Episode 63: The 1619 Project

Podcast

In August 2019, The New York Times Magazine published The 1619 Project, an attempt to reframe American history by “placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” American historians have praised and criticized the project. In this episode we talk with Thomas Mackaman, a history professor at Kings University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and a writer for World Socialist Web Site. Mackaman has not only criticized The 1619 Project, but has interviewed other critics of the project, including several award-winning historians. Why are socialists so upset about this project? What is the backstory behind Mackaman’s interviews with Gordon Wood, James McPherson, Clayborne Carson, and other 1619 Project critics? Anyone interested in debates over how historians do history and connect the past to present political and social issues will learn something from this episode.

https://playlist.megaphone.fm?e=ADL9483726242

The “Age of Fracture” and Evangelicalism

RodgersIn his 2011 Bancroft Prize-winning book The Age of Fracture, Princeton intellectual historian Daniel Rodgers writes:

Across multiple fronts of ideational battle, from the speeches of presidents to books of social and cultural theory, conceptions of human nature that in the post-World War II era had been think with context, social circumstances, institutions, and history gave way to conceptions of human nature that stressed choice, agency, performance, and desire.  Strong metaphors of society were supplanted by weaker ones.  Imagined collectivities shrank; notions of structure and power thinned out.  Viewed by its acts of mind, the last quarter of the century was an era of disaggregation, a great age of fracture. (p.4).

Lately I have been wondering how Rodgers’s ideas in The Age of Fracture apply to the last eighty or so years of American evangelicalism.  A few of the questions I am asking:

  1. To what extent did the neo-evangelical movement of the 1940s and 1950s represent some kind of “evangelical” (as opposed to the “fundamentalism” of the folks like John R. Rice, Bob Jones, and Carl McIntire) consensus?
  2.  Rodgers writes, “What is important are the significant breaks–where old lines of thought are disrupted, older constellations displaced, and elements, old and new, are regrouped around a different set of premises and themes.” (p.4)  If there was a period of mid-century consensus, how do we define it?  In the 1940s and 1950s, the average American knew evangelicals through the Gospel message of Billy Graham.  Since the 1980s, the average American knows evangelicals through their commitment to conservative Republican Party politics.
  3.  In the “age of fracture, Rodgers writes, “notions of power moved out of structures and into culture.  Identities became intersectional and elective.  Concepts of society fragmented.”  To what extent did evangelical “structures” or institutions (controlled by white males)–seminaries, publications (I am thinking about Christianity Today here), organizations (National Association of Evangelicals?)–give way to categories of cultural identity such as politics (e.g. Christian Right), class (e.g. Trump evangelicals vs. “elitist” evangelicals), race (e.g. we now refer to “White” and “Black” and “Hispanic” and “Asian” evangelicals); and gender (e.g. the #metoo movement has come to evangelicalism).
  4. What role has the Internet and social media played in the fracturing of American evangelicalism?  Did social media cause the fracture, or merely reveal it?

Just to be clear, I am thinking about this historically.  This is not an endorsement or criticism of the “age of fracture” as it relates to American evangelicalism.

1619 or 1776?

1619

The debate over the 1619 Project continues. What is the 1619 Project and how has the debate over its publication unfolded thus far?  Click here and read our posts.

Here is Conor Friedersdorf a The Atlantic:

America’s original revolutionaries, along with Abraham LincolnFrederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King Jr., all placed the universalist ideals of the Declaration of Independence at the center of this country’s founding. But that paradigm is under vigorous challenge from The New York Times Magazine. Last summer, the magazine began publishing the 1619 Project, marking the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans’ arrival in Virginia. In essays, stories, poems, podcast episodes, and more, the Times has grappled with how slavery shaped all that followed.

More controversially, the project explicitly aims to reframe American history, rejecting the centrality of 1776 and instead “understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” In 2020, the Times will expand the 1619 Project into a book and promote classroom materials adapted from it.

That revisionist ambition quickly brought out critics—in outlets as normally antagonistic as The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the World Socialist Web Site—who challenged the Times’s reframing and the factual claims offered as its basis. Last month, five historians alleged significant factual errors in a letter published in the magazine, alongside a response from Jake Silverstein, its editor in chief, who declined to issue corrections. That prompted another round of critical coverage from the World Socialist Web Site and historian Gordon Wood, a leading scholar of the period, who was irked most by the Times Magazine’s doubling down on the claim that a primary reason American colonists favored independence was to protect slavery. “I don’t know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves,” he wrote. “No colonist expressed alarm that the mother country was out to abolish slavery in 1776.”

That movement conservatives, tenured historians, and the editors of the World Socialist Web Site align so substantially in their critiques has broader significance. The debate over the relative salience of class, race, and hierarchy in the United States has divided the left while yielding odd convergences, and not only between classical liberals on the left and right. Both Trotskyites and movement conservatives can be fiercely protective of the revolution of 1776 and worry that centering race in history and politics divides America in corrosive ways (though they differ wildly on what should or will likely happen if racial fissures recede).

My own judgment diverges somewhat from the main rival factions in this debate. Like many critics, I hope the Times Magazine’s work succeeds in causing more Americans to recognize the remarkable faith that African Americans showed in our country’s promise even in eras when America least deserved it. Yet the core reframing that the 1619 Project advocates would unwittingly set back, rather than advance, the causes of equity and racial inclusion. Placing America’s founding moment in 1776 honors the diversity of its people in a way that 1619 does not.

Read the rest here.

