U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On Detachment; Or, Should Intellectual Historians Be Attached to Our Subjects?


With this post, I do not entirely wish to return to the question of objectivity that perennially consumes historians. Peter Novick has written most of what needs to be written on “that noble dream.” Plus, the matter seems entirely too “Historical Methods 101.” That said, my recent reading of Mark Gerson’s intellectual history of neoconservatism, The Neoconservative Vision: From the Cold War to the Culture Wars, has compelled me to revisit the question: To what degree should we strive to be detached from our subjects, even when we mostly agree with them?

The reason for my return to the problems of objectivity and detachment is that I think Gerson is too in love with those he writes about, neoconservative intellectuals such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz. Although his book is often insightful about the origins, meaning, and influence of neoconservatism, it suffers from, at best, hagiographic tendencies, at worst, acute sycophancy.

First, praise for the book: Gerson is correct in pointing out that neoconservatism is mostly a movement of intellectuals. Neoconservatism does not lend itself to easy identification with specific political positions, because it’s more a mode of thought that combines elements of both liberalism and conservatism. Gerson writes: “Whereas neoconservatism rejects the liberal notion that a society of atomized individuals pursuing their interests and following their desires will somehow lead to a common good, neoconservatism insists on the liberal idea that involuntary characteristics such as race, rank, and station should never restrain an individual. Likewise, while neoconservatism rejects the traditional conservative emphasis on the authority of tradition and glorification of the past, it shares conservative concerns with order, continuity, and community” (9). Gerson correctly points out that “it has been a primary neoconservative project to inject American democratic discourse with a different language, one that accounts for responsibilities as well as rights, obligations as well as payments due” (276).
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Gerson thoroughly explores these competing, sometimes contradictory aspects of neoconservatism, beginning in the 1950s with liberal anticommunism, and ending in the 1990s with a discussion of culture war issues such as the role of religion in the public square, and the debates over multiculturalism and political correctness. He masters the essence of the neoconservatives: their disdain for the sixties counterculture; their growing belief that government programs tended to create more problems than they solved; their defense of Israel and Jews in general, which often fed into their critique of black politics after 1967; their animosity towards the so-called “academic left,” etc… All of this guides us to a fuller understanding of neoconservatism, its roots, and how it has come to influence policy.

But, Gerson’s love affair with the neocons—or, more precisely, his neoconservative ideology—leads to a failure in scholarship. Gerson does not subject neoconservative ideas to any sort of critical lens. He rarely questions or scrutinizes neoconservative premises. He assumes as given that which needs to be proven.

For example, Gerson writes: “The rise in black anti-Semitism in the 1970s accompanied the rise of anti-Semitism among radicals of all races” (158). His two major examples of black and left anti-Semitism: criticism of Israel, and siding with black parents instead of Jewish teachers during the 1967 Ocean Hill/Brownsville teachers strike. With regards to the former, there have long been debates about whether it is appropriate to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism; an honest scholar would have nodded to this debate at the very least. With regards to the latter, the history of that teacher’s strike is far too complex to boil down to an ethnic scrum between Jews and blacks. Yes, some blacks displayed anti-Semitism, just as some of teachers demonstrated anti-black racism during the heat of the strike. But the political divide was between those who supported community control of schools, black activists and some of their liberal allies, such as Mayor John Lindsay, and those who supported the United Federation of Teachers, which rightly feared community control would encroach upon professional autonomy. And in truth, blacks and leftists could be found on either side of this power struggle; anti-Semitism was peripheral.

Examples such as this abound in Gerson’s book. It is one thing to agree with the neocons on these matters. As someone who has been accused of ideological heavy-handedness, I am not interested in lecturing Gerson or anyone else about objectivity, which I have never thought desirable much less possible. But it is quite another thing to write a book about neoconservative intellectuals and never undertake a serious analysis of those who disagreed, other than to offer up a few straw men to dissemble. This is flat out annoying.

Now, to bring up some broader methodological and theoretical problems: surely my hyper-awareness of Gerson’s hagiography must be rooted in my political disagreements with him. No doubt I forgive likeminded scholars for similar transgressions. I ask myself: do I unknowingly fail to subject those intellectuals I like to the type of scrutiny I proscribe for Gerson? If so, does Slavoj Zizek’s dictum—that the “ideological is a social reality whose very existence implies the non-knowledge of its participants as to its essence”—hold true? How do intellectual historians remain detached from those subjects they agree with and even admire? Is such detachment possible or desirable? I welcome feedback.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I should have been more clear; I think your points are exactly correct and I think the tendentious support of Israel of many neoconservatives too often goes unchallenged. You mentioned a scholarly literature, though, and I was hoping for some leads. Good post, btw.

