Sean Wilentz: Out on a Partisan Limb?





"Any of us from the progressive side of academia who runs into Sean Wilentz," writes a leading Harvard political scientist, "should cross to the other side of the street and keep moving!" Why? Wilentz is a Princeton historian of great vigor and ability. He has published a number of scholarly books on American history. He also writes frequently on political issues for magazines including The New Republic and Rolling Stone. He is a liberal activist, and a friend of the Clintons. In 1998 he led academic opposition to the impeachment of Bill Clinton. In 2008 he led support for Hillary Clinton as the Democratic candidate for president....

The old question of the academic engagé undergirds the brouhaha. For some critics, Wilentz improperly conflates two roles, professional historian and public commentator. His criticism of Obama arrives with a Princeton imprimatur. "It's not just that he makes numerous snide petty and juvenile swipes," writes one liberal blogger. "… The problem is that he's writing this nasty stuff as 'Wilentz, Princeton historian,' and not as 'Wilentz, public observer.' He cloaks his screed in the language of a historian."

The point is well taken but also misleading. Serious academics, from Max Weber to Tony Judt, have weighed in on political matters. Should they check their credentials at the door? First, no one is asking for them. And second, if someone did verify credentials, who would that be, and what would he or she look for? "Sorry, Professor Hofstadter, your expertise is American history, not contemporary politics." Some conservatives do want card checks. Richard Posner, a judge and professor, argues that academics fail when they depart from their expertise. He uses "nonexpert" as a self-evident put down, as in "Jeffrey Rosen, another nonexpert on international terrorism." (Posner allows one exception to his directive confining experts to their specialties: himself.)

Yet the danger of limiting politics to experts is greater than the danger of allowing nonexperts to speak out; and the cost of locking professors into their offices is higher than the cost of quiet researchers turning into loudmouth pundits. The notion of intervening, even interfering, defines the modern intellectual. After all, the idea of the intellectual derives from the Dreyfus Affair, in which a novelist in an open letter attacked the state for a miscarriage of justice: "It is to you, M. le Président, that I will shout out the truth with all the revulsion of a decent man." A decent man, yes, but gatekeepers would damn Émile Zola as a nonexpert, way outside his field. Should he have stuck to writing novels?

To be sure, Wilentz's field is American history, including its recent past. For that reason, the link between expertise and contemporary political judgments seems close, but only in the way a jump across a gorge may be close but misses. An authority on Reagan may be as wrong about the contemporary election as a solid-state physicist is right. That is both distressing and hopeful — distressing because it means professional expertise does not lead to superior political judgment, and hopeful because it means that on the public terrain, we are all more or less equal....

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