U.S. Intellectual History Blog

USIH Odds and Ends: Bin Laden, New Beardians, Cosmopolitanism BLEG, and Trigger Warnings

1. (of 4) The Mind Behind 9/11: No Straight Lines Plus an Irony

This NYT piece on Osama Bin Laden’s bookshelf, described as “a weird hodgepodge,” fascinates me. When trying to understand the thoughts of others, sometimes the only empirical evidence available is books and bookshelves. We see a kind of full bookshelf when we explore the references and citations of another’s written works. But how much can we infer about Bin Laden’s mind from the works listed in the NYT piece? I can see uncritical, reactionary minds jumping to conclusions about Noam Chomsky and Bin Laden’s actions. I wonder how it feels as an author to be included in the piece—to know that your creation partially inspired the deranged mind of a killer? What about the respectable thinkers on the list, such as historian Paul Kennedy (The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers) and the diplomat Robert Hopkins Miller (author of The United States and Vietnam 1787-1941)? Other titles are interesting and perhaps To me, if anything, the reading list should show how conclusions should NOT easily drawn from simple exposure to the ideas of others. Bin Laden’s list is, ironically, a kind of demonstration of the reason for First Amendment freedoms.

2. Higham’s History: S-USIHers as New Beardians?

I have the Harper Torchbook version (1973, with a white cover and a Civil War era banner

I have the Harper Torchbook version (1973, with a white cover and a Civil War era banner.

I’ve been reading John Higham’s History: Professional Scholarship in America on a slow pace over the past few months. I’m impressed. It was never assigned in my graduate program, probably because it was deemed too old and irrelevant. Sigh. To me, I wish I had read it before reading Peter Novick’s standard work. In particular I’ve been impressed with Higham’s assessment of Progressive historians. It’s not just the narrative, but his insightful insertions. I’ll probably write up a post later with some of those insights. But, as a preview, after reading Higham’s History I’m convinced that a larger percentage of S-USIHers are a types of “New Robinsonians” or “New Beardians.” Per Higham, we seem to be more interested how the past and present speak with each other; we’re most interested in history’s outcomes today than the deepest origins and causes of things (p. 187). In sum, we’re something of a “how did we get here?” crowd, which corresponds with the preponderance of members interested in 20th-century history.

3. BLEG: Cosmopolitanism between 1880 and 1945

Cosmopolitanism-tagsI could use some help figuring out the literature, or rather primary resources, on cosmopolitanism in France, Britain, and the U.S. during the 1880-1945 period (up to but not including the U.N. and UDHR). I’m approaching the problem from the pov that there are many iterations of cosmopolitanism, not just one. Some of those variations will be better and worse, truer and less true to contextual ideals. Who were the exemplars in this period? What books and/or articles are best on the subject? Any thoughts and pointers on these matters will be appreciated. Help me help myself!

4. Trigger Warnings In Vocationally-focused Higher Edu World

I’ve been following the story about curriculum triggers from the start. The latest I’ve read is from Todd Gitlin, titled “You are Here to be Disturbed” and appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education on May 11, 2015. Gitlin damns it all as hypersensitivity. He summarizes the movement as follows: “If the demand for comfort collides with the need for truth, or with the needs of an atmosphere of intellectual give and take, the truth must be more prettily wrapped.” But, he adds, “no one ever promised that the truth would be comforting.” To him all college education should be disconcerting, hence you are there to be disturbed. To put it a bit more positively, Gitlin sees college as the already safe place to handle even harder realities out in the world. Trigger-warning people are just engaged in “censorial zeal.” To Gitlin it’s the 1990s “PC Wars” all over again. You can read about those in Andrew’s book, I’m guessing (I haven’t looked up that particular topics therein).*

When it comes to triggers, I’m torn between my faculty/instructor and student advisor identities. The former, based on years of adjuncting and stint as a visiting prof, feels that students need to take responsibility for their coping mechanisms. Furthermore, as a historian I’m with Gitlin when he writes: “History, Western and otherwise, is (among other things) a slaughterhouse. The record of civilization is a record of murder, rape, and sundry other brutalities. As for the discomfort that may be occasioned by the discovery — even the shock — of this record, discomfort is the crucible of learning.” For him the “liberty of speech is too precious to cancel, most especially on campus, where the cultivation of reason is fundamental — for citizenship as well as for learning.” I can see that. But…

My advising identity, which nurtures and fosters those mechanisms for coping, says “Really?!” to Gitlin. When college is more about preparation for careers and money-making (a topic not discussed in Gitlin’s piece, which looks at students’ general mental health, class issues, expectations of “comfort,” and rape), are students really entering higher education for the shocking truths of history? No. They’re here to the nice jobs and money that comes later. It’s not about the comfort zone of the now, but the comforts of later. Given the cost of an education, then counseling and the fostering of certain coping mechanisms, like trigger warnings, seem like a relatively small demand. And I can see why administrators are sympathetic to those requests.

