U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Shannon Responds to Self

The blog of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History has been pleased to present an exchange between Robert O. Self, author of All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s, and Christopher Shannon, author of A World Made Safe for Differences: Cold War Intellectuals and the Politics of Identity.  The exchange began with a review by Chris Ramsey of Self’s book for this blog and has continued through two posts by Shannon about Ramsey’s review and Self’s book; Self’s response to Shannon’s posts; and now Shannon’s rebuttal to Self’s evaluation of Shannon’s critique.  It has been a smart and spirited exchange and we appreciate the willingness of Self and Shannon to participate in this blog.allinthefamily

RESPONSE TO SELF, by Christopher Shannon

I would like to begin by welcoming Professor Self to what has become a fairly long-running debate on the issues raised by his most recent book, All in the Family.  I would also like to thank him for taking the time to write up such an extensive response to my criticisms, despite our obvious differences on certain fundamental positions.  This is exactly the type of debate that should take place in a profession that, while priding itself on openness to diverse opinions, too often functions like an echo chamber for one particular perspective.  For this opportunity, we both, of course, owe a debt of gratitude to the powers that be at the S-USIH blog.

I must say from the start I am not quite sure how much of the exchange Self has taken into account in crafting his response.  He states that he is responding only to my original post, but the first point he takes issue with is from my second post.  I point this out only because most of Self’s response takes issue with my seeming lack of appreciation for the integrity of his scholarship, my implication that his book is merely a work of “unadulterated advocacy.”  As I wrote in the same paragraph from which he quotes, “My first-hand reading of the book has given me a greater appreciation for the nuance and scope of Self’s argument.”  As I wrote in the next paragraph, “Technically, the book is a model of scholarship and should be the definitive reference for anyone seeking information on the who, what, where and when of family politics since the 1960s.  I take issue not with Self’s technical virtuosity, but with the normative framework that structures his narrative and is surely as responsible as his ‘pure’ scholarship for the accolades the book has received.”  Thus we seem to be talking at cross purposes: Self focuses on the empirical complexity of his argument, while I focus on the narrative and normative structures that shape that complexity.

Self rightly criticizes me for misrepresenting a key passage at the beginning of the book that I use to link him to a certain normative position.  I wrongly claim that he explicitly identifies his position with that of the left-liberal activists he chronicles.  This was sloppy reading and writing on my part.  I hope, however, that I can be forgiven for mistaking Self’s position for that of the “progressive” side of his story.  S-USIH bloggers accused me of many misrepresentations, but none doubted my assumption of where Self’s sympathies lie.  I have yet to find a review that expressed any doubts as to where Self stands on the issues he examines.  John McGreevy, for example, had this to say in his review:

 “But there is a problem of empathy.  Self strains to be objective, but his left-liberal sympathies are so obvious, his convictions so patent—the book concludes with a hymn to the social vision of, among others, Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm—that he has difficulty explaining the motivations of the social conservatives crowding their way into his narrative.” [Commonweal,10/26/2012]

McGreevy is a liberal historian who offered his critique of Self as part of a review essay in which he first re-affirmed his liberal bona fides though a positive review of Theda Skocpol’s Obama and America’s Political Future, a book that nearly presents Obama as the Second Coming of F.D.R.  I challenge anyone to read Self’s description of the two sides of the debate over the family and not detect a clear morality play.  Progressives care for poor African Americans with AIDS, but conservatives only want to assert “that manhood and womanhood, sex and sexuality, are fixed and timeless” (13).  It is this type of opposition that I labeled Manichean.

Self insists nonetheless that his main goal was merely to explore the “tension . . . between the beliefs and aims of activists and the realities of politics.”  As before, I concede that he achieves this technical goal admirably.  My point in starting this whole discussion was that technical scholarship always serves more than technical purposes.  Self’s book is not “unadulterated advocacy,” but it is advocacy nonetheless, yet another installment in the triumphalist neo-liberalism (liberalism in the “consensus” sense of that term) that sees modern American history as one long struggle to make good on the promise of the New Deal order—revised, of course, to accommodate the new “realities” of gender and sexual diversity.  As the Progressive and New Deal eras have gained new historiographical life repackaged in a “transnational” context, so the battles over the Great Society appear fresh and new in the context of sexual “citizenship.”  The literature on the Moynihan Report could fill a small public library, but scholars such as Lizbeth Cohen and Elaine Tyler May express awe and wonder at Self’s supposedly revisionist argument that debates about the family were connected to debates about the welfare state.  What they are actually praising is a detailed, scholarly defense of the political vision of the “progressive” left against its conservative opponents. Self has made his commitments clear in other non-scholarly venues  [NYT, “The Antisocial Contract,” 8/25/12], yet cries foul when I suggest that these commitments shape his narrative.


