November 13, 2005

"Bargain basement Nietzsche and Foucault, admixed with earnest American do-goodism, that still passes for 'theory' in much of the academy."

That's Sean Wilentz's description of "the new political history," quoted by Gordon S. Wood in his review of Wilentz's "The Rise of American Democracy," which dares to tell the story of dead white males.
[Wilentz] writes as a good liberal, but an old-fashioned New Deal one. Like Schlesinger in 1945, he wants in 2005 to speak to the liberalism of the modern Democratic Party. By suggesting that the race, gender and cultural issues that drive much of the modern left are not central to the age of Jackson, Wilentz seems to imply that they should not be central to the future of the present-day Democratic Party.


buck said...

I have always thought that historians make the best liberals. Really, a good knowledge of history can make anyone more decisive. Though Wood himself has been criticized by some I enjoy his work and will check out Wilentz's book as well

mrbungle2103 said...

Oddly enough Wilentz spends much of his book "Chants Democratic" arguing that race, gender, and particularly culture are central to the age of Jackson, and the emergence of a single definable working class. Wilentz is an E.P.Thompson historian but with less Marxist inevitability. Indeed he's spent much of his career arguing that common culture and not solely upper-class oppression is what drove the lower classes together.

If I were "in the academy" I would take notice - his understanding of the working classes particularly in major US cities is very astute.

And I agree historians do make the best liberals. There aren't many dying to tell the story of industtrialists or CEO's these days. These days you get your class historians, the new gender historians, and even disability historians. All of whom find that the game is rigged.

PatCA said...

Hurrah for free speech! I hope students read it and cite it and make their university libraries buy it.

The pendulum is swinging and, in a free society, inevitable.

tefta said...

earnest American "do-goodism" don't you mean nosy-parkerism?

chuck b. said...

Did Wilentz write his book in the same passive voice Mr. Wood used to write his review? If so, no wonder the book "is a long, long read." The review took me half an hour.

And why say admixed when you can just say mixed?

"In opposition to the fashionable emphasis on culture, [Wilentz] wants, he says, to highlight the independent existence and importance of politics."

Politics independent of culture? How nostalgic. How romantic!

As if you needed it--more evidence the New York Times pays people for terrible writing:

"Wilentz says, for the people of the early Republic, politics, government and constitutional order, not economics, not society, not culture, were still the major means by which the world and the men who ran it were interpreted."

Let's apply the subject-verb-object approach to sentence construction taught in (public) grade school English: "People of the early republic interpreted the world and the men who ran it in terms of politics, government and constitutional order--not economics, society or culture."

I’m no historian, but that sounds doubtful to me.

And this:

"The Jacksonian Democrats 'assumed that politics and government institutions remained the primary locus of power,' and that power was to be used to protect the majority of 'producers' - farmers, mechanics and other workers in the society - from 'a nonproducer elite' composed of bankers, speculators and other moneyed men. 'If they did not invent democracy,' he writes, 'the Jacksonians did make this way of thinking the basic credo of American liberal democracy.' There's a hint in all this history that the present-day Democratic Party might greatly improve its bearings by going back to its Jacksonian roots."

I’m not sure about that advice! See under “capitalism, modern” or perhaps "Postrel, Virginia" or maybe “train, station, left”.

Hellmut said...

In spite of the danger of elitism, I like the focus on leaders because it recovers human beings as agents. Our choices matter.

I think it is too bad, however, that it is so much more difficult to document the agency of ordinary folks.

Nonetheless, studying leadership emphasizes freedom and responsibility.

grumpyTA said...

PatCA: Get a clue. Historians have been having these arguments for a long time: this is nothing new and, sorry, this is not an example of the pendulum swinging.

PatCA said...

"Get a clue"? You sure are grumpy, Grumpy.

If students actually read this, it will be a swing of the pendulum, in my experience in academe.

grumpyTA said...

PatCA: Yes, I am grumpy. :)

But students *already* read stuff like this. And they have been for a long time. That's my point.

PatCA said...

The students writing the papers I read haven't read things like this, okay? It is possibly my experience is different from yours, isn't it?

S said...

Mr. Wood's comments might be interpretted as having stemmed from a distaste of Nietzsche and Foucault. It's understadable that a historian might struggle with Foucault, in particular. But I might point out that Wood's own methodology corresponds with Foucault's genealogy of power. I'd like to think, therefore, that Wood criticizes not Foucault, but simplistic readings of Foucault's work.