Sunday, August 28, 2022

The Unmaking of American History by the Woke Mob

For the full background, see "Presentism, Race and Trolls," at Inside Higher Ed.

From Dominic Green, at WSJ, "Progressive scholars increasingly abandon the past to focus on present-day politics":

Academic historians are losing their sense of the past. In his August column for the American Historical Association’s journal, Perspectives on History, James H. Sweet warned that academic history has become so “presentist” that it is losing touch with its subject, the world before yesterday. Mr. Sweet, who is the association’s president and teaches at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, observed that the “allure of political relevance” is drawing students away from pre-1800 history and toward “contemporary social justice issues” such as “race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism.” When historians become activists, he wrote, the past becomes “an evidentiary grab bag to articulate their political positions.”

Mr. Sweet knows his audience, so he did his best to appease the crocodile of political correctness. He denounced Justice Clarence Thomas for a gun-rights decision that “cherry-picks historical data” and criticized Justice Samuel Alito for taking the word “history” in vain 67 times in his Dobbs abortion opinion. But Mr. Sweet also pointed out that Nikole Hannah-Jones’s “1619 Project” isn’t accurate history, and that “bad history,” however good it makes us feel, yields bad politics. “If history is only those stories from the past that confirm current political positions, all manner of political hacks can claim historical expertise.”

History’s armies of nonacademic readers will find this obvious and undeniable. Mr. Sweet’s academic peers, however, tore him to pieces on Twitter, accusing him of sexism, racism, gratuitous maleness and excessive whiteness.

“Gaslight. Gatekeep. Goatee,” said Laura Miller of Brandeis University, detecting patriarchal privilege written on Mr. Sweet’s chin. Benjamin Siegel of Boston University, who thinks his politically correct profession is “leveraged towards racist ideologies,” called the essay “malpractice.” Dan Royles of Florida International University accused Mr. Sweet of “logical incoherence,” which is academic-speak for “idiot.” Kathryn Wilson of Georgia State detected an even more heinous error, “misrepresentation of how contemporary social justice concerns inform theory and methodology.”

Other users accused Mr. Sweet of using a rhetorical device called the “white we,” pitching for a guest slot on Tucker Carlson’s show, and writing “MAGA history.” Many called any questioning of the “1619 Project” racist. David Austin Walsh of the University of Virginia advised historians to support the project regardless of whether they thought it good history, because criticism would be “weaponized by the right.”

Mr. Sweet responded with the bravery that defines the modern academic. He apologized on the AHA’s website for the “harm to colleagues, the discipline, and the Association” that his “ham-fisted attempt at provocation” had caused, especially to his “Black colleagues and friends,” and begged that he be allowed to “redeem” himself.

The AHA, which had done nothing to stem the tide of insults from its members, prevented nonfollowers from commenting on its Twitter feed, because, it said, “trolls” and “bad-faith actors” had joined the debate. One of the bad-faith actors was a racist agitator, Richard Spencer. His contribution, alarmingly, was hardly trolling. Mr. Spencer pointed out that Mr. Sweet was merely repeating the advice of the eminent 19th-century historian Otto von Ranke, who told historians to go into the archives and tell history “as it really happened.” We know a profession is in trouble when it takes the worst kind of amateur to state the obvious.

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child,” Cicero once wrote. “For what is the worth of a human life if it is not woven into the life of our ancestors by the record of history?” Even Ms. Hannah-Jones would agree with that. The AHA’s activist wing, however, disagrees. Like Cicero, who was both a politician and a historian, they see history as a rhetorical resource. Unlike Cicero, they see nothing good in their people’s history and only wickedness in their ancestors.

When the purpose of history changes from knowledge of the past to political power in the present and future, historians become mere propagandists. Academics who succumb to the sugar rush of activism lose their sense of balance. Meanwhile, the AHA’s annual reports show that undergraduates and graduates are voting with their enrollments, with a related decline in job opportunities for holders of new doctorates. In 2016-17 alone, undergraduate enrollment fell by 7.7%. The number of new doctorates fell by about 15% between 2014 and 2019, and the number of job openings has halved since 2008. The latest AHA Jobs Report is a threnody of “program closures, enrollment declines, and faculty layoffs.” Signs of stabilization, it reckons, are a “false floor.” Why study history if all it equips you for is a nasty and crowded climb up the greasy pole of academic preferment? Much easier to pursue activism through the modish triad of sex, race and gender studies.

All of which tends to confirm Mr. Sweet’s observations about the perils of presentism and activism...