A current off-Broadway play, Jen Silverman’s Spain, speaks to an issue that could scarcely be more timely: How to maintain one’s integrity and ethical bearings in a morally ambiguous world.
It’s a track for our time: A drama about disinformation, fake news, false flags, artifice, and duplicity in the interests of what many of us would regard as a good cause.
It’s 1936, and two filmmakers have been asked by the KGB to produce a feature film about the Spanish Civil War. The goal: to sway US public opinion in support of the Republican cause. How far can they go to advance the anti-Falangist, anti-fascist struggle, even as they grow increasingly aware of the executions, purges, and other Communist party machinations and betrayals described so vividly in George Orwell’s Homage of Catalonia.
The play’s larger theme, made vividly clear at the drama’s surprising conclusion, is the fraught relationship between art and propaganda. Art, like propaganda, uses creative methods to communicate messages and evoke emotions. But unlike propaganda, where the primary goal is to persuade, manipulate, and shape political views, cultural norms, and social attitudes, art is more open ended and subject to contrasting interpretations.
How can aspiring artists, the play asks, keep from becoming sell-outs, on the one hand, or propagandists, on the other?
Ours is a time when many university leaders have undercut their moral authority through equivocation and mealy-mouthed pap. Their constantly evolving public statement about the Gaza-Israeli war and antisemitism and Islamophobia call to mind Groucho Marx’s line: “Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others.”
Meanwhile, all too many student radicals (in some cases, abetted, alas, by some professors and administrators) have proven themselves to be naïvely idealistic, historically ignorant, and morally blind at best and conscienceless, unprincipled, and sadistic at worst.
A plague on both their houses, say I.
Which brings me to the topic that I’d like to reflect on here: At a time when many younger scholars aspire to be scholar activists—who want to combine their academic expertise with political activism and social justice advocacy—how can they maintain rigorous academic standards and not allow their scholarship to descend into agitprop?
In a recent interview, 85-year-old literary critic Stanley Fish, cast doubts about whether it possible, desirable, or appropriate for academics to be scholar-activists.
The interview showcases Professor Fish’s signature traits. He’s acerbic pugnacious, disdainful, nose-thumbling, and subversive, especially about those who confuse their role as classroom with the rough-and-tumble of real-world politics and protest.
His alternative is the scholar-teacher and the scholar-critic, who treat ideas analytically, not politically. In Professor Fish’s words:
"any number of political issues [can be] brought into the classroom so long as they are brought into the classroom as objects of analysis or description and not as agendas either to be embraced or rejected."
Professor Fish is not alone in worrying about scholars who subordinate academic rigor, nuance, and complexity to politics. There can be no doubt that many campuses have been eager to hire high-profile provocateurs and that many activist students want faculty who will validate and reinforce their preexisting positions.
It’s now possible for scholar-activists to reach exceptionally broad audiences not through academic books or television documentaries, but via various social media platforms. It’s striking that recently the single most widely read scholar on Substack was a Civil War and Reconstruction era historian at Boston College, Heather Cox Richardson. Her site, “Letters from an American,” dispenses “vital historical perspective, wisdom, and moral clarity” on a near-daily basis to an eye-popping 1.2 million subscribers.
This calls to mind the matchbooks once handed out at the American Historical Association annual meeting: “Make big money. Become a historian.”
Professor Richardson’s publisher describes her latest book, Democracy Awakening, as “a vital narrative that explains how America, once a beacon of democracy, now teeters on the brink of autocracy.” The book explains how:
“a small group of wealthy people have made war on American ideals. By weaponizing language and promoting false history they have led us into authoritarianism - creating a disaffected population and then promising to recreate an imagined past where those people could feel important again. She argues that taking our country back starts by remembering the elements of the nation’s true history that marginalized Americans have always upheld.”
Anything but a staid, sober, stolid historical monograph, the book is nothing less than “a call to arms” that disrobes “the political, cultural, and social forces that an elite minority has fostered to divide Americans.”
This is scholarship in the service of an explicit political, indeed partisan, agenda. The title of The New York Times review “Is There Fascist DNA in the U.S. Body Politic?” gives you a hint of the book’s tone.
Let me be clear, Professor Richardson is a serious, skilled, and highly accomplished historian. But as The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik puts it, the book advances “a storybook version of American history” of racial resentment, corruption, and contempt for democracy that “is not manifestly false, or simpleminded, just simplified, with good guys and bad guys lined up neatly in rows and familiar facts delivered with a sense of revelation.”
Gopnik’s critique is blunt:
“Opposing arguments aren’t seriously entertained, even to be dismissed. No conservative thinker, ancient or modern, is given much dignity or even credit for good intentions; nor is any right-leaning politician.”
