*Harper’s Magazine* publishes “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”

Harpers

 

This letter will appear in the October 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

Signers include Anne Applebaum, Margaret Atwood, David Blight, David Brooks, Noam Chomsky, Gerald Early, David Frum, Francis Fukuyama, Todd Gitlin, Anthony Grafton, David Greenberg, Jonathan Haidt, Michael Ignatieff, Gary Kasparov, Mark Lilla, Damon Linker, Dahlia Lithwick, Greil Marcus, Wynton Marsalis, John McWhorter, George Packer, Nell Irvin Painter, Orlando Patterson, Steven Pinker, Claire Bond Potter, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Paul Starr, Gloria Steinem, Michael Walzer, Sean Wilentz, Garry Wills, Molly Worthen, and Fareed Zakaria.

Here is a taste:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

Read the entire letter here.

Garry Wills on Patriarchy and the Discrimination of Women in the Academy

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Historian and writer Garry Wills has seen a lot in his day.  His has been observing the academic world for six decades.  In his recent revealing piece in The New York Review of Books, Wills reflects on the role of women in the academy and how he has evolved on this issue.  Here is a taste:

My next full-time teaching job, after a decade as an adjunct professor at Hopkins, was in the history department of Northwestern University as its first Henry Luce Professor of American History. The opportunities available to women had changed dramatically in that interval. They were being hired for all kinds of jobs—never, of course, in proportion to their numbers in the population, but with increasing frequency. Once, when Natalie and I got on a commuter flight with a woman pilot (at a time when the major airlines were not hiring women), she said, “We were never safer,” since we knew that this pilot had to pass twice the scrutiny any male pilot did. Even advances for women, then, were also inhibitors: they had to earn it twice over.

The Northwestern history department that I joined in 1980 had a few women on the faculty, but two of them were especially overworked. There was such a demand, beyond their fields of American and Renaissance history, for their help—with women’s study groups and for individual counseling of women students—that the women on faculty kept asking for more women to be hired. That should not have been a problem, since there were plenty of candidates, as well as pressure from feminists to add female members of faculty as a mark of diversity.

That very demand made some uneasy about hiring women—or, for that matter, blacks or gays: Would we be seen as hiring them primarily because they were minorities? (Not that women are a minority except in the professional and governing ranks.) So there was especially intense scrutiny given to any of the women brought up for consideration and, once again, the most dubiously qualified male members of the faculty were often the most severe judges of candidates. This process was repeated often enough that our two star women faculty members soon left Northwestern and accepted offers at another school where they would not be overburdened in a department with so few women. That is, we lost two superb women colleagues because we would not hire completely qualified women who might not have been quite at their level.

This dynamic became clear to me when it was my turn to lead a search for our diplomatic historian post. The position had been empty after the retirement in 1980 of Richard Leopold, who had educated many political figures in his popular courses on international relations. Other searches had failed because diplomatic history was in that time a sensitive, if not radioactive, field: it had been in turmoil over cold war history, since bright young revisionists had put much of the blame for competition and escalation of nuclear threats on the United States, rather than laying all of the responsibility on the Soviet Union and its allies. To hire an eminent scholar—even if he (and they were still all men) were willing to move from the embattled post he had won—could be read as siding with the establishment, while hiring a younger voice might be seen, rightly or wrongly, as joining the revisionists.

Two searches had already foundered on this problem by the time my turn came to lead another. Prior effort had revealed that the least controversial senior professors were not interested in leaving their eminent posts, and the younger and more controversial ones had not found a receptive audience among my colleagues. Rather than repeat the earlier baffled searches, I corresponded with prominent older scholars who were above the field’s polarization, asking if they had recent or current students who deserved consideration and might be free of the bitterness of their seniors. After getting almost a dozen recommendations, I started reading just-finished or almost-finished dissertations of young candidates.