Some More Thoughts on the Populist Critique of “Elite Evangelicals”

Trump iN Dallas

For most evangelical Christians, the message of the Gospel transcends the identity categories we place on human beings.  All men and women are sinners in need of redemption.  Citizenship in the Kingdom of God, made possible by Jesus’s death and resurrection, is available to all human beings regardless of their race, class, or gender.

I also think that most evangelicals believe that good Christians strive to live Holy Spirit-filled lives that conform to the moral teachings of the Bible. In other words, evangelical Christians follow the 10 Commandments, Jesus’s teachings in  the Gospels (including the Sermon on the Mount), and the ethical demands of the New Testament epistles.

Since Mark Galli wrote his Christianity Today editorial calling for the removal of Donald Trump, the evangelical defenders of the POTUS have been playing the populist card. Let’s remember that the populist card is an identity politics card.

The opponents of Christianity Today have tried to paint Galli and other evangelical anti-Trumpers as “elites” who look down their noses at uneducated or working class evangelicals.  In their minds, Galli and his ilk are guilty of the same kind of supposed moral preening as university professors, Barack Obama, and the progressive legislators known as “The Squad.”  They view these educated evangelicals–some of whom they might worship with on Sunday mornings–through the lens of class-based politics rather than as fellow believers in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This populist argument has come from a variety of sectors, including First Things magazine (here and here), the court evangelicals (here), and Calvinist Front Porcher and American religious historian Darryl Hart (here).

So I ask: Has Trump’s class-based identity politics co-opted Christian ethics?

Trump has openly lied or misrepresented the truth. He has engaged in speech that is misogynistic, nativist, and racist. He has advanced policies that have separated children from their parents.  He regularly demonizes and degrades his political enemies.  It seems like these things, on the basis of biblical morality, are always wrong, regardless of whether an educated person or an uneducated person brings them to our attention.  Last time I checked, the minor prophets and John the Baptist did not have Ph.Ds.

Mark Galli of Christianity Today has offered a stinging moral criticism of Trump.  We can debate whether Trump’s actions in Ukraine are impeachable, but Galli is on solid ground when he says the president is “grossly immoral.”

Is it right to say that a Christian is “out of touch” when he calls out such immoral behavior?  (Or maybe one might take evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem’s approach and try to make a case that Trump’s indiscretions are few and inconsequential).

Would a non-college educated factory worker in the Midwest who claims the name of Jesus Christ think that racism, misogyny, nativism, the degradation of one’s enemies, and lying are moral problems?  Wouldn’t any Christian, formed by the teachings of a local church and the spiritual disciplines (as opposed to the daily barrage of Fox News), see the need to condemn such behavior?  What does social class have to do with it?  Shouldn’t one’s identity in the Gospel and its moral implications for living transcend class identity?

For those who are lamenting disunion in the church, I have another question:  Shouldn’t the church be an otherworldly, counter-cultural institution that finds some unity in the condemnation of immoral behavior in the corridors of national power?  Or should we take our marching orders from the divisive, class-based identity politics of Donald Trump?

Identity Politics on Steroids at Amherst College

Amherst

The Office of Diversity & Inclusion at Amherst College in Massachusetts recently posted its “Common Language Guide,” a forty-page glossary of terms that calls for “a need to come to a common and shared understanding of language…around identity, privilege, oppression and inclusion.”

Over at the left-leaning Catholic magazine Commonweal, Rand Richards Cooper, an Amherts graduate, offers his critique:

Some entries are almost comically tendentious. Here is the guide’s definition of “heterosexuality,” for instance: “A term developed as diagnosis of the hyper-infatuation with a different sex, first used by sexologist Karl-Maria Kertbeny in 1868…. [It] is used today to denote the normalized dominant sexual identity.” And while the guide’s definition of “equality” begins straightforwardly enough—“treating everyone exactly the same”—it quickly takes a sharp left turn, observing that “an equality emphasis often ignores historical and structural factors that benefit some social groups/communities and harm other social groups/communities.” Does that mean that emphasizing equality is not a good thing?

Anything resembling traditional, received notions of gender (and anyone embracing them) receives a bruising definitional wallop from Amherst’s team of language mavens. We learn that “femininity” is “a set of attributes, behaviors, and roles associated with girls and women,” and further that “performing femininity in a culturally established way is expected of people assigned female at birth.” The definition all but dismisses femininity as fraudulent—unless it is the femininity of the marginalized. Thus we encounter “hard femme,” defined as “an identity term for queer women… [who] remind us that femininity and strength can be synonymous.” “Hard femmes,” the entry continues, “are feminists.” But…wait! Can’t straight women remind us that femininity and strength can be synonymous? Can’t they be feminists? Not exactly; at least, not straight white women—since “white feminism,” as we learn, is “a form of feminism that centers the experiences of white (also: cisgender, straight, and upper-class) women…[and] is predicated upon the erasure of women of color and the ways in which racism and sexism converge and compound one another.”

Reading the guide is like stumbling into a trade-journal article, where specialized language demarcates territory and warns off intruders. Bristling with acronyms and niche designations, it elaborates a system of identity via a profusion of phyla: Latinx/o/a/e, QTPOC, AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth), FTM, MX, XTX (“a response by trans folks who reject the terms ‘FTM’ and ‘MTF’”). We wander into internal gender-politics squabbles, as when we learn that “Boi”—“a term describing masculine-presenting queer black women whose gender presentation can be more fluid and/or androgynous than completely masculine”—was “purposely coined to be different from ‘stud’/’AG’ [‘Aggressive Girl’] because of the rigid conformity to masculinity in those communities.” Meanwhile, TERF—Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist—denotes feminists who reject trans women because they were once boys; while this view has been rejected “by most queer and trans communities,” the guide notes that “TERF ideology still does infiltrate many women’s spaces.”

