David Brion Davis, 1927-2019: Countersubversive at Yale

by Corey Robin on April 18, 2019

David Brion Davis, the pathbreaking Yale historian of slavery and emancipation, whose books revolutionized how we approach the American experience, has died. The obituaries have rightly discussed his many and manifold contributions, a legacy we will be parsing in the days and months ahead. Yet for those of us who were graduate students at Yale during the 1990s and who participated in the union drive there, the story of David Brion Davis is more complicated. Davis helped break the grade strike of 1995, in a manner so personal and peculiar, yet simultaneously emblematic, as not to be forgotten. Not long after the strike, I wrote at length about Davis’s actions in an essay called “Blacklisted and Blue: On Theory and Practice at Yale,” which later appeared in an anthology that was published in 2003. I’m excerpting the relevant part the essay below, but you can read it all of it here [pdf].

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As soon as the graduate students voted to strike, the administration leaped to action, threatening students with blacklisting, loss of employment, and worse. Almost as quickly, the national academic community rallied to the union’s cause. A group of influential law professors at Harvard and elsewhere issued a statement condemning the “Administration’s invitation to individual professors to terrorize their advisees.” They warned the faculty that their actions would “teach a lesson of subservience to illegitimate authority that is the antithesis of what institutions like Yale purport to stand for.”

Eric Foner, a leading American historian at Columbia, spoke out against the administration’s measures in a personal letter to President Levin. “As a longtime friend of Yale,” Foner began, “I am extremely distressed by the impasse that seems to have developed between the administration and the graduate teaching assistants.” Of particular concern, he noted, was the “developing atmosphere of anger and fear” at Yale, “sparked by threats of reprisal directed against teaching assistants.” He then concluded:

I wonder if you are fully aware of the damage this dispute is doing to Yale’s reputation as a citadel of academic freedom and educational leadership. Surely, a university is more than a business corporation and ought to adopt a more enlightened approach to dealing with its employees than is currently the norm in the business world. And in an era when Israelis and Palestinians, Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Serbs, the British government and the IRA, have found it possible to engage in fruitful discussions after years of intransigent refusal to negotiate, it is difficult to understand why Yale’s administration cannot meet with representatives of the teaching assistants.

Foner’s letter played a critical role during the grad strike. The faculty took him seriously; his books on the Civil War and Reconstruction are required reading at Yale. But more important, Foner is a historian, and at the time, a particularly tense confrontation in the Yale history department was spinning out of control.

The incident involved teaching assistant Diana Paton, a British graduate student who was poised to write a dissertation on the transition in Jamaica from slavery to free labor, and historian David Brion Davis. A renowned scholar of slavery, Davis has written pathbreaking studies, earning him the Pulitzer Prize and a much-coveted slot as a frequent writer at the New York Review of Books. He represents the best traditions of humanistic learning, bringing to his work a moral sensitivity that few academics possess. Paton was his student and, that fall, his TA.

When Paton informed Davis that she intended to strike, he accused her of betraying him. Convinced that Davis would not support her academic career in the future—he had told her in an unrelated discussion a few weeks prior that he would never give his professional backing to any student who he believed had betrayed him—Paton nevertheless stood her ground. Davis reported her to the graduate school dean for disciplinary action and had his secretary instruct Paton not to appear at the final exam. In his letter to the dean, Davis wrote that Paton’s actions were “outrageous, irresponsible to the students…and totally disloyal.”

The day of the final, Paton showed up at the exam room. As she explains it, she wanted to demonstrate to Davis that she would not be intimidated by him, that she would not obey his orders. Davis, meanwhile, had learned of Paton’s plan to attend the exam and somehow concluded that she intended to steal the exams. So he had the door locked and two security guards stand beside it.

Though assertive, Paton is soft-spoken and reserved. She is also small. The thought of her rushing into the exam room, scooping up her students’ papers, engaging perhaps in a physical tussle with the delicate Davis, and then racing out the door—the whole idea is absurd. Yet Davis clearly believed it wasn’t absurd. What’s more, he convinced the administration that it wasn’t absurd, for it was the administration that had dispatched the security detail.

How this scenario could have been dreamed up by a historian with the nation’s most prestigious literary prizes under his belt—and with the full backing of one of the most renowned universities in the world—requires some explanation. Oddly enough, it is Davis himself who provides it.

