Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A 24-Hour Party Person

My Right Wing Acquaintance Number 1 has been having trouble finding good news, I think. He liked the guy who resigned from Goldman Sachs with an op-ed in the New York Times, for example: "extraordinary admission from one who knows about a predatory outfit that should never have gotten off Scot free- and sent high officials to Obama's administration", he added to his link. Well, sure, it's fair to criticize Obama for his coziness with Wall Street, but RWA1 again shows convenient and partisan amnesia. Who was Dubya's Secretary of the Treasury, for example? A former Goldman Sachs CEO. Even allowing for the fact that he wasn't on Facebook during the Bush administration, RWA1 (like so many Republicans) seems to have dumped the years 2001 through January 2009 down the memory hole. A well-controlled memory is a necessity for party loyalists.

Today he linked to a Weekly Standard article by David Brooks about C-SPAN and Brian Lamb, the host of Booknotes, which RWA1 praised highly. I think he'd find that a lot of liberals and leftists would agree about that -- I see a lot of links to C-SPAN and to Booknotes on libby proggy sites too. The Standard is another one of those right-wing fringe publications that RWA1 likes because of their intellectual pretensions, which go well with his own.

Brooks begins the article by quoting this exchange from a 1991 program that featured the author of a biography of Winston Churchill:

GILBERT: When Churchill was 20 and a young soldier, he was accused of buggery, and, you know, that's, you know, a terrible accusation. Well, he ended up prime minister for just quite a long time.

LAMB: Why was he accused of buggery and what is it?

GILBERT: You don't know what buggery is?

LAMB: Define it, please.

GILBERT: Oh dear. Well, I -- I'm sorry. I thought the word we -- buggery is what used to be called a -- the -- an unnatural act of the Oscar Wilde type is how it was actually phrased in the euphemism of the British papers. It's -- you don't know what buggery is?

I hope that Lamb asked for a definition of buggery as a service to his listeners, rather than because he really didn't know what it is. But then, I'm not sure that Brooks knows what it is.

Brooks praises Lamb, and C-SPAN, for focusing on "facts" instead of being all postmodernist. (I think it's a safe bet that Brooks doesn't know what "postmodernism" is either.)

In Edmund Morris's notorious biography Dutch, the facts of what Ronald Reagan did and knew are upstaged by the drama of the author's own quest to "understand" and "capture" his subject. And that is just the tip of the postmodern iceberg. Despite the efforts of E. D. Hirsch and other cheerleaders for fact-based "cultural literacy," school curricula no longer focus on the simple whats, wheres, and whens of history. University historians are even less interested in that stuff -- obsessed as they are with social forces and group consciousness. Even in a publicly funded showcase institution like the Smithsonian Museum of American History, the displays are concerned less with illuminating historical events or history-making individuals than with lionizing aggrieved groups.

Oh, dear. Facts clearly don't matter much to Brooks; does that make him postmodern too? Academic historians have always been interested in "social forces and group consciousness"; there's nothing postmodern about that. The historians Brooks mentions favorably seem generally to be academics, but he leaves out that fact when he gushes over them, like Clara Rising, who "had come to the conclusion that Taylor was poisoned with arsenic. His body was dug up and his fingernails and bones examined, but no sign of arsenic poisoning was found." I guess some conspiracy theories are permissible, if you're David Brooks.

It's no accident that on a recent C-SPAN program both Jefferson biographer Joseph Ellis and Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald confessed they were frustrated novelists. Ellis went on to note that none of the reviewers of his Jefferson biography, American Sphinx, noted the literary device of which he was most proud. He wanted to convey a certain image of his subject, so in every chapter Jefferson is described entering the scene on horseback.

