U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Sincerely and Seriously Wrong.

One of the problems I have chewed on at this blog is the question of sincerity. It seems an inexhaustible subject, for it touches on so many foundational questions of method, ideology, and “sensibility,” even, if you will. So I am not surprised that in the last week, this issue has once again brought itself to my attention, and compelled me to add yet another contribution to what has already been a long and excellent discussion of Andrew’s book, A War for the Soul of America.

 In particular, I want to focus on Andrew’s “Point 7” in his response to the roundtable. This critique – which lay at the core of Amy Kittelstrom’s review – suggests that when analyzing culture war conservatives, Andrew “should not take such Americans at their word.” Kittelstrom goes on to make a compelling case for why; what, after all, composes “traditional culture,” especially if even its less objectionable tenets – such as hard work or individual merit – seem to be much more preached than practiced? After all, as Peter Kuryla’s review pointed out, it’s hard to square an ethic of delayed gratification with the “orgy of consumption” that was at the center of the 1950s normative family.

Andrew responded to this concern by emphasizing his desire to avoid what he called “political heavy-handedness,” implying that to stress the racism, sexism, and heteronormativity lurking in the background of so much of conservative discourse would reduce his historical analysis to political point scoring. Even more significantly, he points out that regardless of sincerity, the conservative argument is “historically important because it represents an argument in a debate that mattered in its own right.”

As he clarified in the comments, Andrew did not intend to imply that Kittelstrom meant to advocate for “political heavy-handedness,” but could not find a way, himself, of avoiding such a result if he did not take his subjects at their word. And undoubtedly, he is entirely correct that even if we assume ulterior motives, the specific arguments that conservatives made still matter, independent of intention.

Yet this seems to imply an either/or dynamic that does not seem necessary. For while I agree that ultimately – as I will discuss further down – some ideological choices must be made, the options are not so starkly opposed as Andrew’s concern with point-scoring suggests. One can carefully unpack the perspectives of conservatives as they saw them – and note how those viewpoints had their own set of important consequences – and also historically situate them to provide an analysis that might very well differ from conservatives’ own understanding. To me, this would not look like “political heavy-handedness” but exactly the historical argument Andrew calls for, and the fact that it would also be an explicitly political analysis does not reduce it to an exercise in mudslinging. Indeed, my understanding of Kittelstrom’s argument is that it is the argument, in fact, that goes missing when one errs too much on the side of describing, rather than interpreting, the perspectives of your subjects.

However, another false duality seems to be in play when both Kittelstrom and Andrew appear to be working with the assumption that conservatives (or a particular one, perhaps) were either sincere or, on the other hand, knew quite well that they were full of it. But haven’t bigotry and sincerity always been quite compatible? Furthermore, whatever happened to the subconscious? Are historians really not supposed to incorporate into their analyses the idea that sometimes, human beings are not the best judges of their own motivations? For example, isn’t the claim that radical Islamic terrorism is rooted in Islam (rather than a history of imperialism and continued socio-economic disaster) defended by New Atheists with the lazy claim of “but that’s what the terrorists say!, and look at this passage here in the Qur’an!”[1]? If taking someone too much at their word can be a vice in this case, then why does it become a virtue when we turn to American conservatives?

Conscious intent, moreover, can often be a rather high bar for historians to meet – and in fact, some of the most brilliant contributions to our field depend very much on reading between the lines. Did Morgan, in American Slavery, American Freedom have letters between elites discussing how they were going to maintain their class position by inflaming racist resentment against Native Americans and subordinating all African Americans (and only them) to slavery in order to encourage poor yeomen to value racial solidarity over class solidarity? Did Boyer and Nissenbaum, in Salem Possesed, discover sermons where Salem ministers clearly articulated the association between witchcraft and commercial activity? And did Max Weber, in The Protestant Work Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism, find hundreds of diary entries of early modern Protestants joyfully confirming how their religious philosophy made them particularly adept at succeeding in the emerging market world? I could go on. So again, why, when it comes to understanding and explaining the culture wars, does centering your work on such an analysis necessarily result in a trivial polemic?

Despite all this, Andrew definitely touches on an important problem – developments that have their origins in one dynamic can become their own creatures. Since abortion has functioned as a key site of debate in the roundtable, I’ll also use it here: as far as I can tell, you would never have had the anti-abortion movement without women’s liberation. Had Roe v. Wade stood alone, rather than representing a victory for a movement aimed at emancipating women from traditional gender roles, I have trouble believing that the Religious Right would have discovered such a passion for “the rights of the unborn” as they somewhat suddenly did. Yet since then, generations of Christians have been raised in a culture that emphatically, from their earliest days, emphasized the sinfulness of abortion and highlighted the unsettling moral ambiguities it entails. (Of course, in their narrative, they do not qualify as ambiguous but, you catch my drift). So now, there are plenty of anti-abortion activists – many of them young women – who didn’t need to have a deep-seeded anxiety about the end of patriarchy to get panicked about sex without pregnancy. They have become, then, independent historical actors, and the ideas they fight for are absolutely important in their own right. This is why I am in no way advocating ignoring what conservatives say or arguing that it doesn’t matter because the real issue is this or that – on the contrary, it is imperative, especially for the sake of the future, to have a full mental map of the ideologies they have constructed.

