No Man is an Island: Douglas Wilson and Historicity

My first boyfriend never finished college. At the beginning of his senior year, he had a heart attack caused by a viral illness and had to drop out of school. He was a couple semesters short of finishing a degree in philosophy, and hopes to finish it at some point in the near future (at least, he did the last time I saw him last summer). This, however, didn’t stop him from being whipsmart about a lot of things. At the time that we were together, I already had a Master’s degree under my belt and had traveled the world extensively. He had moved from Iowa to Sioux Falls and stopped there. And yet I was continually challenged by his philosophical insights and by rigorous intellectual – if not academic – conversation with him. I never once doubted his intelligence.

I say that to say this: know that when I write this post, I am not doing so out of a classist dislike for the uneducated or undereducated. Rather, I am using my position as a highly educated adult who has been blessed with access and love of this work to make a point, and a rather obvious one at that: you shouldn’t talk about what you don’t know.

Simple, but oh so hard to follow.

In the research process for my upcoming dissertation on black theology and white complementarianism in America, I’ve been reading a lot of texts about racial justice from all comers in the discussions about race. This means, sadly, that I have to re-read Douglas Wilson’s infamous short work Black and Tan. This book is nothing short of a white supremacist’s attempt to rewrite history so as to cast slavery as a salvific mechanism for “the blacks.” Numerous problematic passages have been quoted elsewhere, so I will spare you the gritty details.

What, instead, I’d like to tackle is the introduction, in which Wilson argues for his authority on this topic despite lacking a formal education in the field. I find myself at once agreeing and disagreeing with Wilson’s premise here and I feel like his attitude toward “professional” scholars needs unpacking.

It almost goes without saying that Wilson does not like formal higher education, particularly in fields he considers post-modern or progressive. For instance, my own discipline, Women’s Studies, has been mocked numerous times on his blog as an “easy A” and a “mitigating circumstance” for a person’s “dopeyness.” Clearly a person who thinks Women’s Studies is an easy course never picked up Judith Butler or spent a weekend trying to figure out Rhizomes. As a result of Wilson’s clear disregard for my own pet disciplines, I have to admit upfront to a harboring of a somewhat cynical and scoffing approach to his work.

But I also have to admit that Wilson is right. In part. He writes that objectivity is impossible, a “false god.” This is a point that – as anyone who knows me can attest – rings absolutely true. Objectivity as a standard is created by the academy to uphold oppressive systems and regimes and – oh wait, Wilson is talking about not ignoring one’s faith when studying history, particularly the Civil War and the antebellum South as historical and possibly theological events?

Well, that I might have a quibble with. But on the whole, the idea that a single person can hold any kind of “objective” take on any one thing is, well, wrong and misleading. We are always bound to our social location, just as the academy is bound to its history and social location within the larger system of oppression.

But Wilson’s attitude toward objectivity becomes questionable in the midst of a pages-long “case” for why he should be taken seriously as a historian. As a pastor, he places his pastoral responsibilities first and rejects any notion that he must know and study each thing in depth before bringing pastoral counsel to his congregation. And this, too, I agree with – to a point. There comes a time when a pastor must take on topics with the humility to recognize that something is out of his depth, and though Wilson admits to doing so in areas of science (medicine, economics, etc), he seems hesitant to be humble in the humanities, particularly in history.

Wilson’s lack of humility here is clear in his declaration of himself as an “informed generalist,” someone who reads and reads and reads about history and is supposedly open to correction – except from those critics he has already determined not to like, of which I am possibly one (if only on principle for the fact that I am a women’s studies student). Wilson’s rejection of the academy is understandable – I am very sympathetic to those who are self-taught and have no access to the opportunities that afford one higher education. I have been extraordinarily lucky in this regard.

But what I am not sympathetic to is the rejection of the academy on the basis that the academy is somehow the purveyor of sin or some evil overarching narrative that self-taught historians are uniquely able to suss out and cast aside because they are somehow “free from influence” and “allowed to undertake historical study with their faith intact.” We see this meme continually throughout media and the pastorate – Bill O’Reilly’s ashitorical “Killing Whatever Guy He Thinks Is a Martyr” series, and Glenn Beck’s historically incorrect rantings about Woodrow Wilson and the birth of progressivism. And we see it here, in the church, in John Piper’s embrace of Douglas Wilson’s historical narratives that “keep his faith intact” to the detriment of the historical subject he is studying.

We should approach subjects with our biases upfront. I know, going in to reading Wilson’s work, that I will likely disagree with him. But I also know that his work may surprise me in being correct about some things – like the myth of objectivity. So I approach it with as open of a mind as I can muster when reading the work of someone who has said some incredibly despicable things.

