Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Should Historians speak as experts on contemporary events?

Although I am no longer a subscriber to the History News Network, I still check out its articles every now and again and there is an interesting debate between Larry DeWitt, a public historian and a doctoral student in public policy history at the University of Maryland, and Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton University.

DeWitt began the debate by directly attacking Wilentz’s “foray into political commentary disguised as historical analysis.” Although DeWitt’s criticisms of Wilentz are personal, his overall point is simply that it is too early for historians to be passing judgement on the presidency of George W. Bush.

"What are we doing assessing the Bush presidency in 2006,” he asks, “before that presidency has become part of history? We usually think it is the business of historians to follow along behind the policy parade, sweeping up the stray confetti left by the passing of events. Commenting on present public policies—and predicting their future course—seems more like something we might want to call “politics.” And that is precisely the problem with Wilentz and the kind of historical scholarship he offers us.”

“Historians need to wait and see how the story turns out before we get too far along in our assessments. One possibility here is that the Iraq War might turn around and over the next few years Iraq could conceivably become a stable democracy. I am neither expecting nor predicting this outcome. But if future events take this course, Bush’s stock will rise considerably. He could, against all expectations, come to be seen as an accomplished statesman. Which would make these types of mid-stream instant historical assessments look foolish indeed.”

Wilentz, to his credit, responds to DeWitt, saying in part,

“The main issue at stake in historical writing of any kind is not the proximity of events. It is whether that writing persuasively marshals evidence and historical reasoning. Of course, the documentation of recent and current events will always be thinner than it will become in future. What Theodore Draper once called “present history,” like all history, is subject to change, just as it is subject to debate. But it is not prima facie illegitimate, as DeWitt claims.”

Wilentz also takes issue with DeWitt’s (mis)characterization of his own positions and past writings.

In the comments section, DeWitt, to his own credit, responds to Wilentz’s response. In his response, he gracefully retracts part of his more personal attacks against Wilentz and clarifies his argument. I submit the debate here for observation.

Here is the original article by DeWitt
Here is the response by Wilentz
Here is the follow-up by Dewitt


dcat said...

As my PhD advisor once said, wisely, I think: One can think and write historically about events going on today, and lots of people have written and though quite unhistorically about events far into the past.

While I may disagree with Wilentz's recent conclusions about the Bush presidency, I think his critics have also gone overboard, and I certainly think that contemporary history is both valid and vibrant.

montana urban legend said...

But do you think that Wilentz's article was reasoned? His littany of charges made for a fun read and weren't short on historical lessons, but DeWitt's rebuttal I found to be well stated.

Although from the current vantage point I doubt Bush's presidency will ever rise to an above average judgment if that, success in Iraq - and perhaps as a result, beyond - could significantly boost an otherwise bottom-of-the-barrel standing. And as serendipitously (or not) as success may ultimately come, a substantial number of current criticisms would then be seen as just that much less valid. I wonder if historians today shouldn't give more weight to the analyses of military historians in that regard. And with so many other things that intrinsically affect our lives changing so rapidly as well - communication technologies and their role on the political process for one, any definition of what it means to govern well is bound to naturally be in a state of flux.

The larger trends I see are continued increases in trade and democratization, an increased pace of the development of communication technologies and how they are used to define what constitutes productive labor, decreased conflict among states that are a part of these larger trends, and a re-defining of what we would characterize as global governance. It would seem more realistic for more historians to account for just how great an impact all of the above will have on anyone's characterization of the leadership of any single nation.

My single caveat in this post is that I assume that petro-politics will become less relevant over time and that we will inevitably increase the development of alternative energy sources and make for usage patterns that are more efficient.

montana urban legend said...

...and less conflict-prone (regarding changes in energy usage, in case it wasn't evident)...

dcat said...

I'm not speaking to Wilentz per se, but rather to a larger charge about whether historians can think historically about current events. i think it is certain that those judgments will be far more temporal than events with some distance, but that does not mean that we cannot start a conversation and start grappling.
I agree that military historians should have a good deal to say in the conversation. Not more than political or diplomatic or social or cultural historians, but not less either. My concern is whether it passes the muster of being well thought out and argued and documented.
Plus, there is another aspect of this argument: Must historians always speak merely as historians, or can we not also be engaged citizens who bring to bear our own backgrounds and expertise and biases? When I write at dcat, or when Marc writes, we write as a historian and a political scientist respectively, but we are not merely a historian and a political scientist. There is no disciplinary seal of approval that comes with what we write, and there need not be. I don't write album reviews as a historian, i write them as an informed music fan who feels he has something to say about music.

That said, I think Bush is a poopiehead.


montana urban legend said...

It ain't fair, man! As much as you or Marc or Wilentz might attempt to distance your personal views from the seal of academic credentials, they will follow you in direct proportion to a) your notoriety or esteem in academia, b) the nature of the format in which the view was expressed.

Therefore blogs in which one can speak just as informally on playlists or in declaring Bush to be a poopiehead work better in this regard than lengthy articles - even if they appear in Rolling Stone magazine. Of course, if Wilentz were the editor of Rolling Stone, then that changes everything. We could take him just as unseriously as we do you. Ha! (Joking...)

dcat said...

Sure, we have the credential. And we've earned it. But I still think the message and not the messenger is what matters.
Rolling Stone has a pretty good history on national affairs, actually. Hunter S. Thompson, Bill greider. etc.

I would not wish anyone to be taken as unseriously as my readers take me!