Some Thoughts on the Audience of *Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump*

Believe Me 3dWho is the audience for Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump? There are three audiences.  Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. The 81% of white American evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump.
  2. The 19% of white American evangelicals (and non-white evangelicals) who did not vote for Donald Trump
  3. Anyone who wants to understand why 81% of American evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.

I realize that many of those in the 81% will want nothing to do with this book. But I hope some will read it.  I hope the book can serve as a way of encouraging dialogue in churches and other places where evangelicals gather together in communities of Christian fellowship that transcend politics.  (I am assuming, of course, that some of these places still exist.  I think they do).

I also realize that those who study evangelicals at the highest level–many of them former evangelicals or disgruntled evangelicals–want to take evangelicalism to the woodshed for its many sins.  Their scholarship is good and needed, but I part ways with many of them when it comes to reaching the church.  As a Christian, I am a member of the body of Christ–the Church. That is where I must find my primary identity.

Of course I still have a responsibility to live out my vocation in the academy,  the classroom, and as a professor at a Christian college.  If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that some posts are written with my church community in mind.  Others are written for American historians or members of the academic community.  Still others are for the general public.  These groups often overlap.  I have written books for my students, my academic discipline, the general public, and the church.

As a Christian, I have chosen to worship among American evangelicals.  In 2016, a large number of my tribe voted for Donald Trump.  I don’t think that was a good idea.  I have even written a book to tell my tribe that I do not think it was a good idea.  But in the end, I must live with the people in my tribe and try my best to fulfill my vocation as a historian and educator in their midst.  Some will say I go too far in the criticism of my people.  I know this from the letters, e-mails, and phone messages I receive–some of them pretty nasty.  Others will say I don’t go far enough in criticizing my people.  I know this from the reviews of the book.

The trashing of evangelicalism is popular these days and you can get pretty far and become pretty successful in academic/scholarly circles–especially in the fields of history and religious studies–by doing this.  I am sympathetic to scholars who call evangelicals to task for their sins.  As I am learning on the Believe Me book tour, many people had (or are having) very, very bad experiences in evangelicalism.  They are hurting.  They are angry.  I am listening to their stories.

But in the end, I will continue to defend the term “evangelical” because it still means “good news.”  For me, this “good news” is the ultimate source of hope for those who are hurting.  I am still willing to fight for the “good news” of the Gospel because this message changed the trajectory of my life and the life of my family and extended family in positive ways.  And I have seen hundreds of other lives changed by this message—men, women, people of color, poor people, rich people, gay and straight people.

In the end, I want to use my vocation as a historian to be a more direct part of the solution in the evangelical church rather than someone who merely diagnoses the problem or calls-out evangelicals for their many sins.  I am not sure I can do this as an academic, but I am willing to try.  Perhaps other Christian and evangelical scholars are called to something different.  But if they are called to something different, they will need to convince me how they will use their gifts and knowledge to serve the body of Christ.  This point relates not only to the content of their work, but also to its style and means of dissemination.

If we pursue this path within evangelicalism today, it will mean that we must serve those with whom we disagree on a whole host of political and cultural issues.  It will also require us to work hard at uncovering the common spiritual and theological ground that draws us together every Sunday morning despite our differences. I am convinced that this kind of engagement deepens our faith, helps us to see the flaws in our precious arguments, makes us better listeners and communicators, and teaches us to love.  It may also mean, in some cases (but certainly not all cases), staying in a particular religious tradition rather than leaving for a more a comfortable place of worship and fellowship where people think more like us.

Postscript:

I am sure that for some of my readers, this post just made me a subject of analysis, rather than a detached scholar.  Of course such analysis goes both ways.  I have seen many of my fellow academics as subjects of analysis for a long time! 🙂

Scholars Respond to Trump’s Border Policy

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The Chronicle of Higher Education is running a piece on the way scholars stepped-up to the plate during the “Trump border crackdown.”  I am glad that The Chronicle is noticing our work.  Here is a taste of Mark Parry’s article:

…In recent weeks, seemingly every Trump immigration move has prompted a real-time counter-mobilization of academic research, either by scholars themselves or by journalists calling on their expertise.

You see that in John Fea and Yoni Appelbaum’s breakdowns of how a biblical passage cited by the attorney general was used by defenders of slavery. You see it in Aliza Luft and Daniel Solomon’s analysis of Trump’s animalizing rhetoric. You see it in the debate over whether it’s fair to call America’s migrant detention centers concentration camps. (The answer, say two experts, is a qualified yes.)

For some scholars, research that had percolated for years suddenly carries an immediate resonance. On Monday, for example, the political scientists Emily M. Farris and Heather Silber Mohamed published a journal article documenting how news outlets stoke fear of Latino immigrants through imagery depicting them as criminals. Farris drew on her research in a Twitter thread contrasting two images that have shaped the family-separation narrative: the photo of a little girl crying as a border agent frisks her mother, and a picture released by the Trump administration of faceless boys in detention.

