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

March 31, 2009, 4:20 pm

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?

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