I circulated the more promising of these pieces of work to other members of the search committee, we conferred, and we agreed on what seemed an ideal candidate. She came with an enthusiastic recommendation from a famous scholar at the University of Chicago, who called her the best doctoral student he had ever had. Her dissertation was not complete, but it was already so solid that we sent it around the whole department and invited her to Evanston for an interview. She was asked searching questions, which was the praiseworthy practice of our history department, and she answered them carefully but timidly. She was understandably intimidated by a barrage of people determined to show they were not going to hire a woman unless she was above any suspicion of being chosen mainly or even partly because of her gender. Some said granting a position on the basis of an unfinished dissertation would set a bad precedent. I argued that her other work and interests, along with the championing of her adviser at the University of Chicago, made it certain that she would get the doctorate with honors. But she was rejected. I was so disgusted that I resigned my tenure as the Henry Luce Professor at Northwestern. I had spent most of a year hunting for this superbly qualified woman. I saw the same consideration at work that made us lose the two A-level women professors.

The university president, Arnold Weber, invited me to lunch to talk over my resignation. He asked me what had made me take such a rare step. I said I could not do the tasks rightly asked of me as a tenured professor: the time-consuming meetings for hiring, for firing, for tenure advancement, for curriculum changes, for debate on affirmative action and diversity. I told President Weber that these were appropriate debates, but I did not want to be perpetually embroiled in them. He said I could be excused from such debates and still maintain my tenure; but I did not think that was fair to other tenured members of the department. I said I could maintain a light teaching load as an adjunct professor spared all duties of tenure while I concentrated on writing books and long articles of political reportage for The New York Review of Books.

Read the entire piece here.

Even More Historians Talk About the Trump Presidency

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Scott Berg, Robert Dallek, Jon Meacham, Edmund Morris, Stacy Schiff, and Garry Wills all reflect on the Trump presidency in this piece at Vanity Fair.

Here is Schiff:

Eighty-seven years before the American Revolution, the New England elite lost their patience with overreaching British officials. They wailed that their royal governor intended to deliver them to a foreign power. He colluded with the Native Americans. He distributed Catholic propaganda. Privately, they alleged, Governor Edmund Andros sneered that the Puritans “were a people fit only to be rooted off the face of the earth.” To counter his “deep design,” Boston’s civic leaders staged a coup. They were hardly the first to pass off self-interest as self-preservation, persecution as piety. They warned that the French and Irish were en route to Boston to destroy it; that Andros had bribed the Native Americans with jewelry; that together those fiends intended to butcher the settlers. An Andros associate wrote off the charges as hysterical, “so apparently false and strangely ridiculous” that no one could conceivably believe them. He was wrong. The coup’s leaders had a great deal invested in that narrative. They were a familiar breed of thin-skinned men, the kind who—as John Adams would later say of Elbridge Gerry—“would risk great things to secure small ones.”

Setting the stage for the American Revolution, Samuel Adams took a page from that playbook when in 1768 he linked a later Massachusetts governor to a so-called Papist plot. Adams had not a shred of evidence. But he knew a thing or two about stalking horses; Jesuits would be said to prowl menacingly through much of the American 19th century. Ultimately the Catholic specter gave way to the Communist one: between the Puritan hedge and Trump’s Mexican wall came networks of subversives, the watchtowers of the nation, and the reckless cruelty of Joseph McCarthy. The fevered imaginings remained the same. Each group served its purpose, threatening, as an eminent cleric warned in an 1835 anti-Catholic tirade, to “decide our elections, perplex our policy, inflame and divide the nation, break the bond of our union and throw down our free institutions.” Always a convenient demon can be found to plot against America, to remind a chosen few that they are the elect, that our way of life is in peril, that time is short, that we are precariously poised between a sun-dappled past and an apocalyptic future. The language has evolved very little since the 17th century. The judge sentencing Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage in 1951 termed theirs “a diabolical conspiracy to destroy a God-fearing nation.” That fiery 1835 cleric could have been selling this administration’s Muslim ban.

