Monday, January 7, 2013

The Personal and the Printable

I just finished reading Laura Kalman's Right Star Rising: A New Politics, 1974-1980 (W. W. Norton, 2010).  On the whole I found it quite informative, but I was struck once again by an observation I have made of many scholars who came of age during the 1970s: for her, the Nixon/Ford/Carter years were personal, and she has no qualms letting the reader know this is so.  Nor does she have the slightest shred of concern about identifying her position on the political spectrum.  I cite, for example, from the epilogue:

"Experts today disagree about the extent to which Reagan's victory represented a repudiation of Carter or a triumph of conservatism.  As a historian and a liberal I give greater weight to the former than the latter." (363)

I do not mean to imply that Kalman's analysis is wildly partisan.  On the contrary, she asserts in the last paragraph of the volume that "[r]easonable people disagree about the directions in which [Reagan] took the country" (366) while awarding the Californian kudos for leading in the first place -- her signal critique of both Ford and Carter being that neither was an effective leader and that these failures at the top both broadened and deepened the real structural problems of the 1970s.  I enjoyed many things about Kalman's book, her dexterity in making use of amusing chestnuts not least among them.  (I was intrigued to note, for example, that Jimmy Carter's 1976 campaign symbol was a "fourteen-foot-high, 450-point 'monster peanut' built of hoops, chicken wire, tinfoil, and foam" [155].)

That said, Kalman's book confronts me once again with two questions I have grappled with previously (and reintroduce partly because due to a recent cross-posting on GFU's Facebook page some of you reading this may be of college age).  First, what, if any, is the proper role of personal commentary in published historical analysis?  Second, how do we cope with separating personal/lived experience from our scholarly analysis of recent history?

I've been told by numerous people that they have not been able to deduce my political orientation from the content of my first book.  I take that as a compliment.  I want my published work to reflect an informed and -- to the extent this is possible for any human -- objective interpretation of historical data.  True objectivity may be impossible to attain, but at the very least I aim for fairness.  I want to be fair to my subjects, even when I disagree with them personally.  At some point a line must be drawn; fair historical analysis of Japanese internment during World War II would not, in my opinion, preclude concluding that it was unwarranted and anathema to the declared principles upon which American society rests.  Should I self-identify my political persuasion in a historical monograph?  I'd argue no, but others differ.  I'd be curious to hear your thoughts and reflections.  Informal writing -- this blog, for example -- offers greater latitude for expression of personal perspective, and readers of past entries will be aware I do engage my own story much more extensively here than I would in an article submitted to a journal or a book chapter destined for publication.

Scholars of my generation -- people with no memory of the 1970s -- are just now coming to an age of academic majority.  I am and will continue to be intrigued to watch and see how our dominant perceptions of the 1960s and 1970s change and develop over time.  I have no memories of Vietnam or of the counterculture; I can study the Nixon era but I will never have the visceral reaction to Watergate that someone who lived through that era might have experienced.  I operate at a remove.  At the same time, as the content of the second half of the U.S. survey marches on into the 21st century I am aware of how my own impressions of Clinton and the Bushes, the 1990s and 9/11 may well operate upon my historical interpretation as those of Lyndon Johnson or Watergate did upon my elders.  How do we make wise use of personal experience without allowing the personal to overshadow or disfigure the analytical?  I am not sure there is one answer, but these are important questions to ponder deeply.

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