Historians’ Lanes and When to Change Them

John Fea declares he is not going to believe William Barr’s evaluation of the Mueller report until he sees it for himself. Why? Because John is a historian:

Why? Because Barr’s letter is a secondary source. It is his own interpretation of the complete Mueller report. I have no idea if Barr’s summary is accurate until I read the entire Mueller’s entire report. This is how historians work. We go to the source. (Of course, future historians will also need to examine Mueller’s sources as well).

At this point, we know that Barr wrote the letter. One of the first things historians do when they read a document is “source” it. In other words, we take into consideration the author of the document.

We know, for example, that Barr is the Attorney General of the United States. This gives him some degree of authority. On the other hand, Barr is a Donald Trump appointee. This should also factor-in to how we interpret the document.

Barr quotes Mueller’s report in the document, but we do not know the larger context from which he pulled the quotes. (For example, some outlets are reporting that Barr did not quote an entire sentence from the Mueller report). This is just like when pseudo-historians like David Barton quote John Adams out of context and conclude that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.

Again, until I can read the document and do my best to interpret for myself (perhaps with the help of the writings of experts) I do not trust it. Check back with me later.

The problem here is that Fea’s identity does not go all the way down. He regularly links to journalists‘ and op-ed writers’ pieces without ever checking the sources that these other writers used. In which case, using the Barr summary to teach a lesson about the ways historians work seems like a way to avoid revealing political loyalty.

Other times, John has seemed to do history the way moralizers moralize. That was particularly the case in a recent post by Marie Griffith about the responsibilities of scholars at a university department dedicated to the study (not advocacy) of religion and politics:

At Religion & Politics, we have repeatedly pointed out that white supremacist and anti-Muslim ideologies are being energized by the speech and actions of Trump, along with the highest levels of his administration. It is not simply that Trump is hateful or seems worrisomely unwell, as many commentators have pointed out; it’s that the form of hatred he emboldens is deadly. . . .

Observers who deplore the violence will perhaps do small but important things, like donate money to fundraising efforts for the victims’ families or vow to help Muslims in their local communities feel safe. We’ve done it before; we’ll do it again. Having been through things like this so many times before, many despair that anything will change.

Pursuing big goals, however, is a marathon, not a sprint; and there will be no finish line in the race to end hate in the world. If the long history of clashes, collusions, and other interactions between religion and politics teaches us anything, it’s that. Once more, we grieve; once more, we resolve to do what we can—all that we can—to quell the fires of racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim bigotry that burn ferociously today.

Those are undoubtedly worthwhile goals but they sound more like the work of a humanitarian NGO than the task of the university.

Let the historical profession be historical.

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A Difference between Church and "Regular" Historians?

Thanks to John Fea who treated his readers to a minor kerfuffle among historians of the American Revolution, I noticed ways in which the alleged disparity between church and secular history is less obvious than I had thought. The source of the dispute concerns whether historians can actually identify with the founding of the U.S. and affirm that the American Revolution was a good thing, sort of like the founding of Christianity and saying Jesus was a good thing. I know, I know, America is not the church, but the relationship between historians who are U.S. citizens (at least) and the United States of America is comparable to church historians who belong to a sector of Christianity that they study.

Here is how the debate started:

Non-academic J.F. Gearhart asked one group of commentators if they thought the American Revolution was a good thing. Is the world a better place because the American Revolution occurred? The pained look on their silent faces spoke volumes. The anguished mental gymnastics of the three visibly uncomfortable academics was reminiscent of an American President coming up with “What is ‘is.’” Finally Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Harvard University, managed to say (and I am paraphrasing), “There were some good things which came out of the American Revolution and some bad things.” Gearhart pressed her to provide a “net-net” rendering on the Revolution. She declined to do so and laughingly noted that her students want her to do the same.

Her answer called to mind the motto from the 1980s: “some people are communist, some people are capitalist” meaning so why can’t we all live together. “Because it is a god-damned Evil Empire” replied the simple-minded American-exceptionalist president Ronald Reagan. Everyone knew that the Soviet Union would be around forever…which turned out to be about five years in real time. The post 9/11 actions of simple-minded American-exceptionalist president George Bush reinforced the negative attitudes towards traditional interpretations of the American Revolution by the Vietnam era and post-Vietnam generation scholars. Commentator Linda Colley, Princeton University, emphatically called on Americans to stop stressing exceptionalism. (I have double exclamation points in my notes on her comment.) Out with city on a hill. No more last best hope of mankind. Forget about making the world safe for democracy. America has no rendezvous destiny. America is the problem not the solution for thinking it is the solution and not the problem.

