Activist Historians & Our Undeclared Civil War
I recently recommended Keith Harris's blog post about Twitter and the corrosive nature of the "debates" that take place there (as well as other media platforms). Professor Harris opined that historians who have embraced that social medial platform are attempting to "intersect" their goals of being an activist with that of being an objective historian. I agree with much of what Professor Harris says, but I'm more pessimistic in regards to the possibility of pulling off that "intersection." The agenda (which in most cases promotes leftist political positions, but those on the right are also guilty) always seems to trump (no pun intended) the history. And that damages the credibility of those historians and becomes a turn off for those really interested in history. That approach does, however, attract many activists. Perhaps that is the real goal. I understand that both sides of the aisle are guilty of this, but there's no debating that one side of the aisle vastly outnumbers the other (at least in academia). When I read the Twitter feed of some of these historians, I come away with the same feeling I get when I'm behind a car at a stoplight that's plastered with political bumper stickers. You know I'm right. In the case of these historians, activism and the agenda is the destination. History is simply the vehicle to get them (and others) there. Their obsession is obviously overwhelming; and controlling.
But it is important to understand these social media optics create a false confidence and a false narrative. These activists who engage on social media seem to vastly outnumber those Americans in the general population who who are primarily interested in American history, simply for history's sake, and who do not engage on social media. The activists are more vocal and less contemplative and objective, in my opinion, than are the vast majority of Americans. If you doubt me, just go to Twitter and peruse the feeds by "historians." You'll see lots of anger, lots of activism, lots of protesting, lots of politics, lots of silly memes, lots of insults, lots of virtue-signaling, lots of moralizing, lots of obsessing and lots of rage. Oh, and you will see some history; primarily mixed in to support the agenda. But the focus is not history. It's activism. That's fine if that's what you're about. But that is what they're about. Oddly, that seems to be obvious to everyone but the activists. Again, I believe most Americans who are interested in American history are not embracing this activist approach. It's a turn off.
With all this in mind, I came across a piece recently that explores and explains this dynamic in more detail, but with even more criticism.
In the spirit of full disclosure, the piece comes from a website that is ideologically conservative/libertarian leaning. But the writer, Steve McCann, posits another germane point in my observations in that so much of what I'm reading in the blogosphere and on Twitter comes off as rather adolescent and juvenile. Honestly, after reading certain Twitter feeds, I'm left with the impression that I've just left a Junior High School class. I keep wondering if I'm the only one who feels this way. McCann's piece is not specifically about historiography. It's about the divides between "the ruling class" and the rest of us, but the same observations apply, in my opinion. For example:
Thus entrance into this class is not entirely a factor of birth or wealth but rather that of developing a mindset of superiority similar to the evolution of cliques within a high school setting. [Emphasis mine.] This attitude is further reinforced and promoted in the incubator that is the college campus, wherein this mindset is further enhanced by the academic elites waxing eloquent about the failings of the United States and the ideal of a classless society -- led, of course, by the pre-eminent class…themselves and their naïve recruits. Once having left the bubble that is the university environment, the majority of these same recruits, still influenced by their university experience and desirous of maintaining a standing within the circle, look to the anointed leaders in the mainstream media, the entertainment industry and politics to set the agenda and dialog.
And this observation by McCann which sounds similar to what Gordon S. Wood describes as the "moral reformer" historian:
The reality is that the majority of those in the ruling class are mind-numbed eternal adolescents hell-bent on pushing the boundaries of ethical and moral behavior and viewing all political and policy issues as a war between their side and their mortal enemies . . . [Emphasis mine.]
The Twitter environment, like much of cable news, certainly seems to be a place where adolescent-like debates take place and where "cliques" abound. I'm somewhat relieved that there are a growing number of others who recognize this. Whether or not that will make any difference is questionable. But whether or not the rage and juvenile-like debates are advancing a true understanding of American history is not. I do believe one can point out this conduct without actually engaging in it. As I acknowledged in the previous post, I've been guilty of engaging in some of this conduct in the past myself. I am, however, attempting to pull back from that on this website and new blog as I believe it's both unproductive and unhealthy. I want to focus on history, not activism. Yes, I have a preferred approach to history which is traditional and conservative. I am no less committed to that approach and the validity of it than I've always been. That will continue to be quite clear. But I believe I can keep that approach and perspective without the intentionally overt, partisan, confrontational politicization and juvenile-like arguing that we're seeing in so many other areas of American culture. I'm going to at least try.
You can read McCann's piece, "The Ruling Class and an Undeclared Civil War" here.