Like something out of Hansel and Gretel, Davis left a set of clues, going back some forty years, to his paranoid behavior during the grade strike. In a pioneering 1960 article in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review, “Some Themes of Counter-Subversion: An Analysis of Anti-Masonic, Anti-Catholic, and Anti-Mormon Literature,” Davis set out to understand how dominant groups in nineteenth-century America were gripped by fears of disloyalty, treachery, subversion, and betrayal. Many Americans feared Catholics, Freemasons, and Mormons because, it was believed, they belonged to “a machine-like organization” that sought “to abolish free society” and “to overthrow divine principles of law and justice.” Members of these groups were dangerous because they professed an “unconditional loyalty to an autonomous body” like the pope. They took their marching orders from afar, and so were untrustworthy, duplicitous, and dangerous.

Davis was clearly disturbed by the authoritarian logic of the countersubversive, but that was in 1960 and he was writing about the nineteenth century. In 1995, confronting the rebellion of his own student, the logic made all the sense in the world. It didn’t matter that Paton was a longtime student of his, that she had many discussions with Davis about her academic work, and that he knew her well. As soon as she announced her commitment to the union’s course of action, she became a stranger, an alien marching on behalf of a foreign power.

Davis was hardly alone in voicing these concerns. Other respected members of the Yale faculty dipped into the same well of historical imagery. In January 1996, at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, several historians presented a motion to censure Yale for its retaliation against the striking TAs. During the debate on the motion, Nancy Cott—one of the foremost scholars of women’s history in the country who was on the Yale faculty at the time but has since gone on to Harvard—defended the administration, pointing out that the TA union was affiliated with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. Historians at the meeting say that Cott placed a special emphasis on the word “international.” The TAs, in other words, were carrying out the orders of union bosses in Washington. The graduate students did not care about their own colleagues, they were not loyal to their own. Not unlike the Masons and Catholics of old. It did not seem to faze Cott that she was speaking to an audience filled with labor historians, all of whom would have recognized these charges as classic antiunion rhetoric.

One of the reasons Cott embraced this vocabulary so unselfconsicously was that it was a virtual commonplace among the Yale faculty at the time. At a mid-December faculty meeting, which one professor compared to a Nuremberg rally, President Levin warned the faculty of the ties between the TAs and outside unions. The meeting was rife with lurid images of union heavies dictating how the faculty should run their classrooms. It never seemed to occur to these professors, who pride themselves on their independent judgment and intellectual perspicacity, that they were uncritically accepting some of the ugliest and most unfounded prejudices about unions, that they sounded more like the Jay Goulds and Andrew Carnegies of the late nineteenth century than the careful scholars and skeptical minds of the late twentieth. All they knew was their fear—that a conspiracy was afoot, that they were being forced to cede their authority to disagreeable powers outside of Yale.

Cott, Levin, and the rest of the faculty were also in the grip of a raging class anxiety, which English professor Annabel Patterson spelled out in a letter to the Modern Language Association. The TA union, Patterson wrote, “has always been a wing of Locals 34 and 35 [two other campus unions]…who draw their membership from the dining workers in colleges and other support staff.”

Why did Patterson single out cafeteria employees in her description of Locals 34 and 35? After all, these unions represent thousands of white- and blue-collar workers, everyone from skilled electricians and carpenters to research laboratory technicians, copy editors, and graphic designers. Perhaps it was that Patterson viewed dishwashers and plastic-gloved servers of institutional food as the most distasteful sector of the Yale workforce. Perhaps she thought that her audience would agree with her, and that a subtle appeal to their delicate, presumably shared, sensibilities would be enough to convince other professors that the TA union ought to be denied a role in the university.

The professor-student relationship was the critical link in a chain designed to keep dirty people out. What if the TAs and their friends in the dining halls decided that professors should wash the dishes and plumbers should teach the classes? Hadn’t that happened during the Cultural Revolution? Hadn’t the faculty themselves imagined such delightful utopias as young student radicals during the 1960s? Recognizing the TA union would only open Yale to a rougher, less refined element, and every professor, even the most liberal, had something at stake in keeping that element out.

In his article, Davis concluded with these sentences about the nineteenth-century countersubversive:

By focusing his attention on the imaginary threat of a secret conspiracy, he found an outlet for many irrational impulses, yet professed his loyalty to the ideals of equal rights and government by law. He paid lip service to the doctrine of laissez-faire individualism, but preached selfless dedication to a transcendent cause. The imposing threat of subversion justified a group loyalty and subordination of the individual that would otherwise have been unacceptable. In a rootless environment shaken by bewildering social change the nativist found unity and meaning by conspiring against imaginary conspiracies.

