Bread and Circus

An online journal of culture

Category: conservatism

On Conservative Intellectuals and Richard Nixon

by Editors

BOOKS + IDEAS

ON CONSERVATIVE INTELLECTUALS AND RICHARD NIXON:
AN INTERVIEW WITH HISTORIAN SARAH K. MERGEL

By G. Arnold

Richard M. Nixon was one of the most influential and puzzling figures in American politics of the twentieth century. His legacy looms so large that it is often easy to gloss over his complexities. A deeply intelligent and astute politician, he was nonetheless a polarizing figure.

Sarah K. Mergel, a professor at Dalton State College in Georgia, specializes in American political and intellectual history. She has studied Nixon and the Conservative Movement in detail. Now she has a new book, Conservative Intellectuals and Richard Nixon (Palgrave Publishers, 2010), which reconsiders the complicated relationship between Nixon and other conservative leaders in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As her book reveals, it’s a fascinating story.

Having known Sarah K. Mergel from her previous essays in Bread and Circus, we thought it would be interesting to ask if she could tell us a bit more about her book and the ideas in it. Here is what she had to say.

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Bread and Circus: Your new book touches on important aspects of American political history. Can you tell us what it’s about and why you decided to write it?

Sarah K. Mergel: Conservative Intellectuals and Richard Nixon explores the relationship between postwar conservatives and the president from 1968 to 1974. The more I read about the growth of the conservative movement after World War II, the more I realized that the conservatives would rather forget their experience with Richard Nixon. They failed to see how his presidency helped refocus their fight against liberalism and communism. Conservative Intellectuals and Richard Nixon uses the Nixon years as a window into the right’s effort to turn their ideas into a program more voters could relate to. It combines an assessment of Nixon’s presidency through the eyes of conservative intellectuals with an attempt to understand what the right gained from its experience with one of the most interesting American presidents in the twentieth century.

B&C: Richard Nixon was a man of great intelligence and political skill. His long political career had many highs and lows. As someone who has spent considerable time studying Nixon and his influence, what do you think is the most important thing that we should understand about Nixon, the politician?

Sarah K. Mergel: Ever since Watergate traumatized the nation, people have been trying to understand Richard Nixon. Based on my own study of Nixon, I think the answer is pretty simple. Everything he did during his long public life, especially after he became president, looked to his historical legacy. At heart Nixon was a practical politician; he made choices throughout his career that he thought would enhance how people would view his contribution to American life. Nixon never expected to be mired in a scandal that would do so much damage to his reputation at the time or in the future.

B&C: Looking back at his long and remarkable career, what do you think was Nixon’s most important success?

Sarah K. Mergel: I cannot point to one policy or action that Richard Nixon took that stands out as his most important success. However given the length of his political career from the late 1940s until his death in the 1990s, probably his most important success was that he was a survivor. Nixon managed to rebuild his career more times than any politician that comes to my mind.

B&C: Although people often talk about conservatism and liberalism, it seems there is not always agreement on what labels mean. How should we understand “conservatism” in the context of the era you discuss in your book?

Sarah K. Mergel: Conservatives essentially called for three things before and during the Nixon era. First, they wanted a strong national defense to prevent the spread of communism. Second, they promoted what they considered a greater respect for tradition and order. Finally, they wanted a less influential federal government in terms of social and economic policy. Simply put, they did not share the liberal’s belief that the government could or should solve all of society’s problems. They did believe that the government should protect American citizens from totalitarian threats.

B&C: Your book talks about Nixon’s relationship with the changing conservative movement. What kind of relationship was that?

Sarah K. Mergel: Richard Nixon knew he needed the support of the conservative movement as well as what he would later call the silent majority to win in 1968. In large part, Nixon lost the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy because conservatives within the Republican Party would not vote for him. The right supported him in 1968 because they thought he supported conservative policy solutions. Nevertheless, his relationship with the movement remained tenuous well into his presidency. In some instances he tried to win its support by making connections with conservatives like William F. Buckley, Jr. and Russell Kirk. But as much as conservative intellectuals wanted to believe Richard Nixon leaned to the right they always doubted his loyalty to their cause. To some extent, their doubt was well placed since he went against almost every conservative principle he pledged to uphold in 1968. He courted the conservatives when he needed them and ignored them much of the rest of the time. Richard Nixon used the conservative movement; however in the end the conservatives benefitted more from their strained relationship than did the president.

