15 November 2009

Political Correctness Is A Fact - *UPDATED*

Why are some academics so defensive about political correctness? Methinks they protest too much. Dave Barry says they are "intellectually constipated." Perfect.



*Regarding this issue, one of the things that is becoming increasingly clear is the fact "professional" historians don't like the fact that amateurs now have a forum (the blogosphere and more publishing opportunities) to publicly discuss historical perspective, challenge interpretation, and that even an amateur historian can point out mistakes made by the professionals. They fear the walls of their ivory towers have been breached. Some have even suggested those who disagree with their interpretations should be charged criminally. You would have expected those in academia who claim to be the guarantors of free expression and thought to have severely chastized someone who even suggested such a thing. The response was, however, extremely muted. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised.

The fact that some historians don't like the phrase "political correctness" (and even poo-poo the very concept--which is, based on the mountain of evidence, rather embarrassing), is further evidence that they don't like to be challenged. I believe their "concern" over the PC charge is because they are either complicit in the suppression of views and opinions which challenge academia's "official" interpretation of historical facts or, they fear speaking out on the issue in any meaningful way. What might their peers think? Of course, some have actually bought into the whole notion of politically correct history. Also, the PC mentality is often couched and subtle; giving the person plausible deniability.

When reading some of the comments made by the PC deniers, there is always an aroma of condescension directed toward the amateur or non-academic who would dare challenge the views of academia. Reacting to a challenge, the academic is always quick to point out the fact the challenger is a "non-academic" on "non-professional" as though their self-erected pedestal should shield them from having their views challenged and that someone who is not a professional should even be given any credibility. I don't believe they have any idea how condescending and utterly ridiculous such a notion is. I can't help but be reminded of Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor's New Clothes. Most readers will recall that the story centers around two weavers who promise the Emperor a new suit of clothes that only the "wise" will be able to see. The new suit would be invisible to the "unfit" and those who are "just hopelessly stupid." Sound familiar? But when the emperor first appears in public, it takes a child to have the courage to shout: "But he isn't wearing anything at all!" Arrogance and fear are blinding vices.

Knowledge does not necessarily impart wisdom. Reading, studying, and researching history and applying common sense and life experience to come to an interpretation is not rocket science, though that is what some would want us to believe.

13 comments:

Vince said...

Richard,

Your post's focus on political correctness is highly anachronistic. All the professional Civil War historians I've run into are both excellent people and excellent scholars who tackle serious historical questions with open minds and work to develop a more nuanced understanding of history.

Building a historiographical assessment around the idea of "political correctness" simply doesn't work. It's a phrase that's vague, meaningless, and dismissive. For it to be taken seriously, it needs language that is specific and technical. There's lots of good scholarship on Civil War memory, and it's best to engage it in the trenches (1860s trenches, not those of the 1990s culture wars).

Also, I submit a suggestion to tone down the cataclysmic and supremely confident language. When's the last time there was a productive discussion between two people with different perspectives on this blog?

J. Stephen Conn said...

Amen! Very well said.

Pam Walter said...

So, Vince, at which college do you teach? www.satisfiedsole.com

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Stephen - thanks for stopping by and the compliment.

Vince - thanks for taking the time to comment, but I don't follow the "anachronistic" characterization.

"It's a phrase that's vague, meaningless, and dismissive."

No it's not. It's dismissive only to those who are either complicit, ignorant, or guilty. It is a legitimate criticism and a reality in academia and among certain historians. The FIRE video is but a sampling which only scrapes the surface. Certainly you are not suggesting that political correctness is not a reality, are you? If you want another example of a PC mentality among historians which is, most often wed to a leftist political philosophy, I would point you to some of the historians who submitted a piece at HNN which endorsed Barack Obama for President and cited their credentials as historians as reason to give them elevated credibility. Several of those same historians later sent a letter to President Obama requesting he not lay a wreath at the Arlington Confederate Monument. Other CW bloggers have let everyone know they voted for Obama, have disdain for conservative Republicans, and that they lean left on many cultural and political issues. I note that you sometimes comment on one of those blogs, but I've not seen the same concern voiced there. Why not? Recently, one blogger critically noted that I don't hide my political views. (So?) No, I don't when they pertain to the subject at hand. But this same academic has never, to my knowledge, offered any similar critical observation on a blog which he often comments on. That blog leans left. Do you detect a pattern here? I do. Its ok to discuss these issues from a certain perspective if you lean left, but not ok if your political philosophy leans right. Sorry, no sale.

