History in a Time of Crisis
In dark times, writing about the past can feel suspiciously like retreat. Donald Trump issues an executive order barring immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries; should I just keep researching the history of America’s treatment of immigrants? One of my graduate advisees emails me, dispirited, from an archive overseas. He’s thinking of changing careers. He doesn’t want to be like one of the Germans who did nothing in 1933. What am I supposed to tell him?
What use is history at a time like this? Specifically, what if any distinct role should historians play in countering both creeping and hard-charging authoritarian politics? The question of why we do what we do is always worth asking, but shock can make us wrestle an answer from ourselves as we wonder if our skills and energies are more urgently needed for other tasks.
The question of historians’ role in fighting autocracy can’t be answered for the entire profession. Not all historians oppose Trump, the forces behind his rise, or the policies he is pushing. Nor should we ignore elitist, authoritarian tendencies within academe itself, tendencies that are reinforced by the advance of exclusionary, class-stratifying market forces into wider reaches of university life. Scholarly training should not be understood as issuing special obligations, moral mandates, or intellectual monopolies when it comes to political debate.
But if, as human beings and members of the polity, people who happen to be scholars decide to contest authoritarianism, there is no reason why they should not put their skills to good use. The question here, in other words, is not whether Trump somehow threatens historians’ "values" (and if he did, is that the most important bad thing about him?), or whether all historians — as historians — should resist him. Better to ask how those who do oppose him might draw on their expertise in confronting the volatile, supremacist plutocracy that is emerging.
In tackling this question, it’s important first to challenge a lament heard frequently from scholars: that history is absent or virtually absent from American public life. It’s a claim that’s not hard to sustain in a remorselessly future-oriented, frontier-inflected consumer society. But look closer and you’ll find that history is not absent from our deliberations; to the contrary, for better and worse, it is everywhere. ...