“We should think about how those images play a role in who we think is deserving of our concern,” Farris, an assistant professor at Texas Christian University, said in an interview. She added, “Images are powerful, and we don’t necessarily think about them as mediums for the ways we can interpret different policies.”

In interviews with The Chronicle, other historians and political scientists emphasized a dilemma of engaging this debate: how to raise alarms about the potential for human-rights abuses while conveying a nuanced understanding of a fast-changing situation. (Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday intended to stop family separations. It remained unclear on Friday how relatives would be reunited.)

The academics’ challenge is complicated by a paradox of scholarly communication right now. Thanks to social media and the proliferation of outlets like Vox and Monkey Cage, scholars are mixing it up in public like never before. But some scholars are frustrated that academe’s fact-backed warnings don’t penetrate to policy makers or large swaths of the public. Their struggle: getting readers to consider their evidence without dismissing them as Ivory Tower elites yet again denouncing Trump.

Read the entire piece here.

Historians and Journalists

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I get a lot of calls from journalists.  They have increased significantly since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency.   When journalists call I am happy to oblige.  I see this as an important part of my identity as a public scholar.  It is always nice to get acknowledged in an article, but sometimes a reporter wants to talk to a historian for background information that may or may not make it into the story.  Other times I just don’t say anything profound enough to make the final cut.

Over the years I have had my work–books, articles (scholarly and popular), and blog posts–used without citation.  It comes with the territory.  I have been noticing this of late with my use of the phrase “court evangelicals” to describe the evangelical leaders who support Donald Trump.  (I am grateful for journalists such as Nancy LeTourneau who always gives me credit for coining the term.  Michael Gerson–not so much).

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Fernanda Zamudio-Suarez writes about the relationship between historical scholarship and the media.  Here is a taste:

It was getting late, and the 2018 Golden Globe Awards were dragging on. But Danielle L. McGuire, a Detroit-based historian, was still waiting. She was staying up for something much more important than the year’s entertainment honors. She was waiting for Oprah Winfrey.

That night, Winfrey’s speech accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement, in which she presented a passionate argument for the #MeToo movement, electrified viewers and prompted questions about a presidential run.

For McGuire, the speech prompted a different question: How had Winfrey found out about Recy Taylor, one of the women at the center of her speech?

In September 1944, Taylor, a 24-year-old African-American sharecropper, was abducted and raped by six white men while she walked home from church in Abbeville, Ala. Decades before the civil-rights movement reached its climax the NAACP sent Rosa Parks to investigate the situation, and the seeds of the movement for racial equality were sewn, she said.

McGuire’s 2010 bookAt the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — a New History of the Civil Rights Movement From Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (Penguin Random House) brought attention to a figure who had been largely absent from mainstream history. McGuire had connected the dots between the activists who called for Taylor’s rapists to be prosecuted and the rise of the civil-rights movement years later.

The speech introduced Taylor but didn’t go full circle to the civil-rights movement, And it lacked a reference to McGuire’s work.

Not that the historian was upset. At first she was just surprised that Winfrey was speaking about Taylor. “I was genuinely shocked, like, in a good way,” she said.

McGuire had just returned from Taylor’s funeral. She spent time with Taylor’s family, and helped The New York Times write her obituary. To hear Winfrey tell the story was an extraordinary moment, she said. “You couldn’t ask for a better bookend to somebody’s home-going than have Oprah Winfrey tell your story in front of millions of people and praise your courage,” McGuire said. “And single you out as first, right, a leader. And so it was amazing. I was so grateful.”

She held out hope that Winfrey would mention her book in the speech, but that night she could do without it. “I mean, look, it’s Oprah Winfrey.”

Read the rest here.

Historians Weigh-In on Trump’s War with the FBI

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Vox has collected nine historians to reflect on the Donald Trump’s belief that the FBI is plotting against himSean Illing has gathered responses from Douglas Charles (Penn State), Rhodri-Jeffryss Jones (Edinburgh), Meg Jacobs (Princeton), Carol Anderson (Emory), Ivan Greenberg, Morton Keller (Brandeis), Timothy Naftali (NYU), H.W. Brands (Texas-Austin), and David Stebenne (Ohio State).

Here is Jones:

The contest of wills between Trump and the FBI is not so much a part of a long-term battle between the president and the director of intelligence as much as it is the latest episode in the GOP effort to sideline and discredit the Russia investigation.

When Christopher Wray testified during his confirmation hearings, he assured the Senate committee he was “not faint of heart.” If and when necessary, he would be willing to stand up to the president. And so far, it looks like he’s living up to his promise. However, the fight over the House Republican memo is less about historical precedence or weakening of the checks on the presidency than it is a reflection of the polarized politics we are living through and, more generally, the attack on the credibility of all government institutions.

