Guest columnist Austin Sarat: Bearing witness

  • In this Jan. 6, 2021 file photo, Trump supporters participate in a rally in Washington. An AP review of records finds that members of President Donald Trump’s failed campaign were key players in the Washington rally that spawned a deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol last week. AP

Published: 1/19/2021 4:01:35 PM

The storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 was a ghastly bookend to an American presidency unlike any other in this nation’s history. President Trump began his term by promising to end “American carnage” and ended it by encouraging a violent coup against democracy.

These developments provide only the latest reason why academics should need to lend our voices to the work of preserving and reforming the political system that the president and his allies have tried to destroy.

I must admit that it was hard for me to find my bearings at the start of the Trump era. But the more I saw the damage the president was doing to public discourse, and to the simple idea that truth matters, the more I became convinced that my academic colleagues and I needed to so something to address what was happening in the United States.

Doing so required spending less time in cloistered conversations with each other and more time drawing on our expertise to speak to public audiences.

So I decided to take the plunge and joined the conversation about the issues and outrages of the day.

I have sometimes felt like an envoy from a place where facts still matter to a world in disarray. I have left comfortable routines behind and devoted energy that might have produced more specialized contributions to my field’s journals in order to illuminate public issues and speak truth to power. Even old academics can learn new tricks.

I pledged myself to follow a few rules: Leave the jargon behind. Help readers see what I know to be true even when they seem uninterested, or hostile, to that enterprise. Get into the arena.

None of this came easily or felt natural.

More than 30 years ago, the sociologist Susan Silbey and I published an essay entitled “The Pull of the Policy Audience.” We took to task colleagues who did scholarship designed to promote political causes. and were highly critical of public intellectuals. Their work seemed to sacrifice rigor and did little to advance the academic fields that accorded them the platform from which they spoke.

In my new role, I have had to do very thing I criticized and learn the tricks of the trade.

I learned: when you write, be short. Pithy. Colorful. Show you know something that others do not. Present a clear critique and policy recommendation. Preferably in 1,000 words or so.

I also had to figure out when and how to peddle my wares in an environment where things move very quickly. Deadlines matter. Be ready to drop everything when breaking news intersects with your expertise.

I have had to get used to the fact that the usual response to my pitches and submissions would often be no response at all. Nada. Not even an acknowledgement that editors received or read what I submitted.

When they do answer, the usual response is that they will “pass.”

But I admit it is great when you catch the moment and an editor responds, “We’ll take it.”

The rewards: seeing things appear quickly, using scholarly expertise for the public good, and sometimes reaching a large audience.

There are however clear down sides, like seeing your work vanish from public view just as rapidly as it appeared. The market for yesterday’s news diminishes quickly.

I also have to admit that I am not sure what my colleagues think. I wonder if they regard me with the same jaundiced eye that I once cast on public intellectuals and the policy audience.

Moreover, colleges and universities don’t really know how to assess public writing. It doesn’t seem to “count” with deans or promotion committees in a way that helps secure jobs, tenure, or salary increases.

And has any piece I’ve written changed anyone’s mind or otherwise made a difference? I cannot see it yet, and I’ll never know.

But in the world that Trump leaves behind, there is no sign that the assault on truth will end.

I will continue to write and offer fact-based arguments for a public audience.

As Edward Said rightly noted, public intellectuals help the societies in which they live to maintain “a state of constant alertness.” Their work serves their fellow citizens by manifesting “a perpetual willingness not to let half-truths or received ideas steer one along.”

I took on the role Said describes to combat Trump’s half-truths and insidious lies. I am staying with it though in the hope that I can help alert Americans to injustices and dangers that my expertise helps me see and understand.

Austin Sarat is an associate provost at Amherst College. A longer version of this column first appeared Inside Higher Education.

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