Historians have recently begun gaining fame by refuting claims made on social media platforms about the past, particularly on Twitter against the conservative activist Dinesh D’Souza, which has sparked a discussion about the value of engaging and therefore elevating or legitimating his claims about the past. There is value in doing so despite those risks. By engaging directly on social media platforms and demonstrating that the past was not as it is presented, historians are able to immediately join political debates as they unfold. Furthermore, dunking is a way of fighting back against those seeking to delegitimize our profession.
First of all, what is a “dunk” on social media? Dunking on someone is to utterly and factually disprove someone else’s claims, and a dunk is usually determined by the observers. A dunk makes someone’s point look ridiculous. For historians, this means using primary sources to dismantle the original claim by “bringing the receipts,” or images of sources that demonstrate that support the historian’s counterclaim. A classic case is Kevin Kruse demolishing D’Souza’s claim that the current Democratic Party is the party of racism since it was the party of the original Klu Klux Klan during the Reconstruction era.
Dunking like this is fighting back, and by fighting back I mean fighting back on an ad hoc, individual basis that takes place in real time, during the actual discussion — instead of doing so after it ends Dunking is more than that, though. There is a serious professional side to this. We need non-historians to understand our work and to see our profession. We need allies because historians, like it or not, are in a political battle for the very survival of our profession. The battle lines and the terms of the fight were set by conservatives after World War II, and they’ve been fighting ever since. And we have not.
The best examples of the consequences of staying out of the fight can be seen in the dwindling support for funding history at universities. Perhaps no state embodies this as strongly as Wisconsin. It has arguably the most important public university in the world thanks to its role in creating the teaching-researcher and in creating tenure. Yet, by 2008, that all came crashing down. First, there was a local GOP group trying to publically shame and humiliate the historian William Cronon for daring to use evidence to prove that Governor Scott Walker’s anti-public union bill came from an outside conservative think tank ALEC and was not, as he promised, a Wisconsin solution to a Wisconsin problem. Cronon in his blog provided an excellent primer on recent conservative history and showed that Walker was following an outside group’s dictates to destroy public unions to gain electoral advantage. In response, his emails were requested by the group in order to demonstrate that his history was nothing more than a partisan attack, in the hope, presumably, of using that as evidence to show that he was a shill paid for by the Democratic Party. Instead, after reading his public emails, the quietly dropped the issue and Cronon’s points remained unaddressed.
Further assaults on history can be found in Wisconsin. Governor Walker slashed the state’s support for higher education, with the noted exception of his final year in office when he proposed a budget with increased funding. His 2015-17 budget included a $300 million cut. Indeed, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, facing a deficit of nearly $8 million, is looking to cut its history department in a dramatic move to safe the campus.
The threat to history exists outside of Wisconsin. The University of Missouri recently published a report on departments to cut and departments that employ historians like language studies departments. On top of that, the number of tenure-track positions in the History Department has decreased since 2008. The state cut $16 million from the budget over the course of the three years since a campus-wide uprising rocked the state. While many factors help explain the drop in funding and the loss of jobs for historians, a key factor is the reduced confidence Americans have for all of higher education .
How did the history profession respond? Not with much in the way of an organized response.
Yet, these results—the reduced funding—did not come from nowhere or as a response to the Great Recession. As Cronon tried to explain in Wisconsin in the 2010s, there was a longer history and it is one with deep connections to the conservative political movement that formed after the end of World War II.
Since the 1950s, conservatives have claimed that most professors are socialists who fill impressionable young minds with un-American propaganda and socialist talking points. A major touchstone of this was J. Edgar Hoover’s 1958 book Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in America and How to Fight It. In it, he argued that the new communist tactic was to target the youth. The explosion of student radical activism in the early 1960s only confirmed to conservatives that Hoover was prescient. From the 1960 San Francisco HUAC hearings to the Port Huron Statement to the Free Speech Movement, conservatives and even moderates saw in student actions the dark and shadowy hand of Moscow and the communist conspiracy. Students such as Bettina Aptheker at Berkeley were card-carrying communists and had known communist family members, cementing the socialist tinge of all leftist or counterculture student actions. Major radical thinkers like Herbert Marcuse served to further reinforce the idea that college professors were nothing more than elitist, leftist socialists who miseducated America’s vulnerable young.
Two developments directly tie D’Souza to this history. By the 1980s, conservatives directly targeted the humanities, including history, as a backlash against recent developments within humanistic fields of study. The main sparking development was the entwined rise of multiculturalism and post-modernism that led to stories about the past at odds with the triumphalism preferred by conservatives. The touchstone for this movement was the philosopher Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. His main enemy was “relativism” and a resultant nihilism he saw among students, which he concluded was fueled by the humanities devaluing the “canon” texts written by old “white” men like Plato. According to Bloom, and distinct from Hoover, students believed in nothing and their ideas were as empty as their lives, thanks to professors rejecting tradition. Yet, Bloom, like Hoover, developed these ideas as a critique of leftist thought within higher education. It is no accident that the seeds for Bloom’s book grew from an essay he wrote for the conservative National Review.
