U.S. Intellectual History Blog

How Will Intellectual History Help Us Understand the Bush Administration?

I have been listening to Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side* and it has gotten me thinking about how intellectual history may and may not help explain exactly what happened over the last eight years of our nation’s political life. Mayer’s book is excellent and I heartily recommend it as a chronicle of much of what went wrong in the prosecution of the so-called War on Terror. But though Mayer’s book largely concerns the power of ideas—such as the novel legal theories that underwrote so much of what the Bush administration did—Mayer largely avoids intellectual historical explanations for these ideas.

Mayer, instead, focuses on personality and temperament as the central factors in explaining why Dick Cheney, David Addington, John Yoo, and the other architects of the “War on Terror” acted as they did. Thus we get thumbnail biographies of these and other figures that aim at explaining their habits of mind. Now as William James reminds us, the history of philosophy (and, I think, of all human thought) “is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments.” Nonetheless, when Mayer describes how, when the Bush administration announced its military tribunal policy, Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights was immediately reminded of an old Reagan-era Heritage Society volume entitled Mandate for Change, which apparently contained many of the Bush administration’s future policies as desiderata, I wished that Mayer had spent more time exploring these–and other–intellectual roots of the Bush administration’s policies.

Of course over the last eight years there has been no shortage of popular explanations of the Bush administration that focus on intellectual roots. But these explanations often take the form of fairly crude scapegoating. Take, for example, the idea that Leo Strauss was pulling the strings of the Bush administration from beyond the grave, an argument made on stage by Tim Robbins’s Embedded , on the TV screen by Adam Curtis’s BBC documentary series The Power of Nightmares, and in numerous newspaper articles. Now I happen to think that Straussian political philosophy did play some role in the backstory of the Bush years. But that role is much more complicated than the often Dan-Brownish version that became part of our public culture. And Strauss was hardly the only important intellectual influence on the Bush White House.

As the Bush Administration fades into history and, with any luck, its extraordinary veils of secrecy are slowly lifted, I wonder how large a role intellectual history—and intellectual historians—will play in forging an understanding of its actions.


* I know that some people like to describe listening to an audio book as “reading,” but much as I love audio books, it’s not reading. I should say that I’m about a quarter way through the book, so this post should very much not be read as a review.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben,

    Contrary opinions:

    1. I offer this link as an alternate perspective to your footnote: http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2009/01/curling-up-with-literacy.html. I’m with Ira here.

    2. You’re only doing this mildly, but I think it’s wrong to dichotomize “intellectual historical explanations” and “personality and temperament”-based explanations. The latter often have both material and intellectual causes (the latter meaning spiritual or reasoned). Plus, I personally consider the history of emotions to be a dynamic and important subset of intellectual history—definitely underrated in U.S. intellectual history (but not European, at least so far as Barbara Rosenwein has anything to say about it). So maybe consider Jane Mayer’s take on things a kind of “first draft intellectual history of the Bush administration.”

    Nevertheless, overall I think you’re right in pointing out the currently oversimplified attributions (i.e. just Strauss, or just Mandate for Change) of the Bush administration’s ruling paradigm. [Aside: I see “paradigm” as a necessarily less strident, more flexible term than ideology.]

    – Tim

  2. Interesting points…

    1) I’m with Ira on braille books, Kindles and blogs, but not on audio books. The issue, in my opinion, has to do with the reader’s very different control over time in the different experiences. All of which is in no way to degrade listening or watching (a movie or tv show). They just seem to be essentially different from reading in its many forms.

    2) I’m entirely with you on the place of temperament, personality, and biography in intellectual history. I should have been more clear about that. But I think the history of ideas, as such, also has a place. And I was struck by how uninterested Mayer seems (at least so far in the book) at tracing the history of ideas here. She does an excellent job sketching the issues of temperament, personality, and biography, though she is more interested in explaining what the Bush administration did than why they did it.