Apparently Amherst’s president was not happy about the guide.  Here is Cooper:

The Common Language Guide wasn’t on the Amherst website for long. Soon after it appeared, president Carolyn Martin, surely recognizing the potential for calamitous PR, took it down, then hastily called a faculty meeting to express her displeasure at such a document having been made public without her approval. Of course, nothing really disappears from the internet, and it didn’t take long for gloating reactionaries to seize on the guide and indulge their favorite sport of gleefully savaging liberal elitism.

Liberals will dislike being forced into strange bedfellow-ship with rightwing cultural critics. But a document like Amherst’s Common Guide may leave them no choice. Despite the sentiment expressed in its introduction, such a document will not serve to encourage discussion, but to stifle it; the goal is not intellectual diversity, but conformity. A professor friend of mine at another college notes ruefully that colleagues who oppose the ideas and language put forth in the Amherst document don’t dare say so publicly. “They’d be ostracized and shamed,” he told me. “You just can’t disagree with this kind of thing.” So much for the idea of tenure as a shield against censorship.

In a statement disavowing the guide, Martin commented that it “runs counter to the core academic values of freedom of thought and expression…[and] cuts against our efforts to foster open exchange and independent thinking.” A few days later, in a second, longer statement, Martin—presumably having taken heat from her faculty—partly walked back her initial criticism, praising “the intentions of those who created the document” and asserting that “they believed creating it would help us come to terms with the experiences and perspectives of marginalized groups and create an environment in which understanding and a sense of community could grow.”

Read the entire piece here.

Episode 49: Why is America So Divided?

PodcastWhether you ask a young college student or a baby boomer, the only thing people seem to agree on these days is that we are more politically divided than ever. But is this true, and if so, how did we get this way? Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling try to tackle this question. They are joined by Princeton historian and CNN commentator Julian Zelizer (@julianzelizer), the co-author of the recent book, Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.

Sponsored by the Lyndhurst Group (lyndhurstgroup.org) and Jennings College Consulting (drj4college.com).

Critiquing Liberalism

BerryMap

A map of Wendell Berry’s Port William

Over at The Front Porch Republic, Jeff Bilbro has a fascinating and brilliant review of a conference at Calvin College titled “Faith and Democracy in America: Christianity and Liberalism Rightly Understood.”

Here is a taste:

In early December, the Acton Institute and Calvin College’s Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics co-hosted a conference ambitiously titled “Faith and Democracy in America: Christianity and Liberalism Rightly Understood.” The dueling keynote titles caught my attention. Patrick Deneen was slated to give the first one: “Liberalism is Not Free: The Myths of Religious Liberty.” The next day, Jamie Smith would speak in defense of liberalism: “Thank God for Liberalism: An Alternative History Without Nostalgia.” Since I respect the work of both these scholars and have learned much from their writings, I made plans to attend. The conference didn’t disappoint, though I do wish the format would have allowed for a more genuine back-and-forth between Deneen and his critics. In what follows, I’ll try to avoid too much inside baseball and, rather than attempting to summarize all of the talks, will distill some of the central questions the conference raised for me.

Kristen Johnson, a professor at Western Seminary, articulated the conference’s animating questions when she asked whether Christians can find within a pluralistic space opportunities to live radically faithful lives. The danger, of course, is that a liberal, pluralistic space will so malform Christians that the distinctive character of a gospel-formed life is warped. In Smith’s book Awaiting the King he draws on Oliver O’Donovan to claim that “liberalism itself lives on borrowed capital and is only possible because of the dent of the gospel and the formative effects of Christian practices on Western societies” (17). But as liberalism draws down this moral (and, I would add, ecological) capital, can churches sustain the kinds of vibrant communities and institutions and practices necessary to form virtuous citizens, citizens whose first allegience is to the Kingdom of God? (I pursued this line of questioning further in my review of Smith’s book.)

Several of the speakers sidestepped these difficult questions by defending liberalism’s promises of equality and freedom without reckoning with the growing evidence that American liberalism is increasingly failing to deliver on these promises. Speakers such as Samuel Gregg, William Katerberg, Kristin Du Mez, and others pointed out that women and peasants and racial minorities were oppressed in pre-liberal social arrangements, as if that, in itself, answers Deneen’s critique of liberalism.

To this end, several potshots were lobbed at Wendell Berry as a nostalgic reactionary. It is much easier, however, to make fun of Berry for being nostalgic than it is to respond to his warning that our liberal way of life is causing irreparable ecological, cultural, and moral damage. (Even my three-year-old daughter has mastered the art of criticizing Berry: if I am too engrossed in my writing, she leans toward me and repeats “Wendell Berry is a bad dude,” knowing this is a sure way to get my attention.) Yet there are grave consequences when a culture forms its members to pursue wealth and happiness by cutting themselves loose from place and community and tradition. (One of these, as Comment recently explored, is loneliness, which is just one of liberalism’s fruits.)

These defenders of liberalism’s benefits, then, tend to criticize a straw man rather than actually responding to the arguments of people like Berry or Deneen. Indeed, Deneen himself explicitly acknowledges liberalism’s Christian origins and its good results:

Nor does reflecting upon what follows liberalism’s self-destruction imply that we must simply devise its opposite, or deny what was of great or enduring value in the achievements of liberalism. Liberalism’s appeal lies in its continuities with the deepest commitments of the Western political tradition, particularly efforts to secure liberty and human dignity through the constraint of tyranny, arbitrary rule, and oppression. In this regard, liberalism is rightly considered to be based on essential political commitments that were developed over centuries in classical and Christian thought and practice. (Why Liberalism Failed 19)

In other words, liberalism can be marked by the gospel and still be a political and cultural dead end. As Ivan Illich argued, corruptio optimi pessima.