My initial post responding to Chris Ramsey’s review was an attempt to challenge this new liberal consensus by pointing out certain internal contradictions at the level of ideas about the market and public life.  Self devotes much of his response to critiquing what he sees as my gross distortion of his views on these topics.  Part of the problem lies in our understanding of these terms.  Self addresses the market as a material reality that more often than not limits and constrains equality of opportunity and freedom of choice.  I address the market as an ideal social relation in which people are free to pursue their self-interest/desires with minimal interference from external coercion or a debilitating lack of material resources.  When I said, for example, that Self puts forth the market as an appealing alternative to marriage, I did not mean that he argues that the market as it existed in the 1960s really did provide women with freedom and equality of opportunity; I meant rather that his book posits a social ideal in which women really would have the equality to pursue their happiness free from the constraints of marriage (though not necessarily free from marriage altogether).

For example, Self is correct to point out the class bias of Betty Friedan-style feminism.  Still, his critique operates within a context of fundamentally market-based freedom.  Working-class women lack the resources of Smith-educated suburban housewives.  Liberals should have adopted policies that addressed those inequalities so that working-class women would have been able to compete on a level playing field with middle class workers.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, this is what Garry Wills identified in Nixon Agonistes as liberalism’s “myth of the starting line.” I accept that Self has no illusions about the real-life obstacles that the market places in the way of getting to that starting line.  I just question whether he can imagine a social order beyond some ideal of a purified market race.

I make what may seem to be a broad, sweeping indictment of the social vision of Self’s book after many years of studying the best of left-liberal communitarian thinking.  Thinkers ranging from Robert Lynd and C. Wright Mills to Ruth Benedict and Harold Cruse have offered critiques of the market that ultimately end up only affirming what amounts to a truly free market, a neutral social space where individuals can pursue their desires, indeed endlessly recreate themselves, free from external constraints, most especially the constraints of inherited traditions.  I feel at a bit of a disadvantage in this current exchange in that while I have read Self’s book, nothing in his response suggests that he is familiar with my treatment of Friedan, Millet and Rich in my World Made Safe for Differences.  He seems particularly offended by characterization of the progressive left as reducing sexuality to a matter of consumer choice.  Despite the moral rehabilitation of consumerism in recent history writing, the term consumer still carries a certain negative moral connotation.  I certainly intended it to have that effect, but I also use it in a descriptive rather than evaluative sense.

Allow me to illustrate this descriptive aspect with the example of abortion.  Bracketing for a moment all the moral issues surrounding this topic, let us try to think about the social, cultural and legal status of abortion in America today.  Supporters of Roe v. Wade understand the decision to have an abortion as protected by a constitutional right to privacy.  No public authority can have any say in whether a woman has an abortion.  The father of the child has not say whatsoever in the decision.  The woman’s choice is personal and private, bound by no legal or cultural constraints beyond her state of mind at the time she makes the decision.  Legally, it does not matter whether she decides to have an abortion to free herself from the trauma of a rape-induced pregnancy or simply because she does not want to gain weight.  The law must remain silent on motivation and support her freedom to choose.  Let us leave aside for a moment the unacknowledged irony of critics of patriarchy conferring on women the kind of patriarchal right once associated with the Roman paterfamilias.  Publically, the decision to have an abortion is as arbitrary as any consumer preference.  In fact, it is more arbitrary than some.  For example, the law declares that a thirteen-year old girl cannot buy tobacco or alcohol, even as it must remain silent on her decision to have an abortion or use contraceptives.  This is what I mean by radical individualism in sexuality.  It is not the preference of a radical fringe.  It is the law of the land.

