U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Response to L. D. Burnett

Editor's Note

Sam Fallon is an assistant professor of English at SUNY Geneseo.

In a recent USIH blog post, L. D. Burnett accuses me of “pooh-pooh[ing] historians” in order to hawk my forthcoming book. Much as I would like to believe that a Chronicle opinion piece could goose sales of a book on sixteenth-century literary culture, it seems unlikely to me that college libraries are paying much attention. Besides impugning my motives, though, Burnett gets the essay itself wrong in some important and revealing ways.

First, Burnett incorrectly frames my essay as a critique of history as a discipline. In fact, the essay devotes equal space to historians and to literature professors; its concern is the humanities broadly, since nearly every humanistic discipline understands itself as engaging with and representing the past. The mistaken belief that the essay is a critique of historians by an outsider, rather than of humanists by an insider, leads to some other easily corrected errors. For instance, I don’t suggest that historians—or any humanists—have never heard of Hayden White. On the contrary, I argue that humanists have absorbed him completely. The fact that historians and other humanists do have a sophisticated theoretical orientation is why the literalism I describe seems so striking.

Second, Burnett seems to believe that I am contemptuous of efforts to correct false claims about the past. This is untrue. There is no doubt that there are liars whose bad history needs to be rebutted, and forcefully. But Dinesh D’Souza is a charlatan who’s been exposed many times over. Who is being persuaded when he’s debunked for the thousandth time? Performances like these are played to audiences of insiders, a fact pointed up when a thread is devoted to listing the dozens of colleagues who have also debunked him.

The primary object of my critique, however, is not D’Souza-debunking specifically, but a whole style of argument: one that invokes historical facts where no historical claims are being made. In debates over Trump’s proposed wall, for instance, facts about medieval walls are not that helpful, because the real questions are political, not historical.

The impulse to take my essay as a critique of the discipline of history does strike me as symptomatic in at least one respect. It suggests how much the discourse within the humanities at present is shaped by the anxieties of academic guilds on behalf of their proprietary forms of expertise. Humanistic contributions to the public discourse are stronger when rooted in a worldview than when rooted in a professional self-conception. This was the ultimate claim of my Chronicle essay, and it’s one that bears repeating now.

22 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. “But Dinesh D’Souza is a charlatan who’s been exposed many times over. Who is being persuaded when he’s debunked for the thousandth time?”

    New cohorts as well as newly interested individuals are entering or observing the conversation all the time. They haven’t seen these earlier debunkings. More often than not, they have no idea who D’Souza is, or Kruse is, or etc. All they know is there’s someone on the internet talking and they sound confident. If the space only has D’Souza’s voice in it, then that’s the only perspective they hear.

    In 2004, John Kerry made the mistake of assuming that, because he knew the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was a bogus organization backed by cynical deep-pockets, everyone else would know that too, and no one would be so stupid as to take them seriously. So he ignored them, and learned a real hard lesson.

    If academics care about the ambient intellectual environment, they need to learn that lesson to. All that matters, in this age, is now. If someone is lying, now, someone needs to speak the truth, now, and in the same place if possible. Just because we know expert So-and-So wrote the book on that back in 1998 doesn’t mean regular folks do, and we need to stop thinking of them as just extremely poorly read graduate students.

    That some expert debunked something a decade ago means nothing to them. Credentials mean nothing. You have to lay the evidence out and persuade them each and every time it comes up.

  2. Thanks for this succinct clarification. For me, the root of this issue comes down to this line: “Humanistic contributions to the public discourse are stronger when rooted in a worldview than when rooted in a professional self-conception.”

    I suppose that part of the problem is that for many historians, getting the facts right constitutes part of their worldview. Which, obviously, is a good thing. But I agree with you that there is a tendency to invest facts-on-their-own with, ironically, a kind of ahistorical power. I’ve been thinking about this as I read all the anxiety about our “post-fact” era – much of the circumstances that make that seem like an acute crisis are related not so much to the refusal of people to absorb facts just-because, but specific political circumstances that were not so prevalent or, often, so obvious before. The admittedly terrifying spectacle of Trump cronies talking about “alternative facts” is made extra scary by the memory of a supposed golden age of journalism and political culture, when most of the country accepted the basic facts. But that had much to do with the conditions at the time — from a liberal consensus that, for a very brief time (historically speaking), held a clear majority on the political worldview of the nation to a media situation where everyone watched the same three channels and the same journalists. And yet even then there were plenty of “fact deniers,” from John Birchers to anti-science evangelicals. But they were not nearly so prominent on the public, political stage — and they did not have a 24/7 news channel to blast their nonsense from.

