U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Szefel on Rodgers (Part III of AGE OF FRACTURE roundtable)

Dear readers: Lisa Szefel‘s review of Age of Fracture is the third installment in our roundtable. For the first, see my review here. For the second, see Jim Livingston’s review here. Expect Mary Dudziak’s comments to be posted soon, followed by a response by Dan Rodgers. [Parts of this paper were previously published on the History News Network website, February 24, 2011]

Daniel Rodgers is the Fred Astaire of intellectual history. Words and arguments flow across the page effortlessly. One idea glides to center stage then moves off as another waltzes forward. What I would like to do today is, to paraphrase Hillary Clinton: dance backwards and in high heels. I’d like to get up close and talk about Rodgers’ steps.

In Age of Fracture, Daniel Rodgers offers an elegant, often eloquent, history of intellectual life in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Primarily interested in the construction of ideas that shaped conceptions of history, society, and responsibility, he analyzes texts from an eclectic array of academic thinkers across the political spectrum. Rodgers argues that in the 1940s and 1950s, social scientists and political philosophers established the terms of the debate on a range of issues concerning the self and society, obligations and justice, morality and destiny. To these postwar intellectuals, ideas had severe consequences, contexts and nature constricted human action, and history loomed very large indeed.

While the turmoil and chaos of the 1960s caused tremors, it was not until the quakes of oil embargoes, unemployment, and inflation in the 1970s, that fault lines in this ideological consensus emerged. Into this breach, a lexicon of microeconomic principles, which had been forming for decades in libertarian circles that stressed agency, contingency, and reason emerged, promising solutions to seemingly intractable problems of disco-era stagflation. Instead of focusing on property and production, workers and owners, these economists celebrated instead the slight of (an invisible) hand that produced wealth and fostered the virtues of competition.

The vocabulary, metaphors, and grammar of the free market boosters seeped into academic discussions. Instead of the public solidity of politics and pressure groups, American historians, political scientists, anthropologists, sociologists, and literary scholars seeking to understand the formulations of class and exercise of power, now uncovered the ineluctable influence of culture and diffuse workings of hegemony. Gramsci, Geertz, and Foucault replaced Marxist dialectics while close readings of popular songs, prisons, and cockfights superseded analyses of elections, parties, and unions. This cultural turn reshaped the color line as well, as race came to be viewed less as a fixed state and more as a social construction. Notions of gender likewise became subject to preoccupations with language and consciousness-raising rather than investigations into the architecture of patriarchy.

Some other reviewers of the book, most notably Robert Westbrook, have mentioned some important omitted thinkers, most importantly, Martha Nussbaum and, I would add, Elaine Scarry. Other critiques highlight the lack, at times, of sufficient causal analyses. We see how but why did the language and values of free markets triumph so decisively? How did the fall of Communism across Europe and in Russia affect attitudes toward liberal Democrats in America who, for decades, had insisted that the Soviet economy was out-performing domestic capitalism? Cold War triumphalism, after all, was grounded in the reality that the prime alternative to free markets had been defeated. In that scenario, why heed those who were wrong?

Along those lines, why didn’t liberals offer a stouter defense of communitarian principles? Focusing on the progressives’ multicultural and linguistic turn leaves unexamined some dramatic mistakes made by liberal politicians and their supporters, which diminished their credibility. It also ignores the many images of fat cat Democratic power players showing up for budget talks, after the federal government had been shut down, in limousines.

None of this went unnoticed among the working class in those parts of the country hardest hit by deindustrialization—the manufacturing cities of the Midwest and Northeast—who switched party affiliation to become Sunbelt and Rustbelt Republicans. The usual story about backlash and resentment, perpetrated famously in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas, misses the point. Rodgers, however, is on the right track. A more vertical study that presents a cross-section of values would help to illuminate the common bonds that tied blue collar and Catholics to blue blood conservatives. This is something that is missing in the history of conservatism more generally.

An intellectual historian who clearly delineates his methodology, Rodgers rarely ventures outside the realm of books and articles to explain how conceptions are formed, leading to some connections that ring hollow. In discussing the post-Fordist focus on the present, for example, no mention is made of CNN, personal computers, or the ubiquity of media images. Ideas about race are dissected without analysis of the impact wielded by rap music, MTV, or films like “Boyz n the Hood,” giving the appearance that Charles Murray was primarily responsible for stereotypes that linked skin color to violence. However, Murray said little that Archie Bunker hadn’t already articulated more than a decade earlier and, while liberals were busy decrying the possessive investment in whiteness, ethnic Americans were denouncing the possessive investment in racism among the well-heeled. While lending sheen and coherence to a neat narrative about fracture, the methodology of this particular type of intellectual history can skew analysis of issues and omit important developments.” So, while I appreciate the coherence and precision with which Rodgers traces ideas–from left to right, from economics textbooks to presidential podiums. Sometimes this approach–tracing the ebb and flow of ideas–is highly appropriate. Sometimes, however, it belies the way ideas actually circulate or the way history happens. I wonder: What is lost or distorted when intellectual history is not tied to social and cultural history?