B&C: What was the biggest effect that Nixon had on the conservative movement?

Sarah K. Mergel: The conservatives widely supported Richard Nixon in 1968 and so they expected that once he took office they would have a good relationship with his administration and his policies would move the nation to the right. Since neither of these hopes came true, conservatives began to redefine their movement by distancing themselves from Richard Nixon and his policies. Essentially the biggest effect Nixon had on the conservative movement was not anything he did, but what he did not do. His failure to live up to their expectations prompted leading conservatives to no longer accept the closest thing to a conservative who could win an election (as they did in 1968). The right learned to stay true to their ideology when choosing a candidate. Their dedication paid off—in their opinion—when Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980.

B&C: Among leading conservatives, who do you think were some of those most affected by Nixon and his presidency? How so?

Sarah K. Mergel: Conservative politicians — like Barry Goldwater and Strom Thurmond — seemed less affected by Richard Nixon’s presidency than conservative intellectuals –like William F. Buckley, Jr., James Burnham, and William Rusher. The bitter disappointment felt by those intellectuals working with National Review and other conservative publications led them to rethink in some ways how they approached politics, especially future presidential races. More than anything else, conservative intellectuals and strategists realized they would have to work harder to make conservatism an acceptable political choice as opposed to something seen as a reactionary political choice. They also needed to branch out to groups not previously identified as political conservatives like disaffected liberals and evangelical Christians.

B&C: Looking at it the other way, who, if anybody, among the leading conservatives, influenced Nixon the most?

Sarah K. Mergel: Richard Nixon always seemed to want the respect of the intellectual community—both right and left—and yet he seemed to do everything possible to push them away. On the conservative side, when he took office he had a decent relationship with William F. Buckley, Jr. and Milton Friedman. However, to say that these men or any other conservative intellectual influenced Richard Nixon long term would be a stretch. At various points in his career he embraced right-leaning ideas but in the end Nixon was always his own greatest influence.

B&C: When, in your book, you talk about the Right’s effort to turn ideology into successful politics, what do you mean?

Sarah K. Mergel: The Right, in the years after World War II, began to outline their challenge to liberalism and communism and it seemed to leading conservatives no one was listening. Partly because of the social changes social changes in the 1960s and partly because of Richard Nixon’s presidency the right learned to how to promote their ideas to a wider public. Not only did they learn to sell those ideas to the people, but they learned how to see their candidates elected to public office. Conservative Richard Weaver once talked about ideas having consequences; what the Right learned from their experience with Richard Nixon was to how to show people those consequences.

B&C: Finally, what is the most important thing that you think people should take away after reading your book?

Sarah K. Mergel: National Review publisher William Rusher called the conservative decision to support Richard Nixon the “blunder of 1968.” The idea that Nixon’s presidency somehow setback the conservative movement seems wrong. When wage and price controls failed to curb inflation in the 1970s and détente failed to bring world peace, conservatives (who had been questioning those policies from the beginning) benefitted. The most important thing to take away from Conservative Intellectuals and Richard Nixon seems to me that sometimes in politics your biggest blunder can turn into your greatest advantage.

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Sarah K. Mergel’s Conservative Intellectuals and Richard Nixon will be released by Palgrave Publishers in early 2010.

G. Arnold is an editor of Bread and Circus Magazine and the author of several books, including Conspiracy Theory in Film, Television, and Politics and The Afterlife of America’s War in Vietnam.

Image (above): National Archives photograph (unrestricted) of a Nixon campaign trip in 1972.

