Author Archives: Jay Tolson

Introducing the Summer issue: Identities—What Are They Good for?

Identity is too much with us late and soon. It figures prominently in clashes over diversity, multiculturalism, political correctness, offensive speech, “deplorable” voters, and arrogant elites. In our overheated politics of recognition, “Check your privilege!” has become the rebuke of choice, aimed at silencing the opinions of those whose obliviousness to their entitlement is itself a giveaway of their advantaged social status. Those so accused—cisgender white males being prime suspects—in turn accuse their critics of playing identity politics to curtail free speech.

Identities are multiform, of course. Some are given or imposed, and some are elected. Some are acquired, while some are discarded. Some have to do with skin color; others, with ethnicity or religion, region or nation, gender or age, class or profession, disability or differing ability. Identities usually come in packages, and no matter how we assemble them, or how they are assembled for us, we are all, to use the current term of art, intersectional. We assume and wear our identities—in sum or part—proudly or shamefully, arrogantly or modestly. For some, identity explains much of who they are; for others, it explains very little and may even obscure who they believe they are.

Given its current importance, the struggle for recognition among our ever-proliferating identity groups might seem to be a peculiarly modern obsession. But even in the old regimes, with their static social hierarchies, the need for recognition was powerful. Recognition was pursued and attained largely on the field of honor, in daily efforts to fulfill the duties and obligations of one’s place in the divinely ordained social order.

As the old regimes were replaced by modern democratic states with growing social mobility, the concern with honor ceded to a new universalist politics that insisted upon dignity for all citizens, including equal rights and entitlements. But if the modern age did not give rise to the politics of recognition, it did give birth, as the philosopher Charles Taylor explains, to the “conditions in which the attempt to be recognized can fail.” It did so because, along with the new universalist politics, there arose a related but sometimes conflicting politics of difference, concerned precisely with winning recognition for one or more particular groups against the neglect, exploitation, or assimilationist pressures of the dominant group. The recurring collisions between these two modes of politics have produced some of the sharpest—and even the most violent—civil struggles within modern democratic states.

But the longevity and occasional ferocity of struggles arising from demands for equal rights, on one hand, and the recognition of difference, on the other, has brought relatively little light to the phenomenon of identity itself. How do we judge the adequacy, efficacy, or value of various forms of identity in our struggle to the find not only equal rights and privileges but also meaning and community?

That is the question that animates the thematic essays of the present issue of The Hedgehog Review, and though the answers range widely, they collectively provide an entry point for a deeper, possibly less fraught discussion of what separates humanity into tribes (defined by what are often extremely fine distinctions) and what may yet bring us together in a more capacious humanism that embraces universalist principles while respecting and protecting differences. As the historian Jackson Lears wrote not long ago wrote in the London Review of Books, “Identity politics in America was a tragic necessity. No one can deny the legitimacy or urgency of the need felt by women and minorities to have equality on their own terms, to reject the assumption that full participation in society required acceptance of the norms set by straight white males. Yet even as the public sphere grew more inclusive, the boundaries of permissible debate were narrowing.”

While Lears writes from the left and is largely concerned with the way our current form of identity politics has displaced a concern with class and economic equality, voices of the right and center have joined him in criticizing this coercive narrowing of political debate. (See, for example, Walter Benn Michael’s The Trouble with Diversity, Mark Lilla’s Once and Future Liberal, Asad Haider’s Mistaken Identity, and Francis Fukuyama’s forthcoming Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment.) But escaping the grip of identity politics will require an honest reckoning with the historical and contemporary realities that continue to fuel the politics of difference, whether in the emergence of a new racism visible in soaring rates of African American incarceration or in the ever-accumulating incidents of male aggression against women. And, yes, we must also heed the identity-based grievances of those “angry white males” (and quite a few females) who came together in surprisingly wide support of an uncivil anti-politician promising to make America great again.

Of one thing we can be certain: Identity politics begets more identity politics. Any hope of overcoming that politics must begin with a willingness to listen to those who cleave to identity for the very solidarity and confidence that may free them, ironically, from the more limiting, indeed punitive, aspects of an identity. Are there more commodious forms of identity, including a rekindled and truly civic nationalism, that can bring not just tolerance but a sense of mutuality across some of the most politically heated identity divides? It is an irony—perhaps even tragic one—that the only way out of the identity trap is through it. How we negotiate that irony is one of the distinctive challenges of our modern condition.

