i will now engage in a hegemonic maneuver aimed at controlling the massesLast week, I brought excerpts from George Kennan's long telegram to one of my discussion sections for a course on twentieth-century history. I had students read three carefully selected pages, then opened discussion. We went through, paragraph by paragraph, and pulled out the interesting language in the document: the characterization of the Soviet Union as a society hostile to fact, incapable of reason, immune to truth, but capable of responding to the language of force.
So, I said. What does the world look like to American policymakers in 1946? What kind of policy choices would this document suggest? Why does Kennan see the Soviets this way?
And so a student promptly answers that "the elites" knew that they had to keep "the people" scared, so they could control them. The Soviets were a convenient threat. Another student jumps in to agree, and then another. And I ask: Does anyone want to dispute this? Would anyone like to suggest another explanation?
Crickets. No one -- no one -- could think of any explanation other than the much-favored "the elites were making it all up so they could control the people" argument.
And I can't really blame them, since I see historians making this argument all the time. Last week at the UCLA history department's American history colloquium, a historian presented a paper arguing that Jewish "cultural elites" in New York City objected to early moviegoing among Jewish immigrants because those elites were trying to control the masses, asserting class hegemony in opposition to a cultural form that challenged their social status. Several of us in attendance asked questions in an attempt to probe for an alternative interpretation or a more complicated narrative, and failed: It was really all just binary, hegemonic maneuvering by a single, unified, fully conscious "elite" -- against the undifferentiated, uncomplicated urban immigrant masses, natch. Social control explains all.
What's remarkable about all of this is that a historical profession that has purportedly moved beyond the narrow history of dead white male elites now elevates the same dead white male elites to the status of gods: omniscient, omnipotent, endlessly rational and unrelentingly calculating. Elites are never afraid, never weak, never confused, never irrational, never wrong about their interests, and above all never intent on anything but self-advancement.
George Kennan was coldy rational, in 1946 -- untraumatized by war and mass slaughter, with a cold and complete understanding of Soviet power and Soviet structure. He knew, man, and he totally, like, pretended that he thought the Soviets were a threat. So he could manipulate the masses into being all, like, capitalistic and shit.
These are our two explanations for all known historical events: 1) People were very racist back then, and 2) The Man was manipulating The People with his Big Lies.
Now, okay: Racism is real. Elites engage in social manipulation. Yes. But as structured, the historical narratives we've built around these realities are bone-jarringly reductive and reflexive.
And so we have an alternative narrative, as represented by Victor Davis Hanson, Michelle Malkin, and other exciting historical minds, in which we challenge the lame academic orthodoxy by inverting the structure and letting the sand run into the other side of the glass: America is just like the golden age of Athens, our leaders are never stupid or racist, we are the shining light of freedom. Hallelujah, amen. (Pat self on back.)
Are these really the choices?
I read all kinds of magnificent, subtle, complicated scholarship...and then I go to discussions, in class or in colloquium, and none of it seems to be getting through. What will it take to drag some worthwhile historical scholarship into the light of day? What will it take to develop a widely read and discussed alternative that isn't Malkinistically idiotic?