New York Times’ editor Sam Tanenhaus paid homage to Arthur Schlesinger’s “broad cultural authority,” lamenting the loss of our country’s “last great public historian.” While some may dispute that claim (that he was the “last”) Schlesinger’s death reminds us that “public intellectuals” are a dying breed. Our society no longer saves a spot at the table for men and women like Schlesinger.
Ever since his death this past winter I’ve meant to read up on Schlesinger. Friends tell me I remind them of him, and that I’d have appreciated aspects of how he thought and lived. But if William Voegelli’s lukewarm summary of Schlesinger’s accomplishments is any indication, I’m afraid “commiserate” is a better word than “appreciate.” Voegelli writes that:
“Throughout his long career, Arthur Schlesinger was not, to put it gently, zealous about fulfilling this duty. There was such perfect congruence between Schlesinger’s political preferences and his scholarly conclusions that neither happy coincidence nor honest error can possibly account for it. In the devastating ‘Coolidge and the Historians’ (1982), Thomas Silver showed that Schlesinger repeatedly and flagrantly tortured the evidence until it confessed. ‘What the hell,’ Schlesinger said in defense of one book. ‘You have to call them as you see them.’ It’s the umpire’s credo—but Schlesinger always wanted to have it both ways, to speak with the authority of an umpire, while competing fiercely as a member of his team.”
Voegelli’s implication seems to be that all viewpoints are created equal. But are they? Do KKK members have just as much of a right to be heard as the ACLU? What about the Nazi’s–should we listen to what they might have called the “pros” of the Holocaust? Or do certain turning points inevitably permit us to take moral stands based on what we feel is right, as Edward R. Murrow did against McCarthyism in the 1950s? Is there ever a line that can be drawn?
I know next to nothing about Schlesinger, but I admire his apparent refusal to choose sides and his boldness in, as he put it, “calling ’em as (he saw) ’em.”