U.S. Intellectual History Blog

An Unusable Past?

Although the phrase “a usable past” was coined by Van Wyck Brooks in the 1910s and has been embraced by scholars of a variety of political stripes in the decades since, for the last half century or so, it’s often been closely associated with radical historians of the United States, who have looked to ideas and social movements from the American past as to guide their contemporaries, in various ways, toward a brighter future.

So I was quite struck when, in the last couple days, I’ve encountered three scholars on the left who, in quite different ways, have recently suggested that the past may not be as usable as we once thought.

The first was Gar Alperovitz, whose latest book What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution, published last month, begins with a long discussion of why the great reform periods of the 20th century do not, in fact, provide a meaningful guide to future potential social change.  Alperovitz’s basic argument, in his book’s first section, is that the New Deal and the Great Society, as well as the successes of the Black freedom struggle and second-wave feminism, would have been impossible without the essentially irreproducible international catastrophes of the Great Depression and World War II (and its aftermath).  What we learn from studying this past, in Alperovitz’s view is that it’s not very usable, at least as a positive guide for the present and future left.[1]

Last Friday, on the New York Times’s philosophy blog “The Stone,” the philosopher Peter Ludlow wrote an interesting post entitled “The Real War on Reality,” which raises a quite different question about the usability of the past.  Ludlow describes the ways in which public and private intelligence agencies have sought to manufacture reality.  A group of security firms called “Team Thetis,” at the behest of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, planned to undermine a watchdog group called Chamber Watch by planting false documents, which, after Chamber Watch publicized them, would be revealed to be fake in order to discredit the group.  For the U.S. Air Force,  Team Thetis apparently planned to create the impression of grassroots opinion by manipulating social media through sockpuppetry. In Ludlow’s words, these attempts, and others like them, to manipulate public knowledge constitute a kind of “epistemic warfare.”  Ludlow’s conclusion is that the “hacktivists” who’ve revealed such schemes (a group in which Ludlow includes Edward Snowden) deserve support…especially from philosophers, who ought see in their efforts to expose these false realities something akin to the role of the philosophers in Plato’s allegory of the cave.

Ludlow doesn’t discuss history at all, but quite obviously the world he describes is one that would create enormous perils for future historians. The key fronts in Ludlow’s epistemic war—(supposed) U.S. Chamber of Commerce documents, (falsified) public opinion, and so forth–are the raw materials of future historians. And history itself would be an obvious place to manipulate reality (as George Orwell famously recognized).  A world of total epistemic warfare is a world in which the past will become dramatically less usable.

Finally, this morning, longtime friend-of-this-blog Jim Livingston responded, in a post on his blog, to the public discussion of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks.  Entitled “Radicalism Reduc: Where’s My Country?,” Livingston’s piece describes how the Snowden affair has led him to reconsider his longstanding rejection of a kind of radicalism that seems to place the left “outside the mainstream of US history:

That’s how radicalism works , by assuming that revolution means a complete break from the useless past—it’s the negation of conservatism, which assumes that civilization can last only if any such a revolutionary break from the past is prevented, only so long as custom and tradition are preserved.  Notice that conservatives and radicals concur on the meaning of revolution, in effect validating Edmund Burke’s fear and V. I. Lenin’s admiration of the French blueprint (thus displacing the American Revolution from the canon, as it were).

And that’s why I’ve been arguing against it.  Maybe I’ve been professionally deformed by my formal training as an academic historian, but I’ve long believed that if we can’t learn from the past—if we can’t read our ethical principles as legible in our historical circumstances—then we have nothing to say to our contemporaries, who live under those circumstances, who cannot as a rule afford to divest themselves of their prior commitments and join a crusade for social justice.

But the current national surveillance state, seems to Livingston, at least potentially, to remove the possibility of real change that grows organically out of the American present and past:

The new Leviathan moving its slow thighs just now, this rough beast Edward Snowden has stirred, what would it take to tame it, head it off, or kill it?  I don’t know.  Not anymore.  But I do know that radicalism makes a lot more sense at this moment than at any other in my adult life.  The choice does begin to feel like it’s either/or.

