Nostalgia for the 1940s and 50s


For David Brooks, 1950s America remains a time of peace and civility and unity. Except it wasn't.

For David Brooks, 1940s America remains a time of peace and civility and unity. Except it wasn't.

I was making this point in class earlier today and I had missed David Brooks’ eulogy for the lost era of unity and common purpose and modesty in today’s New York Times, so it’s good to see a nice post on it. I’ve never understood how anyone can be so lacking in historical knowledge as to make any claims about the by-gone eras of the US. The only way you can make any claims about the greatness of the past is if you literally block out I’m-not-hearing-you style the history of oppression—still ongoing—in this country. (Of course, it was the bad old days of the 90% upper income tax rates, so I’m not sure how Brooks think that so-called unity came about with all that class warfare [for those who can't read snark, like the Randians writing me from yesterday, that's sarcasm].)


David Brooks on the decline of the West:

When you look from today back to 1945, you are looking into a different cultural epoch, across a sort of narcissism line. Humility, the sense that nobody is that different from anybody else, was a large part of the culture then.

Now Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing on the Atlantic Monthly site:

Part of this is Brooks critique of the past half-century, or rather half-critique. From Brooks’ perspective, the problem is that Sonia Sotomayor didn’t go to school in 50s or early 60s, not that her chosen school didn’t admit women in the 50s and 60s. …
That’s because the conditions are, themselves, built on American immodesty. I’m thinking of Jack Johnson winning the championship, and modest Americans launching pogroms against their fellow immodest Americans. I’m thinking about Birth of a Nation’s defense of treason, and a sitting president offering his immodest endorsement. I’m thinking about a country, circa 1850, whose politicians lorded over one of the last slave societies in the known world, and immodestly argued that it was a gift from God.

Even Brooks view of the “Greatest Generation” is myopic. In 1948 Strom Thurmond authored the segregationist Dixiecrat charter, while immodestly fathering a daughter with a black women. In 1946, Isaac Woodward, a veteran of World War II, was beaten and blinded–while in uniform–by South Carolina police. The police were prosecuted, but the jury acquitted them, and a court-room full of Americans broke out in immodest applause.

This is history through the veil, again. It’s virtually impossible to be a black person and believe that Americans were somehow more humble in the past. Our very existence springs from an act of immodesty. I can’t even begin to imagine the Native American read on this one.

Adam Kotsko, meet Mark Lilla

Is this man on your syllabus?

Is this man on your syllabus? (Psst. It's Bill Buckley, Jr. He loved McCarthy, Southern segregationists, and Nixon. He should be.)


Adam Kotsko has a nice rendering of a widespread logic employed in conservative thinking. It just so happened that I recently heard a rendition of this.

This was in my mind when I read another one of those contrarians in one of those contrarian moods, in this case Mark Lilla , about how the left has thought conservatism as a pathology, not as a tradition,  so I had my own more pathological response. FIrst, I love the observational powers of Mark Lilla, who begins with this bit about the wonders of America’s conservative movement—which is not to be confused with the fascists of Le Pen et al. in Europe:

Our conservatives accept the legitimacy of constitutional self-government, even when they hate the legislation and court decisions resulting from it; they play by the rules. The same cannot be said of the European right, which has always been suspicious of parliamentary politics.

I wonder just where Lilla has been living these past few months, if not the past several decades. Did he not witness the Bush years? And the conservative non-response to it? “They play by the rules”? 

I say this because at the least, if you’re going to argue that idiot members of the left are unfair and ignore the great ideas of the right, you should do so without suggesting that leftists like me can’t or won’t read. Perhaps Lilla himself can’t read, if one were to look just at his examples: Allan Bloom (agreed), Edmund Burke (great stuff there), Whitaker Chambers (really? really?, uh, ok), Irving Kristol (better than his son…a hack, but I can see for pointing out the history of conservative politics), Ayn Rand (well not at all like the others, really heading south quickly), and William Buckley, Jr. (the worst of the bunch–had a great prof who said his trick was just to speak really slow, which is about right).

I’m wondering if Lilla is not practicing a bit of leftist jujitsu here: convince others that these are the conservative tradition in order to carve it up. These are some of the worst writers of recent memory. My bet is that they wouldn’t have been published if not for the fact that they were conservative. Is Rand known for her subtlety with language? And Buckley is exactly one of the Le Pen nationalists that Lilla cites. Maybe I don’t read conservatives as well as he supposes he does, but I did read Buckley on the segregationist South, and all through his later career. And not one, but two of his spy “novels.” His son, Christopher Buckley, can be a great comic writer; the father is simply a joke.

