In Episode 34 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast we interviewed Princeton University historian Kevin Kruse about his work on Twitter. It remains one of our most popular episodes of the podcast. I encourage you to listen to it when you get the chance.
Over at the Pacific Standard, David Perry interviews Kruse about how he uses his Twitter feed to challenge right wing pseudo-historians like Dinesh D’Souza. Here is a taste:
Let’s jump forward to your ongoing debates with Dinesh D’Souza, which seems to have vaulted your visibility to new heights. How did that get started
There was one right before the Fourth of July [this year]. I remember being at the beach, picking up my phone and saying, “Oh God that’s not good.” It really blew up and we had a series of back-and-forths where he would make claims, I would fact-check, and then he’d move the goal posts.
People really didn’t like what he was doing and people liked someone with some knowledge pushing back on it. [It turns out that] dunking on D’Souza is a great way to build a following.
D’Souza clearly isn’t interested in facts, so what kind of effect do you think you can have?
I’m under no illusion that I’m going to get him off Twitter. He’s got a very profitable con—I assume it’s a con. I do it for people on the sidelines, [for] people who aren’t already his fans but are confronted with people pushing his work directly or his arguments indirectly. It’s a way to serve as counterbalance.
Are you worried that you’re just giving him more oxygen?
Both D’Souza and Trump have a much bigger audience than I have. The millions of people who follow them are already going to see [their tweets]. It’s important to not just let them go unchallenged. D’Souza’s schtick was to say that no historians ever objected to what [he says]. So our lack of fact-checking was taken as at least our tacit approval. If we don’t speak up and challenge these untruths, then they have the floor.
Historians have the same kind of duty that scientists have to climate change deniers, that doctors have to anti-vaccine folks. It’s not fun. It’s not good for me to do this stuff. It’s not the best use of my time. I don’t get paid for it. I get flooded with hate mail and angry replies, but somebody’s gotta do it.
By the nature of who I am and where I am—I’m a white straight man, a full professor at an Ivy League university—I catch 1 percent of the crap that is thrown at other scholars out there. I have the security to do this. I have no excuse not to do this, other than that I don’t want hate mail or it’s a drag on my time. Those are not good excuses, as far as I’m concerned.
I believe that we, as scholars, have a duty to engage with the public. As much time and energy as I put in my scholarly books and articles and teaching, we have a duty to these larger audiences that will never read one of my books. They don’t have [my books] on my desk, but they’re going to see one of these Twitter threads. And that’s good.
Read the entire interview here.
What an arrogant and self-righteous tone in this interview. Dr. Kruse is oh so correct in all his assumptions and conclusions with a level of absolute certainty. Dr. Fea recently posted a piece concerning the decline in the number of history majors. I can see why that is the case if most of the history professors in this the academy such attitudes exhibited in this interview. It was a case of clear cultural and class blindness.
I will be the first to admit that Mr. D’Souza is polemical. He does not pretend to be a member of the academy. His most famous works are done for popular consumption. That means that they contain a mixture of facts, stretched facts, and suppositions. Professional historians do the same things, albeit tailored for a more high-brow audience. Instead of making a buck on it, they receive space in professional journals.
Next to last sentence in paragraph #1 should have read, “I can see why this is the case if most history professors in the academy exhibit such attitudes as displayed in this interview,”
Jimmy Dick says
D’Souza is a convicted felon and con man. He lies to everyone to scam them for money. He presents a highly distorted version of history to the gullible. Why am I not surprised that you dislike historians? Is it because they present history that doesn’t support what you want it to have been, James? I think you’ve revealed yourself enough on John’s blog so that we know what you are.
Conservatives like you reject what you don’t want to believe in. You don’t care about facts. You have a nice fantasy world you want everyone to believe in and you make yourself look like an idiot when you try to defend it. Of course you don’t like historians. They’re smarter than you are. They use facts that you don’t like and wish didn’t exist. Historians get in your way of trying to control a fake narrative. You’re just as bad as the people that push the lost cause today. You prefer a lie and you continue to lie to support your fake beliefs.
Dear Jimmy Dick,
I did not state that I “dislike” historians. Please reread my posting. I stated that if .Dr, Kruse is typical of today’s historians, there is no wonder fewer students are claiming history as a major. His tone was condescending and elitist.
As ar as Mr. D’Souza he has indeed been convicted and pardoned of a campaign contribution violation. A good argument can be made that the prosecution and conviction was a purely political act on the part of the Obama Justice Department. Your charge that he is a con man cannot be substantiated. What evidence do you have for making that charge?
Regarding the opinions of professional historians, I wonder how closely you have been reading Dr. Fea’s basic postings. He frequently offers up academic historical opinions which differ. Since these opinions don’t always agree, academic figures like to have collegial debates which occasionally go beyond collegiality. Jimmy, I trust you are not saying that historical inquiry is monolithic. I also hope you are not saying that opposing historians don’t structure and weight facts in various proportions.
James: D’Souza spits out historical errors and untruths for political gain. Any historian who calls him out like Kruse does is doing their job. And I would hardly call Twitter a “high-brow” venue.
Hey Jimmy: I have had to warn you about this before, back in the Tom Van Dyke era. (You know what I mean). If you can’t disagree without the character assassinations you are done here. This is not a statement about your views, but about your tone.
I was not referring to Twitter as high-brow. I probably should have caught the fact that Dr. Kruse uses it as much as he says he does. Regardless, I made the reasoned assumption that Dr. Kruse is widely published in academic journals. That is his primary audience; at least I hope it is. D’Souza probably never has written for those sorts of journals. But simply because one man writes for the academic reader and the other man writes for the popular reader does not mean that their individual biases are not conveyed overtly or in a less obvious matter.
As far as trying to influence readers for political gain, academics are not immune from that. Like all of us they are human and desire to sway others. I would make a reasonable wager that the regular students of Dr. Kruse know how and why he voted as he did in 2016.