Obviously Alperovitz, Ludlow, and Livingston are confronting distinct issues (though Ludlow’s and Livingston’s are closely related) and providing rather different responses.  Alperovitz and Ludlow remain optimists.  Livingston has embraced pessimism. But all seem to suggest that the past may no longer provide us with a useful guide to the future.  Is this coincidence mere coincidence, or does it point to something broader about our cultural and intellectual moment?



[1] Alperovitz goes on to make some interesting suggestions about what new approaches will be necessary to bring about social change in the future. But the longer portion of his book devoted to presenting this positive program, while certainly worth considering, is not my focus today.

35 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This confluence of questions about the usability of the past seems, to me at least, to suggest that it’s the *recent* past may be the least usable. These questions don’t *generally* undermine the study of the past, but rather narrow the scope of usability.

    Also, how else do we know that some revolutionary change is possible except for—wait for it—HISTORY! So it’s history (or historiography more accurately) that tells us that recent history may be less reliable. Perhaps present circumstances are simply calling for a close reevaluation of those historical moments of radical activity and change? – TL

    • Clever (and wise) response, Tim. Alperovitz, in particular, is clearly drawing lessons from the past, even while denying its usefulness as a positive guide. I didn’t mean to suggest that any of these three was embracing a kind of full-on epistemic anti-historicism.

      But those who talk of a “usable past” have tended to mean more than simply that we can learn from the past. The usable past has tended to be postive…both narratively and epistemically. Those who invoke the “usable past” both see the past in positive ways and argue that it is a potential inspiration guide for a better future. And I do think, in different ways, each of the pieces I discuss point away from such visions.

      • I’m beginning to wonder if Livingston isn’t, in fact, embracing a substantial epistemic anti-historicism. You could see it brewing last June in his review of Paul Murphy’s *The New Era*. When you look at his deeper reflections beyond his criticisms of the book in particular, you see Livingston questioning the entire historical enterprise. He’s living on the edge. I don’t like it, but I think there’s virtue in looking deeply about history as a enterprise of useful knowledge.

        On your second para, Ben, for the sake of discussion, what of the cautious liberal consensus historians of the Fifties (esp. Schlesinger–not the celebratory ones) who, inspired by and in concert with Niebuhr, looked at the past as a long tale of tragedy—as a cautionary tale—even while they celebrated the uniqueness of America? It’s clear that they thought those negative lessons were useful, even if they didn’t trumpet an explicitly “usable past”?

  2. In Livingston’s piece, he also wrote: “I’ve spent the last thirty years arguing against radicalism pure and simple because it exempts the Left itself from any implication or culpability in the atrocities of the American Empire. Because it places us outside the mainstream of US history, whereas we belong at its very center.”

    I find this notion of radicalism defining the Left as a perpetual (forgive my 18th-century terminology) Country party really interesting. However, how many times in recent years have we heard the Left wax rhapsodically about the policies of Roosevelt in the late ’30s and calls from the Left for a “New New Deal,” as it were? Hence, it would seem that radicalism does not “place” the Left outside the mainstream of American history so much as it allows them to decide when they want to be placed in it, something which it seems Conservatives in this country cannot do.

  3. This discussion hits rather close to home, as I have been ranting about the “useable past” quite a lot this week, largely as a result of some experiences at the Left Forum in New York (a place where every other person is chomping at the bit to tell you their take on when the Russian Revolution went wrong for 15 straight hours, a passion directly motivated by the notion that proper emplotment of the Bolshevik experiment is a precondition for getting the next revolution right).

    The issue I encountered was this (I’ll change the relevant terms for the sake of keeping things theoretical): when activists talk about, say, building “social democracy,” to what degree is the history of “social democracy” relevant? (I began to think: maybe not at all?). Is it sort of relevant? Very relevant? Does the history of Sweden, say, ever warrant axioms along the lines of “social democracy can’t ever work,” “can only work under certain conditions,” “if we go down this road we will inevitably end up in broken compromises and a return to technocratic rule,” etc? Isn’t every historical situation more or less unique? What of calls for sentimental attachments to the past? If we want to build a social democracy, must we observe a moment of silence for all of the social democrats of the past? Why does that always feel sort of icky and cultish to me?

