A few days ago, my Twitter timeline seemed to be filled with senior historians dunking on Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Points USA, a conservative group dedicated to disseminating GOP talking points on college campuses. Kirk had tweeted out an uncommonly pithy version of one of those new talking points: the idea that, because the Republican Party was aligned with the anti-slavery movement at its inception and Democrats were mostly sympathetic to the causes of secession and the suppression of freedmen’s rights after the Civil War, we can close the books on present-day Democrats’ claims to the higher moral ground on issues of racial justice.
Or as Kirk put it, “Facts: / / Republicans ended slavery / / Democrats started the KKK.”
Republicans ended slavery
Democrats started the KKK
— Charlie Kirk (@charliekirk11) May 16, 2018
This is precisely the kind of thing you say when the idea of Black agency is wholly alien to you: “Republicans” are white people who liberated Black slaves; “Democrats” are white people who have tricked Blacks into forgetting who they should be grateful to. The idea that African Americans might be capable of judging their own interests and voting accordingly is apparently off the table.
But that is not my main point. Instead, I want to think about the intended audience of Kirk’s tweet and whether historians ought to engage with arguments like these. These questions are interrelated, and they are, I think, important questions of public history, but ones that—as far as I’m aware—have not been addressed directly anywhere. Should historians publicly refute bad history on Twitter?
What was Kirk’s tweet supposed to accomplish? I’d be interested if anyone thinks that it was a genuine attempt to educate his twitter followers—my inclination is to doubt that its primary intention was to inform. But on the other hand, it is too tempting to brush it off simply as trolling—the point was not just to irk or irritate. Trolls want to badger people into incoherence; the person being trolled is supposed to, in effect, look stupid by trying too hard to respond. That was not, I think, Kirk’s aim, nor is it often the aim of figures like Kirk who post or tweet snappy historical canards.
Instead, I’d like to suggest that Kirk’s tweet was meant to elicit precisely the kind of responses it got—perhaps not from professional historians like Kevin Kruse and Joanne Freeman, but certainly from liberals who consider themselves to be historically well-informed and well-educated. Kirk’s smugly prefatory “Facts” was a kind of rhetorical rope-a-dope designed to draw in a combatant, tantalized into responding by the word’s brazen overconfidence. It should be so easy to knock down an argument that declares itself to be very simple and yet absolutely correct!
Kirk wanted to get liberals (I’ll use “liberals” just as a catch-all—I’m not trying to typologize precisely here) to start explaining history to him—and more importantly, to be visible to his followers as Explainers. The point was to get people to be pedantic. (Where do pedants get their water? From a “well, actually.”)
Conservatives like Kirk oddly may share an insight with feminists like Rebecca Solnit: they know that explanation often is a form of not only self-assertion but outright aggression. Mansplaining is about dominance, after all.
This insight should also be familiar to anyone interacting with a precocious child: they often channel their aggression through a kind of elaborate didacticism. The policing of this sublimated aggression is incredibly gendered: in girls this is often tsked away as “bossiness;” in boys, it is sometimes praised as exuberant nerdiness and sometimes suppressed as inadequately boyish, as if being “bossy” both makes one girlish and the wrong kind of girl to boot.
The fact that explanation is a form of aggression and that it is often—from a very young age—policed quite stringently helps explain, I think, why Kirk and others try to bait people into explaining history to them. Historians look bossy when they tell Charlie Kirk that his history is really lousy. And bossiness is a pose that is at least little loved, if not widely abhorred.
But even if bossiness were better tolerated—if it were preferred (as I think it should be) to more physical forms of aggression—we as historians ought to be aware that when we take on this role of Explainers, we will be seen as aggressive, even as aggressors. And we should, I think, be self-aware enough to recognize that this perception is not totally incorrect: we are making a choice to intervene with our authority. We are being aggressive.
That in itself is not a reason not to engage with Kirk (or comparable figures). Sometimes it is worthwhile to take the bait; sometimes pedantic aggression is justified. But when?
