A conversation with Chauncey DeVega about guns, masculinity, and the white violent crime epidemic; Gerda Lerner’s life and death; and why I’m okay with skipping the AHA (again!)

Chauncey DeVega called me up a few weeks ago to talk about the Newtown murders, and in particular about the deep historical connection between white masculinity and firearms ownership.  We also talked about why Americans can have very different perceptions of physical safety, their own rights, and American history itself.  In any case, you can eavesdrop on our conversation: it’s available here at We Are Respectable Negroes and at the Daily Kos as well.  You can also access the interview here directly and either listen to it or download the mp3.  As you will hear, Chauncey is a very smart guy, and I struggled to keep up with him intellectually.  I had a great time, and will eagerly listen to all of the interviews he’s podcasting on his blog.

In other news:  Gerda Lerner, the pathbreaking women’s historian, died yesterday at age 92 (h/t to cgeye on the blog and Indyanna via a private e-mail for tipping me off.)  I for one am glad that her connection to Communism is right there on page 1 of her New York Times obituary–Betty Friedan might be rolling over in her grave about the prominent discussion of the CP, but can’t we be okay already with the truth of the historical connections between Communism and other mid-twentieth century Progressive movements like Civil Rights and feminism?  Like most people born in the 1960s, the Cold War shaped my childhood but I outgrew it, just like my big hair, my Duran Duran albums, and other relics of the 1980s, thank goodness.

Lerner wrote a fascinating and perceptive essay that I blogged about a few years back on the subject of aging and death–here’s a link.  What a fascinating life–she didn’t get her Ph.D. in history until she was in her mid-40s, after escaping Nazi Austria as a Jewish teenager, making her way to the U.S., marrying a fellow communist, moving to Hollywood, working as a political activist, enduring her husband’s blacklisting, and writing a novel.  Only then did she decide to become a historian, and to work to make women’s history a professionally sanctioned field.

As I write, it looks like Tenured Radical is probably (finally!) wrapping up her 8 p.m. Presidential plenary session tonight at the opening of the American Historical Association’s annual meeting on the topic of “The Public Practice of History in and For a Digital Age.”  Apparently Notorious Ph.D., Girl Scholar is there this year too, as is Jonathan Rees of More or Less Bunk, which almost makes me regret not being there.  But then, I have to confess that there are few musical genres I like less than Dixieland jazz.  (I also hate Klezmer music–it must be all of those damned wailing clarinets, a key irritation in both genres.  I’d rather wake up to the sounds of fighting alleycats.)  I used to live in a town that played jazz music overnight on the local NPR station, and when my alarm clock went off at 5 a.m.  in the dark it was almost invariably blaring Dixieland jazz, thus answering the question, “what’s worse than having to wake up at 5 a.m. in the dark?”


28 thoughts on “A conversation with Chauncey DeVega about guns, masculinity, and the white violent crime epidemic; Gerda Lerner’s life and death; and why I’m okay with skipping the AHA (again!)

  1. AQ friend had emailed me the news of Lerner’s death earlier today. I think the breadth of her experience before she went to grad school helped her ask new questions. I think many of the best historians, like Lerner, have some experience that gets them out of our comfortable professional ruts.

    Which was one theme of the session TR was on tonight at the AHA (that is, how do we break out of patterns of expectation and building boundaries around the guild to speak to wider publics? ). TR was smart and interesting, as was the rest of the panel. Insofar as the issues they were talking about relate to professional gatekeeping, though, I am skeptical of our ability to change. A great discussion though, of narrative and its importance. And that I do think we can get back to. We might even become more forgiving of experiments with form. We are a conservative lot, we historians…


  2. How kind. Struggled to keep up with lowly me? Please. You are the boss here, have forgotten more about this topic than most know, and I appreciate your taking the time to chat about such an important issue. It was great fun!


  3. Chauncey, you are far too modest.

    Susan–thanks for the report from on the ground! I’m sorry to be missing you in N.O., too.

    Historians are preternaturally and constitutionally conservative. We are always skeptical of change, if not outright hostile to it. This is true even of people like me (and Susan, and TR) who are progressive or leftist in our academic work and in our politics. On the one hand, I think it’s good for at least one department in a college or university to ask serious questions about the value or efficacy of policy or governance changes. On the other, it can feel like we’re trapped in a tiresome cliche.