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“The Prince” and Pandora’s Box

by Staff

THE PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN

“The Prince” and Pandora’s Box

By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Bread and Circus editor and senior writer

As I watched the second presidential debate, I turned to my husband and said, “This may not sound appropriate in a democratic republic—but when Barack Obama sits on that stool don’t you think he looks like an Eastern Prince?  You know?  The kind shown in Buddhist images of figures in the lalitasana, the ‘pose of royal ease’?  Look at how peaceful and serene his face looks.”

Now some folks who are already whipped into a xenophobic frenzy about Obama being “too foreign” and “too exotic” for America would OF COURSE take that kind of a remark as an unforgivable lapse in judgment from an elitist East Coast academic such as myself.  To them, I can’t really offer an excuse, nor an apology.  A peaceful, relaxed figure exuding intellect, confidence and poise is something I desire in a world leader. ‘Nuff said.

But, it only occurred to me later—in re-reading Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980) this week—that McCain, too, reminds me of a prince.  Machiavelli’s prince.

Last week’s dismal news that the McCain-Palin ticket began encouraging race-driven insults and worse from their socially and economically panic-stricken audiences forced me to realize that the Republicans are not beneath any scorched-earth tactic (ahem, strategy) to help them gain the White House. They found loads of company on the low road, and discovered it makes for easy travel.  This was as true in Renaissance Italy as it is today.

As Greenblatt points out, “For Machiavelli, the prince engages in deceptions for one very clear reason: to survive.  The successful prince must be ‘a great feigner and dissembler; and men are so simple and so ready to obey present necessities, that one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.’…The initiated observer can always see beneath the surface and understand how appearances are manipulated by the cunning prince.”1  As Machiavelli explains it, it is in politics as it is in nature, the fox always eats the hens; yet, the sheer willingness of the victims still inspires outrage among the socially-responsible in society.2

In response to the troubling development in the Republican campaign, Georgia Democratic representative John Lewis publicly issued a condemning statement likening McCain and Palin’s tactics to George Wallace’s segregationist vitriol.  “What I am seeing reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history. Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse,” wrote Lewis.  McCain’s response was to voice disappointment in his one-time hero for stifling the national political conversation with his accusations.

I have to ask: If we are routinely asked to praise John McCain for his veteran-of-foreign-war status, should we not also exult  John Lewis for his service in another kind of war?  Did Lewis not also suffer physical and mental anguish in the service of ensuring American freedom and liberty?  Unlike McCain, Lewis suffered at the hands of fellow Americans instead of foreign armies, having his skull fractured by police in the “Bloody Sunday” March on Selma, Alabama.  But, I believe that a hero like Lewis deserves every bit as much respect for his exceptional, patriotic experiences.  And, I also trust that he knows racist rhetoric when he sees it, and that he does not wield his opinion on the subject lightly.

For now—after the outright public disgust and outrage with the tactics of McCain and Palin—they have reined-in their poisonous rhetoric out on the campaign trail.  But, it’s incredibly frightening to imagine that they’ve already opened a post-modern Pandora’s Box, that they’ve loosed rapacious greed, envy, vanity, slander, and lying into the midst of our revered political process.

The optimistic news is that—in the original myth—a once-curious, now terrified Pandora slammed the lid closed before “hope” could escape, which would have left mankind utterly inconsolate.

Ah, HOPE.  Thank heaven for it.  And, thank heaven we have another campaign inextricably linked with that very same saving grace.

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1. Greenblatt, 14.  Machiavelli quotation, The Prince (NY: Modern Library, 1950), 64-65.

2. Greenblatt, 259, n. 3.

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This item originally appeared in the blog Percyflage.

Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph.D., is a senior contributing writer & contributing editor of Bread and Circus Magazine and an Independent Scholar of Art History, Specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email.

Stephen Colbert, Court Jester

by Editors

Stephen Colbert, Court Jester

By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard

I have an admission to make: I’m in serious withdrawal. “Hi, my name is Kimberlee and I’m addicted to The Colbert Report.” Even though, as a fellow writer, I am completely in sorority (and fraternity) with the writers on strike, I must admit I am suffering without my daily infusion of Monsieur Colbert’s sardonic wit.