    I’m not saying that this hasn’t necessarily gotten worse — I mean, flat-earthers are quite the thing. But I do feel that sometimes academics mistake the symptoms for the cause. After all, what the postwar liberal political theorists got so wrong about the Radical Right then was rooted in the instinct to dismiss them as “irrational,” and hence simply some kind of weird psychological aberration. But neither they, nor the contemporary reality-deniers, are rooted in ignorance-for-ignorance’s sake; it’s the result of a political ideology with political commitments that necessitates fact denial. Even flat-earthers, generally more ideologically diverse, on closer inspection show plenty of sigs of the kind of extreme skepticism produced by a postWatergate, neoliberal social breakdown context.

    Anyway, all of this is not to say that LD, or any other historian is denying this or not working with just that understanding in much of their work. And I also think there is something to be forgiven in the impulse to say, correct DeSouza; yes, at the end of the day we are probably not convincing more than a handful of people that he has no idea what he’s talking about but, just like the one student in class that “gets it” makes a whole semester worth it, teachers tend to find their passion as such that this is enough. But overall I think yours is an important reminder that facts can only get us so far — the values and incentives of political groups and movements ultimately hold much more sway. This may be terrifying to those invested in the quest for truth but, I think it is itself a truth we can’t afford to look away from.

  3. Thanks for taking the time to respond and continue the conversation! That’s definitely a goal we can all agree on, and one that both L.D. specifically and this blog generally have long modeled.

    I get clickbait and the need for even more reputable outlets to play that game (I suppose), but the way that the Chronicle presented your piece really, really didn’t help your cause any. “Fact-grubbing”?! And while I know that’s not on the author, I think it would behoove you to note that such simplifications of your piece have contributed greatly to the sense that it is offering a distorted critique rather than the more nuanced take you start to lay out here.

    Beyond that, as a Professor of English and American Studies who has been trying to write public AMST scholarship for nearly a decade now, I’ll just add this: I’m sympathetic to any attempt to talk beyond and across disciplinary silos and think together about how we best do the work we do. But in such attempts, perhaps even more than in other forms of communication, tone is so, so key. The tone of this piece, it seems to me, is significantly different from, and more productive than, the tone of the Chronicle one. That’s a lesson worth learning, I’d say.

    Ben

    • A point of fact: the Chronicle Twitter account has been amplifying Fallon’s own use of “fact-grubbing.” The word appears in the last sentence before the second section, in a sentence positioned to sum up the point of the essay: “As fact-grubbing becomes the preferred mode of public scholars, that sensitivity is in ever shorter supply.”

      As a senior scholar, I can take the caustic tone of the original piece. As for his response here, I can agree with it to the extent that it is recommending a possible shift in emphasis in public writing by scholars. I, too, am skeptical of the metaphysical value of “academic guilds.” But to the extent that it is pitting two modes of public engagement against one another, and declaring one of them an inherent failure, I cannot agree. There is no absolute boundary between “political” and “historical” questions (what would this conclusion even mean?) or, for humanists, between a “worldview” and “forms of expertise.” What is more, the instances of public writing that Fallon chose to criticize were themselves all, to various degrees, explicitly concerned with the historical nature of political questions and the political nature of historical ones, and therefore with the contribution that expertise might make to contextualizing worldviews.

  4. “In debates over Trump’s proposed wall, for instance, facts about medieval walls are not that helpful, because the real questions are political, not historical.”

    This strikes me as an incredibly odd assertion. Leaving aside the absurdity of claiming that political questions aren’t historical ones, it’s just very bad advice for public persuasion. When people are persuaded by quips and buzzwords like ‘medieval’ those words and phrases are doing a lot of heavy lifting in convincing people of a political argument. Sure, saying “hey, we’re not talking about the Middle Ages – let’s just talk about the wall today” is a useful path for discussion. But the pro-wall crew is relying on the public’s false perception of walls as historically effective, wrapped in the romance of myths about castle walls and medieval-ish battles (bolstered by Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, etc.), you have to address the root assumption that walls WERE historically effective for the purpose of defending a large community (which they weren’t). So saying “by the way, walls didn’t really work that way in the past” is not just valid but necessary to counter the pro-wall argument that walls were effective in the historical past.