Self’s history shows that defenders of the radically private right to abortion nonetheless asserted that the public had a duty to support private decisions with public funds and programs.  As Self writes, “Feminists’ aim was less to order private lives than to support men and women in choosing the kind of order their private lives would have” (331).  In effect, feminists were asking for the kind of deal that the railroads got in the nineteenth century (and of course, that many corporations continue to get today despite regulations).  This is public support with no corresponding public duties or responsibilities on the part of those receiving the support–or, in the old corporate liberal formula for welfare capitalism, a process of socializing the costs and privatizing the benefits.  Self argues that feminists were not obliterating the public good, but simply redefining it.  This particular understanding of the relation between public and private good seems to stretch the term “public” beyond all meaning.


Are there any limits to redefinition?  With respect to gender, sexuality and the family, apparently not.  Imagine, however, if we applied this hermeneutic to race.  How would the history of post-Civil War America look?  Reconstruction, Jim Crow and Plessy v. Ferguson—a betrayal of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments?  Not at all!  Let us rather see them as a creative re-imagining of the meaning of those amendments.  Quick, someone send Eric Foner the memo!  Though such an interpretation was once actually the orthodoxy of the profession, it is not likely to make a revival any time soon because our current understanding of the meaning of racial equality has very definite limits.  Separate but equal, for example, is not equal.  Such limits make racial equality a public value, one that even a conservative white Southern Baptist minister such as Jerry Falwell could not deny and hope to have any standing in American public life after the Civil Rights era.  In Self’s account, as in contemporary progressive politics, family does not merit such definitional limits.

I am not affirming breadwinner liberalism as a timeless tradition.  I am simply emphasizing that, as Self shows, the two-parent, male-headed, heterosexual nuclear family once functioned as a public value in that it was thought to be a shared or common value, not one option among many.  The new model families promoted by the progressive left simply do not meet the formal criteria of a public value because they are justified as personal choices.

I realize that common values are no guarantee of social solidarity.  As Self shows, blacks were consistently denied equal access to jobs despite their appeal to breadwinner virtues.  On this point, I never, as Self implies, accuse black workers of “corroding public culture.” Their exclusion from the economic benefits of full citizenship remains a great historical injustice, one rooted in racism yet also in the hard economic reality of the competition for scarce jobs.  There is no defense of racism, but I have a hard time sitting in judgment on white construction workers who refused to give up their jobs, or the jobs of friends and family members, for what to them seemed the abstract cause of racial justice; I have an even harder time listening to middle-class academics blaming the white working class for the failure of their noble dream of the Great Society.  I never suggested that breadwinner liberalism could have solved the economic problems of the late sixties. I merely appealed to it as an example of a cultural value that may properly be called public.

Given the economic reality of the competition for scarce jobs, I have a hard time seeing how Self’s alternative of encouraging women to enter the workforce would have solved the problems of race and class.  Most of the working class jobs that black men fought for in the sixties were, by the seventies, disappearing even for white men.  Economic “realities” eventually pulled women into the workforce, and the increasing competition for a decreasing pool of jobs drove down wages for everyone.  Those same realities undermined the welfare state.  Anti-statist conservatives had been railing against Keynesian economics at least since the forties; by the seventies, history finally handed them a reality that seemed to match their theories.  No doubt, as Self convincingly shows, conservative family politics played a powerful role in de-legitimating the welfare state. Still, the economic deficiencies of the welfare state in the seventies were not simply fantasies of the radical right.  Looking at the state of the economy in the under Carter, many voters decided that the Democratic Party’s version of the welfare state, in the words of Self’s assessment of the family model of breadwinner liberalism, “was not a timeless tradition . . . That it came apart is not surprising. . . .Stuff comes apart.”  These people voted for Ronald Reagan.  Republicans went on to rule the country for the next thirty years.

This period saw not only a retreat from the welfare state, but also a dramatic rise in the gender and sexual diversity that Self improbably presents as under siege.  Thirty years after Ronald Reagan, we still have abortion on demand—yet also gay marriage.  At the same time, we have also seen a dramatic rise to dominance of free-market economics.  Liberals won the culture.  Conservatives won the economy. The “totalizing” public culture of breadwinner liberalism has given way to the totalizing “public” culture of unrestrained sexual and economic individualism.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is a very perceptive and tough minded (in William James’ sense) critique of the perceived rule of privacy. I wonder, however about the possibility and politics of a radical individualism that is not market based, that is neither right-wing Libertarian nor left-wing consumerist. I have in mind George Kateb and the tradition he identifies with Emerson. It is interested in excellence but refuses to tie the virtues to either markets nor neighborhoods. It is suspicious of state rules and all forms of group identity as coercive, including the identity of an isolated consumer. Is such a “Left individualism” possible or is it doomed, in your mind, to be co-opted by selfish and merely private, sensualist shallowness?

