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Personal Politics and Professional Practice

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, or Reconstruction, to name but three 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.  I came under such an attack some time ago, and when I pressed the blogger to outline my political beliefs, he declined, although he continued to insist that my scholarship must be flawed because I was supposedly left-leaning, whatever that means (he then resented being identified as a coward, claiming that was a personal attack, when in truth it was simply an accurate description of his behavior).  He was joined in his attack by a fellow who seems a bit reluctant in his professional biography to identify himself as a leader in a state chapter (or “division”) of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  You would think that if that fellow was really proud of that affiliation, he’d place it out front on his biographical sketches that accompany his publications.  Perhaps the best part of these recent rants was the claim that I was one of several historians who wanted to control the interpretation of history (again, somehow this claim was not accompanied by any evidence of this nefarious scheme: please forward it so I can use it on next year’s annual performance evaluation).  When this comes from a fellow whose group is famous for issuing “heritage violations” as if they were parking tickets, I have to laugh.  People who study this thing as a professional call this projection, I believe.

(Note: not all SCV members share the same beliefs or behave the same way.  So say my friends who are in the SCV.)

Now, 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.  Our SCV PhD, for example, prefers to regale listeners with stories about Nathan Bedford Forrest’s staff as well as “the deliberate Northern policy of targeting Southern civilians and Confederate prisoners of war for death.”  To each his own, I guess.  But I would find it bad historical practice to criticize the latter presentation simply by saying it was a simple reflection of his personal beliefs and perspective.  That’s poor historical criticism.  Nor would I make the wild-eyed assertion that the historian in question was attempting to control historical interpretation because I think that to make that claim about anyone is to make oneself look foolish.  But, again, to each his own.  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.  Indeed, I think these folks are a standing embarrassment to serious conservatives: they are the Howard Zinns of the right, except that many of them lack his scholarly skills (I need not add that I don’t care much about Zinn’s scholarship, but then I also think Paul Johnson sometimes offers warped perspectives).

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 when he came to speak in Phoenix last year, we had a terrific time … and we shared a stage with Jim McPherson last December 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 afterwards 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.  So it was with some satisfaction that a student e-mailed me yesterday to thank me for the letter of recommendation I had provided in support of his application for an internship.  He had just gotten the position … with the Heritage Foundation.  Apparently that organization trusted my assessment: it did not ask me to identify my political beliefs.

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.

Comments (21) to “Personal Politics and Professional Practice”

  1. All I can say is that you must be a middle child. They are the ones who can see things from multiple angles and try to keep the peace. :)

  2. Brooks,

    This is an awesome post that really captures my feelings on the issue. I try to keep my political views quiet on campus, both because it’s the right thing to do, and I am a bit concerned that some may look at me not for my historical abilities, but at my politics alone. What I do wonder is how can historians deal with some of the political decisions and nature of some of the major historical societies, especially if those items conflict with our principles? I mainly think about a resolution adopted by the AHA a couple years back, which was put forth by Historians Against the War, calling for an end to the war. This is a very political position and could have alienated some members, which can only hurt the organization. Overall, a great post.

  3. Dr. Simpson,

    As a former student of yours (Civil War and Reconstruction, Fall 2008) I can say 100% that your political opinions were never a factor in your teaching. In fact, I remember if you made fun of a conservative or liberal, you would always be sure to have something to say about the other side as well; you were even fair in making fun of people! I have also read most of your books, and I have no clue where you are politically as your politics are not apparent in your work. The only bias you ever revealed was your love of the New York Yankees, who stomped my Twins in the playoffs this year! Other than that, you were certainly more fair and balanced than most other professors I have had. Great post, I could not agree with you more!

