Law Professor with Unearned Platform Cranky that Historians Have Opinions. News at 11.
Does anyone read Stanley Fish and think, “Wow, I can really see why he has a column at the Times. This is brilliant work”?
Today, Fish is outraged that historians are expressing concerns about Donald Trump. I guess this is a breach of decorum as crushing to the nation’s standards as Ruth Bader Ginsburg also expressing concerns about Donald Trump. What will the nation do?
PROFESSORS are at it again, demonstrating in public how little they understand the responsibilities and limits of their profession.
On Monday a group calling itself Historians Against Trump published an “Open Letter to the American People.” The purpose of the letter, the historians tell us, is to warn against “Donald J. Trump’s candidacy and the exceptional challenges it poses to civil society.” They suggest that they are uniquely qualified to issue this warning because they “have a professional obligation as historians to share an understanding of the past upon which a better future may be built.”
Or in other words: We’re historians and you’re not, and “historians understand the impact these phenomena have upon society’s most vulnerable.” Therefore we can’t keep silent, for “the lessons of history compel us to speak out against Trump.”
Professors are at it again, taking to newspaper columns to complain about other professors they don’t agree with. A truly responsible professor would write concern trolling columns in the nation’s paper of record!
But there’s very little acknowledgment of limitations and subjectivity in what follows, only a rehearsal of the now standard criticisms of Mr. Trump, offered not as political opinions, which they surely are, but as indisputable, impartially arrived at truths: “Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is a campaign of violence: violence against individuals and groups; against memory and accountability, against historical analysis and fact.” How’s that for cool, temperate and disinterested analysis?
Like my cool temperate analysis of other scholars…
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that this view of Mr. Trump is incorrect; nor am I saying that it is on target: only that it is a view, like anyone else’s. By dressing up their obviously partisan views as “the lessons of history,” the signatories to the letter present themselves as the impersonal transmitters of a truth that just happens to flow through them. In fact they are merely people with history degrees, which means that they have read certain books, taken and taught certain courses and written scholarly essays, often on topics of interest only to other practitioners in the field.
As opposed to someone who merely has an English degree, having read certain books, taken and taught certain courses and written scholarly essays on topics that provide just the right amount of conventional wisdom to get a permanent Times sinecure! And Fish is always highly concerned with academics stepping outside their area of expertise, which is why he didn’t decide to defend Kim Davis or anything like that.
I would have no problem with individuals, who also happened to be historians, disseminating their political conclusions in an op-ed or letter to the editor; but I do have a problem when a bunch of individuals claim for themselves a corporate identity and more than imply that they speak for the profession of history.
Of course they aren’t speaking for the profession. There are professional organizations that do that. They are speaking as a group.
Were an academic organization to declare a political position, it would at that moment cease to be an academic organization and would have turned itself — as the Historians Against Trump turn themselves — into a political organization whose arguments must make their way without the supposed endorsement and enhancement of an academic pedigree. Its members would be political actors who share the accidental feature of having advanced degrees. But it’s not the degrees, which are finally inessential, but the strength or weakness of the arguments that will tell in the end.
Ah, whining for the good ol’days of “objectivity,” when professors only talked from moderate perspectives that reinforced the political status quo, wore ties to class, and, of course, were a bunch of wealthy white men.
I have no idea if being a historian gives me special insight into Donald Trump. But I do know that Stanley Fish is effectively decrying the very thing he himself does all the time, with the caveat that he does it all on his own and without help from others. Why he feel the needs to scream into the wind on this topic of all things is completely unknown except that concern trolling is something he feels a compulsion to do.
I wonder if Stanley Fish was this outraged when Arthur Schlesinger Jr was stepping outside his area of expertise and advising JFK on how to kill communists in Bolivia? I think we all know the answer to this.