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).
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.