Is There a New History War?Historians in the News
tags: history wars, James Sweet
Even by the rancorous standards of the academy, the August eruption at the American Historical Association was nasty and personal.
The August edition of the association’s monthly magazine featured, as usual, a short essay by the association’s president, James H. Sweet, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Within hours of its publication, an outrage volcano erupted on social media. A professor at Cornell vented about the author’s “white gaze.” A historian at the University of San Diego denounced the essay as “significant and substantial violence.” A historian at Knox College, in Illinois, organized an email campaign to pressure the AHA to respond.
Forty-eight hours after the essay’s release, Sweet posted a statement of regret for his words. The four-paragraph message concluded: “I apologize for the damage I have caused to my fellow historians, the discipline, and the AHA. I hope to redeem myself in future conversations with you all. I’m listening and learning.”
That attempt at mollification only widened the controversy. An op-ed in The Wall Street Journal denounced the “woke mob” that had extracted Sweet’s mea culpa. Fox News soon followed in similar terms. On August 20, the AHA temporarily locked its Twitter account to shut down a discussion it said had been hijacked by “trolls.”
In a country that can make a culture-war flash point out of a two-note flute performance, it may be no surprise that an essay on writing history could explode like this. But all the Sturm und Drang makes it harder to understand the actual substance of the controversy. What exactly did Sweet say? Why did so many of his colleagues find it so upsetting, even threatening?
Sweet would later say that the reaction took him by surprise. In his mind, he was merely reopening one of the most familiar debates in professional history: the debate over why? What is the value of studying the past? To reduce the many available answers to a stark choice: Should we study the more distant past to explore its strangeness—and thereby jolt ourselves out of easy assumptions that the world we know is the only possible one? Or should we study the more recent past to understand how our world came into being—and thereby learn some lessons for shaping the future?
In real life, of course, almost everybody who cares about history believes in a little of each option. But how much of each? What’s the right balance? That’s the kind of thing that historians do argue about, and in the arguing, they have developed some dismissive labels for one another. Advocates of studying the more distant past to disturb and challenge our ideas about the present may accuse their academic rivals of “presentism.” Those who look to the more recent past to guide the future may accuse the other camp of “antiquarianism.” The accusation of presentism hurts because it implies that the historian is sacrificing scholarly objectivity for ideological or political purposes. The accusation of antiquarianism stings because it implies that the historian is burrowing into the dust for no useful purpose at all.