Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What Side Are You On? The Politics of History (Meetings)

Today on Cliopatria, Ralph Luker asks about the state of the field panel on conservatism that occurred last Friday, Day 2 of the OAH Annual Meeting:

How could a panel on the state of the study of recent American conservatism not include a conservative historian? Donald Critchlow, for example, should have been there to respond to Rick Perlstein's criticism. I've seen this happen again and again at our conventions: major panels dealing with major issues and there's not a dime's worth of difference in what or the ways the panelists think about them.

As a Cliopatrician myself, I thought I would move the conversation about this over here so as not to risk detracting attention from other interesting posts that went up on Cliopatria today, or the rest of Ralph's excellent column. You never know when a flurry of sock puppets will arrive to berate either Ralph or myself -- sometimes they go after both of us together!! But I thought Ralph's view deserved a response all the same, and perhaps he will join me over here to elaborate on his original remark and respond to my thoughts on it.

Now I was not on the program committee, so I have nothing to defend here. But I was at that panel and -- perhaps I missed something -- but the views expressed on Friday at 10:30 were not in the least homogenous. Every commenter had something quite different to say and given how vast the new literature on 20th century American conservatism has become, the conversation focused on where new work needs to be done, not criticism of existing work or derision towards self-identified conservative scholars. I also don't recall Donald Critchlow being singled out for criticism by Rick Perlstein or anyone else, although this I am less sure of, since illness now clouds my memory. Looking at Rick Shenkman's videos of the Perlstein remarks might cause me to correct this view. And there was a gracious and pointed critique of a liberal blind spot in the historical literature, thanks to Angela Dillard. Her remarks on the failure of historians to take Black conservatism into account as part of the postwar political party realignment were right on. The fact that conservatives like Condoleeza Rice, Ward Connerly, Clarence Thomas and Colin Powell are generally perceived as exceptions to the African-American liberal consensus, and dupes working against the best interests of "their people," can be traced to political investments of the kind Ralph thought someone like Critchlow might have addressed. This, she argued, was not only an important insight into critical gaps in the history of conservatism, but an important lens into the investment African-American history as a field, and liberal historians more generally, have had in a vision of black Americans as working class insurgent Democrats. It also pleased me that in the general discussion she spoke at length about a new, ground-breaking dissertation on African-American Republicans after 1964, because the Zenith history department has just hired the author of this dissertation, Leah Wright, in a joint appointment with African-American Studies.

All of the people on the panel were quite complex thinkers in their own right, and if none of them identifies as "a conservative intellectual," I'm honestly not sure why it matters as long as people are complex and critical thinkers. For example, I saw the chair of said panel, Nancy MacLean, responding to a roundtable on her book at another conference last fall. One scholar in the audience had suggested obliquely that the book, which is critical of unions that failed to admit women or blacks to their membership rolls until they were mandated to do so under the law, neglects to emphasize the damage lawsuits filed by excluded workers did to the status and fiscal stability of the union movement more generally. Nancy replied somewhat tartly to the effect that perhaps the unions who had to pay for their sins should have thought of that before they persisted in discriminating against women and minorities. Not your standard liberal union-loving, leftist equivocator in my book.

And as for the panel itself, it stuck out in my mind for a number of things. One was Joe Crespino's utter graciousness in acknowledging the work of other people, and how it had contributed to his own scholarship. People have told me Joe is smart and a lovely person, and it is really true: his grasp of the current state of the literature is also, I can say as someone currently embedded in it, unbelievably comprehensive and included a broad swath of scholars several of whom were conservatives. Another was Perlstein saying that he had gotten something wrong in his earlier work by making ideological assumptions about something he was told that he now thinks he ought to have sourced better and re-thought. What I do not recall is anyone going on at length about what a terrible scholar Donald Critchlow was, to the point that he -- or any other self-identified conservative intellectual -- needed to be called upon for a cogent defense of the right-wing brotherhood.

