November 25, 2009
Consensus History? The Community College Example.

Here’s as good a first post as any:

I’m preparing to teach a course at Shoreline Community College this upcoming Spring, and’ve found myself filling-in certain knowledge gaps that’d inevitably be exposed in an 11-week give-and-take with the kinds of people you, and maybe NBC, would expect to find at a community college: precocious high-schoolers who were bored out of their minds with the public school curriculum; the elderly who may’ve experienced first-hand the events (WWII, stagflation, et al.) you’ll describe in a survey of American history; stoners who’ll respect a black man no matter what he says (particularly if he’s got Jamaican ancestry), and, for good measure, random village miscreants, of which I was one, all those years ago, when I myself attended Shoreline Community after dropping-out of Shorewood High School. The unpredictability of the social mix makes me want to get my shit together. Plus, at 25, it’s the first experience I’ll have as a teacher.

So I’ve sought out other teachers. Of favorite historians, I’ve a few, dead and alive: Roger Sale, for his “biography” of Seattle, SEATTLE: PAST TO PRESENT— Trevor Griffey, fellow comrade from The Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project whose off at a cabin somewhere finishing his dissertation, about Nixon and conservative retrenchment in 1968— and a fondness for Doris Kearns Goodwin, plagiarism scandal and all, simply because she’s probably the most visible Historian alive, unless you count Joe Biden. None of these so close to Richard Hofstadter, though, whose work I’ve taken a second look at while preparing for this course.

When I first read ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM IN AMERICAN LIFE back in junior year at UW, I admired his style (a word not commonly used to describe what historians do) as a writer and as a thinker: his portrait of the many abuses and usurpations suffered by American intellectuals, throughout history, in a society that often places matter over mind, had a certain fidgety, competitive, defensively self-aware streak that I admired— in much the same way, perhaps, that a possessive girlfriend tickles a man’s vanity.  Studying African-American History, I’d already been used to seeing certain social-classes get treated as archetypes, as figments of the popular imagination who are created by market-forces and political interests,; but I hadn’t then realized that men and women of letters themselves comprised a “group”, an entity that suffers malicious representations, a social construct in themselves. I’d mostly only thought they were responsible for creating social constructs. ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM IN AMERICAN LIFE put words to a social alienation I’d only sensed, and prepared me for a professional alienation I didn’t know I’d suffer. What place, really, do we have for Historians?

More of Hofstadter’s books, in any case, found a place on my bookshelf: THE PARANOID STYLE IN AMERICAN POLITICS brilliantly but dismissively explained the rise of the right in the 60s with bladed psycho-babble, and, in so doing, incubated a kind of smug defeatism indulged by liberals when they get their arses handed to them at the ballot-box; it’s one thing to suffer defeat, but quite another to say that the victor wins only by playing to the basest impulses of the crowd, as if the jingoistic, Henry Jackson Democrats of the Kennedy-Johnson-McNamara-Nitze Era ever did anything different. THE AGE OF REFORM was an altogether sobering account of the transition from forward looking, optimistic Progressivism, to the essentially defensive, corrective New Deal Era. For Hofstadter, FDR capitulated to truly reformative interests during the "Second New Deal" only when it became clear that a sizable and growing faction within the Democratic Party might undercut his bid for re-election. Iterating perhaps the most relevant historical speculation for a country floundering in a 21st Century re-run of The Great Depression, Hofstadter wonders, in AGE OF REFORM what would’ve come of The New Deal, and of global capitalism as a whole, were it not for Hitler, Togo, and Stalin.

