February 22, 2005

Professor Wiener discounts most troubled historian of all: himself

Jon Wiener's book, Historians in Trouble, claims to address some serious issues in the field of historical studies. Wiener wonders why "some charges of misconduct end up on page one and bring careers to an end" while "other equally serious charges stay out of the media spotlight and bring little or no public sanction or punishment."

This is a critical issue for historians, who devote their lives to a profession that is plagued by politics, agendas, and various shades of fraud. Amazingly, and with absolutely no awareness of the irony, Wiener writes a book that precisely epitomizes the politically driven polemic it purports to condemn.

On page nine Wiener bemoans "scholars who advance their partisan political agendas and punish those who challenge those agendas." Yet Wiener himself is a card-carrying liberal. Furthermore, his entire book is comprised of a zealous tirade against conservatives without even the pretense of objectivity. For example, he frequently cites other historians. However, the historians Wiener likes are described quite differently from historians with whom he disagrees: Mary Beth Norton is a "prize-winning historian of early America," a much more favorable description than the "lists of anti-Bellesiles academics" whom he does not even bother to name. (He merely explains that "in many cases, the attacks on Bellesiles came from the usual suspects who have made careers out of bashing the Left.")

Bewilderingly, the American Historical Association does a complete 180 in Wiener's eyes; when the American Historical Society opposes Wiener's campaign against the conservative Weinstein he accuses it of suffering from a "strange anxiety about scrutinizing scholarly ethics." But the AHA does not remain an enemy for long; later, when it opposes one of Wiener's right-wing enemies, the AHA becomes a "leading scholarly organization." Every player in each one of Wiener's battles is painted in either black (conservative) or white (liberal); nowhere is this bias more blatant than in Wiener's repainting of the AHA.

Wiener examines the case of Holocaust historian David Abraham, whose 1981 text, The Collapse of the Weimer Republic, sought to demonstrate a connection between "organized capitalism" and the Nazi party's rise during the Great Depression. It was later uncovered that Abraham had cited nonexistent documents and treated paraphrasing as verbatim quote. Wiener complains of "the vituperative and wide-ranging attack on Abraham's book" and lauds the "decent people who came to Abraham's defense." Wiener is clearly not trying to convey facts; he is trying to malign conservatives.

Historians in Trouble is a sad string of ad hominem attacks and a broad compilation of circumstantial evidence. In 1995, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese was accused of "violating the civil rights of a female subordinate" (Wiener's words) through verbal abuse and being "asked to perform duties that would not have been asked of a male subordinate—like picking up laundry […] and walking the dog." Wiener's primary argument for Fox-Genovese's guilt was that a case was brought against her and Emory University, and Emory University decided to settle. No decision was made against Fox-Genovese, yet Wiener is sure of her guilt. The settlement sum was undisclosed, yet Wiener somehow knows it was $1 million (he has hundreds of footnotes, but that is not one of them).

Wiener childishly resorts to citing isolated incidents of stupid rank-and-file right-wingers' disagreeing with his angelic liberals as evidence that the conservative positions lack merit. At one point, in detail, he describes two fat, pro-gun audience members who asked a liberal historian—an anti-gun cherubim—the same question twice in succession. Naturally, that is not good form at public lecture, but it is often difficult to hear questions in those types of environments. Regardless, the fact that two pro-NRA men happened to be fat (one of them was also bald, apparently, and the other "wore a leather coat on a warm day") ought to strike rational people as irrelevant to the issue of historical gun ownership and modern gun-control policy.

Wiener complains that many historians—somehow in tandem with the media—initiate witch-hunts for liberal-outlier historians while protecting their fellow conservatives. This is a surprising claim given that, in a survey of professors at UC-Berkeley and Stanford, Democrats outnumbered Republicans 9 to 1 (John Tierney, New York Times, 11/18/04), and that numbers are even more skewed in humanities departments such as history. Today's mainstream media is hardly better. Historians in Trouble is merely a fanatical, liberal attack on the few conservative historians remaining in the profession and an irrational defense of the few liberals who have come under fire for academic fraud.

Anyone who remains unconvinced that conservatives are the enemy will remain unconvinced after reading this hysterical diatribe. Liberal intellectuals may enjoy it as a validation of their hatred of conservatives as Wiener is very eloquent in his maligning of his conservatives. Historians in Trouble should improve liberals' conservative-bashing vocabulary as well as their repertoire of conservative-bashing anecdotes. Historians in Trouble is a fairly interesting book that asks some crucial questions, although it utterly fails to answer them.