    These are some of the questions, I think, that are most pressing when we are thinking about the “useable past.” They are practical questions for activists. They are questions related to how activists use or don’t use the stuff that historians produce.

    The notion of “useable past” as proposed by Jerry Lembcke and others in the 1960s–as a question for professional historians–is related, but riven with its own distinctive contradictions.

    The best version of this New Left useable past, to my mind, would be something like the recovery of the history of a group of historical actors who are not regarded as historical actors, often with the goal of validating the work of present-day counterparts.

    So if, for example, women who do the household shopping are seen as non-actors in the labor movement, the recovery of the activism of women in earlier decades who policed pricing and protested gouging would be an important labor of historical reconstruction. It would be “useable” in several obvious ways.

    Alternately–and this is the way, I think, that intellectual historians often encounter the “useable past” argument–there is the idea that intellectuals and politicians have been over-studied, and that their history offers nothing of interest to present-day struggles. A scholar-activist, in this rendering, should not study something of exclusively mandarin interest, something that does not reveal immediately its usefulness for social movements.

    After a long time wrestling with these ideas, I’ve come to think that such positions are ethically ridiculous. It should be our drunk uncles at Thanksgiving, not our colleagues, who should be demanding to know what we are going to *do* with our historical studies.

    • Good stuff in here, Kurt. My only response is general, and one that corresponds with some philosophers (e.g. M.J. Adler asserted this in The Difference of Man and the Difference it Makes (1967), as have others): humans are historical animals. We use history, we play with it, we abuse it, and we worship it—all contribute our rearview nature. As a historian I will go ahead and assert that this is indeed one of my own beliefs about our joint essential nature. This is why I chose to study this field.

  4. Thanks to Ben for this radical (!) provocation, and to Tim and Kurt for these exponential addenda. In January 2012 I was invited to address the Economic Summit of the World Presidents Organization (no, Ian Fleming did not invent it) in Miami. Here’s how I began my address to the investment bankers and hedge fund managers who attended:
    “We’re here to take the long view . . .

    I’m going to test the system before I quote myself at length to no avail.

    • Jim: I’m happy you chimed in here. So, in your opinion today, what *exactly* do we get out of the “long view”? And what system are you going to test? – TL

  5. Tim, I think Jim meant that he was going to test our comment moderation system before he typed up a lengthy reply.

    However, I have to say that his statement by itself — “I’m going to test the system before I quote myself at length to no avail” — might work for all kinds of situations.

  6. “Also, how else do we know that some revolutionary change is possible except for—wait for it—HISTORY!”

    Two-step of terrific triviality. Do you mean history as a discipline, a field of knowledge? In which case, I think you’re overselling your field. Or do you mean history in the sense of “Of course anyone interested in politics has a vague memory that the French and Russian revolutions occurred”? In which case, yes, but so what?

    Given “Perhaps present circumstances are simply calling for a close reevaluation of those historical moments of radical activity and change?” I’m going to take it as meaning the first. In which case this is a very familiar answer: “I have a hammer, where are the nails?” that you’d expect from anyone who’s in a particular field. Is there any specific kind of analysis of any particular moment that you have reason to think would actually be helpful?

    • Rich: Triviality? Really? But on your purported “two-step” (and I don’t which you think I’m overselling), I do in fact mean history as *both* a discipline and field of knowledge. Both require hard-won study. The fact is, too many people trivialize that hard-won study and the lessons learned from it. We really and deeply access history when we look closely at it.

      On which moments to study, well, we have a bevy of them on the French Revolution. And we have another truckload on all the various revolutions of the 19th century, as well as the granddaddy of the them all, the Russian Revolution (not to mention the attempted revolutions of the Sixties—attempts that have cautioned revolutionary feeling in America since). I know that Jim Livingston is familiar with a great many of these. – TL

      • From the OP: “[…] for the last half century or so, it’s often been closely associated with radical historians of the United States, who have looked to ideas and social movements from the American past as to guide their contemporaries, in various ways, toward a brighter future.”

