that Shorris saw ideas as mattering and feared not so much a conspiratorial cabal (though his article is not entirely free of loose accusations about who were Straussians in the halls of power) as the potentially catastrophic effects of bad philosophy. And this, too, was something he shared with Leo Strauss.
What is the point of remembering the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001? I don’t ask that question rhetorically. Is to remind us that we live in a state of insecurity? Is it to remember those who perished on that day? Or is it to inspire a unity among Americans?
Just as his predecessor George W. Bush repeatedly did, Barack Obama has consistently referred to the national unity that existed following the attacks orchestrated by Osama bin Laden. On the night that bin Laden was killed, the president concluded his brief statement asking Americans to “think back to the unity that prevailed on 9/11.” The tracking down and killing of the world’s most notorious terrorist came as a result, the president suggested, of “American determination”–not Republican or Democrat or Northern or Western determination but American. Obama has desperately wanted to appeal to a sense of the American, to declare without irony or cynicism that the United States is “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
As sociologist Robert Wuthnow wrote in 1988, that phrase captures a division within America rather than the unity of the nation. Wuthnow suggested that a conservative civil religion sees a nation under God, while a liberal civil religion propounds a nation that promotes liberty and justice for all. The point is, the nation stands divided; even though both sides appeal to the same Constitution, and “pray” to the same national god, the prayers of both will never be answered.
For Obama, that fact appears to be endlessly frustrating. In his inaugural address he made a forceful demand: “On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation. But in the words of Scripture,” Obama declared, “the time has come to set aside childish things.” In short, let’s move beyond the culture wars.
Bush offered a similar appeal in his first inaugural: “Sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent but not a country.” On that day, Bush pledged to “work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity” and appealed to Americans to find unity of purpose in “ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests, and teach us what it means to be citizens.” Like Obama, it was September 11 that provided the touchstone for national unity. In his first major address to Congress following the attacks, Bush delivered many statements to rousing applause, but among the most well-received was when he declared: “as we act to win the war, protect the people, and create jobs in America, we must act first and foremost, not as Republicans, not as Democrats but as Americans.”
Of course, both presidents pine for national unity. And it is not surprising that both look almost wistfully at 9/11 as a moment that seemed to place selflessness above selfishness. But 9/11 unity, as Ben suggested in his recent post, is contested (to say the least). What I find interesting is the way these two presidents view 9/11 as point that separated an era defined by the culture wars from an era that would be defined by a unity that rose above them. And the projects of David Sehat and Andrew Hartman, two USIH colleagues, are quite relevant here. David’s book made me consider that for Bush, 9/11 was suppose to bring an end to a dispute over the moral authority governing the nation and make possible a evangelical Protestant order that rhetorically placed America under the judgment of a God whom only Bush and his supporters understood. Andrew’s work helped me understand that for Obama, 9/11 was suppose to make it possible for the nation to take stock of the progress made during the culture wars but then move beyond them to an understanding of America that no longer needed to fight (or re-fight) battles of race, class, gender, and faith.
That neither president has had his hopes realized is clear. I wonder, though, how we then see 9/11 amidst the culture wars. And whether, despite Obama’s statements, we are a better nation divided for then at least we know where we stand.
If the notion of a ‘panoply’ means anything to you, it probably calls forth images of defense—the arms and armor of Greek warriors. My American Heritage College Dictionary tells me, however, that the term has also denotes things that cover and protect, “ceremonial attire with all accessories,” and arrays both “splendid or striking.” The array of emotional states covered by recent American conservatism suggests a necessary, renewable source of power behind the ideas and ideology of movement. Other USIH posts have covered a variety of ideas and ideology underneath post-World War II conservatism, including adaptations of ‘new class’ theory, reactions against the destruction of the informal Protestant moral establishment, free-market ideology, anti-intellectualism, Ayn Randian individualism and libertarianism, and disaffection with liberalism (i.e. neoconservatism).
