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.”