What say you? Have you any personal experiences with trigger warnings, either as a student or an instructor? Do they matter in the USIH/IH realm? I’d be more concerned about providing trigger warnings for some of prose they encounter in the intellectual history realm. – TL

*You didn’t think we’d get through a post about USIH odds and ends without mentioning Hartman’s book, did you? It’s become the Rogers-Fracture phenomenon of 2015.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I can’t help thinking that the trigger warning most of these students need (and their apologists in the professoriat) is one that says “Trigger Warning: Contains Writing by Person(s) Who Probably Didn’t Think the Same Way You Do.” Because what seems to offend the trigger warning crowd most is the awareness that the entire universe doesn’t agree with them.

    Exhibit A: this witless screed that seems like a grab bag of PC caricatures. Western civilzation is a trigger warning. And people wonder why the humanities has a reputation for being a cesspit of leftist propaganda. Credit to the commenters (I know, never read the comments) for calling it out for being the nonsense it is.


  2. 1) Haven’t yet read the full list of books on OBL’s shelf yet. Re the ones mentioned here: I’ve read Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987). I assume it was on OBL’s shelf mostly b.c of Kennedy’s argument about ‘imperial overstretch’. Anyway I’m not sure why any author shd care if he was on the bookshelf or not. Presence there doesn’t mean the bk “inspired” OBL or even necessarily had any influence on him. I actually rather doubt OBL read that much of Kennedy. A lot of it cdn’t poss. have been that much interest to him. Though I suppose if he got really bored in Abbottabad he might have tackled some of it. OBL was very far from stupid (or lazy), obvs.; I just think other books probably wd have had more appeal to him.

    2) Cosmopolitanism 1880-1945: Not sure *exactly* what the substantive contours of the question are. However, there’s a group of British and American (primarily, plus a few non-Anglophone) writers in the interwar period who sounded some themes that are cosmopolitan (in some respects). One place to start here might be David Long and Peter Wilson, eds., Thinkers of the Twenty Years’ Crisis: Inter-War Idealism Reassessed (Oxford U.P., 1995). Secondary essays, not primary sources, but the book does have a fairly long ‘select bibliography’. Obviously, given the bk’s publication date, the biblio doesn’t cover anything published in the last 20 years, and there has been a certain amt, esp. articles, in the last 20 years on these figures.

    A much older bk is Michael Howard, War and the Liberal Conscience (1981, based on lectures delivered in 1977); chs. 3-5 deal with your period. You might also take a look at T. Knutsen, A History of International Relations Theory (1992) and Brian Schmidt, The Political Discourse of Anarchy (1998). Also, it’s v. possible that S. Moyn’s The Last Utopia would have some relevant stuff, esp. in the early chs., but I haven’t really read it, just glanced through it.

    There are no doubt some very obvious things that I’m missing, but those are a few titles that come to mind off top of head. Last thing: Susan Pedersen has a new book out about the League of Nations; I forget the title.

  3. Couple of more thoughts: Martin Ceadel’s 2009 book on Norman Angell; Robert Divine on internationalism in the U.S.; plus there are histories of peace mvts in the relevant period, and of orgs. like World Federalists.

  4. Clarification: when I said I hadn’t read the list of bks on OBL’s shelf, I meant I hadn’t read the list itself as printed in NYT or the official Natl Dir of Intelligence site. I have no intention of reading the books that were on OBL’s shelf simply b.c they were there.

  5. To all: My apologies for the somewhat hurried post. The odds-and-ends things sometimes creates a scattered mind, unfocused on the necessary details of good communication.

    Varad: There may be some PC aspects in the larger conversation about trigger warnings. But I think that conversation is mostly focused on protecting students with real psychological issues. Anything can be taken to the extreme, but it seems that there is some consensus that professors can/should provide some kind of timely warning with violent and shocking material is forthcoming. That’s just courtesy. It has to be made clear to the students that they are allowed to opt-out of some kinds of viewings. That doesn’t mean that they won’t be exposed to the ideas animating such shocking displays (textual, visual). Indeed, the fact they are opting out shows, ironically, a kind of desired sensitivity and engagement.

    Louis: On OBL’s bookshelf, I agree with you on the issue of presence v. engagement. You’d have to know more about markings and notations in the books, or notes in journals, to say something substantive.

    On cosmopolitanism, the world federal government angle correlates with one substantial topic I’ve actually looked at. But thanks for those references, esp. the Wilson/Long book, which I had missed, and the new Susan Pedersen text. – TL

  6. Found your site interesting. My grad studies had some concentration on the Progressive Era a half century ago, when Lasch and Kolko were the infants-terrible. Have always been a Beardian but that might be due to my leftwing blinders.

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