this particular column is not merely inaccurate, it calls his larger credibility as a historian into question. I don’t say that lightly, so hear me out.
Historians are supposed to apply an empirical methodology to their trade. You spend years poring over documents and you go where the evidence takes you. Because it’s so difficult for the lay reader to verify accuracy, it’s particularly important that historians refrain from letting personal opinions and blinding emotions taint their work. When that happens, inconvenient facts get ignored and historical research becomes an exercise in cherry-picking to support pre-existing subjective opinions.
That, in a nutshell, is precisely what Wilentz’s column did.
And Lemieux piles on.
Let’s stipulate that I disagree with essentially every substantive claim in the Wilentz article.
Let me repeat and amplify: Sean Wilentz is wrong—about Obama, about what liberal intellectuals ought to say about Obama—the whole thing.
Does this mean the column “calls his larger credibility as a historian into question”? No.
Let me tell you a story.1
There’s a university or two, still, where scholars wear academic garb while lecturing. And there was a lecturer at such a university who, when asked a question that required him to weigh in on current events or otherwise, in his view, to descend from scholarly rigor, would take off his academic gown, fold it neatly over a chair, and deliver his informed but unscholarly opinion. Then he would don the gown and pick up where he left off.
Because you’re a bright person, you get the point, but I’ll lay it out for the person sitting next to you. The lecturer was making a significant gesture. He was still the same person, and still drew from the same fund of knowledge without the gown. But he felt, somehow, that he was called upon to say something he should not say while clothed in monkish habit.
When Sean Wilentz writes for Newsweek, he’s taking off the gown. He could not say in Newsweek what he would say in the classroom or in a work of scholarship, for a host of reasons including limits of space, editorial oversight, and presumed audience.
Which doesn’t mean you can’t judge Wilentz’s performance. I think he’s wrong. He lines up a history saying,
Since the end of World War II, every Democrat who has sought the presidency has attempted to update the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. From Harry Truman to Bill Clinton, those elected president have refreshed the liberal tradition by promising to put their own stamp upon it, and then doing so.
The bulk of the article lays out the history to back up this claim. Then Wilentz goes on to say, he doesn’t see how Obama fits in this tradition. Now, again, I think he’s wrong. And I’ve written here, and spoken about, why I think he’s wrong.
But in truth, when either Wilentz or I try to say how Obama will fit into the existing history of the Democratic Party, we’re not acting as historians, because really to answer that question would require some retrospective judgment of Obama’s behavior in office. That would provide us some meaningful way of sorting out which of Obama’s sometimes contradictory, sometimes disappointing, often inspiring statements to believe. But we don’t have that retrospect; we don’t have that tool to help us sort out his rhetoric.
Does this mean that because we can’t answer these questions as historians, that we shouldn’t answer these questions? For a historian to refrain from answering such questions means to abdicate an active civic role. It’s entirely within the right of a historian to do that, and maybe it’s good for the scholarly reputation. Maybe it’s even good for the scholarly mind.
But it also means, at least so far as your public persona goes, you’re living in that gown.
Now, historians have that choice. That choice is one of the rights protected by the body of belief called academic freedom.
But publius here denies that choice and that right. He says, historians do X, in this column Wilentz doesn’t do X, so I question his
ability credibility as a historian.
This argument amounts to an injunction never to remove the gown. Which, trust me, is itchy. And I’ll wear what I like, thank you, and accept the consequences.
Let me conclude, lest there be any further question: I think Wilentz is wrong. I do not agree with what he has to say. But I’ll defend pretty strenuously his right to say it.
1And if any of you is the person who told me this story first, I apologize to you for ripping off your anecdote without attribution, but I can’t remember where I got it. (I do know that I once made a joke out of imitating the behavior described.)