By not acknowledging this possibility, these speakers largely failed to grapple with Deneen’s argument that liberalism is not, in fact, bringing about genuine freedom or just forms of society. Instead, it is sorting society into a small group of winners and a large group of losers. As Deneen puts it, “Society today has been organized around the Millian principle that ‘everything is allowed,’ at least so long as it does not result in measurable (mainly physical) harm. It is a society organized for the benefit of the strong” (148). Smith has elsewhere made a similar case himself, noting that “the dismantling of cultural jigs makes the poor especially vulnerable.”

Deneen’s book is a tour-de-force.  Berry, of course, is a prophet. 🙂  Both offer powerful critiques of liberalism.  It seems like their arguments and the implications of their arguments need to be engaged with something more than just an appeal to liberalism’s defense of oppressed groups.  I think we need less, not more, of this kind of identity politics, especially when it comes to any discussion about the future of democracy and the common good.  (And I include white identity politics in all of this, which is one of the reasons I  am such a critic of Trump).  Bilbro, Deneen, and Berry are drawing us to things that affect all of us as human beings–environmental degradation (and its impact on the poor), the destruction of places and local economies, the decline in vibrant communities defined by loving one’s neighbor over self-interest, and the “sorting of society between winners and losers,” to name a few. (Of course such universal human appeals like the ones I mentioned above are also part of the Enlightenment liberal project.  This is complicated).

Once could look at this another way.  Bilbro names conference speakers such as Samuel Gregg, William Katerberg, and Kristin Du Mez who “defended liberalism’s promises of equality of freedom without reckoning with the growing evidence that American liberalism increasingly failed to deliver on these promises.”  I was not at the conference, but I have read Du Mez’s paper (which is linked in Bilbro’s essay).  If liberalism has been so successful, then why is it necessary for Du Mez to ask “where are the women?”  I am sure Du Mez would respond to this question by saying that the work of liberalism is not yet done.  Or perhaps she would point to some of the limits of liberalism.  But it does sound like she believes that the liberal democratic order is still the best hope of progress for women and other oppressed groups.  And there’s the rub.  Bilbro, Deneen, Berry (and I would add others like Geneva College’s Eric Miller, Syracuse’s Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn, or Pomona College’s Susan McWilliams to this list) do not think liberalism is, ironically, our best path forward.

Read Bilbro’s piece here.

Lepore: “Anyone who makes an identity-based claim for a political position has to reckon with the unfortunate fact that Stephen Douglas is their forebear, not Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass”

These TruthsEvan Goldstein of The Chronicle of Higher Education recently interviewed Jill Lepore about her new book, the academy, identity politics, and writing.

Here is a taste:

Q. How is the academy implicated in or imperiled by this moment of epistemological crisis?

A. The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril. The retreat of humanists from public life has had enormous consequences for the prestige of humanistic ways of knowing and understanding the world.

Universities have also been complicit in letting sources of federal government funding set the intellectual agenda. The size and growth of majors follows the size of budgets, and unsurprisingly so. After World War II, the demands of the national security state greatly influenced the exciting fields of study. Federal-government funding is still crucial, but now there’s a lot of corporate money. Whole realms of knowing are being brought to the university through commerce.

I don’t expect the university to be a pure place, but there are questions that need to be asked. If we have a public culture that suffers for lack of ability to comprehend other human beings, we shouldn’t be surprised. The resources of institutions of higher learning have gone to teaching students how to engineer problems rather than speak to people.

Q. The university has been convulsed by debates around identity politics. You point out that identity politics, by other names, has always played a role in American life.

A. It’s impossible to talk about without pissing off a whole bunch of people no matter what you say, which is a flag that something is terribly wrong about the framing of the conversation.

Making political claims that are based on identity is what white supremacy is. To the degree that we can find that in the early decades of the country, it’s the position taken by, say, John C. Calhoun or Stephen Douglas arguing against Abraham Lincoln. The whole Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858 comes down to Douglas saying, Our forefathers founded this country for white men and their posterity forever. And Lincoln, following on the writings of black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and David Walker and Maria Stewart, says, No, that’s just not true! Lincoln read in the founding documents a universal claim of political equality and natural rights, the universality of the sovereignty of the people, not the particularity. Anyone who makes an identity-based claim for a political position has to reckon with the unfortunate fact that Stephen Douglas is their forebear, not Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass.

Q. You get asked about your productivity a lot. I gather it’s a question you don’t like.

A. I sometimes say to people — this is like a 1930s thing to say, you can picture Barbara Stanwyck saying it in a noir film — it’s like complimenting a girl on her personality. It’s not about “You do good work,” it’s about “You do a lot of work.”

For a lot of people writing is an agony; it’s a part of what we do as scholars that they least enjoy. For me writing is a complete and total joy, and if I’m not writing I’m miserable. I have always written a lot. For years, before I wrote for The New Yorker, I wrote an op-ed every day as practice and shoved it in a drawer. It’s not about being published, it’s about the desire to constantly be writing. It’s such a strongly felt need that if it was something socially maladaptive it would be considered a vice.

Read the entire interview here.

Identity Politics and the GOP Midterm Strategy

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Janesville

Adam Serwer of The Atlantic argues that “Trumpism is ‘identity politics’ for white people.”  Here is a taste of his piece:

But the entire closing argument of the Republican Party in the 2018 midterm elections is a naked appeal to identity politics—a politics based in appeals to the loathing of, or membership in, a particular group. The GOP’s plan to slash the welfare state in order to make room for more high-income tax cuts is unpopular among the public at large. In order to preserve their congressional majority, Republicans have taken to misleading voters by insisting that they oppose cuts or changes to popular social insurance programs, while stoking fears about Latino immigrants, Muslim terrorists, and black criminality. In truth, without that deception, identity politics is all the Trump-era Republican Party has.

