U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Week(s) In Contemporary Magazines and Intellectual History

I’m going to try my hand at a semi-regular feature here on S-USIH about intellectual history and current magazines. It seems every month, at least a few articles are written in big (or “little”) magazines that both relate to issues we discuss here at S-USIH, and will also provide fodder for future intellectual historians. I had every intention of beginning this last week, but other writing projects and teaching have sidetracked me just a bit from the blogging trail. To that end I’d like to use this space to talk about just a few of these articles. Please feel free to mention more in the comments section!

Eric Liu, “How to be American,” Democracy Journal Fall 2015—Liu’s argument here is quite simple, and yet is one that has perplexed scholars concerned with America’s cultural future: what does it mean to be American? What sort of facts, concepts, and ideas bind together Americans (at least theoretically)? Liu’s work builds off of E.D. Hirsch’s 1987 book Cultural Literacy, which sought to gather together in one volume the cultural touchstones that every American should know. Likewise, Liu seeks to do the same today. But he argues, like Hirsch did almost thirty years ago, that such a project is not inherently culturally conservative. On the contrary, for both Liu and Hirsch, it’s important that all Americans, regardless of creed, color, gender, or class have some understanding of common cultural references. It’s an essay sure to be of interest to anyone wondering about the Culture Wars and whether we’ve truly left such fights in the past.

Randall Kennedy, “A Caricature of Black Reality,” The American Prospect Fall 2015 (not posted online yet, so make sure to get a physical copy!)—as I’ve argued elsewhere on this site, Kennedy is attempting to keep relevant a form of African American liberalism that is opposed to both racial conservative, and a more radical critique of American democracy and race that, in the eyes of Kennedy and others, refuses to see the immense changes American society has undergone since the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement. Here, Kennedy reviews Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me. The book, in Kennedy’s estimation, is not Coates’ best work, partially because it wallows in a form of historical nihilism that refuses to recognize the potential for American society to continue to change. I think Kennedy’s voice is an important one, and I hope you check out his essay—especially if you’ve already read Mr. Coates’ wonderful book.

Elbridge Colby, “America Must Prepare for ‘Limited War,’” National Interest, November-December 2015—The ways in which American pundits, intellectuals, and journalists argue about America’s foreign policy, I believe, says as much as about the nation as how we debate race, gender, culture, or education. Continued concern with the erosion in American military power is at the heart of this essay. The ability for the United States to hold on to a hegemonic state of power is, according to Colby, long gone. What replaces that for the U.S.A. in foreign affairs—in other words, what happens to American power and prestige when the nation is merely a superior, and not overwhelmingly dominant, military power around the world–is a question that will be with policy makers for the foreseeable future.

This is only a sampling of some of the wonderful pieces I’ve come across in magazines over the last few weeks. Please add your selections, or talk about the ones above.