U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Historians and the F-Word

[One small housekeeping item:I’ll be blogging as Andy Seal here in order to avoid confusion with Andrew Hartman. I truly value informality and collegiality, so I hope that this means we all can just continue using first names, with no last initials needed!]

Over the past few weeks, I have been following quite avidly the recent Ta-Nehisi Coates-Jonathan Chait debate over the “culture of poverty” thesis.[1] It’s a fascinating and exceptionally useful exchange—one can easily imagine it being read some time down the road as a sort of parallel to the Irving Howe-Ralph Ellison exchange of the early 1960s.[2]

What was most remarkable to me about the debate was not so much that it got personal, since that is not such a rare thing, but the interesting way that it got personal. The turning point of the Coates-Chait argument really came about not on a point of fact or even interpretation about the “culture of poverty” thesis, but rather when Chait worried aloud that Coates was “turning” to a “grim fatalism.”

Some commenters on the debate, like Tressie McMillan Cottom, argue (very convincingly, in my opinion) that Chait’s expression of concern participates in a very long tradition of white liberals worrying that African-American intellectuals have lost their fighting spirit. Cottom says, “I cannot recall a single black intellectual that was not condemned by white liberals for their paucity of hope,” and she argues that we should be wary of the paternalism of such a position, a paternalism perhaps even better illustrated by Andrew Sullivan in his reactions (1 and 2) to Coates’s “gloom.”

I think Cottom is exactly right here: “fatalism” is a sort of taboo for much of the left—and even more for the center—and once invoked, it offers an escape hatch from further debate. One can say, “It’s just your gloom talking, not reason.”

My interest, however, is less in arguing out the merits or pitfalls of fatalism, or even analyzing whether or not that is an appropriate characterization of Coates’s rejection of a progress narrative for US history, which is what Chait and Sullivan took to be his turn toward fatalism.[3]

Rather, I am intrigued by two claims that might be extracted from Cottom’s observation: first, that the use of “fatalism” to undercut someone’s position has a history, and second, that, as an epithet, “fatalism” has operated over time with a certain amount of ideological cohesion—that it is generally called into service on behalf of a fairly consistent political vision.

The latter claim would take some time to substantiate: we may feel intuitively that it is true, and possibly most true when it comes to conflicts between white and black intellectuals, but to demonstrate it empirically would require a lot of close reading over a long period of time.

However, I think we can ask some interesting questions about the ideological uses of fatalism as an epithet by trying to ask some more precise questions about the epithet’s discursive history. I am assuming here that “fatalism” and its inflections have some specific power, that calling someone a fatalist is different than, more powerful than, simply saying that they’ve lost hope or abandoned optimism.

So what I’ve done, perhaps out of disciplinary narcissism, is look at the instances of “fatalism,” “fatalist,” “fatalists,” “fatalistic,” and “fatalistically” in the American Historical Review, the Journal of American History, and JAH’s predecessor, the Mississippi Valley Historical Review. AHR has been around since 1895, and MVHR and JAH since 1914. So there is plenty of data for us to work with.

Here is a Google Docs spreadsheet with the whole dataset: I’ve done some very rudimentary tagging of each article or review in which a form of “fatalism” appears, classifying them with a few “topic” classifications. I could not do this entirely rigorously, and there may even be some inconsistencies in the way I applied these tags, but I think for a start, it is helpful enough. There are, after all, nearly 300 separate articles or reviews, so that should be large enough to cancel out a few mistakes.

The second caveat is that not every instance of “fatalism” will be one where the author of the review or article is condemning someone for their fatalism. Some may in fact be attempts to rescue a historical figure or an author from a charge of fatalism, but this is more or less the point: the onus is not to show that everyone uses “fatalism” for the same ends, but that the word creates a sort of field of meaning in which certain issues—progress, hope, liberalism, meliorism, and the like—are inevitably entailed. When “fatalism” appears, I’m wagering, we’re in an interesting neighborhood.

The first notable pattern is temporal: incidences of “fatalism” appear much more commonly after 1970: a full 76% of all the times “fatalism” is used occur from 1970 on. I assume that the AHR and JAH expanded in terms of the number of articles and reviews they ran yearly over time, but I don’t think this kind of concentration can be fully accounted for by an expanded page counts.

