My two-cents (I don’t speak for all historians!) on that Stanley Fish editorial

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So the New York Times has an opinion piece by law professor Stanley Fish in which he criticizes the “Historians Against Trump” group, and presumably the “Historians On Donald Trump” Facebook group as well. This has caused a lot of responses today from historians on social media, and I dare say that we will soon see a rebuttal piece published somewhere. However, I think many historians have had a knee-jerk reaction and are not getting at the heart of what he argued. Fish did not insist that historians can not have, and should not express, political opinions.  He writes: “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.” Yet much of the response from many historians is to insist that they have as much right to express political opinions as he does. I think he would agree. The problem, as he sees it, “is when a bunch of individuals claim for themselves a corporate identity and more than imply that they speak for the profession of history.” So what he is REALLY arguing, is that historians should not form a consensus of political opinion and present it as such.

It is on those points that we should focus our rebuttals.

As he sees it, historians should not make the claim that they speak for the profession of history because, 1) if there are any historians who support Trump, it invalidates the claim, and 2)  “the profession of history shouldn’t be making political pronouncements of any kind.”

In regards to his first point: it makes no sense to claim that historians, like any other group, can’t form a consensus of opinion on a topic without that opinion becoming invalidated because some other historians disagree. That’s like saying that because a historian like Thomas DiLorenzo disagrees, it makes it invalid for historians to argue that history proves that secession was caused by the desire to preserve slavery . . . Or that slavery was not a benign institution. I think it is safe to say that a consensus of academic historians agrees that slavery caused secession and that slavery sucked. Can we not advance that as historical truth just because DiLorenzo disagrees? I guess scientists better back off of promoting global warming, or even evolution.

So, Fish’s first point is easily dismissed.

On his second point, that historians as a group should not make political pronouncements: listen, I am sympathetic to this argument to a degree. As I have written before, I think that historians should strive for objectivity in the classroom as much as possible, because we should not try to indoctrinate our captive audience with our own political agenda. I know that many historians will disagree with that statement, because every one of us has had professors that do it. They might insist that doing so helps to challenge the preconceived beliefs of the students, and that forcing them to think outside of their comfort zone is one of the most important things we do with our students. I totally agree, but I think that can be accomplished through an objective discussion and analysis of historical facts and interpretations. A dogmatic presentation of political opinion that runs counter to the beliefs of the student will only result in a knee-jerk hardening of their own position, and the outright rejection of anything that is at odds with it (way too much of that goes on in our nation’s political discourse). Thus, we accomplish little. (Ben Franklin has a lot to say about this in his autobiography. Check it out).

So, I try very hard to make sure that I am so objective in the classroom that my students have a difficult time figuring out whether I am a Democrat or a Republican. That has long been my goal and I pride myself on it. I think Fish would agree with this approach.  BUT, extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures. Trump’s impending nomination by one of the major parties IS extraordinary (an historical consensus on that has emerged), and thus for the first time in my teaching career, I have made my political opinions (at least on him) known even to my classes, and frequently use lessons from history to denounce him. I make no apologies for it, and totally support the Historians Against Trump movement, as well as the Historians on Donald Trump group. Further, the groups are acting outside of their classrooms, not holding forth to a captive audience.

But to get back to Fish’s argument: he insists that the problem with the group is that they speak as a group, basing their authority on their academic credentials. He insists that once they create a group like this, they become  “a political organization whose arguments must make their way without the supposed endorsement and enhancement of an academic pedigree.” Their arguments, he insists, must then be judged by their strength or weaknesses, not by the fact that the group carries advanced degrees.

Ok fine, but doesn’t the strength or weakness of their argument come from their understanding of history? Doesn’t their scholarship lend weight and credibility to their opinions? If a group was created calling itself “Economists Against Clinton,” and it included some of the most well respected and accomplished economists, I know I might listen more closely to what they said than I would some blowhard TV commentator like Sean Hannity.  But based on the logic of Fish, such groups should not exist because not all economists would agree with their arguments, and because they should not use their advanced degrees in economics as a basis for lending weight to their conclusions. Perhaps Fish would agree with that, but it strikes me as utterly ridiculous and being a contrarian just for the sake of being contrary.

Listen, neither the “Historians Against Trump” movement nor the “Historians on Trump” Facebook group are claiming that they speak for ALL historians. Both groups contain some very accomplished historians that are speaking out about Trump, and their advanced degrees (and peer reviewed published works) denote a wealth of knowledge that adds weight to their opinions. It isn’t any more complex than that.

So let’s get down to what this is really all about: Stanley Fish is an anti-foundational professor. Instead of engaging with the strengths or weaknesses of the groups’  arguments, he simply closes his mind to their opinions by insisting that they have no right to claim to speak for all historians (which they never did), and that their opinions do not carry any more weight simply because they have advanced degrees and are some of our most accomplished and well respected historians (which is preposterous). I guess Fish would have been more open to their ideas had the groups chosen to name themselves “Some-(but not all)-Educated-People-That-Happen-to-be-Historians against Donald Trump.”

Or maybe he just doesn’t like any credentialed group with an agenda (be afraid, Mothers Against Drunk Driving).

Given that Trump’s entire campaign is built on getting people to vote for him based on emotions and anger rather than logic and intellectual thought, and is also rooted in tapping into anti-intellectualism and class resentments, Fish’s opinion piece will likely make perfect sense to Trump supporters. I just hope that Fish’s next diatribe will not include the by-line that he is a law professor. Is that supposed to add credibility to your opinion, Mr Fish? If so, why is it so wrong for a group’s credentials to add weight to their collective opinions?

Answer: nothing is wrong with it unless your logic is distorted by your own unobjective bias . . .  something that all professors in any field should fight against.

Good day, sir.

 

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