"There's lots of good scholarship on Civil War memory, and it's best to engage it in the trenches (1860s trenches, not those of the 1990s culture wars)."

I am engaging in the discussion here. The culture wars did not end in the 1990's. I know of no evidence which supports that assertion. If anything, we are much more polarized on cultural issues today than we were 10-20 years ago. You really believe that all the focus in academia on "social" history does not involve discussion and views on some of these cultural issues? I find that amazing.

"Also, I submit a suggestion to tone down the cataclysmic and supremely confident language."

Thanks for the suggestion, but I'm confident because I believe I'm right. Do I make mistakes? Of course, but when I believe I'm right about something and its important I will continue to write with "supremely confident language." To do less would be insincere.

"When's the last time there was a productive discussion between two people with different perspectives on this blog?"

We're having one now. What is your definition of "productive?" Part of "productive" for my purposes is to use comments like yours to point out fallacies and errors and, yes, confirm points of agreement when possible.

I agree there are excellent historians writing and teaching today and that not everyone involved in CW history is of a PC mindset. Though it is sometimes necessary to paint with a broad brush, I think most readers realize that not every academic is a wild-eyed leftist Bill Ayers type. I've never suggested that.

Again, thanks for taking the time to comment.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Pam:

I don't know if Vince teaches or not. It would, however, be interesting to know if he does and where. He seems to be a reasonable individual and, hopefully, we can continue the discussion.

Ghost said...

Vince:

"All the professional Civil War historians I've run into are both excellent people and excellent scholars who tackle serious historical questions with open minds and work to develop a more nuanced understanding of history."

*******

They do?

Open minds?

Develop a more nuanced understanding of history?

Examples of this group as exhibited on various blogs give a completely different picture.


*******

Vince:
"When's the last time there was a productive discussion between two people with different perspectives on this blog?"

*******

At least different perspectives are allowed on this blog.

Vince said...

Where do I teach? I'm flattered (I think) and amused...Ha! I'm just an engineering grad student who tacked on a history major as an undergrad. In doing so, I tended to bother my history profs during office hours with lists of questions, and I was fortunate to have opportunities for them to supervise research projects.

Two responses to above comments:
1) Concerning "political correctness," I repeat that there's more exact and technical language to characterize ideas expressed by historians. To simply describe someone as of a politically correct mentality is to abandon all intellectual curiosity. If there is some type of leftist political ideology that takes Civil War scholarship in the wrong direction, identify it and its type in the scholarship. Don't point me to a petition signed by one(?) Civil War historian, point me to the pages or footnotes of a book. It says little about the quality of Civil War scholarship or how professional historians operate.

Address substantive works that drive and reflect the best and latest in our understanding of the Civil War. Books like _Race and Reunion_ or _Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten_ or _Hard Hand of War_ or _The Last Generation_ (I'm surprised you haven't, given the Virginia angle). And address their arguments specifically without supposing motives (at least initially). Anyone who's ever dammed a stream knows it's futile to place rocks to plug leaks on the downstream side of the dam but fruitful to plug them on the upstream side. Address historians' scholarship on the upstream side, not their modern day political opinions on the downstream side.

Regarding the Arlington Confederate monument, I'd guess that McPherson came to his position as the product of a lifetime of historical research and learning, as opposed to letting a couple PC ideas define a lifetime of research. Perhaps he signed the petition because he has studied racial climate of early 1900s America from which that monument came (and rightly gives him "elevated credibility"). Now, I'm generally pretty oblivious to peoples motives (I'm an engineer), but I really don't trust the motives for including slaves in the sculpture/relief in the Arlington monument. I'm sure it could be a snapshot of a scene that took place at least once in the wartime South, but something (i.e. historical analysis) tells me that's not why it was celebrated in the 1900s/1910s/1920s.

2) With few exceptions, I'd also guess actively researching and teaching professors don't have the luxury of time to blog (and especially then get drawn into heated discussions). Surveying Civil War academics online as bloggers or occasional commenters: I don't know much about Brooks Simpson but respect his scholarship. Otherwise, I've met or heard enough of Ethan Rafuse, Ken Noe, Peter Carmichael, and Mark Grimsley to hold them in high regard as people and professional historians. A PC mentality seriously affecting the scholarship or ideas in any measurable amount of Civil War historians whom we see online? I don't see it.