    Yes, the wall is actually about racism. But it’s legitimized by false historical beliefs. You have to knock the support out from under the argument before you can address the racist core of it. A lot of people making political arguments for the wall really believe they’re making a reasonable assertion rooted in national security history. Political arguments are rooted in history. You can’t address them without addressing the historical component. And to try to do so, as you assert in the CHE piece, is actual pedantry. Essentially, you’re asking scholars to engage with the public by saying “just trust me, I’m a scholar” without citing the evidence and respecting the ability of the public to assess it.

    • “You have to knock the support out from under the argument before you can address the racist core of it.”

      I think this captures a lot of the root disagreement going on here, because I — and others who are more sympathetic to what Fallon is saying, I think — think this is exactly backwards.

      You go straight to the racism, because unless you do, all the fact-correcting in the world is going to make only a small impact. Not *no* impact — and I think the kind of efforts displayed by taking down DeSouza are valuable as mobilization efforts for the liberal-left broadly speaking — but not one big enough to fundamentally change the political game.

      If correcting false beliefs and making truth available to all independently and substantially altered the political landscape, not only our current moment but all of world history would look drastically different. Again, I don’t think the argument here is that facts don’t matter, but that they are not as powerful on their own as many academics assume they are. They have to be combined with a direct attack on the root of the problem, and that direct attack can’t be put off until we get all our facts in a row because people with an investment in denying the facts *will never acknowledge them.* That might be a frightening idea to contemplate, for an endless list of reasons, but it’s more than borne out by the history of social movements and mobilization.

      • “You go straight to the racism, because unless you do, all the fact-correcting in the world is going to make only a small impact.”

        I can see the logic in this but have not seen it actually work. Oddly, this approach is really great for the insider cheerleading Fallon is talking about – but the people I’ve seen reverse course based on social media engagement have done so because the historical arguments propping up the unjust policy were sufficiently debunked for them and they went looking for another reason to support the policy. Only then did they see the racist assumptions at the heart of the policy.

        Now that may be something unique to the kind of nerdy conservative evangelical circles I grew up in, but honestly, I’m watching it happen in real time, while simultaneously watching the “but that’s racist” approach fail miserably with this crowd. And if we’re talking specifically about D’Souza – well, that’s the crowd that’s buying what he’s selling.

        Being careful about “yeah, dunking!” for its own sake is important and I’ve seen some serious missteps along those lines. But throwing it all out the way Fallon is leaves us with a strategy that doesn’t reach D’Souza fans, and miscasts an entire disciplinary field to boot.

    • “I can see the logic in this but have not seen it actually work.”

      Well, for me the most compelling example is the Civil Rights Movement.

      The CRM had the successes it did because of a constellation of political forces which made it impossible — or at least extremely difficult — for Democrats to continue being the party of Jim Crow. Yes, they also had powerful arguments of truth and justice on their side. But they had had those since Reconstruction and before — why didn’t the CRM break out when Ida B. Wells or DuBois (and countless others) spoke truth to power, in articulate and accessible ways, in the late nineteenth century?

      Of course, what they did was extremely valuable, and provided weapons for the activists of the future, who seized upon Cold War conditions to expose American racism for all its violence and ugliness. That’s why I DO think there is value in say, twitter take-downs of DeSouza. But they could not have won without also being a major inconvenience to the liberal power structure. It takes truth + the right political dynamics to pull this stuff off.

      As for your experiences, I find that a lot of people who formerly come from conservative circles, and have seen conversions occur, understandably think those examples are more salient than I think they are. But I just don’t see major transformations of social power occurring mostly because people got the truth explained to them. It happens on a micro but not a macro level sufficient to get the really good goods. But I’m a Marxist so, I can be dismissed as a materialist if one wants to do so (not saying you are doing so just, trying to make a humble self-deprecating joke to tie things off :p).

  5. I’m not sure I’m adding anything substantive to this debate, but in my reading of the CHE article and the counter-article on this blog, and now the counter-counter article, I think Sam is perhaps grouping two very distinct things together that don’t belong together, which is, in turn, motivating a great deal of this conflict.