But a recent post at the Chronicle’s “Percolator” weblog, composed by Tom Bartlett, reminded me of the emotional angle for viewing conservatism. Bartlett’s post actually deals with a research study on cleanliness. In the course of discussing the work, he reminds the reader that Leon R. Kass argued for ‘disgust’ as a biologically natural aspect of the “wisdom of repugnance.” Bartlett also relays Martha Nussbaum’s rebuke of Kass, with the former asserting that “disgust is not wise but terribly obtuse.” Indeed, Nussbaum goes further to say that “projective disgust” says more about the individual and his/her self-loathing, as well as the desire for a scapegoat. 
Leon Kass has been on my radar screen for some time. His wife, Amy Apfel Kass, wrote a dissertation at Johns Hopkins on the great books, Robert M. Hutchins, and M.J. Adler titled “Radical Conservatives for Liberal Education” (1973). I consider Kass’s dissertation the first salvo in a relatively successful conservative re-appropriation of the great books idea away from mid-century liberalism. In Kass’s hands, Hutchins becomes an early conservative who railed against a relativist academy from the 1920s to the 1950s, primarily by promoting the great books. There is some truth to this—as must be the case with all lies—but a great deal of contradictory information is downplayed or left out, and terms like “liberal” and “conservative” are used homogeneously over large swaths of time. In sum, Kass’s work was a presentist (meaning 1973) appropriation of Hutchins educational philosophy and the great books idea for 1970s conservative and neoconservative ends.
Returning to the emotional history of the modern conservative movement, I am convinced it ascended to dominance when it appropriated a variety of discourses involving feelings related to politics, social issues, religion, the late Cold War, and otherwise. It is no coincidence that Reagan’s optimistic mantra about it being “morning again in America” correlated with the ascendancy of an ideology—of ideologies—that before 1984, or 1980, was probably dead even with mid-century liberalism. Indeed, we pay attention to Carter’s dour discourse on limits and “malaise” because it lacked, and signified the absence of, a connection with the varied emotional desires of the American people.
But the roots are deeper. Nixon played on emotions effectively. They are most evident in his private discourse (the tape recordings), but isn’t the “silent majority” also an emotional tactic? Of course emotional discourse hasn’t always worked well for conservatives. Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” or “Daisy Girl” advertisement most certainly played on fears of Goldwater’s emotional and intellectual instability. Indeed, the conservative movement had to put its intellect on display, mostly via neoconservatives, before it could more effectively draw on emotional discourse later.
We all know that politics requires an emotional connection, so I fully realize that what I am discussing here is not news—not by any means. Then again, I am not aware of a recent history of post-1960s conservatism that firmly and prominently underscores the range—the panoply—of emotions on display in the movement over time, as well as how its internal emotional discourse has changed over time. Though I have not read every recent book on conservatism, my impression is that representations of the movement’s history in relation to emotion are usually about the same old stuff: anger (“I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”) and fear (fear of the decline of values, family, and tradition). A notable exception, within the context of one year, might be Andreas Killen’s 1973 Nervous Breakdown (2007). But a discussion of the panoply of emotions evident within the movement would enrich discourse about its ideology (or ideologies)—where ideas meet politics and the populace.
What emotions are on the table so far? I just mentioned anger and fear. Kass and Nussbaum deal with disgust. What else matters?
What of outrage and scandal? It seems to me that the 1970s and 1980s were, for conservatives, about fostering outrage over government waste, whether it be through rhetoric about welfare queens or the proverbial $100 hammers purchased through improperly scrutinized defense contracts. Religious conservatives today, in discussions about abortion, prefer to shock us into outrage with stories about late-term abortions, waving the bloody shirt with pictures on campus of aborted fetuses. I suppose, however, that line of attack also falls within the realm of disgust.
What of humor? Long ago, when I wrote an article on Rush Limbaugh for an encyclopedia on the Culture Wars (p. 322-324), I underscored the role of humor in arguing for his attractiveness as a popular conservative media figure. To make matters worse, the same conservatives who play with humor have perpetuated the canard about “humorless liberals”—with some success in the 1980s. It is probably not stretch to say that conservatives have dominated the humor valence of both the Culture Wars and political discourse since the 1970s.
