U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Writing Through Rage

Halfway through graduate school, I changed my emphasis from early American to twentieth century American history. I made this switch primarily because my research at the time failed to resonate sufficiently with my growing investment in contemporary politics, as I was knee deep in the waters that would eventually carry me to the left.

When consulting with my (new) adviser on what subject to pursue, they asked whether I would be interested in researching the New Right. I replied that while I definitely would be, I did not think it a good idea to make my primary sources – the stuff I would have to read day in, day out – material that would fill me with anger and despair. So instead I chose to study liberalism.

Well!, as any frequent reader of this blog likely knows, that did not go as planned. Little did I know that my exploration of postwar liberalism would lead me away from identifying as “very liberal” on Facebook to “radicalish” and then finally plain old “socialist.” Before too long, I found myself in the position of working on a project that requires me to read things that make my eyes bleed.

Case in point: this week I had the displeasure of reading Chapter 8 of Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President, 1964. The chapter is titled “Riot in the Street: The Politics of Chaos,” so you might be able to imagine where this is going. But it’s even worse than you probably think. In the course of this chapter, the liberal White (best known for his books about China and his participation in the construction of the Kennedy “Camelot” myth) depicts urban blacks as sinister forces of nature and primitive animals – “savages” that lack any adherence to what he calls “Western civilization.” This is the kind of stuff that needs no further commentary, so I’ll just bless you with a few of the most cringe-inducing passages:

“Those who come from the zoological tenements, deprived by birth of mercy and kindness, offer no mercy or kindness to others either; and a civilization that has lost its capacity for mercy is no civilization at all, a dictum as true for central Harlem as for the Klan-controlled villages of Alabama or Mississippi.”[1]

“Let there be no mistake about it: these junior savages are a menace most of all to decent Negro families, penned by white prejudice into the same ghettos with the savages; it is the good Negro child who is first beaten up by the savage, the decent black family which suffers from the depredations of the wild ones. But they are a menace to everyone else too. And it is they who made the riots of 1964 – planlessly, aimlessly, without purpose.”[2]

“They [civil rights leaders] propose that government press itself into every area of decision, that it penetrate, dominate and purge the most private areas of American life until discrimination in every form is abolished.”[3]

I’ve seen some pretty overt rape imagery in my day, but I have to say, that is impressive. But there is plenty more offensive rhetoric throughout the chapter; he barely gives you a chance to breath between outrages.

Most of the texts I read for my research are not, fortunately, quite as bad as this. But enough of them are to make the initial plumbing of sources an often stressful and upsetting endeavor. Fortunately for my time management, my response to this is usually to get through the worst ones as quickly as possible, moving on to the less passive and therefore more encouraging process of analyzing and incorporating the evidence into my work. But still, there are days where deep breaths are required to keep going, and speaking back to my subjects through angry asides in my notes helps vent my frustration. Usually that’s enough to get back to my freakish default of good cheer once the work is done. Sometimes, however, it is not, and the usual joy of my day disappears for at least a few hours after the articles and books are tucked away.

I know I’m not supposed to be this way. Alas, if anyone has ever failed more miserably at mimicking the model of the detached, coolly analytical scholar, it’s me. I wonder why, for instance, the same stuff makes me just as upset even though I’ve read its like over and over again, and am fundamentally unsurprised at what I find. Some people might suggest that there is a time and a place for going deep about the significance (or lack thereof) of the work you do, and that such reflection can’t possibly occur every time you come across another horribly bigoted sentiment or dehumanizing depiction. I could only reply that I agree and wish I could so segregate my process – but these things hit me before I have any time to manage my response. A passage here feels like watching someone getting punched in the gut, another there a kick in the head once they’re down. You want to jump in and assault their assailant, but no one is there. Just dry words on the page, confident in their objectivity and smirking at your powerlessness.

It’s this last aspect that usually turns my rage into despair. The racism and sexism of postwar liberals makes me so angry because I know what it leads to: the incalculable harm to human lives and life itself such ideas fueled and continue to justify. That too little has changed since then mocks my efforts, draining my energy and leading me to conclude that now would be a very good time for that afternoon nap.

And yet, I love what I do. The thought of quitting never seriously passes my mind. I wouldn’t blame myself, or anyone else, if it did, but even the presence of a temptation is lacking. I already know what I know, and the only thing more likely to deprive me of hope than feeling as if I am fruitlessly fighting the repetition of lies is to stop doing my best to expose them. And while I am aware at how unprofessional my bouts of rage may appear to some, I also know they are behind why I’ve chosen this life, and even why I might be pretty decent at what I do – as Kenneth Clark once wrote, “Feeling may twist judgment, but the lack of feeling may twist it even more.”[4]

[1] Theodore H. White, The Making of the President 1964 (New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1965), 229.

[2] White, The Making of the President 1964, 230-231.

[3] White, The Making of the President 1964, 237, emphasis in the original.

[4] Kenneth Clark, Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power (New York, Evanston and London: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1965), 80.


8 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Thanks for your post Robin. I recently encountered similar problems when looking at the cavalier nature with which scientists and military theorists discussed atomic and thermonuclear research, and then how they bamboozled the American public with bad information.

    I had another large stumble when I found out that one of my subjects of inquiry had multiple affairs.

    It’s helpful that I can point others towards the fact that its not just me who struggles with getting bound up when working in history. Keep on reading, keep on writing, keep on fighting.