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We will be releasing a select number of essays and reviews from this issue on a rolling basis during the coming weeks, starting with these three:

What Makes Me Black? What Makes You White? by W. Ralph Eubanks

In with the Out Crowd: Contrarians, Alone and Together by Steve Lagerfeld

Virtue Signaling by B.D. McClay

The entire issue, already on its way to subscribers, includes thematic contributions from Mary Townsend, Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, Phil Christman, S.D. Chrostowska, and James McWilliams along with standalone works by Witold Rybczynski, Becca Rothfeld, and Johann N. Neem as well as six book reviews. Browse the table of contents here and subscribe—if you haven’t yet—here.

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Charlottesville Daze

A makeshift memorial to the victims of the car attack at the Unite the Right rally.

A friend in Boston writes to ask if I know of anyone “commenting with particular insight” on what unfolded in Charlottesville last weekend. “No,” is my tersely emailed reply, but it is less a reasoned response to the quality of the commentary I have read so far than a visceral disgust with the evil that resulted in three deaths, many injuries, and a deep disturbance of the peace not only in my hometown but in my nation. Even critical commentary confers dignity—the dignity of reasoned consideration—upon its subject, but the subject in this case is a moral enormity distinguished only by its lack of civility and civilized virtues, and therefore undeserving of any civil consideration.

I claim no vatic powers when I say I saw this coming—clearly, though not for the first time, on the morning when the man who is incapable of clear moral utterance was elected to the highest office of our land. As I wrote to a friend that morning, “I never knew how much I loved my country until now, when I see how vulnerable it is.” I say this without partisan rancor; friends of all partisan stripes have shared similar sentiments with me. And I know, more to the point, that the culture that made possible the election of this supremely hollow man was shaped by forces associated as much with progressivism and liberalism as with conservatism and reaction. Is it any surprise that this man with no real party affiliation, this man without qualities apart from self-aggrandizing, self-dramatizing need, took three days to name the evil forces—above all, the white supremacist racism of Nazis, neo-Confederates, and alt-right thugs—behind the senseless deaths and destruction of last weekend?

The fish rots from the head, runs an old adage. But it does not really describe America’s current condition. The rot is general through the body politic. The current president is a mirror—a funhouse mirror, perhaps—in which we see, and now must recognize, our own disfigured selves.

We can do much better. We must do much better.

Jay Tolson is editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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Will Trump Cure the Great (White) Depression?

Trump speaking in Des Moines, Iowa. Max Golberg/Iowa State Daily via Flickr.

Donald Trump speaking in Des Moines, Iowa. Max Golberg/Iowa State Daily via Flickr.

In a recent offering, “Trump Voters Are Feeling It,” New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall comments sagely on a raft of social science research on the white working- and middle-class voters who embraced Donald J. Trump as the leader who would cure America’s deep malaise—or a least their own. For the moment, according to Edsall, these former sufferers of what might be called the Great White Depression (documented by scholars like Princeton’s Nobel economist Angus Deaton, with depressing data about high rates of depression, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse) are feeling “elated”:

In a survey conducted by Pew after the election, 96 percent of those who cast votes for Trump said they were hopeful; 74 percent said they were “proud.” They were almost unanimous in their expectation that Trump will have a successful first term.

This is in itself may hardly seem surprising, and of course it is possible that these enthusiasts will feel let down if the greatness Trump promises does not improve their lives. Nevertheless, Edsall notes, evidence suggests that “just by giving voice to those in the white working class who are distrustful, alienated, and isolated from contemporary culture, Trump will provide temporary relief from the stress that these voters experience.” And if past is prologue, this relief alone may have surprisingly positive effects on their mental and physical health, and indeed on their overall morale. A study based on a survey that oversampled Hispanics and blacks after Obama’s election in 2008 found that “among African Americans, the likelihood of reporting excellent health nearly doubled, from 7 to 13 percent, and for Hispanics it nearly quadrupled, from 6 to 22 percent, although the Hispanic sample was small and less reliable.” Continue reading

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The World Our Parents Left Us

