The following is a guest post by Robin Marie Averbeck, who recently graduated from UC Davis with a PhD in American history. See her previous guest post here.
Of the many excellent and compelling talks, conversations, and panels I had the privilege of listening to during this year’s S-USIH conference, a handful of particular moments are beginning to congeal in my mind as the stew of papers, questions, wine, more papers, cheese, again papers, and then beer starts to settle. Together, these moments push me toward what I think one of the primary purposes of conferences are and ought to be – an imagining of where the field could go, and moreover, what it could be.
The first of these moments occurred almost as soon as my conference experience began, at the second panel I attended. Markus Kantola, from the University of Turku, gave a delightful paper on the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr, in particular the theological pessimism he developed during his first ministry in Detroit. During the question and answer session, someone chirped up with a somewhat unexpected comment. It was interesting, he said, that Detroit had such an influence on Niebuhr – because it seems like Niebuhr had almost no influence on Detroit. This blunt point drew a decent amount of laughter from the audience – which sounded like acknowledgment of the sad truth of the claim – and laughter again bounced out after the questioner added, “you can probably guess where I am from.”
Yet while the comment – and the laughter it induced – was a little unusual, the subject matter surrounding such liveliness was not: liberals and liberalism received a considerable amount of attention at the conference, inspiring some of the most exciting conversation and convincing more than a few that the study of liberalism is the next major task for US intellectual historians. This was not due, however, to a lack of papers devoted to liberalism’s supposed opponent, conservatism – there were nearly as many papers touching on aspects of conservative thought as liberal thought, and indeed, the evening plenary on the first day focused explicitly on the question of where the study of conservatism needs to go next. And yet, there was a feeling which I and others detected that the attempt to find the next big thing in conservative studies fell a little flat – or, as this blog’s own Andrew Hartman put it, “it feels like the subject is saturated.”
All of which, as an historian of post-war liberalism, I suppose I ought to be very pleased about. Yet there seemed to be something odd to me about the lack of buzz surrounding the plenary on conservatism. For although we do indeed have an abundance – some might even say a surplus – of scholarship on all sorts of expressions, variants, and figures of conservatism, I would think the interest of scholars in this topic would far outstrip their need for projects which, they can argue in book and dissertation introductions, are new and necessary. And this is simply because we all now move in a world profoundly shaped by the incredible success, in the last half-century, of conservative thought. Indeed, as public institution after public institution undergoes privatization, as inequality continues to grow, and as prisons are disproportionally occupied by black and brown Americans, it would seem the question of conservatism would remain rather pressing – especially considering that one of the primary targets of not merely those who identify as conservatives, but also those influenced by their economic ideas, is the institution most of us depend on for our purpose and our livelihood – the public university.
There was, of course, some acknowledgment of this during the panel. Politics, as always, floats about overhead at academic conferences, acknowledged repeatedly in one on one conversations and given the occasional implicit nod during papers themselves, yet kept at a polite distance nonetheless – only once in a while do the funnel clouds touch the ground. The evening plenary had such moments – most notably when David Sehat, pointing out that our choice of historical subjects relates to our ideologies and agendas, asked who the “we” the panelists kept addressing in their pleas to further explore a given topic actually was.
I still left with the feeling, however, that the tameness of the panel on conservatism, given our current political realities, was surprising – if for no other reason than the presence of numerous graduate students who must be worrying whether or not any decent academic post awaits them once they get their degree, let alone something as awe-inspiring and increasingly old fashioned as a good, solid tenure-track position. Yet the absence I found myself lingering on was not limited merely to panels and topics with obvious political content, but rather seemed to run through many of the papers and panels I attended – for it seemed to me that at a conference focused on the production, biographies, contexts and contents of ideas, there was relatively little said about the consequences of ideas.
I tried to express this concern at one of the most interesting panels of the conference, the roundtable on the 2013 S-USIH Annual Book Award finalists, which revolved primarily around Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s winning book, American Nietzsche. As I attempted to formulate it in a question, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book, but left it feeling somewhat unsatisfied. For while the book undoubtedly shows, as she writes, “that confrontations with Nietzsche laid bare a fundamental concern driving modern American thought: namely, the question of the grounds, or foundations, for modern American thought and culture itself,” I was still left wanting something more. Perhaps because it is a book about Nietzsche – and thinking about Nietzsche inflames a craving for bold claims and assertions – but demanding questions seemed unanswered, or only briefly addressed. One way of putting this feeling was the one I tried (and I think, at least partially failed) to articulate in the question – if all these Americans used Nietzsche to grapple with or resist a world without foundations, can we then declare that indeed we are foundationless? What is Ratner-Rosenhagen’s own conclusions about our condition? In other words, granting her argument about the multiplicity of ways Americans engaged Nietzsche, I feel compelled to ask: so what? What did Nietzsche do to America – or if he didn’t do much at all but rather enjoyed popularity due to something already done, then who, or what, is responsible for our condition?
It could be fairly argued that these questions are as philosophical or speculative as they are historical, and thus do not really belong in a proper history book. Yet no such thing can be said about the subject matter of contemporary liberalism and conservatism, the consequences of which surround us every day and are about as concrete as anything ever gets. How many of us come across reports of the still deteriorating condition of public education on a daily basis? Who can escape the legacy of white backlash when attentive citizens know that the media storm over Trayvon Martin focused on a tragic and yet hardly exceptional illustration of racism? And if you identify as conservative, why not point us to the (presumably positive) historical consequences of the power of conservative ideas? (Or critique the negative consequences of liberalism, as Christopher Shannon has astutely done here at this blog.) These issues were not absent at the conference, and many of the papers I heard spoke to them – one example was the excellent paper on black student activism at Harvard by Afrah Richmond from the University of Bridgeport. Yet I still think there is a lot of latent possibly in exploring the policy consequences of political culture and political thought – particularly in the last sixty years – especially since such projects illustrate the value of our field, because they demonstrate the power of ideas to transform the conditions under which we all operate.