Sorry for the long comment. I'd be happy to continue the discussion next week, but until then I'll be working and attending Civil War Reenactor Mardi Gras festivities (aka Remembrance Day) in Gettysburg.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks again for commenting Vince. No need to apologize for going long.

"To simply describe someone as of a politically correct mentality is to abandon all intellectual curiosity."

In some instances, yes. I suppose the same thing could be said about certain historians using the term "neo-Confederate" in every other sentence or "Lost Causer" to describe anyone who has anything positive to say about the Confederacy or the South's fight for independence.

I disagree on McPherson. I think he serves as a good example of political correctness regarding CW history.

"I really don't trust the motives for including slaves in the sculpture/relief in the Arlington monument. I'm sure it could be a snapshot of a scene that took place at least once in the wartime South, but something (i.e. historical analysis) tells me that's not why it was celebrated in the 1900s/1910s/1920s."

It is, in my opinion, impossible to assign one single motive for the scene being depicted. As many scholars have pointed out, the relationship between blacks and whites at that time was, in many ways, complicated much beyond the slave/master interaction.

Come back when you have time.

Michael Bradley said...

As a recently retired professor who taught for 36 years and who still attends professional conferences I can attest that P.C is alive and is quite real. Some questions cannot even be raised without meeting scorn, not because they are not valid questions but because the P.C. gurus do not like to deal with them.

Examples are the role African Americans played in supporting the Confederacy, the practice of Union occupation troops of killing civilians who were suspected (not convicted) of guerrilla warfare, and the deliberate destruction of civilian property behind the lines by Union Provost Marshal troops who were trying to supress guerrilla activity.

P.C. professors want to insist that the war revolved around guestions of race and gender but they do not want to deal with the issue of malice toward those who left the Union.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Professor Bradley:

Of course, you are right. Those denying that PC is a reality and impacting the study of history are pathetically out of touch.

Vince said...

Prof. Bradley,

I believe that, at least partially behind the issue of "political correctness," is the failure of different perspectives to be engaged with each other. This thought put a string of ideas and questions into my mind...

In your North and South article about Union military policy toward Southern civilians, why did you not reference Grimsley's _Hard Hand or War_?

And why do you then claim that Civil War scholarship then fails to address the subject of Union army treatment of civilians due to political correctness?

To me, it's like me trying to write a treatise on the idea of salvation by faith without addressing Luther's and Calvin's interpretations and how they compare to my ideas (and then claiming that elite Christian thinkers have ignored the idea).

Thank you for your time in considering these questions. When I retire (I need to get my first job before that, though), I hope to write a regimental history of a Pennsylvania unit that spent a lot of time in 1862 and 1863 patrolling the back roads of Tennessee, so I'm interested in learning how their experience fit into the broader context of the Union war effort in the region--especially policies toward civilians. If Grimsley's assessment (as the most comprehensive work to date, I believe) needs modified or extended, I'd like to know. But I'll have a more difficult time sorting out different perspectives if they talk past each other, instead of engage each other. (And of course, since you wrote (2008) after Grimsley (1997), the historiographical burden is on you.)

Vince said...

Prof. Bradley,

A quick follow-up question...

Could you please verify whether you completed a PhD in History (as mentioned in a couple internet biographies) or a PhD in Religion (as stated in the Vanderbilt library entry for your thesis)?

Whether or not you completed grad school in history or another discipline will help me better understand your perspective on the history as an intellectual discipline.

Michael Bradley said...

Gentlemen, sorry to be so slow to respond. My Ph.D. was awarded by the Dept. of History. The subject is Puritans in Virginia, a topic which crosses the line between history and religion. It is for that reason that the library houses the dissertation in the religion section. The board before which I defended the dissertation included three professdors from the Dept. of History and two from Church History.

Grimsley's book is seriously flawed in that Grimsley does not referrence the Provost Marshal's Records. One cannot write a accurate record of the treatment of Southern civilians and omit the primary source of material on that topic. Grimsley's index does not mention Robert Milroy, Hurst, Paine, or any of the other commanders behind the lines who inflicted death and destruction in a promiscuous fashion on civilians. In short, Grimsley does tell the whole story. You will find that Grimsley's thesis in Hard Hand is increasingly coming under criticism for these omissions. In short, it is Grimsley who fits your description of writing on religion without mention of Luther or Calvin.