George W. Bush introduced the notion of “compassionate conservatism.” This was a way, of course, for conservatives to take control of the “charity discourse” in politics—to wrest the emotion of love away from the progressive, religious side of liberalism. Voters felt that conservatism wasn’t just about anger and fear, or outrage and scandal.
What of emotions and conservative discourses about freedom and liberty? It seems to me that those discussions introduce a sleight-of-hand in that the actual expansion of freedom is replaced with rhetoric that promotes the feeling of freedom. Americans want to feel that they are promoting freedom around the world, in an unqualified and uncomplicated way. George W. Bush certainly captured that emotional discourse.
In thinking about war, I’m sure that Ray Haberski–in his forthcoming work—will touch on the range of emotions related to civil religion and the rites of war. Conservatives seem more successful, on balance, than liberals, within the 1970-2010 time period, on making connections between the need for aggression, liberty, and disgust with terrorism. Right now conservatives are holding hostage rational discourse about Islam in America as a result. This might of course say more about the American people than political emotion as directed from above.
If one wanted to catalogue the entire panoply of emotions evident in recent conservatism, a Wikipedia entry titled, unsurprisingly, “List of Emotions” is probably a fine place to start.
Moving even closer to the present, I thought in 2008 that presidential candidate Barack Obama effectively re-appropriated some of the emotional spectrum from conservatives. Notions such as hope, change, and the “audacity of hope” attracted independents and liberals to his agenda. But President Obama has been much more reserved in employing the discourse of emotions to advance his agenda. Some of this is strategy in that he seems to enjoy playing the role of a judiciously corrective and moderating parent. The early crisis period of his presidency necessitated level-headedness. In the meantime, however, it seems that Obama has lost something of his ability to use emotions, honestly and effectively, to advance his agenda. Perhaps he should study histories of late twentieth-century conservatism to catalyze his rhetoric for the upcoming re-election campaign.
In some ways, one could argue that conservative discourse has become so attached to emotion that it is impossible to expect cool rationality from its current adherents. With the Tea Party in control of the emotional discourse of conservatism, Obama’s cool-headedness remains at least moderately attractive. Then again, the Tea Party has a way of making John Boehner look like a statesman. Even so, until conservatives put forth a critical mass that brings rationality front and center, it won’t pay for Obama to excite the base emotionally the way he had to in 2008. So long as the paranoia, emotionalism, and anti-intellectualism of figures like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Peter King, Michele Bachmann, Steve King, Sharron Angle, Mike Huckabee, and Newt Gingrich dominate popular perceptions of conservatism, there is no reason for Obama to show his full range of emotional connections. Indeed, it would be risky for Obama to apply Leon Kass’s “wisdom of repugnance” to current conservative positions; the president would be capitulating political discourse to conservative-dominated terrain. Then again, those terms have enabled the rise of a powerful movement over the past 30 years.
Thoughts? Have a missed a book that attempts to integrate the range of emotions? Are there relevant scholarly articles I’ve overlooked? Are there any powerful emotions I’ve not discussed? – TL
 Leon Kass, “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” The New Republic (June 2, 1997): 17-26.
 Some of Nussbaum’s arguments against Kass are evident in a Chronicle of Higher Education article titled “Danger to Human Dignity: the Revival of Disgust and Shame in the Law” (August 6, 2004).
In the 2011 State of the Union address, Barack Obama wore bi-partisanship around his neck–his tie was neither red nor blue but some color blend of the two. His veep, Joe Biden, seemed to have on a tie of blue with red stripes, perhaps worn in solidarity with the president. In the aftermath of the tragic shootings in Arizona, people expect at least a nod in the direction of civility, a notion, as intellectual historian James Kloppenberg made clear in his recent book on Obama and in his keynote address to the 2010 USIH conference, that the president has trafficked in for a long time. So in this purplish haze, did Obama offer a way for us to channel our “e pluribus unum”?