  2. Thanks for your comment. Emerson’s individualism is certainly deeper than that of a satisfied shopper, and it certainly opened up critical insights into aspects of 19th century capitalism that escaped that regime’s less thoughtful defenders. Still, I would have to say that Emerson is ultimately still part of the problem. On this, I would again refer readers to Wills’ book on Nixon, where he explicitly makes the connection between Emerson and Nixon. At this point in my study of the past, I’ve pretty much reached the conclusion that the market is somehow simply part of America’s cultural and intellectual DNA. As a result, I have more recently turned to the study of European thinkers dealing with the same challenges of modernity, and coming to more authentically communitarian conclusions.

  3. What a great, exemplary exchange this has been! Congratulations to all involved in bringing it to fruition. I haven’t read either of the principals’ books. I’m wondering what you have to say about Christopher Lasch and Miller’s recent biography. And if you haven’t seen it, take a look at Eli Zaretsky’s new book, Why America Needs a Left: A Historical Argument.

    Bill Barnes

  4. Bill,

    Thanks for your appreciation. I have read Miller’s book on Lasch and think its great. I will have to add Zaretsky’s to my to do list.

  5. Well I’m back again. A singular comment on a main theme in this reply, and then to what I’ve had saved on my computer since before the move.

    “Self argues that feminists were not obliterating the public good, but simply redefining it. This particular understanding of the relation between public and private good seems to stretch the term “public” beyond all meaning.” This comes after a discussion of abortion policy, and how it represents the privatization of benefits and the socializing of costs. This is an interesting example, because there actually is an argument that the availability of abortion is a public good – the public good that comes from reduced crime, if you tend to agree with the analysis of Levitt and Dubner in Freakanomics. I for one view policy which reduces the number of unwanted and uncared for children in the society as most clearly a public good. But that’s only the easiest of such examples. Just because left-liberal policy has not created any kind of good you would call public, does not mean such public goods do not exist – and to say that these people have not redefined, but rather obliterated, the public good, is not so much to point out a truth you have discerned than to show the colors of your own values – and once again we are in the realm of that which we can’t really argue about.

    But of course, these visions of the public good still need the help of an entire society – not just liberals or leftists – willing to think past our dependence on the market model; which brings me back to the last reply you left me:

    “And this again leaves me wondering how you would image a vision of community beyond individualism.” Very briefly, this is true, that there is a problem here. As I said, I fail at this moment to be the next great theorist of the left. And I’ve been aware for a while that while being very critical of individualism, I do not want to dispense with it entirely. However, in a sense, neither do you; you want traditional communities to be able to flourish, but you wouldn’t really restrain non-traditional families, or sub-cultures which still emphasize individualism, from flourishing either; and here we are back to the problem of having your cake and eating it too. But yes – if I am suspicious of non-egalitarian relationships, you are suspicious of allowing significant space for individualism as that seems corrosive to the common good. I believe there is a tempered version of individuality that maintains our mutual commitments to each other, but we agree that right now that is not where we are.

    “On the issue of sexism, while I certainly object to many attitudes and actions that reflect what is commonly understood as sexism, I find it curious that someone who objects to the necessity of common sexual norms could object to sexism. Isn’t this just another sexual attitude or form of expression?” No. Take rape, for example; it’s not really about obtaining sex, it is about power. And moreover, there are limits to the expression of sexuality – and the principle is pretty simple, the harm principle. Anything that causes anyone harm steps outside the bounds of acceptable personal freedom or expression. (I know there is an argument here about harm being done to a larger unit than the individual, but let’s stick with this for a moment.) Now this does indeed call for education. I do not object to all common sexual norms – I object to sexist, racist, and homophobic sexual norms. Sex should necessarily come with full respect between partners – and that should be the normative ideal that we teach ourselves and our children. Just because this is a normative ideal much broader than any of the others we’ve been discussing does not mean it is bereft of any concept of a public good. And if it might seem utopian, it seems to me no more utopian than the strictures placed on sex and sexuality under traditional marriage.

