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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Laying Out the President


Rolling Stone Magazine is cranking up a stunt by Sean Wilentz.

HISTORY. It may seem unfair to review an essay by "one of America's leading historians" before it is published, and in all but a very few instances I'd cheerfully concede that it is unfair. But not this time. Why? Because the essay I'm pre-reviewing is guilty of exactly the same kind of unfairness and therefore, as an historical analysis, cannot be anything more than a grotesque and laughable exercise in rhetorical political assassination.

Judging "bests" and "worsts" in history depends absolutely upon knowing outcomes, which on the national and world stages can take decades to become clear. Not always, of course. Genocidal tyrants like Hitler and Stalin were obvious worsts while they still lived, but these exceptions highlight the particular role that should (but isn't always) played by historians. While Hitler was in power, all that was required to assess his villainy was accurate reporting of his actions. Historians became necessary after the fact to explore the causes and lasting effects of his barbarism, which they have done wih great gusto. Stalin, too, was self-evidently the nadir of Eastern European history while he still ruled the USSR, but even a half century after his death, far too many academic historians are still making excuses for his regime and its anti-human ideology. The lesson? Historians are as vulnerable to ideological bias as anyone else, and since what we ask of them is objective and unemotional analysis based on research and reason, we cannot trust them when they claim to speak as historians about the present or recent past. At best in such circumstances, they function as (presumably) well informed partisans. At worst, they function as propagandists, misusing their authority in one discipline to cover their dead ordinary opinions in another.

Historical analysis isn't possible in the absence of facts. Long-term outcomes are necessary facts, as are the reams of minutiae that eventually reveal what all parties to a given event knew, guessed, or imagined at the time. Try writing the history of the most recent party you attended. You could record your own recollections of what transpired today. Tomorrow you could hunt down some scraps of gossip that might augment your flawed and incomplete memories. But how long would it take to determine the most important things that really happened -- the argument that led to a divorce and tragic custody fight, the spectacular spats that didn't, the quiet first meeting that became a moving love affair, the one careless word that somehow fathered a lifelong grudge of disastrous consequence between two familes? That could not be done during the party, the day after, or probably for years to come. How much harder to assess Lincoln's absolute worth before he died -- or George W. Bush's before we behold the state of the world in 2036 or beyond?

Yet here in the forthcoming issue of Rolling Stone, we have a highly credentialed historian who is willing to declare, however hypothetically, George W. Bush the worst U.S. President in history. Balderdash. Hubris of this sort immediately permits us to examine whatever personal information we can find about the dissembler who is so willing to tarnish his own reputation thus. He must have a relevant history himself.

I invite one and all to research Sean Wilentz in this way. I've done just a bit of digging myself and it wasn't hard to find a few suggestive facts in his curriculum vitae. He's the Dayton-Stockon Professor of History at Princeton and the Director of Princeton's Program in American Studies. That's very nice, I'm sure, but it might not make him an expert on middle eastern politics or asymmetric warfare, which are likely to figure into the eventual assessments of how good or bad a president George Bush was.

He's written a few books -- and edited others -- which is also very nice, but the titles seem to indicate a focus on the development of democracy and culture in pre-twentieth century America:

with Paul E. Johnson) The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 222 pp.

(with Michael Merrill) The Key of Liberty: The Life and Democratic Writings of William Manning. "A Laborer." 1747-1814 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), 240 pp.

Chants Democratic: New York City & the Rise of the American Working Class. 1788-1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 446 pp.

The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. (New York: Norton Books, 2005)/992 pp.

His essays and articles are listed on the same page, so you can investigate them more closely yourself, but the titles and the publications he wrote them for demonstrate a heavily populist frame of reference, including such subjects as Jimmy Hoffa, the American labor movement generally, class conflicts in America, working class culture, crime and poverty in New York, property and suffrage reform, and in more contemporary contexts televangelism and Ross Perot. One brief excerpt ought to convey the flavor:

Egalitarianism assumes many shapes in contemporary America: equality of opportunity, equality of rights, racial equality, sexual equality, equal justice, equal pay for equal work, and more. One egalitarian ideal is, however, conspicuously absent from most American public discussions: the ideal of equal wealth. Although complaints about economic inequality arise from the margins, the subject passes virtually unnoticed in our political debates. Apparently, most Americans find nothing unjust about gross disparities of economic resources, so long as every citizen is given a reasonable chance to prosper. Discrimination, prejudice, extreme poverty, and other enormities may endanger the stability and prestige of the republic (although there is intense disagreement about how much they do so anymore). Yet staggering inequalities of wealth, in and... [emphasis mine]

