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.

Mark Lilla Returns With a More Sustained Treatment of Identity Politics

LillaLast November, Columbia University humanities professor Mark Lilla released a bombshell in the form of a New York Times article entitled “The End of Identity Liberalism.”  We spent some time here discussing it.  I found Lilla’s argument pretty compelling.

Lilla decided to capitalize on the popularity and controversy of his Times piece with a 143-page book titled The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.  I have not read the book yet, but just came across a review from Yale historian Beverly Gage.

Here is a taste:

…he identifies some truly important questions that liberals and leftists of all stripes will have to face together: How should the Democratic Party balance diversity with a common vision of citizenship? How and where should concerned Americans focus their energies — on social-movement activism, on “resistance,” on electoral politics? How should universities preserve free speech in an age of impassioned conflict? How, for that matter, can Democrats start winning a few more local races? Lilla acts as if there are easy answers to these questions. “We need no more marchers,” he writes. “We need more mayors.” But isn’t it possible that we need both?

Lilla concedes that many Americans think of themselves at once as members of identity groups and as citizens of a national polity. “Both ideas can be — indeed, are — true.” He argues nonetheless that our particular crisis calls for prioritizing one over the other. “What’s crucial at this juncture in our history is to concentrate on this shared political status, not on our other manifest differences.”

Unwittingly, however, “The Once and Future Liberal” provides a case study in just how challenging that may be. Despite his lofty calls for solidarity, Lilla can’t seem to get out of his own way — or even to take his own advice. He urges fellow liberals to focus on “the hard and unglamorous task of persuading people very different from themselves to join a common effort,” then proceeds to insult his own audience. He denounces the modern university for churning out students “incurious about the world outside their heads,” yet fails, in the end, to get much outside of his own. He decries identity types for “delivering sermons to the unwashed from a raised pulpit” while offering up his own elaborate jeremiad. He reminds liberals that “nothing will turn voters off more surely than being hectored,” and then — on the very same page — scolds the “identity conscious” for treating political meetings as “therapy sessions.”

As it turns out, Lilla himself could have used more rather than less introspection, a healthy dose of examining his own contradictions and biases. He laments that “American liberals have a reputation, as the saying goes, of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” If so, he has proved his bona fides as a member of the tribe. “The Once and Future Liberal” is a missed opportunity of the highest order, trolling disguised as erudition.

Ouch.

Read the entire review here.  I’ll reserve judgement until I get a chance to read the book. You can also listen to an interview with Lilla at “All Things Considered.”

Are We Really Entitled To Our Own Opinions?

Over at The Baffler, Maximillian Alvarez, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, has an absolutely fascinating piece on the way our “opinions” are tied, in an unhealthy way, to our “identities.”

Here is a taste:

What do we really mean when we say we’re “entitled to our opinions”? So many questions have been asked over the past year with the hope that the answers to them may help us better understand how our dangerously absurd political moment came to be. But this question is way more revealing than most.

I’ve been fortunate enough to design and teach my own college courses exploring, from literary, historical, and philosophical angles, the many complex processes that led to a Donald Trump presidency. But, as a teacher of argumentative writing, I’ve also been given a window through which to observe some of those processes in action, to see how their effects manifest in the peculiar ways people—namely, my students—think and act. In classes where argumentation is the center of gravity for everything else we do, my students and I begin every term by discussing whether or not, in our classroom and in the world at large, we are, in fact, entitled to our opinions. 

On a purely literal level, the first implication of this common refrain is that, no matter how out of wack your opinion may be, you’re entitled to have it—no one can physically stop you. Sure. That’s reasonable, if kind of banal. (You can physically punish or silence people who have certain opinions, but can you actually stop them from having the opinions in the first place?) But, as it’s generally understood, the second implication of the phrase is more troublesome.

As Patrick Stokes, Senior Lecturer at Deakin University, explains it, the phrase suggests that you’re “entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth.” As if there’s a social law that says all opinions are equal and all deserve, by right, to be treated equally. This is where lines start to blur—when opinions themselves are seemingly given their own protective rights—and the common refrain that people are “entitled to their opinions” absorbs into itself the pseudo-noble cliché that we must always “respect other people’s opinions.” For Stokes, the obvious problem is that this kind of customary treatment devalues the ways that opinions are supposed to earnserious consideration through logical argumentation, persuasion, rigorous research, and expertise. When these are thrown out the window, people start to expect that their views deserve to not only be taken seriously, but to also be protected from serious challenges, because, well, it’s their opinion.

As Stokes argues, this shared belief that every opinion has an equal claim to being right or true leads to the twisted state of things we have today where, say, anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories or climate change denialism are given plenty of media time and mainstream consideration even when it can be shown that some of their claims are verifiably wrong and have serious negative consequences. Stokes, in other words, is on to something here, but the problem goes much deeper. This prevailing situation hinges less on differing opinions that claim, by their own merits, to be “serious candidates for the truth” and more on the ways that opinions have been given cultural and political protection in the “free market of ideas.” Opinions have been subsumed under the various and more totalizing categories of identity, which are understood to be “off limits.”

Read the rest here.

This piece takes my brain in so many different directions–the court evangelicals, the intellectual culture of the college where I teach, the place of social media in democratic discourse, and the people that cable news networks choose to put on the air–that I better stop writing before I write something I am not quite ready to “put out there” yet.

What Bruce Springsteen Can Teach Us About Identity Politics

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Lasse Thomassen, a lecturer in politics and international affairs at the University of London, has a great piece at Open Democracy on Bruce Springsteen’s unique version of “identity politics.”  He writes, “In the US and the UK, the left could learn something from Bruce Springsteen: to articulate a different narrative about collective identities–about how people ‘lost control’–it must talk in a common language.”

Here is a taste:

Springsteen is often taken as a voice for blue-collar America, and he has been happy to assume that mantle. He has come to speak for this identity: blue-collar, small-town, white (although race and racism also feature in his songs), heterosexual and male (albeit a volatile masculinity). This is his constituency, but the gap between dream and reality that he identifies for his constituency is shared by 99% of Americans.

