Blogs > Cliopatria > Some Conversations Worth Having ...

Mar 15, 2005 8:07 am

Some Conversations Worth Having ...

I don't know about you, but it seems to me that the conversation between KC Johnson and Michael Berube is worth having, both here and at Michael Berube's blog. Over there, it's Round One and Round Two. For the most part, the conversations have been civil, even when some hard points were being made. Even if you disagree with KC's reading of Berube's essay, Tim Burke's point -- that Erin O'Connor had read the essay in a similar way -- is worth making. While not agreeing with it, he acknowledges that people of good will can read a piece differently. Once Berube tells us that it's not how it was intended, I'd say we need to take his word for it.

Speaking of conversations, eb at delayed reaction found an amazing thing the other day. A year ago, Tim Burke's"Simon Schama, I Love You" at Cliopatria launched a terrific discussion here, at Invisible Adjunct, and at a post by Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber. The discussion was about some observations attributed to Schama by a writer for The Independent on the merit of grand narrative history vs. the academic monograph. The text of the Independent piece can be found here. What eb at delayed reaction found (scroll down) was that, a week after the piece appeared in The Independent, a letter from Schama explicitly repudiated the views attributed to him. His position, Schama insisted, was one that encompassed the caveats that Burke had offered. So, Michael, there's hope for good conversation and for some of us, even if we do, initially, mis-read your position. Thanks to eb's and Sharon Howard's sharp eyes and resourcefulness for this.

The conversation with David Horowitz, on the other hand, seems one not worth having. After his underlings dismissed Oscar Chamberlain and Mark Grimsley as"Churchill Defenders" and Grimsley as a"Churchill Clone," there was even more ad hominem aimed at Jon Dresner. I'm still in recovery from an e-mail exchange in which Horowitz called me an"insufferable snot." Of course, I had baited him, but I've been more elegantly insulted by people of a better class, so I'm likely to get over it. Still, it's important to note that the story from the University of Northern Colorado that Horowitz likes to tell is only one side of a tale told by an anonymous student. The professor in question is known and he denies it. So, Horowitz tells one side of a he said/she said story and we're not to know the identity of his source. Fair enough. It should be understood in that light.

There are other conversations that are worth having. At Mode for Caleb, Caleb McDaniel and Jason Kuzniki are engaged in an interesting discussion of Caleb's Tim"Burke on Wolfowitz and War." There's a multi-sided conversation just waiting to continue among civil people. At Siris, the historians' philosophical friend, Brandon Watson, poses two challenges for us."Wherein I Exhibit Some of My Stick-in-the-Mud Wet-Blanketness" argues that terms like"Religious Right" and"Religious Left" are not useful. They don't even refer to anything that we know to exist, he says. Greg Robinson responded to Watson in comments here. The other challenge Watson offers historians is his"Believing History." Referencing the exchange among Bruce Kuklick, Richard Bushman, and Mark Noll, Watson makes some provocative claims. If we think X could not have occurred because it is a miraculous event, he argues, then rather than engage in dismissive rhetoric we must be able to show that Y did occur. I wonder if that doesn't make some big assumptions about the possibility of being able to prove Y, even if we do dismiss X out of hand.

Finally, if you tire of the hammer and tongs public discussions here at Cliopatria, I recommend Horizon, where a civil conversation about matters of historical interest can always be found.

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Robert KC Johnson - 3/15/2005

Where is the campus newspaper?! Surely they can track down one student in the class who retained the exam.

Timothy James Burke - 3/15/2005

Actually apparently not, when you drill down into the details of the story: the professor didn't keep his exam and the student doesn't have a copy either. So it really is he said/she said for the moment.

chris l pettit - 3/15/2005

I was going to comment on your comments along with Dr. Dresner and Oscar Chamberlain's the other I might as well do it now.

First...congrats on the lovely tongue in cheek nature of the comments. I suppose that since I feel the need to respond there is some truth in what you state...and will freely admit it even if others do not.

