Carlo Ginzburg on the Study of History and the Boundaries of His Commitments

2018.05.24. Carlo Ginzburg MEDALS AND SHELLS ON MORPHOLOGY AND HISTORY, ONCE AGAIN

Historians know Ginzburg as the founder of the “microhistory” and the author of The Cheese and the Worms.   In a recent interview at Verso Books with Claire Zalc he talks about his career and the current state of the historical profession.  Here is a taste:

How do you define the boundaries of your commitments?

I must say that I don’t like sermons. If there is anything I can do, as a historian, from an analytical point of view, it is very good. It’s part of my job. But the situation is evolving in a way that I may have to get a little more involved. Yesterday, I was asked to comment on the screening of a film on immigration and I accepted. Would I have said yes five or ten years ago? The context is changing… Even if the idea of the committed intellectual is not something I particularly like.

Do you think that doing history helps us understand our present? I have in mind the frequent analogy made between the current situation and the 1930s.

I had never used the word ‘fascist’ outside its historical context. Then I watched Trump’s election campaign on TV. I was in Chicago, and I thought, ‘This guy’s a fascist.’ Then I thought about a conversation I had with Italo Calvino, around 1968. He knew Argentina well, and said to me: ‘You see, in the light of the Perón experience, the definition of fascism has to change.’ This struck me. Certainly, there is historical fascism, but can we broaden this definition? Racism or anti-Semitism are not, in my opinion, necessary elements. But we should think about this.

Why do history today? Do you think it still makes sense?

Yes, completely. But we must avoid confusion or identification between history and memory. Even if history is nourished by memory, and memory is also nourished by history, it is necessary to keep this distinction: Maurice Halbwachs demonstrated this very well. It reminds me of the Internet. There are, with the Internet, gains and losses. We gain a potential for opening up, for ‘de-provincialization’, which is magnificent. But there is also a risk of losing the slowness of reading, the slowness of reflection. You have to play between the two, speed and slowness, to regain the thickness of the present.

Read the entire interview and Zalc’s introduction here.

I was struck by Ginzburg’s reflections on the historian’s engagement with contemporary events.  I think his answer to this question best captures how I have approached the Trump administration and my book Believe Me.  “The situation is evolving in a way that I may have to get a little more involved.”

On Whataboutism and Moral Equivalence in the Age of Trump

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Tony, a regular commentator at this blog, an evangelical Christian, and a lawyer, writes in response to my post on Trump’s speech this morning (I copied it from the comments section below):

“Trump needs the teleprompter because he does not possess the moral resources to be able to speak extemporaneously or off-the-cuff about shootings like this. He needs others to give him the words of empathy, sympathy, compassion, righteous indignation–the stuff that comes from the soul of a virtuous man.”

This is an amazing critique — let’s accept, solely for the sake of argument, that it is true — given that the guy who preceded Trump, and about whom John had nary a negative word to say, and who John deems infinitely more virtuous in every way — was wedded to his teleprompter. The most carefully scripted president we have ever had. In good times and bad. But that was then, when habitual, almost comical reliance upon other people’s words (and he sure could deliver them) told us nothing about one’s soul, and this is now, when it signifies a sucking moral vacuum.

The selectivity of the dudgeon is its most noteworthy characteristic.

And let’s be clear: John’s objection is not really to the “pathetic” speech. It’s to Trump himself. Meaning: Churchill could pen the oratory, and John would still object, because Trump is unworthy to deliver it. This is precisely what John is attacking when he dismisses Trump’s appeal to bipartisanship and his comments about human dignity. Those would be acceptable words from anyone else, but not from Trump, because his malevolent character renders them clanging gongs and clashing cymbals. The argument is: no matter how worthy or aspirational the sentiment, the words are empty coming from this man, and must be rejected.

Fair enough. But then let’s stop pretending that there is anything — literally, anything (other than: “I am a wicked, orange man, and I resign.”) — Trump could say which would satisfy John. So why even the pretense of evaluating what has been said? Simpler to write: “Trump gave a speech. I did not listen to it, for there was no need. It was by definition awful, noxious, gormless and without any redeeming quality, because Trump uttered the words.”

