9-1 literature

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.

 

 

P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

9.1 (Winter 2009)

 

literature and the academy

ruins

 

“I Refute It Thus”: History, Politics and Education: A Memoir on the Genesis of My Manuscript

Michael Sugrue

My favorite American politician of the nineteenth century is Henry Clay. He is an underestimated hero who was too intelligent for the arbitrary dogmatism that surrounded him and too responsible to wash his hands of politics and leave fanatics to their folly. During the period in the late 1980s and early 1990s while I was researching this book, I came to have an increased respect for Henry Clay’s pragmatic phronesis. While I was working on my doctoral dissertation, which is the basis of this book, I was subjected to the sanity-threatening influences of an intellectual Scylla and Charybdis: different kinds of mutually contradictory historical mythmaking. Oscillating forces of incompatible yet surprisingly homologous “political correctnesses”, first in New York and then in South Carolina, enlarged my appreciation of the universal human capacity for self-deception by forcing me to grapple with “Afrocentrist” and then “Neo-Confederate” views.

These exercises in intellectual futility first disoriented me and then enraged me and then provoked me to contemplation. Ultimately they reinforced my loathing of the collective solipsism inherent in the too-clever-by-half postmodern dogma that the world is whatever we socially construct it to be. In response to an ingenious philosophical attempt by Bishop Berkeley to extinguish our belief in an otiose material world, Doctor Johnson said while kicking a stone, “I refute it thus.” I realize now that I am indebted to the Neo-Confederates I encountered in Columbia and Charleston and the Afrocentrists I encountered in Manhattan and Luxor because they are inverted reflections of one another, and they gave me compelling examples of what I wanted to avoid. It is time to kick some stones.

I was a doctoral candidate at Columbia University teaching the history of the world at City College during the “Afrocentrism” fad. Students would occasionally punctuate my lectures with questions, asking why my presentations were inconsistent with the lessons they had learned in some of their other classes. Further discussion revealed that the students had been informed about the transhistorical attributes of the “Ice people” and the “Sun people”. They were also aware of the universal white conspiracy to deny the historical achievements of black people that caused Napoleon to order his troops to destroy the “black” nose on the Egyptian Sphinx, which otherwise would have demonstrated the racial characteristics of the ancient Egyptians. They informed me that the Egyptians of five thousand years ago were not only in some meaningful sense black, but they also developed advanced technology like airplanes and electricity which had been stolen by racist whites, who falsely claimed to have invented them. They had been well prepared for rebuttals, noting that white professors, complicit in this conspiracy, used spurious evidence from unreliable books written by other whites to discredit the achievements of Afrocentric thinkers.

Later in the 1990s, when I was giving some lectures in Cairo, I made a side trip to Luxor to examine some Egyptian antiquities. While there met I some American Afrocentrists at Egyptian historical sites, bravely pursuing their quest for evidence of events that never happened. They sought previously hidden records of heroic deeds performed by Egyptians who were Nubians who were West Africans who were their ancestors who were… them, sort of. They were socially constructing an identity that demanded recognition. The Egyptian sun is so lethal that by midmorning everyone seeks shade and a cool drink back at the hotel. There I talked with a couple of these researchers, decked in faux Kinte cloth purchased in a shop on 125th street that specialized in retailing racial grievances. One of them deigned to explain his version of Afrocentrism to me after I acknowledged my ignorance of the many of the breakthroughs made by this school of thought. He stated that all people originated in Africa, and insisted that this entailed the proposition that all ancient civilizations—China, India, Mesopotamia, and of course Egypt—were African, which meant “Black,” a term he took to be self-explanatory. These achievements had been stolen by local peoples who denied the real origins of civilization to cover up their theft and to deny black people their cultural patrimony. I asked about the Mesoamerican civilizations. They were African in origin, too, as proved by the discovery of black Olmec heads: Sun People all. He passed over the Garden of Eden, Cain’s whiteness, and Black Noah’s Black Ark without mention, moving directly to the ten lost tribes of Israel, who had built Great Zimbabwe. He pointed out that Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and all the rest of God’s chosen were black, although envious whites had obscured this fact for centuries. He insisted that the “so-called” Greeks never invented anything; like later Europeans, they plundered the intellectual treasures of Africa and-called them their own. He traced the Yoruban sources of ancient Egypt, derived the Italian Renaissance from Benin; derived the “so-called” discoveries of Kepler and Copernicus from the astronomical achievements of the Dogon people. Before I had the chance to hear about the evil scientist Yakub and the mother ship orbiting the earth, I thanked him, excused myself, and paid the “so-called” check.

