The latest drama over academic politics is unfolding in the American Historical Association. A column by association president James H. Sweet, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has come under fire for warning against “presentism”— an approach that judges the past by present-day moral standards and uses it to advance contemporary agendas. The response was a torrent of abuse, resulting in a craven apology from Sweet. It’s an instructive moment in the culture wars.
Sweet’s article, his monthly feature in Perspectives on History, the association’s official publication, offered a rather mild critique of the "1619 Project," a New York Times package of articles, later expanded into a book, which framed American history through the lens of slavery, writing that it was “powerful and effective” as journalism but not as history.
He noted that tours in a castle in Ghana that served as a hub of the slave trade were geared to American (mostly African American) tourists and so focused on the evil of American white supremacy that they erased some highly relevant facts. For instance, most slaves were sent to Brazil and the Caribbean, not to the United States and the colonies that preceded it, or that Ghana and other African kingdoms were deeply complicit in the slave trade.
Sweet’s critique was not limited to ahistorical history on the left: He was also scathingly critical of conservative Supreme Court justices for what he argued was the misuse of Second Amendment and abortion-law history in recent rulings on abortion and gun rights.
In response, Knox College history professor Cate Denial posted a tweet urging professors to email members of the association’s executive board to express their outrage. Critics accused Sweet of having claimed that history should be discussed as if it has no current relevance and cannot be analogized to the present (something he never said). Others claimed that Sweet’s critique of social justice-oriented scholarship was a standard way for white men to dismiss the struggles of racial minorities and other disenfranchised groups.
Under the wave of outrage, Sweet posted a contrite note at the top of his column, apologizing for failing to “convey what [he] intended” and calling the piece a “ham-fisted attempt at provocation.”
Some of Sweet’s critics were particularly incensed because they felt that his column was handing a weapon to Republicans who are currently seeking to regulate the way history is taught in many “red” states to impose rules to ensure that lessons on the history of civil rights do not collectively blame whites for segregation. Such attempts, particularly when applied to college-level teaching, are indeed worrying as an infringement on academic freedom and freedom of speech in the academy.
What Sweet’s detractors don’t realize is that they, not he, are handing a weapon to those who want to regulate academic speech: They can easily point to Sweet’s mobbing as evidence that today’s academy is intolerant of even the mildest dissent from left-wing dogma on “social justice,” and there is a need for government intervention, which will protect speech, not restrict it.
No, the mobbing is not the same as state diktat. But it is also not free speech in the sense of scholarly or intellectual critique, which is a reasoned reply to an argument, not name-calling or denunciations to the organization’s board.
Sweet’s apology mentions the “harm” his column has supposedly caused. But the only harm to the discipline has been done by the mob.
Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a cultural studies fellow at the Cato Institute, are her own.