On what public scholars can and should do, these days and all days.
Over the last couple of years I’ve found myself, in thinking about my goals for a wide variety of my pursuits—from this blog to my future book projects, from certain aspects of my classroom work to other public commitments like those with the New England ASA—somewhat torn between a couple of distinct emphases, both answers to King Theoden’s question, “What can men do against such reckless hate?” Which is to say, in a moment when upward of 60% of Republicans consistently buy into Birtherism, when a significant number of our national conversations and narratives seem to have entirely unhinged from any discernible or even debatable reality, what is the role of a public scholar?
At times I find myself agreeing with the constant refrain of one of my favorite bloggers, Digby, who believes that far too often writers and thinkers on the left attempt to take such a high road that they cede the most traveled paths to those voices on the right who are willing to shout their arguments as loudly and as passionately (and often, yes, as falsely) as possible. In a recent post she linked to an 1820 essay by William Hazlitt, entitled “On the Spirit of Partisanship,” which illustrates just how much the two sides have long (and perhaps always) been unfairly matched in this sense: “Their object is to destroy you,” Hazlitt writes to his fellow liberals about their conservative opponents, “your object is to spare them.” Yet as tempting, and at times certainly as necessary, as it can be to fight fire with fire, at the end of the day I still believe that the most central goal of any liberal writer—and doubly so of any public scholar—should be to push back against oversimplifying narratives, to argue for more complex and dense and genuine understandings of American culture and history and identity and even politics. It’s a long arc for sure, but if enough such voices make themselves part of the conversation, it can still bend to justice.
It’s important to add, though, that providing such a measured and complex perspective is not mutually exclusive to fighting for an era’s most significant causes, a fact that is exemplified by today’s nominee for the American Hall of Inspiration, Albion W. Tourgée (1838-1905). Tourgée managed to be, for many decades, both one of America’s most thoughtful public scholars and commentators and a passionate advocate for the issue (racial equality) about which he felt most strongly: a Civil War veteran who was struggling with his wounds in the climate of his native Ohio, he moved with his wife to North Carolina and became a Radical Republican supporter of Reconstruction and freedmen’s rights there; he wrote a pair of profoundly complex and self-reflective and at times ironic and cynical novels about that experience, A Fool’s Errand, by One of the Fools (1879) and Bricks Without Straw (1880), and continued to publish works of fiction for the rest of his career; but even after moving back north in 1881 he published a syndicated newspaper column (“A Bystander’s Notes) in which he argued passionately for racial equality on a variety of fronts (and against racial violence and discrimination on at least as many). His opposition in that space to Louisiana’s segregated railways led to his selection to argue Homer Plessy’s 1896 case before the Supreme Court; in those arguments Tourgée advanced his belief that justice should be “color-blind,” a phrase which Justice John Harlan borrowed for his passionate dissenting opinion from the Court’s pro-segregation (“separate but equal”) decision.
Tourgée was always, I believe, able to view himself and his writing with the kind of distance that keeps one from becoming a caricature, a windbag so fond of one’s own voice and arguments that no one not already convinced will even listen. Yet he most certainly did not fear to tread into some of his era’s most divisive and difficult questions, and in fact advanced the same kind of measured and reasoned and profoundly impressive ideas there that his Reconstruction novels force an audience to confront. Inspiring on every level for sure. Final post in the series tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? What are the roles of public scholars, and what aren’t? Why?
11/15 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two pioneering, talented, and inspiring modernist artists, Marianne Moore and Georgia O’Keeffe.
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