    We are the discipline of NO, standing athwart our own discipline and screaming STOP. (Which is funny, because as Chauncey and I discussed, people like CD and me are not at all romantic about the past, and have zero interest in historical reenacting, etc.)


  4. I promise to raise a Hurricane-filled glass to you tonight as I relax in the Carousel Bar after a long day of AHA session…though it would be so much more fun if you were here in person.


  5. I wonder which units in the academy are not conservative by nature, if we use a non-political definition of the term. The Fine and Performing Arts, perhaps? Many of us do analysis for a living and the skeptical requirements of this activity seem to me to breed a type of conservatism.


  6. I think truffula is right, and I think it has to do in part with the hazing process of graduate training and the tenure process. It’s exacerbated for historians by our concern for the past, and by the discipline’s commitment to the book length monograph…


  7. I think that in the sciences, conservatism is a feature of methodology. We make our measurements many times, we repeat our experiments, we calculate errors and uncertainties. We are acutely aware that if our work is even the slightest bit interesting, it will be tested by others. We embrace change and innovation are excited for them but we are also cautious; we have a great desire, if we have been well trained, to not deceive ourselves. This desire is ancient, Ibn al-Haytham wrote it all down around the year 1000.

    Many years ago I taught a class about environmental change organized around the idea of revolution, starting with the Scottish Enlightenment. As I recall, I taught it that way twice before moving on to some other narrative arc for the class. I have read more widely in philosophy of science–and more history–since then and looking back, I see what a great class it could have been. It was okay but it could have been great. I challenged a few ways of thinking but I could have challenged more.


  8. Truffula, I would argue that there is a huge push in the sciences against conservatism. Everyone wants to be the person who shifts the paradigm. Funding agencies want transformative research, whatever that is (and how would you know it before it is done?) and there is a huge stigma against plodders. But the reality is that conservatism is intellectually easier, more feasible, and much safer in terms of getting pubs, funding, etc. and plodders can be highly productive.

    I had a class with Lerner as an undergrad in the 80s and it was amazing. Probably the best class I ever took ever (and I am no historian). Talk about transformative.


  9. I am unclear on what the problem is with minding the uncertainties and taking care in your work and why that would be called “plodding.”


  10. Are we historians also skeptical and cautious because we study the unintended and often bloody consequences of past enthusiasms? I know that my focus on Soviet history has made me deeply skeptical of any revolutionary promises (plus a really dark or warped sense of humor, a professional hazard for all Slavists).


  11. I think that’s right, Northern Barbarian–we know how things all turned out and where it all went wrong, usually because of a combination of poor planning and/or outright malice, in addition to unjustified enthusiasm.

    It seems to me that Anonymous and truffula are thinking about the two different kinds of conservativism, one of which is good and productive, and which is also the kind that Northern Barbarian writes about. Conservativism when it comes to thoroughness and caution is usually a good thing. But the kind of conservativism that Anonymous writes about is merely risk aversion and a fear of asking or attempting to answer new or different questions. (And as she points out, it’s a kind of conservativism that’s rewarded by the establishment and so might be difficult to resist.)


  12. I *love* klezmer music!!!! I also *love* the Carousel Bar!!!! When I’m in NO, I always stay at the Monteleone, for the Carousel Bar. Sadly, the breakfast buffet they used to have seems to be no more, as the Le Cafe restaurant has been replaced with something more upscale. They served the fucken best pork rillette patties in gravy on earth’!!!!!!!!!


  13. thinking about the two different kinds of conservativism

    Perhaps, perhaps. I’ve been at this game for a while, written some controversial papers*, served as a journal editor, served on proposal review panels for a range of federal agencies, participated in federal report writing, etc., etc. I have never come across bias against “plodders” and conservatism as used by Anonymous. If anything, I see a bias in the other direction–suspicion of high fliers–but even there, the suspicion centers on perceived problems with carefulness. This may reflect the discipline in which I work (earth sciences, broadly).

    * FWIW, I think the folks who gave me a hard time over those papers in review were doing what they were supposed to do. If the idea can’t stand up against critique, then it is not a very good idea (at least not yet). And how does an idea stand up against critique? Foundation in careful, plodding if you will, work. You make your case as carefully as you can, put it out there in the literature for scrutiny, and it either floats or sinks on the merits. I admit that this rosy scheme only works with good editors in place at journals and fair minded audiences but would argue that problems here are ideological in nature, not methodological.