Trying to scare white people is an effective political strategy, but it is also an effective ratings and traffic strategy. Trump’s ability to manipulate the media through provocation and controversy has been effective precisely because covering those provocations and controversies provides news outlets with the ears and eyeballs they crave. Trump considers the media “the enemy of the people” only when it successfully undermines his falsehoods; at all other times, it is a force multiplier, obeying his attempts to shift topics of conversation from substantive policy matters to racial scaremongering. The tenets of objectivity by which American journalists largely abide hold that reporters may not pass judgment on the morality of certain political tactics, only on their effectiveness. It’s a principle that unintentionally rewards immorality by turning questions of right and wrong into debates over whether a particular tactic will help win an election.

Read the rest here.

So I wonder:  Is it possible that we will ever see a politics driven by the things that hold us together rather than the things that divide us? I don’t just see this kind of divisiveness in national politics, but I see it as well in many of our communities, professional associations, and churches.

True leaders, it seems, find way to bring us together amid our differences.

Study: Churchgoing Conservatives are More Moderate on Race, Immigration, and Identity than Conservatives Who Do Not Go to Church

People's_Union_Church

Emily Ekins shares the findings of her Cato Institute study in a piece at The New York Times titled “The Liberalism of the Religious Right.”  A taste:

…new data suggest the left may have a lot more common ground with some of these conservatives than it thinks.  In a Democracy Fund Voter Study Group report, I found that religious conservatives are far more supportive of diversity and immigration than secular conservatives.  Religion appears to actually be moderating conservative attitudes, particularly on some of the most polarizing issues of our time: race, immigration and identity.

Churchgoing Trump voters have more favorable feelings toward African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Jews, Muslims and immigrants compared with nonreligious Trump voters.  This holds up even while accounting for demographic factors like education and race.

Read the entire piece here.

The Constitution as a “cudgel with which to attack their enemies”

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In The Atlantic‘s ongoing series on the state of American democracy, Yale Law School professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld argue that partisanship has “turned Americans against one another–and against the principles enshrined in our founding document.”  They call for a “constitutional patriotism.”  Here is a taste:

America is not an ethnic nation. Its citizens don’t have to choose between a national identity and multiculturalism. Americans can have both. But the key is constitutional patriotism. We have to remain united by and through the Constitution, regardless of our ideological disagreements.

There are lessons here for both the left and the right. The right needs to recognize that making good on the Constitution’s promises requires much more than flag-waving. If millions of people believe that, because of their skin color or religion, they are not treated equally, how can they be expected to see the Constitution’s resounding principles as anything but hollow?

For its part, the left needs to rethink its scorched-earth approach to American history and ideals. Exposing injustice, past and present, is important, but there’s a world of difference between saying that America has repeatedly failed to live up to its constitutional principles and saying that those principles are lies or smoke screens for oppression. Washington and Jefferson were slave owners. They were also political visionaries who helped give birth to what would become the most inclusive form of governance in world history.

Read the entire piece here.

Francis Fukuyama on Identity Politics

Fuku

The Chronicle of Higher Education has published Evan Goldstein’s very interesting  interview with Stanford political scientist Francis Fukuyama, author of the famed 1989 essay, “The End of History?”

Here is a taste:

Q. To what extent is this fragmentation in our politics exacerbated by certain tendencies on campus?

A. This is a complicated question because specific incidents are picked up by conservative media and blown up to be representative of higher education. Friends of mine say: It’s obvious there is no freedom of speech left in universities. That seems excessive. The question is important, however. What happens in universities sets the tone for a lot of other elite institutions. What happens on campus ultimately does filter down to the rest of society.

Q. You tie some campus developments to a therapeutic turn in American life.

A. It began to unfold back in the ’60s and ’70s, when identity came to the forefront. People felt unfulfilled. They felt they had these true selves that weren’t being recognized. In the absence of a common cultural framework previously set by religion, people were at a loss. Psychology and psychiatry stepped into that breach. In the medical profession, treating mental health has a therapeutic mission, and it became legitimate to say the objective of society ought to be improving people’s sense of self-esteem.

This became part of the mission of universities, which made it difficult to set educational criteria as opposed to therapeutic criteria aimed at making students feel good about themselves. This is what led to many of the conflicts over multiculturalism. This played out in a vivid way at Stanford.

Q. In the book, you quote a leader of Stanford’s Black Student Union in the late ’80s arguing that the university’s Western-civ curriculum “hurts people mentally and emotionally in ways that are not even recognized.”

A. Instead of saying we want to read authors that are outside the canon because they’re important educationally and historically and culturally, the way it’s framed by that student leader is that the exclusion of those authors hurts people’s self-esteem: Because my people are not equally represented, I feel less good about myself. That is part of the motive that drives administrators and professors to expand the curriculum, to fulfill an understandably therapeutic mission. But I think it can get in the way of universities’ fulfilling their educational missions. What makes students feel good about themselves is not necessarily what’s most useful to their education.

Q. You have an unusual background for a political scientist. You majored in classics at Cornell, then did graduate work in comparative literature at Yale, where you studied with Paul de Man. Later you spent time in Paris sitting in on classes with Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Any memories from this journey through deconstruction?