Roosevelt and Churchill, 1941

Roosevelt and Churchill, 1941

On this day after the majority of Britons voted to leave the European Union; in this absurdly long American electoral season when the presumptive nominee of a major political party threatens to throw a monkey wrench into the machinery of an international order created after the most devastating war in human history; in this world in which nationalist sentiments are being brought to a boil by ranting opportunists  who seek to turn a sensible patriotism into virulent chauvinism; in this age when the possibility of a decent global comity of nations is being threatened by fearmongering and the most abject zero-sum thinking—at this moment, in short, when the best lack sufficient conviction and the worst truly brim with passionate intensities, I feel shame for those generations (my own boomer one, as well as those that followed) that have variously enjoyed the incalculable benefits of the relative security and prosperity bequeathed to them by those who fought through and prevailed in that now-distant war and who, afterwards, went about building, if often imperfectly, a set of institutions and ideals intended to avert the recurrence of a similar global catastrophe.

We legatees may, in good will, differ strongly on what is good or bad about the order that was left to us. And many of us have pitched in and done our parts to sustain and improve it, even at the highest cost. But for all that we have done, too many of us have fallen short in what we should have done, through failures of commission or omission.

Of such failures, the worst may have been the selfishness and self-indulgence that contributed to the rise not just of the Me Generation but also of a more enduring cult of the self, one that comported all too neatly with the dominant consumerist and therapeutic strains of our national (and then our increasingly global) culture.

This failure might properly be laid at the feet of middle-class boomers, the earliest and fullest beneficiaries of the postwar order, raised in the secure idyll of the fifties and early sixties, coming to think that anything or any experiment was possible, yet believing, far too uncritically,  that we would always have a secure and predictable world to return to if our experiments failed. I say this not in self-loathing or in disparagement of the good that came out of the pushing, testing, and venturing—including the contributions to the long-overdue victories in civil rights for people long denied those rights—but in honest reckoning with the harms that were done through the excesses of so much heedless thinking and doing, heedless, above all, of how so much self-indulgence might give rise to a culture of self-indulgence, and of the harms that such a culture might inflict on the larger—and not so privileged—society.

Those harms have come to roost, in the growing fragility of institutions, families, and communities, and in the loss of faith in the values that shore up such institutions. As we lost a sense of the importance of human ties, first in our families and communities and then in our nation, and as this loss engendered a further decline of confidence in the world beyond our own individual heads, the nation’s leaders and elites came to be viewed as what Daniel Bell called “a class apart,” out of touch with their fellow citizens, out to serve their own interests above all others.  (The growing suspicions of these elites and the meritocratic system that creates them is the subject of the forthcoming summer issue of THR, “Meritocracy and Its Discontents.”)

Throughout an increasingly fractured nation—and not just America, but other Western nations—too many citizens felt that they were being left behind, left out, even cast aside, in the name of a booming global prosperity from which only the privileged elites were benefiting. If the postwar order was only a neoliberal construct built upon technocratic schemes to maximize free trade and commerce to increase productivity and growth—and, above all, to increase the wealth and privilege of the cosmopolitan elite at the top the global casino economy—then were resentment, distrust, and fear not bound to be the eventual and growing consequences?

This, I realize, is far too sketchy an account of our failings, of why we have come to such a scary pass in modern history, when gaping social and economic divisions are not just weakening trust  within nations but also destroying comity and aggravating tensions among them. My account only gestures toward the deepest cultural failing: namely, the erosion and neglect of beliefs and ideals (including the very idea of truth) that sustain our institutions, from the most intimate and local to the most distant and global. The price of ignoring that cultural failing—not only for the world our parents left to us but for the one we hope to leave to our children—is far too great to imagine. But the signs and warnings should be clear.

Jay Tolson is editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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T. S. Eliot on Psychology and the Modern Novel

T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, June 1924. Via Wikimedia Commons.

T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, June 1924. Via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s not one of T. S. Eliot’s major works of criticism, and though it appeared in a French publication in 1927, the English version of “The Contemporary Novel” that he promised to Edmund Wilson at the New Republic was apparently lost. Recovered among his mother’s papers and soon to be published in the third volume of The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot, this seemingly slight essay on the novels of four contemporaries (D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, David Garnett, and Aldous Huxley) contains some strikingly canny observations about both modern fiction and certain tendencies in Western intellectual culture that persist to this day.