John has become the mirror image of those who found every spoken word, every mannerism, every single thing about Obama — including his heinous lack of lapel flag pins — teeth-grindingly intolerable. Yes, yes, I get it: their loathing was based on vile –Isms and without basis, whereas the all-pervading, Manichean Trump animus is entirely justified.

I decided to post about this comment because Tony’s remarks allow me to clarify a few things.  Here is how I responded to Tony:

“Here is where we differ Tony. You presuppose some kind of equivalency between Trump and all other politicians. This is why you are constantly saying “Well, what about Obama?” (And this is why I consistently reject this whataboutism). You believe that Trump and Obama (or any other recent president) are playing on the same moral field and thus must be evaluated in the same way.  I do not. Trump has sacrificed the moral integrity necessary to deliver a speech like he did today. I agree with Jeff from Maryland when he says: ‘Trump could recite the Gettysburg Address’ and I would not believe him.

So Tony–at what point does a person lose all credibility in your mind? At what point does a person’s actions damage his or her attempts to deliver moral rhetoric to a public audience? I admit that different people will come to different conclusions about when a public figure has reached this level, but I find it hard to believe that it would not happen at some point. I have reached my point of no return with Trump. You, apparently, have not.”

What Will Future Historians Say About Abortion?

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I hate the term “right side” and “wrong side” of history.  No historian should use these phrases. They are moral, not historical, phrases.  When people use them they are usually saying more about their own politics or religion than the patterns of history.  When Martin Luther King Jr. said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” he was making a theological statement.  It is a theological statement that I affirm because I am a Christian who hopes in a coming Kingdom where justice will prevail, and not because I wholeheartedly embrace the Enlightenment idea of progress.

Historians know that the story of humanity does not always bend toward justice.  Usually those who reference the right and wrong sides of history have a political axe to grind.  Historians, of course, are not prophets.  We cannot predict the direction history will move.  Christian historians should have eschatological hope, but we cannot pretend to claim that we know all that God is doing.  This is why we talk about humility and mystery.  We see through a glass darkly.

In her recent piece on abortion at VOX, evangelical feminist Karen Swallow Prior does not use the phrase “right side of history” or “wrong side of history,” but she does invoke a kind of ethical trajectory–a teleology if you will– that is born out of her Christian convictions and her belief in moral progress.  As a historian, I am trained to treat her predictions with caution.  As a Christian who believes we must reduce the number of abortions in the United States, I say let’s hope she is correct.

Here is a taste of her piece, “Abortion Will Be Considered Unthinkable 50 Years from Now.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that abortion hit its lowest rate since Roe v. Wade11.8 per 1,000 women ages 15-44, a dramatic decline from a peak in the early 1980s that approached 30 per 1,000 women. It’s unclear whether this decrease is owing to increased use of contraceptives; delayed sexual activity among young people; the declining number of doctors willing to participate in abortions; a growing inability to deny — thanks to ultrasound technology, prenatal surgical interventions, and extravagant gender reveal parties — the insuppressible personality of the child in the womb; or a combination of all these factors.

Whatever the cause, however, abortion is becoming less necessary and less desirable. Recent attempts in several states to expand access to late-term abortions in anticipation of the possible overturning of Roe not only violate the view of the majority (who support greater restrictions after the first trimester) but will be seen by future generations as a last, desperate show of stubbornness in the face of human progress.

Every age has its blinders, constructed, usually, through a combination of ignorance and self-interest. Many things such as bloodletting and wet nurses that are seen as good or indispensable in one age are unthinkable in another.

Our modern-day willingness to settle for sex apart from commitment, to accept the dereliction of duty by men who impregnate women (for men are the primary beneficiaries of liberal abortion laws), and to uphold the systematic suppression of sex’s creative energy and function are practices that people of other ages would have considered bizarre. As we enter late modernity and recognize the limits of the radical autonomy and individualism which have defined it, the pendulum will correct itself with a swing toward more communitarian and humane values that recognize the interdependency of all humans.