As in this article by Lilla, which pretends that the left doesn’t know—like he does—about the “think tanks” in Washington that have so much influence, while we parse out so many supposed subdivisions of postcolonial feminist critical race theory. Or whatever. But I do know all of those groups (having learned it from some leftist or other), I have read a number of their policy papers, and I dare say anyone paying attention to Washington politics does know them. But at least do the conservatives a favor: read them. As in real decent ones, like everyone I know who takes political theory seriously has: not just Burke, but all those who fit loosely into a better tradition than the apparently ill-read Lilla can: Scruton, Eliot, Heidegger, Strauss, Tocqueville, Arendt, Schmitt, and on and on. I’m not saying these figures fit easily, but you can’t tell me Ayn Rand is a political thinker that we must read and then ignore the fact that her pedantic egoism isn’t covered in most ethics books I see. And then rightly ripped to shreds as self-defeating, with her novels as the worst tripe. No matter how many decided to go carve out their libertarian mountain hideaway (it’s a Rand thing, don’t ask) after last year. But as Lilla says, if only we’d read these figures, we’d be….well, he doesn’t say what would happen. (I realize that reading Lilla after the early 90s Derrida affair at the NYRB on “intellectual diversity” is a hilarious exercise.):

They read selections from Burke, Maistre, Hayek, Buckley, Ayn Rand, Irving Kristol, Allan Bloom, and many others, including Lyons’s personal favorite, Peter Viereck. (Now, answer honestly, dear reader of The Chronicle Review: How many of these authors have you yourself read?)

Well, honestly: all of them, but thanks for the presumption. (That list does seem to run out of steam quickly after Hayek, doesn’t it?) And Vierkeck has a couple of great essays on Buckley and Kristol (I’m sure you know this Mark Lilla, since you’ve read him) calling them “pseudo-conservatives” who have no intellectual heft, with the fear result by Viereck that they would come to stand for those truly fighting a battle of ideas, instead of defending McCarthy and others in the name of ideology. And if Lilla would read more on the left, he would note that Burke and Maistre and others he doesn’t mention are oft-cited in political theory. And I’ve taught Burke, Maistre, Bloom, Strauss, Heidegger, Arendt, and others he doesn’t cite, let alone all those who could be said to belong to a longer tradition going back to Plato.

I was going to say, does he think that we keep a censored list of writers? But then, yes, he does say that at the end. I guess that’s why I don’t teach Plato or Aristotle or Aquinas or anyone else who is not a postcolonial, postfeminist theorist. (Please don’t write me for including Arendt or whomever—I include them for the importance to other conservative writers.)

Ok, so what’s the upshot, Mark Lilla?

[David] Horowitz is an annoying man, and what’s most annoying about him is that … he has a point. Though we are no longer in the politically correct sauna of the 1980s and 1990s, and experiences vary from college to college, the picture he paints of the faculty and curriculum in American universities remains embarrassingly accurate, and it is foolish to deny what we all see before us.

It is obvious that Mark Lilla should not be running any curriculum. Horowitz is an annoying man because he has no point. Look at any youtube video of him getting questioned by students. He is a dolt. He is a self-important, egregiously unprincipled man who has students tape recording their professors (even yours truly) to publicize their “radical” agenda, only to find out (as in my case) that I’ve been teaching Homer. And Horowitz has never written anything that would be worthy to print. But Horowitz more that you, dear academic reader, knows better than you what should be taught in a university. David Horowitz. Because he knows what Mark Lilla knows:

Over the past decade, our universities have made serious efforts to increase racial and ethnic diversity on the campus (economic diversity worries them less, for some reason). Well-paid deans work exclusively on the problem. But universities show not the slightest interest in intellectual diversity among faculty members. That wouldn’t matter if teachers could be counted on to introduce students to their adversaries’ books and views, but we know how rarely that happens.

Yes, whenever you read that a dean or a professor is “well paid” (unlike Horowitz, who has grown wealthy for his efforts, and has been accused by some of milking the whole thing for speaker’s fees), you know that something really ground-breaking is about to follow: a description what “we know” (always love that rhetorical trick, the non-evidential “we know”) that “rarely happens.” So let’s try a field trip in the coming week to our local university bookshops. He’s right that we won’t see Buckley, Jr. but I don’t recall his magnum opus—does his hagiography of Nixon count? He’s right we won’t see Irving Kristol—I’ll just have to assign my students his work defending the sovereignty of South Africa during Apartheid (neat trick for a Jew living in Manhattan). And he’s right, you won’t probably find Chamber’s red baiting. Or Rand’s embarrassing work. (Actually, you will—I have a colleague that teaches it.) But you’ll find all the others he mentions and more than all that. Now, I’ll have to get over to Columbia the next time I’m in New York and see what Lilla’s been teaching: maybe some Rancière or Foucault or Levi-Strauss or Judith Butler for “intellectual diversity”? Maybe some good SR stuff?

