Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Historian's Responsibility II: Goldberg on Mattson

In "The Historian's Responsibility", I wrote about recent pieces by Harvey Mansfield and Kevin Mattson concerning the role that historian's play both in educating the public in history and current affairs. Now, Jonah Goldberg has responded to Mattson (partly because Mattson was critical of a specific bit of Goldberg's historical analysis and Goldberg wanted to set him straight) and, while he has praise for Mattson's purported aim, he also detects that it is for a very specific type of history to which Mattson is making his appeal.
But it seems that what Mattson wants are liberal historians who get to settle arguments by invoking not so much history but their own authority as "real" historians. You get the distinct impression that what he's really saying is that liberal historians need to get more involved because liberal historians — like him! — are right about everything. Time and again he talks about liberal historians as if by mere virtue of the fact that they were liberal or historians or both their view of history is the real History. Democracy’s readership may not have large objections here, but to the less agreeable reader this smacks of a huge stolen base.

For example, Hofstadter’s scholarship has come under sharp scrutiny in recent years and he doesn’t come out favorably. He was indisputably a brilliant essayist, but not an exacting historian as he himself admitted (he scorned the "archive rats" who did the dusty hard work we associate with the profession). His use of Frankfurt school pseudo-psychology drenched much of his work on conservatism , making it as punchy and interesting as it made it flawed and unfair. His dissertation, which became Social Darwinism in American Thought distorted facts (the Robber Barons were not students of Darwin or even Herbert Spenser , but of the Bible and Adam Smith) and is one of the chief culprits behind the slander that free-market economics and so-called “social Darwinism” are kindred doctrines.

Anyway, I would love to see more liberal historians like Mattson get into the mix, but A) he should practice what he preaches a bit more and B) let's not make liberal historians into a gnostic priesthood, mm, k?
With that I agree, and I think that this is an opportunity that responsible historian-bloggers who would tone down the hyperbole, dispense with the jargon and write for the reading public could take advantage of.

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