But the thought -- "Gee, where is Donald Critchlow, or someone like Donald Critchlow?" -- did not occur to me for two other reasons as well. One is, I happen to like Critchlow's work although I think all his books could use a good hard edit. I think The Politics of Abortion and Birth Control In Historical Perspective is a fine, and distinctly non-ideological piece of scholarship, and while I know the Phyllis Schlafly book has been criticized as an insider account, that wouldn't be my issue. I think it's too long and a little light on analysis, but it's a damn good book -- and it's the best and most authoritative account of her life to date. This leads me to my second reason for not missing a conservative like Critchlow: I didn't know that Donald Critchlow was a self-identified conservative intellectual. Okay, go ahead and laugh. But it's true.

But here's my real question: why is this the kind of identity politics we would want to support anyway, particularly on a state of the field panel? Such a panel is supposed to take account of what has been written and what is left to be written, not what the ideological credentials of the people in the field are.

The picture, by the way, is of the C-Span History Bus that was parked in the exhibit. How did they get that sucker to the fourth floor?


Ralph Luker said...

TR, I wasn't at the panel, so the only way I know that Perlstein criticized Critchlow was from viewing the tape of the panel. I don't even like Critchlow personally. He bummed six cigarettes in a row from me at a recent convention, never offered repayment, and complained about his books not getting him a job offer. I thought: you creep, you're well employed already, I'm unemployed, and you're filching from *my* budget. *Anyway*, TR, you *know* you simply cannot imagine a state of the field panel on women's history or on African-American history that did not include a person of said identity. Could it be that the plea of "identity politics" only applies when it's conservatives who go unrepresented? The laughter at the panel occurred at all of Rick Perlstein's snarkpoints -- suggesting to me that folk in the audience were being told what they wanted to hear -- because they already believed it. Not much learning going on there, as far as I could tell.

Anonymous said...

I missed this. so thanks for posting the highlights.

PhDinHistory said...

I am not sure Critchlow is a self-identified conservative. I listened to a recent job talk he gave. He was proud of the fact that his students can never tell if he is a liberal or conservative. He apparently gives equal time to both sides of political issues in his teaching.

Tenured Radical said...

Aha. Well, I might even look at the tape again, but my memory -- now I was sitting in the back of the room -- was that a lot of the laughter was about Rick being cutesie rather than genuinely critical.

But back to identity, Brother Luker. I don't really know what I think about identity as a qualification for doing good history, but is conservative really an identity in the same sense that African-American and woman are? For example, in a state of the field panel on the CPUSA, would one be obligated to include a communist?

And I do agree -- I can't imagine that scenario you describe, but in part it is because all the major history organizations make sure that groups historically excluded from the profession are self-consciously *included* on all panels nowadays, and whether such folks are liberals or conservatives, feminists or mysogynists, isn't part of the formula.

Thanks for responding!

Ralph Luker said...

If I may say so, TR, I am sorry that you don't share my concern with the systemic discrimination against "the other" -- all of those that I am not.

One Spook said...

I appreciate your view that, despite not having any conservatives on the panel, others there did cover issues and points that conservatives might have broached, assuming I interpreted your comment correctly.

But I believe your perspective loses traction when you seem to presume that a panel should have included conservatives so as to provide them with an opportunity to make "a cogent defense of the right-wing brotherhood."

To me that's not the point of having ideological diversity on a panel.

Without such diversity, observers lose any viewpoint that might have been offered by a conservative panelist, regardless of the intelligence or differences of the other panelists and their presentations.

Your very good points notwithstanding, systemic discrimination against any major ideological viewpoint seems shortsighted and unfortunate.

Bill Harshaw said...

As a failed historian who's never attended a meeting, how about Ralph's final sentence: do you agree the panels (always, usually, sometimes, never) lack diversity?

human said...

Yeah, TR -- are you now or have you ever been?

Tenured Radical said...

Ralph: I guess my point is -- despite the giggles in the Perlstein tape, it isn't clear to me that there wasn't a conservative on the panel. Dillard, Crespino and hte panelist w ho was unable to attend -- Nancy McLean read her paper -- did not reveal their ideologies, so the default assumption is that they are liberals, when we don't know that to be true. Furthermore, Dillard's point -- that African-American conservatives, unless they are made a spectacle of by the left, are rendered invisible within conservatism -- would be an ironic one indeed if it turns out that she, as a black woman, is in fact conservative.

