WHEN THE DUST HAS FINALLY SETTLED on this lost year of American politics, there may be consolation in the fact that much of the damage is reparable, and that most of the scars inflicted on the nation will be readily healed. As a new election cycle rolls around, fresh faces will become the focus of public attention. Bill Clinton, along with his seductions and prevarications, will be gone. There will be renewed respect for the privacy rights of public figures. Even Congress will come together and, in a bipartisan moment, undo the Special Prosecutor Law that liberals contrived as a weapon against conservatives and conservatives turned into a weapon against liberals, and then against themselves. Larry Flynt will slither back under his familiar rock.
But there is one institution, whose corruptions have thrust themselves to the fore in this presidential crisis, that will not be so easy to repair. That institution is the American university, which in the midst of the presidential battle volunteered a battalion of scholars to serve the Clinton cause.
As the House Judiciary Committee was gearing up for its impeachment inquiry in October, a full-page political ad appeared in the New York Timescalling itself "Historians In Defense of the Constitution." The historians declared that in their professional judgment there was no constitutional basis for impeaching the President, and to do so would undermine our political order. The historians statement was eagerly seized on by the Presidents congressional defenders, and deployed as a weapon against his congressional accusers. In the none-too-meticulous hands of the pols, the signers became four hundred "constitutional experts" who had exposed the Republicans attempt at a "coup détat." One of the three organizers of the statement, Professor Sean Wilentz, even appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to warn the Republicans that "history will hunt you down" for betraying the American founders. On the day his Senate trial began, the President himself referred reporters to the "constitutional experts" who had gone on record that he should not have been impeached.
The signers of the statement, however, were not constitutional experts at all. One of them, Julian Bond, was not even a historian, though two universitiesMaryland and Virginiahad appointed him a "professor of history." Now head of the NAACP, Bond is a leftist with a failed political career whose university posts were in effect political appointments. Another signer, Henry Louis Gates, is not a historian but a talented essayist and a professor of literature. A third, Orlando Patterson, is a first-rate sociologist. Perhaps the three are affirmative-action signers designed to increase the African American presence on the list. All three, of course, are men of the left.
Sean Wilentz is himself a Dissent socialist, whose expertise is social, not political, history. A second organizer, C. Vann Woodward, is a distinguished historian of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century America, but not a historian of the Constitution. The third, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. , is a partisan Democrat who has written adoring books on Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Kennedy brothers, but not on the American Constitution.
Indeed the same could be said for almost all the "historians in defense of the constitution" with a handful of exceptions like Pauline Maier, who has indeed studied and written about the Founding and Clinton partisan Garry Wills. Others on the list have even less credentials than the organizers to pontificate on these matters. Todd Gitlin is a professor of sociology and cultural studies, whose only contribution to historical knowledge is a tendentious book justifying the radical Sixties from the perspective of a former president of SDS. Jonathan Weiner is a writer for The Nation whose major publication is a book on John Lennons FBI file. Michael Kazin is another Nationwriter whose work as a historian is on American populism. John Judis is a New Republiceditor who wrote a biography of William Buckley and a book on Twentieth Century conservatives. Jeffrey Herfs expertise is modern German history; Robert Dallek and Bruce Kuklick are Twentieth Century diplomatic historians who have also written books on Lyndon Johnson and Comiskey Park. Maurice Isserman is another Nation regular and a historian of the Twentieth Century American left.
Another signer, Ellen Du Bois, can be taken as typical of a large cohort in what have become the thoroughly politicized humanities. She is a professor of womens history at UCLA and a militant feminist. She is joined as a signer by other zealous feminists whose academic work has been the elaboration of feminist themes. These include Gerda Lerner, Linda Gordon, Ruth Rosen, Sara Evans, Christine Stansell (Wilentzs wife), and Alice Kessler-Harris. Two months after the Times ad appeared, while the House was pursuing its impeachment vote, a notice was posted on the Internet announcing that Du Bois would be a speaker (along with two other well-known leftists) at a "Reed College Symposium on The Joy of Struggle." The symposium was a presentation of the Reed College Multiculturalism Center and was co-sponsored by the Feminist Union, the Queer Alliance, Earth First, Amnesty at Reed, the Latino/a Student Association, and the Reed student activities office.
To be sure, not all the signers are ideologues, but the statement they have signed reflects the longstanding political corruption of the American academy, and is itself a form of political deception. By massing 400 historians "in defense of the Constitution," the organizers imply that these well-known liberal and left-wing academics are defending the documents original intent. Since when, however, have liberals and leftists become defenders of the doctrine original intent? Are any of the signers on record as opposing the loose constructionism of the Warren Court? Were any of the scholars exercised when the Brennan majority inserted a non-existent "right of privacy" into the Constitution to justify its decision in Roe v. Wade? Were any of them outspoken defenders of Judge Robert Borkthe leading theorist of "original intent"when a coalition of political vigilantes set out to destroy his nomination to the Supreme Court, and even solicited his video-store purchases to see if he had rented X-rated films (talk about sexual McCarthyism!)? Not only is the answer to all these questions negative, but dozens of the same historians, including organizers Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Sean Wilentz are "veterans of the politicized misuse of history" (as Ramesh Ponnuru put it in a recent National Review) having previously signed a tendentious "historians brief" to the Supreme Court, supporting abortion.
