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Reporter's Notebook: Highlights from the 2005 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association

Daily Reports

  • Day 1
  • Day 2
  • Day 3
  • Day 4


  • Ronald Spector's Marshall Lecture
  • Existential Thought and Culture in Transnational Perspective
  • Guns, Violence, and Belonging in the Late Twentieth Century
  • Day 1

    Thursday, January 6, 2005

    The convention began on a dry note under clear skies. In almost any other city in America this would not be a surprise. But this is famously rainy Seattle. And now the weatherman is talking about snow showers in a city that rarely gets snow. Only a few hours old and already this is a convention that will probably be memorable.

    The big draw in the city is its new library, which the NYT calls the finest public building constructed in the United States in years. Not attending the AHA this year? This is one of the big things you're missing. Brian Lamb, the guest speaker for the evening marveled at the place. He noted he had seen a sign there which read, "Silence is un-American." "In this day and age," he commented, "where people keep crying for civilized discussion, the worst thing that could happen to us was if we silenced the discussion." (In case you are wondering about a library where people are allowed to talk. The ceiling in the main room is five stories high, so the talking's not much of a distraction.)

    Getting around was mainly easy. The convention hotels are all within a few short blocks. But finding the AHA registration desk, which is located at the Sheraton, could be tricky. In what must have been a prank played on visitors, the Washington Convention Center where many of the meetings are being held featured a sign in the lobby directing people up the escalators to the Sheraton. The Sheraton is actually located around the corner.

    The main event on the first day--aside from picking up free books offered by publishers at the book exhibits--was the presentation of the AHA's Second Annual Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Public Service Award. Last year the award went to Senator Robert Byrd. This year the award was given to C-Span's Brian Lamb. Byrd's award ceremony and speech drew a crowd of about 1,000 and was covered by C-Span. Lamb's drew a crowd of about 200 and was not covered by C-Span. Some people had objected to Byrd's award given his long ago membership in the KKK. No one objected to Lamb's award. As outgoing AHA president Jonathan Spence noted, historians have been grateful to Lamb for giving them a national platform to provide reasonable discussions of history.

    Lamb, who comes across as a down-to-earth midwesterner, thanked historians for appearing on "Booknotes," which ended in December after fifteen years and 800 interviews. He recalled that he liked to ask short questions so as not to reveal his ignorance, but he also wished his guests gave short answers, and sometimes they did and sometimes they didn't. The person who gave the longest answer was Dick Gregory. It lasted 32 minutes.

    Lamb said he had never been much of a student and did not take an interest in history in college. But one day he was invited to attend a speech by former Chief Justice Warren Burger. Burger told the crowd they should all read Catherine Drinker Bowen's Miracle at Philadelphia. "And that's where all this started," Lamb said.

    Why did he always ask authors how they wrote books--how they literally wrote, with a pen or a typewriter? Apparently it was because one of his first interviews was with Shelby Foote, who revealed that he wrote his books on the Civil War--all one million words--with a pen he dipped into an ink well!

    Reinforcing the impression of modesty, Lamb admitted he took up the habit of wearing French shirts and cuff links because Hubert Humphrey had. He said he decided to visit every presidential grave site because Richard Norton Smith--whom he dubbed, "Mr. Presidential Library"--had done so. He confessed he decided to outdo Smith and visit every vice-presidential grave site as well. This got a good laugh.

    Lamb was followed by a presidential plenary session on a topic of interest mainly to specialists in Chinese history (which may have accounted for the evening's low turn out): "Storing China's Past: Archives, Artifacts, and Art." Jonathan Spence explained that when he was told he had the authority to pick the topic and speakers "I decided to be shameless" and picked three old friends.

    Mimi Gates, an art historian who runs the Seattle Art Museum, spoke about the Buddhist caves of China (the Mogoa Grottoes), which are located in the Gobi desert. Pictures projected on a large screen showed the rich variety of images that can be found on the deteriorating walls of the caves, which are now being renovated in a model project funded in part by the Getty foundation. In all there are 484,000 square feet of wall paintings at the site, which was a major trading post along the Silk Road until the fourteenth century, when it was bypassed in favor of sea routes.

    Princeton's Susan Naquin spoke about the insights historians can gain by studying the material culture of China's past. She noted material culture is particularly important in studying the Ming (1368 - 1644) and Ching (1644-1911) dynasties, which have largely been ignored in China because scholars there view the history of the last 700 years as too new. She got a good hearty laugh when she said this.