Along these lines, I don’t believe in trickle down economics and I don’t know that trickle down intellectual history is the best representation of the way ideas emerge and circulate. What about trickle up intellectual history (or, for that matter, trickle up economics)? Who should we include as members of the “communities of discourse” that we examine? (There was a nice debate about this on the USIH blog earlier this year).

I mentioned earlier that I would like to dance backwards and in high heels. Let me now add “in drag”: Rodgers devotes three pages to the topic of AIDS. In his examination of race and racism, conversely, Rodgers delves deep and wide, devoting an entire chapter to the topic and strewing comments throughout the text. He even makes a rare foray into pop culture, nodding toward the contributions of Sanford & Son, the television mini-series Roots, Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. He discusses “the new black presence in public life” and the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance and black arts movement, and he goes into loving detail about the conscious quest of African American authors to inculcate race pride. He cites polls from Black Enterprise magazine about black solidarity and decries the “day-to-day injuries imposed by the social marks of race in American society.” Willie Horton, Jesse Jackson, the Los Angeles riots, Anita Hill, and the debate among black intellectuals about the persistence of poverty are all there. The chapter on gender is less comprehensive but still works toward explaining relevant questions.

However, where are the gay intellectuals, writers, and activists? Where are Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings, Larry Kramer, Sarah Schulman, Cleve Jones, John D’Emilio’s landmark, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities (1983), The Celluloid Closet (1996), Lauren Berlant, Gayle Rubin, Matthew Shepard, and Ellen Degeneres? Where are the concerns about injuries inflicted on gay Americans, about their struggle for pride and dignity in the midst of denial and death?

Citing this omission is not just a plea for inclusion of yet another oppressed group. As Eva Sedgwick argues in Epistemology of the Closet (1990), leaving out queer voices distorts the historical lens. And, if these voices are needed to understand any era, it is most certainly the Reagan-Bush-Clinton years when anti-gay bigotry was embedded in social and intellectual life, when homophobia blanketed, like a fine layer of soot, the nation. What other community suffered as many casualties as a result of the government’s inaction? Estimates place the number of lynchings during Jim Crow as high as 5,000. Over 58,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War. The number of reported AIDS deaths from 1980 through 1997 in the United States is 641,087. Globally 30.6 million people were infected.

Let me say that, citing these statistics is not an exercise in comparative victimology. First, comparative history is a legitimate enterprise. Second, juxtaposition can be useful to bring a stunning reality into bold relief.

Today, approximately 5,000 people die every day because of AIDS, a global calamity that, some scientists argue, could have been controlled had the federal government responded swiftly in 1981 to news of deaths, as it was, most famously, in Australia. But in America the victims were members of a hated, marginalized minority and received no compassion, a key emotion that Rodgers seeks to trace as it relates to the poor. As Randy Shilts in And the Band Played On documented, the CDC and NIH were chronically underfunded. As Reagan biographer Lou Cannon concluded, Reagan’s response was “halting and ineffective.”

If Rodgers was reaching for a capacious survey of shaping intellectual ideas, how could he ignore this disease or the ideologies and language that allowed it to become a pandemic? The word AIDS itself would benefit from a Rodgers-style definition. Paula Treichler takes on this challenge to analyze the construction of AIDS as an “epidemic of signification” with culture, medicine, linguistics, socioeconomic status, gender, class, and race all influencing scientific naming practices. Considering the emotional and physical toll, it is no wonder that LGBT activist and intellectual Urvashi Vaid writes that “For lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgendered people, the Reagan-Bush years were the worst years of our lives.”

At the heart of the Reagan-Bush era, the moral center of the period, is the AIDS crisis, the callous reaction to victims, and the lurid homophobia that sanctioned isolation and death. Historians, as a profession, have not come to terms with these events. Look at the index to almost any book on the 1980s and AIDS along with the hatred of gay people that fueled the epidemic are barely mentioned, those who do mostly talk about the response to AIDS among homosexual Americans only and the formulations of difficult to read queer theorists.

