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“Historians Against Trump” Demonstrates Crucial Role for Public Intellectuals

Public engagement is both an important and a valid part of the work done by professors and other intellectuals.

Donald Trump speaks with the media at a hangar in Mesa, Arizona, on December 16, 2015. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

Stanley Fish’s article “Professors, Stop Opining About Trump,” which appeared in The New York Times recently, objects strongly to an open letter published by a group that calls itself “Historians Against Trump.” Fish, a professor himself and resident intellectual for the Times, makes a strong statement against academics engaging in public life. As such, his essay merits the attention of anyone interested in the role of public intellectuals in our society. But even more, this exchange deserves to be studied by anyone interested in the public discussion of politics today.

The letter from Historians Against Trump asserts,

As historians, we recognize both the ominous precedents for Donald J. Trump’s candidacy and the exceptional challenge it poses to civil society. Historians of different specialties, eras and regions understand the enduring appeal of demagogues, the promise and peril of populism, and the political uses of bigotry and scapegoating. Historians understand the impact these phenomena have upon society’s most vulnerable and upon a nation’s conscience. The lessons of history compel us to speak out against a movement rooted in fear and authoritarianism. The lessons of history compel us to speak out against Trump.

Historians Against Trump does not align itself with any political party or candidate. Many among us do not identify as activists and have never before taken part in such a campaign. We are history professors, school teachers, public historians and museum professionals, independent scholars and graduate students. We are united by the belief that the candidacy of Donald J. Trump poses a threat to American democracy.

Fish does not defend Trump against the charges the group makes — his op-ed instead targets the group for supposedly using their credentials to authorize what he feels is an overreaching statement:

By dressing up their obviously partisan views as “the lessons of history,” the signatories to the letter present themselves as the impersonal transmitters of a truth that just happens to flow through them. In fact they are merely people with history degrees, which means that they have read certain books, taken and taught certain courses and written scholarly essays, often on topics of interest only to other practitioners in the field.

What moved these historians to write their letter, and another group, called “Historians on Trump,” to produce several excellent video interviews on their Facebook page?In their letter, the historians write:

Donald Trump’s record of speeches, policies and social media is an archive of know-nothingism and blinding self-regard. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is a campaign of violence: violence against individuals and groups; against memory and accountability; against historical analysis and fact.

The Trump candidacy is an attack on our profession, our values, and the communities we serve. No less than his sham “Trump University,” Donald Trump’s contempt for constructive, evidence-based argumentation mocks the ideals of the academy, whether in the sciences or the liberal arts.

The group took inspiration from Ken Burns’ 2016 commencement speech at Stanford University. Burns’ performance in fact brings to the fore some of Fish’s points, and in particular the issue of the deportment of intellectuals in public. Burns was welcomed at Stanford as a celebrated documentary filmmaker — the level of recognition he was awarded was matched only by how comfortable the audience seemed to be to welcome the man who taught them so much about baseball, jazz, the Civil War and many other subjects.

However, when he launched into a bitter and urgent tirade against Donald Trump, the mood changed. At first, especially amongst the graduates, there was surprise and wild applause. But as Burns kept on that topic, digging deeper into Trump’s mendacity and utter lack of qualifications, as Burns began to talk about fascism and totalitarianism, there was less applause. He seemed to have overstayed his welcome.

Why is this important to note? Because it points to something that Richard Hofstadter noted half a century ago in his magisterial Anti-intellectualism in American Life — even when they approach others with humility, academic intellectuals are still often viewed with suspicion and written off as inherently arrogant and unnecessary to everyday life. And this is especially true when they appear in public. Then they may be intolerable. Fish takes on the job of putting them in their place: “Professors are at it again, demonstrating in public how little they understand the responsibilities and limits of their profession.”

He objects to the group’s assertion that they “have a professional obligation as historians to share an understanding of the past upon which a better future may be built.” Instead, he explains to them: “it’s their job to teach students how to handle archival materials, how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable evidence, how to build a persuasive account of a disputed event, in short, how to perform as historians, not as seers or political gurus…”

Fish has essentially three objections. First, as we just saw, he asserts that the “job” of the historian is restricted to the university. Academics should do what they are being paid for and not engage in extracurricular activities. Second, he says that this group unfairly represents itself as standing in for all historians, for the field itself. Finally, and related to the second point, while Fish thinks it is acceptable for individual professors (like himself) to offer opinions, it is not okay for a group of professors to do so.

The first objection can be answered easily enough — Fish wants us to fall for the old either-or reasoning. He assumes that these professors are engaged in public intellectual work and neglecting their primary duties. He, author of umpteen op-eds, is hardly in the position to make that argument without drawing fire on himself; his opinion pieces are replete with advice-giving and admonitions, such as the very piece in question. According to his logic, shouldn’t he be reading a Ph.D. thesis or preparing a lesson plan? And the reader should know that the group he is referring to is made up largely of former presidents of the American Historical Association, all eminent authorities and proven teachers.

His second objection is that Historians Against Trump implies the group speaks for all historians, despite the fact that its name neither indicates a desire to hide behind impartiality nor a claim of all-inclusiveness. It is certainly true that the group’s members take on the mantle of historians and practitioners of an academic field, but they never suggest they are the only historians around. They evoke their credentials, but more importantly, their training. When they say, “As historians, we…” they are indeed claiming expertise and knowledge, and rightfully so.

To use their credentials against them is most disturbing, not only for its anti-intellectualism, its disregard for the applicability of academic training to the real world, but also for its plain silliness. If we were in a car accident, we would probably want to be treated by a passer-by who said she was a physician rather than one who said she was a professor of literature and law. We would not regard the physician as simply someone who has “read certain books, taken and taught certain courses and written scholarly essays, often on topics of interest only to other practitioners in the field.” We would welcome her particular training and knowledge as she tended to us and diagnosed our injuries. Similarly, if I had doubts about anyone’s grasp of history, I would probably read a history book or consult an historian.

But here is what seems to be Fish’s main objection, and it is equally muddled:

I would have no problem with individuals, who also happened to be historians, disseminating their political conclusions in an op-ed or letter to the editor; but I do have a problem when a bunch of individuals claim for themselves a corporate identity and more than imply that they speak for the profession of history.

There are at least two things wrong with this claim. First, it couldn’t possibly be true unless it were the case that no credentialed historian is a Trump supporter; even one or two (and I bet there are a lot more than that) would spoil the broth. Second, and more important, the profession of history shouldn’t be making political pronouncements of any kind. Its competence lies elsewhere, in the discipline-specific acts I identified above.

The members of “Historians Against Trump” do not “more than imply that they speak for the profession of history,” they do not imply that at all. They state flatly that they are trained to discover and recognize historical facts. Period. They never say that no historian could ever be a Trump supporter (besides, history has shown us that people often in fact vote for people they know are not speaking the truth). Moreover, they do not ever claim to speak for “the profession of history,” as Fish suggests in arguing that “the profession of history shouldn’t be making political pronouncements of any kind.”

But it is worth taking a moment to address the crucial implication of this final assertion by Fish: in arguing that “the profession of history shouldn’t be making political pronouncements of any kind,” he is claiming that academics, and people in general, should only make pronouncements on things they are trained and proven competent in. This leads us to reach the entirely depressing and disempowering conclusion that the only people who should make pronouncements on politics are professional politicians. God help us all.

Stanley Fish has performed the signal service of showing us precisely how to abuse the role of public intellectual. He has created an iron cage for academics and nearly everyone else.