Furthermore, I don't think it's a binary divide: there is much diversity within these categories, and diverging from stereotype does not automatically toss a person into the other camp. See, Ralph, I would have described you as a libertarian, not a conservative, and would not have imagined including you on a panel as a representative conservative voice.

One Spook: I don;t assume what you say in paragraph two -- I am saying that is the assumption I am opposing. I don;t believe in raw identity politics, and I don't believe that smart, critical people cannot represent points of view fairly that are not necessarily their own -- or histories which are not theirs. No history belongs to any one group of people, whether you define that by gender, ethnicity, class, nationality, ideology, or what have you.

Bill: Welcome to the party. There are lots of panels I don't go to at any given conference. That said, *this* panel represented many points of view, a number of which were very critical of what you might argue are old (liberal) truisms. So this liberal learned a lot, let's put it that way.

Gotta go -- there's a lecture to give!

Anonymous said...

I attended this panel. I'm pretty sure that Rick Perlstein's points about Critchlow were responses to what Nancy Maclean had said in the panel introduction about a volume she and Critchlow wrote/edited that's forthcoming in the _Debating_ series (which, from her description, sounds fantastic). Maclean's introduction apparently wasn't filmed, otherwise you could judge for yourself.
For what it's worth, I didn't take Perlstein's comments as a cheap shot at the time.

Tenured Radical said...


I had completely forgotten this, but you are right -- it's a forthcoming volume of primary documents, prefaced by an essay by each scholar, and the point is to look at two ways of illuminating the same subject.

Thanks for this.

Matt L said...

Hi TR,

I cannot speak to the hypothetical missing conservative on the panel, but I can explain the bus on the fourth floor.

Before I became a historian, I used to work as a technician for a company that did trade shows in Seattle. From what I recall, the convention center has a really awesome freight elevator, plus there are a series of ramps from the street level loading docks.

The missing conservative sounds like it should be at title for a Sherlock Holmes story.

One Spook said...

TR: Thank you for correcting my misstatement of what I thought was your assumption in my paragraph two.

I had also thought that Ralph characterized the subject panel discussion as (in his words), " ...the state of studies of modern American conservatism."

Given that, and at the same time agreeing with you that "No history belongs to any one group of people" and that you "don't believe that smart, critical people cannot represent points of view fairly that are not necessarily their own," I have a sense that you would not approve of a panel on the state of studies of modern American liberalism or queer studies without a single liberal or queer person, respectively, on the panel. Am I wrong in that assumption?

Accordingly, I would answer your query to Ralph, "is conservative really an identity in the same sense that African-American and woman are?" in the positive.

Honestly, I'm amazed that folks who purport to value "diversity" in matters of race, class, and gender (which I do) do not equally value, embrace, and strive to include ideological diversity in all institutions, including the academy.

That's my view of an example of 'systemic discrimination against "the other" as it were.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear Spook,

Thanks for that. In regards to your questions the answers become trickier for some fields than others, but I think one of the features of being me might be: I wouldn't ask people about their ideology or the nature of their sexuality before inviting them onto a panel, and I wouldn't necessarily assume I knew the answers to those questions without asking.

I think another direction for this conversation to go in would be: if the conservative ideal (and a professional ideal of long standing) is that history not be ideological, why would we (paradoxically) seek to uncover ideologies and correct for them in advance? Or assume that "conservative" and "liberal" mean the same things for all people who generally identify with these categories?

And my other point -- a lesser one, I admit -- is that we don't know that there *wasn't* a conservative on the panel. All we know is that there wasn't a person who self-identified as a conservative on the panel.

Ralph Luker said...

TR, I think I'd say that, if the panel includes someone who is so highly visible as a lefty historian (and a good one) as Rick Perlstein, there's some obligation to have a conservative historian on the panel. I say that as someone who thinks that most of what passes for conservatism on the current American scene is balderdash. But it's just very odd that the program committee and those who put the panel together didn't think to include one of the people who's being discussed. I have visions of five straight historians discussing the state of lgbt history.