I made several trips to South Carolina before and after my “Afrocentric” encounters. Shortly before my trip to Egypt, I arrived at the University of South Carolina in Columbia to do research. There I attended, with another of Eric Foner’s graduate students, a lecture by a prominent professor of Southern history. At this time the “neo-Confederate” movement did not have a name (the Southern Partisan magazine had not yet become notorious and the League of the South had not yet been organized), but the Zeitgeist was unmistakable. After giving a starkly revisionist lecture, this professor railed against “neo-Abolitionist” historians. I was perplexed because I thought that abolitionism was a relic of a bygone intellectual era, like phlogiston. A famous economist once said, “We are all Keynsians now”—and I had naively figured that contemporary historians were in the same boat, that we were all abolitionists now. I found out to my surprise and dismay that my dissertation supervisor was a “Neo-abolitionist”. After the lecture, the professor avowed during the question-and-answer period that he was a lineal descendant of a South Carolinian indicted during Reconstruction for KKK activities, and he was unabashedly proud of this ancestor and his patriotic activities. My graduate-student friend and I looked at each other in disbelief. We were a long way from home.

I was later informed by a number of native South Carolinian scholars that the history of South Carolina was not properly understood by anyone except them. Comprehension was inversely proportional to the square of the distance of a historian’s nativity from the holy city, Charleston. I remember being factually corrected a number of times, to my benefit, but in one dispute it turned out that I was correct. I was then informed that “we don’t need someone coming down from New York to tell us that.” The triviality of my accuracy stimulated my reflection. When I was wrong, I was wrong; when I was right, I was from New York. Old times there are not forgotten.

I was disabused of some of my misconceptions regarding the history of South Carolina by a good-natured native of the state who was a graduate student in history working at the South Caroliniana Library. He was also working on a graduate degree under the professor I had heard lecture. It was early June in 1989 or 90, and we were unable to research because the necessary buildings were closed for a state holiday—Jefferson Davis’s Birthday. Ignorant Yankees will think I am making this up, but despite the fact that Jeff Davis was from Mississippi, more than a century after his death, his birthday is still a state holiday in South Carolina. Everything closes down on this solemn occasion, except monuments to the Confederacy, which are on permanent round-the-clock alert. A larger-than-life statue of Wade Hampton III with giant bronze side-whiskers glared down at us, and the Confederate battle flag hung limply in the moist heat over the state capital as we drove down to the river and across to West Columbia. In a state that is so full of Civil War monuments as to approximate an open-air museum, we needed only a few minutes’ drive to arrive at the omphalos, the vital center, the beating heart, where neo-Confederate sentiments find their prelapsarian, paleo-Confederate Eden. I braced myself. We were not heading to an archive, nor a battlefield, nor a museum: we were headed for Maurice Bessinger’s Piggie Park.

As when trying to describe a first love or an initial glimpse at the Grand Canyon, words cannot fully communicate the flood of primordial emotion occasioned by a native New Yorker’s inaugural encounter with Piggie Park. At the front, a huge neon pig, wearing a hat and a sweatshirt, sans genitalia, stands on its hind legs, beckoning the weary traveler to forsake the Charleston Highway for mustard-based barbeque. Lest one mistake this sign for a porcine Moloch, a pagan pork idol, and naively think this establishment a swine shrine, at the other side stands an immense neon cross inscribed with the legend “Jesus Saves”. The proprietor, Maurice Bessinger, offers food for both the body and soul in this combination barbeque pit and Bible study institute. The smell of slow-burning hickory wood wafted across the parking lot as we sat down. My graduate-student friend informed me that the South had been victimized by the North for most of American history. History was written by winners, and the standard—which is to say Northern—accounts of the War between the States unfairly villified the South, attributing base motives to its people and focusing on the tangential issue of slavery instead of independence, conservative constitutionalism and states rights.

