Cornel West and Robert George at Liberty University

I spent a little time last night watching Cornel West and Robert George at Liberty University.  I have learned a lot from both of these men and I love watching them talk with one another.  This conversation is no different.  These kinds of conversations give me hope.

A few comments:

  • The first minute of this video speaks volumes.  The Liberty University convocation, which is touted  in the video as the “largest gathering of Christian young people in the world,” begins with Liberty University football highlights.
  • I would like to know more about how West balances his prophetic voice with his  commitment to civility.  West comes across as gracious and civil here, but he has spent much of his career railing against the kind of conservative, politically-oriented Christianity that the Liberty University leadership represents.
  • This leads me to ask:  Where is Jerry Falwell Jr.?  Doesn’t he usually host these events?  This is a great conversation about ideas, the pursuit of learning, and intellectual humility.  I am glad that the Liberty University students could experience it.  But the things West and George are talking about here seem to be the antithesis of how Jerry Falwell Jr. engages public life from his perch in the Liberty president’s office.
  • Things get good around the 1:04:30 mark when they West and George start debating public schools.
  • The quiz at the end is hilarious.

Garrison Keillor on Plaza Life

Flatiron Plaza

Another great piece from Garrison Keillor:

There has been a proliferation of plazas in the past twenty years, here in New York City but also elsewhere in America, even in Minnesota, where I’m from. Maybe in the zoning laws there is provision for the apportionment of sunshine, or maybe it’s just leftover space waiting to be developed, but here it is, an open ­plaza where people can mingle freely, enjoy face-­to-­face encounters, take a break from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram—­the national unconscious with its fevers of conspiracy and ancient hatreds and malignity—­and walk out into the fresh air of democracy, where the general looseness—­no security personnel, no ropes, no questions—­testifies to the inherent good manners of one’s fellow citizens. There is no sign reading: your consideration of your neighbors is appreciated. thank you for not engaging in abusive talk or elaborate paranoia. People just behave without being told, as if their mothers were watching them.

My mother told me to be polite to strangers as a matter of self-­respect and also because they may be enduring some personal tragedy you will never be aware of, so be kind. Civility is based on empathy, and it is at the heart of democracy. Even the panhandler who asks me for change, when I shake my head, says, “God bless you, have a good day.” So I reach down and pull out a bill, a ten, more than I wanted to give, but there it is. He sees it. I give it to him. He says, “Thank you very much.”

The idea of plazas is as old as cities, and I’m glad to be in this one, looking up at that skinny historic building on 23rd Street in Manhattan, grateful not to be in a cubicle on the fifteenth floor but to be sitting down here in the land of the free. The preachers and buskers and rappers and guys in superhero costumes go elsewhere: this is a quiet ­plaza, its quiet enforced by its occupants, using the power of the New York stare that can stifle interruptions and kill small flowering plants.

Read the rest here.

Kirsten Powers is Off Twitter

I am really sorry to see this.  I was a regular reader of Powers’s feed and always learned from her.  I will continue to watch her on CNN because she is one of the few independent thinkers on mainstream cable.  I was actually inspired by her strong stand on the Covington Catholic incident.

And for those evangelicals who harassed (not criticized, harassed) Powers, read this and then this.

Spirituality for Broken Public Discourse

Basil

In the spirit of my recent post “Rules of Engagement,” I want to call your attention to Nicholas Denysenko‘s piece on spirituality and public discourse in the recent issue of The Cresset.  I read it last night and found it useful and inspiring.  Here is a taste of “Engaging My Opponent“:

Throughout history, Christians have attempted to apply Jesus’s teachings as rules for communal living and engagement with the other. These examples occur in a variety of contexts, from Cappadocian monks in late antiquity to twentieth-century laity responding to dangerous ideologies.

