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E-Pluribus | August 29, 2022
For some woke scholars, American history is history; fallen Nature; and the continuing decline of the publishing industry.
A round-up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Dominic Green: The Unmaking of American History by the Woke Mob
Writing for The Wall Street Journal, Dominic Green of the Royal Historical Society details a recent uproar caused by an article in the American Historical Association’s journal that dared to suggest that history be treated as history and not present-day happenings. Article author James Sweet was verbally assailed for daring to go against contemporary sensibilities and felt compelled to apologize, and Green suggests that failure to stand up to such intellectual bullying is bad for the entire academic field of history.
“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child,” Cicero once wrote. “For what is the worth of a human life if it is not woven into the life of our ancestors by the record of history?” Even Ms. Hannah-Jones would agree with that. The AHA’s activist wing, however, disagrees. Like Cicero, who was both a politician and a historian, they see history as a rhetorical resource. Unlike Cicero, they see nothing good in their people’s history and only wickedness in their ancestors.
When the purpose of history changes from knowledge of the past to political power in the present and future, historians become mere propagandists. Academics who succumb to the sugar rush of activism lose their sense of balance. Meanwhile, the AHA’s annual reports show that undergraduates and graduates are voting with their enrollments, with a related decline in job opportunities for holders of new doctorates. In 2016-17 alone, undergraduate enrollment fell by 7.7%. The number of new doctorates fell by about 15% between 2014 and 2019, and the number of job openings has halved since 2008. The latest AHA Jobs Report is a threnody of “program closures, enrollment declines, and faculty layoffs.” Signs of stabilization, it reckons, are a “false floor.” Why study history if all it equips you for is a nasty and crowded climb up the greasy pole of academic preferment? Much easier to pursue activism through the modish triad of sex, race and gender studies.
Read it all.
Bo Winegard: The Fall of ‘Nature’
“Follow the science” has become a mantra of secularism, and yet too often the scientists themselves are failing to heed their own counsel. Bo Winegard at Quillette writes about a recent decision by the online journal Nature Human Behavior to filter future articles to prevent “harm” to “vulnerable” groups.
An editorial in Nature Human Behavior provides the most recent indication of just how bad things are becoming. It begins, like so many essays of its kind, by announcing that, “Although academic freedom is fundamental, it is not unbounded.” When the invocation of a fundamental freedom in one clause is immediately undermined in the next, we should be skeptical of whatever follows. But in this case, the authors are taking issue with a view very few people actually hold. At minimum, most academics will readily accept that scientific curiosity should be constrained by ethical concerns about research participants.
[ . . . ]
Unfortunately, the authors then announce that they also wish to apply these “well-established ethics frameworks” to “humans who do not participate directly in the research.” They are especially concerned that “people can be harmed indirectly” by research that “inadvertently … stigmatizes individuals or human groups.” Such research “may be discriminatory, racist, sexist, ableist, or homophobic” and “may provide justification for undermining the rights of specific groups, simply because of their social characteristics.” Because of these concerns, the Springer Nature community has worked up a new set of research guidelines intended to “address these potential harms,” explicitly applying ethics frameworks for research with human participations to “any academic publication.”
In plain language, this means that from now on, the journal will reject articles that might potentially harm (even “inadvertently”) those individuals or groups most vulnerable to “racism, sexism, ableism, or homophobia.” Since it is already standard practice to reject false or poorly argued work, it is safe to assume that these new guidelines have been designed to reject any article deemed to pose a threat to disadvantaged groups, irrespective of whether or not its central claims are true, or at least well-supported. Within a few sentences, we have moved from a banal statement of the obvious to draconian and censorious editorial discretion. Editors will now enjoy unprecedented power to reject articles on the basis of nebulous moral concerns and anticipated harms.
Read it all here.
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Joanna Williams: How Woke Put Paid to Publishing
Pluribus has chronicled some of the recent disturbing trends in the publishing industry. With charges of privilege, oppression and racism all too common, Joanna Williams at City Journal says things aren’t getting any better.
The upshot is that many who work in journalism, universities, or publishing are now more concerned to avoid offending than to test the limits of what can be said. In this context, arguing for free speech often arouses suspicion. Defenders are said to be aligned with racists, transphobes, deplorables. And no one wants that. Rather than publish and be damned, the message is to self-censor in line with fashionable woke values, or risk being cancelled. How has this happened?
[ . . . ]
As woke gained in popularity, its definition narrowed. From challenging injustice in general, it has come to mean adopting a particular political stance. To be woke today is to view the world through an identitarian lens. People are not seen as individuals but as group members, with each group allotted a place in a hierarchy of privilege and oppression. Acknowledging this “intersectionality” demands that, rather than being colorblind, we focus on skin color and judge people accordingly. New orthodoxies emerge: racism is systemically embedded within the psyche of white people; gender floats free of biology. Challenging these orthodoxies is an act of heresy, a modern-day form of blasphemy. At the same time, those now policing woke disown the label. Woke exists only in the imagination of old, white men, they claim.
[ . . . ]
Books are no longer safe from woke censorship even when long in the public domain. In 2020, author and teacher Kate Clanchy won the prestigious Orwell Prize for her memoir Some Kids I Taught And What They Taught Me. Just two years later, following reader reviews accusing Clanchy of employing racial stereotypes, her publisher dropped her, and all distribution of her back catalogue of works ceased. Meanwhile, classic texts out of copyright get slapped with trigger warnings to alert students to hidden dangers contained in their words.
Read the whole thing.
Via Jesse Singal, a great example of the bias of omission by conventional news outlets regarding a transgender/suicide study:
Via Michigan State political scientist Matt Grossman: About those workplace diversity & training programs…
And finally, sometimes Twitter actually backs down (see Around Twitter, 8/22):