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Reporter's Notebook: Highlights from the 2006 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association (Philadelphia)



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AHA 2006


Thursday, January 5, 2006

AHA badge 2006 convention First, let's go to the numbers. More than 4,000 historians signed up for the convention (as of last week, at least), guaranteeing that the meetings here in Philadelphia will be well attended. And indeed the hotel halls and surrounding streets seemed packed with historians. You could tell the historians from the rest of the folks. The historians were the ones wearing tags featuring a grocery store scanner code. On this first day of the convention at least I escaped being scanned like a carton of milk.

The main event on the first day was the Presentation of the American Historical Association's Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Public Service Award. Members with good memories will recall that last year the award went to Brian Lamb. The year before it went to Sen. Robert Byrd. And this year? Steven Spielberg.

As members strolled into the Loew's Millennium Hall many no doubt expected to see Spielberg. The program guide issued to members months ago promised "remarks by recipient." But it was not to be. That is, Spielberg would not be appearing in person. Although the Association had hoped at one point that he would appear (he often spends the holidays in New York City, just an hour and a half away by train), his schedule did not permit a visit. Instead the audience was treated to a half hour video conversation with Spielberg and AHA President Jim Sheehan. Spielberg, playing to the audence, said that history was his favorite subject in school. His most memorable observation may have been his statement that"Hitler was most successful in destroying Yiddish as a language."

Doug Greenberg, who has worked with Spielberg at the Shoah Foundation Institute, accepted the award on his behalf, opening with the dead-pan observation, "I know no one in this room came to hear me." Greenberg said he asked Spielberg last week what the director would say if he could be present. Spielberg said he would say that his work on the Shoah Foundation "is the most important thing I have ever done except raise my family."

Spielberg has donated $65 million to the foundation, which he set up after filming Schindler's List. That, say AHA officials, was reason enough to give him the award. (He has not donated money to the AHA. Nor is there any expectation that he will. It is his service to the cause of history in general that is being honored, the AHA's Arnita Jones told HNN.)

The hall itself was grand. Up front was a large screen featuring the Spielberg video interview. To the right was a large banner with the name of the American Historical Association written across it.

Following the presentation a panel selected by Jim Sheehan explored the difficulty of assessing statements by Holocaust witnesses. Indiana University's Jeffrey Veidlinger showed a riveting series of interviews with Holocaust survivors on a trip back to their East European homelands. Chapel Hill's Christopher Browning reported his counterintuitive finding that later memories were sometimes more accurate than earlier memories, owing mainly to the witnesses' greater willingness in later years to be candid about events such as revenge killings. But he cautioned that his observation was based on the single study of the Starachowice Factory Slave Camps. Rounding out the evening, Berkeley's Paula Fass, recalling her own childhood in Eastern Europe after World War II, argued that the memories of the children of Holocaust survivors can be as helpful in recreating the past as the memories of the survivors themselves. Their "memories of memories" can give us a peak inside a world the survivors may not have talked about in public.

A noticeably thinner crowd applauded and the evening came to an end.

Friday January 6, 2006

This is supposed to be a different kind of convention. It is. Fewer scholars are reading papers, a practice that was being criticized as far back as 1925 by J. Franklin Jameson, as AHA officer Roy Rosenzweig likes to observe. (Rosenzweig has been the driving force behind the redesign of the annual AHA conventions.) There are more sessions than ever before (the AHA until now held fewer sessions than similarly-sized professional associations, leaving the impression that historians preferred lounging and eating to listening and learning). And there are more activities. On Saturday night members will be bused over to the National Constitution Center, which, we were told tonight by incoming president Linda Kerber, is a weird place. Unlike most museums it doesn't feature a lot of relics or documents. It's all about the experience.

The biggest news of the convention today may have been what did not take place. In a dramatic departure from last year, the session on Vietnam did not turn into an anti-war rally, or anything close. David Horowtiz, take note. (This is not to say that the anti-war historians were missing in action. A flier was thrust in my hand at one point with the title, "Empire, Resistance, and the War in Iraq." It was an announcement of an upcoming conference "for historians and activists" at the University of Texas, Austin, Feb. 17-19, sponsored by Historians Against the War.)

More people kept showing up at the registration desk. The latest numbers indicate that more than 5300 people have now received badges.

About those badges we now have a little more information, though details remain murky. Readers will recall (yesterday's report, above) that the badges this year include a grocery store bar code. The puzzle was that no one seemed to be asking us to show our bar codes. It turns out that they are apparently useless little strips of black ink that signify ... nothing. But behind them lies a story that says a lot about modern America. It seems that the new company the AHA hired to distribute the badges dreamed up the idea of using the bar codes to help book exhibitors find out information about the members making purchases. The code was supposed to tell the book sellers who we are, where we work, etc. But when the plan was presented to the AHA officials rejected it. Why the bar code nonetheless remained firmly in place on the badges no one could say.