    There was another meme with which I was (implicitly) disagreeing that I decided not to mention directly in the post: the notion that the Bush administration’s ideas (or the ideas of contemporary U.S. conservatism more generally) are entirely cynical masks for simply self-interested behavior, or are so devoid of meaningful content, as to be worth simply ignoring when trying to understand the last eight years. As much as I disagree with contemporary conservatism, I think historians ignore its ideas at our peril.

  3. Ben,

    I see your point on audio books. It’s too easy to get distracted. Then again, I suppose it depends on your setting. Are you seriously listening, taking notes, and starting and stopping the iPod/cd? If so, then it’s comparable. If you’re not, then you’re just sort of following along. I think that Ira’s point is that we can’t make too many assumptions about one’s listening arrangement.

    On Mayer, she is clearly not concerned in the intellectual implications of emotion. I’ve been thinking a lot about this subject as I review the emotional-family-personal life of Adler in relation to his high and low intellectual work.

    And I agree with you that too many people (meaning pundits, cynics, and sadly many academics) low-ball conservative thinking. While we always have to be aware of when an end is dictating a line of thought (i.e. ideology), we can’t always assume that the end ~is~ dictating the process.

    – TL

  4. Tim,

    On audiobooks the difference is not merely distraction (one can read a book in a distracted way too, of course). It’s the linearity of the experience. When I’m reading a book, I can easily flip back (or forward) a few pages or a few chapters to check on a fact, compare something the author said earlier, and so forth. With an audiobook this is much more difficult. It’s not even indexed, after all.

  5. Ben: Ah, I see what you’re saying. You’re drawing a bright line between intellectually stimulating ~and~ being able to use something for scholarly work (i.e. writing a scholarly review—although a mid-level/popular publication review might be possible from an “audio reading” if your notes were good). And of course it would be tedious to have footnotes and bibliographies read to you! But Ira probably knows more about the variations in audiobook technology than I do. – TL

  6. Though those in my area in education often suggest that I “think like an historian” I feel over my head in this group, but I will say that I hope a larger range of historians and journalists will begin to search through the complex origins of what has occurred in the US since 2001. A John Yoo does not simply emerge – there are forces which benefit from his emergence, and forces which know they will benefit, and belief systems which cocoon his emergence.

    Anyway, re: Audiobooks. It all depends on the individual. Those who “decode” very well (about 25% of the population in the US) find ink-on-paper “reading” their best route to certain kinds of information. For the other 75%, the massive distraction with struggling with a skill they have not – or can not – master, makes ink-on-paper reading the equivalent (to Ben) of listening to an audiobook during a Springsteen concert.

    And it has a lot to do with training. If reading is easy you learn to read for information in a specific way, and you do not put the effort or energy into learning to listen to text in the same way. I, and many others, have done the opposite. And historically, humans are far more likely to have assembled the complexities of their knowledge system from audio sources than from print sources. Homer, you know, and stuff like the Old Testament included.

    Oops – last note – Ben, that’s the power of computer digital books. You get the audio, and everything else, including often “live links” to the references.

    – Ira Socol

  7. The history of ideas is intimately linked with the cultural and social groups (“forces”) that support those ideas, and the kinds of personality types those groups expect in their leaders [“decisive,” “prudent,” “thoughtful,” even “ruthless”]. Often these groups are largely unaware of the history of the ideas they themselves promote. I place high value on intellectual history, not as an end in itself, but as an important component of history and a powerful tool of analysis. For example, from an intellectual history POV one is struck by how much the culture wars of the present-day USA resemble those that were going on in Britain and the Protestant Netherlands in the 17th century. No, I will go further, they not only resemble them, they are a direct and organic continuation of them. The internationalist Catholics and Jesuits became the internationalist Socialists and Communists and now they are International Islamicists, while Conservative Calvinists have re-emerged to challenge Liberal Protestants, Socinians, atheists. It’s possible this centuries-long battle is just about played out and starting to look very provincial in the context of emerging Asian cultures, which will be reflected here as a more pluralistic, ethnically complex idea of American culture.

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