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.
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.