TNR: “University History Departments Have a Race Problem”

In The New Republic, Josephine Livingstone writes that “University History Departments Have a Race Problem”. The byline reads: “The alt right is appropriating medieval studies and classical scholarship. What can academics do to stop them?”

This October, Professor Matthew Gabriele of Virginia Tech’s religion department co-hosted a symposium at George Washington University called “The Middle Ages, the Crusades, & the Alt Right.” The conference was aimed at “bringing together scholars and journalists” to discuss “popular contemporary nostalgia for the Middle Ages, specifically the Crusades and ideas about Race.” The resurgent white supremacist movement has been appropriating medieval (or medieval-flavored) motifs in the public eye this year, taking up the “Deus Vult” slogan (or “God wills it,” purported to have been chanted by medieval Crusaders) and the so-called Celtic Cross. The symposium aimed to discuss “where those ideas come from, what the real Middle Ages was like, how universities are reacting to this newfound interest, and how these modern groups are themselves evolving.”

Oh, boy.

White nationalists have a long and storied history of abusing the premodern past for their own ideological ends. In our moment as in the original Nazis’, the nationalists believe that white identity’s roots lie in some long-lost cultural heritage dominated by white men. When I spoke to Professor Gabriele, he told me that the symposium was in part an extension of a piece he wrote for the Washington Post in response to the London terrorist attacks in June, which had prompted an uptick in the use of the word “crusade” in the press.

The new urgency of historical studies’ situation prompts a broader question for the humanities, especially for fields whose object of study is politically sensitive or prone to right-wing appropriation. Should historians take responsibility for the abuse and exploitation of the past by amateurs, or even by those within their own ranks? Is scholarship doomed to be complicit in the violence done in its name?

Yet a new level of SJW anxiety has been created.

How can a field of study be “politically insensitive”? I mean, really, what possible field of study (choose your domain of inquiry) is inherently “politically insensitive”?

The best paragraph:

In recent months, white supremacists have publicly claimed the iconography of medieval Europe in an attempt to shore up their identification with a fictional, homogenous or “pure” white past. Some academics have been willing to indulge them. From within medieval studies itself, the University of Chicago professor Rachel Fulton Brown has become a notable supporter of Milo Yiannopoulis (she is cited in the Buzzfeed Breitbart investigation), and writes blog posts with titles like “Three Cheers for White Men.” She has also been a contributor to Breitbart. This solidarity between outright advocates of white supremacy and a conservative academic was already scandalous. But Professor Brown strained matters further when she publicly attacked the nontenured, woman of color scholar Dorothy Kim, encouraging her to “learn some f*cking western European Christian history” after Kim wrote about the field of medievalism’s complicity with white nationalism.

I want to buy Rachel Fulton Brown a drink for that line.

The piece then frames the cartoon-of-a-black-roman-soldier kerfuffle that Sailer noted, before landing on this crucible of pomo methodology:

They want to stress three main things: First, what we know about the past is shaped by our contemporary biases; second, the tools we use to study the past were fashioned by long-dead scholarly forebears whose ideologies have to be interrogated; and third, there is no one fixed version of the past. History exists in a million fractal ways in a million different places and according to a million different subjective experiences. “Certainty” can offer us nothing but lies.

All in a day’s work at TNR.

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