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 women’s 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 (Wilentz’s 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 signed reflects the long-standing 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 document’s original intent. Since when, however, have liberals and leftists become defenders of the doctrine of 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 nonexistent “right of privacy” into the Constitution to justify its decision in Roe vs. Wade? Were any of them outspoken defenders of Judge Robert Bork — the 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 Schlesinger and Wilentz, are “veterans of the politicized misuse of history” (as Romesh Ponnaru put it in a recent National Review), having previously signed a “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 important, 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 counterstatement favoring impeachment (over Clinton’s wag-the-dog policy in the Persian Gulf), he received vicious e-mails from his colleagues and Wilentz stopped speaking to him.
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 célèbre when he publicly declared his support for the communist Viet Cong. 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.