    To be reductionist, the debate to me comes down to a question of debating trivia versus debating narratives. The trivia component can be tempting in an online forum, and I think is where these claims of scholarly pedantry are more applicable. It reminds me of myself in earlier years when I would aggressively jump in anytime someone said the word “decimate” to mean “destroyed most or all of something.” I loved talking about the Roman army and reductions of 1/10th and all that, but, ultimately, I don’t think I ever swayed anyone to change their language choices. Etymology, in that context, was more of an interesting tidbit than anything vital, and was probably more distracting and derailing than useful. I’m sure many subject experts in many fields are guilty of this type of behavior, of addressing minor points with information that is true but not greatly impactful or necessary in the given context. I have to imagine there are frustrated astrophysicists who cringe every time a non-expert starts talking about string theory and black holes, just as there are historians who want to keep the record clear on a variety of topics.

    All that being said, however, I certainly agree with other comments here that question a rigid dichotomy between political and historical realms, or between scholarly and public discourse. I think that when a narrative is being discussed, such as the building of the wall or the implications of a witch-hunt, with facts and history being distorted at a whim to support partisan aims, it is the role of an expert to step in and attempt to correct the dialogue. I would be repeating others to go on at too great a length here, but if other voices are going to push a fallacious narrative, we as a society are benefited when expert voices push back against it. Otherwise the fallacy will be the only voice in the room, and will slip that much more quickly from statement to theory to believed fact in the minds of its listeners.

  6. “The impulse to take my essay as a critique of the discipline of history does strike me as symptomatic in at least one respect. It suggests how much the discourse within the humanities at present is shaped by the anxieties of academic guilds on behalf of their proprietary forms of expertise. Humanistic contributions to the public discourse are stronger when rooted in a worldview than when rooted in a professional self-conception.”

    Thanks, Sam, for carrying on the conversation. A couple points regarding this distinction you are making between a “worldview” and a “professional self-conception.”

    First, I think we should attend to the corrosive power of anxiety to eat away at the ability to have a worldview independent of one’s occupational/professional existence. We all have read (in The Chronicle, even!) about adjuncts on food stamps. For some, that is not a distant anecdote but an ever-present threat. In such conditions, people may tend to cling to their professional identity as a kind of anchor and as a badge of honor and statement of purpose: they are sacrificing to keep going as a historian or a literary scholar, to stay in the profession. To me, your critique of this act of self-assertion is rather like the people whose response to rural poverty is, “why don’t they just move?” Yes, that would be a rational response to dire economic conditions, and in this case, moving on to a different career–one where, perhaps, they could afford to build a worldview independent of their professional self-conception–may be prudent. But it’s also oblivious to the complexity of their motivations and, I must say, rather callous.

    Second and relatedly, I find this contrast between a worldview and a professional self-conception to be oddly dilettantish. Many people–whether in straitened circumstances or not–derive meaning from their occupations. What I do shapes who I am, and while I might not call it something as exalted as a calling, it’s hardly something I take off like a pair of shoes once I enter my inner sanctum and start refining my “worldview.” I would wager that someone like Kevin Kruse feels rather similarly.

    Perhaps the point is dilettantism, however? It is hard to tell what is meant by “worldview” here: it does not appear in the original essay, and the way you have condemned “fact-grubbing,” it is hard not to see underneath your critique a certain contempt for the humanities as actual work. I’d be very grateful to be corrected, however!

  7. I’ll just say that if we as historians were trying to prove we aren’t pedantic, a lot of these comments are not helping. Wow.

    For my part, I found the Chronicle piece mostly convincing and it resonated with my own experience of how many historians have begun to think of historical thought and education and the past as such as merely what professional historians say about it. This was another invitation to think about ourselves in context, something we do to everything else but apparently can’t stand when we find ourselves discussed by others. We might want to think about that.

    And again for my part, I found L.D. Burnett’s response to him perplexing for a lot of reasons, and not the least of which was that along with the twitter responses it resorted to name-calling and questioning motives. The blog editors and commenters should count themselves lucky Sam Fallon did not respond in the tone or style he was greeted with. He would have been well within his rights to. BTW, in response to a comment on the earlier post, his strikes me as a more substantively pragmatist understanding of knowledge, what’s being defended on the blog is more of a positivist understanding that it was a big part of the goals of pragmatism to move away from. Now I’m just a simple early americanist, so I might be wrong about that, but that was another head-scratcher for me.

