Ph.D. Octopus

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Scholarly Disputes and the Academic Crossfire

with 3 comments

by David

Michael Kazin

In the latest round of “Historians Who Hate Each Other” I give you Michael Kazin and Sean Wilentz. Ok, so I don’t know if these guys actually hate each other. But it sure seems like they do. I’m talking about Georgetown US historian Michael Kazin (son of old Jewish left royalty Alfred Kazin) and Princeton US historian Sean Wilentz. The dispute goes back at least to the 2008 American presidential election. Wilentz backed Hillary Clinton, Kazin sided with Obama. They argued in The New Republic, ostensibly about Lincoln but in fact about Obama.

The latest battleground of this dispute is The New York Review of Books, where Wilentz has written a savage review of Kazin’s new book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. 

Wilentz’s review, titled “The Left vs. the Liberals,” runs like this: Kazin says the radicals did X, but actually it was liberals, or at least, mostly liberals. X could be emancipation of the slaves, the New Deal, the Civil Rights movement, you name it. I haven’t read Kazin’s book, but Wilentz’s attacks seem pretty devastating.

Sean Wilentz

The debate here is not just about liberals vs. radicals, but about top-down political vs bottom-up social history, Wilentz preferring the former, Kazin the latter. So who’s right?

The answer, as any good grad student should know, is both. There is no question that both radicals and liberals, both elites and the disadvantaged helped bring about progressive social change.

I’m sure these two historians would agree on that. The difference is one of emphasis, but that distinction is, well, academic. In any case, I’m in no position to declare a winner here, but I would like to lament the fact that the dispute has gotten nasty and perhaps personal. Wilentz refers to Kazin’s discussion of the Civl War as a “skimpy caricature” and later writes that Kazin’s analysis of the post-Civil Rights era “begins to go haywire.” (the New Republic exchange is even nastier). I hope that whatever animosity these two historians feel towards each other does not cloud their scholarship. Still, I can’t wait for the exchange of letters in The New Review of Books that is sure to follow.

Thinking about this dispute brings me to an interesting quandary for the grad student: what do we do when we are required to interact with scholars who intensely dislike each other? Should we pick sides? Try to stay above the fray? Deceptively placate both? What if we feel a greater affinity for one scholar’s position on a given topic, but we are working closely with another professor who takes the opposing view? Basically, in scholarly disputes, do grad students get caught in the academic crossfire?

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Written by David Weinfeld

July 26, 2012 at 17:29

3 Responses

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  1. Wilentz’s review struck me as rather odd; Kazin writes a book about the left and its accomplishments, and Wilentz appears to be upset that Kazin did not write a book about how great liberals and liberalism is. Again, as you said, it’s a matter of emphasis. But again, Wilentz can only criticize Kazin for writing a book about something which he is ultimately supportive of so much — if he wants to write a book about all the ways the left went wrong, Wilentz is free to do it, but to expect Kazin to take Wilentz’s partisan approach and apply it to his own work seems rather petty of him.

    And Wilentz is rather partisan on the question of the Democratic Party and, recent Democratic party politics especially, as you mentioned. Much of Wilentz’s criticism of Kazin boils down to political and ideological difference and how that maps onto interpreting history, not Kazin egregiously misrepresenting or ignoring the historical facts. I wish that could just be front and center, rather than Wilentz deciding that his interpretation is the correct historical perspective, and then going on to criticize Kazin’s history as therefore clearly less than decent history. Not that I think none of Wilentz’s criticism is fair — but a lot of it is clearly in this murky area, and particularly when we get into the 1990s, where Wilentz appears livid that Kazin has not included a large space for celebrating Clinton, of all people, as a president who accomplished leftist goals. That is bizarre.

    But of course, historians still have serious trouble acknowledging and being comfortable with the necessary role their political position plays in interpreting their history — everyone acknowledges that “objective” history is a myth, but when it comes down to criticizing everyone’s work, they hide under the shell of saying “you’ve got your history wrong” rather than “I think you have your ideology wrong.” I think that’s a particularly liberal problem, too; but hey, I’m a leftist, so you shouldn’t trust that. :)

    Robin Marie Averbeck

    July 29, 2012 at 19:06

  2. Averbeck shrewdly identifies the flaw in Wilentz’s review, which ends up reading as a polemic against any left critics of Clinton the Great. For the record, Sean and I were friends and political comrades for over 20 years until the Hillary vs. Barack race( and he is still on the editorial board of Dissent, where I am co-editor) .
    Michael Kazin

    Michael Kazin

    August 3, 2012 at 15:15

  3. You guys are and never were liberals. You are the radical left, the same people who gave us GWB. The Democrats have effectively push you guys to the fringe, in which the Republicans will do to the Teaparty in 2016.

    silver price

    August 16, 2012 at 12:50


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