. It may seem
unfair to review an essay by "one of America's leading historians"
before it is published, and in all but a very few instances I'd
cheerfully concede that it is
unfair. But not this time. Why? Because the essay I'm pre-reviewing is
guilty of exactly the same kind of unfairness and therefore, as an
historical analysis, cannot be anything more than a grotesque and
laughable exercise in rhetorical political assassination.
Judging "bests" and "worsts" in history depends absolutely upon knowing
outcomes, which on the national and world stages can take decades to
become clear. Not always, of course. Genocidal tyrants like Hitler and
Stalin were obvious worsts while they still lived, but these exceptions
highlight the particular role that should (but isn't always) played by
historians. While Hitler was in power, all that was required to assess
his villainy was accurate reporting of his actions. Historians became
necessary after the fact to explore the causes and lasting effects of
his barbarism, which they have done wih great gusto. Stalin, too, was
self-evidently the nadir of Eastern European history while he still
ruled the USSR, but even a half century after his death, far too many
academic historians are still making excuses for his regime and its
anti-human ideology. The lesson? Historians are as vulnerable to
ideological bias as anyone else, and since what we ask of them is
objective and unemotional analysis based on research and reason, we
cannot trust them when they claim to speak as
historians about the present or
recent past. At best in such circumstances, they function as
(presumably) well informed partisans. At worst, they function as
propagandists, misusing their authority in one discipline to cover
their dead ordinary opinions in another.
Historical analysis isn't possible in the absence of facts. Long-term
outcomes are necessary facts, as are the reams of minutiae that
eventually reveal what all parties to a given event knew, guessed, or
imagined at the time. Try writing the history of the most recent party
you attended. You could record your own recollections of what
transpired today. Tomorrow you could hunt down some scraps of gossip
that might augment your flawed and incomplete memories. But how long
would it take to determine the most important things that really
happened -- the argument that led to a divorce and tragic custody
fight, the spectacular spats that didn't, the quiet first meeting that
became a moving love affair, the one careless word that somehow
fathered a lifelong grudge of disastrous consequence between two
familes? That could not be done during the party, the day after, or
probably for years to come. How much harder to assess Lincoln's absolute worth before he
died -- or George W. Bush's before we behold the state of the world in
2036 or beyond?
Yet here in the forthcoming issue of Rolling
, we have a highly credentialed historian who is willing to
declare, however hypothetically, George W. Bush the worst U.S.
President in history. Balderdash. Hubris of this sort immediately
permits us to examine whatever personal information we can find about
the dissembler who is so willing to tarnish his own reputation thus. He
must have a relevant history himself.
I invite one and all to research Sean Wilentz in this way. I've done
just a bit of digging myself and it wasn't hard to find a few
suggestive facts in his curriculum
. He's the Dayton-Stockon Professor of History at Princeton
and the Director of Princeton's Program in American Studies. That's
very nice, I'm sure, but it might not make him an expert on middle
eastern politics or asymmetric warfare, which are likely to figure into
the eventual assessments of how good or bad a president George Bush
He's written a few books -- and edited others -- which is also very
nice, but the titles seem to indicate a focus on the development of
democracy and culture in pre-twentieth century America:
with Paul E. Johnson) The Kingdom of
Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th Century America (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 222 pp.
(with Michael Merrill) The Key of Liberty: The Life and Democratic
Writings of William Manning. "A Laborer." 1747-1814 (Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 1993), 240 pp.
Chants Democratic: New York City & the Rise of the American Working
Class. 1788-1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 446 pp.
The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. (New York: Norton
Books, 2005)/992 pp.