        So the French and Russian revolutions really don’t count. They are no longer a useable past in this sense. As for the Sixties — yes, stories from then are retold as cautionary tales. Which are not useful if what one wants to know is a way forward.

        So I have to take your answer as meaning that no, there is no useable past in the sense meant.

  7. The way that the term “usable past” is frequently invoked, since Van Wyck Brooks, seems very unhistorical. Instead of referring to the ways in which study of the past and its “pastness” can help situate the present, it aims to take elements of the past out of their context and utilize them for present radical purposes. The question isn’t, for instance, to understand the Jeffersonian Republicans, the abolitionists, the Wobblies, the Debsian socialists, etc. in terms of the conditions that created them and that they sought to address, but to recover the radical elements that make sense for the present. The goal seems to be to imagine a mythical tradition to be tapped into, partly as a way to dispel the notion that radicalism is somehow “unAmerican.” This is quite different from the way in which Joyce Appleby uses the concept in the closing lines of her _Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790s_: “To study the exact nature of the capitalist underpinnings of our nation’s first popular political movement, formed at the turn of the nineteenth century, is also to find a more usable past, for it teaches us that we at the turn of the twenty-first century must look elsewhere for our principle of hope.”

    • Well said, Dan. I think you can see in my reply to Rich that I’m advocating for, in your words, a pastness that can help situate the present. If we get some nugget we can use directly, then great—but that’s not my point in invoking the phrase “usable” past. There are rarely any one-for-one direct correlations, except in super practical matters (e.g. tools made and forgotten). But systems, well, I’m with Appleby in that “usable” must often be redefined.

    • “To study the exact nature of the capitalist underpinnings of our nation’s first popular political movement, formed at the turn of the nineteenth century, is also to find a more usable past, for it teaches us that we at the turn of the twenty-first century must look elsewhere for our principle of hope.”

      If all you learn from history is to look elsewhere, why study history? In what way would the people who’ve gone through this study be any better off than those who never started it? I’m not really looking for an answer of the form 1) “knowledge is good” or 2) we study history because we’re historians. I think we can take both of those as read.

      Study is an opportunity cost. If people trying to make a different future didn’t study history, they might find some better way of spending their time. Is it because that this way they’ll learn what didn’t work? I think that kind of knowledge is highly overrated, compared to any inkling of what would work.

      • Rich–
        It’s not simply knowledge of what didn’t work in the past that helps to inform the present–it’s knowledge of the ways in which particular conditions made past beliefs meaningful for those engaged in them, and an awareness that the conditions we face in the present are different. On the one hand, this is a general point of view, and it might be asked what we gain from actually engaging in the study of the past once we’ve acknowledged the general point. I think it is the knowledge of particularity, a knowledge that can help inform the particularity of our own time without drawing “lessons” or abstracting to types. To go back to Appleby: her argument is that the Jeffersonian republicans of the 1790s developed a vision of a classless society of small farmers and property owners that was commensurate with a vision of capitalism at the outset. Unaware that capitalism, in its industrial form, would create new forms of class hierarchy, they rooted their vision of classlessness and hope for the future in a society defined by mobility, markets, and capitalist forms of production and ownership. Those who would invoke the Jeffersonian image of an egalitarian society and limited government must come to terms with the fact that the concrete and particular conditions that made that hope possible no longer exist. The ahistorical “usable past” is like that of the Tea Party–an idea that limited government might mean the same thing in a twenty-first center of global corporate capitalism as it did at the moment of a newly independent agrarian republic. When Appleby says this is a usable past, she means that understanding the concrete conditions of thought, aspirations, and ideas can help us to see why some ideas might be applicable to the present, and others not.

  8. I’m reading Herodotus now (don’t judge) and it seems to me that this passage from the intro to the 1942 Modern Library Edition gets at part of the problem of “the useful past.” It’s also an interesting snapshot of the state of historiography (by which I mean to include “philosophy of history,” following Klein) at mid-century.