General Meeting of the AHA 2006 A rather large crowd turned out for the General Meeting where the AHA's coveted scholarly awards were handed out. Afterward Stanford's Jim Sheehan delivered his presidential address. The subject was "The Problem of Sovereignty in European History." His main point was that the state system of Europe was neither inevitable nor invincible. Many states after all failed (see History 101: Versailles Peace Conference). And midway through the last century radicals who believed in race and not the state seized power in Germany. It was an intriguing argument. If the state is something of a fiction we have created to provide a semblance of coherence that in reality does not exist, just how phony are the debates in which we throw around the word as if it had a fixed meaning like a block of concrete. It was something to ponder. That Sheehan left us all with questions instead of answers was probably a good thing.


Saturday January 7, 2006

This was an important day for news at the AHA. At the afternoon Business Meeting members passed two resolutions. The first, proposed by Joyce Appleby, would put the American Historical Association on the record against torture. Click here for details. The second resolution concerned David Horowitz's so-called Academic Bill of Rights. Click here for details. Both resolutions were approved an forwarded to the AHA Council. They only become official policy of the AHA if the Council approves. The Council is scheduled to consider the resolutions at its meeting on Sunday.

Earlier in the meeting AHA executive director Arnita Jones announced in a reassuring voice unreassuring news. She noted in her annual report that while the condition of the AHA is"sound" and the budget is in the black, and attendance at the Philadelphia convention has been impressive (5600 at last count registered--so many that the AHA had to book extra rooms and more rooms than it ever had before)"there are ... some worrisome trends--many of which the AHA cannot control but must address." The problem?"Individual membership has for long been drawn significantly on tenured faculty members in higher education institutions, but the percentage of tenured and tenure-track faculty has shrunk over the years, with serious implications for our membership base."

Jones had another bit of unwelcome news. The fundraising for the National History Center is going a little slowly. Thus far less than half a million dollars has been raised. But in a plucky decision the AHA has decided to go ahead even without funds for a building with lots of interesting Center projects: seminars for members of Congress and summer seminars on decolonization for scholars.

There hasn't been much discussion during this convention about current events, unlike many conventions in past years. There was no panel on iraq, no panel on torture, no panel on the Bush administration. But at the last minute a panel was added to consider what has happened as a result of Katrina. It got little publicity. HNN found out about it the way most people did--by happening upon a single sign posted outside the doors of the Exhibition Hall.

Jim Sheehan arranged for the panel. It was fortunate he did as the fifty people who showed up probably would attest. Lawrence Powell, a historian at Tulane, claimed he remains optimistic about the ultimate prospects of New Orleans. But his presentation sounded grim. It made you wonder what a pessimistic account would be like. Quoting another panelist, he said that Katrina was a"perfect storm of indifference and incompetence." It was a"racial catastrophe" and an environmental and social disaster. 60,000 homes were destroyed. Enough trash was created to fill 40 Empire State Buildings (a fact first reported by the NYT, noted Powell). The"healthcare system is on its knees." On the brighter side: He thinks that some residents of public housing, which was wretched, may be able to have better lives in other states where the social safety net is woven a little more tightly. The main person Bush put in in charge of the reconstruction seems to be effective and energetic even though he got the job apparently because of his donations to Bush and his links to Karl Rove.

Powell was followed by UNO's Arnold Hirsch. If you wondered how a pessimist's account would run, Hirsch was prepared to tell you. He made the interesting point that America seems to rediscover poverty and race about every generation: after the race riots in 1919, 1943, the 1960s, LA in the early 1990s and now in New Orleans in 2005. Each time ignorance was followed by awareness in a dismal pattern of unrelenting sameness. If you didn't know before Katrina that there are poor black folk then"you weren't paying attention."

Martin Reuss, a historian with the Army Corps of Engineers, opened his talk with a familiar description of disaster unpreparedness followed by the complaints of two US senators and other politicians. The surprise was that they were talking about Camille, not Katrina."The problems are not new,"he intoned, noting that they pop up all over the world. After the disaster that struck the Netherlands in 1953 there were similar rumblings and indictments.

He could find only one thing to be somewhat encouraged about. It seems that over the years we have become more modest and realistic. We started at the beginning of the 20th century by talking about flood protection. Then we switched to the language of flood control. And now we speak of damage reduction.

Before I forget I have a gripe about panel chairpersons. Too many chairpersons fail to understand that many people in the audience do not know the people on the panel. Panel members need to be introduced by name clearly. And they shouldn't be introduced all at once and never to be reintroduced.