    Finally, I like your question about mobility as it is indeed intriguing. To a certain extent, these communities do already or still exist – some Amish and some Mormon communities come to mind – but they are besieged in contemporary culture, for sure; you need to pretty much drop out of the world much more completely than most Mormons do, for example, to pull it off. I suspect in a post-capitalist society, this problem might be greatly mitigated (ie, these communities would not have to enter into and be dependent on the market, and could thus have much greater autonomy). And yet, you would be right to suspect that I cannot bring myself to object to people protesting the anti-gay agenda of the Mormon church, for they have tax-exempt status and are actively and energetically doing their best to reel back the civil liberties of others outside of their own community.

  6. Welcome back, Robin Maire. Sorry for the delay in responding to you, but I have been out of town the past couple of days. Here are a few thoughts in response to your latest challenges.

    On your objection that my definition of “public good” is too slanted toward my vision of a specific public good, I will agree with you half way. The specific issue of abortion aside, I am assuming a non-utilitarian understanding of the public good, largely because much of the (even secular) communitarian critique of liberalism has been an effort to get beyond Nozick’s utilitarianism and Rawls’ rights talk. You have presented a convincing utilitarian defense of abortion, one very similar to that made by Ronald Reagan in his support for abortion while governor of California during the 1960s. One of my many problems with utilitarianism (aside from the goal of the “greatest good” simply deferring the issue of how we judge something to be good) with respect to abortion is that it lends itself so easily to eugenicist thinking that I believe most of us want to avoid. The old eugenicist regime of scientifically trained experts making the lethal distinction between the fit and unfit gives way to the new democratic regime of mothers making the lethal distinction between the wanted and the unwanted.

    On the issue of having my cake and eating it too, I suppose it all depends on how big a cake we are talking about. That is, my tolerance of non-traditional families depends very much on location. I see myself as first of all a resident citizen of a particular place, Front Royal, Virginia. If the Mormons in Utah want to vote for polygamy, there’s not much I can do about it since, up to now, marriage laws have operated on a state, rather than federal level (the court may change that soon). If a Mormon polygamist moved to Virginia and wanted the state to recognize his marriage to five women, I would oppose that if it ever came to a vote. I would tolerate Mormon polygamy in Utah not based on any abstract principle of individual freedom, but as a consequence of existing political structures that I have to work within. I would use those same structures to oppose polygamy where I live. Given our current economy, state marriage laws will very likely soon face a Dred Scott moment—does a slave cease being a slave when he enters a free state? The debate over slavery was as much about the direction of a nationalizing economy as it was about the equality of African Americans. I suspect utilitarian arguments for gay marriage (it’s good for business) will combine with more principled defenders of rights to make it the national norm far short of a civil war.

    One last point on sexism and the harm principle. First, sexism is not rape. One could conceivably indulge in all sorts of sado-masochistic pornography that both you and I think degrades women, yet never commit a crime. Do such fantasies become thought crimes? Self addresses the pornography issue, so I won’t go into the historical debate. I for one would say that such fantasies harm and degrade both men and women, but I could only make that argument from some normative understanding of proper relations between the sexes, and such language is forbidden in a public realm dominated by utilitarianism and rights talk. The “harm principle” has proved notoriously slippery since Mill invoked it. It depends upon a generally shared, substantive understanding of harm, and that is what we don’t quite have today. I agree that your non-racist, sexist, homophobic ideal is a normative principle, but one that draws much more on negative rather than positive liberty and one that strikes many as “harmful” to their more traditional notions of gender relations. You seem to justify promoting this normative ethic because it is “broader” than the alternatives, but broad and narrow are slippery terms. This ethic would consign the vast majority of the world’s remaining non-Westernized cultures to the dust bin of history. This vision of progress as Westernization has undergone a curious rehabilitation in recent historiography, as I point out in my review of the book “Cold War Social Science” earlier on this site. I understand why this is so appealing to modernized Westerners. I just have trouble squaring it with the rhetoric of diversity.
    Robin, I think this about does it for me. Thank you for putting so much time and thought into your comments. I have enjoyed the exchange, and hope maybe that we can continue it at the conference in November.

  7. Hi Chris — Likewise, much thanks. I already have some initial replies, but I’ll discipline myself and save them for later. And no need to thank me for the time spent on this — I type very fast.

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