Identity politics + aggressive ignorance = teh stupid

Reza Aslan defends himself against charges of “bias” in his new book on Fox News by pointing out that he is a prominent scholar who writes about many religions.  Slate says that “this may just be the single most cringe-worthy, embarrassing interview on Fox News:”

Fox News anchor Lauren Green had religious scholar Reza Aslan on her show Friday to talk about Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, his book that has been stirring up some online controversy recently. And right off the bat, Green gets to what is important: “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” Aslan seemed a little flabbergasted: “Well, to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, and fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades, who also just happens to be a Muslim.”*

But Green just wouldn’t let it go: “It still begs the question though, why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?” Aslan then starts talking to Green slowly, as if she were a child: “Because it’s my job as an academic. I am a professor of religion, including the New Testament. That’s what I do for a living, actually.” But Green insisted, accusing him of failing to “disclose” that he’s a Muslim and at one point asking him about a stupefying claim on whether a Muslim writing a book on Jesus isn’t sort of like a Democrat writing a book on former president Ronald Reagan.

Fox anchor Lauren Green appears to think that he needs to answer to any assy criticism that any random person makes of his work.  She also appears to think that if “scholars disagree,” that must mean that one scholar is stupid, wrong, or just plain dishonest.  (Who wants to read a book that all scholars agree on?  That’s a book that answers a question that absolutely no one in the world cares about, I would argue.)  Paul Harvey at Religion in American History has some interesting comments and links to some other intelligent commentary.

I think this is something that may happen more often in the history of religion than in other historical subfields, but I may be wrong.  If any readers have any stories to share about being shamed/doubted for writing about people in the past because you either do or do not in a critic’s mind share an identity with your subjects, please share them in the comments below.

I’m writing about Catholics now, but no one has ever criticized me because I’m not Catholic, BTW.  Personally, I am more inclined to be skeptical of scholarship written by True Believers about their own faith than I am of stuff written by outsiders, but that’s another kind of bias.  I find filiopietistic history really annoying, and so I use or cite it only when I must.

You have to just click the link to appreciate the aggressive stupidity of this interview, and BTW, the incredible patience and class that Aslan shows.  (If you want to learn more about this book, go to this sensible and intelligent interview on Fresh Air.)

33 thoughts on “Identity politics + aggressive ignorance = teh stupid

  1. I’m in a different demographic group than the group I primarily study. People tend to think that means I am more likely to be objective about it, as you say, I’m an outsider. Not so with religion.


  2. Since I work on religion and literature, I see both sides of what you describe — there are some authors who really bring out both the religious and the secular zealotry.

    I’ve been to conferences where there are a handful of scholars deeply committed to their belief that Author X is speaking out of “their” experience (Reformed Calvinist, say, or recusant Catholic), and that their shared belief gives them special insight into his works. And then there will be other scholars who insisted that no confessionally-informed scholarship can possibly be rigorous, and that only the nonbelievers have any objectivity.

    I admit that I’m more suspicious of the True Believers than of the secularists — for one thing, you are not actually a Reformed Protestant in the way John Bunyan was, or an Anglican as John Donne was, or a Catholic as Chaucer was! And if you think the church you grew up in is identical to one from the Early Modern period, you’re an idiot! — but I’m impatient with the extreme version of both positions.

    It’s perfectly reasonable for scholarly interest to grow out of some kind of felt affiliation. The mistake is in thinking that that sense of identity or affiliation is straightforward, obvious, or corresponds exactly with the scholar’s perceived subject position or biography.


  3. I’m a different demographic group than my object of scholarly study and I’ve run into some pretty ridiculous biases in my field (and outside of it!) about who can be defined as an expert. I’m firmly in the camp that if you have to be X (identity) to study Y, then Y isn’t an object of study / an academic discipline.

    I get that rhetoric from “both sides,” too. From some who identify as X, I must not really be an expert in my field. On other other hand, my relationship (both scholarly and personal) with X “explains” why someone of my demographic group would study and teach what I do to some people in my demographic group in the US. Personally I find interactions with both “sides” infuriatingly frustrating.