  2. Thanks! The Middle East is not my field of study, but it’s impossible to ignore the voluminous work on Israel-Palestine, especially since it matters so much to American Neoconservatives. The American left perhaps focuses too much on Palestine. As tragic as the plight of the Palestinians is, there are larger groups of displaced people who rarely get mentioned. Why don’t we endlessly debate the plight of Sri Lankans? I think a dialectic is at work: because the neocons (and really all but the most paleo of conservatives) focus so much on Israel, so too does the left.

    Sources that take issue with the conflation of criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism are many. I read Noam Chomsky’s “That Fateful Triangle” over a decade ago. I seem to remember him dealing with this issue at length in typical Chomsky fashion: systematic, rational, biting. Edward Said must have dealt with this as well in one of his many good books. Also, Norman Finkelstein. My favorite revisionist Israeli historian is Ilan Pappe. He probably doesn’t delve into this issue explicitly, but his work is indispensable. This might get you started.

  3. P.S. A friend pointed out to me that Mark Gerson is a pundit and a political operative, not a historian, and thus different standards should apply to him, thus calling into question the premise of my post. She might have a point–I wasn’t very aware of Gerson’s resume, which includes being director of the neocon Project for the New American Century. That said, Gerson present this book as history. Also, I would say that my complaints about his scholarship apply also to the basic rules of argument. A logical argument deals honestly with counter-argument.

  4. HRC-I agree and have always thought as much, which is why this entire post was sort of rhetorical, especially these final questions: “How do intellectual historians remain detached from those subjects they agree with and even admire? Is such detachment possible or desirable?” I guess Gerson’s failure to make a good case for the neocons, to accept all of their arguments at face value, annoyed me into such a rhetorical exercise. Cheers. AH

  5. The problem with being overly attached, though, is that a writer has no critical purchase. Most works of serious inquiry require some amount of distance, otherwise they are just partisan, or smarmy, or thoughtless. That’s the point I take from your post, Andrew.

    John Kasson, my adviser, once said that he writes not out of his passion but out of his ambivalence. That comment has always stuck with me, because it suggests exactly the kind of critical distance that makes for good writing–neither a blind champion nor a knee-jerk polemic but an ambivalent attempt to understand, to sift, and to preserve what is valuable. Note that this posture does not require neutrality. It instead presumes a certain kind of engagement that is healthy and productive.

  6. Thanks David. I met John Kasson in January for the first time and really liked him. (He roomed with my advisor Leo Ribuffo at Yale.) I agree that historians should strive “to understand, to sift, and to preserve what is valuable.” But is ambivalence necessary to achieve such “healthy and productive” ends? I am ambivalent about some of the people I write about, but am more strident on others. I don’t think, though, stridency negates critical purchase, or makes one partisan or smarmy.

  7. I’ve found a certain tendency of mine while writing my dissertation that I wonder what you’ll think of.

    I tend to really like all of the many individuals I’m studying–even when they hated each other. I like the pompous male intellectual trying to make his way, while blocked at most turns by illogical discrimination. And I like the overly romantic who talks about Christian love solving all racial problems. And the white woman who tries to understand racial prejudice, but can’t quite escape the culture she was raised in.

    I wonder if this fierce affection across ideologies and across personalities somehow operates like a kind of neutrality? Perhaps in the context of my dissertation–where it is clear that there are many different kinds of people being analyzed. It is more difficult to keep the right balance in an article about a single individual.

    (The primary requirement for my affection ends up being enough sources that I can feel like I come to know a person).

  8. I’m not sure that the question of an historian’s emotional connection to his/her subject is all that relevant or important. I don’t believe that anything is lost by restricting our assessment of a given work to consideration of the quality of its evidence and argument, while completely bracketing questions of the writer’s motivation in offering them.

    If that is true, then the question is better phrased, I think, as “Does being detached (I prefer ‘impartial’) tend to motivate historical work that is more likely to meet prevailing standards of intellectual rigor and persuasiveness?” When put that way, I must confess that I have no idea. But my unfounded, emotional reaction is that it probably does. Overall, though, I would think that sufficiently talented historians of any temperament or motivation can probably produce excellent works, so the statement above that “the greatest historians are never detached” is a bit too sweeping for my tastes.

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