Saturday, July 16, 2016

Stanley Fish on Historians Against Trump

The New York Times published a remarkably dishonest essay by Stanley Fish. Fish attacks a group of historians for publishing a statement opposing Donald Trump.
Fish begins by making clear that, while he is specifically attacking these historians, his remarks really apply to all professors. Ironically, the historians make clear in their letter that they are not all professors. Even casual examination of the list of historians reveals that many are not professors. But Fish won’t let details like that get in his way. (quotes from Fish are in bold)
“PROFESSORS are at it again, demonstrating in public how little they understand the responsibilities and limits of their profession.”
Fish claims that
“They suggest that they are uniquely qualified to issue this warning because they “have a professional obligation as historians to share an understanding of the past upon which a better future may be built.”
This is a really nice touch. Fish has taken a quote from the letter, but introduced it with a lie. Nowhere in the letter is it explicitly or implicitly suggested that historians are uniquely qualified. To the contrary, the letter refers to other groups that have already issued similar letters.
This is followed by some more cutting, pasting and inserting by Professor Fish. He is, after all, Professor Fish, which is the reason is being published in the New York Times.
Or in other words: We’re historians and you’re not, and “historians understand the impact these phenomena have upon society’s most vulnerable.” Therefore we can’t keep silent, for “the lessons of history compel us to speak out against Trump.”
I’ll just include this statement about extraordinary hubris for the enjoyment of anyone that knows who Stanley Fish. I wouldn’t be surprised if Fish himself didn’t get a good laugh out of it.
I would say that the hubris of these statements was extraordinary were it not so commonplace for professors (not all but many) to regularly equate the possession of an advanced degree with virtue.
He then returns to his assertion that the historian’s claim to be uniquely qualified.
The claim is not simply that disciplinary expertise confers moral and political superiority, but that historians, because of their training, are uniquely objective observers: “As historians, we consider diverse viewpoints while acknowledging our own limitations and subjectivity.”
In fact, no such claim of uniqueness is made in the letter. They don’t say that all historians oppose Trump and they don’t say that only historians are in a position to evaluate Trump. They simply state that they are historians and that their position as historians has led them to believe that they should oppose Trump.
Historians do have to consider diverse viewpoints and acknowledge their own limitations and subjectivity. They don’t all do it well. I spend plenty of time criticizing bad historical scholarship, but that criticism presumes that historians should consider diverse viewpoints and acknowledge their limitations and subjectivity.

In the interest of acknowledging my own subjectivity, I probably should acknowledge that I hate Trump with the white hot passion of a thousand burning suns. But the evidence that Fish is lying is clear. Simply read the letter.

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