Or does diversity only count if you’re defending racist Apartheid states?

From a review of Sandra Harding’s Feminisms, Postcolonialities, and Modernities

Drawing upon contemporary literature in the history and philosophy of science, Harding argues that the alleged ‘objectivity’ of the sciences has for too long disguised its parochialism and ‘Eurocentrism’ and allowed it to provide intellectual legitimacy to projects of Western cultural and intellectual imperialism. To this end, she focuses on the exclusion of ‘peoples at the peripheries of modernity’, namely women and the peoples of non-Western cultures, exposing the marginalization of their values and perceptions, and calls for ‘realistic reassessments of both Western and non-Western knowledge systems and the social worlds’ they are embedded within (pp.5-6). The result is an ambitious and persuasive call for philosophers of science to take seriously, and engage with, social justice projects and political policymaking. This need not entail an abandonment of traditional philosophical concerns with, say, the role of values in science or the foundations of scientific knowledge, since, as Harding emphasizes, these all pertain to the authority of the sciences: her ‘postcolonial’ focus simply takes these familiar topics of philosophy of sciences and extends them into the social and political sphere.

In other words, Harding is consistent in repeating some of her longest held claims. But here’s the issue and one that Harding is always scrupulous in avoiding. On the one hand, I think it’s unwise for scientists to make claims for being value-neutral and operate with a pretense that the bad-old days (eugenics, etc.) are over, even though they are not. And I am also aware how “science” itself is a word that should be killed off over time, given the way in which various people in the humanities beat up on “science”–as if it were a univocal assemblage. On the other hand, I also worry about the increased “scientism” of politics and thus don’t want scientists focusing on politics–we have seen where that goes.

Humans and other Animals

Renee at Womanist Musings and Feministe had a post up on the perhaps perverse effect of the animal rights’ movement on the politics of decolonization. Critical Animal, I think, replies a bit hastily but sets up the problem well. The reason I say hastily is because I think politics is always a question of strategy and at moments I think the rhetoric of a certain humanism is useful, as long as at the end we continue to recognize that we have to stop treating animals like animals, too:

So much of the struggles of the colonized and persons of color have come from a commitment to being human, too. 
There always exists a politics when a non-paradigmatic human being claims the title of human. This is as true for when the colonized claim to be humans, as when the Great Ape Projects argue for the personhood of Great Apes. However, in a fine Ranciere-ian fashion (a Ranciere devoid of his anthropocentrism, so therefore a Ranciere beyond Ranciere), while the claim to be human may be political, it does not remain political. For those of us on the critical animal studies side of the process, these political moments of demands for the right to claim humanness or personhood are also moments to continue the political. That is to say, to forward our argument that the human/animal distinction cannot stand. To say, “If you got this one wrong, maybe you very ordering system is wrong.” In this way we hope to not just change the count, but change the very logic of counting through this moment of tort. This is where I don’t know how to make common cause. For me, it is obvious that the wrong done to the non-paradigmatic human beings is based upon the ability to do wrong to animals. If we end the ability draw lines between the human on one side and all animals on the otherside, if we embrace the monstrosity of the human animal, then we end the ability to continue to do harm to people of color by calling them animals. That loses the power of justification. But it seems to me that for many people of color that such a move jeopardizes their lives instead of enriching their lives.

I realize I’ve just quoted a bit much of CA’s post. But here Derrida’s work in his lectures The Animal that Therefore I am is quite helpful. His critique of continuinism and so on don’t really advance much in this area, but his crucial point that in the history of philosophy just about every philosopher can be undone based upon where he (and it was a patriarchal he) put the human/animal distinction. Pedagogically, this is far more useful than, say, having to point out the metaphysics of presence or some such. But more to the point: it has the upshot of being right. And once this is destabilized, so does the dichotomy that soon follows in the modern period through to Hegel and beyond between the European and its dark other. Emmanuel Eze made a similar point in his last book on Enlightenment reason. So ultimately, I don’t think either hold, and in fact, pulling the thread on the first unspools the second rather quickly, since as we all too well know, the racialized other is invariably the animal other. All one needs to do is listen to the biopolitical rancor for a few minutes in any discussion of immigration in San Diego and beyond.

But Renee’s point is well taken, since we must recall how certain notions of human dignity are and continue to be crucial in decolonizing movements.