Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Historians as Political Pundits at the AHA

I have nothing against historians reflecting on contemporary politics. I do it here all the time.

The question is this: When I present my opinions about Brit Hume or Barack Obama am I writing as a historian or a cultural critic, or something else? I spend a lot of time on this blog addressing this question, and I am not sure I have come to a definitive answer.

I have argued strongly that historians study the past and should not use the past to make political points in the present. Some of my posts tend to follow this strict disciplinary formula. My scholarship certainly does. But in terms of genre, my blog posts are all over the place. In other words, I do not always speak as a historian on this blog.

All of this came back to me today when I read Thomas Bartlett's report in the Chronicle of Higher Education on all the historians who were talking about Obama at the recent AHA meeting in San Diego. If Bartlett's reporting is correct, and I have no reason to believe it is not, the historians on panels related to Obama sounded a lot more like political pundits than historians.

Bartlett writes:

There were, by my count, five sessions on President Obama at last week's annual meeting of the American Historical Association. I caught two of them, listening to a half-dozen scholars propound on Obama and his policies. What struck me is that nearly every criticism of the president -- and there were plenty -- was followed by a caveat. He hasn't had enough time in office. He's had to deal with a terrible economy. The health care battle has overwhelmed the rest of his domestic agenda. And so forth.

Fair enough. But these panels do not seem fitting for a history conference. Since when is it the responsibility of a historian to carry water for the current president? Sure, historians do it all the time. Douglass Brinkely, Sean Wilentz, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. come quickly to mind. But in their doing it, do they cease being good historians? Do they become something else? I am not sure.

Here's more from Bartlett:

A session put on by Historians Against the War was called "Obama's Troubling First Year: What Went Wrong, and What Can Historians Do About It?" But even with that unfavorable title, there was still a desire to cut Obama some slack. Margaret Power, an associate professor of history at the Illinois Institute of Technology, said it was up to historians and other citizens, not Obama, to lead a reform movement. And Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said there was a 30-percent chance that Obama's policies would shift to the left after the health care bill passed.

A 30-percent chance that Obama would shift to the left? Maybe Lichtenstein will be correct, but are historians, as historians, equipped to engage in political prophecy? I was not at the session--but I wonder how he was able make such a prediction based upon his knowledge of political history. Did he have some kind of historical formula that enabled him to arrive at the 30% prediction? Or was this more political commentary than historical thinking?

Don't get me wrong--I am a strong supporter in the idea that history can and should speak to us in the present. But these panels sound more like politics than history.

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