“In the work ahead, we must be guided by the philosophy that made our Nation great. As Americans, we believe in the power of individuals to determine their destiny and shape the course of history. We believe that the most reliable guide for our country is the collective wisdom of ordinary citizens. And so in all we do, we must trust in the ability of free peoples to make wise decisions and empower them to improve their lives for their futures.
To build a prosperous future, we must trust people with their own money and empower them to grow our economy.” George W. Bush, 2008 State of the Union
“We should have no illusions about the work ahead of us. Reforming our schools, changing the way we use energy, reducing our deficit –- none of this will be easy. All of it will take time. And it will be harder because we will argue about everything. The costs. The details. The letter of every law.
Of course, some countries don’t have this problem. If the central government wants a railroad, they build a railroad, no matter how many homes get bulldozed. If they don’t want a bad story in the newspaper, it doesn’t get written.
And yet, as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.
We may have differences in policy, but we all believe in the rights enshrined in our Constitution. We may have different opinions, but we believe in the same promise that says this is a place where you can make it if you try. We may have different backgrounds, but we believe in the same dream that says this is a country where anything is possible. No matter who you are. No matter where you come from.
That dream is why I can stand here before you tonight. That dream is why a working-class kid from Scranton can sit behind me. That dream is why someone who began by sweeping the floors of his father’s Cincinnati bar can preside as Speaker of the House in the greatest nation on Earth.” Barack Obama, 2011 State of the Union
(My first post since it was announced that USIH won the 2010 Cliopatria Award for best group blog!)
At risk of opening up a discussion of another vague, contradictory, often polemical and even more often misunderstood political label, I’m going to move the discussion from neoliberalism to neoconservatism. How should intellectual historians frame neoconservatism? (This post is lacking in that I have yet to read Justin Vaïsse’s much-discussed new book, Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement—I’ll get to it!)
Leo Ribuffo always gives the best advice on all things conservative history, in a grumpy senior scholar sort of way. For a classic Ribuffo statement on the field of conservative history, check out the paper he gave at last year’s OAH: “Seventeen Suggestions for Studying the Right Now that Studying the Right is Trendy.” One of his suggestions is that we take Lionel Trilling’s famous statement that there are no conservative ideas in America, only irritable gestures, and “bury it in a deep hole with nuclear waste.” Point taken. Of course, anyone who has read George Nash‘s 1976 bible, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, hardly needs this bit of advice. But there are several other nuggets of wisdom in the Ribuffo essay. I highly recommend it, crankiness and all.
Another panel at last year’s OAH offered suggestions on the field. (Wow, how often do I remember not one but two panels from an academic conference that took place nearly a year ago? Other than the USIH annual conference, of course, where all the panels are memorable!) The panel, on rethinking conservative intellectual history, featured, among others, Jennifer Burns, whose biography of Ayn Rand: The Goddess of the Market, is one of the best books in intellectual history of the last five years. To that extent, surprisingly, the panel hardly offered any sage advice. The basic point I gathered: we should go beyond Nash—we should go beyond a narrow definition of intellectuals in studying conservative intellectual history. Beverly Gage, for instance, suggested that we consider the texts of political figures like J. Edgar Hoover as intellectual texts (she just happens to be writing a book on Hoover). This is good advice. But did we need this advice? (For video links to this OAH panel, featuring Burns, Gage, and Angus Burgin, click here.)
Certainly Eliot Weinberger does not need such advice, based on his brilliant and hilarious review of George Bush’s presidential memoir, the number one selling book in America, Decision Points. Weinberger treats Decision Points as a postmodern text, arguing that were Foucault still alive, he would have considered it one of the quintessential demonstrations of that philosophical question, “What is an author?” (Weinberger also reads Turning Points as a country and western song: “one minute they’re raising hell and the next they’re jerking tears.”)