A. I decided it was total bullshit. They were espousing a kind of Nietzschean relativism that said there is no truth, there is no argument that’s superior to any other argument. Yet most of them were committed to a basically Marxist agenda. That seemed completely contradictory. If you really are a moral relativist, there is no reason why you shouldn’t affirm National Socialism or the racial superiority of Europeans, because nothing is more true than anything else. I thought it was a bankrupt way of proceeding and decided to shift gears and go into political science.

Read the entire interview here.

Princeton’s Robert George on Intellectual and Ideological Diversity in the Academy

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While I was visiting a big state university a couple of weeks ago I had a robust, spirited, and civil conversation with the history faculty about how to teach controversial or morally problematic issues.  Many of the history professors in the room said that they use their classrooms to advocate for certain political causes (all on the left) or see no problem giving their personal opinion about a particular issue or idea that arises from the study of the past.

I pushed back. I wondered whether the history classroom was primarily the place where such moral criticism should happen.  Those familiar with my Why Study History?: A Historical Introduction know that I think there is a difference between moral philosophy (ethics) and history.  Though I obviously have my opinions, and many of them are informed by my understanding of the past, I rarely bring those opinions into the classroom.  For example, the only time I talk about Donald Trump in my classroom is when he gets something wrong about history or uses the past irresponsibly to justify this or that policy.   I do the same thing with any public figure who manipulates the past for political gain.

In other words, my blog and other social media feeds are not the best representations of what my classroom looks like.

Robert George of Princeton University is very conservative.  I have seen him defending moral conservatism in public talks, in writing, and on social media.  But if I read his recent interview with Matthew Stein at The College Fix, I don’t think these conservative political and moral convictions dominate his classroom.  George has some very interesting things to say about intellectual and ideological diversity in the classroom. Here is a taste:

The College Fix: In your Open Minds Conference panel, you mentioned that you don’t think professors should “use their classrooms as a soapbox for advocacy,” and that you and professors like Cornel West make your classrooms as intellectually stimulating and valuable as possible by honestly portraying both sides of an argument. This seems to hit on a big issue with the universities today, as many professors of the “progressive orthodoxy” you later mentioned seem to use their positions to influence their students into becoming activists of related social causes. How do you think society can address this issue, particularly given the system of tenure and the sheer magnitude of the problem?

Robert George: Like most of the problems in academia—and society more broadly—today, what is needed above all is courage. We need the courage to speak the truth even when it is uncomfortable, and even when truth-speaking carries risks. Professors who seek to indoctrinate their students are betraying a sacred trust. They are supposed to be educators. If there is an antonym to “educating,” it’s “indoctrinating.” Professors (and other teachers) who engage in indoctrination need to be confronted. Certainly administrators need to do this. Fellow faculty members need to do it. And students themselves need to do it, too.

Is this risky, especially for students? You bet it is. But that’s where the virtue of courage comes in. All of us—including students—need to muster the courage to call out teachers who betray their sacred trust. In addition, professors who understand the importance of truly educating students, and who grasp the fundamental difference between education and indoctrination, need to set an excellent example for their colleagues—especially younger colleagues. Together, we can establish a milieu that powerfully discourages indoctrination.

CF: You also mentioned that you should create an atmosphere of “unsettling” each other in the classroom. Looking at the campus more generally, there are continually accounts of the opposite atmosphere in regards to discussing “unsettling ideas,” whether it be by an outside speaker being shut down or students on campus being afraid to express unpopular viewpoints. How can this negative general atmosphere on campus be improved to encourage students to act out the ideal intellectual atmosphere that you described?

RG: Again, courage is the key. Students must have the courage to express dissent—even if they are alone or in a small minority in the class in holding a particular view. And faculty members need to model courage for their students—and for their colleagues (especially younger colleagues). All of us must overcome the natural fear we feel in oppressive environments of the sort that too often exist today in college, high school, and even middle school classrooms. And when a dissenter does speak up in defiance of a campus dogma, all of us (and not only those who happen to share his or her dissenting opinion) need swiftly to provide that individual with support.

That is how we will establish an environment in which people are free—and feel and know they are free—to speak their minds, thus benefiting the entire community by contributing to robust, civil campus debates.

CF: Identity politics was one issue you touched on in the Q&A, which you said has a negative effect on both college campuses and society at large. Could you speak a little more on how identity politics and student groups organized around group identity has negatively affected the university? Are there any common issues of identity politics amongst the faculty? Has it had any effects on your or other professors’ ability to create the positive intellectual atmosphere you previously mentioned?

RG: Identity politics, and the dogmas of the phenomenon that has come to be known as “intersectionality,” harm learning environments by encouraging groupthink and stigmatizing dissent.

One especially regrettable consequence of the rise of identitarianism is the pressure placed on female and minority students to hold and express opinions that are in line with what women and members of minority groups are “supposed” to think. If you are female, you are “supposed” to hold a certain view on abortion and the status of unborn human life. If you are black, you are “supposed” to express a certain view on the desirability of affirmative action programs of certain sorts. If you are Latino, you are “supposed” to have a certain set of beliefs on immigration policy.

I find this reprehensible. People need to think for themselves. And they need to do that, and need to know that they are entitled to do that, whether they are male or female, black, white, green, blue, or purple.

 

Read the entire interview here.  He also has some interesting things to say about Liberty University.

Should Conservative Professors Be Leading the Way in Identity Politics?

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Jon Shields, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, thinks that conservative professors should embrace identity politics.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Dallas Morning News:

When I was in college, I took a class in logic. There I learned that one should never reject an argument because of the characteristics of the person making it. Instead, one should assess the argument itself on its rational merits. And while I agree that the power of an argument should not depend on the person making it, nonetheless, it does.

