The University of Michigan History Department, in collaboration with the History Club, hosted an event on Tuesday called “When Provocateurs Dabble in History: Ben Shapiro and the Enwhitenment,” coinciding with Ben Shapiro’s speech on campus.
Anne Berg, assistant director of Undergraduate Studies for the History Department and the History Club's adviser, introduced the event, which focused on the title of Ben Shapiro’s upcoming book, “The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great.”
“There were some suggestions in here that there is a wrong side of history, as the History Club pointed out in their message, that the West is great, and that there’s a causal inference that reason and moral purpose made it so,” Berg said.
At the same time as this event, Shapiro spoke in Rackham Auditorium to an audience of more than 1,000 people. The conservative political commentator acknowledged the History Club’s event in his on-campus speech.
“Thanks, also, to the University of Michigan History Department, which apparently is sponsoring an event titled, ‘When Provocateurs Dabble in History: Ben Shapiro and the Enwhitenment,’ which seems mean … which will be really fascinating to hear how these history professors critique a book they haven’t read since it’s not released until next week,” Shapiro said in his speech.
At the History Club discussion, Berg acknowledged that the panel had not yet read the book, and instead focused on its controversial title.
“We haven’t read the book, so you can’t debunk something that you don’t know …” Berg said. “We latched onto the title of something that is deeply problematic.”
Berg introduced the event by discussing the importance of accurately reporting history.
“To me, when I see the use of history in the public sphere I think it’s a great thing, but I also think it’s important that you don’t use it to just provoke … rather than in a sincere intellectual way or in a sincere political way,” Berg said.
Berg discussed the Enlightenment’s relationship to his book title’s emphasis on reason. She suggested Shapiro’s book title fails to recognize the negative consequences arising from the Enlightenment period, citing genocide, slavery and imperial regimes.
“If you think about the Enlightenment as a source of thoughts and ideals that made all of those events, both the achievements of Western society and societies elsewhere possible … but also those discontents that usually we can relegate to aberrations of history,” Berg said.
Panelist Angela Dillard, associate dean for Undergraduate Education, continued Berg’s narrative on the importance of history.
“There’s a national debate about history,” Dillard said. “I thought, this is a great thing to want to do, to think about how so many of the arguments that we’re having ideologically and politically really are about the nature of history, and what we think it is.”
Dillard suggested Shapiro’s idealization of reason frames historical events in a problematic manner.
“It’s a really horrifying vision about not accounting for the damage of slavery and colonialism and the robbing people of personhood,” said Dillard.
The panel also discussed Shapiro’s other political stances, including his critique of higher education institutions in his 2004 book titled, “Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth.” LSA senior Nikola Jaksic, Vice President of the History Club criticized Shapiro's insinuation of students’ lack of autonomy.
“As a student of history, it’s pretty infantilizing to have him imply that I am somehow unable to have agency in my own education,” Jaksic said. “That no matter what I do, I’m just going to be indoctrinated into this dogma that he so fears.”
Associate history professor John Carson discussed the perspectives of a Shapiro supporter.
“Here’s someone who is telling me that at least some of the things that I have always believed about democracy and about religion are true …” Carson said. “(Shapiro’s ideology) re-instantiates a narrative and a world where they feel very lost as to what’s going on.”
Prior to the event, the History Club received pushback from critics on Twitter and Facebook, who suggested the panel provided a biased view of the subject. Jaksic addressed this during the event.
“We didn’t want to sacrifice having an explicitly conservative voice at the expense of, one, making sure that they people that are presenting … feel welcome and safe in the space and, two, to ‘pretend’ that there is any discussion in our history community about these topics,” Jaksic said.
Berg said that while she appreciates a critical mindset, she stands by the panel’s qualification and depth.
“The accusation of bias is one that I’m fundamentally sympathetic to,” Berg said. “I want my students to disagree. To me, it’s a signal to the kind of work that we do that people feel comfortable doing that … I don’t think that the panel was biased in a way that was trying to erase various parts, I think people were generally honest about their intellectual trajectory.”