D’Souza entered the picture in the 1990s as part of another wave of conservative writers offering an anti-leftist critique of higher education, building on previous writers like Bloom and Hoover. D’Souza’s first major attempt at political commentary about higher education was Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus in 1991. While his critique of campus life did receive some praise from a few historians who were unsettled by recent developments, it was not argued on historical grounds. D’Souza spoke to the fear of many Americans that young people had imbibed too much multiculturalism and had lost their once sure footing that made them resilient to the un-American ideas of socialism.
His critique lay dormant for over a decade, when he eventually began to argue that Democrats were the real racists and historians were guilty of hiding this “fact.” In short, historians had intentionally miseducated the public to serve their blatantly partisan goal of elevating the Democratic Party. This transformation followed the election of Barack Obama in 2008. In 2017, D’Souza authored two works that directly engaged history as a tool The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left and, in 2018, Death of a Nation: Plantation Politics and the Making of the Democratic Party. It is the second book that reveals exactly what D’Souza is after and exactly why historians need to fight back by dunking.
D’Souza’s great historical project is to prove that African Americans vote for Democrats because they were hoodwinked by a great lie. The great lie is this: Democrats are the real racists and always have been. In his telling of the story, Democrats first enslaved black people, then murdered them under Jim Crow, and finally turned them back into slaves again by turning them into Democratic voters. The logic: by turning black voters into a core constituency of the party’s electoral coalition of voters, the Democrats exploit black voters, putting them back on a metaphorical plantation; hence the “plantation politics” of his 2018 book. On an actual plantation, slave owners forced blacks to work for their owners’ benefit while on this political plantation, Democrats force blacks to vote against their own interests. Democrats were and always are racists in his telling and the history he presents allows him to make this claim. This is a major component of President Trump’s electoral strategy among minority voters, and D’Souza’s argument furthers the idea that Democrats are the once and future racists. He and other conservatives hope to persuade enough black voters in enough key districts to vote Republican so that the GOP will win. This is history as an election strategy.
Oh, and along the way to creating the political plantation, Democrats inspired the Holocaust.
D’Souza offers a version of history that can be proved wrong by using evidence and real scholarship. He relies on specific claims to support his arguments, and he strings those claims into a narrative arc that begins with the GOP ending slavery and ends with the Democrats reinstituting a virtual slavery.
Historians have dunked all over this story. Kevin Kruse, now the most famous historian on social media, as well as other historians such as Leah Wright Rigueur repeatedly prove D’Souza wrong. The question then remains: why engage? The reason is to prove him wrong and show others the evidence. We cannot allow his claims to go unchallenged. We are not going to change his mind since he is a political activist who benefits from our attention, but we need others to understand our work and see how it helps them understand their own world better.
D’Souza reminds us that we are already losing the war because we chose not to fight. In Wisconsin, historians stayed silent and let Cronon defend himself (which he did), and we did not go on strike to defend history departments from being gutted. We also offered no unified response to the constant drumbeats against us. Writers like Lynne Cheney have repeatedly attacked us, as have Ken Burns, the American Legion, and Max Boot. They claim we do not understand history — we fundamentally lack an awareness of what it means to be human — because we are too in love with our own theories to see how people really have lived and what really matters to them. To them, we are out of touch elitist snobs who may even hate America, who may be communist dupes or socialists, who may be so radical that we would not know a real human emotion if it smacked us upside the head, but they know us to be irrelevant and the world would be better off without us.
We are in this fight no matter what. If we do not dunk, we lose still. What might work is realizing that this is a long-standing political battle that has very real consequences and is ruining people’s careers. Historians are leaving the profession, not because they are not qualified, but because the jobs have been cut.
Many of us have offered a political solution to this assault on our very existence as a profession, but none have made us more visible than Kruse and other #twitterstorians dunking on D’Souza. Americans long-since removed from the classroom are seeing us, starting to know our arguments, and are engaging with us. Asking us questions, even!
If they see us, see our value, can understand us, there is a chance that we can turn their sympathy to funding. Our expertise is our strength, our unifying element, and the core of our identity. It is also why we are losing our jobs. While dunking on D’Souza has its risks and does not provide a perfect way forward, it might be the first step toward saving the profession from state and federal lawmakers out to cut our budgets and shrink our departments. Dunking shows who we are, what we study, and why we matter.
Dunk away, fellow historians, but do not stop there. A follow up is needed or else we risk turning the dunk into a moment in time that fails to save our profession from those who are attacking us.
Chris Deutsch is currently a visiting assistant professor at the University of Missouri, whose dissertation, “Forging a National Diet: Beef and the Political Economy of Plenty in Postwar America,” explores federal beef politics and policy. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at @dr_cdeutsch.