    By material culture she meant the material objects that can be seen depicted in Chinese art--or the art itself (in the case of carved stones, which are tactile and were often rubbed for pleasure). Enlivening the arcane lecture were several pictures of Chinese couples copulating. One might qualify as pornography, she admitted. She joked that she included it just to keep the audience awake. This drew great laughter.

    The final speaker of the night was the former AHA president from 1992, Frederick E. Wakeman, Jr. (UC Berkeley). He described the mystique of archival research, part of which he attributed to the degree of discomfort in which it must often be conducted, recalling his work at a London archive where the bitter cold came up through the Tudor floorboards. He admitted that archival research is not essential to the work of all historians, noting that Richard Hofstadter probably never set foot in an archive. But he made it sound almost romantic.

    Comparing himself to a war veteran who speaks of his old battles, he told stories about the scoops in archival research. He recounted the story of a professor from Oregon who visited an archive in China for a full year before she finally was given access to some documents. He remembered that on one occasion he and a group of scholars were given access to some secret papers by Chou En-lai. But when there was a mix up suddenly soldiers with AK-47s materialized. (Eventually the scholars gained the access they had been promised.)

    He said that one of the great difficulties of archival research is that sometimes one cannot use the documents one has been given without compromising the identity of the source. "I should probably be very careful because of the television," he quickly and nervously added. There were two TV cameras in the ballroom. One was filming the event for Washington state TV, the other for New Tang Dynasty Television, which broadcasts in Europe and North America--and China (for those with a satellite dish).

    At the end of the evening I asked Jonathan Spence about the banner hanging prominently at the front of the room: American Historical Association, read the top line. Below it was a slogan, Protecting the future for those who study the past! " It looked like one of those banners you see hanging behind the president at photo ops.

    And now to sleep.

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    Day 2

    Friday, January 7, 2005

    Clouds moved in. It rained a little. But there was no sign of snow (not downtown anyway).

    One of the disadvantages of meeting in a place like Seattle, no matter what the weather, is that it is remote from major media centers, meaning that there will be less coverage of the convention this year than last, when the AHA was in Washington, D.C. Still, the New York Times sent Alex Star, formerly of Lingua Franca, now at the NYT Magazine. The Chronicle of Higher Education sent two reporters. And L'Express sent French journalist Phillipe Coste. L'Express? What on earth for, you may be wondering. We wondered too. Was it because he wanted to find out what historians think of Our Oldest Enemy : A History of America's Disastrous Relationship with France, the new book by John Miller and Mark Molesky? It turned out that Coste was here only because his wife is employed by a publisher doing business at the convention. Finding himself here, he decided to get credentials and attend a few panels. He said he went to an anti-war meeting held by Historians Against the War and an afternoon panel about American hubris. He thought about attending the panel on Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9-11, but decided he'd probably heard all the arguments that can be made about the film.

    All three panels proved to be interesting, we discovered. Hours later a Harvard professor was still taking about the presentation at the hubris lecture by Hofstra's Carolyn Eisenberg. She started off by saying that the AHA's program committee had "expressed the concern that we would be too present minded. So now I want to do just what they feared." And she did. The title of the session was: "Hubris and the Irrationality Principle in the Foreign Policy of Recent Presidents: From Richard Nixon to George W. Bush." First she got to work on Nixon and Kissinger, calling them "the boys from Columbine" because they seemed to hate everybody--they hated other Republicans, they hated Defense Secretary Laird, they hated Democrats and of course they hated the press. Then she went at the Bush people, quoting a high official at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told her confidentially, "You don't begin to understand how crazy Don Rumsfeld is."

    The closest analogy to what is happening in Iraq right now she said is what happened in Vietnam. In both wars high officials pursued a policy which couldn't possibly work. Vietnamization? It was stupid. How could you get the North Vietnamese to bargain in good faith as you drew down troop levels? LBJ hadn't raised troop levels because he was dumb. He did it because the South Vietnamese army wouldn't fight. Iraqification, she said, shows the same stupidity. Once again we are placing our faith in a force that is less committed to victory than its enemies.

    Anticipating the criticism that her language might be a tad harsh, she said sharp language is needed to describe what's happening now and what happened in Vietnam, chiding diplomatic historians for using "professor-speak."

    Why did the Vietnam war go on and on? Why did the United States invade Iraq and make a mess? She said it is important to go beyond the obvious observations ... that Nixon was crazy, that Bush is in over his head, that Nixon and Bush both benefited from the imperial presidency. She said that presidents don't go to war by themselves and cannot do as they please, even in foreign policy. So what is the common factor behind both Vietnam and Iraq that enabled irrational policies? She said that to find out we need to look at the role of "unbridled nationalism and racism" in American society that has allowed Americans to wage war on the Indians and drop the bomb on Japanese in Nagasaki. "You can say why did Bush go to war--because he was stupid, didn't read newspapers, was ideologically driven--but what kind of country do we have that led to such an irrational war?"

