U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Hollinger’s “Affiliation by Revocable Consent”: From Postdiscipline to Postethnic to Obama

By Andrew Hartman

At our most recent U.S. Intellectual History Conference, the final panel was also the most anticipated: “Assessing the Legacy of the 1977 Wingspread Conference.” The panelists were Dorothy Ross, Thomas Bender, David Hall, and David Hollinger. I would like to address one of Hollinger’s central contentions, which has lead me to reexamine his most famous work, Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism (1995).

In reiterating a point he made in the recent Historically Speaking forum on the state of U.S. Intellectual History (which the USIH blog analyzed extensively—see posts by me, Paul Murphy, and not 1, not 2, but 3 by Tim Lacy), Hollinger argued that intellectual historians should guard against ghettoization. Rather than follow the path of the diplomatic historians, who have formed their own society (SHAFR) so as to largely avoid the mainstream societies (AHA and OAH), Hollinger would like to see intellectual history as analogous to political and social history, which are pervasive within the historical discipline writ large.

Some might say Hollinger’s advice is sound only insofar as it speaks to professionalism. In fact, the tone of the entire Wingspread panel was hyper-professional. On the one hand, this is helpful to younger scholars seeking tenured employment in a horrible job market. But, on the other hand, it’s also depressing—the job scene is such that many of us would probably rather the panelists had focused on something more exciting or uplifting. From my perspective, I would have been more interested in what they might have had to say about the workings of intellectual history in the broader public and political culture—past, present, and future.

But the more I thought about Hollinger’s warnings, the more familiar his postdisciplinary approach seemed. In other words, something other than professionalism seems to be driving his thinking. I vaguely recalled that a similar framework guided his theorizing about race and ethnicity in Postethnic, which I first read over a decade ago, before graduate school. I’ve been meaning to return to this book in researching the culture wars, since it speaks to the debates over multiculturalism that rocked the academy and beyond in the 1980s and 90s.

Sure enough, re-reading Postethnic confirmed my suspicions. Not to make too much of the comparison, especially since Hollinger’s discussion of racial and ethnic boundaries is much better theorized, not to mention more important than his discussion of disciplinary boundaries, but the two arguments do seem somewhat parallel. In both cases, Hollinger is suspicious of prescribed boundaries.

The key principal of Postethnic is “affiliation by revocable consent.” In other words, in the context of ethnic and racial identities, “blood” should not determine affiliations of solidarity. Affiliations should be voluntary. This is not to say that Hollinger is against the use of racial categories in political matters. For instance, since black Americans, by their color, and by their history, cannot easily overcome the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, they are entitled to legal and political remedies in the form of affirmative action, a temporary and imperfect solution. But politics in this form should be decoupled from culture. A black American might need and deserve affirmative action, but he or she should not be obliged to remain tied to the cultural identity of “black America.” Such cultural rigidity drove the identity politics of the 1980s and 90s, which in turn made it more difficult to expand the circle of the American “we” to include, say, poor black Americans living in the urban ghettoes.

To the extent that Hollinger wants to expand the circle of “we” to more Americans, he is unapologetically a liberal nationalist. He assumes, correctly in my view, that the best way to make our society more egalitarian is to build upon our commonalities as Americans. He writes: “A stronger national solidarity enhances the possibility of social and economic justice within the United States. This is a simple point, but an extremely important one. Any society that cannot see its diverse members as somehow ‘in it together’ is going to have trouble distributing its resources with even a modicum of equity.” Along this line, Hollinger is quick to blame economic inequality for the tribalism of identity politics. The type of nationalism he supports is close to the fallen social democratic thinking outlined in Tony Judt’s recent New York Review of Books essay, “What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy?”

I would even go so far as to say that Hollinger speaks the language of civil religion (as outlined below in Ray Haberski’s compelling analysis of Obama’s civil religious rhetoric). Hollinger is much more nuanced and qualified in his critique of identity politics and his defense of a national community than, say, a Christopher Lasch or a Robert Bellah. Hollinger links the postethnic together with cosmopolitanism, which negotiates the terrain between pluralism and Kantian universalism on the one hand, and between identity politics and communitarian nationalism on the other. But despite such carefulness, I would put Hollinger in the civil religion category. In this light, my re-reading of Hollinger has compelled me to rethink how I might conclude my book-in-progress on the culture wars—the concluding chapter is to be a reflection on the age of Obama in relation to the culture wars.

