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, 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,” Feb. 1, 1999) Jon Wiener, one of the signers of the historians’ statement, boasts that “three members of the Nation family” have just been elected to head three powerful professional associations — the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians and the Modern Language Association — with 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 lifelong 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 Nation as “a factory worker, union organizer and Communist militant in St. Paul in the Fifties” — Montgomery’s 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, Said’s overrated work is little more than warmed-over Marxist claptrap. (For details see Keith Windschuttle’s article “Edward Said’s Orientalism Revisited” in the current New Criterion.)
That’s 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 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 willclose down a conference featuring University of California trustee Ward Connerly because he holds politically incorrect views against racial preferences.
A call to one of the handful of known conservatives allowed to teach a humanities subject at Princeton confirms the following suspicion: In Wilentz’s 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, 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. But several signers of the Historians Statement are already charter members, including Wilentz himself. If the organization is serious, it will have to chasten Wilentz and promote a scholarly distance from partisan politics. Even more important, 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.