One early example is the philosopher, bishop, and ascetic known as Basil the Great (330-379). In the Christian world, Basil is beloved because of the prayers attributed to him, his theological family ties (having an equally gifted brother and a saintly sister), his theological treatises that became the foundation for the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and his ascetical writings. Instructive for our purposes is Basil’s homily on humility. The context of this homily suggests that Basil was addressing people who lived in the late-antique city. Basil critiques those who indulge in the glory and honor that comes with political success:

But also because of political honors do men exalt themselves beyond what is due their nature. If the populace confer upon them a distinction, if it honor them with some office of authority, if an exceptional mark of dignity be voted in their favor by the people, thereupon, as though they had risen above human nature, they look upon themselves as well nigh seated on the very clouds and regard the men beneath them as their footstool. They lord it over those who raised them to such honor and exalt themselves over the very ones at whose hands they received their sham distinctions. 
(Basil, trans. Wagner, 476)

Basil seems to be warning those in the public sphere against the kind of elitism that comes with rank or stature in the political hierarchy, and the temptation to view others as simply “their footstool.” Basil describes the steps needed for the exalted to rightfully see themselves and others:

If you appear to have something in your favor, do not, counting this to your credit and readily forgetting your mistakes, boast of your good deeds of today and grant yourself pardon for what you have done badly yesterday and in the past. Whenever the present arouses pride in you, recall the past to mind and you will check the foolish swelling of conceit. If you see your neighbor committing sin, take care not to dwell exclusively on his sin, but think of the many things he has done and continues to do rightly. Many times, by examining the whole and not taking the part into account, you will find that he is better than you. Such reminders as these regarding self-exaltation we should keep reciting constantly to ourselves, demeaning ourselves that we may be exalted, in imitation of the Lord who descended from heaven to utter lowliness and who was, in turn, raised to the height which befitted him. (Basil, trans. Wagner, 483)

Basil proposes an ascetical practice that speaks directly to the kind of exaltation to which one enjoying a high rank might be prone. Recalling one’s past errors can help one avoid the temptation to exalt one’s self and treat others like a footstool. Basil employs hyperbole when he suggests that we are to demean ourselves, but the point of adopting this habit is twofold: to learn how to see good in one’s interlocutor, and to adopt the pattern of Christ himself. Our descent into utter lowliness is not for self-torture. Rather, it is to follow the pattern of Christ, whose lowliness was in service to others. The two practices work together: we find fault in ourselves first to confront our own ugliness; only then is one able to see that the person one engages is, in fact, naturally good.

Cultivating the habit of humility is designed to be relational and dialogical. In a longer passage, Basil advises hearers to be modest in all ways of life, to avoid embellishment of speech, and to be “free from pomposity” (Basil, trans. Wagner, 484). Adopting a habit of modesty in the way that we talk and think of ourselves leads to new ways of dialoguing with others. Basil offers simple instructions: “Be obliging to your friends, gentle toward your slaves, forbearing with the forward, benign to the lowly, a source of comfort to the afflicted, a friend to the distressed, a condemner of no one” (Basil, trans. Wagner, 484). He goes on to instruct his hearers to avoid even listening into a conversation involving gossip; adopting the habit of attending to one’s own sin sharpens the senses of seeing others and dialoguing with them. One learns how to act with radical charity toward the other through practice, but the root of this action is pursuing humility and refusing to exalt one’s self, reserving that praise and glorification for God alone.

Read the entire piece here.

Rules of Engagement

 

Civil Discoure

I wrote this on my Facebook page last night in response to the ongoing conversation on my John Allen Chau post.  I thought I would post a version of it (slightly edited) here.  –JF

 

Recent posts about the “presuppositions” of those commenting prompted me to write this long note to everyone who participates in conversation here at my Facebook page (which I see as an extension of my blog).

I hope everyone realizes that the people on this page come to the conversation with all kinds of presuppositions. Some of the people posting here are evangelical Christians. Others are Christians who may not identify with evangelicalism. Some are Jewish. Some do not identify with any faith. This is what makes these kinds of conversations on Facebook so difficult and awkward. As one of the few people (and maybe the only person) here who knows something about the presuppositions of just about everyone by virtue of the fact that it is my page, I can see how most folks are talking past each other. One problem with my Facebook page and my blog is that I have readers who share my faith and others who do not.  Much of my career and work has existed in both the evangelical community and the academy. I thus have conversation partners in both worlds. I think a conversation about Chau might look very different among fellow evangelical Christians than it might among those who are not Christians. This is indeed a mixed group, but it doesn’t have to be a problem.

I like to think that my Facebook page is a place where it is difficult to remain in our silos.

