Dear readers: the following guest post by Keri Leigh Merritt is her response to the response of the roundtable on David Potter’s The Impending Crisis. Merritt works as an independent scholar in Atlanta, Georgia. She is the author of Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (Cambridge University Press, 2017) and the co-editor of Reviving Southern Labor History: Race, Class, and Power (forthcoming). She contributed part 2 of our original roundtable.
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to have dinner with a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. Most of the historians I know, of course, loathe him. He had used all the same research that several other prominent historians had used. Yet their books sat on shelves collecting dust – most never moved out of a dingy academic press basement. His book, however, was bought and read by thousands and thousands of people, it garnered multiple awards and attention, and inspired documentaries and movies. When we began talking about the key to his success, he revealed that it was all very simple: he just had “the balls to say what historians wouldn’t.”
While I may not always agree with Michael Landis’s intentionally provocative assertions, I still applaud his efforts to – paraphrasing Stephen Berry – awaken a sleeping, complacent field from its long slumber. History is dying out as a major, and yet historians can’t even come up with a coherent response as to why we should save the humanities. Half-assed op-eds blithely blather on about students “becoming good writers and thinkers” and how history can help them get a job in STEM fields.
But how about this: the humanities are important because the study of human beings and human relationships are absolutely essential to the creation of a humane, just, ethical society. The study of history is not only important in understanding the past, but it helps to guide the future. It is the examination of magnificence and atrocity, pleasure and pain, love and loss. It is what gives life meaning; in its highest form it is what makes life beautiful.
As historians flounder around discussing nuance and degrees of distinction, though, others who are willing to make bold and forthright assertions are commanding Americans’ attention. Bill O’Reilly and Peggy Noonan aren’t only popular because they peddle historical lies to white supremacists. In a world where everything is in flux, where everything seems to be careening out of control, people want moral and intellectual surety. They crave simplicity. They want passion about a subject matter. Detached, professorial types are simply not going to inspire anyone to learn more about the nation’s history.
What I see emerging within the profession – especially over the last few years – has been a sharp divide between the moral relativists and the scholars who believe that history does have a presentist purpose. The moral relativists tend to be older, often well-established professors; all of the ones I personally know happen to be white men. The “activist historians,” as I will refer to them here, are in general a younger, more diverse group of scholars, and many seem (anecdotally) to come from poorer or working class backgrounds.
While this divide has always existed within the profession, the activist historians are suddenly starting to become involved at a policy level. They are working to change the world, from prison reform to labor rights to immigration and racial justice issues. They are winning Pulitzers and Bancrofts and selling books in several languages. They are speaking to an American public who desperately (and increasingly) want to hear what they have to say.
Most activist historians, I would assume, believe that there are certain immutable moral truths in this world. We believe that if we had been born 50 years ago or 500 years ago that we wouldn’t harm or abuse other human beings. I have no qualms at all in stating clearly for the record: I do believe there are certain moral truths. I believe in social and racial justice, and in righteousness. The time and place of events make no ethical difference to me.
Along those same lines, I would not be a historian if I believed the past had no lessons for the future. Researching some obscure event or person that does not have any bearing on the present ultimately does not matter to me. We must devote our precious little research time to things that are generative and beneficial to society.
Despite these beliefs, I still find great value in some of the most morally abhorrent historical works. Part of our doctoral training is learning how to sift through scholars’ biases and personal judgements. Horrible racists to the core, both E. Merton Coulter and U.B. Phillips were damn fine researchers, and have produced some excellent histories that I rely upon in my own work.
Yet as different members of USIH were taking Michael Landis to task for his characterization of Potter, I wondered how many of them would be as quick to defend a member of the Dunning school, or any other racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic scholar from the turn of the 20th century. How many would call ethnic eugenicists “a product of their time,” or ask Landis to place racist murderers within their historical contexts? Andrew Hartman rightly called out the hypocrisy of such an argument.
Reading through the comments following Erik Alexander’s defense of David Potter as a “product of his time,” though, perhaps nothing struck me more than the following response from another USIH member:
“Nor is there much historical value in filtering the past through a presentist worldview. We can find them to be great examples or role models for how we should view the world, but placing our moral stamp on the past will only create works of history that are fleeting and reveal little of what really happened in the past and why.”
This reductio ad absurdum argument captures, in a nutshell, what many responders to Alexander’s post seemed to be saying.
The primary absurdity here is that it was precisely those morally-righteous histories that initially drew me to the subject, luring me in; they kept me rapturously reading; and they still sustain my love of the field. Scholars who were personally passionate about their subjects – people who had something moral and right and good to prove – were and always will be my favorite historians. These are the scholars who continually challenge the profession to move forward. They shatter old beliefs and invent new possibilities. They make history matter.
Finally, I think it’s prudent to point out that the guild-like aspects of our profession make it extremely difficult to be on the activist historian’s path. It is hard to speak ill of someone’s work when all of us are so closely connected; the profession is an insular one and social media has assured that we are even more in contact than were historians of previous generations. Potter, for example, was my undergraduate mentor’s (Jim Roark) mentor – and it feels a bit like parricide for me to speak ill of the man.
Thus said, I thank everyone who responded to the Potter essays. I believe the entire respectful exchange does, indeed, speak to how close we are as colleagues and as an intellectual community, and hopefully, as friends. A healthy debate like this reinvigorates me and reminds me how lucky I am to be doing this.
As I watched a documentary the other night about one of the world’s greatest chefs, Alain Passard, I once again pondered my own love for this job. “It’s complicated,” Passard explained, “It’s not easy. But… What a pleasure. I have chills every day because sometimes I’m afraid…When you close your eyes at night, what’s important? You’ve spent the day taking risks.” Like the famous chef, I truly appreciate these exchanges. “I want to continue to evolve,” Passard concluded, “because, without that, there’s nothing.”