    Anyway, here’s the pertinent passage from Godolphin’s introduction:

    What might be called systematic error is the source of enormous difficulty for the historian since it involves the presuppositions of his own thinking. It is likely to take the form of a general principle by means of which he interprets events, to the exclusion of contributing or material causes which should be assigned their proper place if the interpretation is not to be distorted. Fear of falling into some systematic error leads historians to stress the uniqueness of any given event and to deny any unity to history, along with the denial of any moral or didactic value. This particular form of the old problem of the one and the many is the chief obstacle which must be overcome by any valid philosophy of history. To obtain objectivity by stressing uniqueness is to lose significance; to obtain value and significance by stressing the unity of history, and history as instructive, is to risk falling into some systematic error. In any case the historian is working according to some hypothesis; his task is to evolve an hypothesis which will neither lead him into the systematic error of interpretation according to a general principle unsupported by evidence or insufficiently comprehensive, nor leave him with disecta membra which cannot be brought into any intelligible relation with the actualities of human life.

    There they are — the Scylla and Charybdis of historiography.

    Now back to Herodotus.

  9. Rich, you write (in response to the passage from Appleby quoted above at #7), “If all you learn from history is to look elsewhere, why study history?”

    The study of history doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and it doesn’t happen absent any other ideas about what relationship, if any, might obtain between the past and the present.

    Memory, tradition, deference to or dread of cultural forebears are pretty common human practices, and they have real consequences. Many people believe that the past “repeats” itself, or that today’s problems are inevitable, or predetermined, or part of God’s plan, or a stage in some orderly development, evolutionary or de-evolutionary. Others believe that the living owe a debt to the past, to honor / carry on various traditions, or that the leaders of today must somehow “measure up” to leaders of earlier eras, or that the laws of today must (or must not) fit within the legal reasoning of earlier eras.

    These are all current, potent notions that people have about the past. And they act upon these notions, and vote upon these notions, and weave together cultural practices and traditions upon these notions.

    So one job of the historian might be to advance a particular notion of the past that offers some means of being able to believe that nothing is inevitable, and that there are real choices to be made, and there is real freedom in making them.

    I wrote about this here: Why History Matters

    Other people will have other answers as to why the study of history matters. But that one made sense to me at the time. And, with some modifications, which I’m sure I’ll write about sooner or later, it makes sense to me still.

  10. Dan Wickberg: “The ahistorical “usable past” is like that of the Tea Party–an idea that limited government might mean the same thing in a twenty-first center of global corporate capitalism as it did at the moment of a newly independent agrarian republic. When Appleby says this is a usable past, she means that understanding the concrete conditions of thought, aspirations, and ideas can help us to see why some ideas might be applicable to the present, and others not.”

    But here I have to point out that the Tea Party’s vision of the past worked for them. They obtained actual political power out of it. Of course this doesn’t mean that they can return conditions to those of the early U.S., but their idea of limited government, no matter how delusional it was, lead to real power.

    L. D. Burnett: “These are all current, potent notions that people have about the past. And they act upon these notions, and vote upon these notions, and weave together cultural practices and traditions upon these notions.”

    I certainly wouldn’t deny that ideas about history matter to politics, especially within the U.S. — one of the most conservative countries, in terms of how long its system of government has been in existence, in the world. These ideas are called on for all sorts of rhetorical purposes. But when it comes to “So one job of the historian might be to advance a particular notion of the past […]” you’re talking about entering highly contested ground. You might ask the climate scientists how well its going bringing the benefits of actual knowledge to the political arena. I don’t think that knowing anything about history necessary means anything useful in terms of political uses of it.

    • But here I have to point out that the Tea Party’s vision of the past worked for them. They obtained actual political power out of it.

      Well they had a vision of the past. And they gained some measure of political power. But, absent a lot more argumentation, it’s a bit of a post hoc fallacy to conclude that they attained power out of their view of the past.

      (Also, even assuming such a causal connection, I think most of us word be wary of adopting a kind of vulgar pragmatism toward usable pasts that would lead one to congratulate, e.g., the Nazis for their politically successful use of history.)

      • I think that argumentation would not particularly advance the thread, but yes, I think that the Tea Party’s vision of the past helped to enable them to mobilize actual political power. We can just treat it as an unsupported disagreement if you think otherwise.