    As an example of this kind of rhetoric in academic circles I’ll link to a resucitated discussion on the Academic Jobs Wiki last year: [The original discussion named names of (an individual) that someone thought didn’t deserve the job s/he was hired to do the year before, the thread became pretty offensive/racist, and was thus deleted by moderators for violations of TOS. But one gets the idea even if what is left of the topic is less illustrative than the original posts back last Fall.]


  4. A quick note on the link I just posted – I checked the history page of that Wiki and just yesterday someone in CA edited (posted a new paragraph in response to things that were posted last Fall). These discussions never end.


  5. “for one thing, you are not actually a Reformed Protestant in the way John Bunyan was, or an Anglican as John Donne was, or a Catholic as Chaucer was! And if you think the church you grew up in is identical to one from the Early Modern period, you’re an idiot!

    Yes, exactly. (This is related to my fundamental discomfort with historical re-enacting: it’s mostly dressup if you’ve had your vaccinations and enjoy access to allopathic medicine and petroleum.) Even were I to do research only on Euro-American protestant women in the seventeenth centuries, I would never claim that I have special insight into their experiences on the basis of being a Euro-American (formerly) protestant woman today. The assumption that we historians today have anything at all in common with anyone who lived 300-400 years ago is nutso.

    It’s probably not incidental that most women’s historians still today are women, but that’s because most male historians don’t care enough about women’s history to write it themselves. There are more white scholars of African Americans and Native Americans, by contrast, but I think that the reasons for this disparity is that women have been more successful in integrating the American historical profession than have nonwhites. Nonwhite scholars of all sexes are vastly, terribly underrepresented in our profession.


  6. HAhahahahahaha!!!!! Excellent joke, Flavia! I guess because he doesn’t look like a flying lion, the Fox anchor presumed him guilty of Mohammedism.

    (This is all a Chronicles of Narnia joke, BTW, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the books by C.S. Lewis.)


  7. Of course, some people find scholars of religion (etc.) threatening specifically because such scholarship implies a way of knowing separate from belief. And that idea is profoundly threatening to identity-based knowledge. If you believe that you understand Jesus best because you believe in him so deeply, anyone who can read Biblical Greek is a threat to your entire worldview.

    Ross Douthat, for example, is clearly freaked out by Elaine Pagels, and likes to condemn her scholarship. But he can’t read the relevant languages. And that’s the point: he wants sincerity of belief, not accuracy of information, to be the measure of knowledge.

    The “How could a Democrat write about Reagan?” question implies that identifying with Reagan, *believing* in him, provides deeper knowledge of him than say, carefully reading his papers in his Presidential Library.

    There are Freudians who will say that you have undergo Freudian psychoanalysis before you are qualified to speak about Freud. There are Irish-Americans who like to think that “being Irish” gives them special insight into the works of Joyce. And, o my goodness, there are Shakespeare fans who insist that the depth of their feeling about ‘the Bard’ allows them to understand his works in ways denied to others. All of these people are deceiving themselves. And people will fight tooth and nail to defend their self-deceptions.


  8. All: A lot of links have appeared on this brouhaha since yesterday! Here’s, I think, the best one, from the Atlantic:

    As many have pointed out, Fox has quite a stable of “experts” on Islam who aren’t of that faith themselves, and (one guy from a Southern Baptist seminary excepted) are not scholars but basically just provocateurs. Or maybe better put: asshats.

    Some of you might remember that Aslan’s previous book NO GOD BUT GOD (about the origins and development of Islam) got slammed by Muslim critics, on pretty much precisely the same ground Fox uses to slam this book. It’s all about the filiopietism, Historiann, as you say above.


  9. Dunno about this particular one, but many of these Fox anchors are far from stupid or ignorant, and understand very clearly that what they are paid to do is to incessantly stoke the myriad other-fears and righteous indignation of the old, white, christian, racist, xenophobic, bigoted audience of Fox news. In this case, the jobbe was to stoke the fear of muslims and the “how dare he!?!?” indignation that a book would be written by a muslim critically analyzing some holy christian bullshittio rather than by some christian writer glorifying it.

