This is Geoffrey Kabaservice’s response to Andy Seal’s post on Monday, “What Do Historians of Conservatism Owe to Conservatives?“
I have been a regular reader of the S-USIH blog for years, so I was first surprised, then amused, to find a recent post denouncing me and my recent essay in Politico on the wave of scholarship on conservatism that has been produced over the past two decades. Andy Seal’s curious piece manages to be simultaneously as musty as my memories of being a graduate student in the ‘90s and as up-to-the-moment as the latest “So you’re saying” meme.
To say that Seal absurdly mischaracterizes my views is an understatement. Anyone who wants to know more about my actual thoughts on the New Wave of Conservative Scholarship might want to read my Twitter exchanges with Prof. Thomas Sugrue of New York University here and with Jeet Heer of The New Republic here.
The takeoff point for Seal’s essay was my mention in the Politico article of Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind, as one “who, full disclosure, helped make my Ph.D. years miserable by leading a grad student unionization effort at my university.” The historians whose works I mentioned (and I do count Robin as a very able historian of conservative thought even though he comes from a political science background) were representative, it seemed to me, of the tendencies of liberals writing about conservatism. I didn’t choose them because I thought their works were the worst in the genre; far from it, I was open about my high esteem for studies like Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors. Rather, these were some of the most admired and influential scholars in the field. Criticizing them would be punching up, not down. But the only one I knew personally, even slightly, was Robin. And since we were contemporaries at Yale and very much on opposite sides of that long-ago grad student unionization debate, it seemed only fair to make that known.
I opposed the unionization effort of the would-be Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO) for two basic reasons. First, their maximalist demands for institutional power (as I saw it) seemed doomed to fail — an opinion I’ve had no cause to revise in the twenty-plus years since. And second, most of the GESO leaders struck me as humorless zealots, mainly of the hard-left variety, and I had no desire to spend time in their company.
Seal fantasizes about a scene in which, perhaps, Corey Robin tried to recruit me personally to GESO and, meeting resistance, pressed relentlessly on, refusing to take no for an answer, until at last I exploded or resentfully succumbed to his demands. If that now evokes a twinge of #MeToo it probably should, as does Seal’s delicate allusion to “what many (even sympathetic) grad students have considered an aggressive organizing culture.”
Actually, though, I never exchanged more than a sentence or two with Robin. Such contact as we had was limited to my being in the audience when he spoke on a few occasions.
I was taking some courses in Russian history in those years, and the dynamics around GESO neatly reproduced those of the Provisional Government era before the Communist takeover. This was a useful experience for a historian, much as scholars in the late 1960s gained insight into what it might have been like to have been around during the French Revolution or le temps des cerises. In the Yale Graduate School context of the ‘90s, I was a Tsarist. I made my center-right views known in the campus newspaper and expressed my lack of sympathy for GESO’s leaders, who naturally in this analogy were the Bolsheviks. The commissars pretty much left me alone, aside from a few sneering, sidelong remarks. Most of my friends, however, were Mensheviks. They were well-intentioned liberals who attended all the meetings and rallies in support of the cause, but differed with the leaders on a few minor doctrinal and strategic points. Naturally, to the Bolsheviks, this meant that they had to be ruthlessly crushed.
Crushed they were. The misery of those years came principally from watching my friends go through ostracism, retaliation, and all the other sufferings that true believers reserve for apostates.
As a political historian, though, I learned a lot from watching GESO. Their attempts to gain power through manipulation of organizational processes made me better prepared to understand the far-right activists of the early 1960s, who took over organizations like the Young Republicans using techniques borrowed directly from the Communist playbook. And the GESO leaders’ failure to achieve their goals, largely because of their inability to compromise or refrain from alienating would-be allies, is echoed in the behavior of the House Freedom Caucus today.
Seal suggests that the GESO strike leaders came close “to being all-too-literally purged from academia.” No doubt they made themselves obnoxious to the university administration and some faculty. To just about everyone else, however, it appeared that being a member of the GESO leadership cadre (and contributing to their subsequent self-mythologizing) was a résumé builder more valuable than any number of journal articles. The post-graduation flourishing of many GESO leadership alumni within the historical profession stands in sharp contrast to the fate of the conservative graduate students I knew, most of whom left the field or, like myself, became independent scholars.
Is there any definitive way to prove that conservatives encounter discrimination based on their opinions or choice of subjects or subfields? Nope. Does anyone seriously doubt that there’s a real lack of intellectual diversity in departments across the humanities and that it has become worse over the past two decades? Also nope.
The thrust of my Politico article was that we would have a better collective understanding of the history of conservatism, and its implications for the present, if some of the university-based scholars engaged in this study were conservatives. The outraged reaction this rather modest suggestion has provoked is exactly the sort of affronted bellowing you would expect from a closed, rigid, and deeply self-satisfied establishment.
One thing I have learned from this episode is that there actually are some conservatives in academic history departments, but few admit their political preferences openly. I’ve received a lot of private messages along the lines of: Thank you for writing what you did, you articulated what I feel but can’t express publicly, it would mean professional death for me to reveal my conservative opinions. These academic conservatives are rather in the position of sub-rosa political dissidents and closeted homosexuals in the State Department during the McCarthy era. A liberal like Seal no doubt would reject the metaphor and protest that he is not part of an oppressive, McCarthyite establishment. But, in the unintentionally apt words of his essay, “If there is anything that reading history teaches us, it is that power denies its potency, deceives itself far more than it deceives its subordinates.”