DCJ said...

So if you have a panel on fascism, and you have one historian who is Orwellian in his opposition to fascism, do you think ideological diversity would require you to find a fascist historian?

If not, why not?

One Spook said...

TR: I am going to take partial issue with your view that in attempting to achieve a reasonable level of ideological diversity "the answers become trickier for some fields than others." Yes and no.

I would suggest that both you and Ralph could have recommended people for that panel who hold views that would have provided more ideological balance thereto without having to "ask." I don't think it is that "tricky."

And, I would respond to David that it is not prudent or possible to fine tune the composition of every group such that we're forced to seek a left-handed, blue-eyed, gay, female Chicano gun-rights advocate for a panel to discuss the ethics of the Gadsen Purchase.

Actually, Ralph's 11:01 comment is entirely consistent with my view and on this, and the art of bumming cigarettes, Ralph and I agree.

I believe your second paragraph is a highly appropriate approach, and to that I would suggest that ensuring (as much as possible David), ideological diversity in fact guards against history becoming ideological. The ideal would be a department or group or panel that boasts a wide array of ideological views.

And that causes me to return (forgive the audacity) to the recent discussion of the University of Iowa Department of History with 42 members and not one registered Republican.

Is that department ideologically diverse? Well, we don't know, because we don't ask, can't presume, and it is tricky to tell. But, I suspect it is not, and we must now take a short trip in my time machine to probe as best we can, for that answer.

We fly back to a time in the early 70's when I was a recent veteran working in personnel. Much of our work was concerned with taking affirmative steps to establish racial diversity in the workplace.

The "guidelines" then in place at the EEOC allowed that if a workplace was found to have an employment profile that did not closely resemble the immediate geographical area racial balance (say 10% black), then that company was guilty of prima facie discrimination.

Those guidelines were rigid. No thought was given to company intent or history --- if that company of 100 persons did not employ 10 blacks, it was discriminating against blacks ... period.

Without getting deeper into the mechanics and procedures and the eventual evolution of those efforts up to today, I would assert that a history department that has 42 persons and no registered Republicans is discriminating against Republicans at the least, and also conservatives (pick any definition you prefer) on a prima facie basis.

To be quite honest, in those bygone days I often heard comments which allowed that integrating blacks into the workplace was "tricky."

I replied then, and I reply now that racial, gender, class and ideological diversity is not that tricky to either identify or achieve.

PS. E-mail me and I'll tell you about the time I fired the Thompson sub-machine that was confiscated from Blanche and Buck Barrow near Dexter, Iowa on July 24, 1933.

Tenured Radical said...


You got me with the PS. Will do.

Ralph Luker said...

David, Why would you use the example of a fascist in your observation, rather than a communist. Is one form of totalitarianism preferable to the other?

green mountain girl in dixie said...

TR, I'm so glad that you blog the OAH so I don't have to spend my non-existent travel budget on a plane ticket and conference registration! Not only is Joe Crespino a smart and lovely person, he has one of the best book covers around. I must also plug his wife, Caroline Herring, as a fabulous and haunting singer-songwriter of the south and folk-Americana: http://www.carolineherring.com/home.php

Ralph Luker said...

Thumbs up to green mountain girl in dixie's comment!

Alex said...

History is not science. It's a propaganda tool in the hands of the current regime.

DCJ said...


Yes, I don't think that all forms of totalitarianism are created equal. And I don't judge communism solely by Stalinism or Maoism.

But that's not really the point of my question, which was simply aiming to discover the extent of your commitment to ideological diversity in cases where you find the ideology in question to be loathsome and/or stupid.

But to be honest, these days I don't even know what it means to call someone a conservative. The term has been nearly emptied of its meaning.

Ralph Luker said...

David, The same thing has, of course, been said, many times, of "liberalism." The point remains that Perlstein is highly visible as a leftist historian. As I've said, a good one. If he's on the panel, I cannot imagine why one wouldn't try to include a historian from the right, unless you really do want a panel which merely re-enforces received opinion.