By contrast, turn to the Web site of the American Historical Review (indiana.edu/ahr) and look at the list of articles the prestigious academic review is publishing or about to publish: "Feminism, Social Science and the Meaning of Modernity"; "The Sensibility of Comfort"; "Culture, Power and Place: The New Landscape of East Asian Regionalism"; "Domesticity and Difference: Male Breadwinners, Working Women and Colonial Citizenship in the 1945 Nigerian General Strike." The list goes on, a stifling progression of abstruse tedium. A few of the topics might sound interesting -- "The Sensibility of Comfort" strikes my fancy -- until you remember that most academic historians face professional pressures to write as turgidly as possible, and to excise or exile to the footnotes any of the interesting anecdotes they would use as dinner table conversation. The contrast between the C-SPAN historians and the academic establishment historians is breathtaking.

This is like complaining that if you read a musicological journal, it will be full of arcane theoretical discussion of counterpoint instead of pretty tunes. Writing a biography is a very different kind of project than writing a paper for a journal. Brooks is evidently aware that academic historians write for other historians rather than for the general public in those journals, which aren't meant to contain "dinner table conversation." Since many of "the C-SPAN historians" are "academic establishment historians," Brooks's observation is just plain stupid. He's also in no position to make fun of anyone's else's prose style, though his is gaseous punditry instead of "abstruse tedium." But he's not done yet.

And it's important to remember that the academics took this turn intentionally. The great postmodern hero Michel Foucault mocked what you might call the ethos of the C-SPAN historian: "To all those who still wish to talk about man, about his reign or his liberation, to all those who still ask themselves questions about what man is in his essence, to all those who wish to take him as their starting-point in their attempts to reach the truth . . . to all these warped and twisted forms of reflection we can only answer with a philosophical laugh -- which means, to a certain extent, a silent one."

Not silent enough.

I feel pretty sure that David Brooks (and probably RWA1) has never read Foucault. If he had, he would know that Foucault did a great deal of archival research. He didn't simply spin theories about "social forces and group consciousness." The first volume of the History of Sexuality is also quite chatty, recounting anecdotes that might not be good dinner table conversation, but would be suitable for the gentlemen when they withdraw to smoke after the meal.

Brooks also likes the people who call in to the program, though he's a bit critical on one point:
For example, callers have continually forced the historians to deal with racial matters, so that race has become the major subtheme of the series. The presidents who owned slaves or who tolerated slavery are castigated, and the historians often struggle to suggest that viewers shouldn't rush to impose modern standards on earlier times -- with little success.
Ironically, the suggestion that we "shouldn't rush to impose modern standards on earlier times" is usually trotted out by conservatives as postmodernist relativism -- except where race is concerned. In general the Right would prefer not to remember the role of slavery, or racism, in American history, and if possible to minimize or eliminate it from history courses altogether. Even though they keep reminding us that slavery was abolished long ago, it's evidently too close for comfort where white reactionaries are concerned.

The trouble with complaining that castigating presidents who owned slaves constitutes "rush[ing] to impose modern standards on earlier times" is that at least some of those presidents paid lip service to the wrongness of slavery. Calling slavery immoral is not a modern standard. (We moderns should be circumspect in judging our forebears, though, considering how many of us condemn war, for example, but are still willing to let it happen, or even to cheer it on when it begins.)

One question that keeps coming up on Andrew Ti's tumblr Yo, Is This Racist? is how to deal with racist "old" people. When I see references to grandparents, I automatically think of my grandparents, who were probably born just before 1900, and then I realize that at least some of the time, these racist grandpas and grandmas are probably my age or a little older: people who grew up during the peak of the Civil Rights movement, people who have no excuse for being racist, people who can't claim that they never heard that it was wrong to discriminate against people because of the color of their skin. People of my own grandparents' generation shouldn't get a free pass either, though. I like to ask apologists for racism when white people discovered that black people were human beings, because it's certain that black people knew it all along.

But I digress. Once again it's informative to see what RWA1 considers good serious conservative punditry: it's badly written, anti-intellectual, and incoherent, though superficially less demented than your average Republican presidential candidate. That's the best, apparently, that the Right has to offer.