You may not understand this post if you don't read the comments to the previous one. I'm just warning you.
But if you don't have the patience for that, dear reader, I can give you the short version. I am responding here to several important questions raised in the recent (or ongoing, depending on when you tuned in) controversy at Tenured Radical. The questions are: what is a blog supposed to do, and what makes it credible? And should the Radical have revealed her associations with certain reviled faculty at Duke at an earlier stage so that readers might evaluate the objectivity of the blogger and -- it is implied -- her capacity to tell the truth? "Are you or have you ever been?" shouted the committee chair, pounding his fist on the lectern and glowering at the witness and her attorneys.
Well, here is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: I have friends at a lot of colleges and universities, which is the kind of thing that happens if you are professionally active and interested in others. I can't always be telling you who they are, in part because you would think I was a swell-headed name-dropper for having so many of them, and in part because people might start writing me and saying, "Hey, you know that friendship thing? Well I hate to break it to you, but, ahem; uh -- well, when you didn't return that phone call...." And I think it is an open question whether warm, or even merely respectful, feelings toward a group of people undermines one's "objectivity" about them more than, say, hostile feelings and bad experiences with other academics might. And friendship is no more undermining to your objectivity than getting a big book contract or a movie deal: if you don't believe me, ask Simon Schama or Stephen Ambrose, why don't you? And even if it does cause people to worry about my capacity to tell the truth, I'll still take the big advance on the next book, thank you very much. Ka-ching!
For the non-historians who are readers here, I would also like to note that, among the Sisters and Brothers of the Past, objectivity is no simple thing and it is not a word we normally use as a curse, or to define political battles. It is, in fact, a major source of disagreement between some conservative historians and -- let's just say "others," to avoid polarizing - whether it is either possible or desirable to present only "the facts" and let the reader decide "truth" for him or herself. Facts without narrative are either dull and unreadable or unintelligible; and narrative, as Hayden White and others have argued, is inevitable drawn from a set of readily interpretable story lines: comedy, tragedy, romance and heroism.
These thoughts on objectivity draw on a useful and vibrant discussion among historians over a decade ago, and in my own department, triggered by the publication of Peter Novick's very intelligent and controversial book, That Noble Dream. Novick, who could generously be described as a centrist (and who I perceive as more conservative in his views than not, particularly in his views of social history and cultural history) came to the conclusion that objectivity wasn't something one could "have," but only something one could aspire to. In the ensuing discussion, in hallways and in journals, it became clear to me that there is no dominant consensus in the profession at all as to whether objectivity is either possible or desirable, since one always has to place evidence in a narrative, temporal or theoretical context. Historians were never objective, and looking back fondly to an imagined past before feminism, race, sexuality or post-colonial theory made their impact on the discipline is only nostalgic (for some people, at least), not a reflection of our actual history as scholars of the past. Arguments -- and in order to write history or any scholarship you must have an argument -- always rely on a theory, no matter how subtly drawn upon.
To relate this subject to blogging, I understand that KC Johnson tells the "truth" as he understands it. But even setting aside the abysmal quality of many of his readers' comments, Durham in Wonderland was never objective and it made a powerful argument. It was, drawing on White's thinking on the subject, a heroic narrative about a set of complex events that were difficult for outsiders to understand without that argument because those events took place in an elite, closed world that was more or less alien to them, a fact that Johnson reassured them they could be proud -- not ashamed --of. It relied on a set of recognizable characters for its appeal, its intensity and its credibility: it was a story with villains, self-serving bosses, fools, Keystone Kops, man-hating feminists, white-hating black and brown people, arrogant college professors, a Jezebel and "innocent" white men victimized by chance and circumstance (I once compared the intensity of feeling about the lacrosse players among DIW readers to the cult of the Confederate dead, and if you are a southern historian, you will see the similarities.) KC crafted a tense, readable narrative, one that also made his readers into "heroes" as they were inducted into the role of detective and led through the labyrinth of fact and law by their leader and teacher. And I can't tell you how many people have written to me privately to say that KC Johnson, whatever else he may be to you or me or his fans, is a great teacher. Go back and read some blog entries with that in mind and it will jump out at you. Do a little research on Google and you will understand that he also brought a great deal to this role as teacher to the masses. But I want to emphasize my point here, even as I bring this professional accomplishment to your attention: being a great history teacher is not necessarily about being objective -- it is about creating a powerful, implicit and explicit argument as you convey facts about the past. It is about being credible and compelling, it is about possessing an intuition about who the audience is and how to get to them. It is about crafting a classroom persona that is sufficiently heroic to compel attention and cause learning to occur.
How do I know this (I can hear the howls already)? I know this because I am also a great teacher, and I recognize another great teacher when I see one, even though I intensely dislike what is being taught and think it is ethically, if perhaps not always factually, wrong. And as for attacks on my own credibility by the DIW crowd: people who don't like my work, and don't think it teaches them anything, don't have to read it. It's really easy. Get rid of the bookmark on your browser, Dawg.