  14. truffla, the course you taught about environmental change interrogated as revolution sounds fascinating and has my wheels spinning. If you don’t mind me asking, what were some the assigned readings?


  15. The reason why some people might think that connections with communism is a big deal is because communist governments like the USSR murdered millions of people. Saying that we should just get over the crimes of Stalin because the Cold War is over is extremely insensitive and shows a deep double standard. Nobody would ever say we should get over the crimes of Naziism because WWII is over.

    I dare say it is also racially motivated. One reason nobody would ever say we should get over the crimes of Naziism is because one of the chief victims of Nazi crimes were Jews targeted for genocide. People are well aware of this history and hence sensitive to the “assholism” to borrow from your post above of making light of this tragedy. On the other hand Stalin’s victims were politically incorrect peoples like the Volga Germans, Chechens, and Crimean Tatars. So the American left feels justified in being “assholes” when it comes to their suffering.

    There is a direct connection between communism and mass murder. There is in fact a direct connection between communism and racially motivated mass murder. So just as in the case of Naziism it is not something we should just get over and only remember the “good things” about. Linking communism to US civil rights without any mention of Stalin’s racially motivated ethnic cleansing is like linking Naziism to the struggle for Indian independence because Hitler supported Bose and the Indian National Army and making no mention of the Holocaust.


  16. Otto, once again, you miss the point entirely.

    I never said “we should just get over the crimes of Stalin,” etc. My post said that American leftists need to acknowledge that there were CP members in their midst, some of whom foolishly tried to deny the evil of Stalinism. Pretending that the CP wasn’t a part of the American left in the middle of the 20th century is what I’m against. But let’s not compare American Communists with people who were actually responsible for mass murder. Many American Communists were dumb if not dishonest, but it’s hardly a comparable crime.


  17. I do not think I missed the point at all. What would you say to an Indian writer who had nothing but praise for Naziism because of its link to their anti-colonial struggle? To portray communism as a good thing because the Soviet government and CPUSA condemned racism in the US against Blacks is not any different. The CPUSA was much more closely linked to the USSR under Stalin than the Indian National Army was to Nazi Germany. The CPUSA was part of an international movement directed from Moscow. Trying to portray this movement as only supporting things like civil rights and feminism in the US and totally ignoring its crimes in the USSR is obscene.


  18. Right. Because everyone who joined the CPUSA in the 1930s and 1940s is just as guilty as Stalin. Gerda Lerner is worse than Hitler.

    Making ridiculous and patently false equivalencies isn’t doing your cause any good.


  19. So Bose praising Hitler because he supported Indian independence is okay? And if not why not? How is it any different than the CPUSA’s slavish devotion to Stalinism even to the point of dropping their opposition to Naziism during 1939-1941 when the USSR was an ally of Nazi Germany? The show trials were not hidden. Many Americans such as Dewey even organized against them by helping Trotsky organize a counter trial in Mexico. But, the CPSU supported every action of the Stalin regime including the mass shootings of 1937-1938 which included a number of loyal Communists such as Bukharin. So, yes joining the CPUSA in the 1930s and 1940s and maintaining membership in it especially after the 1937-38 show trials and 23 August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was morally equivalent to being a member of the American Nazi Party.


  20. Gosh, I’m swimming in Otto’s festival of facticity. Just back from NOLA and getting ready for a write-up tomorrow, but have to rest now. The Thursday panel was a gas, as were the digital panels, as was hanging with Susan and meeting a lot of young bloggers. I felt at this AHA we were closer than we ever have been to a lot of very senior people being creative about what we need to change, reinforce and activate to expand the public for history in the 21st century. Will also listen to the interviews tomorrow: what an awesome pair you and Chauncey must be!


  21. Coming from a literary perspective, I think J. Otto needs to go reread Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man — one pretty good description both of why many groups (in this case, African Americans) found the CP appealing in the early-mid 20th century, and of how/why they eventually became disillusioned. Wright’s Native Son is another good example; it doesn’t get to the disillusionment part, but it isn’t too hard to read between the lines to see the problems as well as the attractions. I’m sure there are other (and better) examples.


  22. Pingback: Wrung out. | Historiann

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