So, to pass the time until corporate America comes to its senses, I decided to write about my cult hero from my own perspective—that of an art historian entranced by the history of fools.

Fools you say? A resounding “Yes!” The “Fool” precisely describes the part that Stephen Colbert plays. And furthermore, he should wear that badge with pride. For, the Fool has engendered a long, illustrious tradition.

Whether tribe or nation, human society has always had a clown or fool figure in order to test its communal structures. The Fool served the indispensable role of inciting restorative laughter as well as puncturing any pretensions to rise above our human estate. In the evolving cultures of kingship, the Fool served as the monarch’s comic foil, and even his alter ego. The Court Jester had special dispensation to “tell it like it is”, even to the king—again, puncturing pretensions and serving as the royal check and balance. Such royal fools lasted in until Absolutism in Europe climbed towards its apogee, and imperious kings no longer suffered Fools or their probing questions. Here in America, since the Revolution, we’ve had to settle for a President and other Public Servants to serve as our comic scapegoats. However, unlike our contemporaries, our original American forefathers provided much less popular humor. One might argue that this is because they earnestly strove for equality with their peers and, in comedy, those who seek ultimate power are the funniest to watch fall. In our own times, as the current administration ceaselessly consolidates power, wresting it from constituents, the imbalance has become palpable. Predictably, here is where Stephen Colbert comes in.

If we could liken our current administration to an Absolutist Monarchy, Stephen Colbert is serving as its heady Court Jester. But, you may ask, how is it that Colbert is routinely dismissed by those in power as nothing more assailing than a comedian, a “Fool.” Luckily, they tragically underestimate the ritualistic power of laughter.

If he seems to fly just below the White House’s radar, it is for two reasons. One, Post-Enlightenment society believes in the primacy of the infallible intellect to the exclusion of comic modes. And, second, Colbert has reinvented the “Fool” paradigm for the twenty-first century in remarkable ways. Most noticeably, he has abandoned the traditional outward markers of the Fool: for example, he shuns motley (outlandish, colorful garb), replacing it with Brooks Brothers suits and rimless glasses. His “sveltiness” leaves behind the traditional extremes of either skeletal thinness or perverse rotundness that characterized court jesters, and his height inverts their typical diminutive scale. Moreover, the suave demeanor and superficially satirical mind of his on-screen character belie deeper intentionality. These paradigmatic shifts allow Colbert to blend into his intended pinstriped context with more camouflage, and definitely in a more roguish way. One may not see him coming, a tree within the (updated) power suit forest.

In fact, Colbert has “had” many of his intended targets on his show seemingly without their knowing that they’re being systematically parodied at every turn. Or, as some suggest, perhaps his guests are knowingly self-deprecating, or just anxious to get in that coveted face time with the elusive “Gen X-ers” and “Gen-nexters”. Perhaps the guests justify their Colbert Show appearances with a “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” sort of approach. But, it seems that those politicians and politicos sorely underestimate the facile intellect, cynicism and world-weariness of Colbert and those in the 20-40 year old age group. It is a truism that you just can’t say something and be taken at your word anymore. Or, for that matter, even attempt to play the self-aware patsy; in the end you’re still the butt of their perspicuous mockery of authority.

Herein lies Colbert’s genius. He dons Conservative mannerisms and paroxysms with such deftness that he can seamlessly caricature their own shamelessly pandering, populist caricatures-and those of their media outlets. When they call him on it, he laughs the laugh of invincible “Truth” in the face of “Truthiness.” He winks and shrugs his shoulders; he plays at playing.

Indeed, most illustrative of his Fool status Colbert uses his wit to cut both ways—placing him squarely in the overall indefinable position of Folly. As many of his Democratic guests have seen, he does not spare them scrutiny because of their party affiliation—it goes without saying that they are cogs in the same Beltway machine as the Republicans. And, so when Colbert ran for President of the United States, he approached both parties with equal fervor and disgust.

