On the Record: the Right’s Document Fetish – The Feminist Wire

On the Record: the Right’s Document Fetish

Academics, especially those in the humanities, cannot escape bad news. We hear of fresh budget cuts on a weekly basis. In the last few weeks alone, federal funding has been slashed by as much as 61 percent for the Teaching American History, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Institute of Museum and Library Services programs. Fulbright-Hays grants are likely facing similar fates for the next fiscal year, and tuition fee increases and staff furloughs continue. These financial measures resemble a growing commodification of education, of which faculty, staff and students are all too aware. Scholars also know that this damaging trend in education, one that has been underway for some time, is buttressed by ever sharper questions about the national loyalty of specific disciplines and liberal bias in the academy. Republicans have sought to make ethnic studies classes illegal in Arizona high schools on the grounds that those willing to criticize the marginalization of Mexican-Americans are somehow committing treason. And as one University of Arizona student points out, “if the texts used in the [Tucson Unified School District] ethnic studies program are considered dangerous then the [University’s] ethnic studies courses are at also risk.” Sadly, the political wheels are indeed turning in that direction. University courses must not only prove their worth in financial terms, they must prove their political neutrality and unconditional obedience, too.

Considering that so many on the Right believe in the mantra “fair and balanced,” they have often been unwilling to entertain opposition and reasoned debate. David Horowitz has appointed himself policeman of all academia, constantly leveling alarmist claims that professors and programs, particularly women’s studies, are corrupting America. He says less about the importance of free speech when it comes from the Left. On a more individual level, Republicans have subpoenaed President of the American Historical Association (2011-12) and University of Wisconsin professor, William Cronon’s university emails, in a flagrant abuse of freedom of information law, for daring to express a contradictory opinion in recent debates about the removal of state workers’ collective bargaining rights.

While it would be easy to conflate these issues and suggest that the attack on higher education is only a pet project of the Right—criticisms have indeed been levied most consistently by those on that end of the spectrum—the economic shift has been going on for some time and has found proponents on both sides of the aisle, even among university administrators themselves. Because for every conservative who criticizes the academy for its perceived liberal bias, there is a liberal who does not value it highly enough to come to its defense or protect its much needed funding. Unlike many on the Right, these liberals would probably not choose to defund ethnic studies programs if coffers were full. But in hard times they are noticeably silent, conceding to economic pressure without hesitation. One of the most disappointing outcomes of the attack on higher education is how one-sided it has been; the party that proclaims itself the creator of the G.I. Bill has been all too willing to compromise its legacy. If academics have a liberal bias, left-leaning politicians do not seem especially willing to return the favor. When cuts are vaunted, higher education—unlike social welfare, military spending or taxes for the wealthy—does not even warrant a defense; it is sadly beyond question that universities must go without. Nowhere is this more obvious than California, where the election of a Democratic governor has only escalated proposed cuts to state institutions and, despite his claims to the contrary, University of California president Mark Yudof’s voice has been among the chorus condemning the supposedly less useful disciplines on monetary grounds. There is no better measure of the peril facing the humanities when the figurehead of a university system that boasts the best English program in the country, and the top two among public schools, can ask “Who is going to pay the salary of the English department?”

I could criticize the attitude that treats education like a service for customers rather than a source of intellectual development for scholars. I could condemn the trend that privileges disciplines that supposedly make a profit over those that don’t—despite how misguided these assumptions are. But more eloquent defenses of specific subjects, the humanities and higher education in general have already been written. Moreover, it seems that these missives will probably only fall on deaf ears that matter, or attentive ones that don’t. Academics can tell each other how tragic their lot is, but it is unlikely to make even sympathetic administrators, legislators or governors change course. There is no point in preaching to the converted. What I might be able to do is reaffirm something that one subject—history—has to offer. (I do not mean to privilege the efficacy of one humanities discipline over another with this choice, but to discuss the one whose particular faults and benefits are most familiar to me. The same argument could be made about any subject that privileges fidelity to its sources, as all in the humanities do). Because while the accountants running States and universities may not realize it, those right-wing critics who are most vocal in condemning the humanities for ideological (instead of purely financial) reasons, employ, or pretend to employ, their disciplinary practices and values to achieve their cynical ends.

The most glaring example is David Barton’s appropriation of academic vocabulary to push his brand of what can only be called pseudohistory. Barton, a darling of the more conspiracy-minded of conservatives, claims that a separation of Church and State was never a principle in the foundation of America and that the United States was envisioned as fundamentalist Christian nation, and conveys these claims with a concerted performance of academic legitimacy. His website attempts just such a show when it tells us that “his exhaustive research has rendered him an expert in historical and constitutional issues.” Former governor of Arkansas and Fox News pundit Mike Huckabee recently defended Barton’s credentials in similar language, claiming that he was the “greatest historian in America.” When pressed on this issue, Huckabee pointed out that Barton “documents everything with source material, he is very specific about dates and times…he doesn’t just say ‘I think, I believe, I hope’; he says ‘here it is, here’s the page number.’” What Huckabee does not consider or acknowledge is that academic historians also do this. Furthermore, they develop the kind of critical thinking that allows them to deconstruct Barton’s view and posit far more reasoned, persuasive and defensible interpretations of those sources.