But while I have argued that our choices are not polarized between naïve acceptance of conservatives’ narratives – which Andrew’s book, as he rightly pointed out, is absolutely not an example of – and ahistorical polemic, I do agree that it is probably impossible to maintain a completely balanced, 50/50 perspective. And that is all to the good. Meaningful scholarship compels us to answer questions, not merely describe events. So identifying and acknowledging each dynamic – origins and trajectory – still leaves us with the problem of which we privilege in our larger historical analysis. A strict structuralist, for example, is likely to consider the sincerity of anti-abortion activists to be totally irrelevant, while an analysis emphasizing agency would probably consider intention to be at least as important if not more.

Personally – surprise! – I lean towards emphasizing origins. There are many reasons for this, but the easiest to explain in the context of this post is that when I look further back than what can be considered recent history, it is usually the structural origins of ideas that seem, in retrospect, far more consequential. Take, for example, nineteenth-century slavery. No doubt many plantation masters and mistresses sincerely thought their slaves were better off being “cared for” in slavery than “neglected” in freedom – and yet no one considers this sincerity to overwhelm, historically or politically, the importance of the power inequality that gave rise to such justifications. For another example – if you think ideologies of slavery to be too provocative to be a compelling illustration – consider the European witch hunts of the early modern period. I’ve never seen any historian seriously suggest that the majority of people involved in oppressing and murdering thousands of women did not actually believe in witchcraft, and yet most historians (although their explanations differ) find such sincerity to be an insufficient explanation for why so many died during this time period rather than any other or why, on the other hand, such persecution eventually stopped.

So here’s my speculation. When analyzing the sufficiently distant past, where people notably different from ourselves expressed particular ideas, explanations that accept the unconscious and emphasize the importance of structure and power seem much more obvious and compelling. Part of this, of course, is simply hindsight. However, as we move closer to the present, it also becomes harder to embrace such arguments, for the simple reason that the people you are analyzing are still alive, thus putting you in the supremely awkward position of telling them that, in a sense, you know what is driving them better than they do. (Or, if they are very young, you know what was driving their teachers, mentors, and cultural influences.) And I admit, I have yet to figure how to do this without coming across to my interlocutor as an asshole, and I can’t blame them. Who wants to be told they do not understand the workings of their own mind? This becomes particularly difficult when your interlocutor pushes back, scolding you for being condescending and close-minded. How can you possibly respond to such accusations? And on top of all this, some of us feel the weight of the belief – mistaken, in my opinion – that conservative opponents will, on the whole, respond to our willingness to give them the benefit of the doubt by likewise abandoning the idea that it is liberals and leftists, really, that are deluded (intoxicated by selfishness and a “culture of death,” according to Shannon’s contribution to this roundtable) and know not what they do.

So at the end of the day, what are we left with: indeed, conservatives, liberals and leftists all see the world very differently – but I fail to see why this compels us to take someone or something “seriously,” precisely because I’m not sure what, from an analytical perspective, this could possibly mean. At its worst it seems like a refusal to call a spade a spade; and at its best, an inability or unwillingness to try to apply our historical skepticism to the present as we do to the past, due to how exceptionally difficult and uncomfortable that can be. Yet it seems to me that because history only matters because of the present – as Fredrick Jackson Turner once said, “the present is simply the developing past” – that it is imperative that we always strive to do so.

[1] Of course, they also say many other, explicitly political things, which are consistently ignored or explained away by the New Atheists, but my point here is that people say all kinds of things, and there is no reason to take them at their word without testing various claims against the predominant dynamics of the larger context.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for writing this. I’ve been a bit troubled on this topic of late as I’ve been reading Robin’s The Reactionary Mind. I’m troubled by the premise that one could reject the stated intentions of a group entirely and analyze a political ideological perspective based on the founders of the movement. Shouldn’t an implicit value in historical inquiry be to treat subjects as good faith actors unless data suggests that these actors aren’t acting in good faith? I don’t mean this to suggest that one not try to maintain some form of scholarly skepticism, but rejecting every argument or development a group provides other than its foundation as ingenious seems to be questionable at best. If we a historians can climb into the minds of our subjects, is it our place to assume them foolish or conspiritorially inclined?

    • Hi Ethan, thanks for this comment. I certainly don’t think one should reject every argument or development that comes out of a movement automatically — as I said in the post, these things can become creatures in their own right. But nonetheless it should be on the table as an option; and moreover, your comment here again seems to assume that if one argues in good faith, one cannot also, at the same time, be influenced by ideologies and impulses they do not consciously recognize. But if we follow that logic, then almost no one except overt white supremacists participate in racism in America today, right?, and we know that isn’t the case. People don’t think bad things about beliefs they have identified as either correct, morally righteous, or both. That also doesn’t mean they are not correct, or morally righteous; but this is where we have to do the hard work of shifting through this stuff.