    At the end of her talk the audience, seemingly in agreement, gave her a rousing round of applause.

    At the meeting of HAW--Historians Against the War (where Carol Eisenberg also appeared on the panel), the discussion focused on the options the organization should pursue to help bring about an end to the war in Iraq. One option under consideration is to hold a three-day national conference of historians against the war (the unspoken assumption was that the war will continue; the conference is tentatively scheduled for the fall of 2005). Possible topics for panels might include: "historical perspective on the war and Bush's foreign policy," "past examples of resistance to war," and "attacks on freedom of speech, civil liberties, and academics." One historian in the audience rose to say that he appears to have lost his contract at a university in northern Washington State because he participated in an anti-war rally. Another historian said a friend had been heavily pressured for speaking out against the war and probably only kept her job because she had received tenure just a month before. Both were urged to contact HAW member David Montgomery, the chairman of a committee at the Organization of American Historians that is compiling a list of historians whose civil liberties have been compromised. About forty people attended the HAW meeting.

    At the session on Michael Moore panel members seemed in agreement with the general observations of his 9-11 film, but uncomfortable with the way he scored his points. One historian said it is incumbent on scholars to point out the ways in which Moore distorted the historical record. But another, passionately asking "where's the beef," said he can't think of a single fact Moore got wrong.

    Steve Mintz observed that one of "the most stunning developments in film" is that without documentaries the audience for film would have declined over the last few years. "Documentary is no longer spelled D-U-L-L." And historians need to account for the change. Several factors are apparent, he noted: the desire for the authenticity documentaries provide. The birth of reality TV. And perhaps most importantly, the willingness of documentarians to reveal taboo secrets. Until Moore showed the pictures of wounded Iraqi soldiers, most Americans had not seen them. Nor had they seen the compelling scene in the Congress when black representatives rose to object to the election of President Bush in 2000 and not one senator joined in, dooming the effort to review the result.

    Each of these three meetings drew impressive audiences, as did a morning panel on shock and awe, "Destruction from the Air in Warfare of the Twentieth Century." Atlantic History: A Critical ReassessmentThe panel that may have drawn the largest audience of the day was "Atlantic History: A Critical Reassessment." The panel that seemed to draw a disappointingly small crowd, seemingly smaller than it actually was because the meeting was held in one of the large ballrooms, was the presidential session on "Stolen Public Records."

    In the evening the traditional awards were handed out to students who wrote brilliant books and teachers who excelled at teaching and scholars who excelled at scholarship. Two historians were given the AHA's Award for Scholarly Distinction: John G. A. Pocock and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Pocock accepted his award in person, Schlesinger couldn't make it. One young scholar walked off with two awards: Laurent Dubois for A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804. About two hundred people attended the ceremony.

    AHA President Jonathan Spence rounded out the day by giving a delightful paper on a new book he is working on about Zhang Dai, a Ming loyalist who lost his family fortune and high position when in the middle of the seventeenth century there was a peasant revolt and the "Manchus established themselves as a new ruling dynasty." Most AHA presidents use their big speech as an occasion for commenting on history or the state of the profession. Spence seemingly took another approach. Or did he? Perhaps he was teaching by example. Of course he has two advantages over most other historians. One, he writes beautiful, sensitive prose (in his youth he wrote poetry; it shows). Two, he possesses an uncommonly good voice. Listening to him was a pleasure.

    Quick Takes

    • Award for Wittiest Presentation: Peter Coclanis (UNC at Chapel Hill), who recalled that in 1982 at an earlier AHA meeting when jobs were scarce he had interviewed for one position to teach the history of agriculture and another to teach urban history. At the 2005 AHA he found himself on two panels on Atlantic history "dealing with at least as wide a divergence of themes." But then, "At the AHA anything goes."
    • Best Quote of the Day: "In America Jesus always flies coach," which Duke's Grant Wacker attributed to a student term paper.
    • Most Shocking Prediction: Richard Wightman Fox predicted that coming soon to a theater near you will be movies featuring a sexualized Jesus.
    • Two Most Humble Historians: Stephen Prothero and Richard Wightman Fox, both of whom have written about the American Jesus and both of whom were at pains to point out the limits of their own books while heaping generous praise on each others'.