In Postethnic, Hollinger sees three distinct constituencies in relation to the U.S. nation-state, circa 1995: 1) the business elite who saw little need for the nation in an era of multinational capitalism (except to enforce their interests around the world); 2) members of the various diasporas who saw the nation “more as a site for transnational affiliations than as an affiliation of its own”; and 3) the “great variety of Middle Americans, evangelical Christians, advocates of family values, and supporters of Newt Gingrich and of Rush Limbaugh… suspicious of the state except as an enforcer of personal morality, but [who] claim the nation as, in effect, their own ethnic group.”

Hollinger’s formulation is clever, and mostly correct in the context of the 90s. Constituencies two and three battled it out in the culture wars as constituency one made out like bandits. But I would add a fourth constituency, one that has waxed and waned in its influence: those Americans who claim the nation for social justice. Such a strain might include everything from populism to Popular Frontism to racial liberalism to communitarianism to, I would add, postethnic thinkers like Hollinger. This social justice variant was overwhelmed during the culture wars. Hollinger’s major achievement in Postethnic is to revitalize such a strain for those sensitive to the needs of ethnic and racial minorities.

It is hard not to read Postethnic through the lens of Obama’s electoral victory. In fact, Hollinger has written about such a connection. In an article titled “Obama, the Instability of Color Lines, and the Promise of a Postethnic Future,” Hollinger contends that the major significance of Obama’s victory is to make clear that race, formulated as class and historical legacy, is more constraining, in the twenty-first century, than race, formulated as color. This separates slavery and Jim Crow’s descendents from black immigrants, African or Caribbean. Hollinger writes: “The African-American descendants of slavery and Jim Crow are the only population group in the United States with a multicentury legacy of group-specific enslavement and institutionalized debasement, including hypo-descent racialization (“one drop of blood” makes a person black) and antimiscegenation laws (black-white marriages were against the law in most states with large black populations until 1967), carried out under constitutional authority. Neither Obama nor any other African-American of immigrant background is a member of this population group. The success of Obama in becoming [president] is, like the success of other black immigrants in other domains, an indication that something other than color-prejudice in the eye of empowered white people is at the root of structural inequality in the United States.”

Although this point is valid and significant, for my purposes, Obama represents something different. As alluded to by Haberski, Obama taps into the fourth strain of thinking in relation to the American nation. Call it civil religion or liberal nationalism. Furthermore, Obama’s victory is a watershed moment, not only because he is the first black president, but because he has given common cause to constituencies number two, those who have viewed the American nation as a meeting place of various diasporas, and four. In short, black nationalists have inched closer to American liberal nationalism. Obama implicitly makes these connections in his writings and in his speeches. That said, the degree to which this “community” is real or lasting is debatable, especially since, in practice, the Obama administration has seemingly favored constituency number one (the business elite) by co-opting numbers two and four. Number three simply thinks he’s un-American.

Now, to conclude by way of returning to Hollinger’s postdisciplinary framework: this is pure speculation—not to mention intellectual gymnastics—but perhaps Hollinger views the relationship of U.S. intellectual history to the larger historical discipline as he views the relationship of, say, Chicano nationalism to the American nation. Chicano nationalism might be necessary in specific contexts, to improve the legal and political position of Latinos vis-à-vis the American nation. But the American nation is the ultimate guarantor of justice to those Chicanos who reside in the United States. I think Hollinger has come around to the view that our endeavors, via the blog and conference, have been necessary to improving our position vis-à-vis the larger historical discipline. He seemed enthusiastic about the conference. But allowing ourselves to be ghettoized would be, in his eyes, the academic equivalent of identity politics. “Affiliation by revocable consent.”

