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Reflections on Thomas Ryan’s Article About Barbara Weinstein

I was surprised, in fact appalled, to read the article on AHA president Barbara Weinstein published on the History News Network on January 30, 2007. Thomas Ryan wrote the article, which was originally posted on David Horowitz’s FrontpageMag.com. The article embodies precisely the kind of journalism that we as scholars repudiate. It is slanderous, replete with unsubstantiated aspersions and red herrings, and, most important of all, seeks to stifle free speech and thought through spurious appeals to national security.

Thomas Ryan sharply criticizes Barbara Weinstein because she stated that she would support the greater participation of scholars from “underrepresented fields” in the AHA. What to many of us is not only laudable but also indeed essential to the health and vitality of the AHA becomes, in Ryan’s mind, tantamount to supporting terrorists. This is an incredible leap, arrived at through truly circuitous illogic.

What did Weinstein actually write? In her inaugural column in Perspectives, Weinstein discusses the case of Bolivian professor of indigenous peoples Waskar Ari. Although he obtained his Ph.D. from Georgetown University and has been offered a tenure track position at the University of Nebraska, the Department of Homeland Security has refused to let him back into the United States following his 2005 visit to Bolivia.

Why? Refusing to release the reasons behind its decision, the Department of Homeland Security falls back on the tried but not true claim that Waskar Ari represents a threat to national security. Ryan states, “without knowing the facts in the case, Weinstein defended Ari.” Does Ryan know the facts in the case? If so, would he share them with the readers of HNN and of Perspectives? Since the Department of Homeland Security has refused to explain why it will not grant Ari a visa, I find it unlikely that Ryan knows any more about the case than do those of us who do not work for the Department. Ryan’s own ignorance of the facts of the case does not stop him from leaping to the unfounded conclusion that because Ari is Bolivian, and has (unspecified) connections to Evo Morales (the nationalist president of Bolivia who is critical of the U.S), then ipso facto he’s a threat to U.S. national security.

The real issue here is freedom of speech and the right and responsibility of members of the historical profession to participate in the open exchange of ideas and points of view. Should we shut out and shut up those who don’t meet the litmus test of whichever political tendency holds power in the U.S? I think not. Instead, we need to welcome all ideas, all differences of opinions, so that we are exposed to the variety of thought that exists. This enriches us and makes us better teachers and allows us to more fully engage our students in discussion.

Ryan also disagrees with the Resolution on Iraq approved in the 2007 general business meeting in Atlanta. He falsely states that passage of this resolution will convert the AHA into an “antiwar activist organization.” Historians Against War (HAW) presented this resolution precisely because we are concerned about the negative impact that the “war on terror” has had on the freedom of inquiry necessary to the scholarly pursuits in which we are engaged. Far from attempting to turn the AHA into an activist organization, HAW put forward this resolution, which was overwhelmingly approved in the business meeting, in order to re-open the doors of free inquiry that have been closing during the war in Iraq.

Instead of criticizing the public positions that Barbara Weinstein has taken in support of academic freedom and the internationalization of the history profession and in defense of academics like Professor Waskar Ari, we should feel proud to have her as the AHA president and glad to be in an organization that has the courage to stand up for democratic principles.