Eliot begins by quoting Henry James’s critical assessment of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories:

They are moral, and their interest is moral; they deal with something more than the mere accidents and conventionalities, the surface occurrences of life. The fine thing in Hawthorne is that he cared for the deeper psychology, and that, in his way, he tried to become familiar with it

Like James, Eliot appreciated Hawthorne for both his moral seriousness and his care for the “deeper psychology,” and he esteemed James for that very same conjunction of concerns. Indeed, Eliot suggests that what is most interesting about both writers is their shared assumption of a deep connection between psychological depth and moral seriousness, a connection that Eliot believed was becoming progressively de-linked in his own time, nowhere more obviously than in literary and intellectual understandings of psychology itself. Writes Eliot:

James’s book on Hawthorne was published in 1879. “Psychology” had not then reached the meaning of to-day, or if it had the meaning had not reached Henry James. One could not use the phrase now without surrounding it with a whole commentary of exposition and defence. But one feels that it is right; and that our contemporary novelists, under the influence of the shallower psychology by which we are all now affected, have missed that deeper psychology which was the subject of Henry James’s study.

To Eliot, the primary source of this new and shallower psychology was clear: the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud. “It would,” he wrote, “be a work for a more highly trained and specialized mind than my own, to trace the effect of psycho-analysis upon literature and upon life, within the last thirty years or so. This effect is probably both greater and more transient than we suppose.”

Transient, perhaps, but Eliot had no doubt about its decisive influence on the work of contemporary novelists, including the four that he addressed specifically in the essay:

All that I wish to affirm is that nearly every contemporary novel known to me is either directly affected by a study of psycho-analysis, or affected by the atmosphere created by psycho-analysis, or inspired by a desire to escape from psycho-analysis; and that, in each case, the result is a loss of seriousness and profundity, of that profundity which Henry James, if he did not always get it, was at least always after.

Was Eliot here revealing his own prudish fastidiousness? Was this the prim judgement of the Anglo-Catholic poet, horrified by Freud’s probing of the recessive, sexually driven workings of the human unconscious? It might seem so. But in words so elliptical as almost to obscure their intent, Eliot complicates his assessment of Freud (and our understanding of Eliot himself) by mentioning the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky, implying that the Russian novelist’s understanding of human psychology was no less appreciative of the power of the unconscious than Freud’s, but still decisively different:

 It [the influence of psychoanalysis] would have to be distinguished from the influence of Dostoevski; or rather, one would have to reconstruct hypothetically what the influence of Dostoevski would or could have been had not one aspect of his work been tremendously reinforced by the coincidence of his vogue in western Europe with the rise of Freud.

The key phrase here is “one aspect.” More by implication than by explicit argument, Eliot credits Dostoevsky with peering into the abyss at least as intently as Freud and his acolytes did, but nevertheless coming away from the experience with a richer, fuller, and, yes, deeper understanding of human psychology. Dostoevsky did so precisely because he did not take such depths to be all-shaping or ultimately determinative. He did not reduce the complex dynamics of human motivation to one set of primal drives. He understood—and his greatest novels demonstrated—that human motivations were just as powerfully influenced and shaped by moral aspirations and spiritual longings. In short, in Eliot’s view, Dostoevsky resisted the seductions of reductivism that drew so many of the best modern minds toward a tragic misconstrual of the human person.

What Eliot was also getting at was a larger cultural-intellectual affliction: the seductions of ideas and ideologies. And it was precisely in his resistance to such seductions that Eliot saw James as such an exemplary artist and mind: of a kind that seemed, in Eliot’s view, to have largely disappeared after the death of James himself, in 1918. In that same year, Eliot wrote these words about James in The Little Review, words that merit reconsideration in light of the recently recovered essay:

James’s critical genius comes out most tellingly in his mastery over, his baffling escape from, Ideas; a mastery and an escape which are perhaps the last test of a superior intelligence. He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it…. In England, ideas run wild and pasture on the emotions; instead of thinking with our feelings (a very different thing) we corrupt our feelings with ideas; we produce the public, the political, the emotional idea, evading sensation and thought…. James in his novels is like the best French critics in maintaining a point of view, a view-point untouched by the parasite idea. He is the most intelligent man of his generation.

Jay Tolson is editor of the Hedgehog Review.

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The Politics of Spectacle in Putin’s Russia: An Interview with Peter Pomerantsev

The British filmmaker, journalist, and author Peter Pomerantsev was recently in the United States to lecture on Vladimir Putin’s use of culture and information to advance his domestic and international agenda. He stopped by our editorial office to discuss his most recent book, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia.

