In his 2014 commencement speech at Harvard University, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made national headlines by checking the alleged political bias of the very institution he was speaking at.
“It is just a modern form of McCarthyism,” Bloomberg, a Harvard Business School grad himself, told the crowd. “Think about the irony: In the 1950s, the right wing was attempting to repress left-wing ideas. Today, on many college campuses, it is liberals trying to repress conservative ideas … And that is probably nowhere more true than it is here in the Ivy League.”
It’s a view as commonly held by mainstream-acceptable anti-Trump righties like Bloomberg as it is by flame-fanning neo-Nazis: namely, the academy has little to no love for the right. The topic of whether and to what degree campuses swing southpaw has been the subject of endless debate and several studies—the most extensive of the latter show there are indeed more lefty profs, though the researchers behind that particular paper argue, “just because most professors are liberal doesn’t mean the average student is being force-fed liberal ideology.” Until recently, however, there hasn’t been much noise about conspiracies in the library stacks.
On Monday, Oct 17, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard College will host a panel titled “Righting the Record: Conservatism and the Archives.” Though news of the event has hardly spurred the sort of vicious flamewars common in contemporary dialogue these days, the announcement nevertheless bothered some by claiming “the collections of major public repositories, especially those housed at universities, tend to document only one side of this complicated history: the left side.” The panel is being organized by the respected Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America and includes a moderator from the New York Times and historians in addition to partisan panelists (one of whom is from the Heritage Foundation). Despite that air of credibility, some claim next week’s spectacle is an unnecessary gesture.
“It’s a fraud,” said Chip Berlet, an author, expert on American political movements, and former senior analyst at the Somerville-based Political Research Associates. Berlet, who has written for DigBoston in the past, continued, “None of the premise of this event is true. It’s a staged event to whine about how liberals don’t take the right wing seriously. They’re wringing their hands about how liberal academics don’t treat them properly.”
In an email he originated that has been widely circulated between academics and librarians over the past several weeks, Berlet addressed what he pegs as “the lack of knowledge about archival collection of materials from right-wing individuals, organizations, and the many social and political movements on the US political Right.” Among the resources noted in the letter:
- “Tufts University Archive has a major collection on right-wing movements primarily consisting of documents from right-wing groups. It is built around the collection of the now-defunct Institute for First Amendment Studies which was based in Western Massachusetts.”
- “In Providence, Rhode Island there is a major collection at Brown University, with perhaps the largest collection of materials from the John Birch Society, founded in Massachusetts. The Birch Society pioneered many of the tropes, memes, and conspiracy theories circulated by such right-wing figures as Donald Trump and Glenn Beck.”
- “Perhaps the largest and oldest collection of right-wing archival materials is housed at the Wisconsin Historical Society on the campus of the University of Wisconsin. For decades the collection of periodicals was managed by James Danky, who has produced archival finding aids for Harvard University.”
Reached for comment, Danky told DigBoston that he shares some of the same reservations held by Berlet regarding “Righting the Record.” “A constant critique of the academy is [that] we don’t have enough conservative views,” said Danky, “and I wouldn’t want this discussion at Radcliffe to turn on that trope.” At the same time, the Wisconsin-based archivist argues that it’s valuable to have such conversations, just so long as people don’t get bogged down in left and right labeling.
“I think the conference’s specific aim—to put [the archives of conservative pro-life group] Americans United for Life next to [the archives of the liberal pro-choice group] NARAL is a great idea, but the general suggestion that archives have failed to document the right seems overstated.” Danky continued, “I think most people, academics included, would have difficulty identifying, even naming organized conservative groups over the last century. In many cases we can no longer understand what issues were at stake and how the participants sought to change them … The challenge for scholars is to help us understand the particulars without homogenizing it to the point that we have lost its historical salience.”
In response to criticisms of the upcoming event, Harvard history professor Jane Kamensky, the Pforzheimer Foundation director of the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, wrote to DigBoston, “It is of course correct that conservatism isn’t undocumented. Yet it remains under-documented relative to progressive social movements. The particular interest of this panel at Schlesinger is family values conservatism, centered on women’s roles, sexuality, reproduction, and other facets of household life. These key elements of post WWII conservative thought and action are much less well documented than the geo-political and economic strands of [20th century] conservative thought and action, just as women’s history, broadly construed, is less well documented than the history of men in the public sphere.”
In a time when so much political combat resembles WrestleMania, the archive spat appears to be a respectable bout with some common ground. Beyond a disagreement over the basic premise of the Radcliffe forum, researchers across the spectrum seem to agree that it’s important to horde troves from both sides of the divide.
“The collection methodology of most college and research libraries is to collect widely,” Berlet said. “A good library is going to have a range of political views in its collection. And a good library is going to defend the right to collect views that many find objectionable. Librarians are at the forefront of defending civil liberties for everybody and free speech for everybody. They’re the ones saying, ‘Everyone should have access to a range of ideas.’”