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The subsequent controversy, however, had little to do with Janega’s assessment; rather, it centered on the fact that her review appeared in the first place. Mary Rambaran-Olm, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, took to Twitter to denounce LARB for “torpedoing” a review of the book she had written for the publication some weeks before — one that chastised Gabriele and Perry for their “white-centrism” and “Christocentrism” and for “rely[ing] on their whiteness for authority.” Rambaram-Olm asserted that because the LARB editors are friendly with the book’s authors, they wanted to “whitewash” her negative assessment (pun, I suspect, intended). Denunciations, angry tweet threads, and Twitter account deletions followed while leagues of outsiders, like rubberneckers passing a flaming car crash, looked on and thought: What in the world is going on here?
This wasn’t the first time a political controversy launched the otherwise sleepy world of medieval studies into the public eye. In 2017 the University of Chicago historian Rachel Fulton Brown incurred the ire of her colleagues in medieval studies by writing a blog post called “3 Cheers For White Men” and promoting the alt-right media personality Milo Yiannopoulos and his extravagant contrarian junket through America’s universities, the “Dangerous Faggot” tour. The Brandeis medievalist Dorothy Kim penned a few lengthy blog posts about Fulton Brown’s “problematic” opinions, Fulton Brown responded on her own blog, and Kim followed with an article for Inside Higher Ed accusing her adversary of “intimidation,” “harassment,” “manipulat[ing] the concept of free speech to operate as a dog whistle,” and leaving “her open to deadly violence” akin to the murder of Heather Heyer at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally.
Of course, a historian of the Middle Ages shouldn’t look to a right-wing provocateur and media personality for a model of intellectual openness and argumentative rigor. And a university professor blogging her opinions, however caustically, does not constitute “violence” against a colleague. Such dust-ups are just examples of a more general sad truth about the academic humanities: that over the last decade, the same clownish, philistine attitude of partisan mob-formation and paranoid enemy-detection found everywhere else in American society has compromised the last institutional holdouts of humanistic inquiry.
When Kim sought examples of others who found themselves in a similar position to herself — standing before a mob hurling approbation and accusation — she turned not to the sweep of history she had devoted her life to studying, but to a far more recent precedent: Gamergate, an explosive and largely internet-based controversy about ethics in gaming journalism that raged in 2014 and left an indelible mark on the cultural politics of the internet. “Because the alt-right broadcast my office location,” she lamented, “I had to lock down my digital presence and decide whether to do as Zoe Quinn did” — Quinn being a video-game designer at the center of the Gamergate controversy — “and file a police report.” In other words, the roots of the supposed “politicization” of the academic humanities in our age are shallow, reaching only as far back as the mid-2010s era of hashtag activism and pre-Trump right-wing trolling. It is midday television drama, the stuff of talk shows and pundit media, playing out on campuses increasingly drained of money. Academic protest culture today has more in common with online “flash mobs” than with the rifle-toting and Maoism of the late ‘60s.
Perhaps the most prominent representative of this tendency today is one Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, Jason Stanley. Trained in epistemology and the philosophy of language, Stanley turned to politics in 2015 with his book How Propaganda Works. He completed his metamorphosis into a political theorist in 2018 with the best-selling follow-up, How Fascism Works. His books were perfectly of the age: American liberals, horrified by the Trump revolt and desperate to find a definitive tie between Trumpism and the kind of movements that installed Hitler and Mussolini, devoured them. There are fascists on the prowl, and they’re all the people Jason Stanley doesn’t like.
Stanley claims that the goal of his book was not to describe fascist regimes, but rather to delimit the essential characteristics of fascist politics — distilled into a checklist of 10 essential qualities — which may or may not congeal into a regime down the line. This distinction allows him to avoid any mention whatever of Spain’s Franco, Austria’s Dollfuss, Romania’s Antonescu, or Portugal’s Salazar, while every single chapter contains at least one instance of the word “Trump.” But as Samuel Moyn observed in an essay for The New York Review of Books, “If Stanley is right, most of modern political history is fascist, latently or openly.” His definition is gravely overbroad. A vast majority of politics as such — for decades if not centuries, whether left- or right-coded, in America or beyond — contains most if not all of what Stanley believes to be characteristic of fascism.
The professors of “academic Twitter” have subordinated their work as professional intellectuals to the news cycle, yoking their reputations to the delirious churn of outrage media.
