Department of Snark: Or; Who Put A Tack On Gordon Wood’s Chair?

January 15, 2011, 11:16 pm

Where did people get illustrations before the interwebs?

Historiann famously stepped in all kind of horse pucky by calling out one very dead white man as a tool.  She comments on this episode in our fabulous Journal of Women’s History roundtable (winter 2010/11), hot off the presses from its new home at SUNY-Buffalo. Read it, and you’ll understand that it’s been done by a pro and even if a person were willing to put up with the flak, it would only be imitation from here on out.

But on a related note:  did you know a group of very senior and live white men in a prominent East Coast history department referred to themselves informally, until quite recently, as “the Barons?”  Presumably this is how they distinguished themselves from women and more recent arrivals in the department.  One can’t help but believe that one of these good old boys could have been Gordon Wood, who recently heaved up a toxic review of Jill Lepore’s  The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).  Others have commented on it here and here.  Go here for the Facebook page (!) devoted to discussing this peculiar and unattractive essay.

In “No Thanks for the Memories” (New York Review of Books, January 13), Wood signals a thumbs down on Lepore’s attempt to juxtapose what she calls the “fundamentalist “ historical vision of the Tea Party movement – in other words, activists’ belief that the Founding Fathers offer us an unchanging and eternal set of guidelines for political life – with what seems to me the unquestionable fact that the Founding Fathers were very different people from us and could not have known who we would be.  Better yet, these elite white gents disagreed profoundly with each other, changed their views on key issues, were ambivalent about the totems of modern right-wing movements (religion, for example), and were downright clueless about what it would mean to enfranchise an electorate across lines of race, class and gender.  They argued among themselves and made unhappy bargains when producing the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  They believed that the Revolution marked a period of change rather than the production of unwavering truths to which Americans ought to adhere until the end of time.

Wood opens his critique with the pronouncement: “America’s Founding Fathers have a social significance for the American public,” as if this were not actually the topic of Lepore’s book, or as though such a thought was a general and incontrovertible fact about all “Americans.” Lecturing Lepore this way is a bit like saying to a religion scholar, “You know, God is no piker.”  However, my guess is that everybody in Amerika is not absorbed with the founding fathers, and from reading this book I think Jill Lepore might agree with me.   (I don’t just believe this because I’m a gay woman either, Big Guy.) Furthermore, the point of Lepore’s book, as I understand it, is that history is a highly public project whether we scholars like it or not.  It cannot be confined to the archival work, truth seeking and critical methods that we historians see as fundamental to our craft, and we have some responsibility to grapple with and shape those larger belief systems.  As the public latches on to history as a way of discussing their political concerns, they develop fetish objects.  For the Tea Party activists in particular, the Founding Fathers operate as fetish objects, as well as intellectual touchstones for a set of political beliefs that are at least as presentist as they are located in any coherent eighteenth century intellectual world.

What is particularly puzzling is Wood’s contempt for a highly acclaimed scholar whose main crime seems to be that she writes for a broader educated public. This causes him to radically misrepresent and belittle the book, rather than engage in civilized disagreement with it.  Perhaps the most offensive charge he launches is that Lepore’s main mission in this book is to mock Tea Party adherents’ senseless need for timeless truths. ”It is very easy for academic historians to mock this special need,” he writes; “and Harvard historian Jill Lepore, as a staff writer for the New Yorker is an expert at mockery.” Other than being puzzled about what is so sacred about this “special need” that, if it turned up in his Brown University classroom or any other academic setting, might be considered risible by Wood himself, what I am truly confused about is whether Wood actually read Lepore’s book. Referring to the accounts of the revolutionary past interleaved with Tea Party renditions of that past as “scatter shot” he maintains that Lepore “makes fun of the Tea Party people who are trying to use the history of the Revolution to promote their political cause. …The fact that many ordinary Americans continue to want to ask about the Founders evokes no sympathy or understanding from Lepore.”

In my view, the book is well structured, well argued, fun to read, highly teachable and very respectful of the Tea Party activists Lepore encountered as she thought through these issues.  I can’t imagine why Wood finds the book “confusing,” and  a “meandering meditation on history with bits of information on topics, sometimes relevant, sometimes not.” He writes, “Throughout her book Lepore’s implicit question remains always: Don’t these Tea Party People realize how silly they are? They don’t understand history: they need to learn that time moves forward.”

