Saturday, November 26, 2011

Liberty and Authority

About 34 years ago, as I recall, when I was a junior faculty member at Harvard, I attended a history department retreat to discuss the state of the department and the profession. There was some discussion of the specialization that had already taken over the historical profession. I was already revising my dissertation to become the first book at right, and it much broader than the average dissertation--and I apparently already disliked specialization. I raised my hand and commented that the purpose of specialized monographs, it seemed to me, should be to provide the raw material for better syntheses.

A senior professor named John Clive--never particularly noted for large-scale scholarly achievement--was not impressed. "But what are you going to do with synthesis?" he asked. "Stand up like Frisky Merriman at the end of History 1 (a western civilization course), take out your pocket watch, set it going back and forth on its chain like a pendulum, and explain that the two poles represented 'liberty' and 'authority?' The room broke up in hysterical laughter, and that brought that particular discussion to an end. Later, during the next break, I told a fellow assistant professor--who was destined to abandon scholarship for administration, that I thought specialized monographs should allow us to do what Merriman had done--only better. And I tried to do exactly that during the decade that followed, in the third book on the list at the right. It was a History Book Club selection, but Clive was right: it didn't make much of a professional splash. Yet, following up on last week's post, it seems to me now that Merriman is going to have the last laugh.

As I look back on those distant days against the background of everything I have learned since, I must conclude that nothing can give a people the same immense self-confidence as victory in a great war. The GIs (like Clive), Silents and Boomers at that retreat had rebelled against many aspects of the postwar consensus, but even after Vietnam, they trusted that the achievements of our parents and grandparents would naturally endure to the end of their lives and beyond. They thought, apparently, that the emotional outburst of the previous decade had simply enriched their lives by overthrowing social and intellectual restraints, without calling the structure of society into question. I shall always wonder if that might indeed have been what happened had it not been for the Vietnam War, but we will never know that. What we do know now is that not only the postwar world of the 1950s, but the entire enterprise of western political life since the late eighteenth century, were already being undermined from within, leading to a crisis of authority that is now reaching its peak and which my own generation, which has already passed the peak of its influence as I write, has utterly failed to solve.

Merriman, I now find with the help of google, laid down his burden as the History 1 instructor, prophetically enough, in 1941. A member of the Harvard class of 1896, he had evidently been born smack in the middle of the Missionary generation in 1875 or so. He died just a few days after the end of the Second World War. It turns out that Clive's own memory failed him: according to an account of his last lecture in the Christian Science Monitor published in May 1941, European society, he argued, oscillated between security and liberty. Taking a long view, he saw the religious wars of the 16th century leading to the stronger monarchies of the 18th--and the laissez-faire economics of the 19th century leading to the regulation the Progressive era and the New Deal. In that last lecture, he warned that Hitler's victory could end civilization that that the United States must enter the war as soon as possible. His audience might well have included John F. Kennedy, whom I believe was still in residence in Cambridge in the spring of 1941. But by the time he died five years later, George W. Bush, who perhaps did the most to consummate the collapse of modern authority during his eight years in office, was only weeks away from his conception in New Haven, Connecticut. Such is the way of history.

Merriman, in short, saw himself as an observer and in a way an actor in the great sweep of history, and specifically part of the rationalist experiment in western civilization dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. His whole generation was animated by the idea that reason, and law, could create a better society at home and a better world abroad. I would suggest that that idea no longer plays a significant part in our public life, and certainly not in our economic life, where the profit motive reigns supreme without any challenge. The Republican Party, largely in the ascendant for the last 40 years, has been dedicated since Reagan to the idea that government is the problem, not the solution. The economics profession lost interest in an even partially planned economy long ago. As a remarkable series of graphs in today's New York Times shows, we now have grown a new economic system in which corporate profits rise while employment and the income of the lower half of the population fall. No one is seriously discussing how this might be changed. My own historical profession has lost interest in the long-term movement of history: it is largely focused on the lives of women, minorities and gays within the society that Merriman's contemporaries and students managed to create. I strongly suspect within another 20 years those issues are going to seem a lot less important even to women, minorities and gays. We will be learning first hand about the need for effective public authority. And other generations will once again encounter the great and potentially rewarding challenge of restoring it.

6 comments:

Gerald Meaders said...

Professor:

Great summary of many different themes, some of which I have seen before here.

I was especially struck by this:

"What we do know now is that not only the postwar world of the 1950s, but the entire enterprise of western political life since the late eighteenth century, were already being undermined from within, leading to a crisis of authority that is now reaching its peak and which my own generation, which has already passed the peak of its influence as I write, has utterly failed to solve."

I just the other day acquired a 6th edition copy of Palmer and Colton's A History of the Modern World, an attempt, it seems, to reconcile both the synoptic, and the compartmentalized, views, of academic history scholarship, at once.

I will take a look at it.

It seems that Palmer had conceived a major conflict, call it perhaps 'undermined from within', as you say (?), between the rise of the nation state, and the rise of liberalism, at the same time.

That makes a lot of sense.

All the best,
GM

PJ Cats said...

Dear mr. Kaiser,

The modern age is so full of folly, it is hard to even know where to start counting. But over-analysis is certainly one of them. Staring at details will surely blind the viewer for the greater view.
I may amuse you with an anecdote of my own: in the fall of 2007, having freshly gained my doctoral (that's a Dutch Ph.D., I think) at the ripe age of 43 years, I wrote a proposal for a dissertation to the University of Amsterdam. It was my idea to research the history of money and institutions that dealt with money in, so to speak, the modern world. So it would start around 1450 in renaissance Italy and work from there. In the accompanying letter I wrote that I thought it was about the right time to start such research as 'things are about to happen and people will want to know'.
I got a friendly letter in reply, in which I found familiar phrases such as 'too broad' and 'over-ambitious'.
So that was 2007. If I had gotten the assignment, I would be finishing my thesis around this time. Imagine.

Anonymous said...

"My own historical profession has lost interest in the long-term movement of history: it is largely focused on the lives of women, minorities and gays within the society that Merriman's contemporaries and students managed to create." As a gay, black male who reads you posts almost religiously, I don't feel your pain, professor.

James50 said...

Nice essay. Makes a lot of sense.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Kaiser,

I really enjoy reading your posts. I tend to lean conservative, but mostly am searching for the truth. I am reminded of a conversation I had with a friend whose church affiliation was Calvinist. My own affiliation was Wesleyan. We had both sat in many a sermon where the "other" reformer was discredited for certain doctrines. However, rational people discussing these differences can easily see that we believed essentially the same and it was simply a matter of wording, context, and training that made it seem different. I am beginning to see that "regular" conservatives and liberals have much more that joins us than divides us but our "preachers" (party leaders, politicians, etc) need to perpetuate the differences because neither is willing to do the truly hard things necessary to get our country on the right path. The things that truly are different in our thinking seem to be mostly matters of personal choice and liberty where we can largely agree to disagree.

David Kaiser said...

To anonymous, above:

Thank you for commenting.

I did not suggest that the problems of minorities, gays and women are unworthy of study. What I do think is that the current academic emphasis on race, gender and sexuality is making it very difficult, if not impossible, for us to think of one another first and foremost (in the political sphere at least) as fellow citizens. And I repeat: we already face terribly serious economic problems, and may face very serious political ones as well, which have nothing to do with our race, gender or sexuality, but are inevitably of concern to us all.