His essays and articles are listed on the same page, so you can
investigate them more closely yourself, but the titles and the
publications he wrote them for demonstrate a heavily populist frame of
reference, including such subjects as Jimmy Hoffa, the American
labor movement generally, class conflicts in America, working class
culture, crime and poverty in New York, property and suffrage reform,
and in more contemporary contexts televangelism and Ross Perot. One
ought to convey the flavor:
Egalitarianism assumes many shapes in
contemporary America: equality of opportunity, equality of rights,
racial equality, sexual equality, equal justice, equal pay for equal
work, and more. One egalitarian ideal is, however, conspicuously absent
from most American public discussions: the
ideal of equal wealth. Although complaints about economic
inequality arise from the margins, the subject passes virtually
unnoticed in our political debates. Apparently, most Americans find
nothing unjust about gross disparities of economic resources, so long
as every citizen is given a reasonable chance to prosper.
Discrimination, prejudice, extreme poverty, and other enormities may
endanger the stability and prestige of the republic (although there is
intense disagreement about how much they do so anymore). Yet staggering
inequalities of wealth, in and... [emphasis mine]
Sorry for breaking off in mid-sentence, but it doesn't require a
psychic to complete the main thought of the essay. At the very least,
Wilentz's populist bent has made him a hard-core socialist. Still, this
preoccupation with redressing the inequities of capitalism shouldn't be
interpreted to mean that he's spent a lot of time living with manual
laborers. His educational background launched him into a different
Ph.D., Yale University, 1980.
M. Phil., Yale University, 1976.
M.A., Yale University, 1975.
B.A., Balliol College, Oxford University, 1974.
BA., Columbia College, [Phi Beta Kappa] Columbia University, 1972.
Additionally, Wilentz's employment record and his list of academic
prizes and awards indicate that he has spent his whole working career
in the shade of the Ivy League's beneficent foliage.
Whence, then, his empathy for the poor and oppressed of the capitalist
machine? We've already gotten the principal clue. Columbia College,
Class of 1972. He received his undergraduate education at the epicenter
of the radical sixties, the Columbia University of Mark
the riots in Morningside Heights. Would we be going overboard to infer
that his love for the working class is complemented by a view of
American foreign policy shaped during the darkest days of the Vietnam
War? That he was then and is still a charter member of the
musico-political counterculture that gave rise to Rolling Stone Magazine
in the first
When exactly is a picture worth a thousand words?
The photo is part of a promotional
that verifies the connection between Wilentz and the sixties
A 52-page booklet accompanying "Live
1964: Concert at Philharmonic Hall -- The Bootleg Series Volume 6"
includes a historical and critical essay by Sean Wilentz... Documenting
the historic Halloween concert from the vivid memories of attending it
as a 13-year-old, Wilentz illustrates the musical and social importance
of that night's performance in New York.
"'Live 1964' brings back a Bob Dylan on the cusp of that turmoil,"
Wilentz writes. "It brings back a time between his scuffling sets at
the downtown clubs and his arena-rock tours of the 1970s and after. It
brings back a long gone era of intimacy between performer and audience,
and the last strains of a self-aware New York bohemia before bohemia
became diluted and mass marketed. It brings back a Dylan moment just
before something that Pete Hamill (on the liner notes to 'Blood On the
Tracks') called 'the plague' infected so many hopes, and destroyed an
older America sung of by Guthrie and, in prose, by Jack Kerouac -- and
by Dylan as well, who somehow survived. Above all, it brings back a
great concert by an artist performing at the peak of his powers one who
would climb many more peaks to come."
The piece also includes quotes from Wilentz:
I don't know Bob Dylan -- who really
does? but I've been fortunate to be around him for many years. When I
was growing up, my father's bookshop was in Greenwich Village and so I
have childhood memories of seeing Bob Dylan when he was a very young
man and I was a very young kid. I've been around that world for a very
long time, which has a lot to do with my interest in music and
politics. When he came to Princeton in 2000... I did get the chance to
see him and rekindle an old acquaintanceship.
So he was born
counterculture, raised in Greenwich Village at his father's bookshop
(what kind of books, one wonders? Beat Generation? CPUSA dialectics?) and involved deeply enough in the
unfolding sixties to have met and conversed with Bob Dylan. He wasn't
just there during the sixties; he was