Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought
by James W. Ceaser '67
Yale University Press
T hese things having been done, Caesar pitched camp," is the line that, through repetition, sticks with a lot of tenth-grade Latinists. But he was always off the next day to "pacify" (i.e., knock off) some other Gallic tribe (my favorite was the Nervii). The comparison with the distinguished American political scientist James W. Ceaser '67, while perhaps as strained as the two spellings of the name suggest, isn't entirely whimsical either. Not long after leaving Kenyon, where he earned his bachelor's degree and some faculty paychecks, he became known as a leading expert on American presidential selection. While his work was always distinguishable from other experts by the philosophic depth with which he came to grips with the classic and contemporary questions raised by the institution, his grounding in the rocky soil of American politics was firm, deep and unquestionable. In the 1980s, however, Ceaser broke camp and began to take on the regnant orthodoxies of American political, and perforce social, science. The full statement of his position came in 1990 in a book that is by right a classic of the discipline, Liberal Democracy and Political Science. There he lucidly demonstrated the superiority of a traditional political science, which had also informed the American Founding, to the behaviorist, rational-choice, or "progressive" versions of contemporary political science. In short, he showed that the failure to take seriously the priority of the issue of regime maintenance in policy debate both vitiated, and accounted for, the pretensions of contemporary political science.
Now Ceaser has broken camp again, this time to go after some nervy Gauls and some galling Germans. The book announces itself, although through praeteritio, as a polemic: "a simple call to arms. It is time to take America back." That he is willing to take the risk of sounding like the kind of demagogue who awakens intense loathing precisely in Ceaser's potential audience is an indication of what his real undertaking is. For the America we are to take back isn't the country but the idea of the country, America as it is lived, as opposed to the America invented, for their own fell purposes, by a long line of European intellectuals and philosophers. Taking America back thus means, in part, learning to overcome the conditioned quasi-instinct of self-contempt that expresses itself in nausea whenever any naively patriotic note is sounded.
As appropriate for a polemic, for the most part Ceaser engages in destructive critique. To me at least, the book should be read together with Liberal Democracy and Political Science to achieve its full persuasive effect, since it is there that the positive case for the understanding on which our country is founded appears most powerfully. Still, Alexander Hamilton, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Leo Strauss appear periodically to offer thoughtful and qualified support for America as it is against the wholesale condemnation of its fantasizers and accusers. These, it turns out, are a varied lot and of lengthy pedigree. Starting with the unfortunately named but illustrious Count Buffon, who thought that plants, animals, and, of course, humans tended to dwindle in size and generally degenerate in the New World, moving on to the racist Arthur de Gobineau, who saw in America the leveling of the human species, thence to the German conservatives such as Oswald Spengler who saw in America the nadir of the decline of the West, coming eventually to Martin Heidegger, for whom America meant technology and hence the dread curse of the forgetfulness of Being, and to Alexandre Kojève, for whom America meant the end of History and thus animality, and arriving finally (though not breathlessly) at their contemporary French disciples such as Jean Baudrillard, whose ostensible enthusiasm for the meaninglessness of American life amounts to the same old contempt, only beribboned and accompanied by a Hallmark greeting card, Ceaser gives us the grand historical tour of the use of America for what the psychotherapists call "projection." And he does it superbly. To say he writes like a dream would be both slovenly and inaccurate. Actually, some of the authors he goes after really do write like dreams--the semi-free associations of etymology and pun becoming ever more opaquely significant, until they culminate in some startling assertion--but Ceaser writes like being very, very awake, just this side of being possesssed by a case of coffee nerves. His characterizations are always clear, the course of the debate always well in control, and his punchlines funny rather than mean.
Part of the boldness of Ceaser's project is the assertion of a continuity among the figures he treats. Sure, all of them talk about America without knowing it much and mean it as a symbol for domestic consumption. But in terms of the menace they represent (and Ceaser is very clear about his view that even the charming Baudrillard, when properly understood, shares the "anti-Western fundamentalism" that led Heidegger to put his bet on the Nazis), can one really put today's playful deconstructionists in the same tradition as the founders of racism or the apologists of the Third Reich? While Ceaser shows that Buffon's scientific reductionism (which he criticizes Thomas Jefferson for accepting as a standard while refuting Buffon on the facts) is itself a threat to a good society, I think the real continuity he demonstrates starts with Joseph de Maistre, the reactionary hater of both the French and American revolutions. From then on, America represents, to these great and semi-great minds (and to their American acolytes) the increasingly likely fate of Europe and the whole world, namely art, philosophy, culture, and tradition being smothered in an avalanche of cheeseburgers.
Ceaser is surely right to protest bitterly against the reduction of America to such a caricature of consumerism. Moreover, I think he is right as well to point to the American tradition of political thought as it expresses itself both theoretically and practically in our regime, not only as a mark of our relative success and superiority but also as that which, had Europe understood and taken it seriously (as did that great exception Tocqueville), might have saved both European theory and practice from the mad excesses and disasters that make up so much of twentieth-century history. But the real problem Ceaser faces in the very fact of writing this polemic, of seeking to liberate Americans from European prejudices about America, is that the American tradition Ceaser defends is rapidly getting lost in America as well. Thus, he seeks to make us love what has become strange to us by enlisting on its side the prejudice of our self-love--loving it as our own.
