Among the guilty pleasures of this post-election season is the contemplation of flagrantly mistaken predictions of how Barack Obama wouldn’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t win first the Democratic primary and then the general election campaign (currently being collected by Andrew Sullivan under his running “Von Hoffman Award” head). Such stuff from campaign insiders like Mark Penn is to be expected, but academic experts should know better, no? No. Or at least not if they’ve hitched their wagon to, say, the Clintons–like Princeton historian Sean Wilenz. Wilenz, who emerged from the Groves of Nassau to assail Bill Clinton’s impeachers a decade ago, raged against Obamania for much of the election season, prognosticated its failure, and now can’t bring himself to own up to his cloudiness of vision. Another intellectual type is well represented by Daniel Pipes, a sometime college friend whom I mortally offended after 9/11by suggesting that his heated warnings that American Muslims posed a threat to American civil liberties bore some resemblance to 19th-century Protestant anxieties about Catholic Power. Like Ahab, Pipes has been obsessively on the trail of the Great Black Politician, seeking to prove that Obama is a sometime Muslim, a radical, a deceiver up to his eyeballs in guilty associations. Like Ahab’s, his quest just seems to get crazier and crazier. Sirhan Sirhan?
The difficulty that intellectuals have letting go of their idées fixes is nicely explained in a letter (published in the current New York Review, but behind the firewall) sent by the great art historian Meyer Schapiro to his wife-to-be, when he was just 22, studying Romanesque sculpture in Spanish monasteries for his doctoral dissertation.
A Canon who has studied San Isidoro [in León] for many years contradicted my notions flatly & with great conviction–He thought I would agree with him–for others had been converted–Ideas, if professionalized, become precious personal property–: a decline in value produces serious emotions: I could think of nothing else for several hours.
An important reminder for those of us in the ideas profession.