Having said that, taking Springsteen as the voice of a particular constituency – white, male, blue-collar workers – is politically significant. These are precisely the blue-collar Democrats that Reagan turned into Reagan Democrats, and whom Bill Clinton connected so well with. They are the Democrats that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had difficulties connecting with, because of their race and gender respectively. And they are a constituency who saw their concerns echoed by Donald Trump.

I think we can learn something important from this. After the 2016 presidential election, Hilary Clinton’s campaign was criticised for doing identity politics: instead of appealing to the (white) majority, it appealed to a coalition of (non-white) minorities. It is not a true characterisation of her campaign: she spoke a lot about ‘blue-collar’ issues; others spoke a lot about her gender. However, this critique of the Clinton campaign itself relies on a form of identity politics: it starts from an assumption that the default identity of America is white and male.

Indeed, Trump was, and is, heavily engaged in identity politics: the inverse of his racist and sexist language is the celebration of white male America. An America that was, so he alleges, great – before non-whites and women took over the country. In this way, Trump links the reassertion of a particular (white, male) identity to sovereignty: the sovereignty of the American nation and the sovereignty of the individuals who identify with Trump’s version of the nation. Trump’s promise is that ordinary folks can take back control if only the (white, male) identity of the nation is re-established.

Just because Donald Trump makes good use of identity politics does not mean we should simply reject it. Instead it is a matter of how we do it. Identity politics has a bad name today: either it is the politics of those other, exotic minorities, or it is the politics of right-wing populists like Donald Trump. But it’s always something others do, and something that we – rational, liberal leftists – are above.

Can we articulate identities in a different way?. Bruce Springsteen offers one model for doing so. He has been able to articulate a vision of America – but it could also be France or the United Kingdom – that offers both a critique of things as they are, and hope that they could be different. And because of the ambiguity of his vision of America, it is a vision that is less easily blocked in than, for instance, the apparently more definite categories of ‘left’, ‘white’ or ‘male’. He is happy to wrap himself in the American flag, but he re-appropriates it, wrestling it away from right-wing nationalists such as Reagan and Trump. He tries to wrestle away the experiences of his constituency from the ways in which they have been articulated by Republicans and centrist Democrats.

Read the entire piece here.

The Amazing Juanita Jones Abernathy

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Abernathy at Georgia State University speaking to the travelers on the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour

The highlight of Day 2 of the Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights Tour was meeting Juanita Jones Abernathy, one of the participants in, and organizers of, the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Juanita was marred to Ralph Abernathy, the pastor of Montgomery’s First Baptist Church and a famous civil rights activist in his own right. Ralph died in 1990 at the age of 64.

Juanita talked about the important role played by pastors (and pastor’s wives) during the bus boycott. Because pastors like her husband Ralph were not paid by the state, and thus were not “part of the system,” they were free to organize on behalf of Rosa Parks without the threat of losing their jobs.

She also talked about how the Abernathy children and the King children integrated an Atlanta elementary school sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s.  (Her son Kwame was with her at the lecture).  I found it interesting that she always referred to the kids as “my kids” or “Coretta’s kids.”When it came to the education of the children, the mothers were in charge.

I tried to write down some of the best lines of the talk.  They are as close to verbatim as possible:

  • “My husband Ralph used to say ‘there was no color on the bullets we were dodging in Germany during World War II…We were citizens fighting to defend democracy. Why couldn’t we enjoy it at home.'”
  • Donald Trump wants to “roll back the clock. But we aren’t going back.”
  • “My Lord and savior Jesus Christ was not violent. I didn’t learn non-violence from Ghandi, I learned it from Jesus.”
  • “Aren’t you glad you’re in America?  Lord I thank you for the United States of America and that we are not victims of the destruction going on around the world today.  I am blessed to live in the United States of America.”
  • “[The Civil Rights Movement in] Alabama saved America from itself.”
  • “The right to vote is a blood ballot. People died for that right.”
  • “We are a Christian nation. That’s what America is built on.”
  • “If there’s any such thing as going through hell while still alive, we went through it.”
  • When [the Abernathy’s and the King’s] lived on the west side of Chicago in the slums, we came from ‘down South’ to ‘up South.’ But both Souths had the same problems.”
  • “I hear all this stuff about King.  I saw a documentary on Georgia Public Television called ‘America since King.’ No, it was the Civil Rights MOVEMENT. It was not associated with just one man.”
  • “Today, all you have to do is write down your name and address and you can vote.  It doesn’t matter if you are white, black, native American, or Indian.  Voting applies to everyone, but there was a price to be paid to get it.”
  • “Young people will burn America down before they let Donald Trump take us back [in time]. They don’t understand non-violence, no one is teaching the young people “non-violence.”
  • “‘Make America Great Again’ is when blacks had no rights.”
  • “We weren’t trying to get above, we were just trying to get equal.”
  • “I love America with all of the mess.  We still are the greatest nation in the free world.  When I see that flag I salute it.”

What fascinated me the most about Juanita Jones Abernathy’s talk was how much it was grounded in appeals to common and universal values.  She talked about her love of country (or at least the ideals set forth at the founding).  She drew heavily upon a shared Christian faith as a source for non-violence.

She even described the United States as a “Christian nation.”  This was not unusual during the Civil Rights movement.  As I argued in chapter three of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?the Civil Rights movement made constant appeals to the Judeo-Christian values that they believed the nation was founded upon.  The best example of this is King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail when he says:

One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Abernathy also described the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 in universal terms. Poverty affected all races–it was a universal problem and needed to be addressed this way.  She talked the same way about voting rights.

The appeal to ideals that brought together all human beings seems to be quite different from the identity politics we see today in most discussions of race in America. This morning on the bus we listened to a King sermon that referenced Washington Irving, Thomas Carlyle, and the Founding Fathers.  Elsewhere King referenced Augustine, Aquinas, Paul Tillich, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to name a few.  King assumed that his audience–both black and white–were familiar with some of these authors.  Would such appeals be effective today? I don’t think so.  King lived before what historian Daniel Rodgers has described as the “Age of Fracture.”

The more I listen to folks like Abernathy and King the more I realize that the “past is a foreign country.”  But as we think about race relations in America today I wonder if the past of Abernathy and King is a usable one.

The Unintended Consequences of Identity-Based American History

King

Steven Conn teaches American history at the University of Miami-Ohio.  Some of you may recall that a few years ago Conn wondered if a Christian college was an oxymoron. We covered that Huffington Post article here and here and here.

