Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Best Man? Ideology and the Miss President of the United States Pageant

Recently a ballot appeared on one of the Linkedin history discussion sites asking subscribers, historians and those interested in history one presumes, who they thought the "best" American president ever was. In this history version of Miss America and Miss American Congeniality Pageant subscribers are asked to chose whether they thought FDR, Woodrow Wilson, or Abraham Lincoln, or two others, were the "best" president of the United States ever?

There is, of course, a fundamental problem with asking a question about the presidents of the United States in this way. The notion "best" is ideological not empirical. It is grounded in notions of cultural "value", much like ideas of beauty and truth, of notions of good and bad, best and worse, not in notions of theoretical or empirical significance. As such what people value in their choices of who they think the "best" president of the US was tells us as much about the cultural contexts and ideological ways of seeing of those making these choices and what they value ideologically as they do about the person they consider to be the "best" president America ever had.

It is this confusion of value with significance that I think is one of the fundamental problems with so much historical analysis. History, with its aversion to theory and reflexivity, tends to confuse cultural and ideological speculation with empirical analysis and empirical significance. I would argue that judgements about American presidents should be based not on notions of value, of notions of "best" but rather on notions of significance. LBJ, for instance, is, to me, one of the most significant of twentieth century American presidents because of his impact on legislation and the impact of his legislation on America's political, economic, cultural, and environmental landscapes from 1964 to today. Needless to say LBJ isn't even on the Linkedin ballot of who was America's "best" president. Blame it on Vietnam?

So how have those who asked and have answered this question about who is America's "best" president defended this question and their answers to it when pushed to do so? Largely by recourse to fetishisation, festishisation of values and fetishisation of grammar. For the defenders of the history is value faith the term "best" is a valid approach to the analysis of the American presidency because the term, though "subjective", is a "superlative" and as such is an aspect of normative English grammar.

It is, of course, this fetishisation of values and grammars and the ideology inherent in these notions that is one of the problems with this type of "historical analysis". Notions of value, of what is best versus what is worse, of what is beautiful versus what is ugly, vary, as an immense amount of empirical evidence has long shown, across time and space. So unless one can produce a wild child who has never experienced the "joys" of language, a language which is inherently cultural and ideological, and grammar, which, as part of language is cultural and ideological, and who can telepathically "orate" on the universal nature of "best", "truth", "beauty", and "the American way" we have to admit that what we value is, empirically speaking, cultural, intersubjective, and ideological. That so many historians don't recognise this can perhaps be chalked up to the discipline's general aversion to reflexivity and theory and its focus on trees rather than the forest that the trees are a part of. Such aversions and such obsessions, however, do not excuse the tendency of such "historians" to ignore the criticisms aimed at the it is alright to ask value laden questions faith. Believing, like faith in general, never gets us anywhere near the neighbourhood of empirical understanding.

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