      As for listening to leaders over members more broadly identifying with a certain movement, that is a good question; I would hazard to say, however, that as long as most groups still endorse and recognize someone as their leader, then drawing conclusions about what compels them based on his or her words seems legitimate to me. As it turns out, right now is an interesting time to be dealing with this question, since a lot of the conservative movement, due to prevailing notions of common decency, do not think of themselves as primarily concerned with preserving hierarchy. You’ve seen this obviously in the libertarian reaction to Corey Robin’s analysis of Hayek, for example. So, do libertarians not understand their own impulses? You can answer yes or no but, whether or not they really believe in say, supply-side economics doesn’t point necessarily in either direction.

      (Reposted at blog.)

      • Hi Robin Marie, thanks for the prompt response. I guess I’ve been looking at it from a slightly different, though similar perspective. Using the good faith conception as a way to accept the stated ideological and moral values as sincere, but also understanding policy and leadership decisions as potentially constrained. Be that by incomplete understandings and/or irrational lack of skepticism based in partisanship. I suppose that makes me somewhat of an optimist on people’s general sincerity.

  2. In the field I have been trained, literary studies, this is a question that goes back to the New Critics and their rejection of what they called the intentional fallacy, per Wimsatt and Beardsley’s classic essay of the same name. Here is an exemplary quote: “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.” The general idea is that we can never establish a full picture or map of the author’s desires, decisions and so forth in producing a text. The New Critics and, later, most structuralists and poststructuralists, choose to focus on the text’s aesthetic and ideological effects, instead of its possible connections to the author and their life. Of course, you have more or less at the same time critics that, engaging with psychoanalytic and Marxist theory, do reconstruct a sense of intent, but frame it as a knot of affects and ideas that are not necessarily harmonious, and are often in tension and contradiction. Now, at least in my perspective, this does not mean at all that we are analyzing the author’s psyche or unconscious; this would again end up reproducing the intentional fallacy. It means reading the text as a construction of psychical effects. And that’s why ultimately aesthetics–understood in its pre-modern and modern sense, as the sphere of senses and the sphere of discursive and artistic conventions–are central for grasping the meanings of documents, literary and non literary, within specific historical contexts and from a transhistorical perspective. At least that’s what many of us aspire to do, not sure if the actual intention is fulfilled!

    • “It means reading the text as a construction of psychical effects.”

      I like this; it makes me think of a related point in what we’ll call my ideological network that human beings generally overestimate their agency, particularly in modern cultures that overemphasize individualism (indeed, cling to it as one of their most important dogmas). We all say here and there that we are products of our environment, but actually incorporating this into our analysis — of the past and present, and ourselves! — seems to frighten a deeper faith in agency.

      • Exactly. Another problem is that many critics read the approach I have described as if it were utterly opposed to notions of agency. And this is a misreading. It is not an either/or question. Agency exists, as embodied will, embodied desire, embodied beliefs that intertwine in our fictions–very real fictions–of selfhood. Perhaps the greatest problem with fictions of sincerity and intentionality is that they bank on a very mechanical conception of the self and its construction of ideas. Our knowledge of how ideas are shaped, their processes, how they come to be etc. in connection to our bodies (forget the connection of our bodies with our envirionment and its deep history!). is still incredibly limited. That’s why I appreciate a healthy dose of skepticism when one speaks of such processes.

  3. I’m also coming at this from an American literary studies angle and one thing that has been bothering me, both in relation to Robin’s essay as well as a couple of others in this series, is that for a group of (mainly) historians the term “conservative” in particular seem to treated as a kind of concept removed from history. It happens in teaching that I see students struggling to locate authors like Edith Wharton or Ernest Hemingway along a contemporary liberal-conservative axis that did not, of course, exist 80-100 years ago. But even well into the post-WW2 era, one notices that the conservative president Richard Nixon called the EPA into being and was thinking about a national healthcare system on the European model; one sees that the left-wing drafters of the Port Huron Statement were very concerned about human values and the diminishing of personal autonomy in the Age of Prosperity; one observes that liberal administrations opened up and pursued the war in South-East Asia; or one looks at the Senate voting record and discovers that more Republicans than Democrats pushed through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Agreed, they can all be understood as products of a particular phase of social/cultural history in the U.S. But my question is a simpler one: if to be conservative today is to regard, with a mixture of contempt and dismay, environmental protection, government-managed healthcare, and the CRA and VRA, to claim “values” as a marker of Blue State electoral identity, and to regard war as a primary option in foreign policy, what then does the term “conservative” mean in any discussion where the temporal arc is longer than just Clinton to Obama? And to flip that framework, what, indeed, does it mean to be a “conservative” if there’s nothing from the last 80 years of American social development and transformation that the conservative wants to conserve? I guess you could say that they want to conserve the structure of society before any of these — in their view — hijackings of the American constitutional order happened, but the undeniable fact of the matter is that “conservatives” in the relatively recent past believed in things that they now despise. Which is why I find the term “conservative” quite a fragile signifier.

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