U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Grad Student Unions and Conservatives in Academia: Geoffrey Kabaservice Responds

Editor's Note

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.”

7 Thoughts on this Post

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.

  1. This piece is really not helping your case. Perhaps some of our commenters will continue to play devil’s advocate on behalf of an idea that you could have championed but actually didn’t, but I think what you’ve done here is underscore and double down on the bad-faith approach that Andrew discerned in your original article — though he was more circumspect and less absolute in his characterization of it than I am.

    Thomas Haskell urged us not to be “polemical writers of tracts for the times” — but look at the language you are using here to characterize the carefully-written and just-as-carefully discussed/elaborated post that Andy has written:

    you say it was a post “denouncing” you — since when is disagreement denunciation?

    you say Andy “absurdly” mischaracterizes your views, and then refer us to a Twitter thread — Andy characterized your argument in an essay. If your twitter thread contains something the essay readers needed to know, you should have included it.

    you say Andy “fantasizes” about your feelings re: unionization. This is an unbecoming characterization of a writer who has drawn a conjecture based on your own whingeing aside in your unfortunate piece.

    Not until you are three-quarters of the way through this ill-tempered and ill-considered response do you shift gears into a more rational mode of discussion, when you write — at last — “Seal suggests,” which is really all he has done about you in particular, because you’re not really as important to his post as you imagine. It’s your argument, not you, that he’s focused on.

    And then you offer our readers a summary of your argument that really doesn’t track with the original article at all. You are trying to rebrand an acerbic polemic about how “liberals” write the history of conservatism into an apologia for more historians with conservative backgrounds. That’s a bait-and-switch from the thrust and emphasis of the original piece.

    Our commenters have gone out of the way to read you as charitably as possible, ascribing to you the potential for all kinds of lofty (and essential) ideas about the obligation of historians to enter sympathetically into the worldview of another.

    The ideas are fine ones, and ones that most of us regulars here tend to live by and write by, especially in this space, where we don’t accuse our good-faith interlocutors of fantasizing or engaging in absurdities. You demonstrably embrace a different ethos when it comes to engaging with a careful criticism.

    You would have been better served to let other people read you as charitably as possible and construe the best possible takeaway from your essay. You are not your own best advocate.

    Andy gave your polemical essay much more consideration than it deserved on the merits, and he deserved a much more thoughtful response than this.

  2. Perhaps the readers and writers on this blog would mutually benefit from a reduction of the verbose, lengthy, multi-faceted and easily-rebutted points that are yet so numerous that their rebuttal requires an even lengthier, more verbose mess of half-truths and refutations the intellectual equivalent of which is bandying accusations of poor grammar on Twitter. Even a call, such as this comment, to doff the pompous regalia that leads one to so arrogantly claim the ability to discern not only intention but to deny all possibility of an erroneous prescription while simultaneously constructing a version of the other’s argument so lacking in fiber that it can hardly be mounted in a corn field, much less be considered made of straw, should be completely unnecessary under the presumption that the interested parties are professionals in their field only interested in furthering the truth, at least to the extent that it is their unverifiable version thereof. As this appears to be the end of a multi-blogpost chain demonstrating the deplorable qualities expressed above, I find it fitting to put this comment here rather than earlier-on in the chain.

