Returning to the debate…
Andrew Hartman’s a smart guy. He wrote a thoughtful critique of my work (here and here). But his timing, at least for me, was poor. He posted just as I was leaving for a two and a half month sojourn into the wilds of Oregon and Washington on the Pacific Crest Trail with my wife, kid, and dog (for those who want a bit more, see these photos). Now back, I appreciate the opportunity to reengage the debate that Hartman sparked.
Though I agree with much of what Andrew said in his pieces, it’s probably no surprise that I also disagree. I’ll be roundabout in engaging his arguments, starting in one place and circling out to others and then coming back to the debate he most wanted to prompt.
Hartman fails to mention something crucial in the Old Right constellation (let’s say the early 1950s to demarcate the time-frame here) when he contrasts it to the neoconservatism of the 1960s: The centrality of McCarthyism and the heated rhetoric used against Adlai Stevenson and liberalism during the 1952 election. I deal with this in greater detail in my book, Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon’s Checkers Speech and the “Rocking, Socking” Election of 1952, and so allow me to elaborate to begin our debate.
The conservative mind has always been hell-bent on tracking down a betrayal among elites (that’s why a “populist turn” was not that difficult to make early-on). During the 1950s, the target became “eggheads” – Harvard-centered liberals (think Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. or John Kenneth Galbraith) giving advice to the king egghead of them all, Adlai Stevenson. Nixon accused Stevenson of holding a “Ph.D. from Dean Acheson’s Cowardly College of Communist Containment,” an alliteration that pummeled Stevenson as a traitor to his country. America needed to elect a “real man,” another term Nixon used. Adlai Stevenson, Nixon said numerous times, lacked “backbone.” Joseph McCarthy (the gruff ally of Richard Nixon in 1952 and a man who had campaigned for him earlier during his 1950 Senate-run) talked about physically assaulting the “debonair” Democrat (no “ic” added there) candidate for President. McCarthy, like Nixon, loved a good fight – a tough fight. Liberals had silver spoons in their mouths and were sissies. They were indecisive and wimpy. Both Nixon and McCarthy conflated a real communist sympathizer, Alger Hiss, with an anti-communist and fairly conservative-leaning liberal, Adlai Stevenson. That was a part of their intellectual-political toolkit and worldview. And it became a central feature of so much conservative political thought during the postwar years.
Enough about political campaigns. Consider, in light of where we’re having this debate, two intellectuals. First and foremost Whittaker Chambers, whose book Witnesscame out in 1952 (Nixon did what he could to promote his ally’s book). Witnessderided “the most articulate section of mankind” (codeword: educated) for betraying the country by ceasing to “believe in God” and giving into communist dreams of remaking the world. Alger Hiss was the icon here. The book set the tone of so much conservative work from that point onwards – apocalyptic, melodramatic, and grandiose. Central in it was something Chambers overheard from a friend of Henry Luce’s: “In the United States, the working class are Democrats. The middle class are Republicans. The upper class are Communists.”
The second intellectual, and this starts getting us to the point that Andrew wanted to engage the most, is Irving Kristol. Writing about “liberals” in 1952 (seemingly he still was one – though it depended on what the term meant), Kristol contrasted them to Joseph McCarthy. In one of the most quoted lines from the essay (used in the documentary, Arguing the World, and Neil Jumonville’s The New York Intellectuals Reader), Kristol worried: “There is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy: he, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing. And with some justification.” The person he cites to make his case is Henry Steele Commager, professor of history at Columbia University and one of many eggheads who would later go on to protest Eisenhower’s run for the presidency.
Kristol’s point, I think, was that the style mattered – that it was McCarthy’s gruffness that attracted many to his side. Liberals lacked the spirit of the fight, because they also worried about something called “civil liberties.” McCarthy’s assured style mattered in the common perception of him as a fighter against liberal pansies who had too many self-tormented doubts. Kristol wasn’t endorsing McCarthy here, but he was putting an idea on the table that neoconservatives would come back to later after the sixties: That liberal elites (the term “new class” wasn’t used at this point – the huge explosion in higher education was still emerging as a major social factor) betrayed their country and lacked legitimacy in the eyes of the American public.
Style versus substance and good versus bad presentism…
Andrew suggests I pick up on style too much rather than substance. I realize I’m not in great standing if I defend style over substance. Nonetheless, my undergraduate students have taught me that style and substance are inseparable every time they complain that I’ve graded their essays on writing (usually my “awkward prose” comments litter their margins) rather than their ideas or arguments. Over and over, I have to explain that how you communicate your ideas – your tone, clarity, verve or lackthereof – is wedded to substance. “If you can’t state your case, you don’t have a case,” I have said to many a perturbed younger writer. There’s of course a fancy tradition of linguistic philosophy I could cite here, but why bother? What I suggested in Rebels All! is that the style of contemporary conservatives – apocalyptic, fabulist in orientation, insular, aggressive – tells us a great deal about the substance of their ideas. Hard right writers create hard right prose and communicate the nature of their ideas in doing so. Andrew wants to separate out these two areas too quickly (and I should point out that one of the commenters on Andrew’s piece pointed this out better than I can).
This style argument is also tied to my defense of the liberal tradition in American ideas. I must take aim at Hartman’s conflation of my interpretation of postwar liberalism with that of Peter Beinart (author of The Good Fight). Indeed, I reviewed Beinart’s book in the Boston Review. I spent a great deal of time showing that Beinart’s book was sloppy and full of historical analogies that didn’t work. I am by all means a presentist, but I also see the inherent dangers of writing presentist history. It’s rather easy to conflate the 9/11 period with the early years of the Cold War and to do so in a bad, sloppy, and rushed way. Personally, I was shocked by Peter Beinart’s shock in the opening pages of The Good Fight where he confessed that he overvalued America’s legitimacy abroad and underestimated George W. Bush’s incompetence. This coming from someone who had read Reinhold Niebuhr?! Good presentism would have raised more doubts about our prospects of exporting democracy. It would make us appreciate an insight of postwar liberalism: That irony and humility are necessary guards against self-assured expansion of American power. That style, the way you hold your ideas and worldview, often guide the way you do things in the world.