What’s even more interesting about this massive concentration of “fatalism” after 1970 is that it actually builds more each decade after, although it appears this decade will break the pattern:

1970s: 15.07%

1980s: 15.75%

1990s: 19.86%

2000s: 20.89%

2010s: 4.79%

Total: 76.4%

If, as I’m sure you’re thinking, the impetus behind the new prevalence of the word “fatalism” after 1970 is due to a backlash against the emergence of the new labor and women’s histories, the expansion of African-American studies programs, and other variants of identity politics and history from below, well, you’re probably not wrong, but you now have to explain why this backlash increases from 1970 to 2010. Nor can we match this smooth buildup to our notions about the reinvigoration of ideological conflict around the culture and canon wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

That’s probably more than enough for now: I’ll let you take a look at the data, form your own conclusions, and in a second post, if I get a sense that people find all of this of some interest, I’ll try to explore the data further.


[1] For Coates, one should read most of the posts collected here from March 18, 2014 forward; Chait’s contributions can be found at 1, 2, 3.

[2] The two principal essays involved in that exchange were, Irving Howe, “Black Boys and Native Sons,” Dissent 9 (1963): 353-368, and Ralph Ellison, “The World and the Jug,” New Leader 46 (1963): 22-26, later republished in Ellison, Shadow and Act (New York: Random House, 1964).

[3] Coates does accept the term, more or less: “Chait thinks this view is “fatalistic.” I think God is fatalistic. In the end, we all die. As do most societies. As do most states. As do most planets. If America is fatally flawed, if white supremacy does truly dog us until we are no more, all that means is that we were unexceptional, that we were not favored by God, that we were flawed—as are all things conceived by mortal man. I find great peace in that. And I find great meaning in this struggle that was gifted to me by my people, that was gifted to me by culture.”

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Interesting data! I’ll look forward to what people make of it. While I’m here, what I actually found interesting about this debate (which I admit to mostly skimming) is that leaving aside the personal stuff, everything Coates writes about history seems to me to be pretty mainstream synthesis of what academic historians’ consensus (& not limited to historians who are particularly “radical” people in their politics or everyday life; I mean, some are of course, but plenty I’ve met aren’t). Yet it is interesting to me how this gets filtered into punditry as a really radical, challenging, “fatalistic” view that isn’t “optimistic” enough about the usefulness of public policy projects or whatnot. I tweeted some about this, I guess partly it reflects a real resistance in the general public & journo world to see history as a genuine realm of expertise as opposed to some blend of journalism set in the past plus psychodrama about ones love country or something, but anyway, I find it interesting to ponder.
    (Sent, as they say, from a mobile device; pls excuse any typos)

  2. Andy! Welcome. So glad you are joining us.

    One place that “fatalism” pops up a great deal is the discourse on music–particularly blues music–and African American humor. A throughline of African American criticism, from Du Bois to Clyde Woods, might be sought in the persistent refutation of blues and African American wit as fatalistic and the insistence that these forms are instead evidence of an alternative epistemology and cosmology. James Weldon Johnson’s autobiography is an important node in this, as is Ralph Ellison’s “Change the Joke” essay, Le Roi Jones’s Blues People, and Robin D.G. Kelley’s Yo Mama’s Disfunktional and Freedom Dreams. Both Toni Morrison and Patricia J. Williams can be seen, in a certain light, as writing about nothing but why the white liberal fixation with alleged African American “fatalism” is so wrongheaded, while giving voice to the historical truth that the consequences of being Black in America are often fatal.

    To put too fine a point on it, certainly, perhaps the decreasing presence of “fatalism” speaks to a certain amount of progress, if we can use that word, in the humanities and social sciences. A progress to which Chait and Sullivan have evidently not begun to catch up.

  3. Sara,
    Thanks very much for your comment. I think you must have been on the same wavelength as Coates, who posted today a reflection on the “massive gulf between how people who study American history see their country, and how not just Americans but American journalists see their country.” It is a very important point, although I think your additional point that journalists seem to view historians as doing something little different from what they do is also crucial.

    Kurt,
    I wish I were so sanguine about the decreasing fixation on “fatalism”! I want to see the trend hold steady for a few more years before I’ll assume we’ve turned a corner in academic discourse.

    I do want to say, though, that while I find a fixation with black “fatalism” obnoxious–at best–I also find that the assumption–which I’m not imputing to you, just to writers like Chait–that fatalism is a kind of failure of nerve to be pretty wrongheaded. Not all fatalism is of the Henry Adams variety, and I think there is certainly room for a form of fatalism that is both resolute and engaged.

