A Liberty history student’s take on Monday’s Convo Select.
I recently traveled with the Liberty University History Department to the Undergraduate Conference on Faith & History at which the conference’s plenary speaker, Jemar Tisby, spoke on the use of history as activism. The talk was illuminating and inspiring, but the most important point came from a student’s question: “How do you ensure that in your zeal to enact social change, you do not hamper your ability to conduct honest history?”
This is a question that calls for careful consideration from both sides of the political and ideological spectrum.
Liberty students heard a perspective on this in Monday’s Convo Select conversation, featuring conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza. His speech and Q&A time were a reminder of the importance of objectivity in creating an honest and scholarly historic account.
D’Souza was invited to explain and defend a shortened version of his documentary “Death of a Nation,” which was screened in the previous Friday’s Convocation. The movie, which serves as a companion film to a book of the same title, attempts to tie the roots of fascism to the far left rather than the far right.
As he further articulated in Convo Select, D’Souza believes that there is a leftist propaganda machine that intends to place the blame for America’s and the world’s evils on the far right rather than the left where it belongs.
The movie “Death of a Nation” does not present a historically convincing case for his thesis, mostly because the medium makes it more difficult to prove that the creator is citing credible sources.
Convo Select allowed D’Souza an opportunity to provide sources and context for some of his more surprising claims. He noted that the movie is meant to draw the audience in emotionally and the book provides factual support for his claims.
D’Souza’s address in Convo Select focused mostly on the agenda that he believes the left is perpetuating through controlled mediums of media, Hollywood and academia. His claims that the left is attempting to control the minds of Americans through government influence of information feel far-fetched and forced.
Historians on the left and right of the political spectrum are bound to struggle with how much they allow their deeply held convictions to affect their study of history. Regardless, the historical method requires the gathering of all relevant information, the analysis of the information and sometimes a real-life application of this information.
This final step is the most dangerous for any historian, as any application will incorporate an interpretation filtered through the historian’s worldview.
An example of a misapplication of historical information from D’Souza’s film is his linking of FDR to Hitler because a few American progressives supported and were intrigued by Hitler’s actions until they saw the horrors of the Holocaust.
Though Edwin Black’s historical examination of the topic does betray that some especially eccentric progressives were in favor of eugenics, and the Nazis did borrow from these ideas, his conclusion does not follow from this premise. Linking FDR to the current-day Democratic Party, D’Souza takes his historical data one step too far by insinuating that the left will create a state that in some way compares to Nazi Germany.
D’Souza has been attacked for many years for allowing his agenda to influence his historical methodology. Though the sources that he cited in Convo Select were historical, he has damaged his relevancy by putting forth such a distinct agenda in each of his historical works.
David Theo Goldberg, Ph.D. and Director of University of California Humanities Research Institute, doubted D’Souza’s accuracy in “Racial Subjects: Writing on Race in America.”
“D’Souza’s objectivity is questionable in light of the very political aims he denies he has, and his scholarship is a paradigm of shoddiness.”
D’Souza’s reputation in academia and popular culture should serve as a reminder to young historians that conducting a study of history to prove a specific agenda can result in a corruption of the possible applications.
An honest historian should research and postulate with humility and evaluate all sources, even those that may not prove his or her point. Evaluating opposition and providing a serious rebuttal to it can only strengthen his or her argument.
D’Souza gave students an opportunity to rebut his possible misapplications of history by agreeing to a Q&A. In Convo Select, D’Souza encouraged the students to watch his movie, read his book, evaluate the sources and then decide for themselves what was true.
Though only a small portion of the student body attended Convo Select, those that did were reminded to maintain their intellectual integrity by deciding on their own if D’Souza’s thesis was supported by the facts he provided.
This admonition was encouraging and applies to the work of any historian, no matter what ideology they adhere to. As a history major, Convo Select was a reminder that historical applications offered from either side of the aisle with a premeditated agenda ought to be subject to intense scrutiny.
Those who wish to preserve the reputation of the study of history as a pursuit of truth must be willing to hold all other historians to a high standard of objectivity and integrity.