Historians vs Trump, part 2: Questions for Stanley Fish

Among the books I’m reading is a work of fairly recondite early modern intellectual history. Bucking a once prevalent tendency, the author of this work is at pains to disavow any political context for the intellectual debates s/he traces. For roughly half a century, political motivations have been detected behind ideas about not only politics but also economy, religion, history, and science. But for my author, scholarly debates were just that: debates in which the issues reflected purely scholarly concerns, and major developments proceeded as the application of academic criteria of judgment and the reception of learned audiences dictated, according to dynamics internal to the world of scholarship. This history has nothing to do with politics.

At the same time I’ve also been following the simmering argument over the role of history — whether a discipline, a kind of knowledge, a method of research and analysis, or all of these — in discussions of politics. The key locus for this debate, of course, is the Trump campaign, and the more pungent contributions have centred on the legitimacy of historians’ pronouncing on the merits or implications of Trump’s manner, words and ideas from some “historical” point of view. Probably the best known denial that historians have a contribution to make is Stanley Fish’s New York Times piece, on which I’ve already written and am about to write more. For Fish, historians are narrow specialists, which disqualifies them both from any off-campus role as historians and from any claim to knowledge outside the narrow questions on which they write their books and teach their courses. Politics has nothing to do with such history.

I’m struck by the way these two very different pieces of writing converge on an exclusion of politics from the realm and the reach of scholarship. In both, the explicit move is to define and police the boundaries of academe. Only a border wall can preserve the purity of academic learning; for Fish, fence-jumping invalidates the very academic credentials of the escapees. But unlike my author, Fish seems still more concerned with maintaining good hygiene outside the wall, cleansing politics of academic commentary — or, to put it another way, avenging the usurpation of public discourse by “individuals who just happen to have history degrees” but who perversely call themselves “historians”.

Fish takes at least three things for granted: (1) that historians base their pronouncements to the public solely on academic credentials, which is illegitimate because (2) the nature of their claims is “political opinion” rather than “dispassionate analysis”; I think both assumptions are wrong — at least as blanket assumptions, of which more below. (They recall, though, Fish’s intramural delimitation of academic freedom.) A third assumption, rhetorically cozy but logically superfluous if the first two are granted, is that (3) historians’ expertise is confined to subfields of no interest beyond a small circle of academics. I also think this assumption is wrong as a blanket statement, but I find it interesting that Fish gives no examples; the “specializations” I’ve heard alleged in his defence here are fictional straw-men rather than actual fields of study, and so carry no conviction. What all this amounts to is a mischaracterization of what history is about, how it is practised and by whom, and how the discipline in fact relates to its various publics.

It does seem, though, that arguments on both sides have tangled together a lot of questions that might better be teased apart.

One such is the vision of “politics” implied. What counts as “political” as distinct from “academic”? Is it simply a matter of “judgments” vs. “facts” — categories Fish accuses historians of confounding when they talk politics? I find that distinction insufficient for the argument being made — both in light of the complex interpretive work that even the most rudimentary engagement with historical sources requires before most “facts” are established, and because many of the contributions of historians to present-day political discussion take the form not of moral judgments or political opinions but of the presentation of documents, observations on the causes and effects of certain types of policy, comparisons of different historical circumstances or attitudes, historical accounts of institutions or laws, and so on. It is certainly the case that the “Historians Against Trump” letter includes both appeals to fact, interpretations, and evaluative judgments. But it is hardly coy about doing so. And in any case the letter neither exhausts nor typifies the entire engagement of historians with politics that Fish assails. Further, whatever Fish believes, “apolitical” history, even the driest sort, includes judgments too.

Setting that aside for a moment: should historical facts not affect present-day judgments? And if they should, what exactly separates historians as purveyors of these facts from other informed citizens? Academic credentials? If I agree with Fish’s piece on anything, as I noted in my last, it’s that credentials as such are no argument for the pertinence of one’s factual claims or the value of one’s judgments. They neither guarantee nor augment the worth of a contribution, and as Fish illustrates suggestions to the contrary are a distraction. (As Fish also more inadvertently illustrates, that certain credentials do in practice afford their holders an unduly elevated platform is a problem outside as well as within academia.) In this light it is unfortunate that some historians — and indeed other kinds of humanities and social science scholar — have rested arguments for scholarly engagement on academic credentials.

But I don’t think that most historians believe that credentials are what justify their claims, on campus or off. And unless one defines a “historian” simply and solely as one who holds a PhD and an academic position, skepticism about credentials is no argument against historians, as such, participating in political debate — any more than it is an argument against law professors, as such, opining in newspapers about the boundaries of history. Historians, precisely when they are writing as historians, have to ground their claims by appealing to sources and justifying interpretations that reflect the application of time and effort to a question, and that are implicitly subject to criticism. (This, incidentally, is why it is neither fatal nor surprising that some “credentialed historians”, as Fish puts it, can be found on the Trump side; interpretations, not credentials, are what’s at stake.) In that sense historians’ contributions should not differ — except in respect of their characteristic subject matter — from any other rigorous arguments.

Moreover, there are and always have been historians, identifying and recognized as such, who do not hold PhDs in history. And there are many more, without and without PhDs, who do not have academic positions. What becomes of them, on Fish’s account? What becomes of “public history” altogether? How does Fish’s definition of history accommodate the very real phenomenon of historians — or any scholars, as scholars — writing for non-academic audiences? Again, Fish’s argument depends on reading “historians” simply as a label for “college professors holding, and arguing from, history PhDs”; but neither the signatories to the letter he criticizes nor the wider engagements of historical scholarship with politics in the recent or distant past bear this reading out. So why should we accept it? And if we don’t, then what becomes of that border wall?

What happens, finally, if we stop talking about “historians” altogether, and talk instead about “history”? Assuming there is some role in political debate for historical knowledge or argument (whether brought forth by professional historians or not), what determines which kinds of history are and are not relevant? Should it be assumed that the history of electoral politics has more pertinence than the histories of immigration or gender? That contemporary history is worth hearing, while that of the Progressive Era or the Early Republic is off topic? That discussion should be confined (as the ground covered by the “Historians on Donald Trump” group seems to be) to American history rather than including, say, comparative or global themes? These questions seem worth considering, even if the final arbiters of histories’ usefulness will, inevitably, not be historians at all.

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