It’s Not Only Right-Wingers Who Get Schooled

It was embarrassing. Yesterday, NPR’s Cokie Roberts said a bunch of stuff about the history of abortion that just wasn’t true. After an academic historian exposed the goof, NPR had to retract the whole thing. Why did Roberts do it? Because to be a “real” historian, you don’t need a tenure-track university job or a PhD from an elite graduate program, but you do need to think a certain way about the past and be willing to spend the time to understand the past correctly.Dr Thompson Tweet Roberts apparently couldn’t be bothered.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are probably sick of hearing about the ways academic historians “dunk” on right-wing history pundits such as Dinesh D’Souza. In those cases, academics such as Kevin Kruse debunk the false historical assertions made by pundits for purely political purposes, like when D’Souza claimed that the Republican Party was the true anti-racist, pro-civil-rights party. When D’Souza and other right-wing pundits like David Barton make their bad history, they tend to cherry-pick factlets without giving full weight to the broader, truer historical picture.

Yesterday’s case was different. NPR’s Cokie Roberts did indeed make a political point using history. She argued that today’s pro-choice politics assume that abortion was common—and dangerous—before Roe v. Wade. But Roberts did not just pick out a few truish facts to make an untrue argument. Instead, she misinterpreted the past based on her own lazy methods.

Originally (NPR has since removed Roberts’s goof), Roberts said,

there are many articles by abortion rights proponents who claim the procedure was so common that newspapers advertised providers. Look, I did a search of 19th century newspapers and couldn’t find them.

Dr. Lauren MacIvor Thompson, an historian at Georgia State University, quickly pointed out the huge hole in Roberts’s argument. Perhaps Roberts really had done a search of newspapers, but as a bad historian, she did a bad search. Roberts searched for phrases such as “abortion” and “birth control,” phrases that weren’t used in the 1800s, and found out—surprise, surprise—that they weren’t used in the 1800s. Her faulty conclusion? Newspapers did not advertise for abortions in the past.

As Dr. Thompson pointed out, Roberts made two huge mistakes that any trained historian would have avoided without even thinking about it:

1.) Roberts assumed that the terms we use were the same as the terms used in the past.

2.) Roberts did not take time to understand the historical context for her quick database search.

As Dr. Thompson pointed out, 19th-century newspapers really were full of advertisements for abortions and other anti-pregnancy medical interventions, but they used different language to describe them. Back then, newspapers referred to “menstrual regulation,” “medical relief,” “curing irregularities,” and so on.

Let’s be clear: There is absolutely no reason why someone needs a PhD or a tenure-track university job to be a “real” historian. All kinds of people do great historical work everyday, whether they are middle-school teachers, stamp collectors, historical re-enactors, or hard-working journalists.

What Cokie Roberts did is different. She skipped the hard work necessary to understand the past and instead accepted her own flitting google-search to be decent historical evidence.

Advertisements

If Dunking is Dangerous…Then What?

It’s not flashy. It won’t make a lot of headlines or get a bazillion retweets. But the students at Cal-Berkeley have been answering a question we’ve been asking here lately. Namely, if it is dangerous to “dunk” on our culture-war opponents, what are we supposed to do?

berkeley antifa

Okay, be honest: Which picture would you click on first? This one…?

Here’s what we know: Since the riots in 2017, students and administrators in Berkeley have taken steps to improve the climate of free speech and civil discourse on campus. According to Inside Higher Ed, it has been more than just empty talk.

Crucially, progress toward real free debate and civil discussion did not come from one side alone. Berkeley’s College Republicans booted their former leader for his destructive, provocative tactics. The club committed to hosting conservative speakers who wanted to do more than simply start fights.

The university, too, opened up more physical space for un-approved demonstrations. They continued to invite conservative speakers to campus and to host civil debates between pundits of various culture-war persuasions.

What does any of this have to do with dunking on D’Souza? Tons.

berkeley christ

…or this one?

First, a recap: I took some lessons from the history of creationism to worry about the after-effects of the Twitter-shaming of conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza. D’Souza has been fond of making historically inaccurate claims about the racial histories of the Republican and Democratic Party. With great success, Princeton historian Kevin Kruse has used Twitter to lay out the evidence against D’Souza’s claims.

So far, so good. But if we have learned anything from our continuing culture wars about creationism, it is this: Mere evidence alone will not win culture-war battles. Indeed, it will tend to prolong and embitter them.

Some smart readers asked the obvious follow-up question: If it is dangerous to simply shame and humiliate our culture-war opponents, what then? Do we simply watch quietly (and politely) from the sidelines as pundits spew falsehoods and bad ideas? That doesn’t seem like a good idea.

Maybe the students at Berkeley have given us a better answer. It’s not something that can be done unilaterally, but perhaps if both sides make real efforts to shun vapid, venal provocateurs we can move forward.

The Dangers of Dunking on D’Souza

Whose history is the “real” one? For the past few months, Princeton’s Kevin Kruse has been conducting a master class in responding to partisan punditry in the field of US History. As I argue this morning at History News Network, though, Prof. Kruse’s efforts are not likely to convince many conservatives.kruse dunk twitter

I won’t re-hash the argument, but if you’re interested, click on over and check it out. And if you’re really curious, you can also follow the discussion about Twitter on Twitter.

Tough Crowd…

The reviews keep comin in!  I’m delighted to report another review of The Other School Reformers.  This one is by Princeton’s Kevin Kruse, in the pages of the Journal of American History (sorry, subscription required).

Non-academic readers might not know Professor Kruse, but every nerd knows that he has done as much as anyone to help us understand what it has meant to be “conservative” in American history.  Naturally, I was anxious to see what this uber-expert would think about my book.  Did he think my argument about the development of “educational conservatism” was worthwhile?

kruse one nation under god

Required reading…

Kruse’s first book, White Flight, examined racial politics and their implications in Atlanta.  His more recent book, One Nation Under God, has stormed the best-seller lists.

So when it comes to expert opinion about the history of American conservatism, it would be hard to find a more qualified reviewer than Professor Kruse.  It was with some trepidation that I first opened his review of The Other School Reformers.

What did he think?  If you have a library membership, check out the whole review, but the good news is that he liked it.  As he concluded,

Each of these case studies is carefully drawn, built upon a deep foundation of original research and a strong engagement with the secondary literature. Together they demonstrate quite ably that “educational conservatism”—and, indeed, conservatism writ large—was constantly evolving, site to site, moment to moment, across the twentieth century. Taking aim at the historian George Nash’s 1976 claim in The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945 that modern conservatism resulted from a deliberate campaign to bring together Burkean traditionalism, libertarianism, and Cold War anticommunism, Laats argues convincingly that “conservatism, for most educational activists, was not a deliberate fusion of disparate strands of ideology but rather variegated fruit from the same tangled vine” (p. 12). Over the years, conservative thinking on the key issues of race, religion, and science changed dramatically, as did conservatives’ belief in the proper role of educational experts and the federal government.

Well researched, well written, and well argued, The Other School Reformers offers a clear, evenhanded account of conservative activism in public education. It also makes a persuasive case for studying the lessons of their struggle seriously, as insight into the larger workings of modern conservatism and the traditions it sought to define and defend beyond the classroom.

Almost makes me want to read it myself!