U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Processing The Now: Or, What Ideological Trash Stream Is Feeding the Present?

That construct we call “the present ” has never been more demanding on me than it has been over the past 3-4 weeks. I’ve been writing about history for this blog since January 2007, but I can recall only a few weeks that have been as demanding of my present consciousness as the past month, but especially the past 72 hours.

It’s not that my historical work and historical mindedness haven’t been churning. I’m always trying, to some extent, to process the present in light of the past. Those subconscious mechanisms have been at work, and encouraged, since I began graduate history coursework in 1997. Once developed, historical thinking is an analytical mode that cannot easily be disentangled from one’s present.

Yet I worry that my view of the present is nefariously constructed by my knowledge of the past. I wonder if my field of vision is too linked to past processes of change gone wrong. I wonder if history prevents me from seeing the potential of the present. I wonder if history is some kind of blackthorn-tinted glass that makes the shadows of the present even darker than they are. Has history inclined me to permanent pessimism? Or has a pessimistic and critical state been fed by history, theory, and philosophy?

On the last, on my philosophy of history, I am indeed a loose adherent of Critical Theory, broadly speaking, in its most humanistic mode (with evolving elements of Habermas and Gramscian thinking, but with little emphasis on Freudian psychology). When I have theoretical questions in history, I often look for first answers in that intellectual paradigm. Other traditions inform my critical thinking apparatus, but the default historicism and negation of CT informs how I compare, contrast, and weigh a historical situation or ideology. So yes, I see things darkly—though hopefully never in a easily caricatured Adorno-esque mode, with attendant stilted prose.

On the present, or “the now,” are my commitments making me too pessimistic in relation to the just completed presidential campaign? I can see how it would be easy to become a caricature of those commitments. Indeed, there seems to be some evidence for pessimism in the rhetoric and actions of certain figures—especially, for me, a certain segment of Trump’s followers (but some of Clinton’s too).

Apart from me, how does recent and distant history apply to that future, and how does it matter for intellectual historians? Are we in a new “now,” a grammatical disjunct from past trends? If not, what stream of the past have we renewed in 2016? Or, to paraphrase another, what ideological trash stream is being fed to us now?- TL

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I just started listening to Lilian Calles Barger’s New Books Network interview with Jim Kloppenberg on his new book, Towards Democracy (Oxford, 2016). Perhaps I should take refuge in Kloppenberg’s notion of a consistent “ethic of reciprocity”? But in so doing, I feel I’m being asked to concede, in 2016, to some of the most racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic rhetoric of the campaign. How does one reciprocate with what is objectively evil? I am painfully familiar with the fact that we all have dirty hands. History shows that none of us are perfect. But how can democracy compel us to compromise with what is morally wrong? How does democracy survive that? – TL

  2. Tim,
    At the very least this election indicates that Obama’s presidency was not the “transformative,” “world-historical” event that many had supposed. The nation has essentially returned to the Bush-Chaney era (I’m predicting—style aside—that Trump will oversee a conventional conservative Republican administration: so much for “change.”) Most of the incremental progressive reform of the last eight years will be reversed, and the social climate will deteriorate. If you were Andrew, I’d be tempted to ask: Do you still think the culture wars are over? To certain other parties out there I’d like to say: Smile when you call me a declentionist!
    DREW

    • Drew,

      You’re spot on, sadly, about the lack of substantial transformation during the Obama years. If/when I write a textbook on that period, the chapter, with regret, will be “Unfulfilled Hope and Change.”

      As I look on the president-elect in light of the past, I see him as the “change candidate” only in that enough voters wanted a nostalgic return to a false past. I agree with you, based on early reports, that his administration will be much more conventional than his voters hoped.

      As for Andrew Hartman’s conclusion in A War for the Soul of America, he’s wrong, sadly. I argued with him about this almost immediately, on his Facebook page and elsewhere (and others did too). But that made his book fun. And he couldn’t have predicted this while finishing up his book. At that point the nation’s progressive and centrist political forces had most certainly resisted regression, and had even come around on gay marriage. It looked as if a cultural baseline had been moved in a foundational way.

