“It’s Juvenile, It’s Adolescent” – A Conversation with Historian Joe Ellis on Political Correctness

Editor’s Note: Joe Ellis is a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award Winning historian of the Founding Fathers and the founding of America. He has been a professor for 40 years, most notably at Mount Holyoke, and was a visiting professor here at Williams this past fall where he was my professor for a class entitled “Leadership at the American Founding,” in which we discussed the character and legacy of the framers. He introduced the class as “the most politically incorrect class we would ever take,” which naturally piqued my interest. At the end of the semester we sat down to discuss political correctness at Williams, below is the unedited transcript of that conversation.

Quentin Cohan: Political correctness is something that comes up a lot at Williams, so it’s interesting that you came in on the first day of class and said “this is going to be the most politically incorrect class you ever take.’

Joe Elis: The fact that we’re talking about dead, white males and their influence on American history is inherently politically incorrect in the view of the academy–that’s what I guess I meant.

QC: My first question, then, is why do you think talking about dead white males is perceived to be politically incorrect by the academy, or by others?

JE: Within the historical academy in the last thirty years, the major trend has been to focus on the inarticulate. In the language of Jill Lepore, ‘to give voice to the voiceless, to recover the voices of the people who had previously not been heard;’ Women, African-Americans, under-class Americans. And I think that’s understandable and wonderful, but I’m also someone who believes that the people who actually shaped the institutions and values under which we continue to live, who are quite articulate, had strong voices–we need to know them. That’s part of being historically literate. I’m somewhat of a left-of-center democrat in a political context of the present, but I don’t believe that I should as a historian be practicing my politics in the past. And, therefore, there’s a real need for us to know how we got to be who we are. I don’t see my highest goal as being to give voice to the voiceless. I see my highest goal as helping people understand why the paradoxes and ironies of American history have taken the shape they have. In fact, I think the vast majority of young Americans need to know that, and the level of historical illiteracy out there is so profound. I’m running against the currents of the profession, but in a direction which I think mainstream Americans need to hear.

QC: What is it about the sort of history that you study and teach that makes it politically incorrect rather than just sort of played or overdone at this point?

JE: Well, it’s politically incorrect because it suggests that an elite shaped the values that we continue to live with–the Constitution and those values–that it wasn’t a bottom-up movement, that it was a top-down movement, that there were fifty-five guys gathered together in a room in Philadelphia that were not representatives of American society. They were wealthier, better educated, all male. Our values of diversity and transparency don’t connect to that world. And people who bring those present presumptions back are always irritated and upset because the eighteenth century is not going to accord with their values. And yet, it is the greatest political generation in American history.

QC: Would you say that being transparent and diverse is politically correct?

JE: Yeah, sure. I mean, try to imagine, suppose you wanted to have a constitutional convention now. You couldn’t do it. You couldn’t do it because of the very values that we believe in. In other words, there’s a tension between the values we believe in and what is practical and workable. We’re fortunate that it was a select group of people, it wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Appreciating that irony is something I’m committed to. And I think it’s great that people should learn, and I’m not saying this with some sort of undertone, that people should know about Native Americans, about the role of women, but they should also know what the values of mainstream American political culture were, why they are both wonderful and tragic, why they are triumphant and depressing, and grappling with those is part of becoming an educated human being. I will also say that, to me, coming from Amherst and Mount Holyoke, the [Pioneer] Valley, that the Valley is one of the most politically correct places in the United States. It’s the bluest region of the bluest state of the Union. And what strikes me in coming to Williams, even for only one semester, is that there’s less political correctness here than at Amherst or Mount Holyoke or Smith or Hampshire. Indeed, the very fact that there’s a controversy over whether Williams is politically correct is a healthy sign. You wouldn’t have the conflict if political correctness were so hegemonic. If you were to ask me the epitome of stupidity in political correctness, it was the Smith decision a year or so ago not to permit the woman who is the head of the IMF [Christine Lagarde] to speak at graduation. A very small number of Smith students, like two, believed in that, and I’ve taught Smith students down there and they are just embarrassed about it. See, a minority can turn things. I think that what all schools ought to do is say ‘we’re going to invite people to be our commencement speakers and we’re going to require each of them to appear before a group of student representatives so that if the students want to ask them questions they can. But the students can’t shout them down, they have to accept them. And you can’t reject somebody because you don’t agree with his or her political principles. We are educational institutions, we are not inherently political parties. I think that is what I believe Williams would do. In the Valley, the degree of political correctness is so powerful that the debate never happens.

QC: What I’m wondering then is, at a place like Williams or one of these other schools, how do you create a community where everyone feels safe and welcome, but at the same time where everyone is allowed to share their views on touchy subjects?

