The Historical Present

The phone call made me nervous. I'd never been offered an all-expense-paid press junket before. Wasn't this the sort of thing you'd expect from a petroleum conglomerate, sponsoring a conference on debunking global warming? Instead, a humble scholarly organization, the Historical Society (THS), was proposing to fly me to Atlanta, Georgia, for its annual meeting. What's more, the group wanted to put me up in a nice hotel, where it would pay all the tabs I cared to charge them. What could these people possibly be up to?

The Historical Society's executive director, Louis Ferleger, a fast talker, attempted to put me at ease. Of course I could write anything I cared to, in any publication; or, if things didn't work out, in no publication at all.I asked him where the money was coming from. Following his own political instincts, said Ferleger, he had first approached liberal funders, but right-wing foundations were the only ones that ponied up. Then he practically leaped through the phone line to assure me that his group was politically ecumenical -- offering himself, a Marxist historian of agriculture, as exhibit A, and laughingly confirming a Wall Street Journal description of another THS stalwart as a "self-described Harvard 'communist.'"

From what I knew of THS, however, it was a group founded in 1998 to fight shoulder to shoulder with the cultural warriors of the right. It claimed to offer an alternative to the corrupt political correctness of the academic mainstream -- especially the historical profession's two blue-chip organizations of record, the American Historical Association (AHA) and the Organization of American Historians. THS underwrites polemics, such as the one its co-founder, Eugene Genovese, published in the Los Angeles Times, observing that the "demand that historians privilege race, class, and gender is occurring in an atmosphere that uncomfortably resembles the McCarthyism of the 1950s." At the same time, however, the actual scholarship THS supports -- for example, the historical essays in its 1999 anthology, Reconstructing History: The Making of a New Historical Society -- is not all that different from what's published in the mainstream journals the group purports to revile. That's not surprising, as history is pretty much a middle-of-the-road discipline in the first place. Its few sinful experiments with postmodernism (loosely defined) were mostly confined to a certain era, now passed.

For all the so-called mainstream academy's fascination with marginality, THS is a group that has attained marginal status in virtually every way: It's willfully marginal to the historical mainstream, but also marginal to all those other conservative scholarly groups that sprang up in the 1990s to take on the mainstreams of their disciplines. In fact, THS is so marginal, Ferleger plaintively told me, that since an initial burst of publicity at the time of its founding, not a single reporter on the higher-ed beat has accepted an invitation to attend a THS event -- even though the group has grown substantially since its inception. This must say something useful about the culture of academia in the opening years of a new millennium, I thought, but I wasn't sure what. I flew to Atlanta to find out.

So there I was at the Crowne Plaza Ravinia Hotel. And so were a surprising number of graduate students. They constituted perhaps 10 percent of those present, a healthy number considering that unlike the bigger historical conferences, departments did not send representatives here to interview junior hires. Then again, in a 1998 Los Angles Times op-ed, THS officer and diplomatic historian Mark Trachtenberg predicted that young scholars "who still believe in the traditional concept of what historical work should be" would flock to the Historical Society. Was he right?

Not exactly. "I'm actually a little wary of the ideology," explained a recent University of Chicago Ph.D. "And to me, the bigger conferences are sufficiently diverse that they're not really stifling anyone." He came to this conference for the same reason many grad students did: They studied the Reconstruction and that was the meeting's theme. Another student, who described himself as a social democrat, only hazarded the trip after learning that David Landes and Sean Wilentz were participating. "I like their work," he said, "so I kind of felt it was safe to come." Others appreciated the group's stated intention of encouraging a more generalist approach to history (at the conference, at least, that intention was honored more in the breach, with most sessions neatly segregated by scholarly pigeonhole). One new graduate student even came with a meta-analytical agenda: He had read Reconstructing History in college and was intrigued by the way many of its contributors sneaked in intellectual strategies from the very bĂȘte noire they were supposedly working to subdue -- postmodernism.