    If you look closely, you can sometimes tell when these Fox fuckers are thinking to themselves as they play this game, “I can’t believe this is really my jobbe. I never thought I would sink so low.”

    So I don’t know if Green really is stupid and ignorant, or rather if she is just doing what she is paid to do, knowing that it is complete utter bullshitte.


  10. I was once asked, by a senior and highly-regarded scholar, why I was bothering to study Austrian art, when I’m not Austrian. He, of course, is Austrian. I stammered some sort of inarticulate response. And as Doctor Cleveland (and others) note, this is a stupidly common point of view.


  11. As a field, military history still has something of an identity problem – not so much among scholars, but in the public eye (especially for recent history): “how can you write about combat if you’ve never been in combat”–it’s a criticism often leveled at scholars working on social or cultural histories of war and military organizations–that such inquiry can be a substitute for writing the “real” stuff, which requires some sort of personal experience.

    On one hand, military experience probably does give a scholar access to a particular vocabulary that’s not always apparent or accessible to civilians; on the other, it’s hard to argue that combat in the last decade resembled that of WWII in the Pacific,linear warfare of the 17th-18th century, or medieval warfare. The arguments tend to rely on the *feeling* of combat, of fear, of dying, of killing rather than the particulars–there is, at once, a universality to the experience war that people want to claim even as they examine the particulars.

    Ultimately, I think its that different communities assess credibility and authority differently. No surprise there.

    As for the Aslan case, I do wonder how much of the manufactured uproar was over the fact that he is not only a Muslim, but a Muslim who converted back to his born-into religion from conservative, evangelical Christianity.


  12. Is there Austrian art? I thought all they do is deny that they have any connection to Hitler.

    To the point: Authors of fiction are also in the business of evaluating religions. They typical treat a religion and its priests in the most brutal way. They are also typically called traitors.


  13. I’m glad I didn’t do that dissertation on early modern baseball stadiums, and their architects! We’re all hominids, writing about hominids, is the way I look at it, if you really need a common denominator.


  14. I once got invited to give a keynote at a conference in Europe, by someone I had never met before, and with whom I had not been connected in any way. At some point during the visit, I asked my host how she came to learn of my work. She informed me that she found it on a list, somewhere online, titled, “Books the Catholic Church Does Not Want You to Read.”

    I’ve never been prouder in my life.


  15. I read about that in the link to the Atlantic article that Paul Harvey sent in yesterday–the idea that Aslan is a “liar” is just daft.

    And congratulations for making the Index! Awesome. I can only hope that my book will make the list too, except no one cares about Quebec. . .


  16. American Christians [caveat on wild generalization here] do seem to be easily spooked by any take on Christianity that might threaten their preferred one. A similar case is the deep tension between Christians and Jews over reading the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and related texts. That there are two names with very different implications, and the fact that the Old Testament in a Christian Bible is organized on a different basis than the Jewish Tanakh [Torah, Writings, and Prophets], crystallizes the conflict. In academia this conflict has created separate disciplines, and assumptions that a Christian scholar cannot be fully trusted when writing about Judaism, and vice versa, are alive and well. How much more so on the popular level, with an audience that is convinced that all Muslims are of the devil?


  17. Pingback: From Pine View Farm » Blog's archive » “Teh Stupid”

  18. Historiann, have you ever been asked how you, as a woman, can study and write about men and masculinity? Because I have! By an *academic*! (Though, to be fair, said questioner was in the fine arts, not a researcher.)So you know what I said? I said, “Well, I’m not medieval, either — is that a problem?” My interlocutor didn’t get it and kept pressing the question, and even as I insisted that there are men writing about medieval women, and *none* of us are writing from “experience,” so it shouldn’t matter. None of it convinced hir. Sigh.

    And Flavia, I’m glad I’m not the only one who has been thinking about the man being named Aslan! LOL!