This is where I begin to wonder a bit. Isn't the embrace by so many educated Americans, who ought to know better, of a European projection and caricature of their own country a sign of a real change, possibly even a transformation, in the direction of the caricature (whose opposite pole, the dangerously simple-minded political idealism of Europe, is only its negation, the ground to its figure)? Does the sobriety and moderation the founders exemplify still find an intuitive response among educated Americans? How much does Ceaser think he is merely reminding, and how much, under the convention of reminding, does he think he is educating afresh? And, if the latter, do we need to do more than take back, or (to be politically impartial and thus cite George McGovern) to "come home," America? In asking this, I am aware, first, that to ask it may merely mean that American both in the caricature and reality, so we might as well go with it; and third, that whatever the answer may be, in this book, and in the whole of his campaigns, Ceaser has made the best possible case for (and test of) his thesis. In so doing, he has performed a considerable service both for the scholarly debate and his country.
--Fred Baumann, professor of political science
Liberating the Family? Gender and British Slave Emancipation in the Rural Western Cape, South Africa, 1823-1853
by Pamela F. Scully
I n the history of any society that once sanctioned slavery, the moment of general emancipation is understood to be transformative. Emancipation came to the Cape on December 1, 1838. In this examination of some of the implications of that moment, Assistant Professor of History Pamela F. Scully introduces us to a world of contradictory presumptions, clashing ambitions, shifting moralities, and struggles for identity. Emancipation shook an arena defined by complicated racial hierarchies, rival ecclesiastical structures, competing conceptions of lawfulness, contention over the line of demarcation between the public and the private, and an almost constant tugging between the metropole and the colony. It takes a fine historian to find her way through these complexities. Scully fulfills the assignment splendidly.
Scully's primary category of analysis is gender. To say this is not to suggest that she sees gender alone as determinative in the affairs she discusses or that she finds gender implications in every event she examines. It is rather to underline her belief that, by highlighting the importance of gender in the lives of her subjects, she will nudge her readers toward a reconsideration of their received views about this moment in South African history. Thus, if it may be said that the book is harmonically rich, gender remains the pedal point.
I fear that so far I may have made the book sound forbiddingly abstract. To correct that impression, it's worth taking a paragraph to show how Scully uses concrete tales from specific lives to develop her analyses. In 1848, Dorothea Gideon, a former slave, admitted to killing her newborn baby. This sounds simple enough, a tragic story of the sort historians are always running across. But Scully guides us through a multi-layered interrogation of the tale. Is it important that Gideon lived on a mission station but killed the baby elsewhere? Is it important that Khoi and San societies in the Northern Cape condoned the killing of babies as a way of spacing children? Is it important that, had she become a mother, Gideon might have lost her job? Is it important that settler society was trying to get freed people to adopt European gender standards? Is it important that Cape juries tended to deal sympathetically with women who had killed their babies? Is it important that freed men and freed women experienced post-emancipation liberty in different ways? Is it important that our only information about the infanticide comes from colonial records? Finally, is it important that she said--almost her sole words of explanation--"My husband is the cause of all this . . . ."? Scully doesn't pretend to have all the answers. But the important point is that, through her inquiries, the tragic tale becomes a rough map for an entire cultural landscape.
Scully divides her treatment into three parts. The first deals with pre-emancipation society, the second with the conditions of the family after emancipation, the third with the shaping of colonial identities in emancipated society. The eight chapters are semi-independent essays, treating such topics as the legislation of amelioration, the role of apprenticeship, patterns of labor among freed people, different constructions of marriage, and the centrality of sexual violence both before and after emancipation. Along the way, Scully touches on the roles of class, age, education, medical knowledge, language, geography, and sites of domicile. She writes with crispness and clarity, and although she refuses to push evidence beyond reasonable bounds, she is not chary of suggesting conclusions. The reader will have noted, for example, that the title of her book contains a question mark: perhaps the transformation wasn't entirely transformative.
I should have noted up front that I am not a student of African history. And so I can't pretend to weigh this book against others in the historiographical firmament of African studies. But the standards I invoke are still germane. The study has a rich evidentiary base, featuring Cape government correspondence, British government dispatches, newspaper clippings, court documents, tax registers, church records, diaries, and deeds, among other categories of sources. The questions Scully asks of this body of evidence are sensible, reflective of both the curiosity of the general reader and the interests of late-twentieth-century historians; they are guided, moreover, by an inquiring and disciplined imagination. The conclusions she draws are modestly couched, for Scully is respectful of the limitations imposed on her by the character of her evidence, by the resistance of all human lives to clean delineation, and by the ineffable foreignness of a long-departed world. This, in turn, means that she is respectful of the intelligence of her readers. That's a quality we should look for in any scholarly work and a quality that makes this exploration of the moment of emancipation in South African society so engaging and stimulating.
--Reed Browning, professor of history
Do you have feedback on this page?