And the heroic narrative has obscured one thing that deserves to be highlighted, as we write the history of this thing. As I noted earlier, part of the pleasure of DIW for its participants has been in "playing detective" -- being part of an imagined community (as Benedict Anderson would say) that now sees itself as a "winning team" and a necessary adjunct to the "winning" Duke lacrosse team. The job of continuing to batter new "enemies" is the only way to sustain that euphoria for DIW's readers, and they will do it here and anywhere else for as long as they can. But the heavy lifting on the lacrosse legal case was not done at Durham in Wonderland, regardless of claims among readers that the blog author played a decisive role in the case. Corruption was defeated -- as it usually is, not by "the people" but by well-paid, experienced attorneys and their staffs, and by the fact that the defendants had access to such people in the first place, not underfunded public defenders who had no money or time to challenge the system. That is the world most people -- poor, of color, immigrant -- in America live in, and the Duke lacrosse case has not changed the system one iota.
But to return to the question of my credibility, KC's view of what a blog, and a teacher, should do to retain and maintain credibility is something I would describe as highly corporate, the theory being that readers can stop worrying about whether the story is true, in whole or in part, once they come to trust the hero-narrator. For example, to shift away from academia for a parallel argument: we should read some blogs for the same reason we buy Nabisco products -- because Nabisco has accumulated, over time, a reputation for making delicious, healthy food. And yet, this too is a highly constructed narrative that is only partly true and has shifted over time. Historians may recall that Nabisco, in eliminating the "cracker barrel" at the turn of the 20th century and wrapping its products individually, did so to create an illusion -- by assertion -- that their food was safe. No one actually went to the factory and looked: rather, the gaze of the consumer was re-directed to the shop owner and the shelf. And of course now we know that Nabisco products are full of crap ingredients that many of us are quite certain are no good for us. Food can simultaneously be "healthy," "safe" and "delicious," but one category does not guarantee the others. Some of us believe that preservatives, transfats, refined flour and sugar are more or less safe, others of us don't: but they are all legal. And large numbers of people are completely unaware that what tastes so delicious -- an Oreo, say -- is lacking in any food value whatsoever. Others know this and don't care, while some of us would prefer to drink raw corn oil than eat an Oreo.
Now I am not saying that KC is an Oreo maker (given my experience, it is wise to be clear about such things.) But some people believe Durham in Wonderland is credible and some don't: some people believe KC's facts are complete and convincing, and others are quite clear that is not so. DIW readers would say the blog is credible because the facts satisfy them of what they already "know" but didn't have the evidence for -- for example, that some hard-working people live in the world and others are just over-educated, overpaid academic liberal do-nothings -- but that is a far too simple read of what goes on there, of course. DIW is a highly ideological location, deliberately so, where people who thrive on what it offers go to read things that give them deep pleasure in the telling and re-telling of a story they already know.
But the difference between my blog and DIW is not between who is ideological and who isn't. Everyone has an ideology here. The DIW ethos is to create a dense terrain of facts that inevitably make a highly ideological argument about "liberal rot" in the academy that is familiar to all of us, regardless of political affiliation. And it is why all of us respond so strongly to it. It isn't really about those lacrosse players at all, even though they are the "heroes" of the story that give it so much pizzazz. And sadly, it isn't really about the Group of 88 either, although it has caused them a world of pain. Taken as a whole, in the end, DIW is about why some people get to go to places like Duke and other people don't -- it is about class rage, it is about the collapse of opportunity for middle-class people who actually had wonderful college educations in their grasp a generation ago, and have now been shut out of them. It's about how some of us made it in, and slammed the door behind us.
So in conclusion, it is not KC's actual views about me or anybody else that should be of real interest here, or mine about him. The impact of the Sunshine Band (so glad you like the name, guys!) is minimal regardless of how they clutter my in box. KC is also absolutely entitled to be a cultural crusader if he likes, and wear his marginality to the larger academic culture like a medal, although I would argue that there are boundaries of civility -- like accusing people of lying, something that should be rare in my view -- that need to be respected if people are to have conversations rather than shouting matches, be colleagues rather than soldiers in a culture war.
Some people will believe Tenured Radical is credible and some will not, in large part because of what they bring to it, not because they are in search of objectivity or because I want to please all of the people all of the time. I accept that. But I would say that -- even in the absence of printing lists of my friends, as KC thinks would be the ethical thing to do, the actual title of the blog should create an interpretive field for the reader that is worth attending to in thinking critically about what is posted here. My readers come here because it gives them pleasure, just as his readers come to him for pleasure. If, on top of that, people learn things here that enrich their lives and make them want to talk to me and to each other, then that is a real bonus.
Comment moderation has now been turned off and we'll see how it goes.
Sir Christopher Bayly, 1945-2015
4 hours ago