Ecrasez L’Infamme

Ecrasez L’Infame!

    Ah historiography! It’s the only aspect of historical discourse that I find at all interesting.  Without it, I would never have come into contact at all with so many of the greatest (now “superseded”) practitioners of the art. I may, quite possibly, have been the only instructor in America that assigned Perry Miller to undergraduates last year–and Richard Hofstadter’s rep isn’t much healthier. Most of the well-meaning leftist types that I associate with seem convinced that the demise of “Consensus History” is a good thing–but the question I always ask is: “good for whom?”

    Of course, we all know that “master narratives” aren’t cool anymore–and yet, I would argue that the bland doctrine of “diversity”, which now coats just about every product of any humanities department that you could name, is the most coercive rhetorical straightjacket of all. These pieces may “go down easy” with other professional academics–but they also pass right through the ideological digestive systems of readers (undergraduate students that have been forced to take a history/sociology course or two; “lay readers” that might pick up one of these books, by accident, whilst combing their local bookstore’s history section for the latest gossippy nonsense about Hitler’s sex life) outside of this charmed circle. Sure, “consensus historians” got a lot of things “wrong”. Their reasonably coherent portrait of America was achieved through the exclusion of many segments of the population (basically, anyone that was not middle-class). However, it was this very “short-sighted” theoretical base which allowed a scholar like Hofstadter to set himself and trade “unamerican” blows with the best of his right wing opponents (see, for instance, The Paranoid Style in American Politics). Having recently lived through my first American Presidential campaign–and heard, from the inside, the kinds of debates which are generated by a discourse that allows one group of partisans to march into battle with an exclusive right to fly the banner of “VALUES”–all I can say is: bring back that lying progressive master narrative–right, the fuck, NOW!
    I have just read a swathe through a group of scholarly studies of the New Christian Right, each of which takes at least a moment to lament the indignities that Hofstadter, Daniel Bell, et al heaped upon this movement, in its formative stages, back in the sixties. So tactful… So tenderly respectful of the historically-produced subjects that forced things like “family values” and “law n’ order” onto the political docket at the expense of social justice… Mustn’t play the patronizing academic elitist…  We must take these people–and their worldview–seriously. At the very least, we mustn’t label them
paranoiac “pseudo-conservatives”…

    Why the hell not?

    It would indeed be folly not to take the effects of this group’s presence on the political stage seriously–but the people themselves? Why not just be honest? These people are morons. What’s more–and more to the point–they are out of sync with the “American tradition” (as it was constructed by the likes of Hofstadter)–a tradition of reasonable progress and modern statecraft which goes back to the “Founding Fathers”, and even, in embryo, as Perry Miller’s (now ignored) oeuvre demonstrates, to the Puritans themselves.

    Now, if Hofstadter were alive, and I had a chance to speak with him, I have no doubt that he would label me a leftist extremist and walk away from me as quickly as possible. I do, after all, want to see human carnivorousness outlawed, the repeal of all copyright laws, and, well, massive, worldwide, wealth-redistribution. It’s not as if I think Hofstadter had any ultimate answers to the problems of the nation. But he was grounded enough to declare that, sometimes, history yields still-born (or, at least, brain-dead) progeny. The prophets of “diversity”, in repudiating “consensus history”, and all standards (except the standard that there shall be no standard), have deprived themselves of a valuable weapon in the rhetorical war on real-world injustice. The parallel ascendancy, in the 1980’s, of the Reaganite Right and critical theory in the humanities was no accident. The more “democratic” scholarly discourse becomes, the further it gets from the demos. Unless you are willing to contest the “meaning of America” (“but there is no…”), you will never get a political word in edgewise. And it doesn’t matter how much you “care” about the plight of the marginalized. The name of the game is to marginalize the most harmful elements in the country (hi American Digest! fuck you Jim Kalb). We know that objectivity isn’t possible. Enough with the microstudies and the conferral of “retroactive agency” upon oppressed dead people… An academic establishment that doesn’t have the self-confidence to envison a “main current of American thought” (hush! there is no “main current”! sure, sure–but let’s just pretend there is one, okay?) deserves to find itself adrift in a sea of stupidity.

Good night friends!



  1. But, Dave, wasn’t it also Hofstadterian “consensus” types that gave us such successes as the Vietnam war? And were able for a long time to tar those people who demurred from endorsing such a project as “anti-American radicals”? And aren’t those very same consensus types the precursors to our own neoconservatives (who were after all Humphrey-Truman-“Scoop” Jackson Democrats who migrated right b/c they were horrified by the New Left – y’know the people who weren’t so keen on napalming vietnamese villages) who have given us our own “consensus” war? I mean, who’s the real danger, those guys, or a bunch of fundamentalists with their dog-eared copies of “Left Behind.” Just asking…


  2. quite right Lee!

    I certainly wouldn’t want to see the formation of a “new consensus” around the same constellation of values that held the old one together… I just want to see an academy that feels empowered to make statements about the “meaning of America”… (the academy is part of the Establishment–there’s no getting around that–so why not just run with it?) The problem, from my point of view, is that the people with their copies of “Left Behind” aren’t peripheral to the the political discourse in this country at all–and they should be! The function of “values” (you’ve either got ’em or you don’t!) in contemporary political debates is proof enough of that! Presumably, the “new Hofstadter” would be able to affect this situation by ascribing a completely different meaning/tradition to this concept.


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