    • I am thinking about “fatalism” as an ascriptive pathology–a “broken” future-orientation (Jonathan Levy’s Freaks of Fortune is good on the material sources of this ideological formation and the emergence of white pseudo-expertise on African American time consciousness). That’s the “fatalism” I see in primary sources, especially anthropological and folklore writing on blues and humor from the late 19th century to the 1970s.

      As for pessimism and negativity–the “killjoy” celebrated by Sarah Ahmed–I am all for that. But that’s a whole different thing from “fatalism,” to my mind.

      • Kurt,
        I agree that this imagination of “broken future-orientation” is where we most often find the term, and that opposition to that kind of ascription is absolutely necessary. (And that chapter in Levy on the Freedmen’s Bank is a fantastic place to go for some resources for opposing it.)

        But I’m more reluctant to abandon the term to those uses. The way I’m reading you, and please correct me if I’m wrong, is that there really is no such thing as fatalism, just the desire to see certain populations as fatalistic. Instead, I think there may very well be reasons for reclaiming the term as a positive self-ascription, and thus I am hesitant to rule it out of bounds preemptively.

  4. A good exchange, as usual, over a perceptive post, Andy. So, I wonder if you also see a particular spike in the mainstreaming of apocalyptic Christian thought–or perhaps to use Kurt’s formulation–an acknowledge that such thought exists, as part of the trend related to fatalism. In some ways, the Cold War brought about a deterministic streak in both Christian thought and, perhaps, science fiction, in the fatalism bred by nuclear weapons and the rise of the machine. In a sense, the cold war reduced even the “masters” of society to figurative pawns in a new game of guessing how the world would end.

  5. I’m one of those who thinks the term “fatalism” is not quite as negative as those who would condemn others for their “fatalism”–it is, rather, a kind of heightened consciousness and recognition of the fact that there is much that we have no control over, a sense (to go to its root) that we are governed by fate rather than by our own instrumental reason. Lincoln, for instance, was very much a fatalist. In this sense, it’s very different from, say, “cynicism”. It seems perhaps contradictory to say that fatalism is the condition of hope. That said, I wonder how much the spike in “fatalism” after 2000 was in some way a response to 9/11 and the Iraq War, and especially the strange and glib optimism of the Bush administration.

  6. Ray,
    I was actually quite surprised that “fatalism” ticked only incrementally upward in the 1950s and 1960s–from 10 instances in the 1940s to 14 in the ’50s to 18 in the ’60s. Increased concern over, or advocacy for, fatalism was not how the historical profession responded to the Cold War. However, what you refer to as a mainstreaming of apocalyptic Christian thought may very well have played into some of the increase in “fatalism” at the tail end of the Cold War, when there was another spike in popular apocalypticism and what Paul Boyer called “prophecy belief.” Does that make any sense to you? I’m still trying to parse the relationship between Christianity and “fatalism” implied by the data.

    Dan,
    I am in total sympathy with your definition of fatalism, and actually, you’ll find that your “What Is the History of Sensibilities?” made the list! And Lincoln shows up a number of times as well.

    I certainly don’t mean to suggest that all those who use the term are employing it as a rhetorical club to bludgeon ideological opponents–far from. But I do think that “fatalism” is always entangled in this ideological field of questions about the “appropriate” attitude or disposition toward the future, and it’s difficult, as I’m finding, to speak neutrally about “fatalism” without trying to disentangle it from “relativism,” “nihilism,” “mere pessimism” or, as you say, “cynicism” and thereby providing a covert sense of assent or approval.

    In other words, I think it is difficult to speak about “fatalism” without taking a position on whether it is good or bad as a philosophy and even more, within the profession, whether it is a good or bad philosophy of history, and for that reason I think it is a really remarkable tool for illuminating where the stress points in the profession have been. Not to put too fine a point on it, what I think the data shows is basically Daniel Rodgers’s Age of Fracture in action.

  7. Glad I made the list! I think in my essay I cited William James on the tough and tender-minded temperaments, and one of the characteristics of the tough-minded is fatalism. But it’s interesting to see that he groups this with empiricism, going-by-facts, etc., so that it is associated with a willingness to embrace hard truths in opposition to a kind of detached idealism.

  8. Interesting. Here’s the passage:

    “Instead of thinking of thought as an autonomous realm of logic, reason, and argument, James links it to generalized values, emotions, and perceptions. Empiricism for James is not so much an epistemology as an emotional state – a foregrounding of some potential dispositions and a backgrounding of others, a ‘feeling for facts’ tied to a clinical stance of detachment and a skeptical fatalism” (Wickberg, “What Is the History of Sensibilities?”, 677).

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