So, yes, I’m a presentist less concerned with historiography and academic debates than I am in understanding the world I occupy. On that, Andrew is certainly right. I have just assigned George Orwell’s essays on writing for an upcoming graduate student course. I am reminded in rereading Orwell that his motivation in writing – political and engaged – was always mine. I cut my teeth and came into a great deal of my knowledge not from academe but from activism. I learned to write for political publications and punk rock fanzines. I also am suspicious that “new” ideas in historiography are as important as they often appear. When I entered graduate school, there was still a great deal of interest in the prospect of labor and social history saving the historical profession as well as growing interest in Western Marxist theory to orient historical explorations (I was at the hotbed for that project during graduate school – the University of Rochester). Remember how feminist historians touted the virtues of deconstruction as a method for rewriting history – a la Joan Scott (for more on this point, I point readers here)? What happened to all of that, I’m left wondering today. Historiography is largely a dustbin of trendy ideas that get put on for a number of years and then discarded. The only thing we have left today, as far as I can tell, is a bricolage of ideas and orientations, none of which promise to orient our intellectual work with assuredness. Perhaps such a statement consigns me to being on no graduate reading lists, as Andrew suggests.
A simpler and cleaner point. I sense Andrew and I disagree on politics. He appears much more of a leftist; I’m a liberal. Some of his criticisms seem less about the substance of my own argument and getting things wrong and more with my own political conclusions. As I recall, he didn’t care for my critique of Howard Zinn and other far lefties that I made a number of years ago. It’s not about the popularization but about the conclusions you draw and where they point you politically. Andrew goes much further in a left direction than I do. This is not the place for me to elaborate on all of the ins and outs of the differences between liberals and leftists.
The debate about neocons that Andrew wanted to have…
Finally, the chief point that Andrew wanted most to debate, and this brings me back to my opening. Andrew doesn’t like that I conflate the neoconservative critique (1960s onwards) with the Old Right intellectual hatred of liberal elites (1950s). There are rarely direct lines in history (unlike Corey Robin, I don’t see straight lines, for instance, from Burke to Palin), but I’m pretty sure about thisdirect line. I admit to a suspicion when anyone claims they are a “new” or “neo” anything. I think that’s probably a historian’s natural inclination. No doubt, the neoconservatives Andrew has in mind claimed the altar of uniqueness. They felt uncomfortable being associated with WASP or Catholic curmudgeons, like Whittaker Chambers or William F. Buckley. They were Jews educated in an urban milieu. They believed in “social science” rather than purely moralistic arguments. They had been mugged by the sixties. They had “new” ideas to add to the debate.
True, true, true. The “new class” conception had its own roots. An entire book could be written about the idea (hell, an entire edited book was published about the idea). Indeed, the conception of a new class had much deeper roots than the sixties. Andrew knows that many of its roots went farther back to Thorstein Veblen’s idea of “engineers” clashing with capitalist owners, to the Trostkyist critique of Stalin’s supposed “betrayal” of the Soviet revolution, to Lionel Trilling’s conception of modernism’s “adversary” tendencies. Daniel Bell – the sociologist who helped neoconservative arguments along the way until he balked at Kristol’s ideological hardening and recognized his own liberal beliefs – knew about all of these different roots and called the concept of a “new class” a “muddled” concept. He was right.
My point is that the “new class” idea mimicked and helped reproduce, much more than the neoconservatives might have thought, that older idea of educated elites selling out the country to communism. Who was Alger Hiss and who was Dean Acheson and who was Adlai Stevenson? Well, they were all men who attended good schools because their families could afford them and yet who betrayed the ballast of western civilization. The terms “egghead” and “new class” share more than we might at first think if we think about how the terms operate in political debate. Most important of all, hardening a critique of a “new class” helped someone like a Kristol create a more populist tone to his work – a tone that he had once rejected during the mid-1960s and early 1970s (for more on this, see my essay about Kristol here). Neoconservatives might have thought of themselves as social scientists in the pages of the Public Interest, but that would never have satisfied Kristol. He wanted a movement, based around certain moral and political ideas, to take back the country from the liberal new class. And who could blame him, if such ideas were always supposed to be about more than just academic ponderings? Social scientific arguments weren’t enough. He returned to the language of the Old Conservative right – one that was charged and moralistic – in order to fuel a political agenda. I would suggest that the idea of a new class helped him get to this point.
So too Norman Podhoretz in the realm of foreign policy. He would return to the spirit of Joseph McCarthy by the late 1970s, suggesting that a liberal elite (effeminate, perhaps even homosexual, and certainly cautious) had lost the Vietnam War. That echoed the war at home that worried Irving Kristol once the Cold War had ended. In 1993, Kristol wrote, “My cold war has increased in intensity, as sector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos. It is an ethos that aims simultaneously at political and social collectivism on the one hand, and moral anarchy on the other.” The language of war was the language of politics, of course. Social science wouldn’t win a war. But a class warfare argument just might. And so the neoconservatives were right back to the language of Nixon (the 1952 Nixon, I would argue, as much as the 1972 Nixon who Kristol supported) and McCarthy as they vocalized a politics they thought could win the nation back from the perils of liberalism. The 1960s and the culture wars mattered here for sure. But my point is that the lineage was there to build upon already.