The memo scandal is a move on behalf of the White House … to tarnish the reputation of the FBI and of the Justice Department, and by extension call into doubt the motives of the Mueller investigation. In that way, it takes us further down the path of turning every development in the investigation into a partisan ploy.

That, of course, is nothing new — think of the attacks on Kenneth Star by the Clinton White House. But here, the charges are not simply that Mueller is an overzealous prosecutor, but rather that the FBI tried to help throw an entire election. The House memo seems like it will suggest that the FBI was implicated in an attempted coup. The long-term significance of the memo release is that it may confirm for some how few in government can be trusted to act in an independent and honest way, even the FBI —which has historically been seen as beyond the partisan fray.

Read the entire piece here.

Is Social Media Scholarship?

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Yesterday I was in Northfield, Minnesota where I gave a talk about blogging, The Way of Improvement Leads Home (the blog), and the relationship between social media and civic engagement.  I spoke as part of a series on digital publishing sponsored by faculty and staff from Carleton College and St. Olaf College.  (Thanks to the DeAne Lagerquist for the invitation!)

During our conversation several professors talked to me about the possibility of starting their own blogs.

I don’t pretend to believe that our blogging model at The Way of Improvement Leads Home is normative.  We post a lot here and have developed a unique approach.  So yesterday I tried to suggest some ways that busy academics might make blogging work for them as teachers and scholars.

One model for academic blogging comes from Mark Carrigan in his recent Chronicle of Higher Education piece, “Social Media is Scholarship.”  It is excellent.

Here is a taste:

Before I created a research blog, I used to carry a series of ornate notebooks in which to record my ideas, reflect on what I had read, and sketch out my plans — or rather I tried to carry them. Inevitably I forgot them at the most inopportune moments, reducing me to scribbling notes on scraps of paper, only to fail to transcribe them at a later date. Even when I managed to record my notes, my overly-enthusiastic scrawls often proved indecipherable when I came back to them.

In contrast, my research blog is accessible to me wherever I have a mobile phone or computer. The expectation that others might read my notes forces me to work out what I am trying to say, rather than scribbling down in shorthand ideas that might feel meaningful to me at the time but are often confusing later.

Sharing those blog posts through my social-media feeds often leads to useful conversations — at a much earlier stage in the research process than would otherwise be the case. It creates an awareness of what I’m working on, and has often been the first step in eventual invitations to speak or collaborate. The fact that I can categorize and tag my online notes helps me see connections between different projects I am working on, highlighting emerging themes and deepening my understanding of how the topics fit together. Having my notes online also makes them extremely easy to search, providing a fantastic resource when I am writing papers and chapters.

My point is not that everyone should use a research blog. There are many reasons why it might not be suitable for you: (1) Without a smartphone, a blog would be much less useful; (2) some people find that writing by hand actually helps, rather than hinders, the creative process; and (3) many academics are uncomfortable with sharing work-in-progress online with an unknown audience.

Exactly which technology works for which person will depend on many factors. But in my case, moving from a research notebook to a research blog helped me become a more efficient and effective scholar. Rather than being an unwelcome drain, social media has helped me use my time more effectively.

Read the entire piece here.

A Call for Historians to “Use Their Power”

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As one who has been in trenches of public scholarship for years, I cheered when I read historian Karen Cox‘s piece at CNN: “Historians need to use their power now.”

A taste:

Historians need to take their role as public intellectuals seriously. True, op-eds often require a timely response to events that are unfolding. Yet, some events, like historical anniversaries, can be anticipated. We need to pay attention to contemporary conversations that have historical parallels or require a global context.

Today, humanities scholars are roundly criticized for being irrelevant. Degrees in history and English, among others, are described as “useless.” But this is simply not true as recent events have shown. That being said, scholars who have yet to write for broader audiences should take the initiative (and be encouraged by their institutions) to do so, whether that’s through editorials, a blog, popular magazines, or books that not only offer lessons, but are written to be accessible.

Make your work available via social media as well. Historians on Twitter, also known as “Twitterstorians,” share and engage with the public and are on many journalists’ radar. One of the most important developments in recent years has been hashtags for various syllabi. The #Charlestonsyllabus was one of the first. It emerged on Twitter as a response to the killing of nine parishioners in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. The effort amassed a reading list of scholarship and public writing about our country’s racial history that is now a book. It is also highly regarded for its comprehensiveness.

As historians, we must also engage in community discussions, and many of us do. But more of us can and should, whether that’s via a panel discussion or speaking to local citizens’ groups.

Read the entire piece here.

On the Loaning of Books

Bookshelf

Over at U.S. Intellectual History Blog, Robert Greene II has a nice piece on the experience of loaning books to his father.  It reminded me of the power of ideas and the importance of making those ideas accessible to people other than academics.

