YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

June 11, 2011

Bad history and hypocrisy on the radical Right

Two events in the last several weeks are worthy of comment by a historian.  First, the still brewing scandal of Congressman Anthony Weiner’s tweets, and second, the release of Ann Coulter’s latest book, this one entitled Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America.

Yesterday on my Facebook page, I wondered why the thrust of “Weinergate” was a mob-like assault on Weiner, tantamount to a witch hunt. Pundits did have the option to talk about male sexuality [and its drive toward multiple partners], instead of piling on Weiner. As this was a bit abstract and possibly dangerous territory,  I tried to direct the discussion into the hyper-sexualization of adolescence in the popular television show Glee, going so far as to suggest that adolescent boys and girls might be better off separated in single-gender schools so that they might be free of the biologically based preoccupation with snaring love-objects.  As a feminist, I was especially concerned with the emotional manipulation learned by girls that caters to male fetishes. This latter suggestion prompted some responses and lots of wandering off topic. Sex is apparently too hot to handle especially in a public forum. One very religious right-wing commentator on my list was furious that Weiner had lied. I replied (roughly) that the lying that goes on in both private and public life was so pervasive as to be the norm, and that powerful persons will do and say anything to retain power, that the problem is with a culture that rewards status-preservation above the truth.

Earlier in the week, one Christian Toto, a writer for Pajamas Media, puffed Coulter’s latest outpouring against the Democratic Party, adding to his praise a mention of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism.  Both works see the Jacobin mob and its Reign of Terror as precursor to everything that conservatives Coulter and Goldberg reject in progressive America.  I objected to this ahistoric and irresponsible  line of reasoning in a comment, and the comment was censored. I also remarked that venting on the internet was not constructive. I had crossed a line, at least for whoever moderated the comments.

It is very strange to me that Anthony Weiner’s lying should be universally condemned, while Coulter’s and  Goldberg’s lying and hysterical demonization of the opposition, is not. It is one thing for conservative journalists to condemn statism through criticism of specific social policies, but to take the moral high ground while highly vulnerable themselves is hypocrisy. Ann Coulter agrees with Jonah Goldberg that we are in the grip of a “nanny state.” (Coulter notoriously suggested –jokingly–that women not be allowed to vote, for their compassionate nature overcomes sound economic policy.)

I have worked over Jonah Goldberg’s awful book here: http://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/. I have not written previously about Ann Coulter, but I recommend another blog  http://clarespark.com/2009/07/13/eros-and-the-middle-manager-s-m-with-implications-for-multiculturalism/.  If Ann Coulter does not fit the dominatrix archetype, then no one does. Her popularity (on the Right) as a polemicist is a symptom of a pathological and hyper-polarized political culture. It is also a reminder that conservatives and classical liberals have little to say to each other.

[Added later 6-11-2011:] I have been asked to specify how Goldberg and Coulter were lying.  In my blog on Liberal Fascism, I pointed out that Goldberg had mischaracterized Walter Lippmann. [I just reread my blog: I criticized Goldberg on Lippmann elsewhere on the website, here: http://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/.] In both cases (Goldberg and Coulter), there is no genealogy that links the [godless]  Jacobin terror with modern social democracy and its alleged mob psychology. It is a violation of historical method to do that. The precursors to social democracy were religious conservatives fending off materialist ideologies (e.g. materialists doing history without taking into account divine intervention in human affairs). They include Christian Socialism, Bismarck, the Social Gospel, the distributionism of Rerum Novarum, and of the Progressive movement in general. Social democrats have been strong anticommunists, offering their own piecemeal reform as the antidote to godless materialism.

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  1. Let me see if I understand you. You think we should not criticize Weiner for his behavior, but should instead contemplate how all men are guilty pigs? We should also grieve because so many women “learn” to “cater to” male fetishes? The women involved are all helpless victims. Female sexuality, uncontaminated by males, is as pure as fress fallen snow. In fact, after you think about it awhile, it appears that Weiner himself is simply acting like a man, and is an innocent victim of an evil right wing smear. Am I close?

    In discussing Coulter and Goldberg, it appears that you consider yourself such an expert on history, that you can judge with absolutely certainty that they are both “bad historians,” and liars to boot. You are probably a world authority on Melville. Being an expert in one area does not automatically make one an authority on all other aspects of the field. Honest people can disagree. Ad hominem attacks are beneath someone with your intelligence.

