Should Historians Talk Politics?

The question is not whether or not historians should get into politics. The proper question is whether or not historians should get into history. In case you missed it, journalist Andrew Ferguson just antagonized historians by mocking their attempts to weigh in on impeachment. As I’m arguing in my new book about creationism, sometimes the intellectual “sloppiness” Ferguson condemns is right on the money.

president supervillain

Should cartoonists weigh in on cartoons? Should Red Skull weigh in on villainy? [Side note: If you’re not following President Supervillain (@PresVillain) on Twitter, you’re missing the best part of today’s politics.]

Full disclosure: I signed. Ferguson was fluffed about the petition signed by over 2,000 historians in favor of Trump’s impeachment and removal. And, no doubt intentionally, Ferguson used provocative language to condemn activist historians, calling them merely “obscure signatories from backwater colleges scattered between the coasts.”

Beyond my hurt feelings, I think it’s fair to wonder if Ferguson’s accusations have any merit. The basis of his complaint is that historians are calling for impeachment based only on an argument from authority. As he puts it,

It is a reflexive form of what logic-choppers call an argumentum ab auctoritate, or argument from authority. The idea is to prove a disputed claim by pointing out that some expert or other authority believes the claim to be true. It’s a bogus but very popular trick.

In this case, though, Ferguson misses the central point. Historians are not merely weighing in as credentialed experts who have a certain political belief. Rather, in an age of fractured truth, historians are weighing in on an historical issue, as credentialed experts who have earned their expertise at great cost and toil. They are signaling to a bewildered public that not all forms of history have equal merit. All historical claims are tentative, but some are far more wildly bogus than others.

Trump letter pelosi

It is no longer self-evident that all historical arguments are not born equal.

The disagreement in this case is not merely whether or not historians as individuals think Trump is a dangerous lout. More specifically, the impeachment case hinges on the nature of American history itself. In his self-defense, for example, Trump has made all sorts of claims based on his reality-TV-level understanding of history. As he wrote in his recent letter to Speaker Pelosi,

You dare to invoke the Founding Fathers in pursuit of this election-nullification scheme—yet your spiteful actions display unfettered contempt for America’s founding and your egregious conduct threatens to destroy that which our Founders pledged their very lives to build.

In other words, Trump is leaning on history to make his case against impeachment. Trump is not only defending his “perfect” phone call, but insisting that his actions are in line with the intentions of America’s founders centuries ago. The fight here is not only about today’s politics, but yesterday’s. To say that historians should not weigh in on events of the past seems more than a little silly. As Princeton’s Kevin Kruse put it,

The GOP invoked “history” repeatedly in their defense of the president — making claims about the Constitution, Franklin, Hamilton, past precedents of impeachment, etc. Don’t get angry when actual historians respond to those claims to point out they’re wrong.

Right on. In this case, historians are not merely voicing their views about politics based on their PhDs and institutional authority. They are speaking to the public on issues in which they have reasonable claims to expert authority.

Consider a parallel from another field of fractured truth. As science historian Adam Shapiro noted, telling historians not to speak politically is similar to the ways scientists have been told to stay in their labs. And it is just as meaningless.

Back in 1968, for example, SCOTUS was considering the constitutionality of a bunch of 1920s anti-evolution laws. As SCOTUS considered, scientists weighed in. The scientific case was clear. Leading biologists, 179 of them, signed a brief informing the justices that “scientists and other reasonable persons” no longer doubted the explanatory power of mainstream evolutionary theory. The justices eventually agreed.

These days, too, mainstream scientists happily lend their authority to the prestige of mainstream evolutionary theory. As the National Center for Science Education playfully demonstrated with its Project Steve, the number of scientists who support evolution—JUST NAMED STEVE—stretches to over a thousand.

Are these arguments from authority? In a way, but what Ferguson misses is that in an age of fractured truth, when politicians and preachers make outlandish claims about history and science, the authority of historians and scientists has real value. To a public confronted with bogus ideas about the past or about DNA, arguments based on the number of experts who attest to the truth of the matter is not only acceptable, but absolutely vital.

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