  19. Virago, no one ever explicitly challenged me about writing about men (perhaps because, duh, until about 40 years ago that’s pretty much all ANY HISTORIAN wrote about, amirite?). But I did have a period in my late 20s/early 30s when male scholars who were a full generation older than me expressed real discomfort that I was writing about my subject at all.

    No one ever told me I couldn’t write about men because I am a woman, but older guys just didn’t want me to talk about power relations within marriages & families, or about the role of competition between men.


  20. A friend of mine posted this to my Facebook the other day. When he started talking extremely slowly, I couldn’t stop laughing. Obviously, Fox News + Muslim writing about Jesus = derisive, assumptive questioning. You don’t have to look hard to find hundreds of other videos of Fox “reporters” getting destroyed in interviews.

    Didn’t Aslan see this coming? His frustration makes me think he did not.

    I get that Aslan has to promote his book, but intelligent people should probably just stay as far away from Fox as possible. He could have gone on literally dozens of other radio and TV networks. Why he chose Fox I don’t understand.


  21. He wants to sell books, and his publicist probably guessed that there are a lot of Fox viewers who might be interested in a book about Jesus! I don’t think this interview did Aslan’s sales any damage, and in fact it will probably move some product for him.

    There’s no such thing as bad publicity when you’re looking to sell a book like this one.


  22. I’ve spent a lot of my scholarly life thinking actively about “insider” and “outsider” perspectives … I am politically a feminist, bisexual in orientation, I’m a cis woman, I home educated growing up, and I was an agnostic in the Christian tradition growing up in an intensely protestant Christian culture … so when I write histories that explore these issues I am constantly thinking about my relative insider/outsider statuses in these communities.

    My master’s thesis straddled the boundaries of insider/outsider identity. It was an oral history project with faculty who had once had me as a student, in a Christian-identified liberal arts program. I was a former student (insider), non-Christian (outsider), different generation (outsider), yet had an affinity for many of their approaches to education (insider). I never had my supervisors challenge my ability to do rigorous scholarly work because of my personal relationship and history with the subject … but I did feel it was important to write a section in my introduction explaining the ways in which my insider/outsider identities may have helped and hindered my scholarly explorations.

    I have seen insider perspective be incredibly helpful (and outsider perspective be shallow, blinkered, or bigoted); I have also seen outsider perspective be invaluable (while insider perspective trends hagiographic, defensive, or lacking in wider context). It seems important to be very self-aware as a scholar of where your strengths and weaknesses in relation to any given topic are, and to seek feedback from people who will help you see a fuller picture.


  23. I am in a different demographic group than the people I study and I get questions on this regularly. How could I possibly know anything about another demographic group, and so on. I am also often asked how I could actually speak other languages than the one my parents spoke to me. I am sometimes even asked, in foreign languages and in the middle of a complex conversation, whether I speak that language.

    If, on the other hand, my knowledge is deemed sufficient, I am often suspected of lying about my identity — I must secretly be a member of the group about which I know so much.


  24. ***Also: I have used the questions, is it OK to write about men being a woman, is it OK to write about people born in other centuries, etc., a lot, and people don’t get it.

    The best riposte I have come up with is: must icthiologists be fish? This works somehow…


  25. ***And: another useful point is that if you have to be one to study it, then “it” is not definable as an object of study and is thus not a legitimate field even for people who “are one”.


  26. The whole basis of identity politics is that knowledge and understanding can’t cross over experiential differences. If that is true then the whole project of history is bust because by definition we study moments that are gone and cannot be resurrected (ha!).


  27. I struggle with this all the time. I specialize in Islamic law, I am not male, and not a Muslim. People ask me all the time if I am Muslim, usually by asking how I became interested in that topic. They are usually just curious and not very well informed. I have only been criticized twice by Muslims for having this interest, and those two people were not academics. The worst and nastiest offenders are professors who purport to be feminists but who are committed to reducing Muslim women to the stereotype and who attack me for not attacking Islam and for not being interested in writing about “Women in Islam.”


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