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Hispanic American Historical Review 83.4 (2003) 780
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May 30, 2003
To the Editors:
John Womack Jr.'s review (vol. 83, no. 2, pp. 374-75) of Gilbert M. Joseph, ed., Reclaiming the Political in Latin American History: Essays from the North (Duke Univ. Press, 2001) is not only grumpy—it is riddled with inaccuracies. For example, I do not claim writing history is like "politics over great issues like war, wealth, liberty, and justice for all" (Womack, p. 375). In my article, I point out that the high value the academy places on scholarship can foster "overblown appraisals of (or accusations about) the politics of scholarship," which are normally "modest and indirect" (Stern, p. 33). Womack confirms the point with his overheated reaction.
Similarly, I do not warn scholars "not to try to understand 'radical evil'" (Womack, p. 375). The point is the more subtle problem, "more intractable than one's intentions" (Stern, p. 55), put forth by philosopher Hannah Arendt. Arendt, who adapted and updated for twentieth-century times the "radical evil" concept originally formulated by Immanuel Kant, observed that some moral transgressions are so extreme they challenge our deepest sense of moral order and capacity to understand. Such extremes bring us "face to face with our inadequacy" (ibid.). Womack's numerous broad-brush characterizations—for example, the flat assertion that Thomas Klubock "does not understand the Popular Front" (Womack, p. 375)—are equally inaccurate. Readers of Klubock's superb Contested Communities: Class, Gender, and Politics in Chile's El Teniente Copper Mine, 1904-1951 (Duke Univ. Press, 1998) will know better than to believe such pronouncements.
Thirty-five years ago, Womack published a well-researched and still insightful study in Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. The book was a wonderful achievement, and I respect its accomplishment and the historian who wrote it. All the sadder, then, that a once talented and productive historian no longer meets a standard of scholarly accuracy.
Steve J. Stern