In his recent piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education he argues for a return to grand narratives in the study of the American past.  He writes: “Imagining a desirable future cannot happen unless we have a version of history upon which to build it. And if historians don’t provide that kind of narrative, we have already seen who will.”

Here is a taste:

That impulse evolved, and historians’ attention moved from the “bottom” to the “margins.” In this sense, American historical practice tracked the drift of leftist politics in the 1970s and 1980s. Identity history became a companion to identity politics — subjects like African-American history, women’s history, Latino/a history, Native American history, and gay history developed into their own subspecialties. Marginalized no more, these subjects have flourished, with their own journals, conferences, professional societies, and book series, even while some scholars have quietly fretted whether there could ever be a whole of American history greater than the sum of its multiplying parts. I don’t know if Jean-François Lyotard had been reading any of the new American history when he formulated his thesis about the “incredulity toward metanarratives,” but by the time he published The Postmodern Condition, in 1979, American historians were already pretty incredulous about any grand narratives of the American past.

The tendentious, j’accuse! strain of this scholarship reached a crescendo of sorts in 1980 with the publication of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (Harper & Row). I loved that book when I first read it as a high schooler, and I like it still. But in truth, Zinn reduced the story of American history to a conspiracy of “elites” against “the people,” and, in turn, he portrayed the people largely as victims of that vast conspiracy. The line between valorization and victimization got blurry pretty quickly.

Let me hasten to add that I am not bemoaning the new directions that American history took toward “the bottom” or “the people.” I do not think historians have somehow exaggerated the brutality of slavery or its centrality to developing American capitalism; nor do I think that American foreign policy has been any less destructive or feckless than historians since William Appleman Williams have argued it often has been.

Rather, my point is to wonder about the unintended consequences of historical scholarship over the past two generations. One of the things lost, I think, is a coherent narrative about the past that is more inspiring than the story of “turtles crushed while crossing the highway,” as one of Zinn’s reviewers described A People’s History. And here is the bitterly ironic lesson of 2016. Voters who feel themselves to be on the losing end of the American bargain tipped the electoral scales. Never mind that they voted for a candidate who won’t make their lives measurably better and may well make them worse. It turns out that many of those on the bottom and at the margins do not want to hear that their America has never been great.

There’s more at stake here, and not just for historians, than the nostalgia for an earlier, easier age when you could make categorical statements about “the American mind” because you could exclude any minds that did not fit neatly into the story. Whatever goes on inside the historical profession, driven by its own imperatives and logic, outside the academy politics is built on narratives, and particularly narratives about the past. If historians don’t provide those narratives, then someone inside Trump Tower will. As an old mentor of mine said to me years ago: It’s great to tear down people’s myths. What will you put in their place?

Read the entire piece here.

Michael Eric Dyson on Identity Politics

dysonIn light of some of the things I have been writing on identity politics lately, someone on Facebook who disagrees with much of what I have written so far asked me to respond to this New York Times article by Michael Eric Dyson.

First, let me say that I have learned a lot from Dyson over the years. I would love to host him at Messiah College some time.

Last Winter I was driving through Alexandria, Virginia listening to C-SPAN radio and heard Dyson talking about his book The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America.  I found the interview so compelling (I have written about this before here at the blog) that the following week I bought a copy of the book at Hearts and Minds Books, Byron Borger’s bookstore in Dallastown, PA.  I took it home and read it in two sittings.  It helped me to better understand the Obama presidency and the subject of race in America more broadly. (You can see that interview with Dyson here).

Here are some thoughts on Dyson’s current piece:

  1. I think it was unfair of Kanye West, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, to say that George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people.”  Dyson apparently disagrees.
  2. I also think it is unfair to equate Donald Trump’s views on race with the views of liberals and progressives such as Bernie Sanders or (implied) Mark Lilla. (More on Sanders below).
  3. Dyson does not distinguish between the universal ideals at the heart of the American Revolution (or at least the way these ideals were used by social reform movements through American history) and the failure of white people to apply them in American life.  For example, the idea that “all men are created equal” was used in arguments on behalf of women’s rights, abolitionism, the opposition to Jim Crow, and other reforms.  See, for example, Pauline Maier’s American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence.  So here is my question: Do the ideals of equality and human rights transcend race?  I would answer yes.  In other words, they are universal Enlightenment ideals that all human beings share.  And if one wants to argue that they are “white” ideals, then it seems that we should be thanking white people for introducing them into global history.
  4. But there is more to the story.  I largely agree with Dyson’s account of American history.  Yes, these universal ideas were not consistently applied in American history. (And we should not be thanking white people for that).  This is the history any American with a conscience must confront.  This is why I think the deep connections between American Slavery and American Freedom (as Edmund Morgan put it) must play a prominent role in the teaching of American history.  It is also why I think history is needed more than ever as a means of teaching people empathy for the stories of all Americans within a national narrative.  As a historian my vocation is to tell the story.  It is then up to my students and my audience to decide what to do about the story. (The latter work can take place in the history classroom, but it is not this is not the exercise that drives what happens in the history classroom). After telling the story my work as a historian is done.  (Of course my work on this front as a human being, a Christian, a citizen or a community member should not end, although one’s involvement in the cause will vary from person to person).
  5. So let me say a word about moving beyond the classroom.  Should we throw out these American ideals just because they were not consistently applied in the past? Some would say yes. They would say that the weight of racism (the failure to apply these principles) in America cannot be lifted.  They would say that the idea of “we shall overcome” is a relic of the past.  I must part ways with such thinking.  I will cast my lot with Martin Luther King and other early leaders of the Civil Rights movement who longed for and prayed for an integrated society.  My America, like the America King talked about in Washington and in a Birmingham jail cell, is a nation where we must continue in the long hard struggle to apply the principles that our founders put in place in the eighteenth-century.  As a Christian who believes in sin, I doubt we will ever get there on this side of eternity, but that is no excuse to stop working.  (And we have a lot of work to do–I have a lot of work to do–when opportunities arise). We are called to advance the Kingdom of God on this earth and, with a spirit of hope, await its ultimate fulfillment,.
  6. I like what Dyson said about Obama in the C-SPAN interview I cited above: “When black people’s backs are against the wall as American citizens…the president should take the side [of black people]….When they are being gunned down in the streets…and especially vulnerable to racist rebuff, you must use your billy pulpit to amplify their cause and their claims and you must do so not simply as the ‘first black president’–that may be inessential at this point.  What is essential, however, is that you as the representative of the state must speak on behalf of all citizens including African American people.” (Italics mine, although Dyson does inflect his voice on these words).  Here Dyson is appealing to the ideals that bind us together as a people. He is making what appears to be an appeal to the ideals of the nation and the responsibility of the POTUS (and by implication all of us) to apply them to the cause of racism.
  7. I agree with Dyson that the administration Trump is assembling is not equipped to handle race in America and will not be up to the task as I have just described it.
  8. As you might imagine by this point, on the question of “identity politics” I find myself siding with Bernie Sanders.  I believe that Bernie is correct when he says that we need to move beyond identity politics and toward a more national vision that seeks to address the things that affect all Americans–economic equality, the power of Wall Street, and climate change.  These things affect people of all colors.  I see a lot of Eugene Debs in Sanders–or at least the Debs that Nick Salvatore writes about in his book Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist.  What I take away from Salvatore’s treatment of Debs is the way that this prominent turn-of-the century socialist invoked the civic humanism of the American founding.  Debs’s civic humanism was certainly limited.  Our does not have to be.
  9. To suggest Sanders is a racist is wrong. (I don’t think Dyson is saying this).  To say that he does not care about black people or race in America is wrong.  (And I don’t think Dyson is saying this either, but he may come close).  I also don’t think a Sanders presidency would have ignored race.
  10. In the end, I see Sanders reaching beyond racial identity to make an appeal–primarily–to the things that all  Americans must address.  Isn’t this what the POTUS should be doing?  Isn’t this the politics we need to move forward?  Citizens of the United States must continue to frame their arguments about race in the context of the national ideals.

