Halfway through graduate school, I changed my emphasis from early American to twentieth century American history. I made this switch primarily because my research at the time failed to resonate sufficiently with my growing investment in contemporary politics, as I was knee deep in the waters that would eventually carry me to the left.
When consulting with my (new) adviser on what subject to pursue, they asked whether I would be interested in researching the New Right. I replied that while I definitely would be, I did not think it a good idea to make my primary sources – the stuff I would have to read day in, day out – material that would fill me with anger and despair. So instead I chose to study liberalism.
Well!, as any frequent reader of this blog likely knows, that did not go as planned. Little did I know that my exploration of postwar liberalism would lead me away from identifying as “very liberal” on Facebook to “radicalish” and then finally plain old “socialist.” Before too long, I found myself in the position of working on a project that requires me to read things that make my eyes bleed.
Case in point: this week I had the displeasure of reading Chapter 8 of Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President, 1964. The chapter is titled “Riot in the Street: The Politics of Chaos,” so you might be able to imagine where this is going. But it’s even worse than you probably think. In the course of this chapter, the liberal White (best known for his books about China and his participation in the construction of the Kennedy “Camelot” myth) depicts urban blacks as sinister forces of nature and primitive animals – “savages” that lack any adherence to what he calls “Western civilization.” This is the kind of stuff that needs no further commentary, so I’ll just bless you with a few of the most cringe-inducing passages:
“Those who come from the zoological tenements, deprived by birth of mercy and kindness, offer no mercy or kindness to others either; and a civilization that has lost its capacity for mercy is no civilization at all, a dictum as true for central Harlem as for the Klan-controlled villages of Alabama or Mississippi.”
“Let there be no mistake about it: these junior savages are a menace most of all to decent Negro families, penned by white prejudice into the same ghettos with the savages; it is the good Negro child who is first beaten up by the savage, the decent black family which suffers from the depredations of the wild ones. But they are a menace to everyone else too. And it is they who made the riots of 1964 – planlessly, aimlessly, without purpose.”
“They [civil rights leaders] propose that government press itself into every area of decision, that it penetrate, dominate and purge the most private areas of American life until discrimination in every form is abolished.”
I’ve seen some pretty overt rape imagery in my day, but I have to say, that is impressive. But there is plenty more offensive rhetoric throughout the chapter; he barely gives you a chance to breath between outrages.
Most of the texts I read for my research are not, fortunately, quite as bad as this. But enough of them are to make the initial plumbing of sources an often stressful and upsetting endeavor. Fortunately for my time management, my response to this is usually to get through the worst ones as quickly as possible, moving on to the less passive and therefore more encouraging process of analyzing and incorporating the evidence into my work. But still, there are days where deep breaths are required to keep going, and speaking back to my subjects through angry asides in my notes helps vent my frustration. Usually that’s enough to get back to my freakish default of good cheer once the work is done. Sometimes, however, it is not, and the usual joy of my day disappears for at least a few hours after the articles and books are tucked away.
I know I’m not supposed to be this way. Alas, if anyone has ever failed more miserably at mimicking the model of the detached, coolly analytical scholar, it’s me. I wonder why, for instance, the same stuff makes me just as upset even though I’ve read its like over and over again, and am fundamentally unsurprised at what I find. Some people might suggest that there is a time and a place for going deep about the significance (or lack thereof) of the work you do, and that such reflection can’t possibly occur every time you come across another horribly bigoted sentiment or dehumanizing depiction. I could only reply that I agree and wish I could so segregate my process – but these things hit me before I have any time to manage my response. A passage here feels like watching someone getting punched in the gut, another there a kick in the head once they’re down. You want to jump in and assault their assailant, but no one is there. Just dry words on the page, confident in their objectivity and smirking at your powerlessness.
It’s this last aspect that usually turns my rage into despair. The racism and sexism of postwar liberals makes me so angry because I know what it leads to: the incalculable harm to human lives and life itself such ideas fueled and continue to justify. That too little has changed since then mocks my efforts, draining my energy and leading me to conclude that now would be a very good time for that afternoon nap.
And yet, I love what I do. The thought of quitting never seriously passes my mind. I wouldn’t blame myself, or anyone else, if it did, but even the presence of a temptation is lacking. I already know what I know, and the only thing more likely to deprive me of hope than feeling as if I am fruitlessly fighting the repetition of lies is to stop doing my best to expose them. And while I am aware at how unprofessional my bouts of rage may appear to some, I also know they are behind why I’ve chosen this life, and even why I might be pretty decent at what I do – as Kenneth Clark once wrote, “Feeling may twist judgment, but the lack of feeling may twist it even more.”
 Theodore H. White, The Making of the President 1964 (New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1965), 229.
 White, The Making of the President 1964, 230-231.
 White, The Making of the President 1964, 237, emphasis in the original.
 Kenneth Clark, Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power (New York, Evanston and London: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1965), 80.
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