By definition the contest is stark and absolute. The insinuations alone are vague. “There’s something going on that’s really, really bad,” our current president has reminded us. “A lot of people are saying,” he hints, broadly, vaguely. The fearmongering works, as does the cheap call to arms, Patriotism Lite. To connect Ted Cruz’s father with J.F.K.’s murder, to invent Kenyan births or Trump Tower wiretaps, allow you to avenge and aggrandize yourself while defrauding the truth. It divorces the rest of us from reality. It dangerously obscures the evidence at hand. It moves the club from the hand of the slogan-spewing white supremacist to that of the peaceful protester. Reason takes a holiday; in rush the phantom Frenchmen. Conveniently, a fake enemy can’t return fire. Better yet, he will continue to wage battle only so long as he is needed, after which he disappears into thin air.

Read the entire piece here.

What Should We Make of the Gettysburg Address?

Today we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.  On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln came to south central Pennsylvania, about thirty miles from where I am sitting as I write this post, to dedicate a national cemetery in Gettysburg.  There were about 15,000 people in attendance to hear Lincoln speak.  As many of you know, he was forced to follow Edward Everett, one of his generation’s great orators. Everett delivered a two hour speech.  Lincoln followed with 272 words.  Four score and seven years ago…

I have taken students to the site of this address several times over the years.  This summer I got to wander the cemetery for a few minutes with my twelve-year old daughter.  She did not like the fact that I was pulling her away from her friends during a break in a basketball tournament she was playing at Gettysburg College, but sometimes when your Dad is a history professor you need to learn how to deal with these kinds of spontaneous field trips.  I hope she will remember it.

As I walked through the cemetery this past summer, trying to explain to my daughter the significance of all that happened at Gettysburg, I tried to reflect on the words of the Gettysburg Address.  Those famous words began to ring in my ears: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  Amen.

And then I thought about how Lincoln understood what happened on the battlefield just a few months before he delivered this speech.  The people who fought at Gettysburg had died so the nation might live. He used religious terms such as “consecration” and “devotion.”  The soldiers at Gettysburg did not die in vain.  Instead, they spilled their blood and sacrificed their lives for a new nation, a free nation.

As Garry Wills argued over twenty years ago, Lincoln’s words “remade America” by redefining the meaning of the Declaration of Independence.  After November 19, 1863, one would be hard pressed to think about the Declaration as merely a foreign policy document designed to announce America’s independence to the world.  (This is how the founders perceived it).  Lincoln helped to make the Declaration into what the late Pauline Maier has called “American Scripture,” a sacred text that will forever more be seen as a definitive statement of American nationalism despite the fact that this was by no means the document’s original intent.  With U.S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman doing the dirty work in the months following the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s “nation, under God” was achieved. The Union would survive amid the difficult trial of war.

Yesterday, in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, I helped Megan Piette bring together Messiah College history students and faculty to read the Address in front of a camera. (Stay tuned:  We hope to have this mash-up video online soon).  As I quietly sat in the back of the room listening to my colleagues and students recite the Address, I could not help think about how such a speech might be received at a place like Messiah College, a school partly rooted in the Anabaptist tradition.  Because of these roots Messiah does not fly an American flag on campus (although you will find one in the gym and on the athletic fields–NCAA regulations), privileges pacifism and non-violence, and is very wary of American patriotism and nationalism. As I listened to everyone repeat Lincoln’s words before the camera I wondered if any of them were thinking about how ironic it was to be reciting this speech at this school.   I thought about the several students and colleagues who did not respond to my invitation to participate in this project.  Perhaps they were just too busy and did not have the time.  But I wonder if some of them did not want to participate on more theological grounds.  I could definitely understand why someone from a Mennonite or Brethren tradition might feel uncomfortable affirming publicly a statement from a United States president who waged war to save the Union and then gave a speech “consecrating” such an act.

There is, of course, another way of looking at the Gettysburg Address. When Lincoln talked about “a new birth of freedom” he was probably referencing the renewed sense of equality that would eventually come to African Americans with a Union victory. (Remember, the Gettysburg Address was delivered over eleven months after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued).  Perhaps he was envisioning the legislation that would eventually become 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.  By November 1863, Lincoln and his abolitionist friends had made this a war about both preserving the Union and ending slavery.  Should the fact that the Gettysburg Address remade the Declaration of Independence (and the Constitution for that matter) by offering a more inclusive nationalist vision make us, or my Anabaptist friends, feel any better about all the war, bloodshed, and patriotism?  I don’t know, but it certainly makes me feel slightly better about it, even if I am not entirely sure the Civil War was a just war.