JE: We want Williams to be a place where political ideas are debated and taken seriously, but we don’t want Williams to be a place in which people end up saying this is identity politics, and you are questioning my identity. I think that the key point is to say that we are a liberal arts college where values are part of what we discuss, where if diversity means anything, it means an openness to debate. If you don’t think that is what diversity means, we need to have a debate about diversity. Again, from my point of view, while I suspect that most faculty at Williams are probably democrats, my sense of the community as I have experienced it over the course of the past semester is that it is more open to discussion, less cloistered. It might be a function of its isolation, the isolation at Williams is both an asset an a liability. The asset side is that it is not plugged into–as the Valley is–a culture that is driven by a sort of radical agenda, that is at times bizarre.

QC: I obviously don’t know what it is like at those other schools, but I feel like there is an element of cocoon-ism here.

JE: Give me an example.

QC: Well the whole micro-aggression thing, I don’t know if you’ve heard about that.

JE: No, tell me what that is.

QC: That’s basically the idea that you can say something that you meant innocently, but that someone else can might take it as a slight offense–a “micro-aggression.” And this kind of boiled over last year. One example of this is that Williams has a big concert in the spring every year, and two years ago we got a white rapper [Macklemore] to perform, and in one of his songs, that’s not really one of his well-known songs, he uses a homophobic slur, but nobody said anything about that. But then last year we got a black rapper [Chance the Rapper] who, in one of his most popular songs uses the same homophobic slur, and everybody was up in arms about that, which is more or less justified. But then some students said, oh well nobody cared about the slur when it was the white rapper because he’s white but everybody cares about the slur now because the rapper is black. That’s an example of a micro-aggression, because it’s not really there, but it may be kind of there. And then everybody blew up about it and prevented anybody from saying how the really felt–because it became this huge racial issue.

JE: In some sense such small-scale arguments are inevitable and unavoidable in an elite academic context where you get a lot of people together who have developed strong opinions and who are articulate about them. What I object to is the extension of the debate itself over whether it’s racist or sexist or homophobic to a condition where no one feels free to argue. In the end the highest form of learning is argument. What I object to is when someone says ‘you can’t say that because you offend me.’ When that phrase gets said, somebody needs to call a timeout. As long as the argument goes on, silly as it may be, like over a rapper or a band, it’s okay. I will say, though, when you get distracted by one of those arguments, we lose out on the arguments we ought to be having, that are serious and difficult, about the fate of the planet, about the dysfunction of the political system, about the role of the middle-class in American society, and whether there are jobs for people when they get out of college, and the cost of higher education. These are serious things, and to be diverted by frivolous things is to fall into the hands of the enemy. I want argument, there are a lot of big things we need to argue about. Williams ought to be a sufficiently strong and self-confident place to encourage that. To what I can see, it does.

QC: In what way does Williams really differ from these other schools? Because here I feel like a lot of times people do feel like they can’t really speak up.

JE: All I can tell you is that if you were at Amherst it would be worse. I’m not a student at Williams, I’m not in your situation.

QC: What makes those places more politically correct for you? Is it the sort of things students say?

JE: It creates situations in the classroom in which it is much more therapeutic than it is pedagogic. You have to be a psychiatrist to make sure you don’t offend somebody’s political sensibilities. You are tip-toeing across fragile glass. It’s stupid. It’s childish. There are cultures down there like that, and I’m sure at Williams too, but it’s a matter of degree.

QC: So you’re saying Williams students are tougher?

JE: Yeah, or that they are less thin-skinned.

QC: But I would assume that that is based mostly on your experience with this one class.

JE: Correct, I have limited experience… I guess what I’m saying is that as a teacher, if you have to constantly worry about offending, you lose a certain intellectual dynamic, and I don’t feel as if at Williams I have been asked to be self-defensive all the time, which I appreciate… There are borders, you cross them, it’s okay. If everybody is so nervous about crossing borders, we’re never going to have a conversation. And I feel that my time at Williams has allowed me to cross those borders without too much concern.

QC: Do you think the sort of history that you teach, that of dead white males, has any sort of political ideology? Do you think that in teaching that you are espousing a political ideology of focusing on dead white males or do you just teach a history that happens to be about dead white males?