To this, Michael Zuckerman responded:

I don’t for a moment discount the bright visions and the glowing words of the Founders, and I don’t know any other academics who do. The scholars who spoke at The American Revolution Reborn study the founders – all the founders – because they treasure those ideals and that rhetoric. But the world of the Founders and the founders is not ours, and their virtues no longer characterize us distinctively or, in some cases, at all. The question is how we salvage something of those virtues in a world transformed, and largely transformed in ways inimical to those virtues. The question is how we renew those virtues under new circumstances and against the odds. But we can’t take up those questions and a dozen others like them if we simply reiterate the old verities. If we are to engage in the conversation we have to have in 2013, we have got to acknowledge the realities of our new world.

Peter Feinman, who started the imbroglio, finished with this:

If however, the language of academics today is condescending, doesn’t take pride in the American Revolution, and only criticizes America, then Mike Zuckerman is right: the battle over the changes America needs to live up to its potential is lost.

There is a difference between challenging America to be great and simply constantly condemning it for its shortcomings. Academics haven’t learned to speak the language of patriotism when criticizing America. They should champion the journey the Founding Fathers began, rather than only criticizing them for failing to meet their 21st century moral standards.

Yes, the American Revolution was a good thing, but we can’t rest on our laurels.

Yes the American Revolution was a good thing, but there is more that needs to be done.

Yes, the American Revolution was a good thing, and with your help the journey the Founding Fathers began can be renewed for the 21st century.

Striking (to all about me) is the degree to which both sides in this debate identify with the “values” or ideals of the American founding. They may disagree about the state of those goods in other periods of U.S. history, but these historians apparently are not bashful in taking sides. Of course, I never suspected that scholars were reluctant to spell out what the U.S. should do or be. But scholars who study a subject are supposed to be dispassionate, removed, unbiased. Even if w-wers would have us know that no such intellectual position of neutrality is possible, historians do try to remove their personal convictions as much as possible from the way they try to understand the past. If they did not, then they would be like your average proponent of the antithesis who roams through the past and points out the saved and the damned as he goes. Instead of relying on personal convictions about good politics, fair societies, or virtuous politicians, historians try to follow the conventions of the academic discipline and look for what is significant in the past, based on a shared understanding of say, electoral politics, dominant and subordinate people groups, economic developments, or the scale and scope of the nation-state.

But if a historian is a citizen of the United States, she cannot be entirely objective about U.S. history because a member of the body politic she is studying generally has definite views about how the nation should conduct its affairs, the relations between states and the national bureaucracy, which partisan groups should shut up, and which lobbyists should be monitored. It is akin to being a member of the Presbyterian Church and having definite views about revivalism, limited atonement, and exclusive-psalmody. Both church and “regular” historians study parts of humanity, not the whole, and they look to institutions as a way to generalize about the affairs of an institution’s members. And if they happen to belong to some of those parts of humanity, then their study will be colored by their own commitments as members of church or nation.

For at least a half century, the assumption in history circles is that church historians are less trustworthy than regular historians because the former, who generally belong to some religious group, are prone to bias and relying on interpretive standards that are not available to all people. But this exchange between Feinman and Zuckerman may indicate that such a distinction is much more theoretical than real. After all, historians of the U.S. who are citizens of the U.S. are prone to biases and interpretive standards that Danes or Italians who study the U.S. do not share. And if a historian of the U.S. who is a citizen of the U.S. is loyal to the Constitution, the Republican Party, or hawkish foreign policy as a citizen, is she any less parochial (compared to the people who inhabit planet earth) than a church historian who is anti-revival, pro-liturgy, or anti-women’s ordination? I don’t think so.

Does this change the status of church history? Or should it? Should departments of history include church historians among their ranks, the way they employ labor, political, foreign policy, or Central American historians? It all depends (such courage). But on the basis of this exchange between Feinman and Zuckerman, I see no reason for regarding church historians as inherently different (and thus inferior) to “regular” historians.