Here is a taste:

Perhaps not all historians can write for a general audience. When we lament that folks outside the academy don’t (or can’t) read our work, however, we never seem to slow down and think, “Wait a minute. Are we sure our work is that hard to comprehend?” Or to put it another way: is it time for us to stop underestimating what people outside the academy can read, understand, and enjoy?

Again, I only bring this up because I think about loaning monographs to my father and getting his reaction to reading them. Just today, I went home to celebrate his birthday. I was glad to, in addition to handing him his gift, to loan him my copy of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and George Frederickson’s White Supremacy. I handed over The New Jim Crow because my father, during casual conversation last week, mentioned wanting to get the book down the road. Wanting to spare my dad a few bucks, I briefly perused my book shelf before finding it and letting out a small whoop of satisfaction.

Read the entire piece here.

More on Historians as Pundits

WoodwardToday we published two posts on a small debate raging over how historians should engage in public discourse.   After Moshik Temkin published a piece at The New York Times titled “Historians Should Not Be Pundits,” Julian Zelizer and Morton Keller responded at The Atlantic.  Earlier today I discussed these issues with historian and author Amy Bass on her New York radio show (WVOX) “Conversations with Amy Bass.”

Joe Adelman, an American history who teaches at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, has also weighed-in with a helpful critique of Temkin’s piece.  It is published (with permission) below:

Like many historians, I awoke this morning and recoiled when I opened Twitter and stumbled into an New York Times op-ed piece entitled, “Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits.” The author, a historian at the Harvard Kennedy School, argues that he is concerned by what he believes is “the rapid-fire, superficial way history is being presented, as if it’s mostly a matter of drawing historical analogies.” He then offers examples of such analogies, and suggests that instead historians should address a variety of “historical processes” that led to the current day. I found the essay frustrating (and judging by my Twitter and Facebook feeds, I’m not alone in that feeling among historians), but set it aside to go about my day.

But the essay has stuck with me for three reasons, so here I am to respond. First, the headline (which was almost certainly not written by the column’s author), which is delightfully ironic in placing the construction “X Shouldn’t Be Pundits” at the corner of Main Street and Broadway in Punditville, USA (i.e., the New York Times opinion page). Second, the essay employs a series of straw men. Somewhere out there, the author assures us, are historians making “facile analogies” between the politics and personalities of 2017 and Adolf Hitler, Richard Nixon, and Huey Long. Sure, I’ve seen a few of those pieces, and so have you, but they are far from the majority of work that historians have done in the past six months. Even when I have seen essays that employed analogy, they were rarely “facile.”

It’s particularly useful here to note that Temkin is wrong in one of his examples, in which he claims that C. Vann Woodward avoided analogy in his classic study, The Strange Career of Jim Crow. One scholar quickly found evidence that Woodward had specifically said that he did use analogies, and in direct reference to Strange Career.

So historians are using analogies, but there’s a very good reason for that: analogies are in the air. I hesitate to generalize broadly at the risk of committing the same sin I just condemned, but anecdotally I can offer from the classroom and public talks in the community that one of the more common frames people use to ask questions is, “so is X like Y?” Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no, but it’s an impulse that seems common (at least among my own students and the audiences I encounter). In my own case, I demur on questions too much about the late twentieth century, since it’s far outside my research specialty. However, I will engage on most analogies that deal with the Civil War or earlier, and use what’s offered in the question to work towards an effective answer. As Woodward notes in the tweeted quotation, analogies aren’t meant to capture direct comparison, but rather a way to set something familiar side by side with something less so.

Prof. Temkin wants historians to engage the public and offer factual and nuanced portraits of the past. I agree. But especially when speaking outside the profession, whether in an essay for a news publication, at a public talk, or in the classroom, that means we need to start with where our audience is and work from there. And many of them are working from analogy.

Zelizer and Keller Respond to Moshik Temkin

Historians

Earlier today we posted on Moshik Temkin’s New York Times piece “Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits.”  Over at The Atlantic, historians Julian Zelizer and Morton Keller have also responded to Temkin’s piece.  Here is a taste of Zelizer’s response:

As he suggests toward the end of his piece, historians are particularly well positioned to place current events in longer time frames and to offer more perspective on the origins of a certain situation (another point that May and Neustadt made in their classic work). For my own part, I have spent much of my time on CNN and here in The Atlantic trying to explain how the Donald Trump presidency can only be understood within the context of the strengthened role of partisanship in Washington since the 1970s and the transformation of the news media. In other words, I have tried to show that President Trump is not a cause of our current political environment but a product of changes that have been building for years.Sometimes comparisons with the past, even if imperfect, are very useful. Most of the good historical work in the media does not claim that Trump is President Nixon. Rather, the point is that the institution of the presidency creates certain incentives and opportunities for abusing power and that some people who have held these positions have done just that. That is crucial to remember, just like the ways that the institutional fragmentation of our political system perpetually creates huge amounts of friction between the president and Congress, as well as between the parties, despite the endless nostalgia about how things worked better in the past.