    I’m also curious, when you comment with such assurance about Christians. How much time have you spent studying Christian theology? Early Christians in Jerusalem practiced a form of socialism, however, it was completely voluntary. The Jerusalem Christians were free to join the commune or to opt out. It goes without saying that people outside the Christian community were never forced to participate. To the best of my knowledge, there are no Biblical passages which justify the use of force to take wealth from one group of people who have legitimately earned it and to give it to other people. The Bible condemns idleness, and goes on to say, “if a man will not work, he shall not eat.”

    I strongly disagree with your statement, “It is also a reminder that conservatives and classical liberals have little to say to each other.” Labels change over time. I believe that modern conservatives are yesterday’s classical liberals.

    Comment by Dennis — June 14, 2011 @ 12:58 pm | Reply

    • Dennis thinks that I am a man hater, unqualified to judge the work of two journalists whom he describes as historians, that I am ignorant about “Christian” theology, and that I don’t know that conservatives are really classical liberals. I refer him to my book on the Melville revival that took up all relevant points of Christianity (which is hardly monolithic). Also he might enjoy Hayek’s essay “Why I am not a conservative.” I refer him also to my next two blogs, one on lying, and the other on the waywardness of both male and female sexuality.

      Comment by clarespark — June 14, 2011 @ 3:55 pm | Reply

  2. CatoRenasci’s remarks about lying deserve a lengthy reply, which I will not do here, but on another blog that deals with the underlying disagreement between us. He is defending radical subjectivism, while I am defending objectivity in the writing of history. The degree of objectivity is dependent upon 1. the availibility of sources; and 2. the skill of the historian in synthesizing evidence. I do not see my book on Melville and his lying revivers as just another reading. Rather, it is possible to describe an ambivalent author objectively, in my case, by reconstructing the complicated family and political situation in which Melville was writing his fiction and poetry. He once wrote that “the world is soaked in lies.” More on that in another blog.

    Comment by clarespark — June 12, 2011 @ 5:16 pm | Reply

    • I look forward to your blog on it. I don’t think I’m defending “radical subjectivism”. I do note radical subjectivism seems rampant in history today, but I think it’s a commonplace that absolute objectivity is not possible for an historian. If it were, that would imply not only the existence of absolute truth – a proposition I would like to think is possible, but I think may be unknowable – but that we (as historians) are able to discern absolute truth. I think that is a very strong claim, certainly one I am not prepared to make. To the extent that you are arguing that historians can be more or less objective, depending on the availability of sources, their mastery of the sources, and skill in synthesis, I do not disagree. The historian who unearths previously unknown evidence (whether by absolute discovery – e.g. letters not previously known – or by collating other sources not previously understood as related and demonstrating their relevance) may or may not be more “objective” depending on his or her use of the new information. I would argue that good history requires that the historian make every effort to be objective. But, I would also argue that the most objective take on our attempts to be objective would require acknowledging that we can only approach objectivity asymptotically, and the we cannot, ultimately, know how close we actually are. Only that we have done the best we can.

      Comment by CatoRenasci — June 12, 2011 @ 5:49 pm | Reply

  3. Responding to your addition. I don’t think you can so summarily dismiss the Rousseau – the Terror – left Hegelianism – Socialism – Marxism – Social Democracy genealogy. The position of Christian socialism is highly ambiguous, but these are arguments the would require a lot of time to flesh out fully. More importantly, I think it’s critical not to conflate European religious conservatism and the “Christian socialism/democracy” with the English and American Social Gospel movement. As I mentioned above, “progressivism” has many strands, and hence meanings, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The early strains of American Progressivism were not primarily anti-Marxist cooption, it was often as much a reaction in a classical liberal tradition against corruption as anything else (e.g. in California). The Social Gospel, too, evolved largely independently of Marxism, out of the more liberal Protestant traditions in the US – very differently from Continental largely Catholic Christian socialism/democracy.

    Comment by CatoRenasci — June 12, 2011 @ 3:12 am | Reply

    • The issue at hand was “lying” or doing history that is, to say the least, sloppy and incompetent. Ideas do not give birth to other ideas or proceed in a straight line as in the Jacobin mob to social democratic mob/totalitarian genealogy. Without a material reconstruction of context, then situating an ideology in that particular context, there is no history writing, only pep talks for the partisan reader who wants an outlet for hatred and resentment.
      I do agree that Catholic and Protestant elite reformers should not be conflated, but if the result if statism, planning, and redistribution to stop communism, then I wonder what is the relevance of distinguishing between maneuvers in Europe versus America.