A possible reply to this complaint is that such work is more properly the terrain of policy and political history rather than intellectual history. But how many intellectual historians truly limit themselves to tracing lines of influence and explaining the thought world of their subjects, and how many advocate that limited approach? My reading of contemporary debates on this question suggests that many people have long wanted to move beyond such an approach, and many have done so – but, it seems, this is sometimes more easily said than done.
Perhaps part of the reason fulfilling such promise is difficult – especially when we touch on matters relevant to our contemporary lives – is the potential for conflict such scholarship necessarily entails. The various reactions to David Sehat’s question, for example, illustrate this – some loved this question, while others thought it trivial and unnecessarily confrontational. Constantly in the background is the struggle with how to navigate questions of politics – academic historians are most commonly liberal, many are left of liberal, and a minority are conservative. It is common wisdom to note that our political beliefs impact our scholarship, from what topics we choose to study to our method of studying them. Yet while this connection is often acknowledged in passing, the unofficial rule is to be very cautious about integrating this awareness into the actual tasks of academic practice – the proper boundaries of recognizing the political weigh heavily on deciding what points to include in a paper, what questions to ask of someone else’s paper, or what you say in front of your students during lecture. The stakes are considerable, not merely because are we trained to be scrupulous about our own biases – which we ought to be – but also because the culture of American academia is not one which revels very much in open, passionate conflict – especially political conflict. The discomfort and alienation that ensues when people stir up such conflict attests to this; a discomfort which, I can’t help thinking, encourages many to avoid those prickly problems of consequence which any discussion of political ideas, it seems to me, compels us to ask.
Yet the neglect of such questions by academics runs even deeper than mere conflict avoidance. Embedded in the boundaries we set for ourselves is a belief about the value and potential of our work as it is usually written – written, that is, for other academics to read. Indeed, the keynote speaker, David Hollinger, spoke directly to this when he expressed concern, during a panel on the culture wars, that the call to write publically accessible or overtly political scholarship will inevitably degrade the quality of our work and erode the virtues of professionalism. In light of that anxiety, the quietness at the panel on conservatism seems to make more sense – historians have responded overwhelmingly, after all, to Alan Brinkley’s call for us to study conservatism. We took conservatism, put it in an analytical box, successfully dissected it and decoded it, and now the task is done. We can release this work into the world passively, like a nicely packaged parcel we allow to float down the river – and whatever good it will do will arise naturally and organically, requiring neither ideological explication nor polemical publicity. Indeed, trying to give it an extra push by integrating our political selves with our scholarly selves would be to contaminate the product and render it incapable, in any case, of making the right sort of difference in the world.
Yet such assumptions seem thoroughly disproved by intellectual history itself. Not only are the origins of ideas deeply embedded in the context in which they arise, but so too is their reception. How many a book, or theory, or text, was put to a use different than the author intended, and how many well-meaning tomes ignored? If, as scholars, we have any pretense of caring about the larger social world we live in, we need to take responsibility for ensuring the implications of our work are understood. Indeed, I can’t help but think of the fate of one of my dissertation’s primary subjects, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. As countless liberal defenders have since pointed out, Moynihan never intended to contribute to a backlash against the civil rights movement which would lead eventually to the nearly complete abandonment of impoverished black Americans when he wrote his report on the state of the black family in 1965. Yet rather than recognizing how neatly his work fit into this agenda, and aggressively correcting for the mistake, Moynihan spent the next several years lashing out at those who he felt misinterpreted him and contributing to the exact dynamic he was attempting to deny. Small wonder, then, that some scholars – including myself – consider his report as based more in reaction than reform. Yet despite this, I do not doubt Moynihan originally had some good intentions – so many of us do. But if we assume our own ideas are going to be received into the wider world in which we move without taking the responsibility ourselves to explain and defend their implications, we will be sorely disappointed. And when the barbarians at the gate from the business school arrive – as L.D. Burnett eloquently put it – at the doors of our department, it will be a depressing testament to how resistant our contemporary political culture is to the polite pleadings of academics.
Fortunately, in my hunger for publically committed scholarship I am not, of course, exceptional. Increasingly – especially among young scholars that I meet – there seems to be a desire for an academic community focused on the creation not merely of scholars, but public intellectuals. This, I imagine, has no small relation to the rapidly deteriorating state of the public university, where so many of us still hope to make our home – and talking with many such scholars at this year’s conference was one of the most rewarding aspects of attending, filled as it was with so many creative historians and original projects. Indeed, the increased interest in studying liberalism seems connected to these developments, as we struggle to understand what seems like a nearly unstoppable wave of market liberalism that fails to fit neatly into either conservative or liberal categories and indeed appears to engulf both.
Yet when I reflected on all this, the question that caused sarcastic laughter at the start of the conference came back to mind: Niebuhr may have indeed been influenced by Detroit, but Detroit couldn’t appear to care less about Niebuhr. Such a phenomenon begs for explanation, and more work on how and why ideas are used or neglected is needed. Too often, we look past these questions of consequence; too often we leave the “so what?” either implicit or unanswered. This is an odd quality for a field that justifies its existence on the claim that ideas matter – but perhaps this is in part because we have become too accustomed to limiting our goals for what our own work can achieve.
 Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), 23.