I hope evangelicals (and there are many here) can learn to appreciate the insights of non-evangelicals, even if they disagree.  I hope they realize that this space is not an extension of a Sunday morning service.  Evangelicals who come to the table must come with a public voice.  This does not mean that they abandon their religious convictions at the proverbial door.  It means that they come with a realization that not everyone in the conversation may share their presuppositions and then behave accordingly. I realize that this is hard for some evangelicals.

I also hope that non-evangelicals or non-Christians also realize that this is a public space where many kinds of people come to read and discuss. My blog and Facebook page is not  an extension of the faculty lounge. My non-evangelical academic friends have a lot of work to do in respecting and listening to people with different presuppositions and ways of viewing the world. Some folks do this better than others.

All of us are prone to self-righteousness in spaces like this. I hope we can learn from each other and find common ground and not demonize those with whom we have deep and fundamental disagreements. On an issue like Chau, it is very, very hard to find common ground. But we must try.

If this is not a project that interests you or you do not have the inclination to engage in a civil way with people who see the world differently, I would encourage you to just stay in your social media silo where everyone thinks the same way you do.  You will be more comfortable there.

But if you do want to engage in a spirited but civil fashion, you are always welcome at my page.

And I will try to be less cranky! 🙂

How Liberals Treated John McCain

McCain New School

During John McCain’s funeral service, Barack Obama and George W. Bush made veiled attacks on Donald Trump for the current president’s failure to promote civil discourse across political parties.  But University of Pennsylvania historian Jonathan Zimmerman argues that liberals are also to blame for eroding “the civil discourse that McCain held dear.”   Here is a taste of his piece at The Dallas Morning News:

Like body odor and accented speech, however, incivility is a lot easier to notice in the other guy than in yourself. So I hope that those of us at universities will pause for a moment and ask ourselves how we, too, have eroded the civil discourse that McCain held dear.

How many professors have made snarky comments about Republican candidates or causes, instead of engaging our conservative students in respectful dialogue? How many students have denounced anyone they disagree with as racist, thereby cutting off discussion instead of promoting it?

And how many of us have insisted that only certain views — our own, of course — should be aired on campus, and that opposing ones should be discouraged or prohibited?

That’s what happened at the New School in 2006, when nearly 1,000 students and faculty signed a petition urging the school to rescind its invitation to McCain. “Pre-emptive War is Not a New School Value,” declared one sign at a rally outside the school. Other protesters denounced McCain’s position on abortion. “He has been opposed to Roe vs. Wade for more than 20 years,” one professor told the rally. “He is a man who believes in female sexual slavery.”

Got that? We (always “we”) are opposed to the war in Iraq, so we don’t want to hear from anyone who thinks otherwise. And if you’re pro-life, you don’t belong here either. In fact, you’re an advocate of slavery!

And so it goes, right down the line. If you question affirmative action, you’re a bigot; if you oppose gay marriage, you’re a homophobe; and if you resist gender-neutral bathrooms, you’re a transphobe.

Read the entire piece here.

The Civility Wars

Civility

Last week, Rutgers University historian David Greenberg chided his fellow Democrats for “taking the low road” in their opposition to Donald Trump and failing to practice civility. Here is a taste of his piece at Politico:

Trump and his followers have already shown their contempt for the practices and gestures that help us live amicably with our ideological opposites. Joining Trump in the project of trashing the unwritten rules of public conduct won’t change his policies or governing style. But it will betray our own values and make it harder, once he’s gone, to reconstitute a decent, humane politics. We have nothing to gain from the eradication of a politics-free zone, from a war of all against all that greenlights once-verboten behaviors and permeates once-private spaces.

Besides, as the events of the late 1960s and early 1970s show, the outrageous and obnoxious antics of the militant left ended up hurting their cause. The taunting of public figures isn’t well remembered, and neither will history long record June’s showdown at the Red Hen. But insofar as these actions stem from a determination to score political points by violating civil norms, they—and the repellent and violent methods of extreme protesters more generally—engender a backlash and alienate allies. By 1972, we should recall, a majority of Americans had come to oppose the Vietnam War, but greater numbers opposed the antiwar movement. Nixon cannily positioned himself as upholding law and order—a helpfully ambiguous phrase that lumped together the threats of rising crime, urban riots and rowdy left-wing activism. His invocation of the “silent majority” aimed to bring together those who were put off by the noisy, disruptive and politically extreme protests. Trump, who has openly borrowed Nixonian terms like “law and order” and “silent majority,” has already been using the confrontations with his administration’s officials to shift the discussion from his immigration policies and onto the left’s behavior.