    The most important thing to take a way from his piece, and the response to it, is that however laudatory and important public intervention is on the part of humanities scholars, the framing of that job as trumpeting whatever current trends predominate in academic historiography as matter-of-fact hot takes is not only impolitic, it cheapens the deeper importance of humanistic scholarship, for scholars and the public alike. Corey Robin’s take on the Historovox in his recent NY Mag piece has it exactly right I think:

    “The job of the scholar, in other words, is to resist the tyranny of the now. That requires something different than knowledge of the past; indeed, historians have proven all too useful to the Historovox, which is constantly looking for academic warrants to say what its denizens always and already believe. No, the job of the scholar is to recall and retrieve what the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin described as “every image of the past that is not recognized by the present.” The task is not to provide useful knowledge to the present; it is to insist on, to keep a record of, the most seemingly useless counter-knowledge from the past — for the sake of an as-yet-to-be imagined future.”

      • She absolutely did and so did Walter Benjamin and so does Corey Robin, but she did so from a deeply theoretically informed perspective that tried not to surrender to the demands of the news cycle or fetishize the fact or the expert. Her worst moments, like her thoughts about desegregation, were when she didn’t honor that caution and skepticism of the role of the expert in political discourse.

        It’s funny you say that, because Robin’s take here is actually closer to Arendt’s language about Benjamin than it is to Benjamin himself. See her introduction to Benjamin’s Illuminations volume, especially the last section.

    • And here a commenter has hit upon the real genius of a piece that levels poorly-argued accusations of pedantry and fact-grubbing against historians: any response that pays close attention to the claims made in the piece and offers counter-arguments or counter-evidence can be blithely dismissed as pedantry. “See, you are arguing about details instead of grasping the big picture! You’re fact-grubbing!” It’s quite a nifty trick, really. But once you see how the trick works, the show’s over.

      But this, on the other hand, is a strange thing to say: “The blog editors and commenters should count themselves lucky Sam Fallon did not respond in the tone or style he was greeted with.”

      Is that a threat?

      What harm could have possibly befallen this blog’s editors and commenters if Fallon had written a sharp, witty, impassioned rejoinder?

      There’s nothing quite so telling, or so tired, as someone lobbing rhetorical grenades into the public square and then retreating behind calls for / expectations of civility and a measured, murmuring tone. Between this comment, and the commenter on my own post who argued that Fallon’s piece was really undeserving of such attention/critique because (in that commenter’s view) it was all just an exercise by a junior scholar to say something provocative in order to be noticed and so did not merit such a response, I am weary of the special pleading.

      Fallon’s piece was badly conceived, poorly framed, unpersuasive, and patently offensive to most of his audience. There may be a good idea in there, but the execution was horrible. If he meant to bring people around to his way of thinking, his piece was a near-complete rhetorical failure among historians (and, apparently, among Medievalists in both literature and history). Yet I didn’t dwell at any length on those flaws in my post, because Fallon’s piece was but one of three or four examples of the larger trend of historian-bashing and historian-blaming that was the target of my post and the reason that it resonated with so many historians.

      So perhaps instead Fallon should count himself lucky that we immediately agreed to run his response to a post that really hadn’t centered him or his arguments at all. His piece was just a convenient peg for my post, but now it’s the focus of a sustained and thoughtful discussion here. That conversation can continue, or if you wish, you can shift it to contemplating how badly misunderstood Fallon’s piece has been and how mistreated Fallon is being by “the blog editors and commenters” at USIH — and he can still add this USIH guest post as a line on his CV. As he should.

      • Its not a threat at all, its an observation that his response to you was brief but pretty complete, and its a compliment to him that he chose not to call into question your motives or come up with biting insults. He didn’t come up with snazzy ridiculous summations of other people’s thought and pretend that is what they actually said nor did he take the most obvious root of pointing out how hilarious it is to see an academic blog accusing someone’s argument of being suspect because, you know, its really just about self-promotion. Of what in academia could that not be said, I ask you? Both in his piece and in his response, he quoted and he argued. It was refreshing. I don’t agree with everything he said, but I agree with a lot of it, even if it was a little plucky for my tastes.