      Comment by clarespark — June 12, 2011 @ 3:27 am | Reply

      • “Lying” is a strongly ‘charged’ word, and I think its use here is neither fair not appropriate. Lying, to me, implies intentional distortion or misrepresentation of fact, not mere sloppy or even incompetent scholarship. Nor, it seems to me, is it lying to lay out an interpretation that one believes fits the salient facts one knows – even if one is aware there are many facts one does not know. I don’t think either Goldberg or Coulter are saying things they know (or believe) are untrue. Absolute truth in history is ultimately unknowable, all we can do is look through the available evidence. The mass of the evidence is so large that it’s impossible for anyone to truly master even a relatively short period, let alone the sweep of the past two and a half or so centuries since the death of Louis XIV. (to pick Hazard’s starting point for the 18th century in La Crise de la conscience européenne, 1680–1715.)

        Every historian who is not a mere antiquarian has to interpret facts in the light of everything he or she knows, and to find interpretations that make sense of those facts. What differentiates good history from bad, it seems to me, involves the historian’s (1) thoroughness in mastering the evidence available, (2) faithfulness to such ‘facts’, (3) perspicacity in discerning which facts are most salient to understanding the problem at hand, and, (4) perhaps most importantly, the ability to anticipate and deal with through sound historial argument potential counterarguments, alternative interpretations and facts which tend not to support (or even contradict) the interpretation she or he is proposing. No historian can ever be truly objective – as we all know – but that doesn’t mean one does not try to be aware of one’s own metaphysical assumptions and to be as scrupulous as possible in not letting those assumptions dictate one’s conclusions.

        On that approach, what Coulter and Goldberg do is not good history, if it’s even history at all. But, by those criteria, Howard Zinn was a terrible historian, if even an historian at all as well. Coulter and Goldberg no more “lie” than did Zinn, but the are every bit as political (and poorer scholars). I heard an interview with Coulter the other day in which she talked about how the genesis of her most recent book lay in the discovery of Gustave LeBon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. Well, that certainly puts it in perspective. I don’t know about you, but I read that as an undergraduate and I’m almost shocked she hadn’t read it decades ago.

        As a last comment, every historian oversimplifies, and sometimes these pithy statements do well to encapsulate the subject matter they cover. Two of my favorites relevant to the 18th century are:

        Hazard’s lines in the introduction to La Crise… One day, the French people, to a man, were thinking like Bossuet. The day after, they were thinking like Voltaire.

        Cassierer’s summary in the preface to Die Philosophie der Aufklaerung of the shift from the 17th to 18th centuries: But in renouncing the “spirit of systems” (esprit de systeme), the philosophy of the Enlightenment by no means gives up the “systematic spirit” (esprit systematique); it rather aims to further this spirit in another and more effective manner.

        Comment by CatoRenasci — June 12, 2011 @ 3:47 pm

  4. Interesting take. I haven’t read Coulter’s latest opus, but I’ve read some of her earlier works, and I read Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism. I think you have to take both of them with fairly large doses of salt: their goal is not what you (or I for that matter) would call serious scholarship, but rather it is polemic with enough documentation that it can be plausibly taken to fit the salient facts. I wouldn’t call the book awful, just disappointing in his lack of depth in the sort of intellectual history that you and I spent years doing. The story of the transformation of the Enlightenments into the horrors of the French Revolution and empire is a damned sight more complex than generally acknowledge, and I suspect even far too few historians read thinks like Manuel’s excellent Prophets of Paris or Palmer’s Age of the Democratic Revolutions anymore, let alone get any sort of in depth understanding of 18th century thought. IF you start with confusion about the 18th century (as if you only read Peter Gay without reading Cassierer, Crocker, and Becker, to take it only at the serious analytical survey level), and never spent any time trying to understand the growth of the philosophic radicals and the growth of classical liberalism, the confusion that often causes Goldberg to beclown himself is almost a foregone conclusion.

    Worse, when one comes to American intellectual history, the tangled skein of often contradictory ideas that have come to be called Progressivism, is not really well understood by very many people at all. I note your reference to Mowry’s book The Era of Theodore Roosevelt in the New American Nation series. I thought that was a pretty good book when I read it as an undergraduate. It’s indeed unfortunate that the two great Harper series of the middle half of the 20th century (from the ’30s – ’70s), the New American Nation series in American History and the Rise of Modern Europe series (aka the Langer series) have fallen out of general use in the teaching of history undergraduates for whom they were intended. At any rate, if you haven’t read Mowry’s earlier, and in my view more important, book The California Progressives, I highly recommend it. It highlights the diversity of the Progressives in California and, in that microcosm, is useful for approaching the chaotic intellectual ferment that characterizes the era. As an aside, the whole interplay of populism, progressivism and the almost complete triumph of Jim Crow in this same era is equally complex. In short, I think the whole era resists simplification.

    Comment by CatoRenasci — June 11, 2011 @ 9:32 pm | Reply

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