He informed me that large numbers of black men, both slave and free, fought in the Confederate army. I said I could possibly imagine a dozen light skinned blacks “passing” as whites in the CSA, but I seemed to recall General Louis T. Wigfall saying that he would rather lose the war than enlist black soldiers. I also noted that white Confederate soldiers had a propensity to massacre captured black Union troops without quarter. My friend insisted nonetheless that at least ten thousand slaves had fought in the Confederate army. I acknowledged that large numbers of slaves may have served in building fortifications and support capacities as cooks or servants, but thousands of previously unknown black Confederate soldiers seemed unlikely to me. I thought it odd that they should have been so hardy that they never died on the battlefield, and were never captured alive; because, as far as I knew, Northerners never found black Confederate corpses or took black Confederate troops prisoner. He insisted that the numbers were larger than I thought. He was right. The number of new black Confederate soldiers has in fact grown considerably since that conversation. The black Confederate army has increased more than five-fold in only ten years. During the controversy over the Confederate battle flag in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary of 2000, the attorney general of South Carolina corrected the historical record, informing the nation that fifty thousand black soldiers had fought for the Confederacy. The Sons of Confederate Veterans website recently enlisted fifteen thousand more, drawing attention to the sixty-five thousand black Confederates who fought against the North. The number grows constantly. By next election, black Confederate enlistment should be at least sixty-five million; the moon over Appomattox will have wept tears of blood; and the ghost of General Beauregard will be sighted on the Charleston Battery, discussing field artillery with Elvis.

I believe that the idea of black Confederate soldiers brought to my friend’s mind a novel image of Shiloh and Antietam and Manassas. Tens of thousands of happily enslaved black men, clad in grey, fighting against invading Federals and defending constitutionalism and states rights and limited government, but not slavery, because the Civil War—I mean, the War between the States—wasn’t about that. Try as I might, I could not get my imagination to conjure up this image. The tens of thousands of newly enlisted black Confederates brought to my mind a very different thought: the flying black electricians of ancient Egypt. What Afrocentrists and neo-Confederates have in common is an emphasis on feel-good racial cheerleading, a procrustean insistence on the most flattering possible interpretation of their favorite group, combined with a desperate need to ignore or dismiss inconvenient contrary evidence. The result is an epic myth of the imaginary exploits of their favorite people and an interpretation of the historical past that has as much empirical reality as Jack and the Beanstalk.

An excursion into the realm of neo-Confederate fantasy naturally brings me back to Piggie Park, Maurice Bessinger and Southern Partisan Magazine. The food at Piggie Park is superb. It is only just to acknowledge that mustard-based barbeque is superior to all others, that South Carolinians have fully mastered the art of cooking pigs, and that Piggie Park makes the best barbeque anywhere. The hushpuppies are great, too. If the Civil War had been fought over cuisine rather than slavery, I’d have sided with the South. I’ve eaten barbeque all over the South—it made me fat as a hog myself. I’m sure the food is bad for you, but all good-tasting food is: it’s the atmosphere at this neo-Confederate theme park that left me cold. Proselytizing leaflets abounded, informing me that I am bound for hell, but I already knew that and just shrugged it off. What I found more interesting were the pamphlets justifying slavery, “so long as it was Biblical slavery.” I checked the calendar nervously to make sure what century I was in. I wondered if I hadn’t stumbled upon a cache of historical documents, but these tracts turned out to have been printed recently, authored by a minister I’ve never heard of. Slavery, I was informed, was a morally righteous institution, sanctioned by the Bible and the Constitution. Musing, I wondered, where have I heard this before? Faulkner wrote that the past is not dead—it is not even past. I held the proof of that in my hand.

The proprietor of Piggie Park, Maurice Bessinger, owns a whole chain of eateries. He is a barbeque baron and quite a colorful character. He laments the demise of legal segregation, which he still regards as good for both whites and blacks. Few black people share Mr. Bessinger’s opinion, but all of his establishments are racially integrated—as a result of a lawsuit in 1976. Every year, Mr. Bessinger hosts the annual “Red Shirt” dinner, which celebrates the triumph of righteousness and the redemption of the state in the election of 1876. Because he is a South Carolinian patriot of the old school, Mr. Bessinger recently removed the American flag from his restaurants and raised the Confederate Battle flag to protest its removal from the state house dome. Representatives of some chain stores, many of whom regard themselves a American citizens, failed to acknowledge the moral virtues of slavery, and refused to sell Mr. Bessinger’s barbeque sauce, persecuting him on account of his dissenting political perspective and unusual conception of patriotism. It is shocking that in this inclusive age, some have been so insensitive as to deny his identity its rightful recognition. It’s a pity that Charles Taylor’s essay, “The Politics of Recognition” (which is so popular among the multi-culti enthusiasts of the identity politics industry), isn’t distributed at Piggie Park along with the other political pamphlets provided by Mr. Bessinger.

