Using Current Events to Discuss The Problem of Historical Interpretation

This week, the attention of the political blogosphere was captured by a provocative essay in The New Republic by the prominent historian Sean Wilentz, discussing the high profile leakers (or whistleblowers, depending on who is doing the reporting) Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Glenn Greenwald.  Wilentz doesn’t come out and say whether he approves of the leakers’ actions (though it’s pretty clear he doesn’t).  Instead Wilentz uses a variety of evidence to question what he claims has been the media’s representation of Snowden et al.’s motives. Wilentz argues, for instance, that the media has generally presented Snowden as concerned about the nation drifting toward authoritarianism.  According to Wilentz, however, internet chatroom comments made under Snowden’s alleged alias prior to his leaks suggest he was moved by a libertarian-right hatred for the Obama administration and a general hostility to the liberal state.  At other times, Wilentz argues, Snowden’s statements, including his professed hatred for leakers, are simply impossible to square with his actions.
As a former journalist, I personally find it fascinating when historians, who are generally skeptical of the press, wade into current events.  I also suspect that this is a moment that would reveal much to U.S. history students about the way historians find, interpret, and present evidence.  From the point of view of Snowden’s defenders, Wilentz has written a hit-piece.  For others, Snowden’s motives are irrelevant to the larger story.  But is this case?  Historians make it their business to interpret the motives of historical actors, not simply for the sake of biography, but to ask why important events happened as they did.  It may be useful for students to look at an episode that we may reasonably speculate will interest future historians, and ask which form of evidence is more reliable: public statements, crafted to shape the public opinion, or private statements, possible more sincere, but also perhaps indeliberate, and also possibly not even his?  The next time the subject of a prominent actor’s motives comes up in the classroom, I plan to use the Wilentz piece to show exactly how messy the historian’s job actually is.  This may be an important lesson in itself.

One thought on “Using Current Events to Discuss The Problem of Historical Interpretation

  1. Wow! That’s a really interesting point. I plan on talking to my class today about freedom of speech, using a court case in the middle part of the 18th century. I’ll use this case to ask about freedom of speech. It’s easy to pick apart a situation in the past, because we already know the outcome and effect, but this case is definitely one historians will be talking about for years!!!

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