In honor of Dinesh D’Souza—in essence, the original Charlie Kirk—I’d like to introduce the D’Souza Line, a way to distinguish occasions when it’s helpful to Explain and when it’s maybe not.
Before trying to draw the D’Souza Line, I’m going to return, for a second, to that bossy, precocious child I spoke of a few paragraphs ago. I have one of them at home. Right now he is absorbed night and day in dinosaurs. At school, he loves telling his friends and teachers all the facts he knows; he rattles them off like a litany, a rosary of raptors and pterosaurs. (“Daaad,” I can hear his voice. “Pterosaurs aren’t dinosaurs!”) He is asserting himself, laying claim to the territory of their attention, prioritizing his keenness to talk about dinosaurs over whatever else they might want to do.
But he is doing something else simultaneously. He is sharing—aggressively sharing, certainly, but trying to connect, to give his knowledge to others. (Like many of you, I imagine, I was this child, too.) Gifts are, as I think Marcel Mauss would tell us, acts of aggression: they impose obligations or they create debts. They impel action; they arraign the attention of others; they distinguish the giver; they interpellate the receiver.
Sharing is almost always aggressive. We are duped into thinking that sharing is about compliance by the way it is often linked to self-discipline by our teachers when we are very young (“You must control yourself and learn to share”). But when self-initiated, sharing is not about circumscribing our impulses with social constraints but about assaulting the self-circumscriptions of others. We call some people “oversharers” but if you spend time on social media one of the first conclusions you may reach is that there really is no intrinsic difference between sharing and oversharing. One picture of my child? Or three? One per day? One every other day? Quite candidly, it depends on the child—and the parent.
We tolerate sharing from some people more easily than we do from others. Some people have learned better than others how to sublimate the aggression that hides within sharing—we feel that their gifts (whether those “gifts” are pictures of their children or links from the New Yorker) aren’t being forced upon us but are genuinely things we want. Oversharing is a lapse of tact, an illusion of benevolence inadequately sustained.
What does this all have to do with Charlie Kirk and the D’Souza Line? Simply this:
The questions we ought to ask when thinking whether to respond or not should be about sharing rather than about arguments. Not “is this argument wrong?” but “am I trying to share something worth giving to others?”
In many cases, the best historians on Twitter already do this. Every time Kevin Kruse comprehensively pulverizes some factitious meme, I learn something. He seldom tweets in a way solely designed to score points; almost always, he is sharing something that digs into a little corner of his expertise and draws a connection or isolates a particular moment that helps me to make sense of a larger history.
The D’Souza line, in other words, may have little to do with the content of the tweet or meme we’re trying to correct. Our decisions to intervene ought to have less to do with the Kirks and D’Souzas of the world and what they’re saying and more to do with what we can say, with what we can share.
Now, I don’t mean to say that we all ought to be silent except in those cases where a Bad Tweet touches upon our particular area of expertise. People enter conversations at all kinds of levels, and what might seem completely unoriginal to one reader may be extremely helpful and eye-opening to another. But we can also approach our interventions differently: not as arguments but as connections. The point is not to demolish bad histories but to connect readers to good histories. Some of the time we might just tell those good histories ourselves, sometimes we might point people toward a book or article, and sometimes we might just @ someone to draw them into the conversation.
But the point, I feel, is to avoid being purely reactive, to avoid falling into a posture of teaching the Bad Tweeter a lesson. The lessons that we share should be shared with each other, and with open-minded onlookers. The point is not to correct, but to give. The D’Souza Line, then, falls at that point where we are truly giving or sharing our expertise or our connections to people with the relevant expertise; when we are only correcting, perhaps it is better just to let people be Wrong on the Internet.
 On twitter, you can tag someone or call their attention to a tweet by writing a new tweet that contains an “@” with their twitter name. E.g., “@andrew_seal, what do you make of this?”