Ethics Alarms has frequently discussed the ethical and professional deterioration of the historian profession, as it, like so many other professions and institutions, has given up integrity for ideology and political agendas. History itself is under attack as a result, with historical censorship and airbrushing increasingly being favored over objective and balanced examination that does not distort past figures and events by the viewing them through the lens of “presentism.”
In an essay on the website of the American Historical Association, the organization’s president, James Sweet, offered constructive criticism of the trend, writing in part,
This trend toward presentism is not confined to historians of the recent past; the entire discipline is lurching in this direction, including a shrinking minority working in premodern fields. If we don’t read the past through the prism of contemporary social justice issues—race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism—are we doing history that matters? This new history often ignores the values and mores of people in their own times, as well as change over time, neutralizing the expertise that separates historians from those in other disciplines. The allure of political relevance, facilitated by social and other media, encourages a predictable sameness of the present in the past. This sameness is ahistorical, a proposition that might be acceptable if it produced positive political results. But it doesn’t….The present has been creeping up on our discipline for a long time. Doing history with integrity requires us to interpret elements of the past not through the optics of the present but within the worlds of our historical actors. Historical questions often emanate out of present concerns, but the past interrupts, challenges, and contradicts the present in unpredictable ways. History is not a heuristic tool for the articulation of an ideal imagined future. Rather, it is a way to study the messy, uneven process of change over time. When we foreshorten or shape history to justify rather than inform contemporary political positions, we not only undermine the discipline but threaten its very integrity.
There is plenty of standard issue progressive cant in Sweet’s essay as well—he wouldn’t be president of a historian’s association if he were not acceptably woke—but never mind: any articulate criticism of the “by any means necessary” strategies of the Left to unmake America is not to be tolerated. Presciently, “PowerLine” blogger/lawyer John Hinderaker, while approving of much of Sweet’s critique, predicted a rapid apology tour, especially since “academic history has almost fully surrendered to the worst excesses of leftism and identity politics…and the AHA is an abyss of political correctness.” Most dangerous of all, Sweet dared in his essay to criticize the ahistorical “1619 Project.”
It only took a couple of days for Sweet to offer an epic grovel:
My September Perspectives on History column has generated anger and dismay among many of our colleagues and members. I take full responsibility that it did not convey what I intended and for the harm that it has caused. I had hoped to open a conversation on how we “do” history in our current politically charged environment. Instead, I foreclosed this conversation for many members, causing harm to colleagues, the discipline, and the Association.
A president’s monthly column, one of the privileges of the elected office, provides a megaphone to the membership and the discipline. The views and opinions expressed in that column are not those of the Association. If my ham-fisted attempt at provocation has proven anything, it is that the AHA membership is as vocal and robust as ever. If anyone has criticisms that they have been reluctant or unable to post publicly, please feel free to contact me directly.
I sincerely regret the way I have alienated some of my Black colleagues and friends. I am deeply sorry. In my clumsy efforts to draw attention to methodological flaws in teleological presentism, I left the impression that questions posed from absence, grief, memory, and resilience somehow matter less than those posed from positions of power. This absolutely is not true. It wasn’t my intention to leave that impression, but my provocation completely missed the mark.
Once again, I apologize for the damage I have caused to my fellow historians, the discipline, and the AHA. I hope to redeem myself in future conversations with you all. I’m listening and learning.
Orwell was more concise, but his last line in “1984,” speaking of the novel’s protagonist Winston Smith, conveyed the same message. “He loved Big Brother.” To be fair to Winston, at least he was converted from his previous fealty to truth by the credible threat of crazed rats eating his face. All it required to reduce Sweet to a blubbering mass of submission was disapproval by his “Black colleagues and friends” for not blindly following their mandatory narrative. He did “damage” by being honest and making valid points that countered a lockstep ideological agenda.
It’s a valuable episode, though, and most revealing. It tells us..
- …that history as a respectable scholarly discipline is toast. That the head of a historians’ association would so rapidly retreat from a position that defines what integrity in historical analysis must be in order to be trustworthy tells us all we need to know about the current state of the discipline. That state is “corrupt.”
- …that Sweet is a pathetic weenie—a coward, a failure as a leader, and, sadly, a typical academic. If one cannot resolve to stand fast behind a serious declaration that one’s profession has drifted from its mission, then one should shut up, “go with the flow,” obey the mob, and not dare to take assertive action in defense of ethical values. Behaving as he has by folding like a cardboard shack in the rain makes the censors and the enemies of open discourse more powerful.
- …how destructive to any group or organization it is when its leadership models such unprofessional values and habits along with such a stunning absence of principle and character. Organizations do indeed rot from the head down, and it is the duty of leaders to combat decaying cultures, not accelerate them. Ironically, Sweet’s jelly-spined performance makes him unfit to lead, yet ironically marks him as exactly the leader this organization wants.
Hinderaker, while taking deserved credit for predicting Sweet’s capitulation, is properly disgusted. “History departments that behave this way deserve to lose all their students, and have their departments disbanded,” he writes. The problem is that most of academia, including law schools and graduate schools in education, literature, political science and other crucial areas for human enlightenment also behave this way.