Historians have an important role in unpacking key elements of the ways that institutions operate over time to make sense of big trends and broader forces that move beyond the particular moment within which we live. We can’t become so blinded by our concern for particularity and specificity and nuance that we lose site of the big picture—something my friends in political science always remind me of. Claiming that we can’t look at these kind of continuities and similarities is in many ways moving in the opposite direction of what historians do. Some of the best books in American history, such as J.G.A. Pocock’s classic book on the history of Republican ideology, look over decades and even across national-lines to explain how history unfolds. It is possible for historians to take the long view and provide this kind of useful analysis in 800 words or even a five-minute television discussion. It has to be short, it has be to the point, but it can be as insightful and on point as anything said in the classroom.

Read the entire piece here.

“Made By History”

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“Instead of making history, we are made by history.”

Made by History” is a new blog that the Washington Post launched today.  Here is a taste of the press release:

The Washington Post today launched Made by History, a new blog in The Post’s Outlook section that will explore parallels between today’s political climate and history.

“Outlook often publishes posts that draw from history to contextualize current events, and we’re excited to have created a home in our section for this type of analysis,” said Mike Madden, deputy editor of Outlook. “Through the deep historical knowledge of our contributors, Made in History will broaden readers’ views of this political moment and introduce them to diverse scholarly perspectives on the latest news.”

The blog will feature commentary from 75 historians from nationally renowned universities and institutions including Harvard University, Yale University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Virginia and more.

“It’s an exciting time to be a part of The Post,” said Brian Rosenwald, historian at UPenn and Made by History’s Editor-in-Chief. “We believe that our contributors will add a unique level of insight and expertise to the ongoing political discussion that many of The Post’s pieces currently generate.”

I am glad that the folks at “Made by History” are writing for a public audience.  This has the potential to be a great blog.  I know that I will read it and comment on it regularly here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

The editors write: “The blog will feature commentary from 75 historians from nationally renowned universities and institutions including Harvard University, Yale University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Virginia and more.”  Not sure what to make of this sentence.  I just hope the writers don’t end up preaching to the choir.

Read a “welcome” post by the editors here.

 

Tips for Public Writing

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Over at Inside Higher Ed, academics Christopher Schaberg and Ian Bogost offer “10 Challenges for Scholars Writing for Wider Audiences.”  Schaberg and Bogost are the editors of Object Lessons, a book and article series “about the hidden lives of ordinary things.” During the 2017-2018 academic year they will be conducting four NEH-funded workshops for scholars who are interested in reaching larger audiences with their writing.

Here are some of their “challenges”:

Scholars need not choose between reaching the public and impressing their peers. They can do both. The deciding factor in whether the public appreciates an article or book is not the subject matter; rather, it is the manner in which the subject is made to connect with readers’ interests and concerns. Likewise, ordinary people are perfectly capable of digesting difficult, technical and specialized material as long as the writer explains that material clearly and concisely. Even most scholarly authors prefer reading stuff that doesn’t require physical suffering. But habit, pride and maybe even shame make this topic a forbidden one. And so we end up with the same hard-to-read books and articles.

Scholars don’t know what a “market” is, even when they write for a specific scholarly audience. The process of evaluating a work for whom it might reach and why is simply foreign to scholars — especially humanists. Almost all book proposals include a section on the book’s supposed audience, but it typically gets filled with celebrations of a project’s “uniqueness.” Uniqueness is not necessarily a virtue. Work needs to reach people who have previously been reached by other, similar work. Academics can benefit from thinking of their work as having a market and considering how comparable titles have fared in the marketplace of ideas and books.

This isn’t for everyone. Not every scholar will or should be destined to reach a broader, more general audience. It is not more or less scholarly or more or less righteous to do so. Each scholar must figure out how their individual talents and disposition can best be put to use. Similarly, recognizing that colleagues and peers might have different talents and dispositions, and concomitant publishing trajectories, can help produce greater scholarly harmony. 


Read the entire article here.

Is Trump the New Nixon? Historians Debate the Usefulness of Analogies

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At The New Republic, Graham Vyse asks this question to several historians and gets several different answers.  This, of course, should be expected.  Historical analogies are always problematic.

Rick Perlstein, for example, describes “the whole concept of the ‘historical parallel’ as perverse, and bearing little resemblance to actually mature understanding of the present in light of the past.”

Kevin Mattson says “For God’s sake, if you don’t see an analogy there, where the heck do you go for analogies?”  He says “quite honestly, I don’t understand where [Perlstein’s] coming from.  I’m kind of at a loss.”