  4. Well, during the Clinton impeachment, some 400 scholars (later joined by more) signed an ad against the president’s indictment. Many of the historians on the list, including members of my own department, were not really experts in political, constitutional, or presidential history, but they signed on as authorities on the subject, although I suspect their opinion was more accurately a reflection of their politics. I did not join them. My work found that Clinton was in fact quite impeachable, and that the best way to find out what the framers meant by “high crimes and misdemeanors” was to look at language in the Articles of Confederation … which makes reference to “treason, felony, or other high misdemeanor.” Perjury’s a felony. So could Clinton be indicted? I thought so. Should he be? Different question. Does that make me a liberal, a conservative, a radical left or right winger? No. It just makes me a historian who interprets texts as best I can.

  5. This is a joke.

    You guys are kidding, right?

    “By their own description, 72% of those teaching at American universities and colleges are liberal and 15% are conservative. (In comparison, only 39% of college faculty identified themselves as liberal in 1984.) The current disparity is even more pronounced at the most elite schools, where 87% of faculty are liberal and 13% are conservative (that’s almost a 7:1 ratio), according to a study cited in the Washington Post.”

  6. I don’t understand your point, Don. It doesn’t matter what their personal politics are. It matters if their personal politics shape how they teach, and if so, how.

    I think it is a mindless exercise to try to insist that college professors are united in some desire to teach what’s called a PC perspective of American history. That simply isn’t the case. For one thing, it’s damn hard to get college professors to agree on anything other than their complaints about on campus parking. But a rant about some sort of PC conspiracy in the teaching of history is simple uninformed nonsense.

  7. I am less interested in how or whether one’s politics are reflected in their teaching or scholarship than looking at this the other way. Namely, how does ones scholarship and study shape their political views. Why is it that people who study history professionally tend to be more liberal politically? Is there something about being informed that makes one liberal? (Does “truth” have a liberal bias?)

    And of course, there is the question of what does “liberal” mean? How did the Washington Post define the term? Barack Obama liberal or Bernie Sanders liberal? Is Andrew Bacevich (or Dwight Eisenhower for that matter), for instance, considered liberal? For a gathering of the American Enterprise Institute, probably, for a college campus, probably not.

    But I do think I see the point of the evidence Don is citing, Brooks. It is the aforementioned supposition that the more someone knows about history the more likely they are to be liberal and the less they know, the more likely they are to be conservative. (If not, then I don’t see the point either.) If it is that there is a left-wing conspiracy in academe, then you are right Brooks–Don grossly overestimates the capacity of Ph.Ds for collective action.

  8. As far as Don’s comment refers to me personally, I take it as the typical personal abuse he directs at me because I don’t worship his hero. The criticism has no merit on the basis of the facts. After all, that’s turning his own logic against him. If we’re all simply the creatures of our own prejudices and politics, then Don has to be the creature of his. Somehow people don’t like their beliefs about the roots of other people’s behavior being applied in interpreting the roots of their own behavior. Wonder why that is.

  9. I obtained information on political donations from the Open Secrets web site, which gets its data from federal filings. I then identified the top ten ranked universities according to US News and World Report. I searched Open Secrets for all political contributions during the 2008 election cycle for people who listed these top 10 universities as their employer. Here is what I found:
    Distribution of Political Donations During 2008 Election Cycle
    Dollar Value # of Donations
    % Dem % Dem
    Princeton 81% 88%
    Harvard 92% 94%
    Yale 94% 94%
    Stanford 84% 90%
    Penn 86% 90%
    Cal Tech 94% 88%
    MIT 93% 94%
    Duke 81% 84%
    Columbia 78% 91%
    Chicago 96% 96%

    Total 87% 91%
    Almost nine out of every ten political contributions from employees of these universities went to Democratic candidates or supporting organizations. There was almost no variation across institutions. Among these top universities it didn’t matter whether it was a technical institution or not; it didn’t matter what region it was in. Academics overwhelmingly donate to Democrats.
    I also examined how much was given to Obama relative to Clinton. Here, too, academics are clearly further to the Left, as can be seen in the table below. Almost three-quarters of contributions to those two candidates went to Obama. Compare this to a relatively even split among primary voters and delegates.
    Split of Clinton and Obama Donations
    Dollar Value # of Donations
    % Obam % Obama
    Princeton 75% 83%
    Harvard 68% 74%
    Yale 70% 77%
    Stanford 73% 72%
    Penn 84% 83%
    Cal Tech 74% 85%
    MIT 92% 96%
    Duke 76% 85%
    Columbia 56% 63%
    Chicago 97% 95%

    Total 74% 78%

    So you heros are all liberals, Right?