The leading neo-Confederate magazine, The Southern Partisan, is published in West Columbia, close by Piggie Park, its spiritual locus. Fortunately, The Southern Partisan magazine has done a great service by informing the public that the plight of the persecuted Mr. Bessinger is not in any way related to racism. Otherwise, there would be no way to tell. Other achievements of The Southern Partisan are equally impressive. The Southern Partisan sells a number of tasteful political items, like clothing and bumper stickers, supportive of the separate and sacred cultural identity of Southerners, or at least some Southerners. It also has ventured conspicuously into the domain of political fashion. One hot seller that really makes a statement is the John Wilkes Booth T-shirt. Below the picture of Abraham Lincoln are the words, “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” the words Booth shouted as he murdered Lincoln. Timothy McVeigh was wearing one the day he was arrested. It is the Kinte cloth of resentful white males with two digit IQs. I got to The Southern Partisan website by clicking the link provided by the website of a White Power, neo-Nazi skinhead organization called the “Confederate Hammerskins”. It’s a good thing, as The Southern Partisan has stated repeatedly, both in print and on its own website, that the Confederate Battle flag is not a symbol of racism and the magazine is not in any way affiliated with kooky right-wing hate groups. Otherwise there would be no way to tell.

The Southern Partisan’s most important achievement, though, is the 1998 interview that the magazine published with Senator John Ashcroft, now the Attorney General of the United States. The Attorney General proved himself very sensitive to the recognition of Southern identity; he is more supportive of multiculturalism than people realize. He and the editors of Southern Partisan had a very pleasant, mutually congratulatory interview: it was a real love fest. Senator Ashcroft indicated that he is gratified to see that their alternative perspective on American history, particularly on the sensitive issue of the War Between the States, was being properly explained. He spoke glowingly of the historical views being advanced in The Southern Partisan. “Your magazine helps set the record straight. You’ve got a heritage of doing that, of defending Southern patriots like Lee, Jackson and Davis. Traditionalists must do more. I’ve got to do more. We’ve all got to stand up and speak in this respect, or else we’ll be taught that these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes [sic] and their honor to some perverted agenda.” (In the Declaration of Independence, the original document from which Mr. Ashcroft quotes, the adjective “sacred” modified the noun “honor”, but times change; nowadays fortunes are sacred). The magazine returned the compliment, praising his profound, accurate and intellectually respectable interpretation of certain pivotal events in American history. It’s a good thing The Southern Partisan informed the public of this. Otherwise, there would be no way to tell.

The elaborate cultural complex of mustard-based barbeque, neo-Confederate politics and fantastic historical arguments required elaborate semiotic decoding. My South Carolinian friends took me to Piggie Park often, and I began to piece together the outsider’s view of South Carolinian regional identity and its connection to historiography. One of the most curious things I discovered over many racks of ribs was the insistence upon the existence of dubious Celtic traditions. One graduate-student friend that I made was very impressed with Grady McWhiney’s work on the Celtic roots of Southern culture. Cracker Culture and Attack and Die were luminous texts for him, but to me these books seemed far-fetched attempts to concoct a separate cultural identity vis-à-vis the allegedly Anglo-Saxon Yankees. My friend traced his ancestry to eighteenth-century Scotch-Irish settlers, and from there back to Adam and Eve (the Southern obsession with genealogy deserves a separate book). Now, all four of my grandparents emigrated to New York from Ireland around the time of the first World War, and I’ll take no crap from Grady McWhiney or anybody else about Celtic customs. Compared to my family, nineteenth-century South Carolinians are as Celtic as the Dalai Lama. I pointed out to my friend that I’m a leprechaun by comparison to him or any other South Carolinian. I ventured that if he were to contradict the least syllable of this I would educate him as to the true meaning of Attack and Die.

Apart from volatile tempers and a taste for hard liquor, I don’t see much in the way of Celtic holdovers in twentieth-century South Carolina. Granted that well-aged, small-batch Bourbon is pure nectar. I have had some very old Bourbon (no, not Southern Comfort or Jack Daniels, which are different brands of cough syrup spiked with booze) but real old Bourbon, and I can testify that it will stand comparison to any single malt. On the other hand, there is also something called “Corn Whiskey”, a clear substance with no relation to any potable liquid except potato whiskey, a beverage the Irish call poteen. Allegedly, Corn Whiskey is distilled from corn, but the taste suggests that it is fermented from catfish bait and then mellowed with a soothing dash of lye.