        But my argument is not really with or about him or his particular shtick. You are on twitter now again calling him incredibly arrogant, but the idea that a scholar of sixteenth century popular literary culture needs a lecture on the slow rewards of patient reading and research is the most arrogant thing I’ve seen in this conversation, by a long shot. He never called into question the value of archival research, and its absurd to suggest that he did. He questioned the assumption that some of the factoid-fruits of historical scholarship should be the center of any salient point to be made in political debate. One can reasonably disagree about that, but the idea that he or anyone else should be ashamed of themselves for asking the question in the first place is just gross. He quite clearly pointed out that he was not suggesting no one read Hayden White, but that when scholars enter public discourse they leave even the most basic insights of White’s work behind. I just took him to be saying that’s too bad, and I think he’s right. I’ve seen too many historians come to meetings and say collectively well the most important thing is that we teach students what historians do to ignore a chance, in defense of the profession, to encourage historians to think they might owe themselves and their publics a bit more than the assurance of professional expertise and self-understanding. Again, its too bad that every time we all get a chance to have that conversation, genuinely countervailing thought is deemed so outrageous and scandalous it can’t be taken seriously, nor does it warrant even the most basic protocols of good faith engagement. Or, to quote you on the theory manifesto: I guess we’re just supposed to disregard actual people and the meaning they give to their lives… (where did you get that?!).

        And that makes your comment about continuing the conversation a little hard to follow. I mean, I wish that op-eds like this one were opportunities to think about ourselves as scholars and what that means and where that is going, but its never allowed to be because we have to affirm the faith and protect the discipline, or our sense of it, first and foremost. If the common ground for discussion is that Joan Scott and Sam Fallon and everyone in between them is so self-mockingly arrogant that there isn’t much be said about them besides that, I just can’t go there with you. That’s not a conversation. I think that’s too bad. I’m not in this because I think he needs protecting, he is an adult and he entered the fray and lit scholars are as full of their own crap as anyone else is. It’s not him I feel sorry for, its all of us.

  8. Matt,
    Who here is arguing against commenting on the present from a theoretically-informed perspective? This is a false dichotomy. If all that Robin and you are arguing for is a resistance to snap judgments, I’m here for it. But the whole context of Robin’s essay–and Fallon’s–is, as LD pointed out, an embattled profession that has found a way to connect to readers and is now being reprimanded for doing things ‘the wrong way.’ Frankly, I find that to be a bit of a snap judgment–Robin and Fallon seem to be very cocksure that nothing notably good will come out of the “Historovox.” I’m not so sure, and I’m tolerant enough of all these “pedants” to give them the room to figure things out.

    • Who here is arguing that you are arguing against commenting on the present from a theoretically-informed perspective? My point is that if you want to pick a fight with someone who said historians or scholars in general should not be involved in public life at all, you will need to find someone else to argue with because that is not what is being claimed, at all.

      Robin can certainly come off as cocksure, I’ll give you that, but that doesn’t make his observation of the risks of chasing short term relevance for long term understanding any less important, at least to consider. I am tolerant enough of criticism that I think it should be welcomed, not dismissed out of hand every time it pops up.

      Now, I can admit that I don’t aspire to be a public interventionist scholar in part because I’m not that good at it and I don’t have the pedigree or charisma (or smarts maybe, I dunno) to have my every thought taken as valuable on its face. BUT, I fear that historians are so anxious in their “embattled” state to find relevance that they risk overlooking a good deal of what is most valuable about historical work in the first place.

      P.S., I would venture that museums and memorials do way more important and impactful work in reaching the public than any historian’s hot takes. That is definitely the elephant in the room in this whole conversation. That’s not a criticism of you or anyone else, its just a thought.

      • Matt,
        My understanding of the field of play is this: probably everyone agrees on the desirability for a less reactive or instantaneous response on the part of humanists. We also agree that there is a continuing role for academics’ knowledge and engagement in public debates on current events.

        Where I think I and others depart from Robin and Fallon and similar critics is in, first, our diagnosis of the severity of the present crisis, and, second, our implicit models of ideal public engagement. I think it is reasonable to name the latter contrast as a conflict between the expert and the intellectual.