    Friday Addendum

    Existential Thought and Culture in Transnational Perspective (Reporting for HNN: Stephen Tootle)

    The panel started promptly with the introduction by Doug Rossinow from Metropolitan State University in Minnesota. Stephen Kern from Ohio State University described how the causal factors in murder novels had changed from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries. In the nineteenth century, murders in novels were motivated by religion and morality. In the twentieth, murders were committed for aesthetic reasons. He argued that Nietzsche¹s influence in America had been part of the reason for the change. Rather than being concerned with values, learning, or status, characters in twentieth century novels were motivated by a need for self-definition, out of a sense of inferiority, to resolve existential doubt, or to realize self-worth and help one¹s identity come into focus.

    The University of Miami's Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, focusing on the most important translator of Nietzsche, argued that Walter Kaufmann had repackaged the German thinker and made his philosophy more palatable for American readers. After describing previous thinking on Kaufmann and Nietzsche, Ratner-Rosenhagen posited that Kaufmann had freed Nietzsche from his immediate influence on less palatable political movements, such as Nazism, by emphasizing how Nietzche was a problem solver instead of a system-thinker. Totalitarians who used Nietsche were therefore misusing him.

    Martin Woessner from the Graduate Center at CUNY was both humble and funny in his presentation on Heidegger¹s place in American existentialism. Beyond some anecdotes about authors using Heidegger as a foil, Woesnner had a difficult time proving that Heidegger had truly penetrated American culture. His use of innovative sources was appealing though, as was his personality.

    George Cotkin (California Polytechnic State University), the commentaor, struck just the right note. He was thoughtful, funny, brisk, and relevant. He argued that the panelists had proven that German thinkers (as opposed to say, French ones) had been wrongly overlooked in discussions about America in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. He suggested that Cold War had shaped the context and the reception of both Nietzsche and Heidegger.

    Kern really came alive in the question and answer session that followed the papers.

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    Day 3

    Saturday, January 8, 2005

    Every convention there's something to grouse about. This year it's the location of the book exhibit. It's six floors up. Worse, in a break with tradition, it's a full block from the AHA registration desk. So if you want to take a break and check messages on the AHA boards and then perhaps browse the book aisles you have to split your time between two different buildings. Worse yet, one of the escalators to the book exhibit in the sky was broken today. That gave historians the choice of either trudging up one of the escalators by foot or walking to a distant elevator. One historian in his eighties was seen huffing and puffing his way up the escalator seemingly at risk of a heart attack, thought Ralph Luker. Why had this awkward arrangement been made? The AHA's Arnita Jones told HNN it was because of the limits of the Washington Convention Center's physical layout. For those who are not in attendance, the convention is a sprawling mess of a building, a reflection of the fact that it was built in three stages, each time to increase capacity.

    Several of the sessions today dealt with archival research. The panel on "Secrecy and Access in the Archives: Washington, Moscow, and the Vatican" was particularly interesting.

    Want to cull the files of the Vatican? Sorry, that won't be easy. The Library of Congress has some 4,000 employees. The Vatican, with a collection nearly as large, has about ... 10 or so. Ok, this may be a slight exaggeration, but it is apparently close to the truth. One scholar recalled that whenever he would visit the Vatican archives officials always blamed Napoleon for the material they couldn't find. It was such a reflex with them that one day when they couldn't locate a document from the nineteenth century produced after Napoleon had died, they still blamed Napoleon.

    American University's Anna K. Nelson, speaking about the records held by the National Archives, said, "It's not as bad as the Vatican but sometimes I think it is." But the longer she talked the more it seemed, as one man screamed from the audience, that it's "worse than the Vatican." Example. While the rule is that documents are declassified after twenty-five years declassification can only begin after the last document has been added to a file. Since files in the State Department often remain open for ten or twenty years, that means it may take fifty years (with all the attendant and inevitable delays) for documents to be declassified.

    The National Security Archive's Thomas Blanton noted that under Clinton rules had been liberalized, apparently as a result of an op ed Blanton had written for the NYT in which he had chastised the administration for a declassification policy then under consideration that wasn't even "as good as Nixon's." Clinton, reading Blanton's article, scribbled in the margin that he wanted his people "to do better." They did, establishing the rule that when in doubt, let it out. But under President George W. Bush the rule was reversed. Now the rule is, "if there's a doubt, don't."

    Blanton said that 9-11 had emboldened the Bush administration to limit access to documents--even those that had previously been released, as a handout featuring a document about Pinochet demonstrated. The document on the left was released in 1999 with no redactions. The same document, released in 2004, was blacked out in ten places. (Note: only one side shown.) From the National Security Archive

    One way the administration has dealt with the criticism that it classifies too many documents is to stop classifying many of them altogether, labeling them instead, "Sensitive But Unclassified,"--SBU's, for short. The trouble with this is that not only are the documents not released, they may not even be saved, unlike documents stamped Top Secret, which almost always are saved. "It's not just our own history that's in danger here," Blanton told the crowd, "it's accountability. It's our democracy."

