If you have the stomach for it, check out Sean Wilentz’s latest — and nastiest — anti-Obama screed. It’s not everyday you see a respected Princeton historian devolve into Grandpa Simpson in four short pages, but Wilentz pulled it off. (The 4th page alone is all you need to read.) Like everyone else, Wilentz is entitled to his opinion, and to hate Obama. But 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. It’s not just that he makes numerous snide petty and juvenile swipes — e.g., he bewails the lack of “rigorous analysis” of Obama’s relationship with Rev. Wright.
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 — i.e., he pretends like he’s doing real history. For instance, Obama’s awfulness is surveyed in contrast to other modern candidates. And Wilentz concludes by implicitly citing his own historical expertise:
Obama will remain the most unformed candidate in the modern history of presidential politics.
Again, he’s not saying “this is what I think as a citizen,” he’s making it seem like he’s offering the studied opinion of a learned historian. The problem, though, is that his column — when assessed under academic standards — is borderline fraud. He just asserts bland GOP talking points and conveniently ignores all evidence to the contrary. For instance, he writes:
During his four years in Washington, he has compiled one of the most predictably liberal voting records in the Senate—yet he presents himself as an advocate of bipartisanship and ideological flexibility.
Facts, however, are stubborn things. Just today, however, the NYT Magazine has a long piece on Obama’s economic vision, which fuses both Chicago School Reaganism and progressivism — you know, ideological flexibility. And Hilzoy has written at length on Obama’s legislative record and achievements, which includes significant bipartisan cooperation with people like Lugar and Coburn. So Wilentz is either ignorant or lying.
Wilentz also says that Obama is all words, and pooh-poohs his experience as a community organizer:
Much of Obama's appeal to the left stems from what might be called the romance of the community organizer. . . . For the left, community organizing trumps party politics and experience in government. Some even imagine that Obama is a secret radical[.]
Gotta love the “secret radical” line. But on the whole business of the romance of organizing, maybe Wilentz should try reading Dana Goldstein and Ezra Klein’s article on how Obama is taking unprecedented steps to build infrastructure and to register voters. This silly ground-up vision, informed by his community organizing days, will likely be the difference in states like Virginia.
But anyway, getting back to the larger point, Wilentz is essentially exploiting his authority to write shoddy work. And so here’s my question — if Wilentz is willing to cherry-pick and ignore historical sources in pieces like this, what confidence should I have that he hasn’t done something similar in his historical works? If he’s so willing to let his emotions blind and taint his column (a column he is holding out to the public as historical), it calls into question — to me — his other work. And certainly his reputation.