I learned that lesson during my first year as a visiting professor at Cornell University. I taught a course on American evangelicals, which attracted a mix of secular and religious students. When we discussed The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, a 1994 book by Mark A. Noll about anti-intellectualism in the evangelical tradition, my evangelical students were critical of it. But they were willing to take the book’s thesis seriously because the author was an evangelical.

Perhaps Noll’s identity shouldn’t have mattered. His historical evidence and the power of his arguments would be worth considering even if he were Catholic, Jewish or secular. But his identity did matter. It mattered because my evangelical students could not simply assume bad faith on the author’s part. They knew Noll cared about evangelicals as a group of people. Instead of dismissing Noll as a bigot, my students thoughtfully engaged with his work.

Since then, I have taken identity into account every time I have assigned new books for one of my courses. I currently teach a course called Black Intellectuals, which is focused on debates about racial inequality in the post-civil rights era. It tends to attract progressive students who, in analyzing racial inequality, are drawn to arguments that stress structural obstacles to equality and the enduring power of white racism, especially in our criminal justice system.

Read the rest here.

Shields may have a point.  As readers of this blog know, I am a big advocate of historical empathy–walking in the shoes of others.  It would seem that middle-class white kids need to learn how to empathize with people who do not share in their identities.  But I wonder if we can expect students who are not white and middle class to do the same thing?  Education in the Latin means “to lead outward.”  Yet today much of education today is about self-discovery and “finding oneself” in the curriculum.  If we really want to educate our students they must read things written by people who are not like them.

Identity-Politics “rips fault and guilt…from their Christian theological context”

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Joshua Mitchell of Georgetown University joins the anti-identity politics chorus.  Here is a taste of his piece “The Identity-Politics Death Grip” at City Journal:

Identity politics shares with King the insight that fault and guilt must be addressed, but it rips them from their Christian theological context, and instead conceives them in worldly terms alone: as a relationship between the source of fault and guilt (white male heterosexuals) and those (women, gays, Hispanics, Muslims, and so on) whose innocence is measured by their distance from that source. In this framework, there is one original sinner: white male heterosexuals—either alive or haunting us from the grave in the form of the Dead White Men studied in old Western civilization courses. Everyone else gets to sigh with relief; whatever their guilt may be, at least they are not that.

King knew, of course, that sin has worldly consequences and that groups often sinned against other groups. But he would not have rested there, satisfied with a permanent debt that could never be repaid. God did not place man in the world so that he would dwell forever on his faults, but rather so that he would respond to them with repentance and forgiveness. Within the identity-politics world, there is only the permanence of debt. Within King’s Christian view, the worldly impossibility of paying back debt is superseded by the Christian possibility of repentance and forgiveness. Only through these can debts be canceled and life be renewed; only in this way can the balance sheet be zeroed. That such a rebalancing is possible, for King, was evidence of an awesome religious mystery, which gave hope and counseled patience.

Identity politics is only quasi-Christian. It begins from the observation that there is worldly fault and debt. That, every Christian sees. But identity politics stops there, content that we need go no further than call out fault and debt and use political power—worldly power—to settle the score. I doubt that this quasi-Christian viewpoint, which refuses reconciliation, is a stable one. Without straining our imagination, we can discern that we are either going to return to some variant of King’s Christian account, in which fault and debt are overcome through repentance and forgiveness, or we are going to move to a truly post-Christian world in which we no longer care about fault and debt. In such a world, the terms “oppressor” and “oppressed” will cease to have any meaning, and historical wounds—American slavery in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, European colonialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, German aggression in the first half of the twentieth century—will be met with the cruel words: “and we would do it again, for the world is nothing but force and fraud and the will to power.” That is the world that Nietzsche staked out in the late nineteenth century, in the hope that we would find the courage to move beyond Christian guilt. It is no small irony that today’s political Left, which owes more to Nietzsche than to Marx, has so badly understood him: the fault-and-debt points that identity politics tallies are precisely what Nietzsche wanted post-Christian man to repudiate. Our post-Christian Left, however, wants it both ways: it wishes to destroy Christianity by using the battering ram of (white male heterosexual) fault and debt.

Read the entire piece here.

Does Ta-Nehisi Coates Give Whiteness Power?

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Thomas Chatterton Williams

I am still trying to get my head around Thomas Chatterton Williams‘s piece on Coates at The New York Times, but I think he may be on to something.  While I chew on it a bit more, I offer up a taste (and a link) for your consideration:

I have spent the past six months poring over the literature of European and American white nationalism, in the process interviewing noxious identitarians like the alt-right founder Richard Spencer. The most shocking aspect of Mr. Coates’s wording here is the extent to which it mirrors ideas of race — specifically the specialness of whiteness — that white supremacist thinkers cherish.

This, more than anything, is what is so unsettling about Mr. Coates’s recent writing and the tenor of the leftist “woke” discourse he epitomizes. Though it is not at all morally equivalent, it is nonetheless in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed, determinative and almost supernatural. For Mr. Coates, whiteness is a “talisman,” an “amulet” of “eldritch energies” that explains all injustice; for the abysmal early-20th-century Italian fascist and racist icon Julius Evola, it was a “meta-biological force,” a collective mind-spirit that justifies all inequality. In either case, whites are preordained to walk that special path. It is a dangerous vision of life we should refuse no matter who is doing the conjuring.

This summer, I spent an hour on the phone with Richard Spencer. It was an exchange that left me feeling physically sickened. Toward the end of the interview, he said one thing that I still think about often. He referred to the all-encompassing sense of white power so many liberals now also attribute to whiteness as a profound opportunity. “This is the photographic negative of a white supremacist,” he told me gleefully. “This is why I’m actually very confident, because maybe those leftists will be the easiest ones to flip.”