Luke Nichter says: “I guess, as a historian, it’s not in my training to work hard to get my name in the press…At the end of the day, my bread and butter is contributing to our understanding of the past, not of the present.”

And here’s CNN’s own Tim Naftali: “Engaging the present is not a professional obligation for an historian,” but he does add “anybody who’s studied Nixon and Watergate has an obligation to be a resource so that nothing like that ever happens again.”

Read the entire piece here.  It is a great conversation about the role of the historian in public life and the relationship between the past and the present.  Where do I fall? Somewhere in the middle, but I resonate the most with Perlstein. Go read Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  🙂

Trump’s Remarks Are Drawing Historians Out of the Ivory Tower

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Check out Graham Vyse’s piece at The New Republic in which he suggests that Donald Trump is radicalizing American historians.

I am not sure if “radicalizing” is the right word here.  Historians have been radicalized for a long time.  The professions leans heavily to the left.

But Trump’s misuse of the past seems to be getting more historians out of the ivory tower and into a deeper engagement with the public.  This is a good thing.

Here is a taste of Vyse’s piece:

But Trump also presents a challenge for historians: how to use their expertise to counteract Trump’s ignorance, but without appearing partisan. “You’re entering into a very heated world with a very heated president, so you have to be careful not to be an advocate. It’s very tempting for many people,” Zelizer said. “It’s difficult to figure out the proper tone with which to object to Trump’s positions,” Greenberg acknowledged. “Nobody wants to look biased.”

Some historians fear that, given how partisanship increasingly dictates what Americans believe, many Americans will believe Trump’s alternative history. “Before you know it, we may have a new term: history deniers,” said Yale University historian David Blight. Avoiding such a future “may mean more of us have to become public spokespeople about history than we were in the past,” Blight said. “When the most powerful man in the world speaks historical nonsense, we have to speak out and say so.” “I think we are very much in a similar role as climate scientists,” Lichtman added. “There are truths of science. There are truths of history.”

For Blight, the trouble is that Trump rose to power despite these truths—despite the established danger of demagogues, the historic viciousness of prejudice, and the broad consensus that expanding rights for women and people of color has strengthened societies. “You spend all your years and all your life trying to teach history, and then to see this man elected—I felt historians had failed,” he said. “We’re working in every medium we can—from film, to museums, to writing books. But we’re up against the Fox News view of the country, which we don’t reach. We don’t even know how.

Vyse’s piece focuses on Penn State historian Amy Greenberg, but it also quotes Allan Lichtman, Julian Zelizer, and David Blight.  The latter three are all historians who do speak to the general public.

Read it all here.

 

Academics as “Public Utilities”

giving-adviceI get about 3-4 requests like this a week:

I’m writing you today because as part of my Fine Arts Lab course, I am creating a theatrical design book for an imaginary production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. … I was hoping that you could answer a few questions I have on the direction/production of theatre: When directing with companies/schools, or do you work with shows that are selected for you? [sic] If the former, how do you go about selecting a show? If the latter, how do you start gathering your ideas for the show once it’s given to you? Do you create a design book for shows that you work on/direct? If so, describe it. How did you get involved with the directorial side of theatre? How long have you been directing shows? Do you have any advice for a person looking to direct their first show?

This is an e-mail that a theater professor recently received from a high school student whom she had never met.  It is the focal point of Harvard professor Robin Bernstein‘s piece at The Chronicle of Higher EducationYou Are Not a Public Utility.”

How should one handle this kind of request?  I get them a lot in January and February when students are working on National History Day projects.  But I also get them from adults whom I have never met.

Bernstein suggests some helpful things to consider when these e-mails come.

  1. You are not a public utility.  People are not entitled to your time.
  2. When deciding whether or not to respond consider how much care and time the e-mailer put into his or her request.  Does the correspondent say please?  (Is the correspondent e-mailing on the recommendation of another professor–perhaps someone that you do know).
  3. It’s OK to say no.

Since I have put myself “out there” as a blogger and an advocate for American history I always try to respond to these queries and help where I can.  I do not always respond immediately, but I do try to take these requests seriously.  If I do not respond it is likely that the e-mail got lost in my inbox and I forgot about it.  This sometimes happens.

Having said that, I get some requests from correspondents who do see me as a public utility.  For example, I recently received a twitter message (that’s right, a twitter message) from an undergraduate student at an unnamed Christian university who was writing a historiography paper on my work.  The student asked me if I could answer a series of questions and do so by the end of the day so she could finish her paper and hand it in on time.  I said no and tried to gently explain why contacting me in this way was not a good idea.

I should also add that these kinds of requests often take a lot of time to fulfill.  I think this must always factor into one’s decision as to whether or not to respond to them.  College and universities rarely reward this kind of public work (not even as a form of “service”), so be prepared to do it on your own time.