JE: When I say dead white males I’m making a joke, but I think that what the dead white males did is create a set of institutions in which they didn’t provide us with answers, they provided us with a framework in which we have to have continual arguments. The very values that we’re talking about at Williams, transparency and diversity and argument, are at the center. Nobody really knows what certain phrases of the Constitution mean. The framework exists for us to continue the dialogue about that meaning. That’s what an argument in a court is all about. Similarly in history, on the one hand it’s an ongoing argument, on the other hand it’s an ongoing argument which has a forward direction. In the nineteenth century it didn’t include blacks and women, by the early twentieth century it included women, by the middle of the twentieth century it included blacks, by the end of the twentieth century and now twenty-first century it’s going to include gays. That’s the argument that is going on. It’s an argument. At each stage of the argument people on the losing side are really hostile, but twenty years later it looks like it was inevitable. We are looking at the beginning of that argument, we are looking at the Big Bang that created that political universe. That’s rather important. This is a look at how we became who we are and how we are becoming who we are going to become. And that’s rather important.

QC: So you don’t think that in teaching about these guys it promotes the idea that true Americans are these elite, well-educated, rich white guys?

JE: No, I mean, they were for their time, but they created the set of values that made the fourteenth amendment inevitable, that made emancipation possible, that made women have the vote, that led the Supreme Court to create Brown vs. Board of Education, so that all of the things that we value are products of the system they created. If you brought Jefferson into the present, would he be comfortable? No, he wouldn’t. He was part of that world. The wonderful thing about the framers is that they didn’t agree. The so-called founders are different, they created the personal version of checks and balances. When you’re looking back at these people you’re looking at different temperaments, different ideologies, different sensibilities. It’s impossible to have a single-minded idea of what they all meant, because they don’t agree. Part of being mature young man or woman is to come to terms with where one fits oneself into that argument. To take your stand in Dixie Land if you will.

QC: If you don’t think that teaching this sort of history promotes a politically incorrect ideology–again, the focus on elite white guys–then in what way is this class politically incorrect? I know that that is sort of a tongue-in-cheek joke, but there must be some underlying truth.

JE: It is a joke. It transcends the concept of correctness. The whole concept of political correctness is obviously ridiculous. That’s the real problem. The notion that there is a correct line of argument that we can all follow, or that if we don’t follow we’re incorrect, is itself the problem. Anybody who comes to terms with the late eighteenth century immediately understands the notion of there being a single politically correct position is historically ridiculous, preposterous. You become immune to those kinds of stupidities.

QC: In what ways do you feel it’s ridiculous?

JE: It’s juvenile, it’s adolescent, it’s rooted in a kind of moralistic, good-guys, bad-guys, cartoons view of the world appropriate for middle school kids who are going through various stages of puberty. It is not appropriate for people who pretend to be adults and are given those levels of responsibilities. It’s a way of thinking that you need to outgrow, and higher education is supposed to be an institutional process by which you do that.

QC: What do you say to someone, like a gay student, for example, who feels like without the structure of political correctness, people would be calling him ‘faggot’ all the time, and saying he doesn’t have a right to be married?

JE: I think that if they’re living in certain places in America, that’s true, and in other places not true.

QC: Some people would call those certain places unenlightened or backwards.

JE: They would, and I would tend to agree, but that’s only because it is politically correct in those places. I see this as myself a person who has grown a lot on the gay issue–I’ve never seen an issue in my lifetime move as quickly as this one has. From the gay lifestyle being described as a psychiatric abnormality and a sickness, to something that is accepted and a normal part of civilized behavior. There is no question that in your lifetime it is going to become the law of the land, it will hold out in certain places of the United States, especially the Deep South, the way racism has, but I’ve grown a lot. I think part of it is, if you live in place where you have a lot of experience with people who are gay, it is more difficult to stigmatize them. There are parts of Mississippi that have never had that experience. This is inevitable. Get used to it. If you’re not used to it, that’s your problem… I don’t think that at Williams, or Amherst, or Mount Holyoke you need to protect people of that sort. You need to protect them if they’re in Oxford, Mississippi.

QC: Right, but there are still people here who are from Mississippi, and there are people from  New York, who might let slip out something like ‘that’s so gay.’

JE: Okay, well if you want to get offended by that, you can, but you’re looking for it if you do. You tell me, do you think Williams is a place that is homophobic?

QC: No I don’t think so, I don’t think that Williams is homophobic, or racist, or sexist, but I do think that that sort of behavior does bubble up at times.

JE: In some sense then it does say that the two-thousand students at Williams, while not necessarily representing a cross-section of American society, but some sample, and that you’re going have different values, but that at Williams, the dominant culture will rule in favor of gay rights. At other places in American society that won’t happen. I’m not comfortable with the therapeutic definition of politics.

QC: Meaning? In what way are politics therapeutic?

JE: Meaning people are victims and our job is to figure out how we can help them or how we can save them. I’m not a psychiatrist, in that regard, I’m a historian. I’m tough love, but I think that gay people deserve everything and that people need to come along, and that they will. I think that when Obama became president the question was ‘are we now in post-racist America?’, I think what we have learned is definitely not. The votes against Obama are driven in part by racist values. Racism is a deep cancer, not a poison ivy, but dealing with it, therefore, means you can’t deal with it as cosmetically. It’s rooted in structures. Let’s be adults in the conversation about this.

