Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Historians Behaving Badly: Policing Public History with Sean Wilentz

In this review of Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick's "The Untold History of the United States", Sean Wilentz continues his disgusting Princeton-perched policing of dissident historians - a role that includes a disgraceful post-mortem attack on Howard Zinn.

For a guy who has sought to rehabilitate Andrew Jackson from an ostensibly republican (in the radical 19th century sense) perspective, I find it really hypocritical that he goes after Peter Kuznick for his rehabilitative interpretation of Henry Wallace, FDR's 1941-45 Vice-President.



Wilentz opens his attack by claiming that this "Untold History" is nothing new under the sun. Of course it's not, but there is a vast gulf and qualitative difference between what professional historians know about American history, and what the public knows. If the latter were taught what the former knew, American society would be turned upside down and almost all its foundational and exceptionalist assumptions would collapse.

Wilentz considers himself a public historian, but in this case displays a typical Ivory Tower narcissism in imagining what is common and even fashionable historical knowledge in graduate seminars is somehow the bread-and-butter of American public school history.

This reality is lost on Wilentz who fails to see that the great contribution made by Kuznick and Stone to public historical knowledge is their relentless exposition of how American foreign policy in the 20th century, especially anti-communism, cannot be separated from how American elites have managed, defused or smashed domestic popular dissent.

Zinn also advanced this analysis, but did not develop it or present it in a focused narrative form, which, I would argue, is more effective at reaching the public that has little historical schooling beyond grade nine or ten. This narrative form is a methodological and aesthetic strength of The Untold History of the US. Status quo history - "great man" and "great war" history - always presents a narrative form. It has to be countered in kind.

These glaring oversights by Wilentz should come as no surprise. Consider his career. Nearly thirty years ago, Wilentz made his name with his invaluable contribution "Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850."

Since then, Wilentz's works have shifted the locus of American democratic energy from the unruly masses to the blood-soaked political class. When he attacks Zinn, Kuznick and Stone, he's not simply indulging in typically abusive academic polemics. He's defending his own alignment with and inclusion in the American ruling class. And that is simply unforgivable.

Kudos to Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick for making this profoundly challenging account of American history from positions of real power and privilege.

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