    Just as Washington under Bush II has been throwing up roadblocks to stop the release of documents, so has Moscow under Putin, said George Washington's Jim Hershberg. But Hershberg was a little less gloomy abut Moscow than Blanton was about Washington, noting that 70 to 80 percent of the materials Moscow refuses to release can be obtained through backdoor archives in the former Soviet republics.

    In the afternoon the career of Henry Kissinger was reconsidered in light of the release of new sources, including his telephone calls. William Burr, another National Security Archive scholar, said that the new sources have convinced him that the Christmas bombing campaign of 1972 was not designed so much to reassure the South Vietnamese that Americans would continue standing by them as to say to the world, America is a power to be reckoned with.

    Kissinger's relationship with Defense Secretary Melvin Laird was fascinatingly complex. At one point Laird protested that his presidential orders gave him the power to bomb the North over Christmas for only three days. Kissinger, who wanted the campaign to go on far longer, pressured Laird to keep it going, telling him that's what Nixon wanted. The planes kept flying, though the written orders weren't changed.

    Vanderbilt's Thomas Schwartz, summing up, recalled what Bismarck famously had said about diplomacy: It was like making sausage; you didn't want to watch. He then added that a few days ago a colleague unfamiliar with American history had commented seriously that what the Bush administration needs is a new Henry Kissinger. "I am not so sure," said Schwartz slowly, drawing out his words for emphasis.Then he added, almost sighing, "We historians have our work cut out for us."

    Business Meeting, 2005

    The day ended with the annual business meeting. Arnita Jones announced that 4500 people were participating at this year's convention, nearly a thousand more than the last time the AHA met in Seattle some half dozen years ago. One of the reasons for the higher than usual list, she explained, was that many teachers had taken up the AHA's new offer to attend the convention at a reduced rate--and to bring along up to five students. That solved the mystery of the sudden appearance this year of so many high school students.

    She noted that the organization is in the black but said that earnings from AHA's investments had been flat over the past year, leading the council to drop its existing investment house and switch to Lazar.

    Michael Grossberg, who is resigning as the editor of the American Historical Review after a ten year run, gave his farewell address. He noted the many changes he had inaugurated--he changed the font, he changed the paper four times, and he put the journal online--and said his goal had been to help historians speak across the boundaries of their own specialties--the same goal of the journal's founder in 1895. But mostly he told jokes and had fun. "What you don't realize if you haven't been to these meetings," he stated with a straight face, "is that when I started ten years ago I was six foot five." Later he thanked AHA staffer Robert Townsend: "More than any other person at the AHA I have come to think of him as a member of the journal, though he has not had the privilege of living in Bloomington." His final parting comment -- "I welcome your complaints and urge you to send them to Robert Schneider [his successor]" -- brought down the house. Then he made his exit. Later Roy Rosenzweig, the vice president who oversees the AHR and helped pick Robert Schneider, observed that Schneider has neither the height of a six foot fiver or a full head of hair as he starts out his career as the editor of the journal.

    The next president-elect of the AHA was announced. It will be Linda Kerber, who defeated Leon Litwack. Tallies of the votes will be released later in the annual report. (Formerly they were included in the AHA's Perspectives. Then six year's ago the losing candidate complained loudly and election results began to be posted in the more obscure annual report.)

    Bill Cronon, ending his three-year term as head of the Professional Division, announced that among the new initiatives the division was able to undertake this past year now that it was no longer spending time investigating complaints of professional wrongdoing was a substantial revision of the Statement on Standards. It was approved by the council Thursday and will be posted on the website soon. Several other changes: The division will shortly post on the AHA's website a curriculum on plagiarism. He said that in the future the division would post documents to help both teachers and administrators determine what they should do when confronted with a case of plagiarism.

    After the officers of the AHA had finished with their reports, the meeting considered a resolution sponsored by students at Yale and Duke to require the AHA to adopt a policy of union preference to help encourage hotels and others to pay their workers better wages. When a friendly amendment was proposed the chairman, Jonathan Spence was temporarily baffled by the somewhat bewildering rules of procedure and turned to the parliamentarian for guidance. "I deal mainly with problems of Chinese complexity," he said, which prompted general laughter. More confusion followed when the vote was taken. As Spence began to tally the number of noes and abstentions, the parliamentarian interjected that that would not be in order. Spence promptly retorted, to a roomful laughter, "In China we count."