QC: Do you disagree that it’s rooted in structures that you study and teach for a living?

JE: Most of the people in the late-eighteenth century were racist. If you say the Constitution endorsed racism, the Constitution allowed for Indian removal, the Constitution didn’t provide social equality for everybody, therefore we should dismiss it–are you serious? I mean is an intelligent human being in the twenty-first century suggesting that because past generations haven’t agreed with out presentistic values, sitting from a privileged perch of liberal affluence, usually, and looking back and saying ‘we condemn all these people because they weren’t as perfect as we are’ you are really stupid. What does that make Socrates? Therefore, when someone imposes a presentistic set of interpretations on the past, I’m going to say this is a search for devils, you’re not doing history, you’re doing politics. And if you don’t know the difference between those two things then we can’t have a conversation. There are historians who are good historians who really think that their identity as historians really does depend upon their point of view with regard to African Americans, women, and all that stuff. I play my politics in the present, and if you play them in the past you’re doing a disservice to the discipline.

QC: There is, I feel like, maybe it’s under the radar, some sort of political ideology being passed along. So if you’re saying that people in Mississippi might be homophobic because they don’t have much experience with gay people, then continuing to teach about white guys promotes the understanding and then the favoring of rich white guys, whereas if you were to teach about the minorities, the oppressed, the voiceless, then would people would grow more familiar with them.

JE: Do you really believe that?

QC: Not necessarily, I’m just putting it out there.

JE: The whole question is riddled with identity politics assumptions that are bogus. If you believe that then you shouldn’t take any courses in American history other than ones that deal with groups with which you want to identify. The goal of history is not to be a cheerleader for any interest group, whether it’s gender-based or race-based or anything, if that’s your goal then you’re not doing history, you’re doing something else.

QC: There’s the whole idea with the Nazis that if you begin to study them, then you begin to understand them.

JE: That you somehow justify them?

QC: Yeah, exactly. So similarly if you teach people about gay people then they begin to understand gay people.

JE: That’s a very simplistic view of the way people learn, and what learning stays. Very simplistic. This is like history is those planes that sketch in the sky, and we can look up and see, oh, history means this or that. Of course that’s silly. History is a mess. It’s an intellectual jungle in which you need to explore. There does seem to me good reason to believe that those people who spend time trying to understand the past of American history, or European history, or African history, whatever it may be, tend to be people who make decisions in their own lives, and for policy reasons, that are more informed. They might not all be ones that agree with mine or anybody else’s, but I think there is such a thing as historical literacy. Nothing you just described in terms of identity politics is historical literacy. It is political correctness in the extreme.

QC: How do you then create an institution of higher learning that teaches about a broad range of subjects, and at the same time doesn’t do it in a way that is politically correct, but is also a situation in which everyone can feel safe and welcome? If you don’t like what’s going on in the Valley, what’s the alternative?

JE: I think a certain amount of this is inevitable because the people that are going to be the major faculty members, and the major administrators at a school like Williams, are going to come from elite institutions. Some of them are going to have politically correct values, but I think that what Williams has managed to do, that I’m impressed with, is to hire faculty from different academic specialties but to insist that they not just teach their specialties, that they teach more broadly. That forces you not just to rely on the cloistered area that you’re looking at, so if you’re doing Native Americans, you’re then a cheerleader for Native Americans. You have to do a broader set of things, you have to have a teaching identity, an ability to talk about history with others, people who are really smart and who don’t know anything–which is you. Most people in the academic world, at the higher levels, don’t want to do that, it doesn’t pay off for them. They can go to research universities, teach graduate students, be very narrow, and never have broader conversations. Like one of the courses I ended up teaching at Mount Holyoke, and Amherst too, was a course called “Back to the Future: The History of Prophecy,” so let’s study utopia and dystopia and other early attempts to predict the future, what do they tell us about our current attempts to predict the future? With global warming, capitalism, foreign policy, that kind of thing. I had no courses on that when I was a graduate student at Yale, nobody taught me about this stuff. I think that Williams is a place that encourages teachers to do that. That’s good. It’s also co-ed, it accepts women and men, it’s non-denominational, it doesn’t require any kind of religious identification, and it’s interested in creating as diverse racially and ethically a student body as it can possibly create. What more can it do?… If you want to be a politically aware campus, you’re always going to have arguments about what is politically correct. The very fact that we’re having an argument, and the very fact that it is an argument, and not a settled issue, is a sign that we’re okay.

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