OK–there are some quick thoughts.

Yet Another Interview with Mark Lilla

lillaSean Illing interviews Lilla at Vox.  He asks some tough questions.  (Not familiar with the whole Lilla/identity liberalism conversation?  Get caught up here).

A taste:

Sean Illing: I’ve argued that all politics is identity politics insofar as politics involves the assertion of values in the public sphere. If you grant that values are bound up with identity, it’s not clear to me how you circumnavigate this problem.

Vox’s Matthew Yglesias made a similar point in his response to your piece, which is that politics is not — and has never been — a public policy seminar. People have identities, and they’re mobilized around those identities. And so, as Yglesias wrote, “there is no other way to do politics than to do identity politics.”

Mark Lilla: To begin with, identity can be used to mobilize people for political action — that’s for sure. But political action is something else. I certainly agree that someone’s identity may affect their political views. Again, though, democratic politics is about persuasion. It’s not about self-expression.

However you come to your values or positions, you become political the moment you enter the arena trying to persuade other people of your values. If you have a certain value and you attach to that a whole picture of your identity, and then ask the other person not only to accept your position but to accept your account of your identity, you’re setting the bar very high for political agreement.

If I can convince someone with a very different identity, or someone who doesn’t accept my account of my identity, to agree about certain principles, I can then walk that person down from a principle to a particular case.

I think that this is a very good point.  As many of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, I am a Christian and I teach mostly Christian students at Messiah College.  Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity, has a language all its own.  That language is spoken in church and it is often spoken on campus at Messiah.  In most cases, this language stems from my students’ belief in the Bible or the authority of the Christian church.  So when they argue with one another they make appeals to this language.  They may quote the Bible as part of their argument or appeal to a Christian theologian in the past or present.  (Frankly, I wish they did more of this!).  This is because they have a shared identity–a common religious language.

But sometimes the language they speak in their churches or in their dorms at Messiah College may not be suitable for public discourse with people who are outside this identity group.  I want my students to develop a public voice–one that allows them to speak in the public square with people who do not share their identity.  For some of my evangelical students, this might mean learning how to engage with people from other Christian traditions–such as Catholics–who do not share their particular view of Christianity. This might mean trying to figure out what aspects of the Christian faith–and there are many–that they share with Catholics.  It means finding common ground.

The same might be said about their engagement with people of different faiths or no faith at all.  I do not want my students to enter public discourse using the language of their evangelical identity.  They are not going to persuade people who are not Christians by citing Bible verses or appealing to the Judeo-Christian God.  Again, if they care about moving the conversation forward and working for the good of the whole they must find some common ground. In other words, they cannot lead with their particular identity–whether it be a religious, ethnic, racial, gender, sexual, or political identity–when not everyone in the conversation shares that identity.  It seems to me that the act of participating in a democratic society requires this.

Here is another part of the interview:

Sean Illing: Can you explain that last point by way of an example? What would that process look like in practice?

Mark Lilla: Here’s an example of the kind of argument you’d make: Black motorists are being targeted and mistreated by American police officers — we know this. If my principle here is equal protection under the law, and I want to convince someone who doesn’t know black people or doesn’t particularly care about the black experience, if I want to persuade that person to get engaged and care about this issue, I can do one of two things. I can get that person to agree to the principle of equal protection under the law, and then I can walk them down to saying that black motorists, as citizens, deserve to be protected.

If, on the other hand, I try to persuade that person of a certain picture of the black experience today and the injustices of the country, or what it’s like to be black or how I define myself as black, I’ve made my job much harder and increased the odds, fairly or not, that they’ll reject my message.

So I think identity politics mixes the work of social reform, which has to do with recognition and incorporation and diversity, with the work of political action, which requires political speech that encourages people to agree with you.

And one more excerpt:

Sean Illing: Another concern I’ve heard on the left, and this was articulated nicely by Slate’s Michelle Goldberg, is that you’ve conflated the illiberal excesses of the “social justice warriors” with race and gender politics as such, and these are not the same things.

Do you take this point at all?

Mark Lilla: I want to distinguish political discourse from general cultural discourse. In general cultural discourse, there’s a lot to be said about race and gender, and talking about it has led to extraordinarily positive changes. Making these arguments is critical to mobilizing people, and I didn’t say that in my article.

But when it comes to seizing power, that will not win you a single election. It will not pass through the spam filter of Fox News. Appealing to principle is our best chance of passing through the right-wing media filter.