      In relation to your declensionism, I’m with you. My pessimism began in the 2008-10 period, and was solidified by the 2010 midterms. This election, no matter which candidate won, wouldn’t have changed my mind. That said, November 8 was a sad day for me. I won’t hide it. And January 20 will be even worse.

      Historians are *notoriously* bad on predicting the future, but I have substantial fears about the next 2-4 years and beyond. I hope I’m wrong, and perhaps the conventional picks for the administration will attenuate some of the worst promises and rhetoric from the 2016 campaign.

      Peace, TL

  3. I have to ask a simple question: “Would a functioning democracy in the American two party system give us two of the most despised nominees in history?” I answer it would not. This site loves to use the term neoliberalism, but other me I’ve never seen anyone comment on “inverted totalitarianism” which was coined by political theorist Sheldon Wolin in his final book entitled Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Perhaps the role of the voter is simply to ratify the lesser of two evils marketed to us by corporate America.

    The clues that Barack Obama would not be a “transformative” President were there for those to see. During the primary season in 2008, the three most prominent candidates were McCain, Clinton, and Obama. McCain sucked up the most money from lobbyists, Clinton was the candidate of choice for the medical / phamaceutical sector, and who was the candidate from the financial sector (Wall St)? Barack Obama. In 2006, Harper’s published “Barack Obama Inc.
    The Birth of a Washington Machine” byKen Silverstein. Adolph Reed wrote a wonderful piece in Progressive magazine entitled, “Obama No.” David Sirota published a piece in The Nation called, “Mr. Obama Goes to Washington.” Progressive blogger Gaius Publius had a post called, ‘Obama 2006—’Too many of us have been interested in defending programs as written in 1938’? which contains a video of Senator Obama’s speech to the Hamilton Project, which he calls “Obama’s NeoLiberal Manifesto. See http://americablog.com/2012/05/obama-2006-too-many-of-us-have-been-interested-in-defending-programs-as-written-in-1938.html Lastly, analysis of Obama’s early career in Chicago would show that he served Chicago’s real estate interests well. In 2006, did Obama support the winner of the Connecticut Senate primary winner Ned Lamont or his Senate mentor, Joe Lieberman? I could go and on.

    Perhaps, there is a reason why the 2008 Obama campaign won Ad Age’s Marketer of the Year award beating Apple, Zappos, Coors, and Nike.

    The Obama administration signature accomplishment is the implementation of a Heritage Foundation health care payment plan that was implemented in Massachusettes by his 2012 opponent, Mitt Romney.

    Lastly, I’d like to address the concept of “nostalgia for a false past.” I grew up in a working class neighborhood in a “sundown town” in central Illinois. Last month, I took my spouse out for a meal to celebrate our wedding anniversary. I ran into a childhood friend named Darren Oedewalt who lived across the street down on the corner. (We both got married on the same day.)
    We talked about our child hood from the late 1960s through the 1970s. Schwinn bicycles, Radio Flyer wagons, etc. Back then those were not only made in the USA, but were Illinois products. We talked about how high school graduates, if they weren’t drafted to go to Vietnam or went to college, could get either a white collar or blue collar job. By age 25, they had a house, by 30 they had a bigger house because they had two kids. They had two cars neither one was more than three years old because they could afford a new one every three years. If one liked to fish, they had a boat in their driveway and perhaps a cabin in Minnesota or Wisconsin. Every year, the family would take a two week vacation in Florida or someplace else in the eastern U.S. (Favorite vacation was 1976. Dad was general foreman building a coal fired power plant outside Canton, Illinois. He was told at 11AM that he’d have 6 weeks off. He bought a Ford conversion van with captain’s chairs and paid cash. 5:30PM we were on our way to Daytona. We were at Disney World on the night of July 3rd/4th on the Bicentennial. That firework show at midnight ruined us for fireworks the rest of our lives.) When it came time for your kids to go to college, they could afford it because until the mid 1980s tuition was at most a couple hundred dollars. This lifestyle was attainable for the majority of people on one paycheck. Mom might work part time. By the way, we were not wealthy. I’m not trying to sugarcoat this era, there were poorer people then as now and there were racist rednecks and racist wealthy people..

