This cannot be business as usual: re-examining the role of the scholar in the age of Trump

                                                                                                                                                                 [Photo: Cole Keister/unsplash]

The Austrian jurist Hans Kelsen wrote in the summer of 1932 ‘one hears talk on all sides of a crisis—and sometimes even a catastrophe— of democracy’. Embroiled in a bitter exchange with his fellow legal scholars, the erstwhile philosophy teacher from Vienna was increasingly isolated and at odds with his profession. ‘Those who are for democracy’ he argued ‘cannot allow themselves to be caught in the dangers of idle debates’. Spirited in his defense of the Weimar Constitution, Kelsen was not in keeping with the times. There was, he believed, a sense of urgency to his scholarly work that his contemporaries simply did not understand. We live in a world, he lamented­, absent of heroes. Within months of accepting his professorship at the University of Cologne, Kelsen was summarily dismissed on political grounds.

‘History may not repeat itself’, the Yale historian Timothy Snyder argues, ‘but it certainly instructs’. Once again there is talk of a crisis of democracy. Yet like the fatigue which comes at the onset of a fever, there exists a disorientating malaise amongst social scientists. We work and publish; we debate with our colleagues, but to what ends?

This is not to suggest that our research agendas are wanting. At present the discipline benefits from a wide variety of fields. There is exceptional work being done and knowledge is gained every day. The problem, unfortunately, runs much deeper. A sense of listlessness dominates scholarly life—our passions are neutered and dosed in a cool and numbing Benzocaine— our moral outrage is muzzled.

Despite our concerns, we seem to be at best skirting major issues — afraid or perhaps unwilling to ask the big question: where does this all end?

Which brings us to the heart of the matter— is there less scope for high ideals in the social sciences: for courage in the face of injustice?  These questions should animate our discipline now more than ever, but they are at best sidelined.

Take for example the de-facto closure of Central European University in Budapest.  A university in the heart of Europe forced to leave its campus after a coordinated smear campaign by the Hungarian authorities (a smear campaign with more than a whiff of anti-Semitism). Sure, there were protests and acts of collegial solidarity, but the ultimate fact remains that we failed.

Today the President of the United States draws on anti-Semitic tropes of Jews as ‘globalists’. He cynically deploys troops to the southern border, threatens to re-write the constitution and uses racial dog-whistles to mobilize the electorate. In Brazil, Bolsonaro threatens to purge left-wing ‘outlaws‘ and praises dictatorship. Here in Germany, far right activists brandish the Nazi salute openly on the streets of Chemnitz. The story repeats itself from Ankara to Aachen.

Instead of rising to the occasion, scholars are socialized to write in chloroform inducing prose. At a time when misinformation is replete online, we coddle our knowledge in elite journals far from popular view. All the while, outside of the academy disillusionment grows. Absent is the reflexivity and radicalism of yesteryears.

Still the tenants of the faith instruct us to write cautiously and to remain neutral. We are not editorialists! We are scientists — calculating, exact and unfeeling argues Max Weber in Science as Vocation. And what then do we produce? Debates that are calculating, exact and unfeeling: lacking the all-important question cui bono? Amid a world of uncertainty and terror the discipline prevaricates.  ‘My house is on fire,’ goes the old Russia adage ‘and I choose to re-arrange the furniture!’

Not everyone is driven to be an activist, nor should they be, but there comes a responsibility with knowledge and privilege. Like a doctor takes a Hippocratic Oath, so too should social scientists commit to a world built on the foundations of shared knowledge. This means being willing to incur censure – sometimes at great personal cost– to defend common values. As Howard Becker argues in ‘Whose Side Are We On’, when choosing to be a social scientist we forfeit the luxury of indifference.

In the age of Trump it is simply not enough for business to continue as usual. Speak-up! Volunteer! Do not cloister yourself away in university ivory towers and plush think tanks. Thrust yourself into the tumult of public discourse. Listen and be heard. ‘Give me a place to stand,’ said Archimedes, ‘and I will move the world.’

In practice this means making hard choices. It also means summoning our collective voice as a discipline when appropriate. In Brazil, scholars have a duty to resist encroaching military rule and organize mass teach-ins. Not as elites, but as concerned citizens who bear the burden of historical memory (literally hundreds of thousands of archival documents chronicling forced disappearances and torture). In the United States, the percolation of violence and intolerance should be addressed head on by historians and political scientists trained in democratic back-sliding. And in Germany, a country with a singular history among the nations of the world, academics must be unwavering in their support of colleagues in Poland, Hungary and Turkey who face daily intimidation and harassment. Silence is not an option.

Therefore let us be bold. The world is in desperate need of new ideas, of fresh debates and inspired thinking. It is a matter of urgency that our discipline takes up the clarion call. We must not merely be academics but also advocates: champions of moral clarity.

After all why do we care? What motivates us beyond the trappings of publishing and tenure— surely the prospect of seeking out a greater truth. Anything less is a disservice to the craft.

The world of Hans Kelsen is not our world. And yet we sympathize with his struggle; perhaps because there is elegance in resistance or perhaps because we know the outcome.  As the tendrils of fear and suspension spread, it is not enough to feign neutrality. We can and must do better.

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2 Replies to “This cannot be business as usual: re-examining the role of the scholar in the age of Trump”

  1. Ivory tower calling back…

    Dear Robert,

    As much as I share the underlying concerns (hardly business as usual!), as much do I disagree with the conclusion that scholars should become advocates.

    In my view, ‘muzzled moral outrage’ – to use your words – is and should be a defining characteristic of science (in particular of the ‘social’ variants of it). This is what I tell my students: be as political as you can when choosing your research questions but to be as apolitical as you can when answering them. Otherwise, your work just whistles down the wind and becomes another inharmonious tone in the cacophony of ‘advocates’ already out there (Just have a quick look on the role of so-called ‘scientists’ in the lobbying campaigns of climate change denialists…).

    In times of highly polarized debates – when belonging to ‘us’ rather than to ‘them’ is more important than facts – debates that are ‘calculating, exact and unfeeling‘ actually appear as an asset to me.

    But these debates should not – and here I wholeheartedly agree with your post – remain stuck in ‘elite’ journals, conferences, or lunch tables, of course (guess this is why we met at OBB tonight). Scholars should be rewarded to push them into public discourse – but only when the ‘advocacy of truth’ is based on solid science rather than on solid moral outrage. And for figuring out what solid science is in the first place, some very sober venues seem indispensable (at least for those that go with Socrates ;)).

    This is not to say that everything works wonderfully in our discipline. And it is not to say that scientists should not be very active citizens – also by explicitly sharing their ‘privilege and knowledge’.
    But it is to say that the moral compass alone will not help in ‘seeking out a greater truth‘!

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