Read the entire interview here.

Mark Lilla Strikes Again

mark-lillaMark Lilla has academia pretty upset with him for writing this controversial New York Times piece about identity politics.  As some of you know, I interacted with the piece here. My post triggered what I thought was a good Facebook discussion.

Since Lilla’s piece appeared it has been interesting to watch my friends on the Left respond to it.  If my social media feeds are any indication, many are simply dismissing and disparaging Lilla by calling him names or saying something snarky without fully engaging his argument.  I am sure some of this has to do with the limits of social media or the fact that it is “that time of the semester,” but I am not convinced that all of it is.

From what I can tell Lilla is a pretty smart guy.  He is also a pretty smart guy who has broken with academic orthodoxy.  Is there no truth in Lilla’s argument?  Not everyone will agree with him, but is his argument so outrageous that no one can find any common ground?  Can the Left learn anything from what he has written?  Where is the honest dialogue?  Where is the conversation?   (To be fair, some have responded thoughtfully.  For example, I think Yale’s Jim Sleeper’s response is worth reading.  So if Jonathan Wilson’s response at The Junto.  I am sure there are others, including nearly all of the posts on my FB page).

Anyhow, a new interview with Lilla was just published at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Here is a taste:

Are colleges too obsessed with diversity?

They’re too obsessed with identity. There’s a subtle distinction. Diversity as a social goal and aim of social reform is an excellent thing. But identity politics today isn’t about group belonging; it’s about personal identity. From the ’70s into the ’90s, there was a shift in focus from group identity to the self as the intersection of different kinds of identities. Identity became more narcissistic and less connected to larger political themes. For many students, their political interest and engagement end at the border of how they’ve defined themselves.

It’s extraordinary how much time and thinking they devote to exactly what they are as the subtotal of other identities, rather than seeing their time at the university as an opportunity to leave those things behind, or overcome them, or become something that’s actually themselves and autonomous in some way.

Are identity-based departments and centers part of the problem?

Well, they do many things. Research on the history of women, the history of gay groups, that’s all a very good thing. But when one has majors or faculty lines that are devoted simply to a particular identity, or to the question of identity, that leads to a kind of withdrawal from a wider engagement with the university. These programs tend to be closed entities in which people talk to themselves and encourage one another, and students can fall into this and major in women’s studies or African-American studies or gay and lesbian studies, and I think that’s a missed opportunity for them.

You’re white. You’re male. You’re heterosexual. Are you the best person to make this argument?

Arguments are arguments. Period.

America has a long history of anti-intellectualism, but this election revealed widespread distrust and hostility toward expertise, and the institutions, like universities, that produce it. Are scholars trusted less than ever?

Absolutely. Part of that is due to the public image of the university as being full of spoiled, privileged professors and students who are wrapped up in crazy issues, who are snobs and are contemptuous of other people’s work, their opinions, and religions.

There’s a segment on Tucker Carlson’s show called “Campus Craziness,” and 90 percent of the examples are crazy. This informs the public’s picture of learning and scholarship. And you can even tie that attitude to skepticism about climate change. Nick Kristof had a recent column pointing out that people use the word “academic” not to mean scholarly, but to mean totally detached from reality.

What role can intellectuals play in the Trump age? They seem pretty marginalized at this point.

The most important thing for any intellectual — any human being — to have is a sense of proportion. And given the scale of the challenge not only to partisan liberals like myself but to the life of learning, the pursuit of truth, we must focus our attention and energies on the real big issues. Our focus must be outside the university, outside the ivy walls, and into the wider world. And we should encourage our students to engage with that wider world, not just with themselves.

Read the entire piece and the interview here.  For my thoughts on identity politics and the teaching of American history, click here.

Obama’s Legacy

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In case you have not seen it, The New Republic is running a fascinating discussion about the legacy of Barack Obama.  The participants in the discussion include historian Annette Gordon-Reed and Nell Painter and journalist/writers John Judis, Sarah Jaffee, and Andrew Sullivan.  The piece also includes insights from Bill McKibbon, Rafia Zakaria, Nikhil Pal Singh, Kim Phillips-Fein, Elizabeth Bruenig, and Thomas Frank.

Here is an interest exchange on identity politics:

SULLIVAN: I want to bring up something about quote-unquote “identity politics.” Because there was an area of extraordinary success Obama had in the advancement of civil rights. Namely, the achievement of marriage equality and openly gay people in the military, which no one believed could happen. And the lesson of that to me was exactly what Sarah said earlier: that yes, we didn’t wait for him, we did it ourselves. But we did it by eschewing identity politics, by saying we have got to stress what we have in common with heterosexual people, by embracing our responsibilities rather than finding constant excuses for failure, by persuading a large number of people in the middle and taking their concerns seriously, instead of screaming “racist” and all this other claptrap we hear from the left.

There is a great lesson in that—which is that if the left thinks that it didn’t stress identity politics enough, they are gravely mistaken. The only progress that will come on these issues is by getting rid of that poison and concentrating on what we have in common as citizens, irrespective of our race and our gender and our sexual orientation.

NEW REPUBLIC: I know other people in the room will disagree with a lot of what you just said, Andrew. But in a way, you captured the core of Obama’s own take on race. He has been very clear and very conscious that his larger goal was essentially a civic one: to try and get people to see themselves in each other. Was that the right approach? Or did it limit what he could achieve, by appealing to our commonality rather than more forcefully confronting the policies and prejudices that divide us?

GORDON-REED: That’s always been the philosophy of people who have been arguing for black rights. That’s what we’ve been doing: We’re people. All men are created equal. We’ve used the Declaration of Independence, we’ve used all those kinds of things. I don’t know who this “left” is that Andrew’s talking about. Black people have always been trying to assert our equal humanity. That’s what we’ve led with. Obama’s approach is not that different than what other people are doing.

JAFFE: Keep in mind that the Tea Party came first. It wasn’t Black Lives Matter. The Tea Party was ready to be angry at Obama on day one, explicitly because he was a black president. It’s just chronologically backwards to say that thousands and thousands of Americans who finally got fed up with racial injustice and took part in protest movements were somehow responsible for polarizing the conversation or rejecting common ground.

