If you missed the 1995 CUNY “Question of Identity” conference, the issue of October magazine devoted to it, the “remarkable” essay on the same subject in Diacritics or–even worse–you are unaware you have missed these, don’t despair. Help is on the way. Eric Lott, who teaches English and American studies at the University of Virginia, will bring you up to speed. His book The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual is to stay-at-home tenured radicals what the television remote is to couch potatoes. Without parking hassles or library bottlenecks, you get the latest on unforgettable conferences and pathbreaking journal articles. Did you know, for instance, that Gene Wise’s “famous” essay “Paradigm Dramas in American Studies” was “intriguingly revised” in Pease and Wiegman’s anthology The Future of American Studies? No? For only twenty-six bucks, you can find out about this and more.
To be sure, Lott seeks more than to guide would-be tenured radicals; he has a mission and an animus. He wants to carve out a space for radicals to the left of detestable “boomer liberals,” who have seized the limelight and distorted politics. They constitute “one of the chief obstacles” to a revitalized politics. In fact, Lott’s title misleads, and either of his earlier working titles, Boomer Liberalism or The Lost Intellectuals, might have been more accurate. These boomers are the opposite of “disappearing” liberals. They are omnipresent. Who are they? Lott names “a few of the most celebrated of these thinkers”: Todd Gitlin, Michael Lind, Joe Klein, Martha Nussbaum, Paul Berman, Stanley Crouch, Greil Marcus, Sean Wilentz and Henry Louis Gates Jr.
For Lott this “new liberal front” oozes with a “piecemeal, reformist self-satisfaction.” The new reformers represent a “bone headed degeneration of the radical spirit.” They have “created the political fog that obscured the left from view” and buried the “liberal alternative to hawkish conservatism.” These liberals pander to state power and American nationalism. They yearn for the “old-boys’ left” that was largely white and that claimed to be universal. Their work is “anti-corporate” rather than anticapitalist. (Disclosure alert: Along with Mark Crispin Miller and Thomas Frank, I am listed as suffering from this particular ailment.) They turn politics into adjuncts of the John Kerry presidential bid. They are a “secret sharer of neoconservative ideology,” and they legitimate the Bush White House and its politics. They constitute an intellectual and political “disaster.”
Lott, on the other hand, writes from a “radical egalitarian perspective” that celebrates “upsurge from below.” Instead of liberal wishy-washiness about class and economic inequality, he squarely calls for a “full engagement with working-class hopes” that “necessarily involves a long march through the history of African-American liberation movements, radical women’s uprisings, and other insurrectionary energies.” The boomer liberals do not understand how “successful activist movements” of “blacks, Latinos, women, queers, and others have transformed” politics. With a self-professed “irony” and polemical zeal, Lott blasts old New Leftists in order to invigorate a new radical politics.
In an era of pallid Democrats and furtive leftists, Lott comes out shouting his revolutionary loyalties. He marches with real working people. So far, so good. Unfortunately, he marches only from the podium to the speaker’s table. Sometimes he gets to the library or logs on to hiptheory.com to check out what Etienne Balibar, a French post-Marxist, has written. His radical commitments amount to promoting leftist colleagues in American studies departments and a few European Marxists. Moreover, he wildly inflates the impact of the “liberal front” he is supposedly challenging. With Lott as your guide, you’d think Todd Gitlin and Paul Berman sabotaged the left and ushered in Bush. Were it so simple.