The Hedgehog Review: Peter, your book, which I very much enjoyed, could also have plausibly been subtitled,  “What I learned while working in Putin’s culture industry.” But before you go into what you learned from that experience, could you tell us a little about what you did and how you got into what you were doing?

Peter Pomerantsev: Sure. I worked as a TV producer in Moscow. I had finished university in Edinburgh and film school in Moscow, and I was looking for a job, and there was just a lot more work in Russia than there was in Britain.

THR: This was the early 2000s, right?

PP: Yes, during the oil boom, when Moscow was a very happening place. Russia was the fastest-growing TV market in Europe, and there was just more opportunity to progress faster—to start making, directing, and producing programs and films rather than just assisting. It also seemed a very exciting place to be—the place, in many ways. It was a bit like Elizabethan England or New York in the Roaring Twenties. There was a real “Jazz Age” feel about it. There was a hint of menace, but the menace at that point seemed intriguing. Not like now, when it just seems threatening.

THR:. And, so, who did you start working for exactly?

PP: I worked with Russian TV channels, an entertainment channel. It was already, by 2006, morally déclassé to work in news. There were quite a lot of Westerners who had come over, working as bankers, international developers, and consultants. And there were also a lot of media people who had come over to teach the Russians how to make Western-style TV. I worked with an entertainment channel, which was explicitly apolitical. And it was my job to make a 120 million Russians laugh and cry.

So we did. This channel brought the reality show to Russia, and it brought the sitcom to Russia. The ratings were very good. The mood at the channel was sort of culturally punkish, but it was very, very successful, and rolling in gas money. And everybody who was working there was, like, twelve. The head of the channel was a thirty-something. Continue reading

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Media Excess, Disruption, and the Future of the University

In his new book, Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Modern Research University, literary historian Chad Wellmon, a faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, argues against those who claim that the research university is an outmoded, bureaucratic institution ripe for disruption. Recounting the emergence of the research university in another era of media excess, this one driven by print, he focuses on what has always distinguished the research university—an ethics of knowledge. And this, he claims, is needed now more than ever. Here is an excerpt from the afterword of his book:

Misgivings about specialized science and disciplinarity have returned in recent jeremiads about the research university from within its most elite ranks. Harvard professor Louis Menand writes that the “structure of disciplinarity that has arisen with the modern research university is expensive; it is philosophically weak; and it encourages intellectual predictability and social irrelevance. It deserves to be replaced.” Similarly, CUNY professor Cathy Davidson has criticized the research university as an “archaic, hierarchical, silo’d apparatus of the nineteenth century.” Our institutions of higher learning have “managed to change far more slowly than the modes of inventive, collaborative, participatory learning offered by the Internet” and other online and digital technologies. Unlike some of the more general critiques of the university’s disciplinary structure, however, Davidson’s critique is more focused on what is actually at stake. Our universities are “stuck,” she writes, “in an epistemological model of the past.” Our digital age entails not just new and better technologies but an entirely different notion of what constitutes true knowledge: how it is produced, authorized, and disseminated. The disciplinary organization of knowledge is antiquated and dispensable. The very structures and forms of knowledge are changing, and, for Davidson at least, the disciplinary research university is being left behind.

In her more recent work on the future of education, Davidson embraces the potential of digital technologies to undo the authority structure of the research university and spur “collaborative” forms of knowledge production. And yet, in what she describes as a “field guide and survival manual for the digital age,” her Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Change the Way We Live, Work, and Think, she relies on that same authority structure she seems eager to escape. She bases her “guide” for the digitally perplexed on what she calls “the science of attention.” She grounds her argument in the authority of modern, disciplinary-based science as she cites study after study, all of which are legitimated by the authority of the disciplinary order of the modern research university.

Davidson’s bad faith is a testament to just how enduring a system the research university ethic is. But it has endured not because it was a rigid, hierarchical system, a Weberian iron cage, a Foucauldian panopticon, but rather because it has sustained communities of people engaged in a common pursuit. Research universities have never overcome the fragmentation of knowledge or realized anything like a universal knowledge. But what they have done is organize intellectual labor, traditions, and desires more effectively over the past two hundredOrganizing Enlightenment Cover years than any other technology. To dismiss the research university as an antiquated bureaucratic “apparatus” defined by constraint and enforceable standards is to overlook the ways in which its continuity and stability depended on the transformation of actual people….