Judging him by his free spirit and entrepreneurialism, one might short-sightedly conclude that Colbert is, at heart, an Independent. But, in reality, he is not aligned with the political party of that name either. Rather, as history teaches us, his nuanced status as Fool means that his persona exists completely outside of the system. He can powerfully jibe and cajole because he has no position, he is at once everywhere and nowhere. Every-man and no-man.

As “Nemo” is Latin for “no-man,” it is a great epithet for Colbert. It follows that we might consider the Colbert Report as a popular culture journey through the depths of our Post-modern society with Colbert as our feisty, changeable captain.

I, for one, will be so glad when his Nautilus of a show next surfaces, registering on the TV radar, and beginning the next chapter of our great American novel.

 

“O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up-for you the flag is flung-for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths-for you the shores crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning…”

– Walt Whitman

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Bread and Circus contributing writer Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph.D., is an Independent Scholar of Art History, Specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email.

Image (above): Cover of The Best of The Colbert Report (Paramount Home Video DVD), available from Amazon.com.

The Road to Democracy

by Editors

HISTORY NOTEBOOK

The Road to Democracy

by Sarah Katherine Mergel

A recent discussion with my students on the present situation in Iraq highlighted an often forgotten, but very important lesson about the process of democratization and nation building—it takes time. True democracy took almost 200 years to develop fully into the system Americans enjoy today. When the former British colonies adopted the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution, voting was restricted to a small minority of the population. The country only achieved true universal suffrage with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Success in developing democracy abroad has tended to come with persistence, while failure has resulted from a lack of staying power in the face of high expectations.

At the time of the American Revolution, colonial leaders seemed uncertain of their future. Some seemed even unsure about the decision to break away from the British Empire. No one knew what the Revolution would bring. As the colonies transitioned to a confederation of states, the founding fathers grappled with what it meant to be a citizen of the newly formed republic. They had a vision of liberty, carried over from their colonial days as British subjects, but liberty for whom? And what did that liberty entail?

The representatives at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 were republicans, not democrats. They believed that government should rest on the people’s consent, but not that the people should govern. The Constitution was revolutionary in its approach to federal government, but less revolutionary in who had an actual say in the way the country was governed. The Constitution actually left undefined who could vote in federal elections; it left states to set their own qualifications for voting. Most states at the time had limited voting to white men who held property or who could afford to pay the necessary taxes. Moreover, the delegates had little in common except that they had all been Englishman before the Revolution. So as they sat down to frame the American government, they had to overcome differences relating to religion, state size, and regional interests. Their differences led to the three-fifths compromise with respect to apportioning that left the institution of race-based slavery untouched. Under the Constitution, liberty and freedom only applied to some people.

The Age of Jackson brought the first significant changes to the democratic process in the United States. From 1820 to 1840, almost every state abandoned previous voting restrictions for white men. Moreover, citizens began to have a more direct say in who represented them at the local, state, and federal level. Andrew Jackson’s common man image and his core belief in a country governed for and by the people caused not only the formation of the Democratic party, but also an increased awareness of the people about the political process. The institution of the one white man one vote principle led to a skyrocketing of voter turnout.

The Civil War and Reconstruction brought the rights of citizenship, especially voting rights, to the forefront of American political life once again. Emancipated slaves and their white supporters looked forward to the day when not only would former male slaves vote, but women as well. The Reconstruction Amendments (the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth) not only ended slavery but ensured the civil and voting rights of African Americans. Sadly for proponents of women’s suffrage, the Fifteenth Amendment applied only to men—black and white—not women. As the North tired of enforcing Reconstruction and the Redeemers took over, state governments severely restricted voting rights for blacks. Southern states in the 1890s, enacted laws similar to the Mississippi Plan that limited the pool of eligible voters through literacy tests, the poll tax, and the grandfather clause. The grandfather clause protected poor, illiterate whites but not blacks. As the nation entered the progressive era, in theory a time of social and political advancement, a majority of blacks had been effectively disenfranchised.

