The Washington Post
The golden age of the grovel
Although mediocrity is as rampant as usual, this is at least the golden age of the grovel. And James H. Sweet, the protagonist of academia’s most recent pratfall, is a maestro of self-abasement.
This history professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and president of the American Historical Association tried to say something sensible and partially succeeded. It is, however, perilous to deviate even microscopically from progressive orthodoxy, as enforced by today’s censorious professoriate, so he experienced Twitter crucifixion. His “crap” was “whitecentric” and advocating “white supremacist Aryan eugenicist” history, etc. Sweet’s critics reduced him to quivering contrition because he had written this:
“Presentism” — interpreting the past through the lens of the present — has permeated the discipline of teaching and writing history in academia. “Historical questions often emanate out of present concerns,” but “doing history with integrity requires us to interpret elements of the past not through the optics of the present but within the worlds of our historical actors.” As academic historians have focused increasingly on the 20th and 21st centuries, “our interpretations of the recent past collapse into the familiar terms of contemporary debates.” The “allure of political relevance” is intensified by this anxiety: “If we don’t read the past through the prism of contemporary social justice issues — race, gender, sexuality, nationalism, capitalism — are we doing history that matters?”
Sweet had threatened the fun of progressive vanity, of celebrating oneself by disparaging historical figures: Washington, Lincoln, Churchill — all were the moral inferiors of 21st century professors. Worse, from the perspective of the woke, is Sweet’s skepticism about history as progressivism’s servant, which is history “that matters.”
He criticized the New York Times’s “1619 Project” so delicately (it is, he said in an amusing understatement, not “primarily” a work of history) that he did not mention its most nonsensical claim: The American Revolution was primarily ignited by a British offer of freedom to people who fled slavery and joined the British — an offer that came after the battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill, and after George Washington assumed command of the Continental Army. For his mild impertinence regarding “The 1619 Project,” he was denounced as “against social justice.”
So, in four paragraphs of self-flagellation, Sweet almost instantly apologized for the “harm” his “ham-fisted” and “clumsy” attempt to “open a conversation” has caused. What harm? He did not say. Presumably progressive historians would somehow be harmed by hearing the thoughts in this column’s third paragraph. And harmed by his sin against political solidarity: In breaking ranks regarding the sacrosanct status of “The 1619 Project,” he gave aid and comfort to Republicans. The horror, the horror.
Sweet’s abject plea (“I’m listening and learning”) to be forgiven by those he has supposedly harmed is particularly puzzling because woke academics today cultivate an aura of toughness. For example, literature professors do not just critically read, say, George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” they “interrogate” it, like hard-bitten detectives whose eyes, which have seen too much in our fallen world, peer beneath the brims of their fedoras. These interrogators are oblivious of how their vocabulary announces their childish role-playing.
Today, many academic historians, writing history “that matters,” fancy themselves heroes of “the resistance” — Aux barricades, citoyens! They are fighting to overthrow “systemic” this and that. They yearn to have public consequences off campus, in the political realm, as was the case in the 20th century with Charles and Mary Beard, C. Vann Woodward (whose “The Strange Career of Jim Crow” was, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “the historical Bible of the civil rights movement”), Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and others. Today, however, people engaged in the serious craft of politics are understandably uninterested in the work of dilettantes who dabble at politics to the detriment of their vocation.
Some excitable professors now histrionically regret having elected Sweet president of the American Historical Association. When their indignation subsides, and before another occasion for woke rage arrives, as surely it soon will, they might ask themselves: Why were less than 1.2 percent of bachelor of arts degrees awarded to history majors in 2019, the lowest percentage since records began being kept in 1949?
Perhaps one reason for this — and for today’s number of jobs for history Phds being half the 2008 number — is students are not interested in learning history from professors who are less interested in history than in playing at politics. Such professors understand politics as the activity of advertising their virtue in the sandbox of today’s academia, where Sweet is crawling toward redemption.