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew – I apologize for not directly engaging your key point about the ghettoization of intellectual history, but it’s been a while since I read Postethnic America, and in response to your post I got down my heavily annotated copy and gave it a quick re-read. Within a few pages, it made me itchy and scratchy all over again, with the same fidgety discomfort I felt when I first encountered Hollinger’s ideas about revocable consent and voluntary communities of affiliation. It’s not that I disagree with Hollinger’s liberal cosmopolitanism or with his vision of a radically more just society. Indeed, with the exception of Lou Dobbs, the Teabaggers, and other reactionary wingnuts, I believe most academics, and a majority of Americans, share this vision. Rather, Hollinger’s argument in Postethnic America reminds me of Habermas’s ideal speech situations, where no coercive power relations distort egalitarian discourse, but without Habermas’ critical awareness, which he shares with the reader, that his ideal is a normative model against which real, empirical discourses can be measured. Hollinger seems to believe that his idealized forms of non-coercive, self-willed affiliation can be practically realized in the not-too-distance future, and without undue social struggle and unrest. Obama’s election argues otherwise. Habermas and Hollinger’s idealism seem to diverge, consequently, at the point between what Richard Rorty calls “social hope” and utopianism or between Christopher Lasch’s distinction between hope and optimism. The ease with which Hollinger appropriates the politically loaded word “we” throughout his argument is a case in point. When I first read Postethnic America, and even earlier, when Hollinger published the essay “How Wide the Circle of ‘We’?” I recalled the joke I heard as a kid, where the Lone Ranger, surrounded by hostile Indians, turns to Tonto and says something like, “I guess we’re in trouble now,” to which Tonto replies, “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man? On one hand, I think popular culture is well out in front of Hollinger in terms of the complex ways in which individuals affiliate, both ethnically and non-ethnically, and has been for quite some time – a point consistent with Jim Livingston’s keynote address at the USIH conference. On the other hand, when Hollinger starts writing glibly about civic character or national culture, or America’s unique transnational affiliations, I hear disturbing echoes of The American Mind and The Vital Center, and of American exceptionalism. The salient point is not how wide the circle of “we” – Obama’s election clearly reflected a widening of the circle and at the same time revealed the continued coercive power of externalized ethnoracial identification – but rather whether the metaphor of a circumscribed sociopolitical “circle” (not to mention an unreflexive use of “we”), isn’t inherently problematical. Following Rorty, I find the vocabularies of ethnoracial identification and of a postethnic, nationalistic “circle of we” equally limiting and counterproductive, and suggest that we look elsewhere for better ways of describing our social aspirations.

  2. I have not read Postethnic, so my comments are purely derivative from this discussion.

    The issue about boundaries doesn’t seem, to me, to be about ~who~ prescribes the boundaries, but rather whether they exist in reality and whether the author of the boundary sees it as fixed (i.e. is it voluntary). I see the author/fixed issue as where the problem lies. Why?

    Most members of ethnic groups, that I know, see their ethnic identity as uncontrollably fixed—not something for which they asked, but nevertheless own. Those folks would look with confusion and disbelief on the idea of consent being associated with their identity. To them, multiculturalism (even mixed with an appreciation for civil religion and/or social conservatism), makes all the sense in the world. Of course that fixity can become a problem whether you’re talking about internal group progress (i.e. ghettoization intellectually or otherwise), or when you’re talking in terms of creating, or fostering, a common culture with others (i.e. less civilly religious than should be).

    But, to me, the extended analogy with intellectual history fails. Everyone here is most decidedly here by choice. Or rather, I’ve never heard a professional historian say that her/his subfield was a matter of fixed blood identity.

    As such, I would say that ghettoization in the field, or any of its subfields, is experienced only by those who somehow (by habit, age, practice) come to see their historical methods and topics as inherent to them as their hair color. Historians of that disposition, or personality, are going become ghettoized in any field with which they identify. The rest of us who are sane, flexible, and at least moderately civil, however, are less likely to suffer from professional ghettoization. – TL

  3. Neil: Thank you very much for your lengthy and thoughtful reply. Your points are well taken. One of them in particular is a dagger–comparing POSTETHNIC to THE VITAL CENTER, since I rather like POSTETHNIC, but think Schlesinger’s famous work is little more than cold war propaganda under the cover of political-intellectual history. Although both books are attempts to find a middle ground, the contexts are vastly different. Schlesinger sought a middle ground between left and right that served to rationalize Truman’s hawkish approach to the cold war. Hollinger sought a middle ground between 90s-era identity politics and Kantian universalists. I’m unable to imagine how this latter middle ground is a rationalization for anything nefarious.

    I have the advantage of having read the 2005 edition of POSTETHNIC, which includes postscripts from both 2000 and 2005. These two additional chapters deal extensively with the criticisms made of Hollinger’s arguments, most of which are very similar to the ones you make above. Something that he specifically addresses is the idea that his postethnic ideal is easily achievable in the near future. He explicitly writes that his ideal is not guaranteed, or even likely, but that it’s an ideal nonetheless–a similar position to Habermas, as you outline.