Sorry for breaking off in mid-sentence, but it doesn't require a psychic to complete the main thought of the essay. At the very least, Wilentz's populist bent has made him a hard-core socialist. Still, this preoccupation with redressing the inequities of capitalism shouldn't be interpreted to mean that he's spent a lot of time living with manual laborers. His educational background launched him into a different sphere entirely:

Ph.D., Yale University, 1980.
M. Phil., Yale University, 1976.
M.A., Yale University, 1975.
B.A., Balliol College, Oxford University, 1974.
BA., Columbia College, [Phi Beta Kappa] Columbia University, 1972.

Additionally, Wilentz's employment record and his list of academic prizes and awards indicate that he has spent his whole working career in the shade of the Ivy League's beneficent foliage.

Whence, then, his empathy for the poor and oppressed of the capitalist machine? We've already gotten the principal clue. Columbia College, Class of 1972. He received his undergraduate education at the epicenter of the radical sixties, the Columbia University of Mark Rudd's SDS and the riots in Morningside Heights. Would we be going overboard to infer that his love for the working class is complemented by a view of American foreign policy shaped during the darkest days of the Vietnam War? That he was then and is still a charter member of the musico-political counterculture that gave rise to Rolling Stone Magazine in the first place?

When exactly is a picture worth a thousand words?


Sean Wilentz

The photo is part of a promotional piece that verifies the connection between Wilentz and the sixties counterculture:

A 52-page booklet accompanying "Live 1964: Concert at Philharmonic Hall -- The Bootleg Series Volume 6" includes a historical and critical essay by Sean Wilentz... Documenting the historic Halloween concert from the vivid memories of attending it as a 13-year-old, Wilentz illustrates the musical and social importance of that night's performance in New York.

"'Live 1964' brings back a Bob Dylan on the cusp of that turmoil," Wilentz writes. "It brings back a time between his scuffling sets at the downtown clubs and his arena-rock tours of the 1970s and after. It brings back a long gone era of intimacy between performer and audience, and the last strains of a self-aware New York bohemia before bohemia became diluted and mass marketed. It brings back a Dylan moment just before something that Pete Hamill (on the liner notes to 'Blood On the Tracks') called 'the plague' infected so many hopes, and destroyed an older America sung of by Guthrie and, in prose, by Jack Kerouac -- and by Dylan as well, who somehow survived. Above all, it brings back a great concert by an artist performing at the peak of his powers one who would climb many more peaks to come."

The piece also includes quotes from Wilentz:

I don't know Bob Dylan -- who really does? but I've been fortunate to be around him for many years. When I was growing up, my father's bookshop was in Greenwich Village and so I have childhood memories of seeing Bob Dylan when he was a very young man and I was a very young kid. I've been around that world for a very long time, which has a lot to do with my interest in music and politics. When he came to Princeton in 2000... I did get the chance to see him and rekindle an old acquaintanceship.

So he was born to the counterculture, raised in Greenwich Village at his father's bookshop (what kind of books, one wonders? Beat Generation? CPUSA dialectics?) and involved deeply enough in the unfolding sixties to have met and conversed with Bob Dylan. He wasn't just there during the sixties; he was the sixties.

None of this disqualifies Sean Wilentz from being a good and objective historian. It does, however, explain much about why he would engage in the folly of pretending to write "history" about a sitting president and from what perspective he is likely to classify George W. Bush as the worst president ever. Who out there is willing to bet that the article, when published, won't embody an absolute prejudice against the use of American military power in Third World countries, a flaming ideological hatred of "tax cuts for the rich," a condescending screed against the religious right and pro-lifers, a series of ruthless indictments of Bush policies on racial, gender, and labor relations, and a lot of general venom in support of contemporary counterculture orthodoxies about the environment, global warming, corporatism, and the super-soveignty of international law.

The piece may turn out to be an eloquent partisan polemic, but it will bear no relation to what you'd call an historical assessment.

The betting window is open in the Comments section. I'm not expecting many takers.







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