American History and the War on Truth: An Ethical Call for Justice

By: Steve Alter

November 17, 2021

Who Belongs at the Thanksgiving Table? Christianity, History, and Immigration

Matthew Rowley’s thoughtful and wide-ranging essay on American identity poses an underlying question about the use of historical knowledge. How might a better-informed public make America more accepting of its racial, ethnic, and gender diversity? For nearly a century now, historians and others have said that societies need a “useable” past, a version of events that is accurate and not given to distortion, yet that selects and emphasizes facts in ways that help non-academic citizens address present-day challenges. Rowley’s own discussion is directed in this vein, including its comments on the recent 1619 Project, a reframing of American history that stresses the central role of race-based slavery. It is this subject that I address here.

The surface controversy surrounding the 1619 Project has concerned questionable assertions of fact, as well as questionable inferences, made by the project’s lead writers. The deeper debate has been over which version of the past—which topical and ethical emphasis—is most needed at present. These questions merge, however, in the larger context of what might be termed the “truth war.” That intellectual conflict has been made salient by America’s present conflict over status: Many people are undergoing a perceived decline in their socioeconomic position; others find their rightful position being limited. The resulting fear and rage have sparked efforts to mobilize public opinion, and for this purpose it has seemed justifiable, on both the political right and left, to promote limited or even distorted tellings of America’s past.

Fear and rage have sparked efforts to mobilize public opinion, and for this purpose it has seemed justifiable, on both the political right and left, to promote limited or even distorted tellings of America’s past. 

A revealing pattern in this regard appears in evaluations of the 1619 Project. A number of historians, including (among others) Nell Irvin Painter of Princeton and project consultant Leslie M. Harris of Northwestern University, note their awareness of and even dismay at certain factual errors in the project’s lead essay—errors that appeared despite the editors of the New York Times Magazine having been warned about them prior to publication. 

Still, wanting to affirm the project’s heuristic value, these same scholars held back from signing a letter to the Times calling for a more careful vetting of historical data. Observers rightly predicted that critics of the project, both friendly and hostile, would complain, with lament or with glee, that inaccuracies undermine the project’s credibility. Even so, a number of professional scholars and journalists have declared their ultimate support for the project, its shortcomings notwithstanding, in the quest for social justice. That is, they have forsaken their critical function in favor of advocacy.

The historian Thomas L. Haskell has analyzed the growing tendency in this direction in our academic culture generally—that is, the tendency toward an ends-justifying-the-means approach to knowledge. Haskell’s 1996 essay “Justifying Academic Freedom in the Era of Power/Knowledge” asks how academics can promote old-fashioned truth-seeking in a post-truth culture, an environment that makes knowledge subservient to power agendas—including benevolent ones. The implication here is that “postmodernist” hyper-relativism has gone mainstream, becoming the common property of thinkers on both the left and right. The solution to this problem, Haskell suggests, lies in a recommitment to self-monitoring academic communities, as well as to objective truth-seeking—albeit with the ideal of “objectivity” unshackled from a misguided adherence to a neutralist, non-committal stance on important issues. 

Haskell reminds us that the doctrine of academic freedom, which was introduced in the United States in the 1890s, was promoted not so much to protect the First Amendment rights of professors as to serve the common good, the latter by helping to support the authority of academically generated knowledge. Academic freedom was thus part of a larger complex of institutional arrangements, with universities at the apex, that has depended most basically on professional and academic organizations ranging from the American Medical Association to the Modern Language Association.

Haskell reminds us that the doctrine of academic freedom, which was introduced in the United States in the 1890s, was promoted not so much to protect the First Amendment rights of professors as to serve the common good.

All such organizational communities manifest a double-sided quality. On one hand, outsiders such as elected officials, populist spokespersons, and lay people generally are not allowed to judge the opinions of experts on questions regarding their disciplines. Yet within each community, members stand ready to critically evaluate one another’s ideas. The aim of this competition among insiders is to produce the best collective results for the good of society. 

The recent challenge to these familiar institutional arrangements, and the need for a recommitment to them, arises most famously from the postmodernist philosopher Michel Foucault’s notion of “power/knowledge,” a formulation that suggests that no real difference exists between its two components. Thomas Haskell regards Foucault’s outlook as morally and culturally pernicious, as a philosophy that serves to cloak (albeit often unwittingly) a Nietzschean “will to power.” 

An attention-getting manifestation of Foucault’s viewpoint appeared in the literary theorist Stanley Fish’s analysis of “free speech” as a mystifying ideal that exists only to serve political ends. As Haskell notes, Fish thereby refused to take seriously procedural rules governing intellectual life that claim to operate apart from policy preferences. Knowledge and critical analysis thus become tools for propaganda and manipulation. Says Haskell: “Fish’s Machiavellian advice transforms free speech from a matter of obligation that may constrain us to act against our own wishes, into a rhetorical ruse that liberates us to take advantage of suckers,” including those who retain a naive belief in self-evident moral truths. 

Christian academics can make a healthy contribution in this situation so long as they, in pursuing their various agendas, do not themselves succumb to the temptation of ends-justify-the-means thinking.

What has all of this to do with the 1619 Project? For one thing, the agonizing debate surrounding the project shows that the New York Times is indeed failing—that is, in its editorial function. This failure, however, is far more extensive than that of a single news organization, as suggested by what a number of participants in the 1619 debate have revealed about their own decisions. Yet if journalists and historians find themselves having to make a forced choice between (for instance) supporting racial justice, on the one hand, and pursuing intellectual accuracy, on the other, then they have only themselves to blame. As an antidote, each group should recommit to the professional and ethical standards of their guilds. 

Christian academics can make a healthy contribution in this situation so long as they, in pursuing their various agendas, do not themselves succumb to the temptation of ends-justify-the-means thinking. We can and should join with secular colleagues in good causes, but this must be done only with a shared belief that one cannot promote justice without also upholding everyday forms of truth. In this sense, Thomas Haskell, who was not a Christian but rather a rational-liberal intellectual and moralist, still is a voice from which Christians can learn.

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