        Robin’s and Fallon’s pieces have in common a critique of what they see as short-term, myopic, rather routine or superficial applications of facts. Where is the larger, more carefully considered (or theoretically informed) analysis, the step back that grants some perspective–the “worldview?” We must, I hear them arguing, maintain our equilibrium and not lurch one way then another with every turn of the news cycle, all in an effort to demonstrate our expertise and relevance. We ought instead to withdraw–not totally, but to a point where we can calmly think more strategically, can apply a certain measure of perspective, and build for the future.

        But it is easier for some people than for others to find that secure point from which to think strategically–for some people, it doesn’t practically exist. There are people in the academy who are experiencing the present administration as a serious crisis, and whose panic is understandable if not merited. There are people who are genuinely terrified by the impending climate catastrophe. There are many people who do not have the kind of job security or the kind of free time to search for the perspective or worldview that Robin and Fallon advocate. For them, a twitter thread or a Vox or WaPo piece is the kind of engagement they can mount, and it seems churlish to sneer at their efforts.

        Now, certainly, there are people who are engaging in this kind of short-term instant analyses who are in positions where some kind of more strategic thinking may be expected. But many of the academic tweeters who are most active are also currently publishing much more substantial scholarship. Kevin Kruse, Eric Rauchway, and Larry Glickman–to name only three–have either recently published or are in the process of publishing serious works of history that have ample and demonstrable applications to the present conjuncture. I look forward to Corey’s or Sam’s review of Fault Lines, Winter War, or Free Enterprise. Until then, it seems a bit unfair to criticize their social media habits.

  9. “In debates over Trump’s proposed wall, for instance, facts about medieval walls are not that helpful, because the real questions are political, not historical.”

    History is prone to political use and abuse as “the past” is often used to advocate political positions regarding why things should or should not remain as they are. The political abuse of history through false assertions about the past warrants a response that your false dichotomy of political/historical would not allow, and for that reason I believe you are mistaken.

  10. I’d like to unpack the work that the appeal to Hayden White is doing both here and in the original CHE piece. The point of the argument vis-à-vis White is clearer upon rereading the original essay with the benefit of Fallon’s response above, namely, if we all now understand historical knowledge to consist in the telling, it is odd to see some humanists engage in what appears to be a positivist insistence on ‘raw’ fact. Which leads to the claim—now identified as the essay’s ‘primary object’—that it is a ‘category mistake’ to ‘attempt to fact-check a metaphor’ such as Trump’s use of ‘witch hunt’.

    Whatever one thinks of that thesis, what I find striking is that the use made of White appears not to be the scaffolding needed to get at whatever truth it may contain. Amid the combativeness and interpretive ungenerousness of the original essay, the line that most stood out to me as quite inadvertently revealing was this: ‘if they [graduate students] miss out on White, they absorb his arguments indirectly’. In the above, this is repeated: ‘I argue that humanists have absorbed him [White] completely’. ‘Absorbed’, twice, and once ‘indirectly’.

    Let’s be clear about what kind of text ‘Metahistory’ is. It is a vast, complex synthesis of theory (of linguistic formalism, Frye’s analysis of narrative modes, Pepper’s metaphilosophical survey of ‘world hypotheses’, and Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge), applied to the works of four historians and four ‘philosophers of history’, providing simultaneously a narrative of the progress of nineteenth-century European historical consciousness and a schematic model of competing strategies for the poetic and linguistic representation of the historical field. It is too complicated, too technical and too baroque in its theoretical architecture to be ‘absorbed’, much less ‘indirectly’ (it may be objected here that I too am attempting to fact-check a metaphor, that of absorption, but it is ‘indirectly’ that is the real giveaway). ‘Metahistory’ can be understood only by close and careful reading. My experience of seeking to comprehend its arguments is that it is extremely difficult to do so in any depth without also taking the time to read Frye, Pepper and Mannheim.

    Does this matter? I think it does, because whoever ‘absorbs’ White’s theories superficially or indirectly is likely to miss a key claim made on the first page of ‘Metahistory’, that his metahistorical paradigm applies ‘in all historical works that are more comprehensive in scope than the monograph or archival report’. In other words, the theory was developed for the analysis of the oeuvres of the great literary-historical authors of a mostly pre-professional age, not for snippets of presidential political rhetoric. To be sure, White later explored further applications for his tropological analysis, even suggesting that it might represent a description of the structure of consciousness in general (see the essays collected in ‘Tropics of Discourse’). But such adaptations have to be handled carefully, lest one fall into one’s own ‘category mistake’. It is not obvious that we need a theory of metaphor as a linguistic ‘trope’, with all the complexities and vagaries that entails, in order to understand metaphor as a basic figure of speech (such as ‘witch hunt’). Doing so seems a case of using a sledge hammer to swat a fly. No-one needs White in order to understand that sentence, either.