    I moved back to my hometown a number of years ago. For a number of years, my hometown was ground zero in the war on meth. It was number one, not in the state, but in the nation. Every single day there was either a major bust, conviction, or fire. The good news is that my hometown is no longer a meth hotbed. Methamphetamine’s stranglehold was broken by a market based solution. Cheap heroin.

    My next door neighbor growing up, Lonny W. committed suicide in 2011. After he lost his job in 2008, he struggled to make ends meet as a handyman. His wife was going to leave him. He was 52. His older brother found the body hanging in the garage. Another friend in a similar situation blew out his brains from the shame of not being able to support his family. My Dad got Ray DeBoer into the union. Ray was on a ladder in a pit on the work floor of the Powerton electrical poweplant in the 1970s when there was a fly ash explosion. Ray was buried under six feet of ash. He was strong enough to pull himself up the ladder. His coworker underneath him weren’t so lucky. Ray was strong, but he wasn’t strong enough to overcome his workplace related cancer that took his life a few weeks back. maybe someday, his wife, Mona will get a settlement. My friend Kevin B. is undergoing job retraining, again. My father worked Keystone Steel and Wire after the Reagan recession. He got fucked out of most of his pension. The laws have been changed to prevent what happened to people like my father. I could go on and on, but you get the point and I don’t want to get depressed.

    After the Clinton record on free trade, and their record of not helping organized labor during the lockouts at the Staley Starch factory in Decatur, and at central Illinois Caterpillar tractor plants, so perhaps that combined with the economic situation today left them less likely to vote for the first female president ever.

    When middle aged working class people are talking about the good old days, most don’t want to join Anita Bryant and discriminate against gays, Phyllis Schlafly to put “the libbers” in their place, or want to return to the days of Jim Crow. I’m not minimizing the fact that there definitely were racists in those “good old days.” Perhaps, just perhaps, voters who voted for Donald Trump were rational.

    Perhaps the historical profession, instead of simply chalking up the defeat of the “most qualified” candidate ever to racism should be asking why she underperformed among all groups of the Obama coalition compared to 2012 and lost to a candidate who garnered less votes than Mitt Romney.

    Sorry for the length of this rant, but pinning the blame for this election’s outcome on powerless working people is just another one of the hidden injuries of class they must endure. But what do I know, I’m a white, privileged Bernie Bro.

    • Brian: Thanks for this long comment.

      I agree with much of your assessment of the Obama administration. I was more skeptical, in Obama’s favor, until 2010-11, but then I saw how in negotiations he continually started from the middle, trying to reason with an opposition who he believed to be reasonable and in his same ballpark.

      I hear you on your run down, your litany, of terrible economic events that have hit medium-sized and smaller towns around the Midwest. I’m from one, a little town called Harrisonville, south of Kansas City, MO, on the Missouri side. It was a bedroom community for KC manufacturing workers, and had a few industries in and around the town itself. The same decline you describe hit it—not quite as hard in terms of drugs, but definitely making it difficult to tread water economically.

      When I discussed “a nostalgic return to a false past” above, I was referring to the racial part of it alone. There has been a clear economic decline for labor since the 1970s, outlined ably in books like Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. I will not sugarcoat that decline. And Trump managed to appeal to voters who haven’t felt secure under the Obama recovery, which has benefited the middle and upper classes more than others—which consequently made Obamacare sting more for those feeling precarious and insecure. Neoliberalism has benefited some more than others, for sure.

      In sum, there is no need to apologize for the rant. We’re all muddling our way through this turn of events. I apologize for not clarifying my nostalgic past comment.

      Peace, TL

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