I do believe that writing a history about this period without addressing the AIDS pandemic is like writing a history of the George Bush years without talking about 9/11. AIDS and the diminishing calculus of compassion during the Reagan era are linked. Conservatism drew its force from antipathy toward a group of people who loved differently. This animus animated evangelicals and justified indifference to AIDS sufferers among Catholic leaders. It can be found everywhere in sermons, political speeches, journals, and newspapers. It inflected thinking on what constituted “normal,” on sex and gender more generally as well as reproductive rights. William Bennett, included in Age of Fracture for work that expounds on virtues, was Secretary of Education, who, along with his Undersecretary Gary Bauer (who later became head of the Family Research Council), served as the principle spokesmen for Reagan’s AIDS policies. Instead of disseminating information to educate people about how transmission occurred and how to prevent infection, these two guys were too worried about saying anything even remotely positive about gay people. Precious time was lost. Lives were lost.

I also wonder about historical context and if we need to consider authorial intention, that elusive quest that Roland Barthes deemed futile. Rick Warren receives mention by Rodgers for forging “more generous even radical frames for evangelical Protestant social thought” but not for barring gays from membership in his Saddleback Church. Pat Buchanan’s 1992 “culture war” speech gets airing for its patriotic invocations, but not his snide remarks about “homosexual rights” and denunciation of gay marriage as “amoral.” Irving Kristol’s work in the knowledge industry is acknowledged but not his charge that homosexuality was a “disease” (Reagan himself referred to it as “a tragic illness”). The issue of gays in the military and same sex marriage played a decisive role in elections, including ballot initiatives in the 1970s, and get-out-the-vote anti-homosexual campaigns, gay-bashing, and gay-baiting in campaigns since then, even affecting the outcome of presidential contests between the “straight panic” years of 1996 and 2004. If Rodgers is interested in the power of ideas, why doesn’t he analyze the origins and allure of anti-gay ideas? In our question and answer period, I hope we will discuss whether the motive of the people we analyze should form part of our analysis. How should intellectual historians consider statements motivated by bigotry and the desire to promote intolerance?

What would Age of Fracture look like if it had included this subject? On some matters, it would have reinforced his assertions. John D’Emilio’s classic essay “Capitalism and Gay Identity” would have fortified the convictions held by many that free markets induced freedom. With pastors and ministers expending tremendous energy, expounding wrathfully on homosexuality as an abomination and blaming victims for their “choice” little room was left to speak of Jesus as the man who overturned the money tables, preached poverty, humbleness, compassion, and charity, the very kind of emotional economy that Rodgers is interested in mapping.

On other important points, Rodgers would have found his organizing principle, around fracture, did not hold or at least that it was more contested. For example, by citing Butler’s notion of sexuality as a performance, he gives only one side of the debate between nature and nurture. A very large constituency of gay people themselves argued publicly for essentialism. The debate played out on the pages of Time and Newsweek, National Review, The Advocate and Slate.com, with scientific studies examining the role of genes and hormones in determining sexual orientation. At stake in this ontological question was whether gayness was akin to race and thus deserved legal protections or a choice that could be changed (and criticized).

On a final note: Who mourns for the gay men and women who either committed suicide, lived closeted lives filled with fear and anguish, alienated from family, friends, church, and denied the opportunity to build their own families or to love who they loved. I understand it is not the historian’s job to hold pity parties, but I wonder if empathy is a necessary first step before historians start weaving the experiences of gay people into the story of our past. It is certainly within our realm of responsibility to try to understand, as Ranke would say, how it really was, to see not only flawless execution but missteps, and trips, and dips, to assess not just waltzes, but break dancing, the Hustle, the rumba, the samba, and cha-cha-cha.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “The issue of gays in the military and same sex marriage played a decisive role in elections, including ballot initiatives in the 1970s, and get-out-the-vote anti-homosexual campaigns, gay-bashing, and gay-baiting in campaigns since then, even affecting the outcome of presidential contests between the ‘straight panic’ years of 1996 and 2004.”

    Was gay marriage really on the radar in the 1970s, at least, sufficiently so to be important in elections?

  2. I would also like to raise some more general points.

    1) Is the main contention here that homosexuality was as important a source of cleavage/fracture as race and gender in this period and, accordingly, should have been treated as such?

    2) On a more philosophical level, is empathy necessary here, and was its absence the problem? Or to put it another way, does a story like the one Dr. Szefel relates have to advocate and be partisan, or can it be told in a way that advocates without becoming partisan? The historian should strive for the latter, but is that possible in this case, and if it were, would that be desirable?

    NB: By “partisan” I don’t mean in a political sense, but in the sense of taking sides. Dr. Szefel both justifies the importance of the experience of gay people for history, but also validates it in its own right. She’s for it as well as with it.

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