U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Historicizing The Op Ed Machine

There’s an absolutely atrocious opinion piece about higher education in the New York Times.

In other news, the sun rises in the east, water is wet, and the Pope is, in fact, Catholic.

As a regular (though lately quite inactive) blogger for the Society for U.S. Intellectual History, and as a historian of higher education, I really ought to offer our readers something more than shoot-from-the-hip snark about the state of public intellectual discourse about the university. But I plead extenuating circumstances: 1) I just finished my dissertation and have only three or maybe four working brain cells left, all of which I will need for my defense (Nov. 10 – you might feel a disturbance in the force); and 2) involving myself too deeply in present polemical battles about higher education really complicates my ability to maintain some critical distance regarding past polemical battles about higher education. I need to keep the peas of the past and the carrots of the present neatly separated on my plate for a little bet yet.

So, instead of discussing how this column penned by one of the fine thought leaders of the American Enterprise Institute, appearing in the nation’s newspaper of record, demonstrates the extent to which neoconservative foundations have successfully co-opted and arguably corrupted public discourse – an argument that I am sure other historians will be making – let me simply refer our readers to two absolutely indispensable works of scholarship that I relied upon to make sense of the connection between neoconservative foundations and mainstream media coverage of higher education in the 1980s and 1990s.

Ellen Messer-Davidow, “Manufacturing the Attack on Liberalized Higher Education,” Social Text No. 36 (Autumn 1993):40-80.

John K. Wilson, The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995).

The article by Messer-Davidow is available on JSTOR, and I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in understanding the virulent outbreak of discourse about “political correctness” in the 1990s. Messer-Davidow follows the money, tracing out a “reticulated” network of conservative intellectuals and neoconservative organizations who consciously mustered, manned and maintained an “ideas industry” in the 1980s. This neoconservative network put a great deal of money behind messaging – Davidow gives us the dollar figures – to make sure that its crew of intellectuals for hire could keep churning out their own books and reviewing each other’s books, churning out their own op eds and publishing each other’s op eds. The conservative foundations footing the bill shared board members and benefactors who poured cash into making sure that the free market of ideas was a rigged market.

John K. Wilson’s book covers some of the same phenomena and explores conservatives’ political uses of these polemical indictments of higher education as a bastion of “political correctness.”

Both texts were absolutely essential for me as I tried to assess the significance of the “reception history” of the canon controversy at Stanford. These are meticulously sourced pieces of detective work that provide a level of factual detail about the funding and logistics of conservative messaging in mainstream media that would be very hard to reconstruct from a distance of even a few decades. They did an enormous amount of work to make sense of their present moment, and it has proved extraordinarily useful for this historian of that moment.

As a historian of that moment and a fellow sojourner in this one, I’ll tell you this: there was nothing spontaneous about the national conversation about “political correctness” in the 1990s. And it’s my strong suspicion that there’s nothing spontaneous about the conversation today. But history is not predictive, the present is full of possibilities, and the future is not yet written.

I just wish the New York Times would cut it out with the re-runs.

8 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Thanks for these citations! My own work didn’t carry me into the morass of political correctness—though it was on my radar. How did you find these pieces? I know we had a thread or two on PC here over the years, but I don’t recall whether both of these surfaced in those threads. – TL

  2. I found them pretty early on in my research, IIRC, but I didn’t really look at them until I was ready to do the reading for the last chapter of my dissertation, which traces the reception history of the Stanford debacle.

    When I was doing that series of blog posts on political correctness, I hoped they would help some in historicizing the rise of that term — but they didn’t really provide the background I was looking for. However, in terms of documenting the discourse of “political correctness” in the 1990s, they’re just phenomenal. Their citations offer a rich bibliography of primary sources, and the spadework they did in digging up all the institutional interconnections was really extraordinary.

    Thank heavens somebody was hacked off enough about the present state of discourse to go to the trouble to keep track of it all — much harder to do before any of it was available electronically. Both of these works of scholarship are remarkable resources, and anyone working on the history of higher ed in the last quarter of the 20th century, or the history of print culture, or the history of conservatism, should definitely take a look at them.

  3. Such are the terrible costs of insufficient diversity. If only there were a wider variety of opinions in play at the American Enterprise Institute, Brooks might have refined his case along the lines you describe, in the crucible of contending arguments and critical points of view. But as we all know, the AEI is ideologically monochromatic and exists to propagate the views of those who fund its sinecures. We cannot and should not be surprised by the monotony of their opinions, for monotony is, after all, the whole point.

  4. TTS, a big focus of my research, especially the chapter in which I deal with think tanks and mainstream media, is focused on how the landscape of intellectual discourse has been flattened — steamrolled, really — by “the market” and its prophets.

    Tim, thanks so, so much for asking me the question, “How did you find these pieces?” That prompted me to do a little digging. What I found took me back farther than I thought it would. I posted about it on my personal blog. (I won’t link to it here, because my blog and my posts sort of come and go.) But it’s up there for now — hope you’ll read it. And thanks again for asking.

  5. I think your blog post would have been more constructive and informative had you taken the time to make specific points in opposition to Brooks’ Times piece. According to your logic, we should dismiss Brooks and his argument because he is employed by AEI which is a neo-conservative think tank and neo-conservative think tanks in the 1980s and 1990s spent large sums of money to shape a conversation about political correctness. It is intellectually lazy to call a tiny little print article “absolutely atrocious” and then not take the time to say why. Not impressed.

  6. Jeffrey, it’s awfully generous (or maybe just dully imperceptive?) of you to suggest that this post even rises to the level of making an argument. It absolutely does not, nor was it intended to. The whole point was to point people to sources that provide some context for understanding the history behind neoconservative think tanks’ higher ed “messaging” in mainstream media. I have no time/mental energy to waste at present on the particular contents of Brooks’s message, an argument that’s been aired and batted down at this blog before. But judging from the feedback I’ve gotten from readers on social media in response to the post, the sources mentioned above are going to be very helpful for a lot of scholars working on this period/problem. So, impressive or not, mission accomplished.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  7. L.D.
    Little late to the discussion, but great piece of writing, wish I had the ability to turn out such a polished and vibrant piece while under that kind of academic pressure.
    In a more theoretical vein, and additionally to place the think tank movement in a larger historical context I’m curious if you’ve seen this micro- essay by Lears https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/symposium-jackson-lears, which provides a Gramscian framework for this phenomenon or at least a learisan-Gramscian framework. Lears also points to a (if not exactly the) smoking gun in the Powell memorandum of 1971. Lately I’ve seen more scholars of the post 1960s conservative movement discussing this significant piece of evidence. Do your citations mention the memo? Phillips-Fein’s terrific Invisible Hands, while as in so much as i can recall eschews or at least does not name as such a Gramscian theoretical approach, suggests the con/ free market movement building and the big money behind it can be traced back to the corporate opposition of New Deal. At any rate Burns is just the latest foot soldier in a long cultural war over the economy. Your diss or it’s published sibling might fill an important lacuna in the next major historiography of the conservative movement in the Twentieth century. Again thanks for the incisive and timely post and links. Huge congrats on finding the one true path out of the howling wilderness of dissertation writing and all kinds of well wishes on the defense. From what you’ve written about your work I think it’s safe to say “the force is strong with this one”

    I’ve seen elsewhere on the blog that not everyone is enamored with Gramscian cultural hegemony via Lears but in my work on Catholic Radicalism and in my general reading I find Lears’ approach can be very useful if skillfully applied to certain historiographical problems. i.e locating and understanding the conservative roots of American catholic radicals and their impact on the larger religious and national culture.

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