I could spend time tearing Barton’s flimsy conclusions apart, but again this has already been done. What is more significant here is that at the very moment republicans are claiming that the humanities have no use, they are similarly defending spurious arguments on the basis of supposed academic rigor. Perhaps if they read some of the work by academic historians, even those with the so-called “liberal bias”—a bias usually far less dramatic than Barton’s—they would see that an alternative view exists, one that is also grounded in fidelity to primary source material and exhaustive reading of the field. That alternative view, backed by better application of logic, will likely hold up to greater scrutiny.

To add a further level of irony to the situation, academic historians rarely make claims of complete objectivity. Another criticism leveled at the discipline since the advent of postmodernism—one that has been decidedly more beneficial to its targets—has persuaded historians to relinquish their obsession with reclaiming a definitive Truth from the past. Scholars like Dipesh Chakrabarty and Peter Novick have argued effectively that no scholar can be truly objective; we can never prove beyond doubt “what really happened” because all work is in some way influenced by the author’s contemporary situation. No matter how many sources we have, they will be read in the light of the author’s prejudices, and the narrative that comes from it will be as much a reflection of the present as the past. So if right-wing conspiracy theorists claim to tell us the “real truth,” we should be as skeptical as if academic historians (of whatever political persuasion) say the same.

But does this mean that all academic investigation is pointless? Certainly not. In current American Historical Association president Anthony Grafton’s words, although the search for truth may now be “a quest without a grail…[t]he fact that the search goes on—and the energy and integrity that the searchers put into it—matter deeply, for the health of our culture.” While we cannot attain a definitive view of the past or present, when formulating arguments we can remain aware of this impossibility while still seeking to divorce ourselves as much as possible from our biases. We can aim to be as accurate with our documentation as possible and we can draw the conclusions that make the most sense, that seem the most persuasive. We can test the theories of others by these same standards. University education trains us how to do this better than anything else. Armed with the skills it provides, we can interrogate the statements of politicians and pundits to see whether they stand up to logic and how well they are grounded in intelligent, honest research. There may be no definite answer, but this does not mean that any interpretation is as good as any other. Republicans rush to proclaim themselves guardians of the historical record, but Rush Limbaugh’s comparisons of Obama and the Democrats to Nazism, for example, do not hold up to close analysis. Neither do Tea Party claims that they resemble the true legacy of the founding fathers, despite Gordon Wood’s defense of them as a valid interpretation of history. As a friend pointed out to me, few people would have pegged Wood for a card-carrying postmodernist. We can be sure that nobody ever heard of a postmodern Republican.

Most public political discussions seem to be lacking the kind of critical awareness that distinguishes between wood and trees, although the Right makes an excellent pretense. Pundits are obsessed with legitimizing documentation, but constantly conflate it with validity and truth. In a throwback to the nineteenth-century—when the historical discipline’s obsession with proving objective truth coincided with the birth of passports—the contemporary association of a person’s worth with the documentation they carry proves the extent to which the language of an outdated incarnation of disciplinary history has been appropriated. The discussion of immigration that designates people as innately inhuman if they cannot prove their “legal” status is just one example. Claims of truth are contaminated with conservative moralism, and despite suggestions to the contrary, there is not even the slightest attempt on the part of many conservatives to divorce themselves from their biases. As such, records stand in for logic; if there’s a document, discussion can end, because only one interpretation is possible. In several cases this absurd fetish is a supplement, or even basis, for those prejudices. When Sharon Angle chose a central theme of fearful “legal” white Nevadans being economically and physically menaced by Latino “illegal aliens” for her election campaign, she proved that obsession with documentation is frequently a thin façade for racism.

“Birther” conspiracy theorists have taken this kind of tactic and gone pro. That the president was forced to defuse their rumors proves not only how widespread these bizarre claims to the documented truth are, but also how much political currency they had given to a character as ridiculous as Donald Trump. President Obama’s American identity could not be proven by values or policy, but by a birth certificate. Those able to think critically about the debate will realize that rather than an attempt to establish the truth of his nationality, Trump and co. aimed to marginalize the president with racism and xenophobia. If anybody still doubts this, they need only looks as far as Orange County Republican Central Committee member, and self-proclaimed birther, Marilyn Davenport’s email depicting the President and his family as apes, and her shameful denial afterwards.

Trump is also beginning to show his true colors, if his claim to be a friend to “the blacks” is anything to go by. But while he says that he is proud to have forced the president’s hand, it is pride that one hopes comes before a political fall. Although the most stubborn paranoiacs will not be satisfied by the long-form certificate, Trump’s main platform is crumbling before his campaign gained the kind of momentum that might have made him a serious candidate. He has now resorted to targeting the president’s student record, claiming that someone with a reputation as a bad student—a reputation that largely exists in Trump’s head, but is bound to be common knowledge on the Right soon—should not have gotten into Ivy League schools. College transcripts are the new birth certificate, as the conservative continue to judge a person’s worth—their “true nature”—by documents alone. But this particular theory rests on equally thin ice. The president proved his academic ability by graduating Magna Cum Laude from Harvard; George Bush wasn’t known as a great scholar in his Yale days, but nobody ever asked to see his transcripts or birth certificate. Nobody ever will either, and we know his skin color is the main reason why. But we can hope that some people choose not to ask because they have the critical thinking required to distinguish between important political issue and mere distraction, to tell the difference between a credible interpretation of documents and a spurious one masquerading as definitive, and to recognize that there is more to any story than what the record says. If the humanities are still taught, that hope remains.