    All of this might be nit-picking – pedantry, even – if it were not that White is I think doing some larger and crucial structural work in the argument of the CHE essay. For all the problems of execution, the general point that meaning consists in the telling is sound, and one that occupied White his whole career. White’s later essays on the ‘practical past’, considering problems of narrative and its relation to issues of fact and truth, with the earlier tropological theory now in the background, might better support Fallon’s argument. In an exchange with Dirk Moses in 2005, for instance, White addressed the issue of the ‘facticity’ of the Holocaust. There as elsewhere, White argued that meeting denialists on the grounds of whether the Holocaust happened was giving them too much credit, treating them ‘as if they were engaged in the same enterprise’ (‘History and Theory’ 44(3): 337). In several essays in ‘The Practical Past’, White argued that the truth of the Holocaust (which is not the same as the fact of it) could be expressed only though narrative – which is to say, literary – presentation of it. This contrast – between narrative presentation and arguments that devolve into questions of fact as such – seems rather more promising material, and still part of White’s larger insight into meaning-making processes, from which to build an argument that fact-checking the metaphors of presidential rhetoric is ‘worryingly beside the point’. I don’t really agree with that contention, but I can envisage White’s work being adapted more carefully to make a much more persuasive case for it.

  11. Andy,

    I’ll just say this and then I’m out, thank you for your time and engagement. I will continue to think of these comment threads as a missed opportunity for historians.

    I take your point about the distinction between the expert or the professional on the one hand and the intellectual on the other, that is very interesting and right I think (although, our apparent mutual friend Hannah Arendt comes down on one side of that divide pretty strongly and without apologies…)

    You keep implying great scholars like Glickman, Rauchway, Kruse, and Lepore had their scholarship attacked. If that happened, that is unfortunate, but I must have missed where it did, and even if it did, I think they’ll be alright.

    I think the academic job market and the current political climate and the realities of climate change are all making their presence known here, you’re right. I don’t think anyone who thought Fallon or Robin might be onto something are ignorant of those realities, but I do think you’re right that we’re in the midst of a kind of panic about some of these things, but I don’t think panic is a good way to deal with an emergency (I recently completed rescue diver training, so I can say that as something of an expert, as it were). I totally get that tenured professors calmly discussing the state of affairs in the field without thinking about those things sounds awful, and it is. I agree, but I don’t think that is what has been happening here.

    Let me close by adding another ‘context’ of this debate for consideration. Many readers might not be aware of what has come to rather generously be called the trade gap, which is backed up by research, statistics, even facts: while literary critics cite historians’ work all the time, the reverse is almost never the case. The upshot of that is basically this: in the matter of the relation between historians and critics, the current score is that that relation is basically a collective act of intellectual blindness and blatant dishonesty on the part of historians. That’s bad for history, and it has real career implications for literary scholars at research institutions where citations are counted for hiring and promotion. When you talk to a literary scholar as a historian, this is what they are thinking about. Given that context, we might, I hope, imagine other responses to a literary scholar critiquing how humanists (not just historians) engage the public than to question their intellectual integrity. I personally am grateful for Fallon’s civil and clarifying response, just as I remain grateful for Burnett’s provision of space for it and other arguments, too.

    As a historian working on literature, let me caution my fellow historians: lit scholars train for this fight, they have taken seminars on this exact question and thought about it, a lot. So have political theorists, who also face grave job prospects. We’ve been reassuring ourselves that critical theory is dead and what is left is to tell stories, so why bother reading any of that stuff. Maybe people think that’s true, and there might even be wisdom in it, either way, I am not so confident that we are ready for the combat and lane-policing for which others are pining. We can, I hope, for our own sake, meet critics at a point of mutual acknowledgment, and discuss, even disagree.

    When I sell my context-with-a-twist Melville wares at literature conferences, I will always remain grateful for the welcome. That kind of generosity, generally, and intellectual ethic, is more than admirable, it’s original. It is, in the Arendtian sense, almost like a miracle, a point at which, if we can seize the opportunity, something new might enter the world.

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