Saturday, March 03, 2007

Neuhaus on Schlesinger

The topical thread of Fr. John Neuhaus' discursive column might be the admirable but helpless little virtues of various infidels.

Hirsi Ali, for instance, is admirable for her courage, and (quoting Claire Berlinski) "has opened the eyes of many Europeans to the problems posed by Islam. But it does make her an unlikely—nay, an impossible—candidate for the leadership of any real movement to encourage Islam into modernity and welcome it into the bosom of civilization.”

Pointing to a piece by British historian Keith Thomas last year, he underscores how the discipline of history has morphed from a fairly straightforward generally accepted narrative of events to the convoluted, multi-textured wad of tissue that we see today.

How do the confident predictions and prescriptions of 1966 look now? Some were patently off target. Econometric history has not swept all before it; on the contrary, its intimidating formulae and rebarbative style have been partly responsible for the regrettable lack of interest shown by many of today's historians in economic history of any kind. Social history has not become a central subject around which other branches of history are organized, but has in its turn been overtaken by the newer genre of cultural history. There is more cooperative scholarship and organized research than there used to be, but the "individualist, prima donna tradition", against which the polemicists of 1966 inveighed, is, in the age of stars like Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson, more alive than ever.

On the other hand, the computer has out- performed all expectations. Who in 1966 would have guessed that today's historians would order their library books online, take their laptops to the archives, scroll through searchable databases and become highly dependent upon on such electronic aids as Early English Books Online (EEBO) and Eighteenth Century-Collections Online (ECCO)?
During the past forty years, historians have learned from many other disciplines.

Geographers have taught them to study the physical environment and to map patterns of human settlement. Archaeologists have stimulated students of all periods into looking beyond written sources to the physical remains of the past, whether artefacts, buildings, or landscape. Art historians who have moved from high art to the study of visual culture have fostered a much greater sensitivity to history's visual dimension than was evident forty years ago, when it was highly unusual for a serious history book to carry any illustrations at all, leave alone the coloured ones we expect nowadays.
Many historians now believe, perhaps rather perversely, that what happened in the past is less important than what people thought had happened. This conviction helps to account for the decline of "hard" economic history. It is also the reason that social history, once envisaged as the detached study of supposedly objective groupings like families, households, communities and classes, has, since the 1980s, been mutating into cultural history, seen as an account of the mental assumptions and linguistic practices of the people involved.

Etc., Etc...

All this is leading to Neuhaus' anecdotal recollections of Schlesinger. Cute, forgettable in the aftermath of his legacy, but inciteful nevertheless.

The obituaries of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. have been surprising straightforward in noting the ways in which he was not a very good historian. His earlier work on, for instance, the age of Jackson (meaning Andrew) was eclipsed by his becoming the “house intellectual” of the John F. Kennedy administration. Yet it was all of a piece. In the 1960s, there was incessant debate on the left about whether it was possible to work for radical change within “the system.” At least for a time, when the system was in sync with where he thought history ought to be going, Arthur Schlesinger was determined to demonstrate a positive answer to that question.
He exemplified the insouciance of Lionel Trilling, who dismissed conservatism as irritable gestures trying to pass themselves off as ideas. More than that, for Schlesinger conservatism was indelibly tainted by racism, xenophobia, and, most damning of all, anticommunism. It is hard for many to remember today how deeply entrenched was the dogma of anti-anticommunism in the liberalism of those days.

He explains this enigmatic description by noting that he "rejected the ideology of communism and was among those who founded Americans for Democratic Action in order to distance liberalism from the 'Old Left' of the 1930s, which was still very much alive decades later." This was indeed true. I was keenly aware at the time that there was a sharp, unfinished struggle for leadership in progress among the Civil Rights and other student radial movements of the Sixties.

That decade we call The Sixties has been cast as a cohesive historic element casting a long shadow stretching over the next thirty or forty years. Those of us in the midst of it know better. There was nothing cohesive about it. It was a moment of chaos out of which a few important trends emerged. There is little appreciation, even now, of the critical role played at the time by people of faith whose influence and sacrifice protected the Leftward swing in North America from falling into the toxic mixture of ideas that was to become today's morally ambiguous European Left.

As for what we might call the "Global Left" one only has to look at what passes for Democratic trends to see how far afield the flame has burned. The president prates about promoting Democracy, but whenever a majority speaks in most of the world, from Venezuela to Haiti to South Asia to the Middle East, it is the voice of the great unwashed, economically deprived and having no part in a swelling global prosperity widening the gulf between rich and poor. In the end it is not the majority we really want to embrace, but the small number of enlightened leaders who will keep them under control until they internalize the virtues of civilized competition instead of taking what they want by force. Meantime, Global Business is light years ahead of Global Politics, and the movers and shakers of economic systems have learned how best to manipulate whole nations to their respective interests. (This is why the Internet is such a threat in many places. It is no accident that search engines bow to the power of Chinese policy-makers, or that Internet sites are selectively blocked in many parts of the world.)

When contemporary voices from the Right rail about the American Left, they have no clue how much worse it might have become. We have lived to see the emergence of a Conservative movement in America that makes Lionel Trilling's notion of "conservatism as irritable gestures trying to pass themselves off as ideas" downright quaint. A hardened, virtually impenetrable bedrock of belief in simplistic formulae has displaced any idea that there might be a better way to solve problems. Even the most constructive and gentle criticisms are dismissed as irrelevant, so an extremism on the left emerges as the only muscle strong enough to challenge power on the right. I hope to live long enough to see this dialectic return to the center, if for no other reason than the safety and security of my children and grandchildren.

Neuhaus concludes his glance at Schlesinger thus, noting that he "kept the faith" of old-school Liberalism.

Nonetheless, Arthur Schlesinger was a delightful interlocutor. It was simply that he had not had a fresh thought for years. Our last encounter was at Princeton in 2004 at a conference occasioned by the twentieth anniversary of my book The Naked Public Square. I’m not sure he had ever read the book, but he used the occasion of what he understood to be its argument to blast the Bush administration for being the most dangerously religious presidency in American history. He was then age eighty-six and somewhat frail, and the other speakers at the conference were gentle but firm in trying to set him straight. But I had the impression that Schlesinger wasn’t listening. At that point, and for many years before that point, he had made up his mind.

The most striking thing about Arthur Schlesinger, apart from his professorial manner and impish humor, was what seemed to be a lack of intellectual curiosity. The course of a thoroughly secularized liberalism was the trajectory of historical progress, and deviations from it were to be viewed with amused contempt and occasional spurts of anger. Trilling rose above his dismissive aphorism. I’m not sure that Schlesinger ever did. The self-confidence, often indistinguishable from smugness, of the liberal intellectual consensus of the 1940s and 1950s was unshakeable. It all came together with JFK, the star to which Schlesinger hitched his wagon. And he rather poignantly tried to bring it together again in his support of the presidential aspirations of Robert and Edward Kennedy.

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