    Quick Takes

    • Caught in the Act of Preparing : At the Sheraton, sitting in a stuffed chair in the lobby, his leg twitching a bit nervously, there was a young historian reading over a paper he planned to deliver. Only he wasn't just reading silently. He was reading out loud. Loud enough for the people seated nearby to hear him. Did he realize this? It was hard to tell.
    • Overheard Conversation Between Two Historians: "What we missed by not going to Ivy League schools is that we didn't learn to talk fast. Those guys think talking fast means they're smart."
    • Was He Tempted? As two historians walked past an exhibit for weddings being staged in the same convention hall as the AHA, one turned to the other and commented: "What would the reaction be if I walked into my department wearing a wedding dress?" (Laughter.)
    • And Then There Was This: Look familiar? It's a Lyndon LaRouche table, just in case the historians in attendance at the AHA needed some help understanding America and the world.

    Saturday Addendums

    Post War Occupations (Reporting for HNN: Tom Bruscino)

    On Saturday evening at the American Historical Association meeting Ronald H. Spector of George Washington University delivered the Sixth Annual George C. Marshall Lecture titled, "After Hiroshima: Allied Military Occupations and the Fate of Japan's Asian Empire, 1945-47," on the timely topic of the forgotten areas of occupation in Asia and the Pacific after World War II.

    When Japan surrendered it still controlled a vast area, including Korea and large swaths of China and Southeast Asia. The situations in each of these areas varied widely, but the Allied powers that moved into these locales and tried to establish control shared two main traits: 1) they never had enough troops, and 2) they usually knew next to nothing about where they were going. In what stands as a stark testament of the difficulty of these occupations (and what might come as a surprise to most students of the war) Spector pointed out that the resulting confusion led the various Allies to turn to the former Japanese occupiers for help. But nothing the Allies did made the occupations in any of these areas a clear-cut success or failure.

    What does the post-World War II experience tell us about the current situation in Iraq? Spector concluded that history offers a "bright light of ambiguity." His presentation was a reminder that military occupations are almost always wrought with unforeseen difficulties, not the least of which come from the trouble of even defining success or failure in such operations. Perhaps even more frustrating is the fact that the factors that lead to difficulties and mistakes are not just a matter of the technique or planning of the occupiers, but more often than not stem from existing indigenous issues. As Professor Spector made clear, if history is any guide there are not going to be any easy answers for a long time in postwar Iraq.

    Guns, Violence, and Belonging in the Late Twentieth Century (Reporting for HNN: Stephen Tootle)

    The paper by Abigail A. Kohn (University of Sydney) drew from a relatively small sample of gun owners in northern California and Australia but her conclusion rang true. She found that Australian gun owners shunned many of the ideas that American gun owners held dear. The American gun owners she polled believed that owning a firearm was part of good citizenship. They drew on mythic traditions of individuality, moral vision, and order, believing that gun control was a kind of political oppression. Australian gun owners lived in culture with far fewer gun owners and saw guns as nothing more than pieces of sports equipment. The Australian gun owners she polled supported gun control and saw American practices as dangerous.

    The Univesity of Hartford's Robert Churchill's talk on the militia movement described how the militias changed during the 1990s. Many of them were not hate groups, nor were they particularly concern with what is commonly known as the "white Christian patriarchal dominion" movement or political violence. In many cases the groups were concerned with fears of a New World Order that would emerge in the wake of the end of the Cold War. It was only after the incidents at Waco and Ruby Ridge that the groups began to worry about state sponsored violence. They saw those two events as a "wake-up call" that the state would have a monopoly on violence, even going so far as to claim that they were preventing the possibility of another Holocaust in opposing gun control. They appealed to the founding documents in defending their civil liberties. Churchill concluded by asserting that the attacks of September 11, 2001 closed the door that the fall of the Berlin Wall had opened. Post September 11, state violence would be directed outward again.

    Koc University's John Drabble, focusing on the Klan, argued that the FBI¹s counter-terrorist program, COINTELPRO, during the 1960s pushed the Klan and the American Nazi Party together. White hate groups turned on the FBI in the late 1960s and early 1970s. COINTELPRO successfully broke up and disrupted the activities of many white hate groups by linking vice stories to the press about Klan leaders, sending postcards to employers of Klan members identifying their Klan membership, disrupting publication of their newsletters, arranging audits by the IRS, and diverting donation funds to bogus splinter organizations. After it became apparent that the federal government was behind this activity, the Klan abandoned much of its white Christian identity and formed new affiliations that were more paramilitary in nature. They moved from a "hard" racism tied to white male democracy to Nazism. They likewise moved from nativist anti-Semitism to a genocidal racial anti-Semitism.

