Lies, Damn Lies, and Peer Review

My academic colleague and long-time friend Carol Symes (Associate Professor of History, University of Illinois; PhD, Harvard 1999) posted this article on the American Historical Association website this morning:


She, of course, mentions me.
Once published in Breitbart
To date, the only tenured historian of medieval Europe to have found an audience for her views on these issues is Rachel Fulton Brown (Univ. of Chicago), a columnist for Breitbart who has used her privileged position and powerful allies to deride, bully, and persecute a junior, untenured medievalist of color. In a blog post published in mid-September, and in subsequent interviews, she has explicitly justified these attacks by invoking her authority as a historian (PhD, Columbia 1994). “If you teach the history,” Fulton Brown told Inside Higher Ed, “everybody basically learns that it’s a very complicated story, and there’s nothing to support the white supremacist argument in it.” According to her, proving that “you are not a white supremacist” simply means showing that you can find some black people in medieval Europe: an essentialist exercise tantamount to noting the existence of medieval women without any critical analysis of pervasive misogyny and the workings of gender and power.  
“The history” that Fulton Brown professes to teach (which “everybody basically learns,” as though by osmosis) is “medieval western European Christian history, including the history of our field.” In other words, it is a fictive, hermetically sealed, and fiercely policed “western European Christian” space. It is not the history of a multiethnic, culturally diverse, religiously pluralistic, interconnected medieval world. Nor does it include the story of how that world was narrowed down by “western European Christian” historians. In a subsequent statement cited by the Chronicle of Higher Education, Fulton Brown again insisted that “medieval white supremacy [. . .] is not a narrative that makes any sense if you know anything about our field.”
Professor Symes
It will certainly come as news to Breitbart Editor-in-Chief Alex Marlow that I am “a columnist for Breitbart,” given that Breitbart has only ever published one of my articles and that that article was explicitly marked as republished from my blog. (Nor was I paid. Not that I would mind being a columnist for Breitbart. I would be in excellent company.) It is true that I have invoked my authority as an historian in the on-going argument in medieval studies, but since when did having scholarly expertise in a field become unmentionable as a basis for making comments to the press? But I never said that “proving ‘you are not a white supremacist’ simply means showing that you can find some black people in medieval Europe.” What I said was that in order to prove you are not a white supremacist to your students in the classroom (as Professor Kim said I should), if you are white (as am I, like Carol; I would show you her photo, but I got in big trouble for doing that last time; no, it is only fair that I share, here is the photo from her professional home page; I’ll share mine, too, just so you know what I look like), what you need to do is do your job and “learn some f*cking [sic, Carol left that bit out] medieval western European Christian history, including the history of our field.” Because, if you do, you will learn that the narratives that white nationalists like Richard Spencer have invented are lies.

But of course the Left loves Richard Spencer because he fits their narrative. Unlike me.

NB that Carol could find nobody to fit her narrative about the white supremacism allegedly rampant in academic medieval history except me, which is inconvenient to say the least, if she wants to make her case about how dangerous I am. I admit I am privileged; I have known that all my life. As I said a year ago, before I had ever published in Breitbart:
White privilege. Of course I have it. I've always known I have it. I grew up in the South, after all, where you hear about it every day. “You kids are so lucky," the grown-ups would say to my siblings and me.
Meaning, as I explain in that blogpost, you have a responsibility to stand up for those who are not so lucky, even as you take the abuse for being one of the lucky ones. But of course academically the great privilege that I have is to teach at the University of Chicago, the one university in the country whose president has been consistently willing to stand up for what we used to call academic freedom. I’m not quite sure what we call it now. “Bullying,” perhaps, if we disagree with colleagues in our field. I wonder what you call some 1500 colleagues being willing to sign an anonymously-authored Open Letter calling for a colleague’s institution to “publicly acknowledge and act on your responsibility to protect vulnerable colleagues—within and without the University of Chicago—when your senior faculty violate basic norms of professional behavior and place those less powerful in the path of harassment and other forms of violence” (my emphasis). A group hug? I’m just guessing here.

(Just for the record, I have never called Professor Dorothy Kim anything other than “Professor Kim,” nor have I attributed to her anything other than her own words. I shared what I thought was a flattering picture of her that I found online with one of her interviews solely to demonstrate why she would say what she said about herself not having to signal the unlikelihood that she is a white supremacist. You may draw your own conclusions about why she said what she did. I have written to one of the other signatories of the Open Letter asking for references to the harassment that he predicted would follow upon my blogpost. I have yet to hear back.)

Do I have powerful allies? It is true, I have several hundred Random Laypersons who have friended me on Facebook over the past ten months thanks to my willingness to stand up for Milo when even the conservative establishment would not. (What was it I called those spineless c*nts? Oh, right. Bullies. Random Laypersons can get their t-shirts here!) But other than Milo, none of these people are remotely what you would call powerful (no, I do not know Steve Bannon), and the only reason Milo is so important is, you guessed it, his own army of Random Laypersons, a.k.a. fans. None of whom is the least bit interested in trolling a university professor in medieval studies, however self-important she might feel. Guess what? Academia has become a joke – just as Milo says. Soon even Hollywood won’t be worth trolling either. And for that, we academics, like Hollywood’s denizens, have no one to blame but ourselves.

Milo’s audience of Random Laypersons at California State-Fullerton, October 31, 2017