        But your second paragraph kind of goes over the cliff, I think. Aside from its Godwin’s Law evocation, “a vulgar pragmatism towards usable pasts” is exactly what a good number of non-historians are interested in. If the only response is to dismiss this as vulgar pragmatism, then I don’t see any real basis for conversation between historians and non-historians. As above, if someone starts a discussion with “do the great reform periods of the 20th century […] in fact, provide a meaningful guide to future potential social change”? and the answer is “No, not really”, there’s certain any amount of subtle detail work to be done to that answer, but there’s no particular reason why anyone but an expert should be interested in it.

      • On the importance of the Tea Party’s vision of history, I’m kind of agnostic. I think the success of the Tea Party (such as it was) had much to do with huge amounts of resources thrown its way by people like the Koch Brothers. Absent such resources, I’m convinced its vision if history wouldn’t have taken it very far. Whether or not, absent its vision of history, it could have still gone far with those resources, is a question that I don’t have a strong opinion about, but am willing to entertain the view that the vision of history was necessary (if not sufficient).

        But I also think we’re talking about apples and oranges here. Alperovitz, Ludlow, and Livingston are (in very different ways) suggesting that what actually took place in the past might not provide a positive guide for political action in the future. I don’t think any of them would deny that a mythicized version of the past might be used successfully to motivate political action (good or bad).

  11. Rich, thanks for the response. Two things:

    First, I was very explicit about the particular notion of the past that I suggested historians can offer: a particular notion of the past that offers some means of being able to believe that nothing is inevitable, and that there are real choices to be made, and there is real freedom in making them. Of course, there are many other “justifications” or reasons for the work of historians — Dan Wickberg’s comment above about the importance of grasping the particularity and unrepeatability of past context is another take.

    But I didn’t say or even imply that I would want to advance a particular notion of the past in order to achieve a specific political goal — for me, the reason for doing history goes way beyond politics and embraces a fuller existential experience. I want history to help people find the courage and confidence to make choices with an eye to the future. Some of those choices might come in the polling booth, some might arise in the public square, some might happen in the courtroom or the marriage altar or the shoreline or the farmer’s field or the shop room floor. History can be freeing — not a nightmare weighing on the living, but a benediction on living. That’s how I plan to write it anyhow.

    Secondly, what in the world makes you think I’d be the least bit worried about entering highly contested ground?
    🙂

  12. I didn’t write that I assumed that you’d be worried about entering contested ground. I wrote that “I don’t think that knowing anything about history necessarily means anything useful in terms of political uses of it.” (After fixing a typo.) And indeed you say that you don’t necessarily want to “advance a particular notion of the past in order to achieve a specific political goal.”

    And that’s somewhat arrogant, isn’t it? I write as an activist, not a historian — I’m not one. What makes you think that people need an expert view of history that comes down to “choices are possible”? It takes a discussion that started with the idea of a specifically American, contemporary useable past and turns it into an anodyne generalization. If that’s the entry into contested ground that you’d make, you certainly can, but I think that it’s a view that works against any real change.

  13. That’s right — I am not writing history in the service of the Democratic party, the Republican party, the New Left, the Old Left, the Socialist party, the Green party, organized labor, entrenched capital, etc., etc., etc.

    There are things that matter to me, things I care about, with political and social and cultural and existential ramifications — and those come through in the writing. But if you want to reduce everything that I care about to my politics, or reduce all of my work to its political usefulness, that’s your affliction, not mine.

    “What makes you think that people need an expert view of history that comes down to ‘choices are possible’?

    I needed such a view.

    My life has been absolutely transformed by learning to see the past in a particular way, by learning to think historically. There’s a reason my personal blog is titled “Saved by History.”

    My experience is not a template for anybody else, or a guide for anyone else, or a one-size-fits-all solution for anyone else. But historical thinking is what I have to offer as a professional historian and — sweet Lord Jesus am I even saying this?! — as a “public intellectual.”

    So dismiss my thinking, such as it is, as anodyne and bland and politically useless, or consider it is a different perspective that might prove to be helpful some time to someone, if not to yourself. Either choice is fine with me.

  14. If you needed such a view, fine. I’m not interested in critiquing a personal life-transformation story. But you presented this as:

    “So one job of the historian might be to advance a particular notion of the past that offers some means of being able to believe that nothing is inevitable, and that there are real choices to be made, and there is real freedom in making them.”

