New Paper: “Engagement and Struggle: A Response to Stuart Henderson”

By Fred Burrill, Concordia University

“The monster they’ve engendered in me will return to torment its maker, from the grave, the pit, the profoundest pit. Hurl me into the next existence, the descent into hell won’t turn me. I’ll crawl back to dog his trail forever.” (George Jackson—Soledad Brother, Black Panther, movement martyr)

The importance of educating students about past radicalisms is undeniable. In presenting prior contexts of rebellion, historians on the left seek to provide new generations with a vocabulary of revolt, to impart a sense of the vital necessity of taking up the challenge of the traditions of resistance that have shaped our social and economic world. Another undeniability is that this is no easy task: as Stuart Henderson has amply demonstrated, patterns of disappointment and ironic detachment are woven tightly into the fabric of mass culture under capitalism. And yet, I am perturbed by the tone and conclusion of Professor Henderson’s recent article, “Disappointment, Nihilism, and Engagement.”

Henderson presents his musings as an attempt to expand on what, by his own avowal, was “knee-jerk professoring”; in a response to a concerned participant in his class he condemned the seeming apathy of his other students as a kind of moral failure to face up to the mounting challenges of global environmental decay, war, corporatization, etc. His longer piece, though, seems to me to be only a slightly more charitable articulation of this line of thought. In setting himself (and by extension other self-identified “active historians”) up as the impassioned and ethically enlightened authority figure, crusading against the passivity of a generation that would rather spend the reading week playing video games than at a protest, I want to submit that Henderson in fact bypasses what seem to me to be more interesting and fundamental questions. What constitutes engagement? Can conventional historical work (lecturing on the Sixties, for example) continue to be understood as a fulfillment of our responsibilities as left historians? Where should we be looking to find active history? READ MORE

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