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    Day 4

    Sunday, January 9, 2005

    Finally, it snowed. But as usually happens on the rare occasions when snow falls in Seattle, by early afternoon it was gone--and so were most of the members, as they hurried to catch their planes leaving the city for home.

    The stalwarts who remained to attend the final panels found room after room nearly deserted, leaving many panelists a little demoralized and almost desperate. As this reporter entered one session the chair called out: "Please don't leave us!" Another chair ended a meeting by saying how pleased he was that people had showed up. "Five minutes before the panel began," he said, "I thought we might not have an audience." But he was deluded as to its size. He estimated it at fifty. Keeping in mind Jonathan Spence's comment yesterday ("In China, we count"), we counted. There were twenty-five. But it was one of the three panels with the largest crowd.

    The general impression is that Sundays are not really full days at the convention. This is simply not true. There were nearly as many scheduled sessions on Sunday (73) as on Friday (74).

    Last year the AHA was heatedly criticized for scheduling many of the most widely appealing panels on Sunday, including one which directly concerned the war in Iraq. Some of the profession's biggest names were appalled when they found out their panels had been consigned to the outer reaches of scheduling Mongolia. The AHA did not repeat the mistake this year. Only one panel with broad appeal to the membership was scheduled this time around for a Sunday--"Historians, the Media, and the Politics of Academic Scandal"--and that was apparently because the proposal for the panel was submitted late.

    The History Scandals (Reporting for HNN: Ralph Luker)

    The Academic Scandal panel began at 11:00 a.m., Carla Rahn Phillips of the University of Minnesota chairing the session, which featured papers by Ron Robin of the University of Haifa and Jon Wiener of the University of California, Irvine, two of the three authors with books out about the history scandals. (Editor: Charles Peter Hoffer was omitted. Jon Wiener, who pulled the panel together, told HNN that he had been unaware of Hoffer's book when he assembled the group. As the panel began, Hoffer was reportedly preparing to leave for the airport. On Friday night all three authors appeared at a local bookstore for a joint talk attended by more than 100 people.)

    Robin argued that technology has enabled academic deviance, but also the detection of it. The medium dictates the terms of the debate. The democracy of the net has undermined the gatekeeping of professional elites. The new academic celebrity is no longer the gatekeeping elite, but one made famous by exposure. Popular history has become infotainment. The real sins are not plagiarism, fraud and misrepresentation of the self, but the trivialization of history, the determination to produce a “useable past” and a false sense of how the past can be made virtually present. Too often represented as a disease, the scandals are a sign of normally vital activity; boundary control is a index of normative vibrancy within.

    Jon Wiener asked why some historians survive serious charges and are ultimately rewarded, while others find their careers ended by the scandal. Some scandals become media spectacles; others are contained within academic culture. Wiener’s primary examples are the cases of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Michael Bellesiles, and Edward A. Pearson. Emory settled the Fox-Genovese case for a large payment, but held no internal inquiry. Strong conservative allies outside the profession both saved Fox-Genovese’s position and added to her honors. By contrast, her colleague, Michael Bellesiles, had powerful enemies who demanded that Bellesiles's’s feet be held to the fire. Yet, the third case, of Edward A. Pearson, yielded a dramatically different result: his book about Denmark Vesey was withdrawn from publication, but Pearson otherwise experienced no significant professional punishment, even though his work was massively flawed. There was no large constituency demanding further punishment.

    In his response to these two papers, David Hollinger of the University of California, Berkeley, expanded the scandals under consideration to include the debate about ideological “balance” in academic communities, taking note of note of David Horowitz's campaign for an “Academic Bill of Rights” and a balanced pluralism of ideological representation. It presents itself as a case of scandal. Hollinger argued that professional academic standards of evidence and reasonable debate are the appropriate standard for what constitutes balance. Within the professional standards of our various disciplines, there are legitimate questions of cross-disciplinary responsibility. (Editor: After HNN posted yesterday's report on the AHA convention, David Horowitz wrote in to complain about the panel on government secrecy. Click here to read his letter.)

    Carla Rahn Phillips responded to the papers by asking Jon Wiener to clarify the distinction between Fox-Genovese’s bad behavior and her contributions to scholarship, pointing out that her reward was for scholarship, not for fortitude in bad behavior. Phillips's sense was that the investigating committee at Emory handled its responsibilities with care and that the outcome was fair. That Pearson continues as a history department chairman is, she thought a serious embarrassment, as is the AHA professional division’s decision to stop adjudicating charges of professional malfeasance.