    “one job of the historian” is not a personal idea. It’s giving historians a social function, as a group of people. And that social function is one that elides the exact question that Livingston refers to in his post, when he talks about the difference between radical and not-radical viewpoints. Is there any real change possible within the current structure? There are well-known radical views that believe that certain things are indeed inevitable, given political and economic conditions. You may not be interested in writing in the service of any particular party, but that doesn’t mean that your writing doesn’t have an effect that implicitly supports some and disfavors others.

    Which is fine, if that’s what you want to do. But what I personally dislike about this intervention into what I thought was the original subject of the thread are its unquestioned assumptions, which I think your last comment illustrates well in terms of its “you’re writing in service of party, I’m writing about things I care about”, “you’re reducing work to its political usefulness, I’m writing a different (and implicitly more full) perspective.”

  15. I am not unaware that a purportedly apolitical stance carries a political valence. If you’re familiar with various past posts/conversations on this blog, you already know this. If not, do a search for “The Politics of Historiography” and that will turn up a relevant thread. You could also search the keyword “irony” for some of Andrew’s writing on the relationship between historiography and politics.

    But surely you already know — from my previous comment above — that I’m not particularly impressed with your selective quotations and careless readings. I said, “one job of the historian might be…,” suggesting both plurality (there’s more than one thing historians can do) and contingency (this may or may not be the most important job for a historian to be doing at a particular time).

    The job that I suggested historians might do is indeed a social function that historians can perform, and it is a social function that I expect to perform as a historian — though it is neither an exhaustive nor an exclusive description of all that I hope to do. It is rather a description of one thing that I hope to do well.

    As to what you personally don’t like about this intervention — well, if it rubs you the wrong way, then maybe it’s not so anodyne after all.

    And before anyone gives me grief about “public intellectual,” even with scare quotes, this is all I meant by that: I meant that I think out loud in public via writing, and people read and respond to what I say. That’s all.

  16. I don’t think it’s a careless reading if I seemed to understand what you meant. We seem to agree about that: you would like to do a particular kind of political intervention, one which supports a particular idea of the social function of historians. I never claimed that you wrote that it was the only one.

    As for “it’s not so anodyne if you dislike it” — well, you could also write that what you’d really like to do is write just like David Brooks for the rest of your life, and seize on my expressed dislike for the idea as evidence that writing in this way wouldn’t be so anodyne after all. But maybe there’d be some problem with this reasoning.

  17. Rich–
    Your argument seems to come down to a claim that historical study is worthless to people like yourself who are doing the real work of imagining an alternative future, and you really have little use for it. A number of commentators have tried to explain what the value might be (e.g. challenging the Tea Party view of the past and its applicability to the present, giving us a clearer sense that we live in historical time which precludes some alternatives and opens up others, presenting a view of the world that is more than narrowly instrumental, presenting us with the conditions of greater self knowledge, etc.) and you have summarily dismissed them all. What would convince you that studying history has any purpose at all? The only thing you seem to admire is the success of the Tea Party in translating its vision of history, such as it is, into an effective political wedge. Falsify the past, if it works, I guess. A left version of the Tea Party? I’m serious: what is it you want historians to do for you and your vision of the future?

    • Perhaps the purpose of studying history is to study history? I’m certainly not saying that study for its own sake has anything wrong with it. But when the people in this thread generally have been supplying alternate reasons under the rubric of “usability”, what are they? “Presenting a view of the world that is more than merely instrumental”? Thank you for your condescension, but people have that already. “Presenting us with the conditions for greater self knowledge”? I fail to see why history has any special privilege in this regard. Self knowledge can be found through any number of routes. “Giving us a clearer sense that we live in historical time which precludes some alternatives and opens up others”? OK, now we’re getting somewhere, but does this mean anything other than as a generality? If all that it means is “Don’t look to recent history as a guide”, I think that can be assimilated very quickly.