The women’s suffrage movement had split on whether or not to support the Fifteenth Amendment in the 1860s. Some wanted suffrage for all, while others remained content to see black men receive the vote. That rift lasted until after the turn of the century, when the movement’s leaders realized their differences only hampered their efforts. During the progressive era, their work in the nation’s settlement houses and on other social improvement campaigns convinced women that the vote was absolutely necessary. If they wanted to enact real change to help the country’s disadvantaged, they had to have the right to cast ballots not only in state elections, but in national elections as well. Women suffrage activists eventually convinced Congress and the President to support the Nineteenth Amendment. After 1920, in theory the United States practiced universal suffrage. However, it was not until the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) that Congress, at Lyndon Johnson’s urging, mandated federal oversight of elections in the South to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment.

Effective representative democracy in the United States had taken time. Of course, the road to universal suffrage was only part of the equation as democracy developed. Throughout the nation’s history, the process of democratic government improved. The modern political system Americans enjoy came only as a result of trial and error. In the Jacksonian era, in many parts of the country the politics of deference, where the elite of society made all the decisions, fell out of favor. Voters gained the right to choose presidential electors and other state representatives. To encourage participation, governments added new polling places and increased polling hours. In the progressive era, reformers sought to end the control of political machines and party bosses. Therefore, states adopted the direct election of senators, primary elections for candidate selection, the secret ballot, the referendum, the recall, and the initiative. With these measures, voters had more power than ever to set the country’s legislative agenda.

Abroad, the United States has had both good and back luck with nation building and promoting democracy since it became an “empire” in 1898. In its foreign policy ventures, the U.S. has often attempted to create democracy through the supervision of municipal governments, promoting internal improvements, sponsoring education reforms, and of course enacting economic reforms. Efforts began with the occupation of the Cuba and Philippines at the turn of the century, and have of course continued to the present day with efforts to create a stable democracy in Iraq. Why the mixed results? In large part the rate of success and failure has depended on the level of commitment exerted by the American government. A few examples from the Cold War and post Cold War era provide excellent examples of this point.

As the Second World War came to a close, the United States sat down with its allies to determine how to deal with its defeated enemies Germany and Japan. In what would become West Germany, the U.S. worked with France and Britain to develop a new democratic state. On the other hand, in Japan the U.S. had free reign to develop policies. In both cases, however, the American government committed itself to programs that would help develop democracy and economic liberalism. The U.S. supplied a great deal of economic aid and provided for the defense needs of both countries. The American government successfully demilitarized and democratized Japan and West Germany, drawing them into the anticommunist orbit by the mid-1950s. In light of the growing tensions with the Soviet Union, American leaders felt compelled to create effective regional allies. West Germany and Japan proved effective in the fight against totalitarian governments. When direct control ended in these countries democracy flourished; however, the U.S. continued its military presence through the end of the Cold War.

Other initial successes during and after the Cold War turned into failures when considering the long term consequences, including Grenada, Panama, and Haiti. In 1983, Ronald Reagan sent troops to Grenada to destroy a Marxist regime with close ties to Cuba. The invasion was successful and U.S. helped install a noncommunist government. American presence on the small island nation proved short lived; the pro-American government over time became less and less democratic. George Bush sent U.S. forces into Panama in 1989 to remove Manuel Noriega from power (so that he could stand trial in the U.S. for drug trafficking). The task of nation building there has proved difficult. Since 1990, the government of Panama has continually shifted between democratic and autocratic influences leading to a remarkable amount of instability. Lastly, in 1994 Bill Clinton intervened in Haiti to safeguard the cause of democracy by restoring Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power. The Clinton administration initially succeeded in its efforts. The U.S. occupation lasted only six months, at which point the administration turned the peace keeping responsibility over to the United Nations. Since then, Haiti has continued to experience political instability.

In all of the examples of success turned to failure, the United States started with seemingly good intentions, but the follow through proved ineffective. Perhaps Germany and Japan were simply more accepting of the ideas of democracy—both developed intro effective democratic governments. But perhaps, the long term American commitment made the transition. So can democracy be created in Iraq? Probably, in time. Patience on the part of the Iraqis and the Americans seems to be in order at least for the foreseeable future. One size does not fit all, even when it comes to democracy. Both Germany and Japan put their own stamp of democracy; they are not exact replicas of the American model.

