Artillery Row

SHEAR Madness

Taking an Old Hickory switch to the dying academic historical profession

Amid the infantile iconoclasm that gripped America after the police killing of George Floyd, the range of targeted monuments even included one of Old Hickory himself, the seventh U.S. president Andrew Jackson. Jackson has long been a loathed figure. A slave owner, he also presided over the forced removal of Cherokee Indians from Tennessee. His frequent resort to duels, irascible character, provocative comments on a range of topics, and demagogic populism inflicted so many microaggressions on his countrymen living two centuries later that some would prefer to remove him from the nation’s past to feel safe in its present. A late Obama-era initiative aimed to replace his image on the twenty-dollar bill with that of Harriet Tubman, an organizer of the “underground railroad” that helped slaves escape the antebellum South.

In our fractious era, Jackson has become even more politicized. The Trump administration shelved his replacement on the national currency. When his statue opposite the White House was attacked in June, law enforcement officials swiftly arrested four protesters who tried to topple it and charged with federal crimes.

Over the years the character of SHEAR has been altered to conform to the prevailing party line

A more amusing skirmish in this Jacksonian struggle session has beset something called the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR); an obscure scholarly organisation founded in 1977 to facilitate discussion of political history subjects that were being edged out by the historical profession’s near-suicidal prioritisation of social and cultural history. Yet over the years the character of SHEAR, too, has been altered by apparatchiks of academic groupthink to conform to the prevailing party line, not only in the choice of subjects under discussion but also in how they are delivered and by whom.

This year, SHEAR’s annual conference was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but its leadership organised an online “plenary panel” over the ubiquitous Zoom. Of course, no one has asked the fundamental question of why, with such technology long available, academia has only now realised that its painful conference rituals are obsolete relics of a mid-nineteenth century intellectual milieu that predated the telephone and the fountain pen (cost-cutting university administrators take note!), but the virtual show went on. On July 17, Daniel Feller, Professor Emeritus at the University of Tennessee and Editor of Andrew Jackson’s papers, appeared with a panel of colleague discussants (academic duckspeak for “commentators”) to present a paper titled “Andrew Jackson in the Age of Trump.”

Professor Feller’s paper was by no means favorable to the Donald. It criticized the President for claiming Jackson’s populist mantle as a forerunner of his own, in part in response to a visit to Jackson’s house museum in his home state. But Feller, a self-described Democrat, also warned against overemphasizing Jackson’s demerits in order to discredit the current president as a form of “historical malpractice” that he believes is perpetrated by journalists and fellow academics, some of whom, it turns out, happen to be (or perhaps we should say “identify as”) female, and would do just about anything in their embarrassingly limited power to undermine him. Feller described this crude enlistment of Early National American history to refract contemporary politics as “indefensible, no matter how noble the cause it purportedly serves.”

In normal times, Feller’s hedging about a “noble” cause (itself a politically tainted term due its use by the Confederacy in the American Civil War) would have signaled that he is ideologically correct enough to remain an unmolested member of the orthodox clerisy into which his foundering profession has degenerated while nevertheless expressing his personal point of view, a relatively uncontroversial act in mainstream American society until about two months ago. His discussants offered their opinions in turn, including some pointed criticisms of Feller’s assertions that were not out of line with those one might expect to hear and then just as soon forget at any normal conference presentation.

Unhappily for Feller, the virtual format relieved his wider audience of whatever awkwardness might have chilled their bubbling stew of wokeness had they attended his panel in person and perhaps demurred from abusing a respected elderly colleague to his face. From a safe digital remove, the Zoom comments feature, and the inevitable supplementary discussion on social media, exploded with Red Guard levels of invective against him. Merely suggesting that his more ideological junior colleagues may have gone too far in demonizing Jackson brought forth strident accusations of “genocide denial.” Others angrily castigated as overtly sexist Feller’s willingness to critique the work of female scholars who have written on Jackson, one of whom he dared call “incompetent” for the outrageous reason that he believed she was. Still more noted that the panel consisted entirely of white scholars, an unacceptable violation of the diversity shibboleth even though whites make up an unavoidably overwhelming majority of American history professors.

To make it all worse, toward the end of the session Feller repeated someone else’s reference to a dated aphorism holding that Jackson was the nemesis of “redcoats and redskins,” the former term indicating the British army in the War of 1812, and the latter a term that Washington’s football team until very recently used to honor Native Americans. Its use, either in general or in the panel presentation, did not originate with Feller, but he repeated it with the unconscious defiance of a heretic in sixteenth-century Spain, so the inquisitors went to work. Thirty-six of SHEAR’s 600 or so members signed an open letter expressing their “outrage” and demanded a “public acknowledgment and condemnation” to correct “the significant damage this behavior has done to the SHEAR community and to others who observed the session.” Nobody knows what the other 564 SHEAR members think, nor has anyone described what this alleged “significant damage” might include.

Within 24 hours, SHEAR’s president Douglas Egerton, a noted historian of African-Americans, issued one of those milquetoast apologies in which he acknowledged the complaints about the panel’s lack of diversity and engaged in the obligatory cant rejecting racism in all its works and in all its pomps. He did himself in, however, by equivocating that he did not wish to “silence” colleagues with whom he happens to disagree. Smelling blood in his guilt-ridden indecision, all thirteen voting members of SHEAR’s “advisory council,” including the chairman of Feller’s controversial panel, silenced Egerton by “recommending” (that is, “demanding”) his resignation, apparently without realizing that his presidency – a one-year elected term – had in fact already ended as scheduled the day before they posted their letter on SHEAR’s website.

Not exactly rising to a Jacksonian level of fortitude, Egerton neither pointed out the SHEAR absurdity of their uninformed demand nor stood up for himself or for free speech and inquiry in any other way. Instead, he willingly participated in SHEAR’s purification ritual by resigning from his automatically conferred new position of “past president” and from SHEAR’s executive council. SHEAR’s already elected new president Amy Greenberg solemnly declared that she was “grateful to the many scholars who took the time to rightly critique [sic] a paper that does not represent either SHEAR’s values, or our standards of scholarship” and has courageously pledged to appoint a committee to review SHEAR’s “Statement of Values about Anti-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment” to prevent any recurrence of the “many failures” that allowed Professor Feller to speak freely in a professional setting. Her great hope is that her colleagues will conscientiously support her in “earning back and maintaining the trust that has been eroded in our organization and in the public.” One might wonder how much of “the public” either knows or cares about her strange sectarian organization, but as an opponent of free expression she has a SHEAR cliff to scale.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover