Thursday, June 24, 2010

Fun with LexisNexis -- searching historians

Suburban Warriors is one of my favorite books on the history of post-1945 American conservatism. It's author, Lisa McGirr, does a fantastic job disentangling the strands of thought and lived experiences that shaped the worldview of Orange County conservatives as they rose to prominence within the national GOP. This approach, which I've tried to mirror in my own academic work on the similarly-conservative American Legion, breaks with the "paranoid style" model of McCarthy-era scholarship best championed by historian Richard Hofstadter. So Suburban Warriors would be a good jumping-off point for anyone writing about the Tea Party movement.

So I plugged "Lisa McGirr" into a LexisNexis news search. Four measly hits came back. And it's not like McGirr is hard to find for a quote -- she's on the Harvard faculty. Hofstadter returned over 300 hits from the last five years. Off the top of my head I can remember three different New York Times editorial writers who have raised his name. Which is fine and good -- his work is brilliant. But it's been out of favor for at least 15 years now among historians, and new work is much more useful to understanding what's going on in the Right today.

I don't mean to pick on McGirr, or particular journalists and columnists. The same exercise could be done for any number of historians on any number of issues with similar results (searching Mae Ngai and illegal immigration, for instance, returned a similarly paltry hit total). Certainly the laziness of some journalists has a role to play here, as does the poor job scholars generally do in getting their work exposed to wider audiences. But historians within the academe as a group are coming very close to disengaging with the general public altogether. While it is intellectually uncomfortable for almost all historians to analogize the present with the past, most people are perfectly willing to do so. There seems to be a limitless supply of historical antecedents for the Tea Party for writers to reference, without fear of correction of people who know a thing or two about the politics of the past. Historians don't need to be cops walking an intellectual beat, but they can be more aggressive about joining the conversation. Those conversations right now take place all too often among ourselves.

The extreme pressures on the academic job market are only making this disengagement problem worse. Young scholars write books not for a broadly-conceived audience but for a hiring committee, who will respond best to writing that engages the existing scholarly literature and carves out its own niche within it. This kind of enterprise was not the reason I went to grad school, and partially explains why it took me longer than it should have to finish my dissertation. Most historians create work for each other and for themselves. We can and should be more useful than that -- especially since most of us who have PhDs will find ourselves on the outside of the ivory tower looking in, just like everyone else.

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