And/Or: Reflections on SHEAR’s Plenary

Johann Neem

For those of us who consider SHEAR our intellectual and professional home, the past week, as controversy erupted over SHEAR’s virtual plenary session, has been challenging. So many of us first came to SHEAR in graduate school and got to know each other and one another’s work during panels, meals, and hallway conversations. That process continues, as new scholars arrive with new ideas that revise our understanding of the period we study. SHEAR is a place where I have felt intimidated, but also welcomed and cared for.

We are joined together to understand the past. But that past is complicated, and the task of the historian varied. We historians are responsible for critically deconstructing myths. We challenge public memory. We are also caretakers of the past, maintaining public memory. We ask our students, readers, and listeners to question everything, but our narratives situate people in time and place, ensuring that not everything will be questioned.

We are united, however, by our disciplinary training. We agree to use the tools of our discipline—including each other’s work—to be honest about the past. We do not make up facts, nor do we interpret them any way that we wish. To the best of our ability, we strive to ensure that there is a meaningful distinction between fiction and nonfiction, and that we, as historians, are on the latter side.

We are also diverse—but not diverse enough. As an immigrant, I hope for a conference that welcomes people of all backgrounds. I also hope that we welcome people of diverse political perspectives. Yet, despite our limits, I have been impressed in my years at SHEAR by our capacity to disagree and to remain collegial—to give each other the benefit of the doubt, to offer useful criticism, and to work collaboratively to develop insight about the early American republic.

As I reflected on the recent plenary, I was reminded that mine is the work of a historian, not a philosopher. We cannot expect the past to satisfy the demands of logic. The past is too contradictory—even individual people are. There is no syllogism at work, despite efforts of thinkers—including Condorcet, Hegel, and Marx—to find history’s inner logic. The past has too many twists and turns. It has too many “ands.”

“And” is the key word for history. When I read philosophy or theory, I unpack the steps taken by the writer, as if I’m reading a Euclidian proof. What is the starting presumption? How does the next statement build logically on the prior one? What inconsistencies or faulty reasoning do I discover, and how do these demonstrate flaws in the argument?

But when I read or write history, I want to know how we make sense of a past that is, in some ways, filled with irreducible complexity. It is our burden to provide clear paths through dense thickets. But we always forge the paths ourselves, and there are many ways through. That’s why the best history recognizes that people in the past were not this or that; they were often this and that. They did not believe this or that; they often believed this and that. Sometimes it may boggle our minds. But, alas, it is true. If you want philosophy, read it. If you want history, accept “and.”

Instead of “and,” “or” was all over the plenary session on Jackson and the immediate Twitter response. The panel revolved around a paper offered by Daniel Feller, director of the Papers of Andrew Jackson, contesting both Trump’s claim to the Jacksonian legacy, as well as what Feller considers the “cartoon version” of Jackson offered by recent historians. When I first read Feller’s pre-circulated paper for the SHEAR plenary, I was intrigued. It felt important to assess Jackson, the founder of the Democratic party, the longtime inspiration for its egalitarian commitments, who has fallen from grace because of his racist ideas and actions, and is now Donald Trump’s favored president. It seemed like a good choice for a broad public discussion.

Unfortunately, Feller seemed to be in an “or” mode. And in response, Twitter exploded with “or.” “Or” is most useful to bring sharp distinctions into relief, to cut the past analytically in ways that make rendering judgment easier. I have often used “or” in my writings, especially when I want to draw attention to contrasts. “Or” is a powerful tool to divide or categorize, but it can hide complexity. Often, it lacks humility.

“And” was missing from the conversation. Maybe this reflects our current cultural mood. We desire certainty and want people to be on our team. Perhaps we seek perfection in our heroes and want our villains to be purely terrible. Perhaps the contradictions we find in people like Jackson reflect his failings. But maybe, just maybe, our unwillingness to understand the past in terms of “and” reflects a failing on our part too. As Emerson said, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

I am not defending Jackson. If anything, I must confess, and it is a bit embarrassing, but I kind of like the Whigs. The Whig party was, in our terms, more progressive on issues of gender and race. And Whigs’ vision of freedom emphasized cultivating human capabilities through collective institutions, from the family to civil society to the state.

But the Whigs were never just this, or else the left would have turned to the Whigs for their inspiration. They didn’t. To those who became Democrats, Jackson and his supporters offered a vision of egalitarian democracy that Whigs supposedly lacked. That is why left-leaning historians of labor and education have tended to side with the Democracy. The Democrats were the party of the working class who resisted the expansion of capitalism, historians argued. And the Democrats challenged the nativism, anti-Catholicism, and social control efforts of Whig philanthropy, including the Whigs’ vision of common schooling. Andyet Democrats were also the party most committed to upholding white supremacy.

There is nothing wrong with Feller wanting to defend Jackson and his legacy. At his best, Feller asked us to think seriously about historical context and to look beyond rhetoric to the specifics of Jacksonian policy.  But it was also true, as critics pointed out, that Feller’s paper and remarks did not engage meaningfully with the specific arguments made in recent scholarship critical about Jackson. The panel would have been stronger if these perspectives had been represented by including, for example, an expert in indigenous history. But Feller urged us to remember the Jackson who, in the Bank War, challenged an economic and political system favoring the few over the many. We historians must contend honestly with that Jackson too.

It can be hard to find the space and patience for “and” during these fraught times. With all that is happening in our country and around the world, there are days when I want to stake a position and hold it against all challengers. I want to know who’s with me. Sometimes I mistake this for solidarity. But maybe it’s my Whig sensibilities that remind me how fragile institutions like SHEAR are, and how much they depend on our collective will to sustain them over time. I think that doing so requires all of us—myself included—to be more open to “and.” And not just for the people we study; we among the living also contain multitudes. Do I contradict myself? I can’t help it. I have contradictory impulses. I only know so much. My intellect is limited. I make mistakes. I may need your forgiveness.

As historians, we have the opportunity to help one another and our students, readers, and listeners make sense of “and.” Because I have been coming to SHEAR for years, I know many of you, and I know that when we sit down to talk, we understand “and.” We are not “and” users or “or” users. We’re both.

“Or” has its virtues. We need “or.” But I am aware —and maybe, because we’re all human beings, this applies to you too—that when things heat up or I feel cornered or angry or stressed or defensive, I retreat behind “or.” I use “or” to erect a barrier between me and the discomforts of “and.” I have done so too many times and have always regretted it, not only because it did not reflect my better self, but because it denied me an opportunity to learn from my colleagues. I wonder what might change about our professional community if we allowed “and” more opportunities to take the stage alongside “or”?

24 July 2020

About the Author

Johann Neem is professor of history at Western Washington University.

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