At this particular moment of technological and institutional change, we need motivating ideals to orient our institutions and ourselves. The idea of the research university is more than its bureaucratic structures. However haltingly, the research university embodies ideals and virtues that scholars both inside and outside the university hold dear. This is where primarily structural accounts of the research university as simply a bureaucratic system, seemingly lacking human agents who endow it with meaning and life, can offer no compelling vision for a future research university. These cool, distant accounts of the research university, so redolent of Weber’s description of any other modern, rational system, see nothing at stake, just the inexorable logic of another modern bureaucracy. They overlook the persons and norms that have always been the core of the research university. Anthony Grafton describes this attitude best: the “loss of patience, or faith, or interest in specialized knowledge” is ultimately a capitulation to the absoluteness of the bureaucratic system of the contemporary research university. Such an attitude belies a thoroughly structural account that omits the research university’s most basic feature: its underlying ethic. These more radically functional accounts, however descriptively illuminating, can never answer a basic question: why would anyone choose to devote herself to specialized knowledge and an institution such as the research university? The research university reproduces itself by forming people into its culture. Its survival relies on the decisions of actual people, not simply on the abstract totalizing mechanisms of an institution. Advocates of the contemporary research university need to recognize and embrace its most central feature: the fact that it embodies a set of norms, practices, and virtues central to modern knowledge. Whatever its myriad failings and bureaucratic functions, the research university sustains what scholars hold in common and commit themselves to—an ethics of knowledge.

You can read the introduction to Organizing Enlightenment here.

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The End(s) of History

Historia, Nikolaos Gyzis (1892). Wikimedia Commons.

Historia, Nikolaos Gyzis (1892). Wikimedia Commons.

Samuel Moyn, a professor of history and law at Harvard University, thinks history is in trouble, big trouble, and that its difficulties have been a long time in the making. Setting forth his reasons in a recent review-essay in The Nation, “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” he has started a minor skirmish in the larger debates over the parlous state of the humanities. Many of Moyn’s fellow historians have taken sharp issue with his argument,  including Princeton University’s Anthony Grafton, whose mentor, the Italian historian Arnaldo Momigliano, represents what Moyn believes are the inveterate weaknesses of the discipline: namely, an excessive and antiquarian fealty to fact, and a discomfort with theory. Grafton, who has engaged in a fierce Facebook exchange with Moyn, hardly needs my support, but I too find reasons to quibble—and some reasons to disagree strongly—with Moyn’s attempted take-down.

First, the quibble: Is history—and let’s just leave it at historical work produced by professional academicians—really at such a low ebb? Moyn’s assessment, though he puts it in the words of the authors he is reviewing, is in the sweeping affirmative:

Today, historians worry that they have lost their audience, and their distress has made the search for the next trend seem especially pressing. At the beginning of her new book, Writing History in the Global Era, Lynn Hunt remarks that “history is in crisis” because it can no longer answer “the nagging question” of why history matters. David Armitage and Jo Guldi, in their History Manifesto, concur: in the face of today’s “bonfire of the humanities,” and a disastrous loss of interest in a topic in which the culture used to invest heavily (and in classes that students used to attend in droves), defining a new professional vocation is critical. History, so often viewed as a “luxury” or “indulgence,” needs to figure out how to “keep people awake at night,” as Simon Schama has said. Actually, the problem is worse: students today have endless diversions for the wee hours; the trouble for historians is keeping students awake during the day.

This professional anxiety may loom large for a certain part of the history professoriate—namely, academics who rely on theoretical trends to make up for their deficiencies in the craft. But does it pertain to the better historians of the last half-century who have had a large claim on the attention and interest of the educated public? Moyn names Simon Schama. But he could also name Gordon Wood and John Ellis in American history, or Robert Darnton and Lynn Hunt in European history, or Peter Brown on late antiquity, or Roy Foster on modern Irish history.

As far as declining student interest goes, it afflicts other areas of the humanities as much as it does history. In addition to a broad flight to STEM and more practical business-related studies, a general erosion and shallowing of attention is at least as much the problem as the intellectual poverty of trend-sniffling historians who have run out of theories to rest their facts on. More significantly, though, Moyn’s attack aims far higher and deeper than at the mediocrities of the field: Continue reading

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