THE AMERICAN POLITICAL TRADITION I’d been meaning to read for years. Close friends—some hotly infatuated with American History, others more prudish—would frequently tell me that they had read “Ampoltrad” for one class or another, finding it more memorable than any other tome they’d been saddled with in secondary school. I ran across a friend’s copy in a box of books once; dog-eared, and dog-bitten, whole pages sheared by some callous canine’s canines. I came to empathize. When I finally ran across my own copy of the 450-page masterpiece, I devoured it too, with my enthusiasm for the subject piqued by the kind of serendipitous glory you can only get in a used bookstore. It was a mint, dare I say virgin, copy, with not a single highlight or annotation. The corners were so sharp you could shave with them. With every turn, the starch-stiff pages shhhhhhhh-ewed brilliantly, like a teacher’s pet attempting to silence the class. The book cost $8; a total steal anyway, and, what’s more, the exact amount of trade-credit I had at the store, after sloughing off two insufferable volumes whose names and authors I can’t even remember!

After reading the enlightening introduction by Christopher Lasch, I was deflated, and then excited, to find-out that most of my engagement with the other Hofstadter texts had been mostly masturbatory, far from critical. It was like nervously anticipating your first meeting with the “in-laws”, only to find out that you get along as well with them as you do your lover. I didn’t know that Hofstadter belonged to a distinct intellectual lineage, without knowledge of which his works can only be appreciated superficially. In the genealogy, dad was Charles Beard, whereas mom was Louis Parrington: from the former, Hofstadter learned to think of American History as a narrative of successive political contests between groups whose material interests were inherently at odds; from Parrington, focus was paid as much to material contests as to their attendant ideas, mythologies, and tropes, literary as well as psychological. The result was that Hofstadter in THE AMERICAN POLITICAL TRADITION, unlike many of his contemporaries, was able to cultivate a well-rounded scope in his scholarship, such that he could never be accused of crass, dry materialism, nor, on the other extreme, of flighty, groundless psycho-analysis or textualism. For good measure, Fredrick Jackson Turner, for his insight into the mechanics of American identity-production, lurks as something like a God Father or a Great Aunt in Hofstadter’s work. Anywhere Americans grope for a sentimental, delusional innocence, Turner’s frontier thesis is validated. Our very attempts to return to bygone, less complicated times already proves just how irrevocably far along the road of modernization we are. I take Hofstadter’s constant speculation over the social-worth of the discipline of History, and of intellectuals in general, to be a direct result of his engagement with Turner.

Hofstadter begins THE AMERICAN POLITICAL TRADITION by essentially asking whether the general American public has a use-value for history and historians, beyond the need for the kind of boring, soapy-warm nostalgia bath so often peddled today as “public history”. What emerges, in the rest of the text, is a deeply cynical, coldly realistic portrait of 10 individuals and 2 groups, as ruthless as it is lucid. Hofstadter’s main innovation in these portraits—of Andrew Jackson, of Abraham Lincoln, of The Robber Barons—is to frame what we thought of as bitter contests over ideas and resources as, actually, monotonous and short-sighted agreements, repetitive contests over who can articulate the fundamentally-shared mores of society in the strongest terms. In the generation or so after THE AMERICAN POLITICAL TRADITION’s publication in 1946, the approach to history came to be known as “consensus history”, a cheap-tag for an invested and novel mode of historical interpretation that might’ve goaded Hofstadter as much as the moniker “Be-Bop” goaded Charlie Parker, whose seminal recording happened to be released the year before Ampoltrad.

Against Beard’s focus on class-tension, Hofstadter, who came of age as Roosevelt was toting the “Four Freedoms”, asserts the fundamental identity of creditor and debtor, patrician and urbanite, politician and banker, even slave and master (but not, interestingly, of native and settler), as far as their desires for full access to American life. Against Parrington’s hallowed, respectful landscape of the many tributaries of American life, and of The Great Men who fed it, Hofstadter portrays national heroes like Lincoln as symbols of a distinctly American/national “self-help” mythology. In short, many of the political actors are treated as pathetic characters, themselves acting out scripts, speaking out against entrenched material interests only to more effectively strengthen the ties that bind the powerless to them (as with FDR’s pallid appropriation of radicalism during The Second New Deal), or waiting until the absolute last minute to disturb unjust hierarchies (as with Lincoln’s shameful waffling on the issue of slavery).

