Greatest Hits from Civil Warriors: Personal Politics and Professional Practice

(a different version of this post originally appeared on Civil Warriors on November 20, 2009)

You hear it all the time … at least I do.  Critics of this historian or that historian claim that the historian in question is pushing a personal political agenda.  Their professional work reflects that personal political agenda: if anything, their scholarship is nothing more than their politics refracted through a flawed prism of the past.

Doubtless this is true in some cases.  One could point to Howard Zinn or Thomas DiLorenzo as prime examples.  Other people confront the accusation as well: Eric Foner finds himself attacked as a Marxist when people don’t like what he has to say.  People who read Foner’s work seriously often find that his Marxism influences and informs how he approaches historical problems, but I haven’t seen a successfully sustained argument that his accounts of the Republican party in the 1850s, Thomas Paine, Reconstruction, or Abraham Lincoln, to name four areas on which he has written with such skill, are warped by Marxism.  You don’t have to be a Marxist to agree with his analysis, and when I’ve differed I haven’t resorted to the cheap trick of calling him a Marxist as if that in itself was sufficient.  When we disagree, we do so on the basis of the work before us, not on our assumptions about the politics that some people think must be behind that work.

It is interesting to me that some people who are unabashed in their political positions and who freely reveal how their politics influences their historical perspective offer mindless rants claiming that other people’s history is flawed because of their politics.  This is especially true when they assume a set of political beliefs are held by the historian they criticize.  It is true that personal perspectives and interests often influence what historians choose to explore.  I tend to be interested in the political struggles for emancipation and equal rights, for example, and how the political environment shapes that struggle.  But I would find it bad historical practice to criticize someone’s argument simply by saying it was a simple reflection of his personal beliefs and perspective.  That’s poor historical criticism.  If I disagree with an interpretation, then I’ll do it using evidence.  I’ve done this with the work of historians, regardless of their political beliefs, and in many cases I don’t know what political beliefs they possess.  To me it’s all about the work.

When I went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, I entered a rather politicized body of graduate students.  I once joked that there were no conservatives, liberals, or radicals at Madison: there were capitalists and Marxists, and I was clearly identified as being in the former camp (although when it came to a debate over financial aid, I found that the Marxist students were ironically the ones out for themselves at the expense of the community.  Don’t worry … they lost).  When I taught at Wofford College, Republican students asked me to serve as the adviser to the College Republicans, not because they believed I was a Republican (they confessed they didn’t quite know what I believed), but because I stood for the open discussion of ideas, and that was all they desired.  Since then, committed and principled conservatives have had no problem calling upon me: one placed me on the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s civic literacy advisory board, and if you know anything about ISI, it’s not liberal.  In short, real conservatives respect me and my work, making it easy to dismiss the rants of certain uninformed partisans who hope that their intolerance and cant about political correctness and so on will be treated as something other than the whining it is.

Serious conservatives and libertarians I take seriously.  Jeff Hummel sent me his manuscript on the Civil War era, and we once met for lunch: you can find my blurb inside his book.  I invited Barry Goldwater to speak to my military history class in the 1990s because I wanted him to have a chance to connect directly with my students.  Si Bunting and I have had many pleasant discussions, and we shared a stage with Jim McPherson in December 2008 at the New-York Historical Society.

And then there’s my teaching.  Two stories should suffice in that regard.  In the fall of 2000 I taught a course on the American presidency.  Many students recalled afterward how in an October lecture I suggested that it would not be long until we would have to reacquaint ourselves with the workings of the electoral college, because someday it would play a critical role in an election outcome.  Others preferred to remember a different moment.  At semester’s end, two students approached me.  They identified themselves politically.  The Democratic student believed I was a Republican; the Republican student believed I was a Democrat.  They wanted to know which party I favored.  I asked why, and they responded that they didn’t know.  My reply was simple:  “And that’s how it should be.”  No one asks to which party do I belong: all students know that they will get a fair hearing in my classroom.

Now, does all this mean I’m a conservative?  No.  Indeed, it really doesn’t say anything about the political beliefs I hold, at least in terms of partisanship.  What it should suggest, however, to anyone with an open and discerning mind is that to the people who matter most … my students … there’s no political line preached in my classroom, and students from across the political spectrum have filled my classrooms and asked for my assistance, secure in the belief that what’s important to me is the work, the quality of argument, the use of evidence, and so on … not the politics of the student or the professor.  The same goes for my fellow professionals, whose beliefs are sorted across the political spectrum.

I understand it when people whose scholarship is fatally infected by their political beliefs assume that such much be the case with everyone they encounter … especially those with whom they disagree.  That’s why they call it projection.  Given them their fifteen minutes to issue their creeds: intelligent and discerning readers will know better.

2 thoughts on “Greatest Hits from Civil Warriors: Personal Politics and Professional Practice

  1. Greg Taylor February 23, 2011 / 10:39 am

    I agree for the most part with the points you make. I would only say that regarding your fellow professionals, if you refer to universityprofessors, it is clear that their political beliefs skew very heavily toward the liberal side of the specturm. I venture to say that historians in general lean toward the liberal side. This said, I agree that the quality of their work is the critical mass.

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 23, 2011 / 2:21 pm

      Many of my colleagues make exactly the opposite assumption about my politics from the one many hostile readers make. In each case they are looking at the same person with the same body of work. Go figure.

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