Two Princeton American Historians Discuss the Election of 2016

KruseCheck out Princeton historians Sean Wilentz and Kevin Kruse discuss the 2016 presidential at a Princeton alumni event from back in February 2017.  (Thanks to History News Network for bringing this video to my attention).

Here is a taste of the transcript:

Sean Wilentz: I take it our charge is to be historians. Whether you reacted to the events of Nov. 8 with elation or despair or something in between, I think it’s been difficult to get our heads around what happened. Our charge is to try and lend some historical perspective, to put our own loyalties aside for a moment. Thinking historically means trying to understand where this all fits in the recent past, and everything that led up to the recent past, to try and understand the larger historical dynamics that brought us to the place that we were on Nov. 8, and what that portends for the future. I think that’s what we’re here for.

Kevin Kruse: Look, I get asked to comment on the present, or, God forbid, to make predictions about the future, and I always have to remind people that as a historian my professional training is in hindsight. As historians we can look back on snap opinions made after other big elections and see just how wrong those were. After 1964, lots of accounts had said, “My God, this is it for conservatism. You’ll never see a conservative president in America again. Barry Goldwater has killed it. Liberalism is here to stay.” After 1980, “Well, the New Deal is dead. It’ll never come back. It’s going to be swept off the face of the Earth by the Reagan revolution. Social Security is on its last legs.” After Obama in 2008, “Well, we’re now in a post-racial America. Racism is gone. Congratulations, we did it.” 

So there’s this trend of overreacting to a presidential election, and we have to remember that a presidential election, for all of the very real ramifications it has on contemporary politics and policy, is but one data point in a much larger stream. And it’s a data point that I think we need to take in its proper context, because we had 123 million votes cast in this election. If you moved 50,000 of those in just three states, we’d be talking about President Hillary Clinton today, and drawing a whole bunch of other wrong, big conclusions about what that meant. 

SW: Well, let’s look at the proper data point in order to start to understand this. Certainly something happened 50 years ago, and you mentioned the Johnson–Goldwater election. A rupture did occur, I think, in American political life about the time of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Vietnam War, and then Watergate. And I think, in some ways, anything we’re talking about is still a product of that rupture. 

Conservatism didn’t fade away at all. It was just clearing its throat, if you will. Certainly something happened, and it had to do with civil rights, and it had to do with foreign policy, and how the two collided. And it had to do, I think, with — and this is very pertinent to what happened in November — the legitimacy of the political parties and of the political system, between the credibility gap of the late ’60s that was laid at Johnson’s door, and then Watergate. And I think what we’re seeing today, in part, can be seen as the final denouement of the delegitimization that occurred back then. Wilentz

KK: That makes a lot of sense. If we think back to that period from the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s, you can see all sorts of … for lack of a better term, the establishment cracks up. First and foremost the political firmament, the kind of postwar consensus, for all of its flaws; people believed there was a certain center of gravity there, a certain trust in the political system that gets badly eroded first by Vietnam and then obliterated by Watergate. There had been a certain trust in the postwar economy, a sense that the industrial economy, in its kind of catering to a consumer culture, was constantly on the rise. That, too, peaks at about the same time for a different set of reasons: the rise of deindustrialization; the new competition from abroad, like West Germany and Japan; the shift of factories to places from China to Mexico. So the manufacturing economy starts to crumble, too. And then there are changes that I think we would regard as good: The crack of the old racial order and the old systems of segregation, the old systems of immigration restriction — those fall in ’64 and ’65, and set apace a brand new world, a world that is much more open but I think a lot more chaotic, too. And so the ground had shifted underneath people’s feet in a variety of ways, all at the same time. 

Read the entire transcript here.

 

Historians and History Teachers in the Age of Trump

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Last week I got a nice note from a former student. Let’s call him Patrick.

Patrick is a recent college graduate and a relatively new history teacher. He wrote to tell me that his middle-school principal recently praised him for his good work in the classroom.  In the course of their conversation the principal said, “history is important, particularly now.”

Patrick’s principal is right. Good history is always important, but it is especially needed in times of great social and political change.  We are living in a day and age when historians and history teachers must serve as a “check” on presidential power.

Donald Trump gave history teachers a gift when he released his executive order banning immigration from 7 predominantly Muslim nations. When the 9th Circuit Court refused to overturn a federal judge’s decision to stop this ban, classroom lessons on the separation of powers came took on new significance. The Executive Branch went too far and the Judicial Branch, at least for the moment, put a stop to it.  Chalk it up as a victory for the Constitution.  The facts of the textbook met the realities of current events.  This is every history teacher’s dream.

The separation of powers is not the only way to keep the President of the United States in check.  A free press holds the government accountable to the people. Freedom of speech and the right to assemble, as we have seen in American cities every weekend since Trump took office, is a means of getting the President’s attention and exercising dissent.