      I’m pushing back on this a bit because really, if this is all that history as a discipline has to offer, it would be better in my opinion if historians just got out of the way. Studying history, as I’ve mentioned above, takes time. I’ve seen any number of activists take “You have to study the history of this” seriously, to their detriment and the detriment of everyone.

      As for “Falsify the past, if it works” — I invite you to describe any successful political movement that hasn’t falsified the past. Is there a single real past, and all we have to do to create change in the present is draw on it? I don’t think that very many people really believe this. Yes, I think that the Tea Party was successful so far as it went in part because they used part of the American historical myth. Historians pointing out (accurately) that it wasn’t factual had seemingly no effect.

      So I took the question about whether there’s a useable past to mean: is there a useable myth? That’s what a lot of the discussion about the history of past left triumphs and whether they really help or not seems to come down to.

      • Taking one’s time to be careful is a problem?! For real?

        As for successful political movements that have “falsified” the past, well, some play with it, most certainly. Indeed, it’s the half-truths that gather the most attention. But that shouldn’t stop anyone—activist, critic, or observer—from looking to history to understand how a movement got where it is. In fact, studying one’s own history is often part and parcel with understanding one’s own identity. Any movement that doesn’t understand and study its history stands the chance of being short-lived because it doesn’t FEEL its moorings. They have no sense (emotion and intellect) of their identity, which hampers fellow-feeling about the future. And to feel that one’s movement is GENUINE, one must have the sense that her/his identity is as accurate as possible. – TL

      • Get out of the way? Who’s way? I suspect that your argument is really another varient or variety of anti-intellectualism. It is a typical rhetorical strategy to denounce this or that profession as a waste or as irrelevant; some natural scientists do it to the humanities, some jocks and business people say it about the Arts. And at times political activists argue against “armchair theorists”. In my view these are all forms of the same syndrome diagnosed by Richard Hofstadter way back in the 1960s. In truth any field of study with well, history, has innate and intrinsic value and to argue against a whole profession like the practice of History says more about the values of the arguer than the field in question. I understand that not everybody has the same level of curiosity about the world and that some people live for immediate results but it is disrespectful to talk that way about a whole profession.

  18. Rich–
    And thank _you_ for your condescension as well! I think everybody here has done their best to engage your questions in a serious way, only to be met by your sneering a priori contempt for history as having any value at all. If studying the past takes too much time away from the revolutionary imagination of an alternative future, I can only imagine the radical value of time spent writing blog comments on history sites. Keep up the good work.

    • “I understand that not everybody has the same level of curiosity about the world and that some people live for immediate results but it is disrespectful to talk that way about a whole profession.”

      “Perhaps the purpose of studying history is to study history? I’m certainly not saying that study for its own sake has anything wrong with it.”

      I wonder who wrote that last quote? Must have been someone in some other thread. At any rate, as Dan Wickberg illustrates above, I don’t think that I turned out to be wrong when I characterized the attitudes here. You don’t want to be honored as academics, that’s not good enough — you want to advise people on how they should relate to current politics as well. Is it disrespectful to tell you that alternating condescension and contempt maybe isn’t the best approach?

      To answer Tim Lacy: “Taking one’s time to be careful is a problem?! For real?”

      It can be, of course. Ideally every activist would be perfect in all ways, but in reality this isn’t true. Some people find it easy to read up on historical subjects, some don’t. What happens when you present historical grounding as something that activists should have? Some people get discouraged, and even those who don’t can spend more of their time reading history and less time reading other branches of knowledge — knowledge which you implicitly devalue, given that you can’t even acknowledge what an opportunity cost is.

      And when taken to extremes, this orientation towards history can have a bad effect on leadership. If the leaders of the group are those who are most skilled at history, they’re probably not those who are most skilled at working the media, getting other people to work together, or other forms of intelligence that you can safely devalue as not intellectual.

      And lastly, no, activism is not a contest of authenticity. “And to feel that one’s movement is GENUINE, one must have the sense that her/his identity is as accurate as possible.” So, the successes of the right since the time of Reagan and the Southern Strategy were based on authenticity? People’s real identities, their real selves, were empowered by the accuracy of what was presented to them? Or is the authenticity test something that only leftists have to deal with? In which case no wonder that there’s trouble finding a useable past.

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