Concern for the original intent of the Constitution apparently enters these academic hearts only when it can be deployed against Republicans and conservatives. This probably explains why the office address listed at the bottom of the Historians Statement is the Washington address of People for the American Way, a national lobby for the political left.
Partisan political pronouncements by groups invoking the authority of a profession are treacherous exercises. They misrepresent what scholarship can do, such as deciding questions that are inherently controversial. More importantly, they cast a chill on academic discourse by suggesting there is a historical party line. When Jesse Lemisch, a notable left-wing historian tried to organize a counter-statement favoring impeachment (over Clintons wag-the-dog policy in the Gulf) he received vicious e-mails from his colleagues.
The kind of politicization reflected in these episodes is, in fact, a fairly recent development in academic life. Its origin can be traced to a famous battle at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in 1969. At that meeting, a "radical caucus" led by Staughton Lynd and Arthur Waskow attempted to have the organization pass an official resolution calling for American withdrawal from the Vietnam War and an end to the "repression" of the Black Panther Party. Opposition to the resolution was led by radical historian Eugene Genovese and by liberal historian H. Stuart Hughes. Four years earlier, Genovese had become a national cause celebre when he publicly declared his support for the Communist Vietcong. He nonetheless opposed the radical call for such a resolution as a "totalitarian" threat to the profession and to the intellectual standards on which it was based. H. Stuart Hughes, who had been a peace candidate for Congress, joined in asserting that any anti-war resolution would "politicize" the AHA, and urging the members to reject it.
Hughes and Genovese narrowly won the battle, but eventually lost the war. The AHA joined other professional academic associations in becoming institutions of the political left. The politicization went so far that, a few years ago, the philosopher Richard Rorty smugly applauded the fact that "The power base of the left in America is now in the universities since the trade unions have largely been killed off." In a Nation editorial ("Scholars on the Left, " February 1, 1999) Jon Wiener, one of the signers of the historians statement, boasts that "three members of the Nationfamily" have just been elected to head three powerful professional associationsthe American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the Modern Language Associationwith a combined membership of 54,000 academics.
Eric Foner, Columbia professor and president-elect of the American Historical Association, is indeed the scion of a family of well-known American Communists, a supporter of the Rosenbergs, a sponsor of CP stalwarts Angela Davis and Herbert Aptheker, a life-long member of the radical left and, recently, an organizer of the secretaries union at Columbia and a would-be architect of an alliance between intellectuals and the working class. David Montgomery, the new president of the Organization of American Historians, is described in The Nationas "a factory worker, union organizer, and Communist militant in St. Paul in the Fifties . . . Montgomerys ties to labor remain strong: He was active in the Yale clerical workers strike and other campus and union struggles." Edward Said is a former member of the PLO governing council and was the most prominent apologist in America for PLO terrorism until he fell out with Yassir Arafat over the Oslo peace accords, which Said regards as a "sellout" to the Israeli imperialists. A living legend in the leftist academy, Saids over-rated work is little more than warmed-over Marxist claptrap. (For details see Keith Windschuttles Edward Saids OrientalismRevisited.)
Thats the bad news. The good news is more modest. The historians statement was not an official resolution of either the AHA or the OAH, and neither Montgomery nor Eric Foner signed it. When asked, Foner said he did not think it was appropriate for him to do so because of his position as head of an organization representing 15,000 members, many of whom might not agree with its sentiments. That was the right idea, but unfortunately he was unable to extend it to the problem at hand. Thus he did not think a volatile political statement by 400 professors, invoking the authority of their profession, was itself inappropriate, even though almost all of them lacked professional competence in the subject at hand.
The deeper problem in this episode is the serious absence of intellectual diversity on university faculties. Such diversity would provide a check on the hubris of academic activists like Wilentz and his co-signers. The fact is that leftists in the university, through decades of political hiring and promotion, and through systematic intellectual intimidation, have virtually driven conservative thought from the halls of academe. It is a fact that a shallow ideologue like Angela Davis can be officially invited to speak at a quality institution like Brandeis and be paid $10,000 for her effort, while a Jeanne Kirkpatrick invited to the same institution will be asked by administrators not to come because they are unable to guarantee her safety. It is a fact that Columbia university will host an official reception honoring Herbert Aptheker, a Communist Party apparatchik and apologist for the Soviet rape of Hungary, but will close down a conference featuring University of California trustee Ward Connerly because he holds politically incorrect views about racial preferences (hes against them). Both events happened within the last two years.
A call to one of the handful of known conservatives allowed to teach a humanities subject at Princeton confirms the following suspicion: in Sean Wilentzs history department not a single conservative is to be found among 56 faculty members. If he believes in the original intent of the Constitution to create a pluralistic society, that is something for professor Wilentz to be concerned about.
As it happens, Eugene Genovese has recently formed a new organization, the American Historical Society, to take politics out of the profession. Already 1,000 historians have joined and the first annual meeting will be held in May of this year. But several signers of the Historians Statement are already charter members, including Wilentz himself. If the organization is serious, it will have to chasten Sean Wilentz and promote a scholarly distance from partisan politics. Even more importantly, it will have to press for the systematic hiring of professors with under-represented conservative viewpoints. This is a daunting task, but without such an opening to perspectives on the right, the profession can hardly hope to restore its sagging credibility.