3 conclusions:

1). I love my country and think, along with Ken Burns, that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address needs to be commemorated, remembered, and perhaps even memorized.

2). I can’t help but wonder whether the death of over 50,000 people on the field at Gettysburg was really worth preserving the Union.

3).  If Lincoln’s understanding of the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg (as articulated in this address) was about bringing the ideals of the Declaration of the Independence to former slaves then I am on board.

In the end, I think it is important to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address today because it raises a lot of questions–questions worth discussing over and over again–about our relationship to American nationalism and how that nationalism was forged in the crucible of war.

Garry Wills: "America’s Best Living Explainer"

Sam Tanenhaus has written a fascinating sketch of writer and historian Garry Wills.  He describes him as “America’s best living explainer” and “an outsider, a practising Catholic, a proud midwesterner, a cheerful iconoclast who has infuriated friends on both the left and the right.”

Here is a taste of his piece in Prospect Magazine:

In his 50 or so books, a handful of them masterpieces, Wills has ranged further than any other American writer of his time, covering much of the western tradition, ancient and contemporary, sacred and profane. His subjects include Jesus, Paul and Augustine, American presidents old and new (Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Reagan, the second Bush), Shakespeare and Verdi, the outrages of American militarism, the glories and delinquencies of his beloved-despised Catholicism and—why not?—John Wayne (Wills is a devotee of John Ford’s Westerns.) For diversion, Wills extrudes densely learned articles in the New York Review of Books, the august journal that since the 1970s has been the main stage of his brutal dismantlings of inferior—that is to say, other—minds. To be reviewed by Wills, I can attest, is to feel like a vagrant caught urinating in the master’s hedges: after the initial panic, one experiences a strange, penitential relief. God, or at least one of His retainers, really is watching.

On a dour Sunday morning in December, I visited Wills, who is nearing 79 but looks 20 years younger, at his large three-storey house in Evanston, a prosperous suburb to the north of Chicago. For 30-odd years Wills has been affiliated with Northwestern, the excellent liberal arts university a few blocks from his home. Remarkably, given his proximity to the University of Chicago, that citadel of serious thought has never tried to recruit him for its faculty, despite his Pulitzer Prize, his membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, his National Humanities Medal (awarded by Bill Clinton the same week Wills urged him, in Time magazine, to resign over the Monica Lewinsky dalliance).

The snub pays silent tribute to Wills’s singularity. The University of Chicago favours upholders of tradition like Saul Bellow or the culture critic Allan Bloom. Wills might seem to fit. He has a PhD in classics from Yale. His Latin is still good, and he reads French and Italian. But he puts all this to heretical purposes. He is America’s best living explainer, exposing the nation’s most cherished myths, which he approaches in the manner of a holy blasphemer. He has become an invaluable guide to the modern United States, connecting the present, in all its strangeness, to the nation’s imprisoning history, the patterns of behaviour unchanged since the earliest days of the republic: the convergence of individualistic licence and submission to authority, of “free-market” avarice cloaked in the language of spiritual quest. More incisively than any other thinker he bracingly answers the questions that most puzzle outsiders: why is religion such an enduring force in American politics? Why is there such popular mistrust of government? Why can’t Americans give up their love affair with guns? And he has done all this as an outsider himself—a practising Catholic, a proud Midwesterner who avoids the literary scene, a cheerful iconoclast who has infuriated friends, and presidents, on both the right and left.

Is Garry Wills a Catholic?

Can a Catholic reject the priesthood, the papacy, transubstantiation, and extreme unction?  Garry Wills, author of Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition, thinks so.  He actually sounds like a low-church evangelical here.  (And I almost didn’t recognize him without his glasses). Colbert lets him have it.