My friend Carol makes some more specific arguments about what we professors in medieval history need to teach:
The task of the medievalist, from the earliest days of history’s institutionalization as a modern academic discipline, was to construct the nationalist narratives that bolstered the claims to territory, patrimony, and sovereignty on which 19th-century European states and aspiring states depended. The most obvious example is the Monumenta Germaniae Historica [MGH], founded in 1826 to catalogue all “monuments of German history” in advance of a unified German imperial state: that is, texts and artifacts produced by any people that could be considered “Germanic” (those of Anglo-Saxon England and Visigothic Spain, for example) or in any region open to German territorial aspirations (Poland and the Low Countries, for example). In the 20th century, the eminent medieval historian Charles Homer Haskins helped to devise the intellectual framework for the WWI doctrine of national self-determination on the basis of such claims. His star pupil, Joseph Strayer, helped to advance the cause of “Western” (white) supremacy during the Cold War. Strayer’s own students went on to populate the history departments of many prestigious American universities. (I myself am heir to this legacy.)
In lieu of peer review,  I asked my Random Laypersons on Facebook what they thought of these claims.
What. The. Actual. Hell?! Does she seriously believe that the best way to counter a 19th century subversion of history is with Marxism–a 19th century subversion of philosophy and economics? Your position has always been “scientia gratia scientia.” There are also some glaring omissions of facts. While the Roman Empire may not have been monochromatic, the barbarian invasions certainly were. And what was the response to this sudden influx of a foreign culture? Walls. The people in the Veneto created artificial islands to preserve their identity and created a society that valued not skin color but familial lineage. Then, as now, the native population was worried about being raped, slaughtered, and replaced–which happens no matter who it is walking in with a sword. 
The entire argument is built on a straw-man: insufferable 18-19th century Europeans seeking myths rather than history created a label for a past epoch, and therefore their claims taint that period’s history for all time. The black American historian (me) says: this strawman is actually a claim to European supremacy over understanding the Christian western past. It is a claim to white racist power to determine reality; this claim is not only problematic, the power it presumes is nonexistent: they cannot make the past in their own image. The blogger might realize this if she actually understood the argument of Dr. Rachel Brown.
It’s disingenuous for the writer to suggest that the efforts of German nationalist historians in 1826 to construct an ancient German identity, using ancient and medieval texts (principally, of course, Tacitus’ Germania), were typical of historians generally.
This is absurd. *Some* medievalists were interested in national origins, others busied themselves [with] quite different matters. Strayer was interested in defending western democracy *against Stalinism*, but that is not at all the same as defending “white supremacy”. With this kind of logic, I could just as easily argue that Symes wished for the victory of Stalinism during the cold war.
The attack on the Monumenta, one of the great scholarly achievements of modern times, is disgusting. It is part of a many-sided effort to reveal the genesis of the modern nations of Europe. There are many analogues. When, for example, Polish scholars discussed the emergence of the Polish state under the Piast dynasty at the end of the first millennium. they were scarcely arguing for the “whiteness” of the country. They were against Russification, and wanted Poland to be Poland.
That there was a nationalist agenda driving the foundation of the MGH is not a revelation. That it was a “white supremacist” agenda is ridiculous. The article further implies that there are “suppressed” sources about lots of people of color around medieval Europe. No doubt there were such, but the insinuation of the field suppressing documentation of them is atrocious.
So, in case I am missing something (I really only glanced at the piece because of the MGH cover, sorry), they are calling the outlook of scholars in 1826 evidence that the Middle Ages were hell-bent on shaping a white/national agenda. This means, therefore, that we should not use those source collections or editions? This is shameful. I have spoken with plenty of German academics who *still* consult works on the Teutonic Order and the Baltic crusades written by German historians during the 30s and 40s (you can all make the connection there). Why do they still use them? Not because of the authors’ worldviews, but because the source analysis and editions were so damned good that there haven’t been better ones since then. They are not focused on the opinions of the scholars, but rather the quality of scholarship. I could be missing the point that they are making about the MGH, and if I am, please correct an ignorant monk.
The study of the Middle Ages in the 18th and 19th century has nothing to do with the racialization of slavery (which did not exist in the German lands) or imperialism (since Germany did not exist, not even as a country, before 1871). At the very least, Symes's point of view is ethnocentric – she is only thinking of the British Empire, as if all ideas were invented there and nowhere else. That, to me, is exactly the same disease of which she accuses others.
Symes does not know the history of history writing, and apparently no Latin either. The title of the series is not “monuments of German history,” but “historical monuments of Germania.” That's not Germany, but Caesar’s (and the medieval) Germania, i.e., the territory outside the Roman empire either chronologically (post-Roman) or geographically (territories that did not belong to the Roman Empire). Now, one could of course discuss the issue of the lack of a German state, which shifted the emphasis of German historiography from State to Nation (Volk). But to say that the project itself was run “in advance of a unified German imperial state” is to say that Heinrich Friedrich Karl vom (and zum) Stein was able to anticipate in 1820 what would happen in 1871. Or, if you wish, that he was some kind of shaman capable of “talking” to Bismarck as German chancellor. This is not just preposterous. It is anti-historical, and shows, more than anything, the true Bolshevik colors of this piece. History does not matter. Kommissar Symes can forward and rewind history as she pleases in order to get the idea.
La crème de la crème: “His star pupil, Joseph Strayer, helped to advance the cause of ‘Western’ (white) supremacy during the Cold War.” Were there any racial conflicts during the Cold War? Doesn’t Symes know that Russians are also “white” people?
Does that mean that Joe Strayer’s Dictionary of the Middle Ages was a nationalistic enterprise? You know, the one for which Bill Jordan (his student) was an assistant editor and cites frequently in his work?
One more detail. Symes got the Herbert Baxter Adams award of the AHA in 2008. Adams was a student of Johann Kaspar Bluntschli in Heidelberg. A historian of international law, Bluntschli is the author of a pamphlet published in 1871 under the title “An impartial opinion on the Alabama question and the manner of settling it.” In that pamphlet, Bluntschli defended the Confederacy and argued that under international law, rebels were to be regarded as a belligerant party, and refuted the Union's accusations against Britain for having sold warships to the South. So, Bluntschli – by Symes's logic – was a racist, because he supported the Confederacy. Adams, his American student, never condemned Bluntschli, so Adams must have been racist too. Symes should return the prize to AHA in protest against the role of “systemic racism.”
This puts the MAA...in a bind. How can they award the Haskins Medal for the best medieval book now – he is complicit in the WS takeover of the field!!!
I have the best Random Laypersons. All my Random Laypersons are the best.

