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What was he expecting?

Last week, James Sweet, Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and President of the American Historical Association, published a very few, very cautious criticisms of the 1619 project (carefully bookended by impeccably woke remarks about the supreme court and etc.). Within two days, the (same) Professor Sweet, President of the American Historical Association, abjectly, cringingly apologised for having written those sentiments. Read this for the criticisms, and scroll down for the apology. (And read this and this for why I call his criticisms very few and very cautious – why even the project’s 1619 date is ridiculous.)

After Sweet begged forgiveness, some people tried to defend his original article, or at least his right to write it – whereupon the same American Historical Association that seemed OK with the vicious online pile-on after Sweet wrote his article complained that the discussion

“has been invaded by trolls uninterested in civil discourse in the last 12 hours”

and restricted outside access to end this “appalling” state of affairs.

Elsewhere on the web, Ilya Shapiro has blogged again about his experience of cancel culture, and the apology he wrote “in the wee hours that morning” after a tweet raised an online mob. I commented on it. His courteous reply said it was not written “in fear or desperation” and promised to blog more about the strategy of his various apologies in the period before he resigned from Georgetown.

While I wait with interest for that, I’ll discuss this oft-seen phenomenon: an academic says something extremely mild and cautious about some woke propaganda line – and then swiftly says something abjectly cringing about how appalling it was to say it.

If you read Sweet’s apology very attentively and in a very generous spirit, you could wonder whether he is actually apologising for his opinion as such, or whether, adorned with embarrassingly kowtowing adjectives, he is actually literally apologising only for causing dreadful, unforgivable distress to his piling-on accusers, exploiting his white privilege and all that, but not quite literally unambiguously saying that his views were actually, completely, factually false as such. In the same way, the attentive reader of the Soviet Union’s 1930’s show trial confessions can see that, hidden amid their florid admissions of political guilt, the actual literal owning up to the specific (absurd, and sometimes impossible) criminal acts was occasionally implicitly withheld or slyly discredited – like the blinking of hostages trying to signal their true situation.

But only the rare attentive reader saw this in the 1930s. To the ordinary Russian and the outside world alike, the spectacle of the accused calling themselves vile criminals and begging to be shot was baffling – but was also a fact: “All the accused confessed” seemed far more indisputably true than the accusations themselves. (In ‘I Chose Freedom’, Kravchenko says that, in the party circles he moved in, insisting on the literal truth of the accusations would have been treated as a confession of congenital idiocy. Only in America did he encounter people who would not just defend the trials on political grounds – as everyone in Russia had to, for life itself – but would spontaneously, openly claim to believe in the literal truth of the accusations themselves.) The confessions’ propaganda demonstration of the power of the communist state over the individual seemed unqualified – and all the more frightening because it was baffling.

Returning to Professor Sweet and the many like him, what was he expecting? Did he – could he possibly – have found the narrative’s punitive reaction to being questioned surprising? Was he unprepared for the demand for an apology? Or was he prepared – did he have his act of grovelling ready in draft? Did he think an apology so self-damning in form could preserve some fragment of truth (if so, I suggest he is making the same mistake as the ‘blinking’ show-trial accused did, but with far less excuse)?

Even more interesting, perhaps, how was he thinking about it? In ‘Darkness at Noon’, Arthur Koestler suggests the revolution had destroyed the very concept of truth in its communist votaries, so where could they find reason, let alone willpower, to resist confessing to fictional crimes just because the crimes were fictional. Hannah Arendt argues that a totalitarian leader’s power depends less on his subordinates’ belief in his superior abilities

“about which those in his immediate entourage frequently have no very great illusions”

than on the fact that, in the case of disagreement with him, they will never be very sure of their grounds, since they think that even the maddest policy can succeed if properly organised. Robert Conquest notes all that but points out that, to get communists to the point where they would denounce themselves in open court, the interrogators had to use sleep-deprivation, torture and threats to life and family, and seated each accused facing their (disguised as a member of the audience) chief NKVD interrogator while testifying; they did not just rely on philosophical doubts about objective truth. However Conquest also notes that those very few among the senior communist accused who were never known for rapturous acclaim of the doctrine’s absoluteness also never came to open court; they were pronounced guilty and killed without an audience.

To be sure, modern academia is full of it – full of the sort of philosophy that inverts every meaning and denies that 2+2 makes 4 – and this can hardly be helping its denizens make sacrifices for objective truth, or even believe in it, but if professor Sweet was already wholly on board with that, why risk speaking out (even as quietly as he did) in the first place?

It may be that, like some 1930s communist discovering that what the secret police did to peasants they would also do to him, Sweet genuinely did not expect that level of vitriol to be turned on someone like him, not just on some right-wing ‘deplorable’. Or it may be that even more goes on behind the scenes than we suspect: was Sweet prepared for something, but not for what happened? Or did it just feel much more frightening than he’d anticipated when it actually started happening?

We may or may not learn more as this example of cancel culture plays out. Meanwhile this post ends as it began, with a question: what was Sweet expecting?

11 comments to What was he expecting?

  • I have no respect for people who write cringing apologies for two reasons.

    (1) Grow some backbone FFS and fight the damn fight.

    (2) It doesn’t even work as a way to make ‘them’ leave you alone.

  • Steven R

    We saw this all play out with the Cultural Revolution. This is just the kinder, gentler struggle session.

    David the computer from WarGames said it best. “The only winning move is not to play.” Write what you want, be prepared for the fallout (up to and including losing tenure and your job), and tell the congregants of the Church of the Perpetually Offended to piss right off.

  • Ferox

    Assuming Professor Sweet was a wokie to begin with, isn’t it highly possible that he wanted the reaction, so that he could enjoy the masochistic thrill of the public self-abasement and exhibitionistic repudiation of his evil whiteness, like those ridiculous sad sacks who take slavery tours in Africa where they kneel in yokes?