  3. How fascinating that your critique utterly fails to engage with any of the arguments I made in my piece — and this on a blog dealing with intellectual history!
    It’s tempting to meet your ad hominem invective with more of my own. Trust me, I can do that better than you can. But I’ll follow the example of the Soviet bloc dissidents, who conducted themselves as if they lived in a free society, and respond as if I were dealing with someone who cared about intellectual debate.
    Andy Seal’s piece began with an assertion that I told the world to “Stop listening to liberals” who write about the history of conservatism — something I absolutely did not do. He ascribed to me a lot of other things that I didn’t say and don’t believe, and went on to speculate about things that might have happened to me (but didn’t) based on nothing more than his own imagination. His piece invited a hard response, and I gave one. It speaks well of him that he posted my response without emendation, other than to correct the error I had made when I misremembered what the acronym “GESO” stood for — proof, if more were needed, that we all make mistakes and memory is fallible.
    There are more rewarding things to do than correct someone’s misinterpretations of your statements, knowing that the likely result will be further misinterpretation of your refutation of the initial misinterpretations. Life is too short. But the most interesting and original element of the Seal piece was his focus on GESO as the sort of Rosebud explanation for my critique of liberal historians, so that was what I chose to address. I still placed my critique within the overall argument, which I’ve made elsewhere, that universities would better fulfill their missions if their faculties had more viewpoint diversity… and liberal academic historians of conservatism would produce better work if they had conservative colleagues, whose direct experience of conservatism could be a useful corrective to liberals’ tendencies to emphasize the wrong things out of lack of familiarity with the movement and the Republican Party which it operated in, alongside, and against.
    If one wanted to address my piece as an intellectual might, here off the top of my head are several more interesting criticisms one might make (with some of my counter-arguments in brackets):
    1. What Seal calls Kabaservice’s “aversion to politicization,” both in the academy and in historical writing, is obsolete. Universities need to explicitly put themselves on the side of liberalism, not offer platforms to the enemy, and historians should follow the openly, honestly partisan and ideological model of Nancy MacLean. [What’s the old saying about being careful of what you wish for?]
    2. Conservatives, as anti-intellectuals, are incapable of writing first-rate intellectual history, even where their own movement is concerned. [See the Washington Post’s description of David Gelernter as an “anti-intellectual professor”]
    3. The absence of conservatives from the academy is not a problem that need concern anyone, since aside from a few anecdotal examples like Kabaservice’s it’s the result of conservatives choosing not to become academics. [Of course, liberals have a problem with arguments about self-selection bias in other contexts…]
    4. Universities now stand in the same relation to the Democratic Party that factories stood to the party in the New Deal era, so every conservative who’s allowed into their precincts is a blow against the achievement of a decent social-democratic society. [Trump happened largely because neither party cares about the working class]
    5. TA salaries and grad student stipends went up at Yale after the GESO strike; Kabaservice was a parasitical free rider on the collective efforts of the people he criticizes. [It would be interesting to know what role was played by the same economic boosts at Yale’s competitors and the skyrocketing endowment under David Swensen]
    6. Kabaservice, as a conservative, grossly overestimates the likelihood of success if GESO had taken a less anti-institutional, more compromise-minded approach; power is not given willingly to the people, it has to be seized. [Though this is not the way that American democracy has worked, to this point anyway]
    7. Of course Mensheviks need to be smashed; nothing can be achieved if the party is not purged of infantile leftists and right-wing deviationists. [The drive for purity is why ideological movements tend to fail]
    8. Kabaservice is trying to trying to be Dinesh D’Souza but for smart people. [No one would be silly enough to make that argument!]

  4. One thing that seems to be getting lost in all this is that Andy Seal, if I recall correctly, endorsed the goal of more political diversity in the professiorate, which is what G. Kabaservice is, or at least claims to be, mainly concerned about here.

    Btw, I’m not on Twitter but I was able to read Kabaservice’s Twitter thread with Sugrue that Kabaservice linked. At one point in that thread Kabaservice refers to the “intellectual monoculture” having led to the disappearance of military and diplomatic history. That’s an overstatement, at least w.r.t. diplomatic history.

    Kabaservice on Twitter linked in this connection to an unimpressive (as I recall, I read it a while back) NYT op-ed co-authored by Frederik Logevall. It may be relevant to note that Logevall, a noted historian of foreign relations (esp. the Vietnam War) is, his laments about the purported disappearance of political and diplomatic history notwithstanding, not exactly in the academic wilderness. Last I checked, Logevall is a professor at Harvard (to which he moved from Cornell, iirc). It’s probably true that traditional diplomatic history from the dispatches, as in for instance Taylor’s monumental (and not infrequently crushingly boring) The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, is not the hottest ticket to a TT job these days. But diplomatic history in the broad sense is definitely alive.

    • Louis, thanks for that insight. I work in a wonderful department in the A&M system with a tenured military historian. A few counties over, the University of North Texas has a very reputable graduate program with a focus on military history. There are also chairs and tenure lines in military history at major flagship universities and land-grant universities. The field has not disappeared, nor has the history of U.S. foreign relations.

      You may be amused to know that the habit of anchoring higher ed declension narratives on nothing more substantive than, say, a course catalog title or the title of a conference paper goes back at least as far as Richard Hofstadter.

      • Thanks, L.D.

        Without taking the time to re-read the Logevall op-ed (which as I mentioned I read a while ago), I suspect it’s probably the case that there has been *some* decline in political, diplomatic, and military history in terms of open positions and hiring at any rate, in relation to other subfields that perhaps have been somewhat more fashionable among many academic historians in recent years. But that doesn’t equal disappearance, of course, as both of us remarked. It might be interesting to know, as a side point, whether universities in certain parts of the country, such as Texas for example, are more committed than some of those elsewhere to keeping a presence for military history specifically.

        The last point I’d make is that “global history,” very fashionable of late (or such is my impression), would seem to require its practitioners to be conversant with many areas: economic, social, cultural/intellectual, diplomatic, military, etc. So, while I frankly know nothing about the history job market (except that it’s quite saturated, like all the humanities) and am speculating, my suspicion is that people who cross disciplinary subfield boundaries and specializations might be well positioned in it.

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S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.