During a job interview a few years ago, a senior scholar asked me what led me to co-found The Activist History Review, which launched four years ago today. I answered that, in part, we hoped to help Americans understand and reject the racist candidacy and policies of Donald Trump. One of the interviewers let out an audible gasp.
I’ve given a lot of thought to that exchange over subsequent years, both from my perspective as a scholar and as an editor at TAHR. Would the search committee have the same response now, after the Capitol Insurrection? After we saw migrant kids in cages? After the trans and muslim bans? Were the racist birtherism and nativist, authoritarian demagoguery of the campaign acceptable? Or was it simply unseemly that scholars might engage the world around them?
I can’t know for certain the precise cause of the gasp, but I’m all too aware that I transgressed the “civility” norms of academia—that scholars are trained that it is both impolite and bad scholarship to speak and act in overtly political terms. We can hope for particular changes to our world, another senior scholar lectured me years later at the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association, but we can never work to implement those changes and betray our impartiality. We should only convey “what happened,” I’m told, to the best of our ability. That idea is dangerous and absurd.
Although there are innumerable reasons why the civility approach to academia is inadequate and oppressive, two strike me as especially relevant today.
First, if the rationale—as we often hear—is that keeping “above the fray” of politics insulates academics and protects the profession, I’m afraid I have to report that this approach has utterly failed. Our work is political whether or not we choose to acknowledge that fact because that’s how power works. Writing about anything that matters—race, class, gender, age, ability, ecology—is inherently political and questions the legitimacy of the powerful. We pretend otherwise at our peril. As the infinitely stupid 1776 Report illustrates, white elites find the work we do as educators and intellectuals inherently threatening. They claim that we teach students to “hate one’s country or the world for its inevitable wrongs,” and you can be absolutely certain that Republicans across the country will use the report to limit what, how, and where we can write and teach. Indeed, the ethnic studies ban of the recently upheld Arizona HB2281 and the so-called “Black Identity Extremist” terrorism classification by the FBI already laid the groundwork for precisely such efforts.
Second, failing to address systems of exploitation and abuse, especially for those of us who claim to understand their workings, makes us complicit in their operation. I realize that’s a provocative statement, but it’s the truth. If we actually understand the implications of our research in systems of oppression, how on earth can we sit by, passing off the occasional sassy remark at scholarly conferences as making some kind of difference? And the alternative—that we don’t understand our own work—isn’t better. What we’re left with, in either case, is an “enlightened” intelligentsia class with little care for actual human suffering. That is, at best, a bad look and makes us obviously complicit in the systems we fail to change.
As our institutions of higher education sit on the edge of a massive restructuring, we must embrace the implications of our work and demand a scholarly community committed to praxis—to actually creating the better world our work identifies. We already face an openly fascist and antagonistic Republican Party and a university managerial class that seeks to totally destroy the humanities and social sciences. So what do we risk by organizing and implementing our work? Will the suits cut our programs, funding, and jobs? That process is already well underway and might be irreversible without massive institutional changes.
We have an opportunity to educate as a social and collective good. It is past time that we take it.
I’ve long seen TAHR as a way (among others) to promote a more engaged scholarly community and to take responsibility for bringing about a better and more equitable world. We hold so much knowledge about systems of power and exploitation—about our world as it actually exists. We know that the past literally produces the present. But aside from pondering the historiographic meaning of space-time (which is super-interesting), we should increasingly insist that scholars of poverty, white supremacy, labor, and the carceral state help construct more equitable alternatives. We must unequivocally claim this world and its problems as our own and help address them.
As Marx famously put it, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” It is, with these words, that we in the scholarly community must mourn those we have failed: the 400,000 dead from Trump’s racist and incompetent COVID response, migrant children and their families caged by his administration, the Black communities he attacked as “disgusting” “war zones” that threaten the “Surburban Lifestyle Dream,” the Black Lives Matter protesters he attacked and arrested, and those swindled by the most openly corrupt president in American history.
We at The Activist History Review seek to change the world, but we have not done enough. I hope that four years from now, we will be able to say that we did. Until that time, we seek to inspire, agitate, and engage for liberation.