    Other Panels

    An early morning panel featured the title "World Affairs During the Reign of the Second Bush: Doing History without the Archives," which sounded like it had been put together by the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. But it was chaired by a scholar from the US Air War College, featured a paper by a historian from the US Naval Historical Center, and ended with commentary by conservative political scientist Kiron Skinner, who is well known as the author of pro-Reagan books.

    Sarandis Papadopoulos, the historian from the navy, is the author of a forthcoming official history of the attack on the Pentagon on 9-11. The book is mainly based on oral histories 42 Pentagon researchers took from 1100 people--the largest oral history project concerning a single event, he noted, in the history of the United States. He predicted that most of the oral histories, which were made available to the 9-11 commission, would eventually be made public. Asked what he thought of the French book that claimed the attack was staged by the CIA using Navy-fired cruise missiles, he said that that argument simply cannot be made with any credibility. He said he has interviews with five witnesses who watched the airplane strike the Pentagon. He stated flatly that he felt no pressure from anyone to sanitize the history, though of course certain classified details had to be omitted. He finished the manuscript in November. It's now under official review. He hopes it will be published either later this year or early in 2006.

    Across the hall a panel heard from the University of Oregon's Beatrice McKenzie about the fascinating case, United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898). Ark was a Chinese born American who traveled to China to find a bride. Upon his return he was blocked from re-entering the country in 1895 at the Port of San Francisco. A decade earlier a court had ruled that a Sioux Indian was not a citizen even though he had been born in the United States. And in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) , the Supreme Court held that there are different classes of citizenship, one for blacks and another for whites. So it was not clear that the Court would rule in favor of Ark. But in 1898 it did, establishing once and for all that in the United States the 14th Amendment guarantees citizenship to anyone born here (except for the children of diplomats and in the case of the occupation of a foreign army).

    Another panel meeting over at the Sheraton considered court cases involving miscegenation, gay rights and religion. Claremont Graduate University's Fay Botham related the compelling story behind the case of Perez v. Lippold. Andrea Perez was a white woman of Mexican descent who in 1948 wanted to marry a black veteran in Los Angeles. The county denied the couple a marriage license on the grounds that miscegenation was illegal. Perez appealed. The California supreme court, in a split decision ruled in favor of Perez, striking down miscegenation for the first time since Reconstruction. What Botham argues is that the plaintiff's winning strategy was to claim that the refusal to marry Perez, a Catholic, was a violation of her First Amendment rights since the Catholic Church allowed interracial marriage. Botham said there is some evidence that this strategy was adopted expressly to appeal to a single justice who held the swing vote in the case. Might gay groups use the religious argument embodied in Perez to argue in favor of gay marriage? Perhaps, they could--and some apparently have, Botham said.

    Commentator Steven K. Green, a law professor at Willamette University who also holds a Ph.D. in history, noted that one of the most interesting aspects of the case are the arguments the government advanced in open court in opposition to the marriage. One attorney stated that the state had an interest in prohibiting the marriage since it was well established that blacks come from the dregs of society and that a mixed couple would produce offspring that would become an unfortunate drain on society. Green said he was struck by the fact that in his lifetime one could make an argument like this in court and not receive a reprimand from the judge. But he said this was the swan song of the anti-miscegention cause. Within decades miscegenation would be legal everywhere.

    Mary Ann Case, a law professor at the University of Chicago--who charmingly announced that "I am not a historian and I don't play one on TV. I exploit history"--spoke about the religious opposition to gay marriage. Citing recent poll results which demonstrate that more Protestants are hostile to gay marriage than Jews or Catholics, she argued that Protestants, much more so than Jews or Catholics, deeply believe that their own marriage values should be reflected in state law. Why? Unlike Jews and Catholics, who have long held marriage values which are at odds with the assumptions of secular laws (the Catholic opposition to contraceptives, for instance), Protestants have long used the state to enforce their own marriage principles. The first legal measure the Puritans in New England took was the establishment of civil marriage. For these Protestants marriage was a civil institution (for Catholics it obviously was a religious institution). In the early nineteenth century Protestants agreed to the separation of church and state once they recognized the danger of sectarian conflict among Protestants. But in their view disestablishment did not mean the abandonment of Protestant values in marriage law. Disestablishment enshrined those values in the law.

    At 1pm the 2005 convention came to a close. As the American historians drifted away, one called out to another, "see you in San Francisco." In March the OAH will meet there.

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