[From Rick Shenkman’s report on day 2 of the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians, 2014:] The major event of the day was the late-afternoon plenary session devoted to “historians and their publics.” The standout panel included Alan Kraut, Spencer Crew, Jill Lepore, Sean Wilentz, and filmmaker Shola Lynch. Unfortunately, we can’t show you a video as one member of the panel objected to cameras. So you’ll have to take our word for it that it was a great panel. Wilentz, typically combative, said that historians should use their authority to police the public square. When pundits and politicians (Glen Beck, they’re talking about you) make stuff up about history, they should be called out. Lepore said when she tried to do that very thing in her book on the Tea Party historians wondered why on earth she was bothering.
Wilentz got off a great line. Historians, he said, “want to make the alien seem more familiar and the familiar seem more alien.” That was something all the panelists seemed to agree with.
- See more at: http://hnn.us/article/155258#sthash.wSDxdAJH.dpuf]
[My stunned comment:] This is an astonishing statement to emanate from an academic conference. Read it closely. No longer is US history to be a search for more accurate knowledge about the past, but one of its leading lights, Princeton professor Sean Wilentz recommends the alienation-effect made famous by Bertolt Brecht. Even worse, Rick Shenkman, former chief editor of History News Network, agreeing with Wilentz, sees historians as an arm of the state, policing “the public square”—presumably filled with bothersome and unteachable Tea Party hoi polloi.
These sentiments are what passes for academic freedom and free speech today. “We have seen the enemy, and the enemy is [not] us.”
No conservative call for anticommunist or anti-progressive historians will remedy the sorry state of academe. Rather, what is needed is an injection of courage and especially the re-examination of the liberal assumptions of yesteryear.
Ralph Bunche complained bitterly of those upper-class white liberal foundations that funded only those projects that increased communications between warring groups, such as white and black. Such tactics offended him because he saw structural flaws in American society that would not disintegrate because whites and blacks played nicely together, eschewing [hate speech].
We should be so lucky now. The polarization is so complete and hardened that certified teachers of the young see themselves as guardians of public order, ONLY. (In the past, their impetus toward political and social “stability” was rarely stated with such startling candor. If the rabble was rioting, you bought them off or co-opted them]
But more, though self-satisfied in their allegiance to that side that works toward “social justice” Wilentz’s Brechtian moment suggests a tactical distancing from complacency with respect to received knowledge, that is belied by the opinion that historians should be the thought police.
It is back: the same old liberal double bind that I complain about endlessly here: There is no conflict between Truth (found out by poring through archives and distancing oneself from inherited biases–i.e., making the familiar seem alien) and Order.
These social democrats and leftists may hold the commanding heights of academe, but their opposition holds the mantle of free speech, which I implore them, as the [unruly] public, neither to abuse, nor to take for granted. Our betters have spoken and now it is up to us to uphold reasoned dissent.