    Related to this, Schlesinger and others in the cold war consensus mold conflated prescription and description. Schlesinger thought a pluralistic, flexible, pragmatic political system was not only ideal–not only a prescription for the US–he thought it was already in existence–that it accurately described US politics at that time, and historically. Hollinger does not conflate prescription and description. He thinks of the postethnic as an ideal. He would prescribe it for us. But he doesn’t think the US necessarily works as such, even though we are trending in that direction.

    As an aside, I don’t think the majority of Americans share a vision of a radically more just society. The majority of academics, perhaps, but not the majority of Americans. I think the majority of Americans just want more of the same. Cheers. AH

  4. Tim: You’re probably right that my analogy that relates race/ethnicity to academic disciplines is tortured. I’ll let that one go for now.

    But, as to ethnic boundaries, this is something Hollinger deals with at length in POSTETHNIC. You write: “Most members of ethnic groups, that I know, see their ethnic identity as uncontrollably fixed—not something for which they asked, but nevertheless own.”

    Hollinger argues that insofar as American legal and political conventions see ethnicity as fixed, especially following the BAKKE decision (1978) and the federal government’s use of the ethno-racial pentagon (white, black, hispanic, Asian, and American Indian), members of these groups are correct to address legal and political concerns within this rubric. But since the vast majority of social theorists, and perhaps a majority of Americans in general, now see race and ethnicity as constructed, he thinks it better that people within these groups be allowed to disaffiliate at the cultural level. That politics and culture be decoupled. That voluntary affiliation be more acceptable at the ethnic and racial level, much like it’s accepted at the religious level.

    Speaking of religion, Hollinger finds it telling that, since the 1970s, Christian evangelicals have sought to redefine themselves as a minority identity in order to receive special protection from the federal government, as against the secular establishment. In other words, rather than a religious group, they began to act like their religious identity was the equivalent of an ethnic minority identity. (Our colleague David Sehat could chime in here with a much higher degree of sophistication–or, we could just wait and read his book. Jonathan Zimmerman deals with this in WHOSE AMERICA in the context of Christian day school attempts to maintain their tax-exempt status in the wake of the Carter administration’s IRS crackdown)

    Speaking to his postethnic ideal, Hollinger wishes the trend was in the opposite direction. He wishes ethnic identities would begin to operate like religious affiliations did, and still mostly do–as voluntary associations of solidarity. But, again, he’s not partaking in any “blame the victim” scheme. He recognizes the advantages of ethnic group affiliation at the political level.

  5. Although I’m relying on your reading, I agree that many problems come when ~others~ falsely see ethnicity as fixed, or act on the assumption that it is. And there is also the problem of those who ~use~ identity as a tool for political advantage—even though they themselves understand the notion “affiliation by revocable consent.” As a prescriptive, it’s probably for the best that government workers see ethnicity as constructed and voluntary—like religion—so as to reduce its power, on occasion, to wreak havoc on rational discourse about power application. – TL

  6. Andrew – I have two quick responses. First, I own the 1995 edition of Postethnic America, and was not aware of the subsequent Postscripts, but I will check them out as soon as I can. Second, your judgment of Schlesinger and The Vital Center is more damning than my own. From my perspective (which admittedly is that of an early Americanist who last read the text many years ago), Schlesinger’s Cold War liberalism, and more broadly the “consensus school” of the 1950s, sought to ideologically paper over what were deeply rooted conflicts in American society (your earlier point about treating the consensus school as a straw man is duly noted). The concept of postethnicity, at least as Hollinger presented it in the first edition, attempts a similar gloss on American society by downplaying the importance of, and asking us – in 1995! – to move beyond, multiculturalism. I also take your point about a distinction between Schlesinger’s “is” and Hollinger’s “ought” arguments, but I think there is an element of description and prescription in both texts, as when Hollinger laments the “diasporic consciousness” of multiculturalism (p. 149), and then appeals for a renewed appreciation of “the reality, integrity, and positive value of this larger American public” (p. 156). I could go on and draw other points of comparison between Schlesinger and Hollinger’s liberal centrism, or the likelihood that with historical distance Hollinger’s postethnicity may seem as ideological as Schlesinger’s vital center. But I am more interested in suggesting that we problematize and then look beyond Hollinger’s metaphorical “circle of we” to a more productive vocabulary about identity and cultural affiliation, like that presented in Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, or Gary Nash’s essay, “The Hidden History of Mestizo America.”

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