But engaged scholarship of the highest level is not a non-sequitur. Let me offer an example: Erika M. Bsumek’s The Foundations of Glen Canyon Dam: Infrastructures of Dispossession on the Colorado Plateau—a book with profound legal, policy, and ethical implications.
Professor Bsumek is a colleague, but I don’t think that colors my admiration for her book, a study of the construction and management of the second highest concrete-arch dam in the United States (behind only the Hoover Dam). An extraordinary work of environmental history, it draws upon a wealth of largely untapped archival and legal sources, supplemental by the author’s extensive oral histories.
The book examines the various actors and agendas that made the dam, a key contributor to regional economic development, possible – as well as the dam’s human and environmental costs, including its impact on the Navajo Nation, the Diné Bikéyah, and other Indigenous peoples of the region and its disruption of the canyon’s ecosystem.
I can’t think of a more sophisticated or nuanced treatment of such highly charged topics as cultural erasure, displacement, and appropriation, or of indigenous agency and settler colonialism. Here you can read about the controversies surrounding tribal termination, conservation organizations’ strategizing, and the legal and political battles over the dam’s future as the Colorado River shrinks and the sustainability of its ability to generate hydroelectric power becomes increasingly problematic.
Professor Bsumek’s book underscores the dilemma that policymakers face:
“We can begin to dismantle the infrastructures of dispossession, empower the region’s Native peoples, and seek a more sustainable future. Or we can adhere to the legal structures that have dispossessed Native peoples and fueled development that turns a blind eye to environmental limits and continue to hurtle toward a future in which more and more people fight over less and less water while the land’s original inhabitants continue to be robbed of the resources needed to sustain their communities.”
Yes, serious scholars can use their scholarship in the service of activism – so long as they understand the challenges and contradictions that this entails, as Saturnino M. Borras, Jr., and Jennifer C. Franco point out in their recently released book Scholar-Activism and Land Struggles.
There is an important space where academia and activism intersect. "Public scholarship" and "engaged scholarship” can be invaluable in addressing social, political, and environmental issues. These works can provide rigorous research, data analysis, and historical context to inform and support activist movements.
Yet it's essential for scholars who engage in activism to balance their roles effectively. They must maintain academic integrity and objectivity in their research while also avoiding rigidity and being clear about their activist agendas. They must also not allow their political, ideological, or social beliefs to inhibit the expression of competing views or diverse perspectives within their classrooms, which must remain sacrosanct arenas for inquiry, exploration, critical thinking, and debate. They must, in short, reframe what they mean by activism, which doesn’t mean that “the only thing that counts is being physically present for protests and/or nonstop posting on social media.”
I think it’s fair to say that the best scholarship, certainly within the humanities, has generally been driven by various agendas, personal or political – even though the authors’ motivations generally remained unspoken. Many of today’s up-and-coming scholars are much more willing to engage directly in contentious debates and to stress their scholarship’s present-day relevance. Nor are they willing to hide or disguise their commitments behind a veneer of professional neutrality. This represents a sea-change in academic values, and has contributed to a backlash against scholar-activism.
I see nothing wrong with scholar-activism, so long as academics recognize that their scholarly credibility, integrity, and reputation are always on the line.
The academy traditionally valued neutrality and impartiality, even as those watchwords often disguised various forms of bias. As scholars grow more open in expressing their value commitments, it is more important than ever to be open about their sources and evidence, the breadth of their research, the fairness and accuracy of their interpretations, and the reproducibility of their results.
War may be politics by other means, but academics should not be – even though all knowledge production, including academic research, is inherently political since it involves decisions about what to study, how to study it, and how findings are presented and interpreted.
Complete objectivity or value neutrality is impossible because scholarship is inevitably influenced by a researcher’s values, beliefs, and social context. Also, there can be no doubt that funding sources, institutional priorities, societal norms, and publishers’ interests can also influence research agendas.
To be sure, some fields are more overtly political than others. But even in fields that are seemingly apolitical, findings can have far-reaching political and public policy implications. Nor are academic theories inconsequential. As we now recognize, the ideas unleashed by deconstruction, postmodernism, and critical theory – premised on the notion that all forms of knowledge are socially and culturally constructed – have profoundly influenced our understanding of the nature of truth and factual evidence and significantly influence societal norms and cultural beliefs.
The academy is inherently political. Issues of governance, curricula, requirements, and hiring and promotion all have political elements. The challenge, as I see it, is not to allow this basic fact to undercut our commitment to scholarly excellence or academic rigor or broadmindedness.
The academy needs to be a place apart, one that must be open, fair-minded, argumentative, and contentious all at once. That is not an easy balance to sustain, but maintaining that evenhandedness is essential if the academy is to offer something more than mere partisanship and to retain public support.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.