It is time that those of us who are called to teach and write about the American past must use our First Amendment rights to be part of the dissent.

Sometimes our public work as historians is as simple as correcting the historical record when it is being abused by those in power.

For example, earlier this month Kellyanne Conway, a senior official in the Trump White House, introduced us to something called the “Bowling Green Massacre.”

I imagine that there were people who saw and heard Conway’s conversation with television host Chris Matthews and believed her claim that two Iraqi refugees in 2011 led a “massacre” of Americans in the town of Bowling Green, Kentucky.  By claiming that such an event happened (it did not) and giving her fake story a historically-sounding name like the “Bowling Green Massacre,” Conway was trying to instill fear in ordinary Americans.  It was a blatant attempt to fabricate history in order to justify her boss’s immigration ban.  History teaches us that tyrants often manipulate the past to buttress their power.

Historians quickly debunked Conway’s fake history, but the damage had already been done.  The day after the Conway’s interview with Matthews I was speaking to a Trump voter who referenced the “Bowling Green Massacre” as a Muslim terrorist attack that could have been avoided if Trump’s ban had been in place in 2011.  A poll by Public Polling Policy found that over half of Trump supporters still believe that the President’s executive order is justified by the “Bowling Green Massacre.”

Historians might also show that Americans have been banning immigrants based on country of origin or religious faith for a long time.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 excluded people from coming to the United States on the basis of their race, ethnicity, or country of origin. The Johnson-Reed Act, which banned most immigration from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, remained in place until 1965.

Historians must remind us, in this age of Donald Trump, that we as a nation have not always lived up to our highest ideals.  Their work can remind us that we have failed in the past and encourage us, perhaps this time around, to follow our better angels.

But most importantly, historians offer ways of thinking about the world that we desperately need right now.  History teachers challenge students to make evidence-based arguments. They spend time showing students how to write footnotes and cite sources correctly because they do not want them to speak or write in public without research to support their conclusions.  They counter “fake news” with facts.

In this regard they teach the nation’s young people how not to be like Donald Trump.

History teachers challenge students to enter imaginatively into the thoughts and motivations of the people they encounter in the past.  They teach students to listen before judging and to empathize before criticizing.  They want students to consider the public statements of our leaders in context, and to call them out when they play fast and loose with the past for the purpose of political gain.

There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution about the role that historians and history teachers play in the checking of presidential power.  But we need them now–perhaps more than ever.

Scott Culpepper’s “Call to Courageous Christian Scholarship” in the Age of Trump

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Scott Culpepper teaches history at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. In a guest post at The Anxious Bench he exhorts Christian scholars to courageously pursue their vocations in the age of Trump.  It is a wonderful piece.  Here is just a taste:

Christian scholars are indeed a subversive influence.  Critics are right in labeling us a subversive influence if what they mean is that we subvert the subordination of facts to falsehoods calculated to sway popular opinion, the substitution of shallow shibboleths for deeper reflection, and the sacrifice of principle on the profane altar of political expediency.  And there will be a greater need for us to keep on subverting these things with all the energy we can muster in the age of Trump.

The times call for renewed conviction, creativity and courage on the part of Christian scholars.  The masses may not know they need us, but they need us.  The endorsement of popular influence as a virtue in the framing of our American republic was predicated on the hope that education and character formation would equip people to exercise their rights intelligently.  No one is better prepared than Christian scholars and the institutions they serve to provide this kind of education infused with serious attention to character formation.

In a time when forces abound that pressure Christian scholars to adopt a posture of compliance to fit in, we need more than ever to stand up and stand out unapologetically.  All clouds pass in time.  When they do, a new generation will build on either the ruins or the foundations of the past.  That generation sits in our classrooms today.  We have the opportunity to model something very different from what they are seeing on the national stage in both church and state.  May Christian scholars in the age of Trump have the courage to give the masses what benefits them rather than what has been mandated in their name.

Read the entire piece here.

Should Historians Oppose Trump?

Stanley Fish, who is not a historian, came to Denver and told historians to stop engaging with politics.  Watch the video from History News Network:

I’ve written a lot about this over the last year.  Anything I write here would just be repetitive.  I also hesitate to write more because I did not attend the session.  Here is Fish’s essay for some context.

Here is what I have written about this topic over the last year or so:

Why I Signed “Historians Against Trump”

Why the “Pietist Schoolman” Signed the “Historians Against Trump” Letter

Yet Another Opinion on “Historians Against Trump”

Why Jonathan Zimmerman is Not Signing the “Historians Against Trump” Letter

More Historians on “Historians Against Trump”

Historical Thinking and Political Candidates

Historians Must Counter the Jedi Mind Tricks

No Empathy for Trump?

More Jedi Mind-Tricks