There is a middle ground. It’s entirely possible to take a principled stand against the Trump administration while hewing to honorable methods. In November 2016, Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended a performance of the Broadway musical “Hamilton.” He wasn’t turned away, yelled at, or threatened. But after the show, one actor, Brandon Victor Dixon, spoke for the ensemble in thanking Pence for his presence and then expressing their fears. “We, sir—we—are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights,” he said. “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

Read the entire piece here.

Chris Lehmann of The Baffler is not buying Greenberg’s argument.  Here is a taste of his piece “No Country of Civil Men“:

More telling still is the—wait for it—“middle ground” model of protest that the tongue-clucking Greenberg can see his way clear to approve of. That, gentle reader, was back in the early days of the Trump White House, when Brandon Victor Dixon, a cast member of Hamilton, briefly stepped out of character to chide Mike Pence for traducing our diverse republic and its noble immigrant traditions. What made this protest civil and honorable, Greenberg argues, is that Dixon thanked the vice-president for attending Broadway’s deeply confused celebration of one of our least democratic founders. “We truly hope,” Dixon sonorously announced to the erstwhile shock-jock bigot now commanding the trappings of state power, “that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

By Greenberg’s own preferred metric of backlash-provocation, Dixon’s appeal to the better angels of Mike Pence’s nature was clearly a miserable failure: Trump’s administration is more devoted than ever to transforming virtually every arm of our executive branch into a bastion of white supremacy and moneyed corruption—waving the standard of backlash politics in the abject service of the continued rule of the one percent.

Yet as is always the case with our civility policers, the public displays of protest that win their coveted approval are much more a reflection of social mood and elite consensus than any vulgar quest for measurable policy results. And here, of course, the setting says everything: a $2,000-a-ticket Broadway extravaganza rehabilitating the civic reputation of a bona-fide American autocrat. This is the high civic culture that the David Greenbergs of the world see imperiled by public confrontations with the Trump administration’s corps of on-the-make racist apparatchiks.

To which one would just add a small historical disclaimer—our recently minted liberal saint Alexander Hamilton was killed in a duel, fought over the results of the 1800 presidential election (so much, it seems, for the myth that our founder promoted decorous intra-ideological comity in designated spheres of private repose, quarantined from ugly political confrontation). That’s something to ponder, genteel liberal tone policers, over a cheese plate to be shared with the loyal child-caging opposition.

Read Lehmann’s entire piece here.

Both writers make some good points.  (I am sure Lehmann will accuse me of trying to find a civil “middle ground” here).  I think Greenberg’s concern about civility is on the mark.  Someone needs to take the high road.  On the other hand, Greenberg fails to realize that American politics have never been civil.  Moreover, Lehmann is correct in pointing out the class-based roots of “civility.”

Alan Jacobs Talks to *The Atlantic* About Thinking, Conspiracy Theories, and the Nashville Statement (among other things)

ThinkIn case you haven’t seen it yet, here is a taste of Alan Jacobs’s recent interview with Emma Green of The Atlantic.  The topic is Jacobs’s new book How to Think:

Green: Some people look at our fractured media environment—where groups don’t even share facts to argue over—and see nefarious forces at work, like the Russians manipulating Facebook or consistent left-wing media bias.

You argue something different: that individual behavior makes it impossible to have a conversation across ideological divides. How do you reconcile your view with these kinds of structural analyses of the vast forces that pull America apart?

Jacobs: Conspiracy theories tend to arise when you can’t think of any rational explanation for people believing or acting in a certain way. The more absurd you think your political or moral or spiritual opponents’ views are, the more likely you are to look for some explanation other than the simplest one, which is that they believe it’s true.

Green: So what’s the boundary? How do you decide which ideas, people, and ideologies should be considered morally unacceptable

Jacobs: I’m probably going to regret this later on, but I’ll give you an example from the Christian world. A group of conservative evangelicals recently posted this Nashville statement about sexuality and transgenderism, as they call it. That was like a line in the sand. The idea is that now it’s time for you to decide: Are you with us, or are you against us?