I did find two graduate students who were attracted to the Historical Society out of frustration with the mainstream. One was sick of being labeled a conservative when he considered himself a moderate liberal. The other, David Ulbrich, chair of THS's Student Affairs Committee, detected an unpleasant "ideological narrowness" in the mainstream, but his grievance was mostly class-based: He thought the AHA was dominated by arrogant Ivy Leaguers who loved to lord it over colleagues from middle-tier schools like his. "It's all about Marxism," he said. "I'm the proletariat." This was not a plaint about a profession riven by the politics of race, sex, et cetera. (That particular student, in fact, was proud of introducing a gender-theory perspective into his work on the history of the Marines.) No, the cultural warriors among the Historical Society's graduate students were few.

Surprisingly, they were no more numerous among THS's tenured complement. "I got a call from Gene," -- meaning Genovese, whose personality bears a force akin to that of Lennox Lewis's left jab -- was a common explanation for attendance. "Nothing in particular," answered another member, who, upon reflection, wondered whether he didn't just come to the first conference because it was in Boston, where he happened to be living at the time. Others just said they liked the Historical Society, and had a hard time saying any more.

Not that there weren't any right-wing culture warriors here. I met my first on perhaps my 10th interview. Lawrence Okimura is "a historian of imperial Rome's relations with its" -- I struggled to remember while framing a follow-up question -- "um, subalterns?" He affected a mock shiver at the sound of the postcolonialist buzzword.

Here was one historian who indeed thought just as Genovese's Los Angeles Times piece suggested he should. Okimura quit the AHA because its journal, American Historical Review, "became unreadable, the politics one-sided." He deplores postmodernists' attacks on objectivity, hates the way they turn their skepticism into dogma, but "never apply it to themselves." He voted for a straight Republican ticket in 2000. He is an anti-PC poster child.

The next day I saw Okimura at a panel that staged mock job interviews for graduate students. Okimura and one other historian, also a bit of a conservative, grilled a twentieth-century French history dissertator from NYU -- the social Democrat, as it turns out, who had expressed wariness about the conference's possible ideology. The professors conferred privately over his vita, the interview began, and all went smoothly. Then, a question: "What are your feelings about teaching our required Western Civilization lecture class?"

A trap! I silently applauded the canny questioner. Now the poor kid would be forced to stake a position on the debate at the white-hot center of the culture wars, the one that can move state legislatures and revolutionary socialists alike to apoplexy: whether every student should be required to receive a thorough grounding in the cultural heritage of "the West."

I presumed the suits on the other side of the table would advocate devilishly against whatever side the student chose. There followed a letdown. The student, a fine specimen of the up-and-coming scholarly generation, answered that he would love to teach Western Civ. Nods; next question.

A fascinating discussion I could never have anticipated, however, soon erupted. The right-leaning profs began trading horror stories about the Western Civ survey. Their gripes had nothing to do with ideas -- both, in fact, were sympathetic to a West-centered approach to inquiry. The problem was administrative. One told the story of a promising graduate student who quit teaching after being entirely broken by the task of controlling a huge lecture hall. And they hated the way "the university gets good press when it says we offer a broad base of education about the West."

It seemed to me an extraordinary, and telling, thing. What were the culture wars? They had long been symbolized by this debate alone: preserve "Western civ" or purge it? But now it seems that for those on the ground -- even relative ideologues -- the ideological debate is no longer worth it. For all the oceans of ink spilled on the subject, you would never know that the debate has shifted, among its actual stakeholders, to an entirely different terrain.

A reasonable sounding of sharp- and fair-minded academic observers will confirm it: The energies behind the culture wars have been dissipating for some time now. Just this past weekend I was strolling with a history grad student friend through New York's Central Park. He spoke, with slight nostalgia, about the time when critical theory was the comforting coin of the realm for the well-dressed intellectual. Not that he rejects theory: His dissertation on left-wing violence contains a useful discussion inspired by Jean Baudrillard. No big deal; for most attentive scholars today, theory is just another tool.

