One of the problems I have chewed on at this blog is the question of sincerity. It seems an inexhaustible subject, for it touches on so many foundational questions of method, ideology, and “sensibility,” even, if you will. So I am not surprised that in the last week, this issue has once again brought itself to my attention, and compelled me to add yet another contribution to what has already been a long and excellent discussion of Andrew’s book, A War for the Soul of America.
In particular, I want to focus on Andrew’s “Point 7” in his response to the roundtable. This critique – which lay at the core of Amy Kittelstrom’s review – suggests that when analyzing culture war conservatives, Andrew “should not take such Americans at their word.” Kittelstrom goes on to make a compelling case for why; what, after all, composes “traditional culture,” especially if even its less objectionable tenets – such as hard work or individual merit – seem to be much more preached than practiced? After all, as Peter Kuryla’s review pointed out, it’s hard to square an ethic of delayed gratification with the “orgy of consumption” that was at the center of the 1950s normative family.
Andrew responded to this concern by emphasizing his desire to avoid what he called “political heavy-handedness,” implying that to stress the racism, sexism, and heteronormativity lurking in the background of so much of conservative discourse would reduce his historical analysis to political point scoring. Even more significantly, he points out that regardless of sincerity, the conservative argument is “historically important because it represents an argument in a debate that mattered in its own right.”
As he clarified in the comments, Andrew did not intend to imply that Kittelstrom meant to advocate for “political heavy-handedness,” but could not find a way, himself, of avoiding such a result if he did not take his subjects at their word. And undoubtedly, he is entirely correct that even if we assume ulterior motives, the specific arguments that conservatives made still matter, independent of intention.
Yet this seems to imply an either/or dynamic that does not seem necessary. For while I agree that ultimately – as I will discuss further down – some ideological choices must be made, the options are not so starkly opposed as Andrew’s concern with point-scoring suggests. One can carefully unpack the perspectives of conservatives as they saw them – and note how those viewpoints had their own set of important consequences – and also historically situate them to provide an analysis that might very well differ from conservatives’ own understanding. To me, this would not look like “political heavy-handedness” but exactly the historical argument Andrew calls for, and the fact that it would also be an explicitly political analysis does not reduce it to an exercise in mudslinging. Indeed, my understanding of Kittelstrom’s argument is that it is the argument, in fact, that goes missing when one errs too much on the side of describing, rather than interpreting, the perspectives of your subjects.
However, another false duality seems to be in play when both Kittelstrom and Andrew appear to be working with the assumption that conservatives (or a particular one, perhaps) were either sincere or, on the other hand, knew quite well that they were full of it. But haven’t bigotry and sincerity always been quite compatible? Furthermore, whatever happened to the subconscious? Are historians really not supposed to incorporate into their analyses the idea that sometimes, human beings are not the best judges of their own motivations? For example, isn’t the claim that radical Islamic terrorism is rooted in Islam (rather than a history of imperialism and continued socio-economic disaster) defended by New Atheists with the lazy claim of “but that’s what the terrorists say!, and look at this passage here in the Qur’an!”? If taking someone too much at their word can be a vice in this case, then why does it become a virtue when we turn to American conservatives?
Conscious intent, moreover, can often be a rather high bar for historians to meet – and in fact, some of the most brilliant contributions to our field depend very much on reading between the lines. Did Morgan, in American Slavery, American Freedom have letters between elites discussing how they were going to maintain their class position by inflaming racist resentment against Native Americans and subordinating all African Americans (and only them) to slavery in order to encourage poor yeomen to value racial solidarity over class solidarity? Did Boyer and Nissenbaum, in Salem Possesed, discover sermons where Salem ministers clearly articulated the association between witchcraft and commercial activity? And did Max Weber, in The Protestant Work Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism, find hundreds of diary entries of early modern Protestants joyfully confirming how their religious philosophy made them particularly adept at succeeding in the emerging market world? I could go on. So again, why, when it comes to understanding and explaining the culture wars, does centering your work on such an analysis necessarily result in a trivial polemic?