Almost at the same time, I read something by a young lesbian woman who had recently been married, who was essentially saying to her friends, “If you attend churches where gay and lesbian Christians are not completely welcomed and affirmed, you’re not really an ally. So you need to decide: Are you on our side, or not on our side?”

I’m looking at that and thinking, “So, where is the space where Christians who find this complicated or difficult can talk?”

When people are drawing lines, saying, “I have settled this issue, and I want to be with other people who have settled this issue,” I think there can be really, really bad consequences. That’s saying, “I’m not interested in having that conversation anymore.” Sometimes, being a grown-up is realizing that there are issues you’d rather not talk about that you’re going to have to talk about.\

Read the entire interview here.

Cornel West and Ross Douthat Together at the University of St. Thomas

 

StThomas(MN)_Header

I have been concerned lately about the lack of open debate and public conversation on college campuses.

All colleges and universities invite guest speakers to campus.  At my college we do a fair job of inviting a range of voices. Some speakers come from within the Christian tradition and some come from outside of it. Some are liberal and some are conservative.

Liberal factions on college campuses bring in speakers who will attract liberal faculty and students.  The speakers tell the audience what they want to hear and basically confirm the audience’s already held convictions.  Everyone oohs and ahhs for 45 minutes.  Then, when the applause is over,  they loft “softball” questions that the speaker can easily hit out of the park.  After the lecture they talk about the speaker for days, hoping that the college as a whole will take note of what he or she said and start to enact meaningful change along the lines that the speaker has proposed.

And then the next week a conservative speaker comes to campus and the same thing happens all over again.  Very few of the faculty and students who were present for the liberal lecture show up for this lecture.  The speaker expounds upon her or his conservative values and everyone leaves feeling pretty good about themselves.  Then comes the usual post-lecture swoon.

Rarely is there a conservative response at the liberal lecture or a liberal response at a conservative lecture.  I imagine that sometimes people worry about this kind of intellectual exchange becoming too contentious.  (This is certainly an issue at my college where Christian peace and the absence of conflict stem from the school’s Anabaptist heritage).  Yet such arguments, when conducted civilly, contribute to the educational and intellectual culture of our campuses.  Rarely do our students see two intellectuals with different ideas engaged in conversation over things that matter.

Last week I was up in Wenham, Massachusetts to deliver the Gordon College Franz Lecture.  My topic was “Why Study History?,” so I used my time to talk a little bit about the ongoing problems that I see with American democracy.  (Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home or Why Study History? have heard or read this before).

Here is a small part of my talk:

And what is happening to the state of democratic conversation? Public argument and debate over the critical issues of the day too often takes place in 30-second sound bites between talking heads on cable news. This sound-bite culture makes it difficult to fully engage with and even understand the viewpoints of those neighbors with whom we disagree. Cable news encourages a kind of passive approach to public life. Rather than engaging in civil conversation, we sit on our couches or in front of our screens and merely consume it all. This is not citizenship.

As the late historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch has written:

“The attempt to bring others around to our point of view carries the risk, of course, that we may adopt their point of view instead. We have to enter imaginatively into our opponent’s arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them, and we may end up being persuaded by those we sought to persuade. Argument is risky and unpredictable, therefore educational. Most of us tend to think of it….as a clash of dogmas, a shouting match in which neither side gives any ground. But arguments are not won by shouting down opponents. They are won by changing opponents minds—something that can only happen if we give opposing arguments a respectful hearing and still persuade their advocates that there is something wrong with those arguments. In the course of this activity, we may well decide that there is something wrong with our own.”

I was thus encouraged when I recently read about a week of lectures and conversations at the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic liberal arts college in Minnesota.

The highlight of the week was a session featuring Cornel West and Ross Douthat.  The topic was “Christianity and Politics in the U.S. Today.”