But what we should not and cannot do is leave that work without our biases challenged. Good academic work means that we allow the research to take us where it will go, and we do not try to conform facts or ideas to fit our pre-existing narrative, whether it be my narrative of progressivism and theories of gender or Wilson’s narrative of faith. I cannot walk away from or dismiss important scholars in the field of women’s studies simply because their work has now been proven to be problematic or deeply questionable – and I must own that work which challenges my views.

Wilson gives lip service to the idea that he allows the historical record to challenge his views, but the sheer arrogance with which he condemns modern, trained historians speaks volumes to his actual willingness to do so. We may find scholars outside the academy and I do believe the academy must do more to embrace and support independent scholarship. But independent scholarship does not consist in untrained readings that are rejected simply because they challenge a pre-existing narrative. Some training in historical scholarship is necessary if you are trying to popularize that scholarship for the modern layperson.

Let’s look at things this way. I have a dissertation supervisor whom I’ve not actually met yet. She fell ill at the end of last term and is just now getting back on her feet and getting back to work. As a result, I’m flying a little blind in this dissertation and research work. I know where I want to go, and I know what sort of research I want to do, but I’m having trouble narrowing down the scope of my project and what parts I need to concentrate on. It’s not like I haven’t done this kind of research before – I have! I have a published book to prove it! – but it’s that I cannot do this kind of research alone. With my book, I had a team of editors, agents, and friends guiding my research, challenging my thoughts, and asking me if I was really saying what I wanted to say.

With my current dissertation, my supervisor plays an important role in being a sounding board, in helping guide my research – which I will be conducting mostly independently, as that is how things work in the academy – and helping me to figure out where to find the resources I need. I recognize that I need that help and I actually look forward to receiving it.

Wilson’s mythos of the informed generalist who can work independently of the academy and is therefore free from the strictures of “liberalism” and the “false god” of objectivity that come with institutionalized research is merely that – a myth. No scholar stands independent of each other, and the ongoing conversations within and without of the academy are vital for the work that happens here. Wilson may be self-taught, but he cannot reject the work of critics whom he says “misread” him, especially if he rejects these critics simply on the basis of their biases as members of the academy.

Wilson is simultaneously attempting to reject the authority of the academy – which I agree should be challenged! – and retain that authority for himself. He is the man against the machine, the well-read independent scholar who knows better than those dumb-dumbs in the academy who, lol, still believe in evolution and Marxism! Hahaha! See how much better he is already?

I’d like to tell you a story to round out why “I’m independent of the academy” is a bad basis for authority. At Oxford, you meet all kinds of people – including a lot of those who reject the idea of evidence and facts altogether, which is fascinating and weird and frustrating all at once. In one conversation over brunch, I was having a friendly chat with an acquaintance who is in another program, and he bragged that he doesn’t watch television. Fine, whatever, you hipster. It means we have less to talk about, but your choice is your choice.

But he didn’t stop there. A few of the other people at the table asked why – at Oxford, we never really stop asking why. We’re like people who never really grew out of that toddler stage. And so he explained and he doesn’t like the amount of violence on TV – still valid, still an opinion – because it causes increased violence in society.

Cue my Jim Halpert “wtf” look at the camera face.

I don’t need to detail the argument that followed, but suffice it to say everyone in the dining hall heard me yell “You cannot make an empirical claim without providing evidence to back it up!” This is where independent bias and scholarship meet – this fellow student became deeply frustrating to the rest of us because he refused to take a rigorous approach to his own claims, to interrogate himself and to provide evidence for these empirical statements he was making.

We can have arguments about historical events. We can and should nuance the simplified narratives we’re often fed in schools. But we cannot throw out the baby with the bathwater and praise independent scholarship done by supposed populists simply because it stands outside of the academy. It’s position should, in fact, open it up to further scrutiny because it is not done by a trained historian. My work as a women’s rights advocate needs to fall under deeper scrutiny because I am not a sociologist or a statistician. My fellow student’s claims about television and violence come under greater scrutiny because he is not a scholar on violence in society (he’s an environmental scientist). And Douglas Wilson’s claims about historicity and faithfulness in the Civil War and Reconstruction Era Southern USA need to come under deeper and more intense scrutiny simply because he is not a trained scholar. This is not a judgment on him as someone who did not go to school, but a remark on the importance of rigorous scholarship. If Wilson wishes to be seen as a rigorous scholar – and I feel that he does – he must be willing to undertake the humility that requires correction. And I find little evidence that he is capable of such openness, despite his claims to the contrary.