Though I don’t think Davis’s psychologizing holds much promise for understanding the Yale faculty’s response to the grade strike—the strike, after all, did pose a real threat to the faculty’s intuitions about both the place of graduate students in the university and the obligation of teachers; nor did the faculty seem, at least to me, to be on a desperate quest for meaning—he did manage to capture, long before the fact, the faculty’s fear that their tiered world of privileges and orders, so critical to the enterprise of civilization, was under assault. So did Davis envision the grotesque sense of fellowship that the faculty would derive from attacking their own students.

The faculty’s outsized rhetoric of loyalty and disloyalty, of intimacy (Dean [Richard] Brodhead called the parties to the conflict a “dysfunctional family”) betrayed, may have fit uneasily with their avowed professions of individualism and intellectual independence. But it did give them the opportunity to enjoy, at least for a moment, that strange euphoria—the thrilling release from dull routine, the delightful, newfound solidarity with fellow elites—that every reactionary from Edmund Burke to Augusto Pinochet has experienced upon confronting an organized challenge from below.

Paton’s relationship with Davis was ended. Luckily, she was able to find another advisor at Yale, Emilia Viotti da Costa, a Latin American historian who was also an expert on slavery. Da Costa, it turns out, had been a supporter of the student movement in Brazil some thirty years before and was persecuted by the military there. Forced to flee the country, she found in Yale a welcome refuge from repression.



Timothy Scriven 04.18.19 at 2:51 am

With no particular disrespect to prof Davis who I’m sure was a good man and brilliant scholar who was suffering from one of the ethical lapses everyone experiences at some point, I have to say that from an outside perspecive (outside academia and outside the US) the graduate unionism kuffle seems like the leitmotif for the hypocrisy of the age in general, and the professional managerial class specifically.

It’s staggering that a bunch of people who no doubt think they would be on the right
(left?) side of the barricades if the revolution came are opposed to unionism in their own workplace, parroting lines (it will disrupt the personal relationship between managers and staff!) that sound like they would belong in an a Target anti-union vote video.


Gareth Wilson 04.18.19 at 6:05 am

“And in an era when Israelis and Palestinians, Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Serbs, the British government and the IRA, have found it possible to engage in fruitful discussions after years of intransigent refusal to negotiate, “

I guess two out of three isn’t bad.


Barry 04.18.19 at 2:17 pm

Corey, I believe that you are reading far more complexity into this than needed.
He was a guy who was very much unwilling to give up status, power and privilege,
All of the rest is just justification, by himself and others.

As for the cafeteria workers, they would have been considered to be unskilled, and were likely overwhelmingly non-white. End of story.


oldster 04.18.19 at 3:18 pm

Okay, sure, Yale has a lot of pathologies, and a lot of ostensible leftists who turn out to be authoritarians at the slightest provocation.

But on the plus side, they did all line up in favor of Bart Kavanaugh.


marcel proust 04.18.19 at 4:23 pm

Bart Brett? or perhaps
Kavanaugh O’Kavanaugh?


Howard 04.18.19 at 10:09 pm

To grasp Davis’s hypocrisy recall the Stanford Prison experiment- roles are what motivate people- he may have possessed insight into events twenty years ago or a century ago, but to face up to one’s own need for power and one’s own place in a social order require real insight and real courage, and it is totally understandable because most people just play their part and then exit the stage- I’m sure his colleagues will talk up how great he was, that’s how it goes- he might not have had a clue


steven t johnson 04.20.19 at 3:19 pm

It is not at all clear why opposing slavery is tacitly assumed to mean endorsing unions. It was never true historically.


Jon 04.20.19 at 4:56 pm

@Howard: best not to draw too heavily on the Stanford prison experiment, a now notoriously fraudulent study.


Ebenezer Scrooge 04.21.19 at 8:12 pm

Having been a member of the management class, allow me to psychoanalyze it. Yes, they hate unions in their bones. But I’m not sure that they view unions as tools of outside agitators with hidden agendas.
The real psychological threat of unions is to management’s self-image as good guys. Power differentials are almost invisible from the top looking down, and most managers feel that they’re not exercising power over others–they’re just trying to do the right thing, subject to an awful number of constraints. (Yes, there are some sociopaths in management, but they’re not the average.) They are acutely aware that their subordinates exercise power over them, and have no appreciation of the asymmetry of power relations.
The very existence of unions threatens their self-image, because unions presuppose an adversarial relationship, and only make sense if there is a power asymmetry. Both are inconsistent with management’s self-view as good guys, trying to do the right thing in a basically harmonious relationship.

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