    It seems entirely in character for a modern western white academic to do exactly that. Somewhat akin, IMO, to masturbating on a subway.

  • Michael G

    He expected (to the extent he has any self-awareness) to be eaten last.

  • Steven R

    I suspect Professor Sweet wrote it to other historians in a professional association journal in the hopes that they might figure out how to end cancel culture and keep their cushy gigs. Historians may be screaming leftists who toe the party line* for the most part, but they have a sweet, sweet, beautiful do-nothing job that they cannot be fired from once they get tenure unless the do something really stupid (namely sleep with a student or plagiarize).

    Not being stupid, I am sure that historians, even the few that aren’t screaming leftists, are realizing this cancel culture monster they have helped create will ultimately devour them as well unless some means of getting back under control is found. Looking back at history, it is very easy for historians to see that they too are a single opinion or statement away from being thrown to the mob. Granted, they are unlikely to end up with their head being chopped off after being dragged before a Revolutionary Tribunal or simply lined up against a wall without even the pretense of a show trial, but their livelihoods, their sweet, sweet, beautiful do-nothing jobs are at stake. And now that the threat is real for them, now is the time to start fighting back.

    I also suspect that the vast majority of voices calling for Professor Sweet’s head are not historians in any event, but are simply loud know-it-alls and useful idiots with Twitter accounts, whipped up by those with agendas who don’t wish to get their own hands dirty.

    What the historical community, who do need to express ideas not always in line with what the mob wants, just learned in no uncertain terms is, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

    *The department in the program I went to had framed posters of such luminaries as Che Guevara on the walls. To be fair though, in my experience as both an undergraduate and graduate student in history is that while historians typically lean left, they value academic freedom and integrity more than they value the DNC talking points. See also: Bellesiles, Michael.

  • Paul Marks

    Frankfurt School Marxism is Marxism.

    This is a statement of what should be obvious – but it seems it is not obvious.

    Again and again people (such as this pathetic Professor) are shocked that they get a Marxist censorship-and-persecution response from the “Woke”.

    The “Woke” respond in a Marxist censorship-and-persecution way because they are Marxists – because Frankfurt School Marxism (“Woke” ism) is Marxism.

    They (for example the “Woke” people who dominate the American Historical Association) are not interested in “civil debate” – because they believe, with the late Herbert Marcuse, that Freedom of Speech is “Repressive Tolerance” and wish to exterminate dissent.

    The “University of Wisconsin” should not get tax money, including student “loans”, none of these Marxist playpens should get a penny.

    As for the “1619 Project” – it is drivel. As Marxist “history” (Frankfurt School or Classical Marxist) is always drivel.

  • Paul Marks

    To those people who are stupid enough to think this is really about race….

    What do you think that the “American Historical Association” (and other such) think about white men who opposed slavery and segregation – such as Senator Conklin of New York? Do you think they like these men? If you do – you have a shock coming to you.

    And what do you think that the “American Historical Association” (and other such) think about black scholars such as the late Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell? Do you think they admire these scholars? Again, if you do – you have a shock coming to you.

  • Martin

    I’m not a Marxist, nor a leftist (although I do think class conflict plays an important role in society, especially at present. I think woke ideology is a useful ideology to the super rich and professional classes to hold down the lower middle class and working classes) but have noted that the World Socialist website have (wsws) have published articles and even a pamphlet denouncing the NYT and the 1619 project, seemingly from an orthodox Marxist perspective. I haven’t got around to reading the pamphlet but do intend to do so.

  • Paul Marks

    Martin – there is indeed a difference between Frankfurt School Marxism (Wokeism) and Classical Marxism – but there are common assumptions, they are BOTH Marxist – that Marxists denounce each other, and kill each other, is nothing new.

    The various factions of the French Revolution all denounced each other, and killed each other as well – that did not stop the various factions all being followers of the ideas of Rousseau.

    As for the rich – there is nothing wrong with being rich, as long as the source of the wealth is legitimate. Sadly much wealth now is generated by money created from nothing and dished out to the connected.

    But we do not learn about that from Karl Marx – we learn about money created from nothing and dished out to the connected, from Richard Cantillon in the early 1700s.

    John Law and the Regent of France were not “capitalists” (they were not about Real Savings, the sacrifice of consumption, to invest and make real goods) – and neither are the people who control Wall Street, “The City”, and so on.

    This is not “Late Capitalism” – it is not capitalism at all.

  • Paul Marks

    We live in age where David Hume is greatly admired – I hold that this is to be regretted as the ideas of David Hume were mostly wrong. However, David Hume did get one great thing correct (ironically the one area where Mr Hume was correct is the one area where he is NOT followed today) – his opposition to Corporate power and Credit Bubble banking (as opposed to honest money lending). But then it was hard for Mr Hume to get that wrong – as he was writing just after the collapse of the South Sea Bubble in Britain and the John Law Bubble in France.

    The difference with now is that these bubbles were vastly SMALLER (yes vastly SMALLER) than what we have now. Essentially all rationality has been driven out of the monetary and financial system – the economy is one vast bubble.

    The situation is very bad indeed.

  • TMLutas

    What is the pathway to victory against the woke? How many are there? If they will just never stop until someone comes along and kills enough of them to make them an unviable political force, then that is where we are going to end up. It’s certainly where the CCP ended up and I would argue the Nazis as well. Just because the woke are defeated does not mean that classical liberalism will be the victor.

    However, for those of us who don’t enjoy having piles of corpses around in our politics, the search continues for alternate solutions that will make the woke give up and go away instead of just morphing into yet another marxist variant.