How can the United States best help the Iraqis achieve their goal? Well, that question will have to be left to a future installment.

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Bread and Circus contributing writer Sarah Katherine Mergel, Ph.D., specializes in American political and intellectual history since the Civil War. Her primary area of research is the rise of modern conservatism and its effects on political developments, cultural trends, social issues, and international relations.

Gaining a Little Perspective

by Editors

Gaining a Little Perspective

By Sarah Katherine Mergel, contributing writer

About a month and a half ago, a friend told me about her son’s experiment to gain a broader perspective of the world around him. He had decided to stop speaking for ten days. He communicated only through a dry erase board and through email or text messages. I weighed the idea of not speaking for maybe fifteen seconds but it seemed particularly unrealistic for me. As a college student, this solution might work. However, I assumed my students might find it odd if I stopped talking. The experiment nevertheless got me thinking about how I could increase my awareness while still trying to keep up with my research, writing, and teaching.

I came up with a three part strategy. One, I perused a magazine that challenged me politically in addition to my regular fare. Two, I read an article that was outside my comfort zone or area of expertise. Finally, I learned something about the past that relates to current events. For some of you, something along these lines has already made its way into your regular routine. The key for me was to find the time to do what I had planned. And happily, I did.

Admittedly, I chuckled through some of the articles in the magazine from the other side of the political spectrum. Although, I did learn more about the U.S. strategy for fighting the Iraq War and the growing antiwar movement. I also picked up some useful information on urban demographics and race. None of what I gleaned will change my political conviction, but I gained a better appreciation of what people on both sides of the issue are saying.

Then I read a fascinating article, Steven Mailloux’s “Thinking with Rhetorical Figures: Performing Racial and Disciplinary Identities in Late-Nineteenth-Century America,” about rhetoric and racial identity. I suspect that someday it will come in useful when teaching about the construction of race in the U.S. While it had something to do with the past in that it focused on 19th-century America, the article presented me with a new perspective on the issue—one based on a literary and psychological analysis.

As an historian, the last task to me seems the most important. I regularly plead with my students to think historically, but it is something I need to do as well. To make it more likely I would learn something new, I chose to go outside my field of expertise—American history—by reading Tara Zara’s “‘Each Nation Cares For Its Own’: Empire, Nation, and Child Welfare Activism in the Bohemian Lands, 1900–1918.” The article enlightened me about connections between European and American progressivism at the turn of the 20th century.

Historians have recognized for some years that British and Americans progressives shared similar goals and tactics. But apparently, these influences reached nationalist movements in Eastern Europe before World War I. Similar to the progressives a century ago, Americans still question what the role of government should be in their lives. Reading this essay reaffirmed my belief that history matters when it comes to evaluating current events and policies.

Overall, the experiment proved to be a nice change of pace from my regular routine and I plan to incorporate these steps into my future schedule. Hopefully, my experience has inspired you to expand your horizons, especially when it comes to thinking historically. To help you along, I will be doling out pearls of wisdom on how historical events related to current political, social, and cultural issues in upcoming installments. Next time—what can the presidential election of 1968 tell us about the 2008 contest?

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Sarah Katherine Mergel, Ph.D., specializes in American political and intellectual history since the Civil War. Her primary area of research is the rise of modern conservatism and its effects on political developments, cultural trends, social issues, and international relations.

Suggested Reading

  • Steven Mailloux, “Thinking with Rhetorical Figures: Performing Racial and Disciplinary Identities in Late-Nineteenth-Century America,” American Literary History 18 (Winter 2006): 695-711.
  • Tara Zara, “‘Each Nation Cares For Its Own’: Empire, Nation, and Child Welfare Activism in the Bohemian Lands, 1900–1918,” The American Historical Review 111 (December 2006): 1378-1402.
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