However far-fetched that may sound, what identitarians like Mr. Spencer have grasped, and what ostensibly anti-racist thinkers like Mr. Coates have lost sight of, is the fact that so long as we fetishize race, we ensure that we will never be rid of the hierarchies it imposes. We will all be doomed to stalk our separate paths.

Read the entire piece here.

James Baker III and Andrew Young on Identity Politics

Andrew_Young,_bw_head-and-shoulders_photo,_June_6,_1977_flippedJames Baker III was the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State under George H.W. Bush.  Andrew Young, a Civil Rights veteran and close associate of Martin Luther King Jr., was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Carter administration and served eight years as mayor of Atlanta.  Together, in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Baker and Young argue that “identity politics practiced by both major political parties is eroding a core principle that Americans are, first and foremost, Americans.”

Here is a taste:

The divisions in society are real. So are national legacies of injustice. All can and must be addressed. Those who preach hatred should be called out for their odious beliefs. But even as extremism is condemned, Americans of good will need to keep up lines of civil, constructive conversation.

The country faces a stark choice. Its citizens can continue screaming at each other, sometimes over largely symbolic issues. Or they can again do what the citizens of this country have done best in the past—work together on the real problems that confront everyone.

Both of us have been at the center of heated disputes in this country and around the world. And there’s one thing we’ve learned over the decades: You achieve peace by talking, not yelling. The best way to resolve an argument is to find common ground…

Congress and the president must…set an example to all Americans. We understand that politics is a contact sport, but leaders in Washington need to restrain their rhetoric and practice the lost art of compromise. They should stop pandering to the worst in us and appeal instead to what President Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French diplomat who identified strengths in the JamesBakerAmerican experiment, admired the resiliency of the system the Founding Fathers devised. He wrote in the first volume of “Democracy in America” that “the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

America has many faults that must be repaired—from a failed health-care system to a military that needs upgrading. Americans must, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said during a 1965 commencement address for Oberlin College, learn to live together as brothers and sisters. Or, we will perish together as fools. We are convinced that the vast majority of Americans would like leaders in Washington to remember King’s advice when they return to work after Labor Day.

Read the entire piece here.

Mark Lilla Continues His Assault on Identity Politics in American Higher Education

LillaToday I ordered his new book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity PoliticsI am looking forward to read it.

Here is a taste of Lilla’s recent piece on the subject at The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Conservatives are right: Our colleges, from bottom to top, are mainly run by liberals, and teaching has a liberal tilt. But they are wrong to infer that students are therefore being turned into an effective left-wing political force. The liberal pedagogy of our time, focused as it is on identity, is actually a depoliticizing force. It has made our children more tolerant of others than certainly my generation was, which is a very good thing. But by undermining the universal democratic we on which solidarity can be built, duty instilled, and action inspired, it is unmaking rather than making citizens. In the end this approach just strengthens all the atomizing forces that dominate our age.

It’s strange: liberal academics idealize the ‘60s generation, as their weary students know. But I’ve never heard any of my colleagues ask an obvious question: What was the connection between that generation’s activism and what they learned about our country in school and in college? After all, if professors would like to see their own students follow in the footsteps of the left’s Greatest Generation, you would think they would try to reproduce the pedagogy of that period. But they don’t. Quite the contrary. The irony is that the supposedly bland, conventional colleges of the 1950s and early 1960s incubated what was perhaps the most radical generation of American citizens since the country’s founding. Young people who were eager to engage in “the less exotic but more lasting struggles for justice” for everyone in the great out there beyond the campus gates.

The universities of our time instead cultivate students so obsessed with their personal identities and campus pseudo-politics that they have much less interest in, less engagement with, and frankly less knowledge of matters that don’t touch on identity in the great out there. Neither Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who studied Greek) nor Martin Luther King Jr. (who studied Christian theology) nor Angela Davis (who studied Western philosophy) received an identity-based education. And it is difficult to imagine them becoming who they became had they been cursed with one. The fervor of their rebellion demonstrated the degree to which their education had widened their horizons and developed in them a feeling of democratic solidarity rare in America today.

Whatever you wish to say about the political wanderings of the ‘60s generation, they were, in their own way, patriots. They cared about what happened to their fellow citizens and cared when they felt America’s democratic principles had been violated. Even when the fringes of the student movement adopted a wooden, Marxist rhetoric, it always sounded more like “Yankee Doodle” than Wagner.

The fact that they received a relatively nonpartisan education in an environment that encouraged debates over ideas and that developed emotional toughness and intellectual conviction surely had a great deal to do with it. You can still find such people teaching in our universities and some are my friends. Most remain to the left of me but we enjoy disagreeing and respect arguments based on evidence. I still think they are unrealistic; they think I don’t see that dreaming is sometimes the most realistic thing one can do. (The older I get the more I think they have a point.) But we shake our heads in unison when we discuss what passes for political activity on campus.

It would not be such a terrible thing to raise another generation of citizens like them. The old model, with a few tweaks, is worth following: passion and commitment, but also knowledge and argument. Curiosity about the world outside your own head and about people unlike yourself. Care for this country and its citizens, all of them, and a willingness to sacrifice for them. And the ambition to imagine a common future for all of us.

Any professor who teaches these things is engaged in the most important political work — that of building effective, and not just right-thinking, democratic citizens. Only when we have such citizens can we hope that they will become liberal ones. And only when we have liberal ones can we hope to put the country on a better path.

Read the entire piece here.  After several conversations I have had over the past six months or so, I am more convinced than ever that identity politics and historical pedagogy do not mix very well.