Friday, August 29, 2008

Nothing Ever Means What It Says

Nothing Ever Means What It Says

The August 29, 2008 Inside Higher Education reports on what at first seems like a rather odd idea: that political science as an academic discipline, should no longer have a subfield focused on American political science:
The precise number of subfields within political science is itself the subject of debate. Most people would include American politics, comparative politics, political theory and international relations. Some would add methodologies or area studies or various other topics, but American politics always makes the list. Should it? What would new organizations for the field look like? While the discussion of this issue Thursday at a panel of the political science association’s annual meeting didn’t find a consensus, there was agreement that the current structure has real flaws.
Scholars who called for the abolition of American politics as a subfield were not arguing that scholars shouldn’t study American politics, which may have been reassuring to audience members, most of whom identified by a show of hands as Americanists. But they said that using the United States as an organizational structure, in isolation from the rest of the world, is producing flawed ideas.
What does "flawed ideas" mean? Now we're getting to the meat of the matter:
Mary Hawkesworth, a political scientist at Rutgers University, said that when the United States is studied in isolation, “certain things get masked.” The “notion of American exceptionalism,” she said, produces “a social amnesia.” For example, she said that that the violence and corruption of the American revolutionaries receives little emphasis, so when students are exposed to the violence of other revolutions, they see no connection to the American revolution and have little tolerance for those other revolutions. Similarly, she said that slavery is taught only as “an aberration in the United States rather than as part of a racist feudalism” imported from Europe.
American politics scholars, she said, largely embrace a view of their work as “non-ideological and moderate,” limiting the critique they may offer of American society. And the current organization of political science, she said, isn’t producing the kinds of understanding that the public needs. Where was political science in predicting the reunification of Germany or the rebound of Russia? she asked. A more global perspective might make the discipline more aware and useful, she said.
Now, if you aren't in the social science academic community, you may be wondering what "American exceptionalism" means. For a great many years, many historians and political scientists believed that there was something quite unusual about America. We were the first of the Western Hemisphere colonies to throw off connection to the Old World. We were, for a number of years, into the mid-20th century, a model to which revolutionaries around the world looked. We strongly influenced at least their rhetoric (such as the French Declaration of Human Rights, and Ho Chi Minh's 1945 declaration of independence from France), and often their governmental structures, such as the Constitutions of Mexico adopted in 1824 and 1857.

The belief in American exceptionalism, while the origins may have been at least partly driven by patriotism, had at least some factual basis. There have been more than a few non-Americans who have recognized that there was something quite remarkable about what happened here. But because it smelled of patriotism, and even worse, of a Providential view of history, simply wasn't acceptable to intellectuals from the 1960s onward.

There's another term that you will occasionally see: "American particularism." This is a watered-down version: the belief that while there isn't anything exceptional about the American experience, there might well be aspects to American history that are somewhat different, even if not necessarily better.

The left is in a rather difficult situation on this idea. On the one hand, they are big on the idea that the U.S. is an exceptionally evil place. As I mentioned earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution which claimed that American slavery "resembled no other form of involuntary servitude known in history." This is simply false. Indeed, it was quite similar to slavery throughout the Western Hemisphere, and had some strong similarities to Arab enslavement of European Christians and black Africans.

There were areas of slavery that are "particular" to America relative to the rest of the Western Hemisphere. Some of these differences were bad: compared to the West Indies, American slaves were generally a minority of the population, and their African cultures were pretty effectively stamped out. But to the discomfort of the left, American particularism also includes that some of these differences were good: the U.S. imported a tiny fraction of all the slaves brought to the Western Hemisphere--but working conditions were so much better here that the U.S. ended up today with one of the largest percentages of blacks.

As one example, American slaves were very, very seldom worked to death, unlike the West Indies, where this was common in the sugar cane business. (There were American slaves intentionally worked to death in the Louisiana sugar cane business, where the need to bring in the harvest took precedence over the economic value of a slave's life.) Another example is that in the West Indies in the 18th century, newborn slaves were often thrown into ditches to die; it was cheaper to buy a newly imported adult slave than to invest food in raising a newborn to adulthood.

So what else is driving this concern about "flawed ideas"?
Anne Norton of the University of Pennsylvania agreed that the American politics formulation should go.


She also criticized scholars of American politics for their failure to jump on key issues. In an era in which executive power has been abused to encourage torture and to deny civil liberties, too many professors in the field seem more likely to study some Congressional subcommittee, she said, using “extraordinarily small-scale, literature driven methodological studies.”
Oh, now we're getting to the real story. Political science is too focused on being an academic discipline, not enough on being a partisan force.

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