Here is a taste of University of St. Thomas theologian Michael Hollerich‘s description of the event at the website of Commonweal

Then on Friday, St. Thomas’s Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy hosted a conversation between Cornel West and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat on “Christianity and Politics in the U.S. Today.” A cynic might have derided this as a celebrity event. It was much better than that, and the planners deserve warm congratulations for pulling off a remarkable success. The Murphy Institute is named for the late Msgr. Terrence Murphy (d. 2004), for over thirty-five years the university’s president and chancellor, and sometimes referred to as St. Thomas’s Fr. Hesburgh. The institute is jointly administered by the university’s Center for Catholic Studies and the law school. Apart from its legal-education programs, for much of its twenty-year history the institute stuck to topics and speakers from the conservative end of the Catholic spectrum. The last few years it has been braver about going outside the usual suspects. A good example is the seminar led by German sociologist Hans Joas on his 2013 book The Sacredness of the Person, which draws on American pragmatism and German historicism for a new genealogy of human rights.

Cornel West was a reach well beyond that. I am not privy to whatever dealing brought him and Ross Douthat, a very public Catholic conservative, to our campus. It turned out to be an inspired match. Anyone who expected Crossfire-style vituperation would have been disappointed. West, who looks like an aging Frederick Douglass in cufflinks, was funny, powerful, and lightning quick on his feet, with a daunting expressive range and a limitless supply of intellectual and cultural allusions. He played his audience like a maestro conducting an orchestra. Douthat was the real surprise. His journalism didn’t prepare me for his self-deprecating humor and charm. There wasn’t a trace of the sometimes-churlish voice of the columnist. West’s booming greeting to “Brother Ross” set the tone. Douthat also showed impressive self-possession in not being bowled over by West’s bombast. He seemed mostly willing to play the straight man to West’s shtick (did he have a choice?), while slipping in his own sly cracks. The humor and the moral and intellectual passion were infectious. Who expected a spirited detour on John Dewey (Douthat called him an aggressive secularizer and a defender of amoral instrumental reason; West said his love of democracy was mystical and almost religious)? Or Cornel West invoking “Gilbert Keith Chesterton”? It helped that they shared a common contempt for Donald Trump (and possibly Hillary Clinton as well). On Trump, Douthat was unsparing—when I referred above to Trump’s “racialized politics,” I was borrowing Douthat’s phrase.

Read the rest here.  We need more events like this on our campuses for the purpose of modeling conversation and intellectual exchange about important matters.

 

Stephen Colbert “Salutes” Antonin Scalia

I always knew Scalia was a polarizing figure, but the hatred toward the man that I have been seeing on social media this week has been disheartening.  These comments seem to go beyond just ideological difference.

As a historian, I want my students to understand the “original intent” of the United States Constitution.  But I also want them to see that the document is a product of the late-18th century.  In other words, it is a product of a very different world than the one we live in today.  So I have always been somewhat suspect of the kind of originalist interpretations that Scalia espoused.

But I digress…

I am enjoying some of the stories of Scalia’s humanity being passed along by those who disagreed with him.  For example, check out David Axelrod’s story about a conversation with Scalia concerning current Supreme Court justice Elena Kagan.

And now Stephen Colbert has entered the mix:

The Response to Scalia’s Death

Scalia

Three thoughts:

  1.  Political posturing was already taking place within minutes of the announcement of Scalia’s death.
  2.  After the announcement of Scalia’s death a lot of liberals, glad to see the conservative judge dead, turned to social media to write very negative comments of the “good riddance” variety.
  3.  Conservatives appalled by these anti-Scalia comments wrote social media posts to criticize the liberals who wrote them and, in the process, score their own political points.

A Lesson from the Scalia-Ginsburg Friendship

Scalia Ginsburg

Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader-Ginsburg disagreed on just about everything, but they were very good friends.  They would spend New Year’s Eve together.   They took trips together. From all reports they really enjoyed one another’s company.

I am guessing that such a relationship was possible because they realized that life is more than just ideology.  Scalia and Ginsburg knew one another not merely as rival constitutional thinkers, but as human beings.  They were more–much more–than merely the sum of their beliefs.

There is a lesson in there somewhere.

Debating Wilentz on Slavery and the Constitution: A Call for Civility

Not all reputable historians are bashing Sean Wilentz for his New York Times op-ed arguing that the slavery and race were not at the heart of the United States Constitution.  Matt Pinsker of Dickinson College has a slight different angle on this controversy.

