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The New History Wars

Inside the strife set off by an essay from the president of the American Historical Association.

In early September, I visited Sweet in Madison to ask him about the whole affair. I found someone still shell-shocked by the onslaught from colleagues and even friends.

“I thought I was going to provoke some conversation and maybe piss a few people off, but I didn’t think it was going to get the kind of vituperative and sustained blowback that it received,” he told me. “In many ways, I think people looked at and imposed the politics they wanted on the piece. I talked about poor uses of history on the right and the left. But my colleagues saw only the critique of the left. And they’re not used to seeing those.”

In the weeks that followed his essay’s publication, Sweet had come under immense pressure. He joked ruefully about the surprise of finding himself cast in an unexpected role as the voice of white power. He had grown up in North Carolina during the desegregation of schools there after 1974. His family was one of the few white families to remain fully committed to public education after U.S. courts imposed busing for racial balance across Mecklenburg County. He learned Spanish from his stepmother, a native of Venezuela of Samoan ethnic origin.

After floundering in college, Sweet worked an entry-level job in airport operations before gaining a place at graduate school. His ultimate academic success felt hard-won, he told me, not an easy gift from some hypothetical establishment. His whole career, he believed, had been devoted to advancing the widest kind of human understanding. Yet now he was on the receiving end of what felt like a determined and willful misunderstanding.

“There are voices in the organization that want to see the piece retracted,” he told me. “There are people who are calling for me to resign.” But he was also at pains to say that he had not recanted his view about the direction of the historical profession. “The apology I issued was very directed, but not a retraction,” he said. “I didn’t withdraw any of the arguments I made. I underestimated the extent to which people would react in emotive ways. People were angry that they thought I was defending a particular past.​”

In the interval between the original controversy and our conversation, Sweet had discovered that many of his colleagues—and many in the history-reading public—agreed with him, even if they hesitated to say so publicly. “I received almost 250 emails which were almost the inverse image of what was going on on Twitter,” he said. “Those were long, considered, thoughtful emails, not just 280-character responses.”

Reflecting on the tumult, Sweet was most worried about a weakening commitment in the academy to the cherished ideal and methods of the historical profession. “There is a move among some of my colleagues to expand the definition of scholarship, to change the way we assess scholarship,” he told me. “I worry there will be a move to de-emphasize the single-author manuscript: the book. Instead, anything that uses the historian’s craft or skills could count as scholarship. The most radical version might even include tweets, or at least blogs or essays online. How do you determine, then, what is political and what is scholarly?”


Debating “Presentism“

As the debate was still raging, The Atlantic's David Frum visited Sweet to get his side of the story. The result was  a sympathetic article that reiterated some of Sweet's earlier concerns: "If old heroes 'must fall,' their disappearance opens voids for new heroes to be inserted in their place—and that insertion sometimes requires that new history be fabricated altogether, the 'bad history' that Sweet tried to warn against."