Despite all this, Andrew definitely touches on an important problem – developments that have their origins in one dynamic can become their own creatures. Since abortion has functioned as a key site of debate in the roundtable, I’ll also use it here: as far as I can tell, you would never have had the anti-abortion movement without women’s liberation. Had Roe v. Wade stood alone, rather than representing a victory for a movement aimed at emancipating women from traditional gender roles, I have trouble believing that the Religious Right would have discovered such a passion for “the rights of the unborn” as they somewhat suddenly did. Yet since then, generations of Christians have been raised in a culture that emphatically, from their earliest days, emphasized the sinfulness of abortion and highlighted the unsettling moral ambiguities it entails. (Of course, in their narrative, they do not qualify as ambiguous but, you catch my drift). So now, there are plenty of anti-abortion activists – many of them young women – who didn’t need to have a deep-seeded anxiety about the end of patriarchy to get panicked about sex without pregnancy. They have become, then, independent historical actors, and the ideas they fight for are absolutely important in their own right. This is why I am in no way advocating ignoring what conservatives say or arguing that it doesn’t matter because the real issue is this or that – on the contrary, it is imperative, especially for the sake of the future, to have a full mental map of the ideologies they have constructed.
But while I have argued that our choices are not polarized between naïve acceptance of conservatives’ narratives – which Andrew’s book, as he rightly pointed out, is absolutely not an example of – and ahistorical polemic, I do agree that it is probably impossible to maintain a completely balanced, 50/50 perspective. And that is all to the good. Meaningful scholarship compels us to answer questions, not merely describe events. So identifying and acknowledging each dynamic – origins and trajectory – still leaves us with the problem of which we privilege in our larger historical analysis. A strict structuralist, for example, is likely to consider the sincerity of anti-abortion activists to be totally irrelevant, while an analysis emphasizing agency would probably consider intention to be at least as important if not more.
Personally – surprise! – I lean towards emphasizing origins. There are many reasons for this, but the easiest to explain in the context of this post is that when I look further back than what can be considered recent history, it is usually the structural origins of ideas that seem, in retrospect, far more consequential. Take, for example, nineteenth-century slavery. No doubt many plantation masters and mistresses sincerely thought their slaves were better off being “cared for” in slavery than “neglected” in freedom – and yet no one considers this sincerity to overwhelm, historically or politically, the importance of the power inequality that gave rise to such justifications. For another example – if you think ideologies of slavery to be too provocative to be a compelling illustration – consider the European witch hunts of the early modern period. I’ve never seen any historian seriously suggest that the majority of people involved in oppressing and murdering thousands of women did not actually believe in witchcraft, and yet most historians (although their explanations differ) find such sincerity to be an insufficient explanation for why so many died during this time period rather than any other or why, on the other hand, such persecution eventually stopped.
So here’s my speculation. When analyzing the sufficiently distant past, where people notably different from ourselves expressed particular ideas, explanations that accept the unconscious and emphasize the importance of structure and power seem much more obvious and compelling. Part of this, of course, is simply hindsight. However, as we move closer to the present, it also becomes harder to embrace such arguments, for the simple reason that the people you are analyzing are still alive, thus putting you in the supremely awkward position of telling them that, in a sense, you know what is driving them better than they do. (Or, if they are very young, you know what was driving their teachers, mentors, and cultural influences.) And I admit, I have yet to figure how to do this without coming across to my interlocutor as an asshole, and I can’t blame them. Who wants to be told they do not understand the workings of their own mind? This becomes particularly difficult when your interlocutor pushes back, scolding you for being condescending and close-minded. How can you possibly respond to such accusations? And on top of all this, some of us feel the weight of the belief – mistaken, in my opinion – that conservative opponents will, on the whole, respond to our willingness to give them the benefit of the doubt by likewise abandoning the idea that it is liberals and leftists, really, that are deluded (intoxicated by selfishness and a “culture of death,” according to Shannon’s contribution to this roundtable) and know not what they do.
So at the end of the day, what are we left with: indeed, conservatives, liberals and leftists all see the world very differently – but I fail to see why this compels us to take someone or something “seriously,” precisely because I’m not sure what, from an analytical perspective, this could possibly mean. At its worst it seems like a refusal to call a spade a spade; and at its best, an inability or unwillingness to try to apply our historical skepticism to the present as we do to the past, due to how exceptionally difficult and uncomfortable that can be. Yet it seems to me that because history only matters because of the present – as Fredrick Jackson Turner once said, “the present is simply the developing past” – that it is imperative that we always strive to do so.
 Of course, they also say many other, explicitly political things, which are consistently ignored or explained away by the New Atheists, but my point here is that people say all kinds of things, and there is no reason to take them at their word without testing various claims against the predominant dynamics of the larger context.