I know what Carol and my other colleagues in medieval studies are actually upset about. I have challenged their interpretive frame. Carol says so. What (Carol thinks) I have suggested about the complexities of understanding the historiography of our field and the way in which I signaled that I am not a white supremacist (I know, I know, good luck with that!) is, in essence, “an essentialist exercise tantamount to noting the existence of medieval women without any critical analysis of pervasive misogyny and the workings of gender and power.” I have told you already what I think about gender. (TL;DR: It is boring as an analytic in comparison with the relationship that medieval Christians talked about between the human and the divine.) I have also explained at length what I think about chivalry. But it makes no difference. I refuse to adhere to the prevailing orthodoxy of the field, and for that I must be silenced and shamed.

Thanks to Christian Smith (Professor of Sociology, the University of Notre Dame), I now understand this dynamic better than I had before. Carol and I are both historians, but she works in a much more sociological frame of interpretation than do I. (Mine is more psychological, but with heavy doses of mythology and rhetoric.) From within her frame of interpretation, I should not exist, much like Milo. How can I, a woman, not use gender theory? How dare I not acknowledge that society is constructed primarily for the perpetuation of structures of power? How dare I suggest that there are ways to read the devotion to the Virgin Mary other than through the lenses of race and gender? (As I said to my departmental colleagues just last week, I think we should be paying greater attention, even in American history, to class, if only because academics are by profession such snobs.) I am, in a word, that most dangerous of thinkers: a heretic.

Professor Smith details the practices in which those committed to the sacred project of sociology are trained. There are twelve steps in all. Here are a few of the most essential:
Step 1: Undertake a long apprenticeship of demanding training in graduate school to learn the right ways of seeing the ultimate truth about reality, to learn to transcend ordinary understandings of lay men and women, to correctly re-describe the world of appearances in the approved worldview, and to pass the tests of discipline that finally admit one as an approved disciple into the fold of the enlightened ones.
Step 4: Through an arduous program of research, writing, teaching, attending meetings, presenting papers, writing and publishing articles and books, and traveling the land to speak and listen, tell near and far the bad news of society’s evils that must be overcome and the good news of the promise of salvation through personal conversion, social transformation, and the eventual collective realization of justice, equality, and mutual affirmation.
Step 12: Remain alert and ever vigilant against false sheep, heretics, and traitors within the fold who threaten to betray the project, and against wolves, philistines, and conservatives outside of the fold who threaten to cut the project’s funding – be prepared if dire need arises to sacrifice one’s own standards of reason and fairness to eliminate the former and obstruct the latter.*
As I said in the other article of mine that Breitbart linked, we in academia are living through a religious crisis. Such crises are not simply crises of what we think about the supernatural or the after-life. They are crises of how we define reality through the stories that we tell. They are crises of mythology – tales about the transcendent – but they are also crises of history – the stories that we tell about ourselves and our communities. I am not surprised that Milo’s talks on college campuses attracted the protests that they did; it is one of the reasons I started writing about him. Milo, as I hope I do, understands that it is more than just our academic standards of objectivity that are at stake in the current political correctness. It is our very apprehension of reality. My colleagues like Carol are willing to lie about me – and about Milo – over and over and over again for as long as it takes (they hope) to shut us up because, as they see it, everything we say is a lie.

Luckily for us, in Milo’s words, “nobody can resist the truth wrapped in a good joke.” We are not going to shut up. This is America, where for the moment we still believe in freedom of speech. Even for academics like me.


Father Milo speaking to the Random Laypersons at California State-Fullerton, October 31, 2017

*Christian Smith, The Sacred Project of Sociology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 115-18. Smith also has some interesting things to say about the effects of blogging on standards of peer review. See pp. 166-72.

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