05 February 2006

David Hackett Fisher Interviewed

Historian David Hackett Fisher is interviewed at The American Enterprise Online. Here are a few bits that struck my fancy.
TAE: Your religious background is Protestant and you end up teaching at Brandeis.

FISCHER: My parents were both Lutheran and I was confirmed in a Lutheran church. Then I married a Methodist and we encouraged our children in the Protestant spirit to find their own way. One became an Episcopalian and the other became a Unitarian and is now a Buddhist. I live in a town that’s predominantly Roman Catholic and I teach very comfortably in my 85th semester at Brandeis, which calls itself non-sectarian Jewish.

TAE: Did you have any expectations about Jewishness that were either confirmed or shattered upon coming to Brandeis?

FISCHER: I found a kind of excitement that I didn’t find anywhere else. There were other schools that I had offers from at the same time. One was an old New England school and the people who interviewed me there were interested in who my grandparents were and where I got my sportcoats. I had another offer from a Big Ten school. They wanted to know if I could teach the General Survey course. I said, “How big is the class?” They said it’s usually about 500 students. And then I went to a very good Southern school and they said, “We normally have gatherings to talk about subjects of current concern. Do you want to come over and join us?” I said I would be delighted. What’s the subject? “Capital punishment.” So I went over, rehearsing my arguments against capital punishment—and the discussion was about methods of execution....

TAE: Judging from the books my daughter brings home from elementary school, kids today are learning that the Revolutionary and Civil Wars were fought primarily by runaway slaves and girls who dressed as boys in order to carry a gun. Is this didacticism more of a problem now in elementary grades and high school than in the university?

FISCHER: There are lags. Whatever was in fashion in the universities remains in fashion in other places a little bit longer. But what’s really interesting is to see how military history is rapidly expanding. I was down at the annual conference of the Society for Military History in Charleston last year, and their morale has never been higher. They have a sense that history is with them. And the morale amongst the social and cultural historians has never been lower: they think that history is against them. About ten or 15 years ago it was quite the other way. And I think that’s a straw in the wind. I’m very bullish about the way things are going. Each lunacy we go through holds open the possibility of a revisionist movement that is rational, mature, and thoughtful, and that’s what we need. These are exciting times for a historian....

TAE: The word “liberty,” a rhetorical cornerstone of the Democratic Party throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, pretty much disappeared during the New Deal, and has seldom been on Democrat lips since. Is this a mistake?

FISCHER: Absolutely. The worst mistake that Kerry and Gore made was that the value of liberty was rarely mentioned. This was another instance of a party losing touch with the core values of society. The results when parties do that are always the same: they lose elections. I’m a card-carrying Independent. I really hope that the Democrats can reconstruct these great American values in a way that will give them new meaning and give them something other to do than complain about the Republicans.

TAE: Have you ever voted for a Republican for President?

FISCHER: I’ve never voted for a Republican for President in a general election, but I voted in the Republican primary for John McCain, who is my ideal of a strong centrist leader.
I'm not quite so keen on McCain, but I did vote for John Anderson when I couldn't bring myself to vote for either Carter or Reagan in 1980. I even collected signatures to get him on the ballot in a solidly Democratic state. I'd do it again if there were a strong centrist third-party candidate.

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