    Why are you ducking it?


  10. Dr. Simpson:

    I have read your blog entries for a brief time, though I have not read your published volumes. I agreed with your comments here, and I appreciate the time and work that you spent to write your posts.

    Regarding Mr. Plezia’s statistics, I am left with this question: what does that prove? I don’t see where it “proves” anything.

    I liked that the fact that you had read and reviewed Jeffrey Rogers Hummel’s volume. Too bad that more Confederate heritage folks do not read that book, though they might not agree with Hummel’s interpretations regarding the war’s causes and also of the CSA government’s restrictions of civil liberties and interference in the economy.

    Thanks again,

    John Stoudt

  11. I think you’re missing the point, Don. Why do you see a conspiracy in everything where you don’t agree?

    Here’s what Don’s had to say elsewhere:


    (caps retained)


    So, by Don’s own reasoning (and his own politics) his criticisms can be dismissed as those of a paranoid right-wing ideologue.

    Thanks for your contribution, Don.

  12. Just as an FYI, mathematicians tend to be liberal, too. I think it is simply because we are so smart, of course 😉

  13. “paranoid right-wing ideologue”

    The famous liberal banality.

    Can’t you carry on an intelligent conversation w/o name calling?

    Would it serve any purpose if I called ou a communist?


  15. Oh, come on, Jim. I am not saying you are not smart, but EVERYONE knows that math is an evidence based discipline, and therefore has an OBSCENE liberal bias.

  16. Don, I’m not name-calling (unless you are ashamed of your political beliefs). I’m merely describing you by applying your own logic to your posts. You’ve reduced everything to an expression of one’s political beliefs, and so I thought people out there would like to see what the sage of Spring Hill thinks about other issues.

    No one with any brains thinks I’m a communist, but that you imply as much attests to the accuracy of my description of you. :) So it would serve a purpose … of confirming that I’m right about you (pun intended).

    You have still failed to make a link between one’s political beliefs and what one teaches. I’m not the only person to note that. In short, you have no point to make, although you have served as a wonderful illustration of the pattern I described.

    Have a nice holiday.

  17. This is a very thoughtful post, Brooks. Thank you for writing it.

    I, like many Americans–including you and the writers of this blog–am not interested in driving this nation over the side of a cliff, as your fellow blogger eloquently stated. I am looking for a middle ground. Thank you for attempting to find it in your field. I hope that you and your family have a wonderful holiday.

  18. Mr. Rafuse writes, “how does ones scholarship and study shape their political views. Why is it that people who study history professionally tend to be more liberal politically? Is there something about being informed that makes one liberal? (Does “truth” have a liberal bias?)”

    Good question, however I’ve often wondered how and if one’s political views impacts their choice of profession? A chicken or the egg scenario to be sure.

  19. I am researching how professional historians perpetuted the Myth of the Lost Cause from about 1900 to present. This fits into your current post about professional pratices.

    In your humble opinion, who would you put in this catagory and do you believe there are still professional historians promoting this view today?

  20. Dr. Simpson,

    While I understand where you are coming from, I think you violate the message of your fine post when you criticize Don by bringing in his political beliefs on other issues rather than debating the topic he brought forth based on the evidence presented and other topic-relevant evidence you might bring in.

    Just my thoughts. Nice post though.

  21. I didn’t criticize his beliefs, Edward. I simply displayed the difficulties with his logic. He brought no evidence to bear on the question of how political beliefs influence teaching.

    Remember the sentence:

    “So, by Don’s own reasoning (and his own politics) his criticisms can be dismissed as those of a paranoid right-wing ideologue.”

    “By his own reasoning …” I passed no judgment on Don’s politics. I am criticizing his logic by applying it to him. There is a difference.