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Playing The Victim Card Eased Thernstrom Into D.C.

By Jon Wiener

To the editors:

In his critique of my book Historians in Trouble (“Writer Levels Low Blows at Harvard Profs,” Arts, Mar. 3), Daniel J. Hemel objects to everything from the acknowledgements to the cover note from the publisher that accompanied the book. He misses the key facts about Winthrop Professor of History Stephan Thernstrom.

President Bush appointed Thernstrom to the National Humanities Council in 2002­—after Thernstrom became a hero in conservative circles for standing up to what he called “McCarthyism of the Left.” But despite the publicity, there was no “Thernstrom case”: all that happened, in 1991, was that three African-American students said they disagreed with a lecture of his on slavery.

Hemel doesn’t seem to care that Thernstrom told the media he “felt like a rape victim” because students criticized his lecture. As a result, he declared, he would never teach the course again. Thernstrom told me the administration “should have come out swinging” at the three black women who had disagreed with him.

It’s not “McCarthyism” when a student tells a professor she disagrees with him. Nevertheless playing the victim card did help Thernstrom win a White House appointment.


Irvine, Calif.

March 18, 2005

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