The passing of intellectual giants inevitably prompts a collective stocktaking of their influence and importance – but such assessments also act as occasions to weaponize them in the service of current culture wars, especially by the right-wing. Such conservative appropriations serve to obfuscate rather than illuminate the real significance of the person’s work. When the philosopher Jacques Derrida passed in 2004, the New York Times published an obituary that characterized him as an “abstruse theorist” and mischaracterized Derrida’s signature intellectual contribution – the interpretive method known as “deconstruction” – as asserting that “all writing was full of confusion and contradiction,” an assessment that, as a group of academics including Derrida’s foremost interlocutor Gayatri Chakrovarty Spivak noted in a written response, was “as mean-spirited as it [was] uninformed."
The same pattern is now repeating itself following the death of the historian Bernard Bailyn on August 7, 2020 – this time as genuine farce. Now, the giant is being valorized rather than derided, but the basic tactic is the same: to capitalize on the death of an intellectual celebrity to attack critical approaches in his field. A Harvard professor, Bailyn was a giant in the study of early American history: the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and the National Humanities Medal (among many well-deserved economiums), his work – and especially his 1967 book, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution – reshaped the study of the American Revolution by pointing to the significance of the revolutionaries’ rhetoric and ideas, not simply their economic self-interest, as foundational to their political mobilization against the British empire. Bailyn also played a signature role in broadening the geographical definitions of “early America” to encompass the entire “Atlantic world,” including the Caribbean, and West Africa, spending much of the latter part of his career helping to replace the path-dependence of proto-nationalist approaches to the American past with what he described as one that emphasized a vision of “early American” history as “not the aggregate of several national histories, but something shared by and encompassing them all.”
For cultural conservatives, however, Bailyn’s utility lies not within the towering scholarly legacy he leaves behind – comprising over 20 books which he wrote or edited, a plethora of influential articles, and a flock of former graduate students who have become leading historians, teachers, and mentors in their own right. Instead, the Right wants to weaponize a caricatured Bailyn-as-culture warrior so they can expel him as cannon fodder in their long standing war on higher education and academic freedom. The current skirmish sees them invoke Bailyn as a counterexample to current scholarly approaches that emphasize the importance of the enslavement and exploitation of African and African-descendent peoples to the making of the United States, and which have recently been popularized through the New York Times’ 1619 Project. Writing for the National Review, Richard Brookheiser lionized Bailyn and other historians of his generation, notably Edmund Morgan and Douglas Adair, as heroes who “kept” the “quadrant” of the American founding “safe from the storms of theory that battered the other humanities in the Seventies and later.” According to David Boaz of the Cato Institute, Bailyn’s accomplishment was to demonstrate the consistency of the American founders with the think tank’s mission by showing that they held a “deeply libertarian view of the world.” And Craig Bruce Smith at The Spectator has called for historians to “finish” Bailyn’s “historical revolution” by rejecting “neo-Marxist revisionism” and “activist history” in favor of the “scholarly objectivity” the late historian purportedly expounded.
This opportunistic caricaturing of a leading historian’s vast and complex body of scholarship aligns perfectly with the reactionary effort to cancel critically engaged understandings of the American past, but poorly with Bailyn’s own far more nuanced vision of historical practice.