Two days before I last left South Carolina, one of my South Carolinian friends came to the front porch of the house I was renting and entreated me to try it, straight from the Mason jar. In a moment of weakness, I did. Shuddering, I began feeling Celtic almost immediately. My eyes teared up and my taste buds ceased to operate. I gestured frantically for a Coca Cola chaser, took a slug and did my best to breathe. A few drinks later he asked if I were feeling any more Southern. I replied that I was feeling positively Australian. My friend allowed, that as Yankees go, I had a greater sympathy for Southern customs than most, and asked me what I liked and disliked about the South.

The things I liked about the South were numerous and easily listed. Warm weather; close families… beautiful, gracious women… good manners: these are all undeniably attractive things. I didn’t like the omnipresence of guns (an unarmed South Carolinian household is an oxymoron), the xenophobia (in New York no one would mistake an Irish Catholic for a “Yankee”, but in Charleston a vacationing first generation Hindu immigrant from New Jersey would be a “Yankee”). I also disliked the racially segregated Christianity, which struck me as being perversely contrary to the spirit of scripture. Reflecting further, and pouring the remaining Coke into the Mason jar in self-defense, I added that I liked the abundant gamefish in both fresh and salt water. They were big, too, because the warm weather lets them grow fast. I have fished largemouth bass in the St. Lawrence river on the Canadian border and the St. Johns River in Florida. There is no comparison: the Florida largemouth bass are greatly superior. Moreover, the striped bass of the big South Carolinian impoundments like Lake Murray are the same dogged fighters I caught in the Atlantic ocean as a boy, but they are more numerous and easier to locate. One also cannot neglect college football, which stirs up nearly religious passions. If you include Texas, the South has about one third of the country’s population but two thirds of the good football teams. I proposed it a sublimation of the Southern military tradition.

There was more, but this is the last thing I remember distinctly. On the morning of my return from the trip to Australia, and I found myself face down on my bed, fully clothed, with my shoes still on. At first I was afraid that I would die; after a few moments of tentative self-examination, I was afraid that I would live. God dismissed my prayer and refused to kill me. My friend was sprawled on the kitchen floor. I drank a quart of water, reflected on my sinful nature, and threw up. I staggered back to bed and slept for several hours with my shoes still on. I then rose, gargled with Listerine and sandpapered my tongue in a vain attempt to rid myself of the taste. When he arose, bedraggled, I told my friend that that stuff should be against the law. He replied hoarsely that it was against the law. I think it should remain illegal whether the people who make it pay their taxes or not. I have not had “Corn Whiskey” since. I do not plan to. It is now my considered opinion that this substance is in fact not fit for human consumption. Depending on the batch, it should be used to clean paintbrushes, sprayed to control mosquitoes or sold to NASA as rocket fuel.

Back in Manhattan a few weeks later, I was almost fully recovered. Physical hangovers eventually recede, thank God, but I’ve found that psychic hangovers are much harder to shake. I had my most disconcerting encounter with identity politics at that time, while I was striving to complete my dissertation. I had a memorable conversation with the chairman of the history department at City College. She was a Slavic historian with bleached hair who bellowed when she laughed, and she seemed always to be amused by some inside joke she kept from the world. She was an avid fan of identity politics and the rectification of historical injustices through politically engaged history. She was also an active participant in the social construction of reality. I think she liked me well enough; I’m a good teacher and I didn’t make waves. I took her to be a savvy left-wing careerist who seized the opportunities offered by political correctness to further her influence and validate herself. She was a butchy big-shouldered lesbian and I thought the attraction of identity politics stemmed from her feelings of sexual marginalization. Little did I know that she was a character that had absconded from a Dostoyevsky novel, The Possessed.

Each year at City, every junior faculty member has a senior faculty member sit in on a lecture, and they meet later on to discuss pedagogy. My chairman sat in on my class and was very cordial afterward. The class, World History 101, had gone well, we had a nice chat, and I ventured to ask her about some of the… how can I put this?… remarkable claims made in some of the required readings. Tentatively, I ventured that it might be seen as unusual to present the claim that Christianity did not prohibit homosexuality until it reacted against the Islamic “Other” in the Middle Ages as an established fact to undergraduates in an introductory class. (I did not mention that the most unusual thing about this exercise in politically correct wishful thinking was the fact that it never happened). I also suggested delicately that the textbook, which explained the existence of polygamy in Islam by reference to the uniquely virulent misogyny of this culture, might be seen as insensitive. (I did not mention that what I meant by “insensitive” was a tendentious, preposterous pseudo-explanation.)

