Have I mentioned I’m glad I’m not a modern historian? Seriously. So much of the scholarship of modern history I’m reading in my “Introduction to the Professional Study of History” course is angry, ultra-liberal work that arrogates to itself a point of view of objective correctness, using theory as a blunt instrument against people, institutions, and events with which/whom they might disagree politically. Anything that might discuss an event or institution without criticism is nationalistic, conservative, anti-intellectual nonsense. There’s a strain I perceive among some of my cohort of choosing to be a historian because of a particular anger about a particular issue — colonialism, nationalism, treatment of one group or another, and so on.
But hold on. Is that really what’s happening? What is the “liberal bias” of academia, really? Does it actually exist? Would those whom conservatives accuse of having a liberal bias actually see it that way themselves (and, alternately, would those conservatives recognize a corresponding conservative bias)? What’s really going on?
What I’m starting to wonder is this — is what some perceive as a “liberal bias” not much more than the very human reaction to the horrible things of the 20th century, but that reaction occurring in a post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment, postmodern world? Is it as simple as a group of well-meaning, intelligent people saying, very understandably, “These are awful, evil things! How do we explain them, understand them, and prevent them?” Except with the caveat that the structures that might exist to help explain them, understand them, and prevent them, are no longer seen as reliable?
Perhaps we’re in an age where what we’ve got is “choose your own adventure humanity” — there’s no reason for society to assent to a particular religion, but you go ahead if you want. There’s no reason for society to recognize as legitimate any particular power of the state, but you go ahead if you want. There’s no reason for society to acknowledge and privilege any of the constructs society used to acknowledge and privilege, but go ahead if you want. Don’t agree with X? Great, don’t do it, but don’t tell somebody else they can’t, because there’s no legitimate framework to do so. As a consequence of these points, there’s no reason for any particular group of people to have any particular advantage or privilege, perceived or real, over anybody else; not only that, but there is no legitimate definition of a difference of function that asserts a lack of difference of privilege, because there is no institution privileged to make that distinction, and any institution that would assert the privilege to make that distinction must automatically be seen through the lens of power relationships.
The end result is very well-meaning, very humane people trying to solve humanitarian problems out of context, which winds up being perceived as “liberal bias”, but it isn’t, really. It’s just that they’ve backed themselves into a theoretical corner. From a Christian standpoint, what we might say is that these people can perceive — and quite unmistakably so — the effect of the Fall, but they don’t have any means of actually discussing it meaningfully. The anger I sense in the scholarship I’m reading and in some of my colleagues is maybe not poorly motivated, but the only way they have to talk about it is to say is in terms of historical constructs like colonialism, nationalism, racism, gender inequality, and so on — Foucauldian language regarding power and domination emerges as a seemingly sensible way to discuss historical problems.
Christians also wind up being backed into the same corner, and have to at least discuss problems that are a result of the Fall as though the Fall never happened. Even Christianity has to function according to the rules of a postmodern, post-Christian world, in other words.
Is this an impasse? Perhaps to some extent. Bad things continue to happen; people continue to have a very human response to said bad things. It’s not a liberal vs. conservative problem; the problem with conservatives is that the potential is there to go to the opposite extreme — “Oh well, it’s a fallen world, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, nothing you can do about it except be thankful if you’re on the winning side and hope the Second Coming happens before things get much worse,” being how I might broadly sketch out such an extreme.
Understanding the problem as a liberal bias is not ultimately going to be helpful, I don’t think. I think we can assume more often than not that people take certain positions in good faith and with good intentions (although by their fruits shall ye know them, of course). Kicking against the goads of a perceived liberal bias isn’t going to change anything; what might change some things — and more importantly, what might change some minds and hearts — is providing well-reasoned persuasive arguments for alternative theoretical understandings, and doing so within the context of a genuine Christian witness. At times that may very well mean having to be a witness in the sense of “martyrdom,” but it’s hard to deny that that can be necessarily part of the deal.
Which reminds me — I still have more to say about Foucault. I haven’t forgotten about that, and I’ll talk about that reasonably soon.