PAINTER: We’ve been talking about what Obama might have done or what Obama didn’t do or what Obama should have done. But when we’re talking about a lot of American politics, it goes on at the state and local level. That’s where we need to focus as progressives. Maybe the Democratic Party didn’t do enough on that front. But American citizens have certainly shirked their responsibility to be involved in our public life.

One quick thought about Gordon-Reed’s statement that blacks have always appealed to a common civic life in their efforts at arguing for Civil Rights.  I wonder if this is actually the case.  I can think of several well-respected historians who have argued that African-American public engagement changed considerably in the late 1960s.  If I read scholars like David Chappell, David Burner (who I took a course with in graduate school) or Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn (or even her father Christopher Lasch, especially in The True and Only Heaven) correctly, there was a move away from an appeal to civic culture and towards identity politics and Black nationalism.  I think Sullivan is correct in another part of the interview when he says that Obama represents an older Civil Rights tradition more associated with King in the 1950s and early 1960s.  This approach appealed more to universal, civic ideals than particular identities.  I think we see Obama’s approach on this front very clearly in his speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Selma and even in his speech in the wake of the Charleston shootings.

Read the entire conversation here.  In the end, most of the participants, especially the historians, suggest that it is far too early to talk about Obama’s legacy.

History Education and Identity Politics: An Exchange with a K-12 History Teacher

College-classroom

My recent post “Is There a Tension Between History Education and Identity Politics” seems to be resonating with some people.  I am especially happy that it is resonating with K-16 teachers.  Some good discussion seems to be happening.

One of the teachers who has engaged with the piece at my Facebook page is Leslie Smith, a history teacher in San Bernardino, California.  I met Leslie in October 2011 when I was in California to work with the teachers of the San Bernardino School District. My visit was part of the district’s Teaching American History grant programming.  As the curriculum coordinator for the district, Leslie was responsible for running the grant. If I remember correctly, I did presentations on Protestantism in America and the American Enlightenment. (I was there under the auspices of the Gilder-Lehrman Institute for American History).  More importantly, I got to know Leslie and we have continued our friendship through social media.

Here is what Leslie wrote in response to my original post.  I should add that she is not only an outstanding history teacher, but she is also a practicing Catholic.

Leslie: I see the tension that you mention and want to celebrate it because before there was *no* tension, at least not in the narrative taught in k-12 classrooms. It was a national narrative of great men (read fairly-wealthy, white men) did great things and that’s why America is great. Beginning, middle, end of story. And now students are being taught a different narrative that may be increasing their narcissism. Although I wonder how much of this is caused by other factors, I do see the narcissism you speak of. I would think that what they need isn’t one narrative or another but a willingness, the ability, and the time to complicate history education with multiple narratives.

I would argue that it is in dealing with and maintaining balance with tension that is where the work lies (perhaps Opus Dei). Without tension, we are left with flaccid tools that neither fulfill their purpose nor serve any use. It is hard work to maintain a balance with this tension, but so much is at stake. We must seek the Spirit of God living within us and at the same time see His face in those we meet. We must see ourselves in history and encounter new/different people as they were in history. Peter was a betrayer *and* a fisher of men. Washington was a slave owner *and* a great leader. We are sinners *and* made in Imago Dei. The *or* is easier but not the truth and will essentially get us no where. The same is true with history education *and* identity politics.

In the end, I worry about any single story. I would soooo love to sit with you and discuss this at length. There has GOT to be more time and effort put in building useful bridges between k-12 and university education, especially in the humanities. We can’t afford not to.

And here is my response:

John: Leslie: Yes–I would love to come back out to California and have this conversation. Your point in the first paragraph on the great men narrative is on the mark, but I am not convinced that we need to abandon some type of national narrative in favor of a U.S. history course defined by identity politics. Even if the narrative deals heavily with the failures of Americans to live up to their ideals (as King reminds us in the Letter from a Birmingham Jail) it will still show kids that the promise of America has always been a contested and unfulfilled one and that there is a lot more work to do.

I will be the first to say that the teaching of historical thinking skills should be the primary goal of a K-12 history course. But the 2016 election has also convinced me that the study of history must play some kind of civic role as well.  As I have argued in Why Study History?, I don’t think the teaching of historical thinking skills and the “history as civics approach” are mutually exclusive. Good historical thinking skills produce good democratic citizens. But such civic lessons should also come through the kind of narrative I described above.  

As for the Holy Spirit–I could not agree more. Again, I touch on this in Why Study History?. The kind of empathy necessary for historical understanding to take place and for empathy to contribute to our life together in this country and beyond is for me connected to the spiritual disciplines. I was just listening to a Ted Talk in which a political commentator–a non-believer– was saying that empathy is a “meditative practice” for her when she deals with conservatives who do not like her liberal politics.  I am not entirely sure that we can muster the inner strength alone to practice and teach the kind of empathy I talk about in this piece and elsewhere.  I can get away with this kind of talk at Messiah College, where most of my students share my Christian faith. But just in case some of my critics out there are reading this, I would NOT advocate this kind of approach to empathy in a public K-16 history classroom, even if an approach to empathy informed by the spiritual disciplines might be the presuppositional base upon which the teacher operates.  

Thanks for the conversation.

 

Another Kind of “Identity Politics”

Last night I posted a piece on identity politics and the teaching of history. The post engaged with Columbia University history professor Mark Lilla’s critique of identity liberalism.  It is not my intention here to revisit what I wrote except to say that Lilla was employing a fairly common understanding of the phrase “identity liberalism,” namely the propensity to celebrate our differences (race, class, gender, sexual identity) in a way that makes them more important than our common identity as Americans.

In his critique of Lilla’s piece at The Junto blog, history professor Jonathan Wilson reminds us that “identity politics” goes well beyond the usual liberal categories of race, class, gender, and secular orientation.  Wilson writes:

Lilla’s argument overlooks the fact that Americanness itself is a particular constructed identity—and therefore, that any politics of the national common good is an identity politics. Lilla writes:

We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another. As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale. [Emphasis added.]

However appropriate that recommendation may be strategically or as a matter of proportion, it is still a recipe for a form of identity politics. It requires asserting that Americans share a common interest simply by virtue of that group membership. It implies members of the nation owe a loyalty to each other that they may not owe to other groups—and which may override other important forms of human affinity and fulfillment.