Here is a taste of his post at the blog of his U.S. Constitution course at Dickinson:

Wilentz loves these kinds of fights, but I find them somewhat depressing.  His point, stripped of the polemics, is a powerful intellectual one.  The Framers of the Constitution steadfastly refused to include the principle of slavery –the concept of “property in man”– into the nation’s founding charter.  They didn’t just leave the word out; but fought hard over limiting the principle to a very local domain.  Freedom was always national. That matters.  However, even though it matters, it doesn’t negate the realities of color prejudice, the horrors of slavery, or even the unanticipated and dreadful consequences of specific 1787 concessions to the nation’s slaveholders.  Yet that nuance too easily gets lost in this kind of crossfire. Bernie Sanders wasn’t commenting on the Constitution directly at Liberty University, and much of the venom directed at Wilentz by other scholars conflates the realities of early American “racism” with more complicated questions about American constitutional jurisprudence.   That’s what’s so depressing.  They’re talking past each other. Of course, it’s nearly impossible to sort out such issues during abbreviated Q&A sessions, through op-ed pages, or by tweets, but there should be some sense of acknowledgement by participants that this issue is a seriously contested one.  There are no simple facts and no easy conclusions.  Scholars, activists and even scholar/activists need to find ways to defend their views with vigor (and plenty of verve) without also belittling their opposition.

Several things are worth noting about his post:

First, it is interesting that Pinsker distinguishes between “scholars” and “scholar activists.”  He seems to suggest (and Matt can tell me if I am wrong) that it is easy for historian-activists to be so interested in using the past for political purposes that they lose their scholarly detachment. (If Matt is not will to say this, I will!)  Earlier in the post he calls out those “scholar-activists” who have been less than civil in their criticism of Wilentz:

What happened next therefore should have been predictable, but it still caught me by surprise.  The comments section at the New York Times website exploded, the blogosphere lit up, and a number of leading scholar / activists “angry at America’s racist past” took to social media to berate Wilentz for his ignorance.  One of the tweets that hit me hardest was by noted slavery scholar Ed Baptist from Cornell.  He openly mocked Wilentz, one of the most distinguished figures in our field, calling his op-ed “pure comedy gold.”

In another tweet, Baptist dismissed Wilentz’s piece as “utterly unconvincing” and went so far as to accuse him in public of “hauling water for Hilary and Bill.” Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media professor from University of Virginia, blasted Wilentz’s argument as “shallow” and “unbecoming a historian.” Kevin Gannon from Grand View University (who, admittedly, has one of the best historical twitter handles:  @thetattooedprof) found himself “baffled” by the Wilentz reading of the Constitution, and then produced a blog post which went even further, labeling the effort “infuriating” and “sad.”

Second, and related to the first point, is Pinsker’s suggestion that the “scholars-activists” and Wilentz are talking past each other.  I made a similar case in my post on the controversy: “Wilentz seems to be responding to Sanders’s comments at Liberty, but Wilentz focuses specifically on the Constitution while Sanders’s remark seemed to be much more general in nature.”

Finally, check out Pinsker’s Storify of the various tweets on this topic.  He makes some stinging critiques of a few other historians who have joined the fray.

David Brooks at Messiah College–October 3

He will be here on Thursday, October 3.  Here is the press release:

David Brooks

“The Importance of Humility and Civil Discourse in American Life”


Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013 – 7:30 p.m.Parmer Hall

All tickets are $25. To purchase, please contact the Messiah College Ticket Office at (717) 691-6036 or visitmessiah.edu/tickets after Aug. 1, 2013.


David Brooks has a gift for bringing audiences face to face with the spirit of our times with humor, insight and quiet passion. He is a keen observer of the American way of life and a savvy analyst of present-day politics and foreign affairs. Brooks is author of two books of what he calls “comic sociology” — descriptions of how we live and “the water we swim in” that are as witty and entertaining as they are revealing and insightful: “Bobos in Paradise” and “On Paradise Drive.” “Bobos in Paradise” was a New York Times best-seller. His current book, titled “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement,” focuses on why neuroscience and sociology are so important to thinking about politics, culture and the future of America in world society. Brooks has worked at The Weekly Standard, joining the magazine at its inception and serving as senior editor. He has been a contributing editor at Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for nine years in a range of positions, including op-ed editor. He has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Forbes, The Washington Post and many other periodicals.

