Jackson Lears: Historian talks anti-imperialism

Historians in the News

The first American anti-imperialists came far before the Bush administration entered Iraq.

Cultural historian Jackson Lears explained the importance of America's anti-imperialist tradition Thursday night at the Silver Center in a lecture titled "The Anti-Imperial Tradition," sponsored by Steinhardt's Department of Culture and Communication Studies.

Lears is this year's visiting scholar for the Phyllis and Gerald LeBoff Distinguished Visiting Scholar Program, which brings "the world's most prominent scholars, writers and creative thinkers" to Steinhardt, according to the department's website.

He spoke about America's long tradition of anti-imperialist thought and about the relevance of this mind-set to contemporary foreign policy. He called for the creation of a a "useable past" that would create a solid doctrine of anti-imperialism.

"It may be invented," said Lears, who teaches a Steinhardt seminar called "Fictions of Modernity." "But it would emphasize restraint, war as the last option and concrete, particular thought as opposed to sweeping, abstract universalisms."

He spoke for about an hour, locking eyes with various people in the audience while criticizing "neo-conservative pundits and apologists for empire," like New York Times columnist David Brooks. He talked effusively of writers like William James and Mark Twain, noting their conception of pluralism, which Lears defined as "a passionate belief in the possibility of multiple explanations."

And, of course, he talked about Iraq. He contrasted the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld triumvirate to the individuals who were in power during the war in Vietnam and World War II. He accused Cheney and Rumsfeld of using their venture in Iraq to make up for losses in Vietnam. He scoffed at the current administration's rhetoric of self-defense and "sanctified mission."

Although the audience was small, composed of about 25 people, the applause was generous.

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