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.
So writes media-licensed snake-oil distributor Stanley Fish in the midst of a screed, directed at a group called “Historians Against Trump”, that appeared in Friday’s New York Times. Fish rages at these four historians’ having the temerity, first, to form themselves into a group, and second, to write — in the name of said group — an “Open Letter to the American People“, setting out their criticisms of the Trump campaign. The article is a scattershot affair, but inasmuch as it reveals the true perversity of a self-propelled, heat-seeking public intellectual at work, while also raising the question of what legitimate scholarly contributions to political discussion should look like, it’s fun to think about.
Let’s first look at the “open letter”. Historians, it begins, are able to recognize the threat that Trump poses because historians (of various times and places; that’s left open) have studied the effects of demagoguery, populism, and bigotry — all things widely attributed to Trump, and not only by political opponents — on vulnerable members of society. “The lessons of history” (an unfortunate phrase, I think, but one widely used by academics and non-academics alike) “compel us to speak out against Trump.” After disavowing any specific party affiliation, the letter goes on to describe historians’ disciplinary duty to argue from evidence, asserting that “Donald Trump’s record of speeches, policies and social media is an archive of know-nothingism and blinding self-regard.” (The links are in the original.) There follows a brief catalogue of some of the most glaring, and well known, instances of Trump’s offensive behaviour — in other words, further evidence for the authors’ argument. The letter then pans back to set all this in context, as “the latest chapter in a troubled narrative many decades in the making”, one that neither began nor will end with Trump. The two final paragraphs are a call to engagement, aligning the authors with other groups currently on the march and calling on others to join.
So what’s the problem? As I said, Fish takes the kitchen sink approach, and the result is a mess. But let’s begin where Fish does. For starters, according to Fish, the authors are saying that “We’re historians and you’re not”, and “we can’t keep silent, for ‘the lessons of history compel us to speak out against Trump.'” This is, he says, “to… equate the possession of an advanced degree with virtue.” This is incoherent nonsense, for at least two reasons.
It is, first of all, ludicrous to insist that describing one’s profession amounts to a claim on virtue because others are not in that profession; this is to say that credentials of any kind are an offence against anyone not holding them. Besides being nonsense, this is pretty rich coming from someone who signs off on each atrocious column as “professor of law at Florida International University and… visiting professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law… the author of ‘Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn’t Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom.'” (And you’re not!) More to the point, it’s also not a claim that the authors make. They do claim that their profession means that they have a body of expertise that, by implication, those not in the profession do not necessarily have — which is, to all but Fish, obvious. It is the same claim that economists or meteorologists make when they offer forecasts, engineers when they evaluate building projects, etc. Expertise is not virtue; but Fish is the only one implying (or, to borrow one of his suggestive-yet-meaningless phrases, “more than implying”) that connection.
But the historians’ real sin is the practical conclusion they draw, that is, that their particular body of knowledge compels them to speak out at a moment when it seems pertinent to the world around them. Fish’s set-up for the big take-down relies on his (his, not their) equation of expertise and virtue: “The claim is not simply that disciplinary expertise confers moral and political superiority,” — actually, the claim in the letter is not even that — “but that historians, because of their training, are uniquely objective observers“. As evidence of this Fish quotes the authors: “As historians, we consider diverse viewpoints while acknowledging our own limitations and subjectivity.” I added the emphasis in both passages so that the disparity between them can be better seen. For the historians, doing history involves an effort to be aware of one’s position and to consider evidence from all quarters. This is not, as Fish claims, an assertion of “unique objectivity”; it is in fact the opposite, on both counts: an explicit acknowledgment that the historian is, like anyone else, situated, though — also like anyone else — able to get a fuller picture of the world by becoming aware of his or her situation in it and the blinkers that that situation imposes. What is characteristic of the historian — which is not to say or imply unique — is that this exercise is part of the job.
But by this point Fish is off, railing at the contradictions he’s discovered between his caricature of the historians’ letter and his caricature of the discipline of history:
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?
What Fish struggles with here is what historians call “interpretation”, a process that accompanies and relies on reading, analyzing, and contextualizing evidence. The historians’ judgment of Trump is based, as their letter makes clear — and as is open to all, Fish included, to evaluate for themselves by following the links they provide — on a reading of sources that include (indeed, are largely composed of) Trump’s own pronouncements. That is, by the way, what it means to consider a diversity of viewpoints, to look at sources originating with Trump and his supporters as well as with his critics, rather than, as Fish more than implies, simply asserting “political opinions” and resting these on a “corporate identity” as historians. To Fish it is apparently a categorical impossibility that historians or anyone else could arrive at political opinions through historical analysis. In his fantasy, learning is only legitimate if it has no real-world implications.
By the same token, it is also inherently illegitimate, in his view, for historians as historians to comment on politics. “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.” One might ask: what then is Fish? But look again at his description of historians. Is it impossible that those who have, say, read — or written — “certain books”, or who teach “certain courses” on subjects at issue in politics today might have something to say that those living with politics today might want to hear? And if so, are they not speaking “as historians”, rather than “as individuals… who happened to be historians”? Insofar as they base their arguments, like any other intelligent people, on their knowledge and experience, does it even matter?
By contrast, it’s hard to escape the idea that Fish’s own public persona as an academic star is the only thing allowing him to pronounce so vapidly from such a height on a profession he knows so little about. (Certainly his interpretation of the letter before him owes little enough to its actual contents.) If holding history degrees does not qualify his targets to speak about American political history, his lack of pertinent credentials does not, it seems, disqualify him from defining their profession: “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”. This is a very so-so description of how to write narrative history of a particular kind, but as a description of the discipline or even the skill set involved in the practice of historical research, it falls well short of reality. (The idea that evidence falls neatly into “reliable” and “unreliable” boxes is the hallmark of naiveté, as farfetched as the claim to “unique objectivity” that he puts in his targets’ mouths.) And, tellingly, it leaves out that key word — argument — that describes the very point at which the study of history and its potential to contribute to public discourse most obviously coincide.
The rest of the article amounts to an arch and arbitrary assertion that the “Historians Against Trump” have not only abused their position as historians but forfeited their claims to the academic credentials that Fish incorrectly sees as the basis of their contribution. Besides its being both empirically false and conceptually wrongheaded, for reasons already noted, the hypocrisy this involves on Fish’s part would render it unworthy of remark — but for one thing. Recent discussions of the role of the “public intellectual” have at times involved a disconcerting deployment of “credentials“, typically the PhD, as a kind of shorthand for the legitimacy, even necessity, of academic interventions in public discourse. If it serves no other purpose, and it doesn’t, Fish’s article at least indicates the kind of attacks to which this lies open. Historians have things to say not because they were disciplined or skilled enough to write dissertations or publish books but because they have learned a lot about things — events, processes, questions, problems — that are with us now; they have studied these exhaustively and from a variety of angles; they know something about them, and they have earned that knowledge by putting in real time. Their credentials may signal this inside the academy; outside, the better word is work.