In the work of Charles Beard, who came of age a generation after Emile Zola„ national heroes who fight the status quo appear as larger than life, with the help of Beard’s wooden, official-sounding prose; in THE AMERICAN POLITICAL TRADITION, ascerbic asides, ironic turns of phrase, and vicious punchlines savage the reputation of national heroes, leaving the reader at once disillusioned and entertained, a full 50 years before Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart. Andrew Jackson isn’t the hero who took on Wall Street for Main Street so much as he’s a former Indian-killer turned arbiter of a dispute—between debtors in the West and bankers in the East—in which the contestants agree on the virtues free-market system. The conflict isn’t an epic, principled struggle between the “haves” and “have-nots”, but, more precisely, between the “haves” and the “want-some-mores,-please”. John C. Calhoun, caustically dubbed “Marx of The Master Class” by Hofstadter, is a faux-freedom-fighter whose political project—the liberation of The American South from Northern capitalists—was flawed from the start; no matter that Calhoun advanced a historical-materialist critique of capitalist exploitation about a decade before THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, only the most hollow, meaningless notion of liberty complains of merchants who turn a profit on Southern cotton while condoning masters, like Calhoun, who “send [their] slaves to bed with 30 strikes of the lash.”

Explicit injustice in The American South is forever the favorite target of Northern Liberals, who can condemn obvious tragedies (Jim Crow, Katrina, Jena 6) elsewhere while ignoring the planks in their own eyes (red-lining, discriminatory admissions policies at Universities, the prison-industrial complex). On the other hand, The “consensus history” approach disorients us when it’s applied to our heroes, particularly the ones we portray as standing, somehow, outside of the powdered-wig, Enlightenment tradition that gave us a Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, and The Bill of Rights.

Were The Black Panthers revolutionaries, or local politicians who advanced a ten-point program with aims that any white suburbanite would agree with if it weren’t hawked by 22-year-olds with guns? Are the Hip-Hoppers baton-carriers of an insurgent musical and political experiment, or business men who only want to re-write the rules of capitalism to the extent that it doesn’t recognize the latent money-making genius of luminaries like Jay-Z? Why should we be made to expect anything more than a centrist-restoration from the first Black President who was, nonetheless, a child of the middle-class?

The “consensus” approach to history carries with it a sense of what multiculturalism could’ve become if it were a political strategy, not just a rhetorical or face-saving one. The Cool Kids who wear sunglasses to appear aloof, the Black kids who claim nobody knows what they’ve been through, the Latinos who prattle on and on about “life back home”, and the White kids who brook no understanding of ways of life beyond the one they’ve been weened on in the ‘burbs are all suddenly revealed as exactly what they are; bored nodes of the middle-class who incubate an over-exaggerated and misplaced sense of their own uniqueness in order to escape precisely that shared set of values which they stupidly interpret as encroaching on their “individuality”.

Of course, consensus history, as a scheme of interpretation, isn’t perfect: by way of his engagement with Beard, Hofstadter seems mostly to’ve inverted what everybody dislikes about Marxism. In the Marx/Beard matrix, subjectivity is crushed in the iron laws of material necessity, every -ism is an insignificant footnote to the employment index, and every ideology is a side-buggy on the Model-T of capitalism. On the other hand, Hofstadter’s already prepared to say that, in their heart of hearts, an unemployed Black male age 18-24 is identical to a Wall Street banker whose recklessness caused the fiscal crisis of 2008; it’s true on some level, but the conflict between aspirants to wealth and the holders of wealth is political, not only ideological. Consensus history, taken too far, itself implies that conflict is as much a part of the story as consensus. Without Hofstadter’s breadth and style, any other consensus history might start to resemble those mock newscasts where the reporters go on and on about how nothing bad happened that day. This Thursday, picture Jeremiah Wright and Sean Hannitty, recognizing that faith in God crosses all national and political divisions, sitting down at the Thanksgiving table, agreeing to let by-gones be by-gones.

No matter, if you trade the shades for horn-rims, you might see why the consensus approach would be interesting to experiment with in a community college classroom. Later, for now.

October 30, 2009