Epistemological Impossibilities

Critically Rethinking Cold War Social Science

The historian Audra J. Wolfe has a very good article on the ongoing historiographic controversy around the terms Cold War science or Cold War social science. The controversy is over whether Cold War social science is a useful historical category. She concludes that it is. Wolfe says that political leaders “granted” science and social science “nearly superhuman” powers during the Cold War, which differentiates this intellectual agglomeration from earlier (or later) ones like, say, Renaissance science. Other historians, however, have argued that for a variety of reasons it is not a useful term. I believe Cold War social science is a useful term but for different reasons.

Dirty Wars, Nasty Reviews (post 2 of 2)

In the previous post, I discussed the film Dirty Wars and a response to it in the context of my own dissertation research on counterinsurgency and police assistance. In the mailbox when I got home from seeing that film was the new issue (June 2013) of the American Historical Review, which contains a review of the recent book Modernizing Repression by Jeremy Kuzmarov.

Dirty Wars, Nasty Reviews (post 1 of 2)

The other night two things happened. I’ll save part two [updated] for the next blog post. First, I saw Dirty Wars, the documentary that follows Jeremy Scahill’s investigative reporting into the once highly secret Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). The film was actually much better than I had expected, and I would highly recommend it.

Pouring Cooking Oil on the Road, or the Great Traffic Accident of US History

It can be difficult to read about terrorism if your goal is actually learning something. If ever there was a use for the word “pleonasm,” it’s the aftermath of a terrorist attack. In this post, I will talk a little bit about what the aftermath of the Boston bombings tell us about what we choose not to know, with the main point of showing how the jokes about terrorists’ harebrained schemes (also here and here) might become less funny if only we were less ignorant about the history of US empire.

"Anti-Klan (Part 1)": The FBI, the Police, and the KKK

The historical question of the role of FBI informants in destroying radical Left movements and organizations in the 1960s and 1970s has been raised anew by Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives. By radicals, the use of informants is felt to be particularly pernicious insofar as informants not only abuse the very trust that is essential to building social movements but they weaponize that trust itself to undermine movements. What's more, although informants are defended by the security apparatus as essential and essentially neutral tools in the capturing of bad guys, no one believes they are neutral (or, put more clinically, as sociologist Gary T. Marx does, their mandates are not always clear.) Instead, they frequently direct movements toward illegal, or more illegal, activities in order to build cases for prosecutions. I return to this topic not because informants interest me per se but because they are one symptom of a broader complex that is the relationship of the state and social movements and the state and racism. Where I am going with this is actually a relatively narrow question of the relationship of right-wing extra-legal violence and the police, which I pose by looking at the FBI during COINTELPRO’s spying on white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. But first let me take a wide berth.

Gun Violence in the United States: Reverberations of Empire

I don’t know much about guns. Nor do I, an otherwise inherently inquisitive type, want to know that much. Playing with GI Joe figures as a white boy in the suburbs in the 1980s was enough, thank you very much. What I do know something about, however, is the boomerang effects of colonial forms of rule: how techniques of power deployed in far-off lands by imperial rulers tend to be repatriated for domestic use. Hannah Arendt advocated a version of this thesis in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1950). For her, the roots of the Nazi Holocaust sit with the Boers in South Africa. Michel Foucault in Society Must Be Defended, a collection of 1975-1976 lectures, refers to the “considerable boomerang effect”

Advice for Graduate Students Embarking on Archival Research

After visits to over a dozen archives in pre-dissertation and actual dissertation research, I thought it might be useful to reflect on my experiences and render some practical how-to advice.* All of what I say is inherently provisional, as I have yet to produce the end product (the dissertation) that would prove my advice sound. And all of what I say relates to my own experience and is not necessarily transferable to other people or places. In particular, a few idiosyncrasies: 1) I drink coffee in the morning and I am vegetarian; 2) my research has been at archives in the United States, mostly in suburbs or college towns; 3) my project is not based on a single archive but rather requires the construction of an archive of sorts. Let me explain further why these points matter.

Two New Publications

Two articles of mine have come out in the past few days. 

Lyndon Johnson's Tuesday Lunch, Hold the Counterinsurgency

Derek Gregory has a very interesting post on the precedents and lineages of today’s drone executions, which I suggest you read before this piece. I am thinking about this stuff this week in preparation for my presentation at the Social Science History Association annual meeting. Recent reporting has detailed how President Obama personally approves each overseas drone attack even though a wide range of intelligence and defense officials participate in the assessment of threats and identification of targets. Even critics of President Obama’s use of drones for “targeted” assassinations across the globe are likely to see something defensible, if not admirable, in his hands-on approach, whereby he reviews the evidence and orders the killing. Still, supposedly novel in this approach is the “decentralization of targeted killings across the globe and the simultaneous centralization of state power in the executive branch of government.” Through a discussion of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Tuesday Lunch” meetings, Gregory rightly points out that this decentralization-centralization double-movement is not as new as it seems.

Richard Aoki: Are We Missing the Main Story?

Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives: The FBI's War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power generated a great deal of controversy immediately upon publication a couple weeks ago (see, Chronicle of Higher Ed, the American Historical Association’s blog, activist Fred Ho in SF Bay View, and historian Scott Kurashige). The chief complaint is over Rosenfeld’s characterization of Richard Aoki, a key mentor to and member of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, as an FBI informant. Several historians, commentators, activists, and former Panthers argue that this claim is exaggerated, misleading, or false. Although this argument is important and welcome, it misses two issues that I wish to highlight, one smaller and one great.

© 2014 Stuart Schrader