She paused, fully understanding my parenthetical subtext. She dismissed my naiveté regarding the politics of recognition with her patronizing half-smile. In a tone of voice usually reserved for addressing Candide, she explained to me that history was political mythmaking: either compensatory and liberating or hegemonic and oppressive. My misplaced concern with factual accuracy was a positivist antique; facticity itself was a hegemonic myth. She explained her antifoundationalist account of truth. Objectivity was impossible. All discourse was situated; from one perspective, these were patent lies—from another, liberating truths. An oppressive truth was no truth at all; progressive historians had an obligation not to let their discipline be used by the forces of sexism, racism, homophobia. Oppressed peoples necessarily used words as weapons; the only relevant question was existential and political: which side was I on? The multicultural curriculum provided disadvantaged students with a usable past and the self-esteem necessary to counter institutionalized oppression. She went on like this for some time. I thought of O’Brien in 1984. I got the impression she was speaking in italics. As Eric Hoffer once quipped, “Facts are counterrevolutionary.”

I retreated to my office, dragging the deconstructionist historian’s party line behind me like the chains on Marley’s ghost. I closed the door and brooded about the politics of identity. She had not mentioned blood and soil or my duty to the Volk, but I knew the epistemological stance of Joseph Goebbels when I heard it. Everything was different, and I was swept away by an avalanche of reconceptualization. I imagined snatches of Wagner playing in the background as I thought of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, saying, “It was like someone shot a diamond bullet straight into my brain.” It struck me then that Hannah Arendt was right; the flaky left and the kooky right really are the same thing. The differences are purely terminological: in practice both are power grabs by disaffected, nihilistic intellectuals. The extremes meet, politics isn’t a line but a circle. Celine was a leftist, Fanon a rightist, Pinochet a lefty; Pol Pot a rightwinger. There is no difference between extreme rightist nationalism and extreme left-wing socialism; the Nazis had figured this out—that’s why they were national socialists. No wonder Stalin had argued for socialism in one country. I was not at that time aware of Paul de Man’s early political writings on behalf of the Nazis, but it was suddenly clear to me that Foucault and LePen were intellectual Siamese twins, like Stanley Fish and Pat Buchanan. I thought of Winston Smith: “Two plus two is four. If that is granted, everything else follows.” This was the day when I became a radical centrist. I have since embraced the politics of extremist moderation.

I never saw the department chairman again in person. I took a post doc in the history department at Johns Hopkins, and from there I went to the Council for the Humanities at Princeton. I never forgot the conclusions I had drawn, but I had not given her much thought personally. It was in 1997 or 1998, during the war in Yugoslavia, that I encountered her again. I came home from work and turned on the TV while I made dinner. I was surprised but not shocked by what I saw. She must have retired from City College with a pension and moved back to her native Balkans. Her knowledge of Eastern European history and rhetorical slipperyness were now put to more practical uses. The politically sensitive leftist professor had metamorphosized into a rightist Nietzschean Uberfrau. The gloves had come off, and so had the mask. She was holding a news conference, answering reporters’ questions.

I kid you not. Her new position in the Serbian government was “Minister of Information”. This meant that she was in charge of disinformation. I turned off the sound and stared at the dance of the pixels. I wouldn’t be missing anything. I knew what was coming. The grimly predictible rhetorical construction was overdetermined, and I had learned how to think in italics. That eerie night I watched her talk silently and brooded and forgot about dinner. Later statements on the Internet and TV confirmed my suspicions that her performance went something like this:

The Serbs were not comparable to the Nazis; they were an oppressed, freedom-loving people redressing historical ill treatment. For too long their separate and sacred collective identity had been repressed. There were no massacres; NATO invented these “so-called” atrocities as a pretext for intervention. Even if there were massacres, every war had casualties, and a people’s war for national liberation was no different, but this war was unusual in that there weren’t any atrocities. The real story was the restraint of the Serb forces as they justly reestablished their sovereignty over greater Serbia. These stories of systematic torture were Western propaganda designed to destabilize the Milosevic regime, which had nothing to do with genocide. Even if these fictitious mass rapes and summary executions and concentration camps and death marches did exist, the atrocities of their terrorist enemies, which had been going on for centuries, made spontaneous excesses by outraged soldiers inevitable; but fortunately, no such things had happened. Atrocities had been committed against the Serbian people, but the Western media suppressed such reports in preference to manufactured stories of “so-called” ethnic cleansing, which was an attempt to obscure NATO’s imperial ambitions. The media were blaming the victims. No ethnic cleansing had occurred; if it had, it was due to NATO bombing. And besides, it never happened. The destruction of the Chinese Embassy was calculated aggression by America, and the Western media never covered the deaths of Serb civilians. There were no mass graves, no mass rapes, no genocide. The Serbian army had committed no atrocities; if atrocities had occurred, it was by other groups trying to blame them, and besides such questions were an illegitimate interference with the internal affairs of a sovereign state. There had been no massacres. If there were, they had not committed them; besides, they were morally equivalent to the evils perpetrated by other governments. Moreover, they were sorry for any harm unintentionally visited upon thousands of civilians with their hands tied behind their backs. There may have been some casualties of NATO bombing who were not ethnic Serbs and had formerly lived on what was rightfully Serb land, but the Milosevic regime was not responsible. And, of course, one cannot forget the destruction of the Chinese Embassy.

Postmodernism is a disguised end-of-history theory. Watching an end-of-history theory being put into practice is disturbing. In the repeat performances I saw on TV and later on the Internet, my former chairman always used words the way cuttlefish use ink. Her movement from theory to practice was not really a big step: radical evil had always been implicit in her tactical abolition of moral rules as a part of her larger strategy for gaining political power. Watching her, I mused about the third temptation of Christ: “I will give you dominion over all the kingdoms of the earth if you will bow down and worship me.” She had made a deal for quite a bit less. I felt a new appreciation for Kantian universalism, and for Dostoyevsky’s pessimism about human nature. Somehow I had always known that this is the last stop in the politics of recognition—that this is where tribal separatism and moral perspectivalism lead. Welcome to the logical conclusion of identity politics.

Since September 11th, the connection between identity politics and the moral bankruptcy of certain right and left wing fringe groups has become even clearer. As responsible observers on both the left and right have noted, Al Qaeda is composed not of the impoverished and dispossessed but the affluent and privileged whose anxieties about the erosion of their cultural identity erupted in murderous rage. The only thing more loathsome and scabrous than these terrorists is their ghoulish intellectual apologists, who are found, not surprisingly, among the kooky right and the flaky left. In the aftermath of September 11th, I emailed a friend on the Princeton faculty who is an eminent historian:

I saw in the paper what you said about the horror of 9/11. I think you’re right. It is reprehensible that some people think it justifiable to apologize for evil. It is even more horrifying than the destruction. The similarity of these remarks to those made by Jerry Falwell, that America deserved this because of its sins, etc made me stop and wonder, is there any difference between Susan Sontag and Pat Robertson? What if the enemies of modernity and liberal democracy, the premodern right and the postmodern left, are two sides of the same coin? Both are full of anxiety and resentment, both are essentially irrelevant to the new global capitalism, both would rather support the Taliban than the US.

I recently saw Noam Chomsky on TV news demanding that MIT divest from companies that do business in Israel, in order to inject moral clarity into Mideast policy. A number of professors at several Ivy League universities signed a petition demanding that their universities do the same. Recently in ArabNews.com, I read a fascinating article about the horrors of the Israeli occupation and the virtues of Palestinian resistance. The guest columnist was that well-known political analyst, David Duke.

My friends who have read my manuscript have noted that it is only superficially about politics and education in nineteenth-century South Carolina. It is at least as much about politics and education in late twentieth-century American universities. It is not even primarily about history: it is about the political philosophy informing and deforming higher education right now. It is about the degradation and corruption of political philosophy by sentimental power-hungry self-indulgence, some malevolent, some well intentioned, the best wrongheaded, the worst nihilistic. Others have noted that the manuscript implies that “political correctness” is a pseudo-progressive attitude with reactionary antecedents and genocidal implications. Others have noted the pessimism behind the comedic irony.

The stones are all there, begging to be kicked.

 

Michael Sugrue received a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University in 1992. Having taught in a Great Books curriculum at Princeton for almost a decade, he moved on to become Professor of History at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida. His essay “Measure, for Measure: The Bible Contra Puritanical Christianity” appeared in Praesidium 8.4, and is the eponymous manuscript whose composition was informed by the experiences set down in this retrospective.