by Jeremy Young | 6/09/2008 03:25:00 PM
Sean Wilentz, professor of history at Princeton University, by all accounts thinks rather a lot of himself. He is arrogantly dismissive of those who disagree with him. And he is (or was) a rabid Hillary Clinton supporter.

I don't like any of those things about him.

What I do like is exactly what Kevin Mattson is criticizing him for: the fact that he's gone out on a limb to write numerous historically-informed articles for popular consumption supporting his view that Hillary Clinton was the best candidate for 2008.

Here's Mattson:

...Partisanship can coarsen and blind the historian who tries to make political observations about the present. Such is the case with Wilentz's dedication to the cause of Hillary Clinton over the past few months. ... A historian's partisanship can provide sloppy political forecasting in the context of a primary. ... Professor Wilentz consistently goes over the top. ... Wilentz threatens to write like a flack more than as a historian. ... When Wilentz went to D.C. to defend the Clinton presidency against impeachment, he did the right thing. But I wonder if loyalties started to overpower his critical intelligence at this point. His writing on behalf of the campaign suggests as much.

Wilentz's response does him no favors:

The innuendo that I write what I do in my political writings because I take "marching orders" from anybody, or because I sold out, intellectually and politically, to Bill and Hillary Clinton around the time of the impeachment drive in 1998, is a false and baseless cheap shot aimed at my integrity. It is the kind of foul personal attack I've gotten used to reading in the snotty Obama blogosphere. ... But to see ad hominem hit jobs on HNN, and in a piece by Kevin Mattson, is surprising as well as dismaying. It indicates, I think, how low many of Obama’s supporters have sunk, attacking writers who disagree with them as apostates and worse.

Obviously, I don't agree with almost anything Wilentz has said this primary season. Like others, I've seethed while reading each new indignity perpetrated against my candidate by Wilentz. Nevertheless, I'm enormously proud of him from a professional standpoint for doing what he did; in fact, I wish more historians would follow his lead.

In December 2006, I penned what is still one of the blog posts I'm proudest of, The Value Of Informed Opinion. In it, I quoted the late Steven Dunning, former President of the National Council of Teachers of English. I built on Dunning's words to argue that historians have a right, and, in fact, a duty, to inform the public of our political opinions so long as those opinions have a historical basis. I said, in part:

If you've ever lived in a city where water fluridation was on the ballot, as I have, you've seen...all the dentists in town band together and work publicly to support the new water treatment measure. ... The town dentists speak out on fluoridation because they know what rotted teeth look like, how children scream when you dig around in their moldy gums, how pain becomes a fact of life for the poor who cannot afford dental treatments. They do not know for sure and certain whether fluoride is goor or bad for the system; but they do know more about it than the average person. Theirs is an opinion just like anyone else's, but it is an informed opinion, worthy of proclaiming to the public at large as based on observation, training and experience.

Historians possess the same type of informed opinions regarding current political events. Our craft is not as scientific as dentistry, but it is similarly based on observation and analysis. Our particular talent lies in drawing connections between the past and thepresent, in making analytical comparisons with meaning. We should not refrain from using this talent in the public square, from setting forth our informed opinion for public perusal, for fear of tarring our scholarly work with political bias. Like the town dentists, we are capable of separating our professional work from our public duty -- and we should not fear to do so.

There is nothing in this statement that prohibits historians from making mistakes in public. There is nothing that says they shouldn't be partisan, or even that they shouldn't lose their objectivity and engage in "sloppy political forecasting." And there is nothing that says they have to be right.

What it does suggest is that historians' opinions on the questions of the day are more than just opinions. They are opinions backed up by knowledge, by information and analytical skills that are not available to the average person. And it suggests that historians have not only a right, but a duty to publish these historically-informed opinions in a public place, where they can enlighten and edify lay readers.

Disagree with Sean Wilentz's conclusions, yes; attack the man behind them for publishing his views and for adding the historical comparisons which make his views more than just opinions, no. George Santayana wrote that "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it;" Wilentz has been helping Americans avoid that fate. No matter what you think of him or of his views, he is to be commended for that act -- and historians in general would do well to learn from his example.



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Blogger mark on 6/10/2008 10:01 PM:

Wilentz is a fine historian. He's also, at times, such an unqualified shill for the Clintons that it's difficult to take him seriously.

These are different hats, in my view. Until Wilentz writes the sort of hagiographic paens to Bill and Hillary as "history" that Schlesinger once did for Jack and Bobby, Wilentz's political commentary is simply that and not any reflection on his scholarship.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 6/10/2008 10:49 PM:

Mark, thanks for making that point. If the partisanship bleeds into his scholarship, then it becomes a problem. If not, then I don't see a problem with it.