However famous Stanley’s books have made him, he is possibly better-known (at 127,000 followers and rising) for his Twitter account, where he delivers unusually earnest reflections on his academic career while sorting, according to his schema, the fascist from the non-fascist. Indeed, his definition of what counts as “fascism” is heavily influenced by Twitter-induced presentism: His political orientation, like so many other academics captured by the media complex, comes primarily from what falls into his sight on his timeline. Breaking news supplies the most urgent objects of attention and analysis. He spends his days sharing articles about and delivering sage-like edicts upon the various people and events of the day: critical race theory, the “1619 Project,” Russia, QAnon, Trump, Elon Musk. (In a fit of rage, he recently blamed the essayist-turned-Substacker and cultural critic Wesley Yang for the past two years of right-wing agitation on nearly all of these matters — a strange accusation for a self-described “propaganda expert.”) For academics like Stanley, shackled to the media machine, the past is not of interest either for its own sake or as a means of illuminating the complexity of the present. It is, rather, little more than a wellspring of justifications for liking and disliking things in the world today.
But too often, scholars eagerly go public only when their pedantry can either serve their favored politician or party or discredit their enemies. As Sam Fallon noted in these pages, “to read the work of humanities scholars writing for a general audience is to be confronted by dull litanies of fact: a list of the years in which Rome’s walls were breached by invaders (take that, Trump), an exhaustive inventory of historians who have dunked on Dinesh D’Souza, a bland recounting of witch-hunting in 17th-century New England.”
When egregious perversions of the historical record proliferate among their own tribe — for liberals, say, when the vice president and several sitting senators insisted that the Capitol riot was akin to Pearl Harbor or 9/11, or when a prominent journalist claims that the Revolutionary War was fought to preserve slavery; for conservatives, when Republican politicians or Claremont-affiliated professors breathlessly declare the impending “destruction of Western civilization,” or when Trump assembled a collection of partisan professors to produce the propagandistic “patriotic education” of the 1776 Commission — public-facing scholars nod quietly in agreement and retreat into the dim light of the faculty office.
This kind of tribalism has less in common with “politics” properly understood — involving electioneering, coalition-building, and on-the-ground action and organization in the world, motivated by a concern for justice — than with far more recent social phenomena unique to the digital age. The writer and cultural critic Katherine Dee has argued persuasively that our age’s political culture is more often than not a species of fandom, made in the image of postmillennial internet culture and forged in the furnaces of LiveJournal, Tumblr, and other early experiments in internet community-formation. “What motivates someone to spend 10 hours a day on Twitter,” Dee suggests, is similar to “what motivated people to camp out in front of theaters to see the next installment of Star Wars, or dress up in costume for the release of the latest Harry Potter book.” Whatever it is, it certainly isn’t the fruit of serious reflection and study.
The ideological posturing, moral nitpicking, and clique formation that occur in places such as academic Twitter have more to do with crafting a scene than building a movement. And scholars, of all people, should be able to recognize these dynamics, call them into question, and make more reasonable decisions about how to engage with their colleagues, whether in agreement or debate.
So what are beleaguered and increasingly irrelevant humanities professors to do, subject as they are to a constant demand for novelty, and to ever more suffocating pressures of conformity from administrators, colleagues, and students alike? The kind of writing that has withstood the ravages of time has focused on those questions that lie at the bottom of human existence and experience: What is the good life? How should we understand human nature? What kind of political community do we want to inhabit, and how do we achieve it? These sorts of questions, of course, do not admit of final answers: No matter how close we feel we’ve gotten, our answers are colored by perplexity.
In a commencement speech to this year’s graduating class at St. John’s College, Mark Sinnett, a retired tutor, took the opportunity to remind his former students of the inescapability — and the promise — of perplexity. “Perhaps if we were somewhat less frightened of our own perplexity,” Sinnett wagered, “we could show a little better respect for other peoples’ perplexity. Maybe we could have a humane discussion of something of importance in this society.” All earnest thinking, whether alone or in community, begins in such perplexity. Scholars more than anybody should be ready to be perplexed, and to appreciate the perplexity of others. But far too often, the opposite is true.
Too few of today’s academics have time for earnest questions and various attempts at answering them. The scholar is now proudly an “expert,” dealing in certitudes and performances of epistemic mastery. This is especially true among the extremely online academic set, where leaning on one’s status or credentials for epistemic authority — prefacing an opinion with “as a scholar of” or “as an expert in,” perhaps putting “Dr.” or “Ph.D.” in one’s Twitter display name — is de rigueur. This trend became especially noticeable, and dreadful, over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, with professors in various and sundry nonmedical fields succumbing to “expertise creep,” tweeting forcefully worded pronouncements on the virus as if reporting results from their own laboratories.
Which isn’t to say that academics shouldn’t extend their curiosity into areas outside their specialization. Quite the contrary: “Epistemic trespassing” is the duty of anyone who seeks to learn anything new, and even scholars of ancient history have to live in, and thus must seek to understand, the present. As Heraclitus said long ago, “lovers of wisdom must be inquirers into very many things.” But this inquiry should be conducted searchingly, with an openness to being bewildered, being surprised, and being wrong — and with a respect for others whose earnest questioning produces different conclusions.
And of course, though it certainly won’t resolve everything, they should probably log off.