This is one in a series of posts examining The American Intellectual Tradition, 7th edition, a primary source anthology edited by David A. Hollinger and Charles Capper. You can find all posts in this series via this keyword/tag: Hollinger and Capper.
This post examines some of the texts in Volume II, Part Four: Reassessing Identities and Solidarities. Here are all the texts included in this section:
Wilfred Cantrell Smith, “Christianity’s Third Great Challenge” (1960)
Harold John Ockenga, “Resurgent Evangelical Leadership” (1960)
C. Wright Mills, “Letter to the New Left” (1960)
Jane Jacobs, selection from The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)
Rachel Carson, selection from Silent Spring (1962)
Thomas S. Kuhn, selection from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)
Betty Friedan, selection from The Feminine Mystique (1963)
Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation” (1964)
Herbert Marcuse, selection from One-Dimensional Man (1964)
Malcolm X, selection from The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)
Noam Chomsky, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” (1967)
Edward W. Said, selection from Orientalism (1978)
Nancy J. Chodorow, “Gender, Relation, and Difference in Psychoanalytic Perspective” (1979)
Richard Rodriguez, selection from Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982)
Chandra Talpade Mohanty, selection from “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” (1984)
Frederic Jameson, selection from “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” (1985)
Richard Rorty, “Science as Solidarity” (1986)
Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” (1989)
Judith Butler, selection from Gender Trouble (1990)
Thomas Pogge, “Priorities of Global Justice” (2001)
Barack Obama, “A More Perfect Union” (2008)
Philip Kitcher, “Militant Modern Atheism” (2011)
Well, here we are. We have reached the end of the American Intellectual Tradition– the two-volume, nine-section primary source reader, now in its seventh edition.
Whether or not we have reached the end of “the American intellectual tradition” is a different matter. Early on in this series, I suggested that we might construct or detect many traditions or arcs of thought running from America’s beginnings to our present moment. Hollinger and Capper found a through-line of sorts in the battle between religious faith and secular scientific thought, that latter tradition itself unshackled by the anti-authoritarian free-wheeling challenge of evangelicalism to upend traditional pieties and make room for new approaches.
The last section of the anthology, “Reassessing Identities and Solidarities,” runs from 1960 to 2011 – a span of time and a set of themes I might have suggested splitting differently before, but I think the long American century ended in 2016, so this makes sense now.
Still, the section divides itself rather neatly, if not satisfyingly, in two halves: the first eleven readings all date from the 1960s, suggesting a densely-packed and densely-argued decade of intellectual work. Most of the authors in the first half of this section were not primarily academics or were not addressing fellow academics.
Not so for the second half, where we see instantiated Russell Jacoby’s reading of the vanishing of the public intellectual, or at least his or her retreat into academe. Of the readings in that section, almost all come from writers or thinkers who are speaking from within academe. Barack Obama’s 2008 speech is most notable here as an example of a truly public intellectual in the older sense of the word.
But the years from 1970 to 2011, where this anthology ends, were surely no less densely-packed and densely-argued than the single decade that preceded them. Yet here the anthology mimetically reproduces the dissolution and centrifugal dislocation of the era that Daniel Rodgers has aptly named the Age of Fracture. We get two readings from the 1970s, five from the 1980s, one from 1990, and then three more readings stretching from 2001 to 2011.
Those five readings from the 1980s are a comfort to me, because they underscore the ’80s as a “heavy decade,” especially encouraging to someone who is watching at the plate for the ’80s high fastball, hoping to knock it out of the park.
But beware of the changeup pitch, the off-speed pitch. Beware of the silent 1970s. Nothing about this section bothers me so much as the long quietude from Noam Chomsky to Edward Said. Where are the 1970s? Where is 1970 itself, an annus mirabilisof radical feminism? Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics, Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, and the blockbuster best-selling anthology Sisterhood is Powerfulwere all published in 1970. For that matter, Gil Scott-Heron’s album Small Talk at 125thand Lenox, extraordinary from the first beat to the last, but noteworthy for this intellectual historian especially for “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Whitey on the Moon” — a title that could have stood nicely as a one-sentence review of Norman Mailer’s 1970 “non-fiction novel” ostensibly about the Apollo moon landing but really about Norman Mailer with the Apollo moon landing as the latest elaborate backdrop for his never-ending “Kvetch of Myself.”
What else would fit from the early 1970s? What about a teleplay, the script for an episode of All In the Family? In junior high school our literature reader included the teleplay (with shot descriptions and all) of the Twilight Zoneepisode, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” It was a memorable text, certainly, and in the late 1970s it was being used in school curricula to shape the thought of a generation of young Americans away from McCarthyism and prejudice and toward inclusion and the solidarity of citizenship.
Rather than suggest alternate texts for this section, with the requisite labor of deciding who can go (bye bye, Thomas Pogge!), here’s a question: what is going to be added?
As we move into the latter years of this present decade and beyond, what text from our own time will seem salient, representative, characteristic, or consequential enough to characterize this current era?
Who will represent the mind-set of this era? A “Gamer Gate” apologist? Some nauseating nostrum from David Brooks, the cardboard cutout stand-in for every Reasonable White Guy who feels persecuted if he cannot entirely dominate the conversation and the culture with his own words, thoughts, preferences and opinions? Some grotesquerie from the pen of the execrable Dinesh D’Souza?
How about Rebecca Solnit’s “Men Explain Things to Me”? Some of Jane Mayer’s deep reporting on dark money in American politics? An essay from Jill Lepore?
One of the many “MeToo” testimonials that are reshaping public discourse and professional norms, even as they serve as catalysts for a gathering backlash?
This is the age of a backlash that makes the 1980s look tame. We have Nazis marching our streets. We have Klansmen, holocaust deniers, and avowed white nationalists running for congress.
It can happen here. It has happened here.
America never was America, but if America is going to be America again, in the mighty prayer-poem of Langston Hughes, we have a long and painful road ahead.
If I had to pick one text that stands out as the marker of our moment, I guess it would be Donald Trump’s “Escalator Speech,” where he announced his candidacy for the presidency. It was all there in germ – the racism, the nativism, the protectionism, the demagoguery. It is the raging roar of our era, and he Is its monstrous mouthpiece.
Imagine it: the American Intellectual Tradition must make room for the single stupidest, most fatuous “thinker” ever to darken the door of the White House, perhaps even the whole American scene. The ideas articulated by Donald Trump are shaping (or revealing?) the politics and public policy and moral milieu of our era. They are representative, at the very least, and what they represent is nothing very good but something very real.
The next edition of AITis going to have to include something that came out of Donald Trump’s mouth – proof enough, if proof were needed, that intellectual history is not about intellectuals or important thinkers, but solely about important ideas.
Tags: Hollinger and Capper