That being said...I am sorry Dr. Luker, but human rights and peace is not something that can be cannot allow these things to be violated for an ideological position...or by those who do not believe in universal equality and human rights and would rather forgo their ability to reason and know right from wrong, instead favoring power politics, might makes right reasoning, and social Darwinian positions. I gave a talk at UCT last night about how human rights never need to be justified or rationalised, but how violations always do...through mostly ideological arguments. You can ask about the sources of human many philosophers from Locke to Dworkin have...but you cannot question their existence and applicability. There is a universal legal principle that just because a law is violated, that does not mean it ceases to exist...even if it is violated repeatedly by a large number of people. What ends up happening is that you have to end up at the position that there is no law...and that the only thing that exists is power relationships and a dog eat dog other words the ability to reason is like the appendix...irrelevant. Therefore, those who are hypocritical, inconsistent, and have no basis in law, custom, morality, or ethics and adopt either a Social darwinism approach to the world or a might makes right approach need to be called out in that they are relying on nothing more than an ideological position that has no backing except in that ideological foundation. I am defining ideology as a position that is based on either blind faith (such as when you want to bring Christianity into the discussion) or a fatally flawed fundamental assumption (Machiavellianism, Social Darwinism, Hobbesian thought, etc). If one approaches a manner objectively and logically, that is, approaches the flawed assumptions with honesty and integrity (since any argument can be logical once one accepts the blind faith or flawed assumptions), one can have a civil conversation. however, if one refuses to acknowledge the problems and flawed assumptions (such as the imposition of Christian tenets upon a situation when there is no logical way to defend a monotheistic deity...or the claim that we are individual entities for that matter) there is no way to overcome these patches of blindness and it becomes like talking to a brick wall. I am so amused when people claim my comments are about me...they are about an that is logically and objectively defensible, unlike many, if not most others posted on this site. I am smart enough to know that I only exist because of my relationships with others and the environment...i am interdependent on them for my existence. if there were no relationships, I could not there is no such thing as an independent entity (if you want to pursue the subject I can direct you to several texts). Nothing I say is original in that it all comes as a product of my readings, influences, interactions, etc. Most people do not have the fortitude to admit this and face up to the fact that they are only utilising others'writings and ideas...who in turn were formed from those before them. in short, the world is interconnected and we all are part of that large neverending entity...not individual parts.

So if one has a problem with ideological parrots basing their arguments on blind assumptions and being unable to defend their arguments in a civil manner based on logic and rationality...great...that is wonderful. I will never defend my arguments in such a manner. You are right to look at some of the vitriolic comments made, and are right sometimes...but how much of it is your perception...your biases...your desire to have things work on your terms. For a great example...DC seems to think that when I use the word ignorant in a Buddhist sense it attacks his credentials and scholarship. in his perception and use of the might...but his use of the term is irrelevant. When I demonstrate that he has no credibility on the South Africa/Israel issue and that it is based on his ignorance, it is based on the Buddhist definition (which I always state I am using in parentheses) which notes that one can be very knowledgable about an area and its history, but if ones ideology (definition above) does not allow one to truly debate in a logical and objective manner...and clouds ones ability to treat things in a universal manner, instead resulting in a position that ends up being on one extreme or another, one is ignorant and cannot take what could be considered a credible position on the matter. KC's narrowsighted position on "academic freedom" is another case...he fails to see the forest for the few trees he stares at. Are both he and DC right at times? Absolutely...unfortunately the fact that they are correct is tarnished by the fact that they do not apply the standards universally, instead choosing to stay in their own ideological backyards. This strips them of credibility and reveals their ignorance (Buddhist definition) in the matters they are addressing. Your calling for civility...or "compromise" (which may be my interpretation) isn't helping anything. You seem to be stuck...especially in human rights trying to compromise those rights that are universal and cannot be compromised or contracted away. if you are simply calling for more civility...well, that will depend on the perceptions of those individuals that are reading (and often times misinterpreting) comments as much as it will depend on those posting the comments not sinking to the level of personal attacks.

Just a thought (or a few thoughts)...


John H. Lederer - 3/15/2005

"Still, it's important to note that the story from the University of Northern Colorado that Horowitz likes to tell is only one side of a tale told by an anonymous student.The professor in question is known and he denies it."

Surely a copy of the unanswered exam is still extant and the professor/university has a copy of it. A copy of the exam so that one could see precisely the question asked would not be a full answer-- we would not know what the student answered and how her answer was graded --- but at least we would know the definitive answer to the first half of the story.

Sharon Howard - 3/15/2005

The credit here should all go to eb, not me. I simply happened to turn up the link to the text of the article which was reproduced at HNN.

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