When we do, we will look back at elective abortion and wonder — as we do now with polluting and smoking — why we so wholeheartedly embraced it. We will look at those ultrasound images of 11-week old fetuses somersaulting in the waters of the womb and lack words to explain to our grandchildren why we ever defended their willful destruction in the name of personal choice and why we harmed so many women to do so.

Read the entire piece here.

This reminds me of what I wrote earlier this week about Jimmy Carter’s suggestion that the Democratic Party change its views on abortion:

I think there are a lot of pro-life Democrats out there who would agree with Carter, but they do not make their voices heard for several reasons:

  1. They do not want to be ostracized by the Democratic Party.
  2. They are afraid that if they defend the unborn they will be accused of not caring about women’s rights.  (This, I believe, is a false dichotomy).
  3. They do not want to be associated with the divisive and unhelpful “baby-killing” culture war rhetoric of the Right.
  4. They do not endorse the Christian Right/GOP playbook that teaches the only way to reduce abortions is to overturn Roe. v. Wade.

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.

Historical Thinking and Moral Reflection

adbb2-why2bstudy2bhistory-bakerShould historians ask whether something in the past was good?  Bad?  Here are five suggestions:

1. The historian’s primary responsibility is explanation and understanding, not moral criticism.  Historians can engage in moral criticism, but they should do so only after they have fully grasped what happened in the past and why it happened in the way it did.

2. When historians do speak or write ethically about what happened in the past, they should do so with caution so that preaching does not trump historical interpretation.  As historian James Banner has noted, “Reform may arise from historical knowledge, but bringing about reform is the province of others–or at least of historians on their days off.”

3.  When a historian engages in moralizing about the past, it should be characterized not only by mature historical understanding but also by mature moral thinking.

4.  Historians should make moral judgments in an implicit rather than explicit manner.

5.  Historians should remember to see historical actors as morally complex individuals before casting judgement on them.

Much of this post is drawn from Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  They are all developed in the book.

Did Jameis Winston Deserve the Heisman Trophy?

Jonathan Zimmerman, a historian at New York University and a prolific op-ed writer, does not believe that Jameis Winston deserves the coveted Heisman Trophy.  The Heisman is given to the “outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.”  Here is a taste:

And don’t just read the statement by the alleged victim, who claims that Winston kept assaulting her even when another male entered the room and told him to stop. Look instead at the statements by Winston’s roommate and football teammate Chris Casher.
In the first one, submitted by an attorney, Casher said he accompanied Winston and a woman home from a bar. After Winston and the woman went to a bedroom to have sex, Casher decided to play a “joke” on them. “I busted into the room to embarrass Jameis,” Casher says.
But in his next statement, given directly to police, Casher said he went into the room to see if the woman would have sex with him, too, “as has happened with other females he and Winston have brought back to their apartment,” the police interview says. The woman told Casher to get out, but he returned and tried to videotape her sexual encounter with Winston.
Noticing the discrepancy between the two accounts, police asked Casher to clarify them. Casher confirmed that “he did indeed go into the room to have sex with [the woman] as well,” according to the police interview.
Both statements counter the woman’s claim that Casher – or another male – had told Winston to stop. And, of course, both of them were offered to exculpate Winston from the criminal charge against him.
They just might do that.
But we also need to distinguish between the legal case against Winston and the question of “integrity,” to quote the Heisman Trust. By the seventh-largest margin in football history, sportswriters just voted to give the Heisman Trophy to a man who – by the admission of his own roommate – routinely brings women to his apartment to have sex with both of them, one after the other.
But once the Florida state attorney decided not to charge Winston with a crime, most of America’s sportswriters apparently decided he was good to go.
“I knew I did nothing wrong,” Winston told reporters in New York on Friday. Nothing criminal, perhaps. But nothing wrong? That statement alone should make you question the integrity of Winston, and of the hundreds of reporters who cast their ballots for him. So when the BCS title game comes on TV next month, I hope you’ll do the only right thing: Turn it off.
I wonder how many of the charities supported by The Heisman Trust would approve of Winston’s behavior.  

