Sunday, November 27, 2016

HISTORIANS MORALIZING WITHOUT MERIT


GOP presidential candidate Donald J. Trump delivering his “Contract with the American Voter” speech
at Gettysburg, PA on October 22, 2016.


















On July 11, 2016 a group of historians collaborated in an open letter to the public arguing against Donald J. Trump’s presidential candidacy. The following opinion piece entitled “Professors, Stop Opining about Trump” by Stanley Fish published in the July 15, 2016 New York Times Sunday Review section is a rebuttal to that open letter.

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.”

I would say that the hubris of these statements was extraordinary were it not so commonplace for professors (not all but many) to regularly equate the possession of an advanced degree with virtue. The claim is not simply that disciplinary expertise confers moral and political superiority, but that historians, because of their training, are uniquely objective observers: “As historians, we consider diverse viewpoints while acknowledging our own limitations and subjectivity.”

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?

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.

While this disciplinary experience qualifies them to ask and answer discipline-specific questions, it does not qualify them to be our leaders and guides as we prepare to exercise our franchise in a general election. Academic expertise is not a qualification for delivering political wisdom. Nor is it their job, although they seem to think it is: “It is all of our jobs to fill the voids exploited by the Trump campaign.” (I’m not sure that I understand what that grandiose sentence means.) No, it’s their job to teach students how to handle archival materials, how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable evidence, how to build a persuasive account of a disputed event, in short, how to perform as historians, not as seers or political gurus.

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.

There are at least two things wrong with this claim. First, it couldn’t possibly be true unless it were the case that no credentialed historian is a Trump supporter; even one or two (and I bet there are a lot more than that) would spoil the broth. Second, and more important, the profession of history shouldn’t be making political pronouncements of any kind. Its competence lies elsewhere, in the discipline-specific acts I identified above.

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.

If academics are wrong to insert themselves into the political process under the banner of academic expertise, is Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrong when she makes unflattering remarks about Mr. Trump at a conference and in an interview? Maybe so (indeed, she herself has expressed regret for the comments), but she has not committed the same transgression as the historians. Justice Ginsburg was speaking off the cuff, offering her opinion on a matter currently in the news, as any citizen has a right to do. She did not cite or trade on the trappings of her office; she did not proclaim from the bench.

The Historians Against Trump are proclaiming from the bench, not a literal bench, but the bench of their faculty offices and university positions. They are saying, here is our view of the election and you should pay particular attention to it because we are academics; indeed in speaking out, we are doing our academic job. Justice Ginsburg is saying, here’s what I think about Mr. Trump; take it for what it’s worth. For the historians, their credentials are the whole point; for Justice Ginsburg they are beside the point.

Perhaps Justice Ginsburg should have been more reticent in order to avoid even the appearance of impropriety (the suspicion will be that her partisan views will spill over into her judicial performance). But whatever the possible inappropriateness of what she said, she did not say it as a Supreme Court justice; she did not invest her remarks with that authority. The Historians Against Trump invest their remarks with the authority of their academic credentials, and by doing so compromise those credentials to the point of no longer having a legitimate title to them, at least when they write and publish their letter.


Stanley Fish, a professor of law at Florida International University and a visiting professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, is the author of “Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn’t Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom.”

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