I am guessing that Lilla would probably agree with Wilson here, although he would probably say that he was using “identity liberalism” in a very particular way in this piece–a way that most people who read it understood.

In response to Wilson’s post (in the comments section of The Junto), blogger and American historian Ann Little wrote:

I’d say the first identity politics party in American history was the Republican/Democratic Republican party. We can at the very latest say that by the time of Andy Jackson and when they began calling themselves Democrats it was clearly a party organized around white supremacy, with proslavery and imperial expansion at its center. So, DUH! Identity politics is just what we used to call politics before all those troublesome women and nonwhite people had the audacity to assume they had a claim to citizenship rights too.

While Lilla used the phrase “identity liberalism” in a very specific way, both Wilson and Little won’t let us forget that politics was one of the original forms of American “identity politics.”  I agree.

In February 2016 I wrote an op-ed piece published at Fox News about why the founding fathers–George Washington especially–did not like political parties.  The context for the piece was the Senate’s refusal to follow the Constitution and vote on Barack Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.

Is it fair to say that Washington saw political parties as a form of identity politics?  Yes.

After I quoted from Washington’s 1796 farewell address, here is part of what I wrote:

Washington worried that political factions—such as today’s Republican and Democratic parties—weakened American’s commitment to the common good.  Political partisanship, he believed, promoted the worst forms of selfishness.  It undermined the “we” in “We the People.”

I thought about all of this again as I watched CNN’s Michael Smerconish grill RNC communication’s director Sean Spicer about Donald Trump’s response to the CIA announcement that Russian hackers tried to influence the 2016 election. Watch it here:

At the 2:45 mark  in the video Smerconish wonders why Americans of all parties are not upset with the fact that Putin and Russia has influenced a presidential election.  If Smerconish is correct, and I tend to think that he is, then “identity politics” (or, as Little puts it, just good old fashioned political partisanship) has now gotten in the way of the national security interests of all Americans, regardless of political party.

Yes, the Cold War is over.  The Soviet Union has been gone for over 25 years.  But if Putin represents some kind of revival of the Russian threat (as Mitt Romney correctly implied during his 2012 presidential run) then it looks are response to this threat will not follow the Cold War model of unified resistance. Whatever collective outrage we have had in the past about Russians trying to influence American life seems to have now been subordinated to party politics.

And it’s not just the end of the Cold War that has caused this decline of national unity in the last two or three decades.  I think it’s time re-read (and perhaps blog about) Daniel Rodgers’s Age of Fracture.

Finally, I have been wondering what Putin thinks of all of this.  Perhaps something along the lines of the final scene in one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes: “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” As the martians look down and watch the once good people of Maple Street destroy themselves,  one of them says (at 27:45 the mark in the video below): “They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, and it’s themselves.  All we need to do is just sit back and watch…We’ll just sit back and watch and let them destroy themselves.”

Is There a Tension Between History Education and Identity Politics?

dickinson_college_18_college_classroom

Please help me think through this.

In my last post, I embedded a video of Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust and writer Leon Wieseltier discussing the role of humanities in everyday life.  In the course of their discussion they talked about the way in which the humanities teaches empathy.  Faust is a historian.  She suggested that the study of history challenges students to see the world through the eyes of others.  Wieseltier agreed.  Empathy is needed for democracy to thrive. It is cultivated through the imagination.  And the humanities trigger the imagination.

As readers of this blog know, I have been arguing this for a long time.  On Sunday I gave a lecture on this subject at a local church in my area and have led similar public discussions on this topic in the past.  The relationship between historical thinking, empathy, and democracy is at the heart of my book Why Study History? and, in many ways, at the heart of my vocation as a historian who takes seriously my responsibility to the public.

When I teach I want my students to empathize (not necessarily sympathize) with the so-called “other.” I want them to understand people in the past on their own terms.  I want to do the best I can to get my students to walk in the shoes of people who are different than them.  (I know, I know, you have all heard this from me before!) Yesterday I was laboring in my American Revolution class to get students to understand Shays’s Rebellion from both the perspective of the men in Boston governing Massachusetts and the perspective of the rural Massachusetts farmers who were getting squeezed by the breakdown of a moral economy and high taxes.  I wanted them to grasp why those in power articulated a language of republican virtue.  I also wanted them to understand the sense of desperation, hopelessness, and anger that the farmers felt. Primary documents, of course, were our guide in this exercise.

As I write, I am reminded once again of Sam Wineburg’s words about historical thinking and how this practice relieves us of our narcissism:

For the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image.  Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born.  History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense.  Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.

If humanities and history education is about leading students outward then what do we do about students in our class who only want to see themselves in the past?  What do we do with the students who only want to look inward?  What do we do with students who (whether they realize it or not) only want to see the world through the lens of identity politics? What do we do with the students who resist this kind of humanities education because they are angry and resentful about the way their people have been treated in the past?  (These students don’t want to hear a lecture about empathy).  What do we do with the privileged student who could care less about such an exercise?

I started thinking about these things more deeply after I read Columbia University historian Mark Lilla‘s  New York Times op-ed “The End of Identity Liberalism.”  Here is a taste:

But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country. (The achievements of women’s rights movements, for instance, were real and important, but you cannot understand them if you do not first understand the founding fathers’ achievement in establishing a system of government based on the guarantee of rights.)

When young people arrive at college they are encouraged to keep this focus on themselves by student groups, faculty members and also administrators whose full-time job is to deal with — and heighten the significance of — “diversity issues.” Fox News and other conservative media outlets make great sport of mocking the “campus craziness” that surrounds such issues, and more often than not they are right to. Which only plays into the hands of populist demagogues who want to delegitimize learning in the eyes of those who have never set foot on a campus. How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in “His Majesty”?

Read the entire piece here.

After this piece appeared, Steve Inskeep interviewed Lilla on National Public Radio.  In this interview Lilla said that he is anti-Trump, a supporter of transgender rights, and a liberal who wants nothing to do with identity politics.  We learn that one of his colleagues at Columbia, after reading his piece, called him a white supremacist. (Another one defended him).

