U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tim’s Light Reading (3/11/2010)

1. Thinking About Public Intellectuals: Harvard is hosting a conference on public intellectuals next month with the theme “Speaking Truth to Power.” In the late afternoon on the first day is a symposium that looks to be a future-oriented reprise of our USIH Wingspread panel from last November. Otherwise, the program looks excellent.

2. A Useful Derrida? Or should I say a Derrida that might become useful to historians? Andrew Dunstall, a USIH 2.0 participant last fall, wonders about a new, materialist approach–a retranslation, if you will—to reading Derrida’s writing and thinking.

3. The Meaning of the Tea Party: About a week ago David Brooks the amateur political-intellectual historian (again) paralleled the Tea Party to the New Left of the 1960s. (Aside: I agree with his observation about both ~not~ being conservative movements.) Brooks’ column came on the heels of a Michael Lind article in Salon the week before where Lind called Glenn Beck the new Abbie Hoffman. A few days after Brooks’ piece, Todd Gitlin refuted him in a post at Talking Points Memo. I don’t have a dog in this fight because I have no stake in protecting either the Tea Party or the reputation of the sixties New Left. Still, it’s an interesting intellectual history discussion because it speaks to how we define both ideology (e.g. paranoia), anti-intellectualism (e.g. paranoia again, radical anti-statism), and atavism as a historiographical causal issue (cyclical-ness).

4. A New Lead-Off Hitter for Grad School Historiography Courses? All intellectual historians love reading about historiography (right?). With that in mind, Adam Arenson makes the case, at Making History Podcast: The Blog, that Allan Megill’s Historical Knowledge, Historical Error (U of C Press, 2007) should replace Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream. Discuss. …In the meantime, it looks like I have yet another book to add to my infinitely expanding reading list.

5. Off-Topic: It looks like expectations for “treatment” by the nursing profession in Amsterdam are on the rise. Boy oh boy. – TL

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Once again, Tim’s Light Reading becomes Ben’s Light Reading….thanks for the links and the thoughts!

    On the Tea Party and the New Left: People should really read Kevin Mattson’s Rebels All before diving into this territory. Mattson argues that conservatives have, in general, shared a cultural style with (an important tendency of) the New Left for the better part of half a century. Outrageous political theatre has been the property of the right for decades, from The Dartmouth Review (and its well-funded clones on campuses around the country) to Ann Coulter to Rush Limbaugh. And it fits into a much broader self-image of conservatives as rebels (see, e.g., the very mainstream conservative Fred Barnes’s defense of the very mainstream conservative George W. Bush, Rebel-in-Chief). All this pearl clutching about the Tea Party reminds me a bit of the flap about Trent Lott praising Strom Thurmond. Who would have guessed that the Senate was full of lightly reconstructed segregationists? And who could have imagined that such people had anything to do with the leadership of the Republican Party? Nonetheless, this current round is a little worse. At least the Trent Lott scandal featured some on the right coming to terms with ugly history of white supremacy and its role in the post-Southern Strategy GOP. Brooks and Lind are just blaming some of the less attractive features of contemporary conservatism on the DFHs.

  2. Ben: Your remarks are well taken. Being such a short book, it will be no problem adding Rebels All! to my 2010 reading list. On the larger discussion, although WWII interrupted the chain, it seems that some semblance of today’s left-right political theater originated in the 1930s with Coughlin and the cultural turn of the CP (with literal theater work by pseudo-labor-communists of that decade, and Coughlin’s radio shows). In sum, the current variations of political theater occurred with the advent of a mass communication medium (radio) that allowed for political improvisation/demagogury. I say ‘improvisation’ because it would be tempting go further back with Birth of a Nation, but I think that’s a qualitatively different animal than today’s variations. What do you think? – TL

  3. Tim: Really interesting thoughts. I agree that mass media are an important factor in this discussion. And surely the longer tradition of populism is, too (they should be reading Kazin alongside Mattson…btw, though I’m delighted you’re planning to read the Mattson book, I really meant that Brooks, Lind, and Gitlin ought to read it). I agree that Coughlin (and Long) as well as the Popular Front-era left are important elements in the prehistory of this political style. I’m less sure about how Birth of a Nation would fit (though it’s certainly a very political work and had major political impact in inspiring the rise of the Second Clan, but it wasn’t the product of a self-conscious political movement).

    Also: it’s worth distinguishing tactical issues from ideological ones. Many progressive opponents of the Tea Parties have sounded cries for civility that sound an awful lot like similar calls by Bush defenders last decade in the midst of criticism of the Iraq War and torture. Taking off my historian’s hat for a second, I don’t have a huge political problem with the Tea Parties’ Alinskian tactics. My disagreement is with their beliefs and their goals.

    I also think that there’s a really interesting interrelationship between the rebel trope and the returning-to-our-founding-principles trope. Obviously these two themes meet in the fact that this country was born in violent revolution. But the latter can be invoked without necessarily invoking the former. There’s a lot of political ground between Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and an armed protestor standing outside an Obama event with a sign that reads “IT’S TIME TO WATER THE TREE OF LIBERTY!”

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