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Me for First Things: English department social justice warriors’ creepy three-year-long gang-up on a prize-winning U. of Chicago historian

May 9, 2019

Dorothy Kim headshot

Photo: Georgetown University

From my latest for First Things:

On October 13 and 16, 2017, George Washington University sponsored a pair of all-day conferences ostensibly devoted to “The Crusades, the Middle Ages and the Alt Right” (the title of one of the day-long sessions). [Then-GWU English professor Jeffrey] Cohen attended but played no official role in either conference (both of which I attended). One of the moderators on October 13 was Matthew ­Gabriele, a professor and coordinator of medieval and early modern studies at Virginia Tech. Gabriele had written a piece for the Washington Post that summer after a series of jihadist attacks in London, arguing that the Crusades weren’t really a “western, Christian defensive response to Middle Eastern incursions” in the Holy Land, as most historians would have it, but rather an invention by medieval and modern “Islamophobes” as cover for Christian violence against Muslims, Jews, and others. As panelist ­Susanna A. Throop, chair of the history department at Ursinus College and author of Crusading as an Act of Vengeance, 1095–1216, put it: “Romanticized memories of the medieval past” had served to justify “imperialism and colonialism,” along with “torture and murder by whites.” A favorite image at the October 13 conference was a 1935 painting of Hitler on horseback clad in medieval plate armor.

But the real if unstated subject of both conferences was [University of Chicago medieval history professor Rachel Fulton] Brown and what she had written on September 14. And the real if unofficial star of both conferences, who was frequently called upon by panelists to offer her opinions—though she played no formal role on either day—was [then-Vassar English department associate professor] Dorothy Kim. Surrounded by a coterie of academic fans, Kim lost no time in denouncing “Nazi historians who have PhDs.” She advocated for “critical race theory” as part of ­graduate school training for medievalists, as a corrective to their profession’s alleged whiteness obsession. Even more explicit was Wan-­Chuan Kao, an assistant professor of medieval English at Washington and Lee ­University. Kao mocked Brown’s blog post and called her “­pathological.”

The most surprising denunciation came from panel moderator Bruce Holsinger, a professor of medieval English at the University of Virginia. In 2007, ­Holsinger had published Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror, which accused the George W. Bush administration of appropriating a “model of feudal sovereignty” in Iraq. But after Charlottesville, he seemed to have decided it was the alt-right, not the Bush neocons, who were the actual torture-promoting “neomedievalists.” This revisionism marked his brief speech at the October 13 conference. “I was in ­graduate school with Rachel Fulton Brown,” ­Holsinger confessed. Indeed, during the 1990s the two had been protégés of the venerated medieval historian Caroline Walker Bynum at Columbia University, and they had together edited a 2009 Festschrift in Bynum’s honor. But now, Holsinger said, “It’s repulsive. It was a particular moment of shattering.”

Read the whole thing here.

Posted by Charlotte Allen

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