Moral Reflection vs. Moral Judgment

I have been enjoying Tracy McKenzie‘s reflections on moral judgment and the American idea of manifest destiny.  I think I approach the question of moral reflection in historical inquiry a little bit differently, but we both seem to end up at the same place.

McKenzie’s posts are making me impatient about receiving the copy-edited manuscript of my Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  I want to make a few small changes in light of the things I am learning from his posts at “Faith and History.”

Here is a taste of his post “Manifest Destiny and Moral Reflection–Part Two“:

At its best, the study of the past can provide a marvelous context for serious moral inquiry.  One of my favorite statements to this effect comes from historian David Harlan.  In his book, The Degradation of American History, Harlan writes movingly about history’s potential to facilitate  a “conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.” 

In practice, secular historians today frequently write implicitly as moralists—criticizing past views about race, class, gender, and colonialism with which they disagree without building a systematic moral argument for their views.  And yet officially, for more than a century academic historians have insisted that moral inquiry has no legitimate place in responsible historical scholarship.  They usually make their case by equating moral inquiry with heavy-handed dogmatism, painting nightmare scenarios in which the historian becomes a “hanging judge,” passing out sentences left and right for the moral edification of the audience.

Obviously, this is not the only form that moral inquiry may take, however.  I like to distinguish between moral judgment, defined as outward directed inquiry focused on determining the guilt or rectitude of people or events in the past, and moral reflection, an inward directed undertaking in which we engage the past in order to scrutinize our own values and behavior more effectively.

The concept of manifest destiny and its role in American history is one of those topics that cries out for moral engagement.  Most of the contemporary allusions to manifest destiny in popular culture evoke the worst kinds of self-righteous judgments, however.  The furor over the Gap t-shirt with “Manifest Destiny” on its front was one such instance.  But what might it look like to think historically and Christianly about manifest destiny with an eye toward moral reflection?

There is no one single way to do so responsibly, but here is what I would recommend:  To begin with, we need to purpose to go to the past in search of illumination, not ammunition.  Next, we must determine to take seriously Christ’s injunction to “judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). The starting point of moral reflection is “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23), or if you prefer, Paul’s declaration that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (I Timothy 1:15).  In thinking about the past, this means that we purpose to identify with those whom we are trying to understand, acknowledging that their propensity to sin is no more developed than our own, glimpsing shadows of our own struggles in theirs.  When we do that, whatever is morally troubling about the mindset of manifest destiny becomes a clue to what we might expect to find in our own hearts if we look closely enough.

This Week’s "Anxious Bench" Post at Patheos: "Should Historians Cast Judgment on the Past?"

As a history professor I often find myself in conversations with students and fellow faculty members about whether or not it is appropriate for historians to cast judgment on people and events from another era.  Since I teach at a Christian college, these conversations usually focus on applying the moral teachings of the Bible to past events.  I am often accused by my non-historian friends of being too “evenhanded” on a particular subject when I should have used my role as a historian to speak prophetically about why such and such a person from the past was wrong.

There is some truth to these kinds of criticisms.  How can we be value-free or morally neutral when we are exploring the past and encounter Adolph Hitler and the Holocaust, American slavery, Attila the Hun, and other stories and historical actors that most Christians—and perhaps even God– would not hesitate to describe as “evil” or “wicked.”  To paraphrase the activist Howard Zinn, a writer who was never shy about casting moral judgment on the past, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.”  Similarly, Christians cannot be neutral to the injustices that surround them.  They are required to be moral critics.

So how should Christian historians balance a moral sensitivity to the injustices of the past with the kind of detachment that is necessary to fulfill their responsibility as historians?  What follows is a brief and initial attempt at trying to answer that question.

Read the rest here.