At times Wood himself is incoherent, so deeply does he dislike The Whites of Their Eyes.  Lashing out at Lepore for criticizing originalism as “bad history,” he concedes that although originalism is actually bad history, it is simultaneously good law.  We know this, not because Wood feels he has to explain this odd contradiction, but “because it has engaged some of the best minds in the country’s law schools over the past three decades or so” and the Federalist society was founded to promote it. />
How it is that incorrect history can provide the foundation for good law in a Constitutional system based on precedent boggles me, but it is also not to the point: originalism is, in fact, a highly historical theory of the law.  It suggests that the passage of time does not alter basic truths of the human condition that was fully conceptualized in the past.  To say it is not historical would be like saying the Bible is not historical.  Why do I think Wood’s point about the “best minds”is also flimsy, as well as contradictory?  Here are three movements that have been based on what seemed to be universal truth, engaged excellent minds and yet failed to produce anything but injustice:  Stalinism, South African apartheid, and the Iraq war. 

Wood ends on a note of unbelievable condescension and sexism by suggesting how Jill Lepore could be a better historian: take a course from the venerable Bernard Bailyn! If only she understood the interactions between history and memory as Bailyn has, and had solicited “advice” from him, Lepore would be a better scholar. “She might have been able to display some of her scientific credentials as a historian,” Wood concludes, “and written a less partisan and more dispassionate account of the Tea Party movement to help us understand what it means.”

It’s rare that I have read such a rude review that so nakedly displays the fault lines and the rivalries in a field, not to mention the condescension some men feel free to display towards women that they would not dream of displaying towards a man. But here’s the worst thing about this review, from my perspective: it is a gross misrepresentation of what Lepore has done, and offers no evidence from the text to support these nasty charges. Here are a few quotes for you from the book that suggest these charges of Woods are entirely invented:

  • “This book is an argument against historical fundamentalism. It makes that argument by measuring the distance between past and present.” (19)  Here we have a statement of argument and method that actually does map the rest of the volume.
  • Reporting on a conversation with two Tea Party activists in a Boston bar, Lepore describes one as “quite” and the other as “frustrated” and “dismayed by the passage of national health care, but “courteous and equable” as he described his desire to put a democratic process into motion to overturn it. (90-91) In fact, I would defy Wood to point to any section of this book where Lepore mocks her informants, either openly or by implication.
  • Rather than describing Tea Party activists as racist, as many do, Lepore instead describes the lengths that many go to marginalize demonstrators who are deploying racism and racist symbols, particularly in relationship to President Obama. In the analysis that produces the title, she sees the Tea Party love affair with a set of mythical Founding Fathers as a utopian desire for an Edenic democracy without racism, sexism or any kind of special interest. “The Founding Fathers were the whites of their eyes, a fantasy of an America before race, without race.” (95) Inevitably, Lepore must put this in contrast with what even Gordon Wood surely knows: that although deeply divided over slavery, the FF’s allowed it to survive; and that female citizenship was not just an oversight, it was unimaginable.

“”What would the founders do?’” is, Lepore argues from the point of view of historical analysis, “an ill considered and unanswerable question, and pointless, too.” (124) Although Lepore doesn’t bring it up, the female characters that she weaves through the book speak to Wood, but he can’t hear them. There is a reason why Tea Party folks don’t sit around asking what Abigail Adams thought about this point of law or finance, Lepore implies, or what Phillis Wheatley might have argued Bakke. It isn’t because they don’t care: it’s because women and black people didn’t matter politically in the eighteenth century, and that is kind of a problem in a day and age when ideas about citizenship have to draw on the complex and contradictory pasts that make up American history.

I didn’t finish this book loving it, as I have loved some of Lepore’s other books. But it’s a good book, I liked it, and it is one that helps us think about how we will weave the Tea Party movement into our classes, as inevitably we must.  The Whites of Their Eyes could give students an energizing introduction to the relevance of the past to our political present. For the rest of us, it could help ease our minds about the Tea Party: compared to Gordon Wood, they seem like truly lovely people.

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