Gertrude Himmelfarb and the Politics of Morality

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Respectively wife and sister of her fellow conservative essayists Irving Kristol and Milton Himmelfarb, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb is a political devotee of England's Victorian era who has argued for a return to tradition in social values as well as academic methodology.

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Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb celebrated her 88th birthday yesterday, August 8, while Congress took its first week of summer recess. In the months between now and November’s midterm elections, much will be made of liberal and conservative values, culture wars, and their derivate potential laws. We can safely anticipate advertisements of the basest ilk, making clear heroes and still clearer villains out of political adversaries. Political campaigns are rarely guilty of moral relativism in the battle for America’s voting souls, a quality that should please Himmelfarb.

Himmelfarb, Professor Emeritus at the CUNY Graduate Center, has made a career as a conservative historian, writing on the Victorian era in the United States. Himmelfarb has lauded the clarity of Victorian morality in the United States, and how that solidly self-aware and self-confident morality adroitly guided American politics of the era. According to Himmelfarb, Victorian moral clarity aided the era’s progressive institutions to counter the scourges of poverty and illiteracy, among others. In her writings, Himmelfarb has scolded academic historians for their sins of moral relativism, and further, as Oz Frankel notes, for “their refusal to identify heroes and villains in their writings.” According to Himmelfarb, this tendency toward moral relativism stems from the cultural wars and revolutions of the 1960s and the subsequent “de-moralization” of American society. In a world where “everything is relative,” there is apparently no clear moral imperative, no guiding compass for social progress, and the present era dooms the shiftless, amoral and doubtlessly promiscuous future.

And yet, when we examine the issues on the American political agenda, they are largely issues of moral imperative. Consider the broad categories of financial reform, environmental policy, health care, education, and foreign policy; for each one of these monumentally important discussions, the loudest campaigners will present sweepingly moral platforms. Statements like “healthcare is a right” or “healthcare is a privilege you pay for” are totally devoid of ambiguity, repeated as ideological mantras in the political sphere. What exactly is it that defines an “axis of evil” anyway?

Academics often write with subtlety and complexity, rendering overly simplistic social, political and historic currents into thoughtful studies and perhaps even useful recommendations. I would hope that amid the political slogans and strategies we will not avoid thought in the name of reductionist moral clarity when we go to the polls, a process in which our female Victorian predecessors were not allowed to participate.

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