The evidence was before me. I became fascinated with the number of trendy threads woven into the intellectual tapestry on display in Atlanta. There were some, for example, in the conference's very theme, "Historical Reconstructions," which was interpreted in exactly the undisciplined, airily metaphoric way it might have been at a trendy comparative-literature conference. Participants repositioned the word "reconstruction," technically a description of events in the American South after 1865, to encompass historical moments as far afield as Greece after the Peloponnesian War. As for the American experience, the dominant claim was that one "cannot understand reconstruction outside an international context" -- echoing the trendiest demand of all these days, for a "postnationalist" American studies. Discussions of the social construction of national identity, meanwhile, abounded.

What, then, was there to distinguish this conference from the ones it was set up to challenge? The THS conference still tilted ever so slightly in a politically incorrect direction -- more military history, a palpable aversion to gender studies (a factor that no doubt helped produce the 114-to-20 ratio of male to female presenters); a distrust of an approach to Reconstruction that treated the South as other to the United States rather than as complexly integral to it, which I found salutary and fascinating; and other discussions too subtle to get into here. But nothing to shake the earth.

Bigger conferences can be cold, but there was impressive warmth at this THS meeting. It made for a satisfying intellectual experience. "What I'd say is that the intimacy and the sustained focus of the THS gatherings make them more intense than most other professional meetings, at least for me," Wilentz later observed by e-mail.

That intimacy is no accident. It emanates from THS's guiding spirit, the late Christopher Lasch. The society confers a Christopher Lasch prize (this year's winner was Alex Keyssar, author of the brilliant The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, an unsparing left-wing indictment of this country's proudest claims about itself). Reconstructing History is co-edited by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Lasch's daughter and intellectual heir.And the University of Pennsylvania Press has just published a posthumous Lasch book, Plain Style: A Guide to Written English, which he wrote for his graduate students back in 1985. Therein, Lasch tars all manner of commonplace writing sins as "bureaucratic" -- the gravest epithet in his vocabulary. The anonymity of the passive voice, for example, "endears it to bureaucrats, who wish to avoid responsibility for their decisions."

When I read that, the inchoate cri de coeur of THS finally cohered for me. It concerned bureaucracy. The bureaucratic imperative, on the question of Western Civ, to stand helpless in front of lecture halls filled with hundreds of students. The graduate student's feeling of being swallowed up by an arrogance at the heart of the AHA (whose meetings, like all very large scholarly gatherings, are as much about business matters as scholarly ones). The anti-bureaucratic, almost communitas way so many of its members were recruited: through personal phone calls from friends they trusted. THS is a close-knit group, smaller, grown organically from the specific interests of its members rather than from any outside imperative to behave this way or that. It's a quiet community of mutual respect.

If I could go back and experience the conference again, I could more readily tally up the examples. But I came to the insight very late; my mind was on another script. And here is the lesson about the culture of academia in the opening years of a new millennium: Drop the script. THS seemed to attract scholars vexed by something in contemporary academia, though they had trouble describing what. They had clung to a familiar description -- of a profession riven by the politics of race and sex, reliant on theory instead of evidence, given to naval-gazing, obscurantism, and writing that reads like badly translated German -- but it didn't quite fit. Why did they -- do they -- not discuss the frustrations an excess of bureaucracy brings to the life of the mind? Probably the culture wars have stolen their words.

These 1960s-inspired culture wars may never truly end. But the sooner we stop using them as a crib sheet for explaining academia and its discontents, the likelier we are to draw fresh insights into the contemporary scholarly world -- not, that is to say, the academy of 1994, which might well have been characterized by the wrangling over political correctness.

I'm certain this is not what the Historical Society has reimbursed me to find out. For my conclusion certainly works against its financial interests. Conservative foundations are not paying it to create a thoughtful community of the mind. They are paying it because they spy a possible battalion for the culture wars. The preface to Reconstructing History trumpets that "burning questions about the state of the profession must be engaged." Perhaps; but truly, nothing much burned at the Historical Society's third annual congress. And there's nothing wrong with that. More academic conferences that turn off journalists on the higher-ed beat -- and more scholarly organizations that behave like cottage industries to the major associations' factories -- may now be exactly what we need.