Here is a taste of his NPR interview:

LILLA: Identity liberalism, as I understand it, is expressive rather than persuasive. It’s about recognition and self-definition. It’s narcissistic. It’s isolating. It looks within. And it also makes two contradictory claims on people. It says, on the one hand, you can never understand me because you are not exactly the kind of person I’ve defined myself to be. And on the other hand, you must recognize me and feel for me. Well, if you’re so different that I’m not able to get into your head and I’m not able to experience or sympathize with what you experience, why should I care?

INSKEEP: Who were some of the groups that liberals have appealed to in ways you find to be counterproductive?

LILLA: To take one example, I mean, the whole issue of bathrooms and gender – in this particular election, when the stakes were so high, the fact that Democrats and liberals, more generally, lost a lot of political capital on this issue that frightened people. People were misinformed about certain things, but it was really a question of where young people would be going to the bathroom and where they would be in lockers. Is that really the issue we want to be pushing leading up to a momentous election like this one? It’s that shortsightedness that comes from identity politics.

INSKEEP: I’m just imagining some of your fellow liberals being rather angry at you saying such a thing.

LILLA: Well, those are the liberals who don’t want to win. Those are the liberals who are in love with noble defeats, and I’m sick and tired of noble defeats. I prefer a dirty victory to a noble defeat. The president who did the most for black Americans in 20th century history was Lyndon Johnson, and he got his hands dirty by dealing with Southern senators, Southern congressmen, horse trading with them, cajoling them, learning what not to talk about. And he got civil rights passed and Great Society programs. That should be the model. Get over yourself.

I am inclined to agree with Lilla here, especially when he talks about identity liberalism in terms of narcissism, isolationism, and navel gazing. If Lilla is right, then how do we teach history and the humanities (more broadly)?  Identity liberals want white people to empathize with people of color. I am entirely on board with this.  But is it wrong to challenge a student of color to empathize with white people?   If education is about looking outward, what do we do about a form of identity politics that teaches students (of all identities) to look inward or to always see themselves as victims? (And in the wake of the election of 2016 I have found both whites and people of color seem to be playing the victim).  Can I expect a black student to empathize with the writing of a 19th-century pro-slavery advocate in the same way that I expect a white student to empathize with 19th-century enslaved man or woman?

My thinking on this issue is complicated by the fact that I am an American historian. I know, as the late historian Edmund Morgan put it, that “American freedom” has always gone hand-in-hand with “American slavery.”  I am convinced by scholarship that connects the rise of American capitalism to slavery.  I know the history that people of color, women, and the poor have inherited.  This makes teaching empathy through history a task fraught with difficulties.

I believe that the voices of all people need to be heard. I teach them because I believe that all human beings are important.  (I guess you could call this my own version of identity politics). My faith tells me that human beings are created in the image of God and thus have dignity and worth.  I am committed to a Christian narrative that understands the human experience through the interplay of the Imago Dei, sin, and redemption. This narrative shapes my teaching.  To me this narrative is more important than liberal identity politics informed by race, class, and gender. And since I teach at a college that claims to celebrate this narrative, and defines itself by this narrative (I hope it does), I want my students to come to grips with the meaning of this narrative as the most important source for understanding their lives and their identities. This narrative should shape how white students understand students of color and how students of color should understand white students.  It best explains our shared destiny as people of Christian faith.  This is part of the reason I find myself turning over and over again to Reinhold Niebuhr’s “spiritual discipline against resentment.” His approach seems to provide a real way forward.

I also still believe–old fashioned as it might sound–in a national narrative. As an American historian I think it is more important than ever that my students understand the story of the United States and the ways in which the values put forth by the founders have and have not been applied in our attempts to create “a more perfect union.” If political jealousy is indeed a laudable passion, then citizens need to know what to be jealous about. Yes, I understand the way that the liberal identity politics of race, class, and gender, and the internationalization of American history, has shaped my field.  I have learned much from this approach.  But I am coming around more and more everyday to the civic role that U.S. history plays in the strengthening of our democracy.

So, in the end, how do I teach students–all students–the kind of historical thinking that relieves them of their narcissism in an age of liberal identity politics? How do I teach my subject of expertise to students who are too often grounded in an approach to the world that trains them to always look inward? How do I teach history to students conditioned to see only themselves in the stories I tell about the past?

I am sure I will take some heat for this post.  But I am really interested in an honest dialogue. I realize that I don’t have this all figured out and would really like some help in thinking it through.  Thanks.

Steinfels: “You Don’t Win over People By Calling Them Racists”

steinfelspeterCatholic writer Peter Steinfels reflects on the #ageoftrump in a recent piece at Commonweal, the magazine where his byline has appeared for over fifty years.  He has little patience for Donald Trump, the GOP, the  Democratic Party, and identity politics.

Here is a taste:

And that raises the much-bruited issue of identity politics. Clearly, the Democrats’ fixation on sheer diversity, a demographic checklist of age groups, income groups, and racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities, has proved a failure. But what is the problem—simply the emphasis on identities or the failure to connect with some identities (e.g., traditionalist, rural, working-class) in a convincing way? Perhaps the problem, to a disturbing degree, is the loss of identities, of identities, that is, with any genuine life-shaping character, any authentic culture, rather than identities based on skin color or admiration for a reality TV star and winner at casino economics? 

I would have thought that religion might provide that kind of identity, until I looked at the 81 percent white evangelical vote for Trump and the 60 percent white Catholic vote. My guess is that these churches and, by association, religion generally, will find themselves badly discredited by a Trump administration bearing gifts. The prolife and religious freedom movements, which I consider of major importance, may win a round or two in the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, with the mark of Trump stamped on their foreheads, they have virtually doomed themselves in the cultural contests essential to their goals.

I have not said anything about “whitelash.” I never believed for an instant, as I am sure Barack Obama never believed, that we had entered a “post-racial” era. I also don’t believe that we are returning to Jim Crow or that black bodies exist in constant danger of being mowed down by white authorities on the streets. But I have neither space nor ability to address with due gravity and precision what 2016 reveals about where the nation stands in regard to this, its deepest and most threatening wound. My only observation, practical but superficial, is that you don’t win over people by calling them racists.  

Read the entire piece here.  The last paragraph reminds me a lot of Niebuhr’s “spiritual discipline against resentment.”

HT: John Haas