Lately I’ve been diving into the work of one of the most important neoconservative thinkers, Gertrude Himmelfarb (aka Bea Kristol, wife of neoconservative “godfather” Irving, mother of Republican house intellectual Bill). As an intellectual historian, her example serves as one model for how to think about conservative intellectual history. Himmelfarb is a firm adherent of that paleoconservative Richard Weaver’s mantra that “ideas have consequences.” In other words, her theory of intellectual history is explicitly non-materialist, or, at least, non-Marxist, in the sense that ideas do not take a back seat to economic forces. Ideas, for Himmelfarb, quite often shape material reality. In her view, this is a properly conservative approach to intellectual history, even though, on its face, it is also a properly postmodern approach to intellectual history.
What ideas have consequences in Himmelfarb’s work? Most prominently, she contends, in The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values and elsewhere, that what the Victorians referred to as “virtue,” or morality, shaped the culture of nineteenth century Britain (and America) to a greater degree than did the political economy. In this, Himmelfarb thinks she proves wrong one of the more popular passages from The Communist Manifesto, about how the bourgeoisie has “pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties…[and] the family its sentimental veil…” Marx and Engels were wrong since Victorian virtues, for example, made the traditional family stronger than ever in nineteenth century Britain, at the height of rapid industrialization. For Himmelfarb, this goes to her larger point that capitalism is not to blame for our contemporary pathologies: crime, illegitimacy, welfare dependency, pornography—the usual litany (see Charles Murray for a complete run-down). Older ideas about work and thrift kept people in line in spite of the “all that is solid melts into air” vertigo experience of capitalism or modernity. Rather than capitalism, Himmelfarb argues, the cultural and moral shift that took place during the sixties is to blame for our current pathological society. Duh, it’s the sixties! Always the sixties!
Himmelfarb’s dissonant interpretation raises three questions for me:
1) Must intellectual history be all ideas or all material? All text or all context? One or the other?
It seems to me that the new intellectual history as practiced by those who write for this blog, and as practiced by most of those who regularly attend the USIH conference, seeks to situate ideas in cultural context without necessarily reducing those ideas to some opaque reflection of “reality.” In other words, it’s not a question of either-or.
2) Even if Himmelfarb is correct in her assertion that major cultural changes did not obliterate Victorian values until the 1960s—dubious, but OK—why does this prove Marx wrong? Is there a statute of limitations on the “all that is solid melts into air” theory of dissolution?
A new book by Daniel Rodgers, The Age of Fracture, which I predict will be the most talked about work of intellectual history since Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club, implies that Marx’s thesis is a pretty good explanation for our postmodern condition. As Robert Westbrook writes in an excellent review, Rodgers “hints, much like Marx and Engels, that at the bottom of things lay the powerfully destabilizing impact of capitalism.”
3) Why do neoconservatives always blame the Sixties?
This is one of the major currents of intellectual history that I am exploring at length in researching and writing my book on the culture wars. There are several reasons for this, most of which I won’t get into here for reasons of time and space (this is already far too long for a blog post!) A major reason, though, is the neoconservative distaste for antinomianism. This is made clear in a new biography of Norman Podhoretz, who, as editor of Commentary from 1960 to 1995, was equally if not more important than Kristol in delineating the neoconservative mind. Podhoretz had a longstanding yet latent (in terms of outspokenness) distaste for antinomianism and sexual liberation, revealed as early as 1958, when he wrote a scathing Partisan Review essay on the Beats, titled, “The Know-Nothing Bohemians.” Anti-antinomianism became foundational to his distaste for the sixties.
Of course, not all of the neoconservatives rooted the origins of cultural demise in the sixties. Robert Bork, in Slouching Towards Gomorrah (don’t you love that title!) argued that the sixties enshrined the radical individualism of the Declaration of Independence. Allan Bloom went much further back. For him, it was all downhill after Plato. But the larger point: the sixties formed the neoconservative view on American culture. Thus, if neoliberalism is, as I argued a few weeks ago, the spirit of the sixties, neoconservatism is the spirit of the anti-sixties.