  2. History is often NSFW.
    I took the opposite path. Modern U.S. history made me unhinged so I gravitated toward the early republic where I encountered horribly bigoted sentiments or dehumanizing depictions of African-Americans in my readings of primary source material. (But enough about Thomas Jefferson.) Seriously though, it is important to transcend the experience of our own lives and the study of history is an excellent method.

    But one of my professors in graduate school always implored us not to impose our standards of morality back upon the subjects which we study. Easier said than done. What I find fascinating is how historians involuntarily color their analysis. It is easy for the modern mind to condemn lynchings in the 1890s, or waterboarding in the Phillipines, or the 18th century Jamaican slave owner Thomas Thistlewood whose journals are an explicit daily recording of his sexual “encounters” with numerous enslaved women. It is easy for us to condemn the ethics of the Tuskegee syphilis study and the ethics of J. Morgan Sims, but does the profession treat the icons of American history with the same standards? How do historians examine the near past? Does the profession treat George W. Bush and Barack Obama by the same standards, especially when there is substantial continuity in their policies? Do we as a profession excuse the sexual predilections of recent politicians based about our politics and theirs?

    • Thanks for these good questions Brian. As to the very common warning to “not to impose our standards of morality back upon the subjects which we study,” I’ve always been a bit puzzled by what exactly that means. On the one hand, it makes a lot of sense because we won’t understand the actions of people in the past if we judge their actions according to the context of today; i.e., holding slaves today would be a lot more shocking and require a lot more conscious awfulness, since it is widely condemned, than in the 18th century. So insofar as a society been generally unjust in this regard or another, this historical understanding is necessary to make sense of individual behavior.

      But on the other hand, does anyone seriously think that what Thomas Jefferson did was any less wrong because you know, everyone did it? (Or a lot of people; we sometimes forget that there are almost always voices, as few in number they might be, that know the shit is fucked up even during the time period.) I really don’t think anyone takes that level of moral relativity seriously. It might mean that Jefferson was not himself as bad a guy as such behavior in the 20th century would suggest him to be, but, my concern as a historian is less with “who he was,” than what he did. I realize this is not the concern of all historians. But what can I say, it’s mine.

      I totally agree, also, that we give more current figures a pass; sometimes because we identify with them, but most of all because there isn’t enough of a consensus yet to say, “behavior x y, and z is NOT OKAY.” And that, of course, just reminds us of what we already know: historians are a product of their own history, their own context as well.

      My approach to dealing with these problems is just to always be 100% aware of my feelings, purposes, biases, etc. I think it’s when scholars think they are being cool and objective that they are most at risk of letting their preferences slip in without them noticing, to the point where it might seriously distort their analysis. Lucky for me, I have little to nothing worthy of calling a subconscious, and am acutely aware of all those feels, whether or not I want to be :).

  3. Robin: thanks so much for this excellent essay. It resonates with me in so many places. This passage is spot on: “It’s this last aspect that usually turns my rage into despair. The racism and sexism of postwar liberals makes me so angry because I know what it leads to: the incalculable harm to human lives and life itself such ideas fueled and continue to justify.” This is the dreadful truth that we are continually called upon to think and write about in a spirit of moral seriousness.

  4. Hi Robin: Thank you for another really really good one. I’m not sure if it’s helpful or not, but I’ve been reading Nietzsche’s “On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life” with my students in a seminar on historical thinking and writing. (My translators chose “Utilities and Liabilities.”) Anyway, Nietzsche deals with this issue of cool detachment a whole lot in the essay, but one of his moves seems almost counter-intuitive, so I thought you might think it was interesting.

    The essay is a ruthless criticism of scientism and scientific history as it was coming into being in Germany at the time. This meant that Nietzsche was able to diagnose some of the problems you’ve raised, since he was in the middle of an academy swept up by ardor for more formally “objective” history and the like.

    Anyhow, he argues that “objectivity” is actually a form of what some historians today call “presentism.” In other words, to refuse to judge or make judgments (detachment) actually indulges the scientific temperament of our age, and worse, assumes that we somehow always know better than those in the past did. This language of scientism and objectivity suggests that the aim of inquiry is to eliminate error. That on its own assumes some process according which unknowns get under control and even predictive capacities grow greater than before; probabilities tighten as the picture grows more complete. In that sense a specific event , ideally at least, becomes better understood because our knowledge about it has eliminated features of it that were formerly subject to doubt or speculation.

    There are some problems. The closer we get to the present, the historical industry proliferates (more and more books) and in some cases sources are so numerous that all of the nuances or “variables” can’t easily be accounted for in many instances. (Nietzsche thinks we suffer from an excess of history rather than a lack of it.) Another is that interpretations can grow static because we get into another problem Nietzsche points out, which is that we grow so knowledgeable that nothing under the sun appears to be new anymore. This stymies action.

    A good way around that is to stick one’s neck out and make a moral judgment. That judgment has to be rigorous to be serious of course (I’m not saying that we don’t do our due diligence or just be plain sloppy). Nietzsche thinks that, in this way, truth isn’t the same thing as objectivity. Truth involves the courage to stand in judgment, to say, in effect, I know that this is true, and I’m willing to bet on it. He thinks it’s among the best things humans can do because we can’t possibly be in possession of enough knowledge to eliminate the possibility of error. (That bit resembles the William James of the Will to Believe.)

    Anyway, that’s Nietzsche’s perspective at least in a tendentious, thumbnail kind of sketch. I’m still thinking my way through these ideas, but I wanted to share them with you. Sorry to write so much, but your essay here really clicked with what my students and I have been talking about over the past week. I’m going to have them read your piece.

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