"America" Magazine Bans Terms "Liberal" and "Conservative"

America has long been a favorite magazine of liberal Catholics.  But the Jesuits in charge are “sickened by the toxin of ideological partisanship” in American culture and, as a result, have chosen to abandon the terms “liberal” and “conservative” to describe Catholic teaching.  Here is a taste of a Washington Post interview with new editor Rev. Matt Malone:

America has been known as a place hospitable to ideas that may challenge traditional church teaching. Now it wants to shed its reputation as liberal. Why? 

Certainly America never called itself that or conceived of ourselves that way [as liberal]. If your mission is to the margins, and at the intersection of the church and the world, by definition you live and work in tension. . . . On one hand we are deeply committed to the church in every sense, the institutional sense, the larger theological sense, we are in and of the church. At the same time, we are missioned to the boundaries. . . . Our lived commitment to the church, it’s strong. But at the same time it can’t be uncritical.

How will this shift impact what you publish? Will you still publish pieces on controversial topics such as whether priests can marry, or female priests, or contraception?

We always tried to present multiple perspectives, but I think you’ll see an even more pronounced effort to do that. Look, if the church is the body of Christ and we are one communion, by definition as a work of the church, there can’t be an authentic Catholic voice that’s unwelcome in America. . . . When we say an “authentic” Catholic voice, we don’t mean someone baptized. When we say “faithful,” we mean someone who is engaging the tradition. . . . There are things that are fundamental, like the sanctity of human life. They aren’t up for debate in terms of their core value. How the teachings are applied with prudence, what is appropriate for the time and place when we’re living, there are a number of ways to think about that.

AHA Roundtable: Historians’ Perspectives on Web Ethics

I am participating in a roundtable on historians and web ethics at AHA Today.  Check out the roundtable posts by bloggers Ben Alpers (U.S. Intellectual History), Ann Little (Historiann), and Clare Potter (Tenured Radical). 

Here is my contribution:

At The Way of Improvement Leads Home I am constantly dealing with issues related to civility. Perhaps I have an overly pessimistic view of human nature, but I assume that people writing in the comments section of the blog or tweeting a response to a post I have written are going to be tempted to say things that they would not say to me (or another commentator) in a face to face setting.  As a result, the burden of cultivating civility in the blogosphere probably rests more with the blogger than the commentator. In my attempts at creating a productive and professional space for the exchange of ideas at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, I often have to enter the comment stream in order to rebuke commentators for their incivility. I don’t care if commentators have ideological disagreements or if they want to take issue with a post. I welcome this kind of exchange and value those regular commentators who contribute dissenting perspectives on the things that I write. But I will not tolerate name calling, a failure to empathize with an opposing viewpoint, or a general rudeness or lack of manners. I usually give a warning to the perpetrators and, if they continue in their incivility, I remove their comment. I realize that this may sound undemocratic or heavy-handed, but The Way of Improvement Leads Home is my space on the web and I want to make sure that my readers—most of whom are not scholars—have a comfortable space to share their thoughts.

I am particularly troubled when historians engage in uncivil behavior in the blogosphere. We are trained to listen and understand before casting judgment. I hope that this applies to both the dead people we study and the living people we encounter in our everyday lives, both on and off the Internet. Twitter, Facebook, and the comment sections of blogs are often conducive to sloppy historical thinking on this front.

Of course all web commentary is not the same. As an independent blogger unaffiliated with a larger website or online publication, I have the liberty to monitor my blog as I see fit. A majority of my readers are return visitors, thus creating an intellectual community whose members understand the culture of respect and civility I am trying to cultivate. The Way of Improvement Leads Home does not get anywhere near the number of comments as the large political or academic blogs, but I would like to think it is a safer place to create and share ideas. If historians are going to reach the general public on the web with thoughtful teaching and dialogue about the past and its relationship to the present, then we need to think hard about the spaces we have created for this kind of learning to happen. 

Thanks to Vanessa Varin of the American Historical Association for putting this roundtable together.  You can comment on the roundtable at AHA Today or @ahahistorians using the hashtag #webethics.  I look forward to the conversation.