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Reporter's Notebook: Highlights from the 2008 OAH Convention: Day 1

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Day 1: Friday March 28, 2008

It was snowing in Seattle today and barely 30 degrees in Peoria. But in New York it felt like Spring--a great way to begin another annual meeting of the OAH.

The day began in a bit of a panic for the OAH staff. The onsite program guide was supposed to arrive from the printer by eight am. At nine, well after members had begun showing up in droves, the guide still hadn't arrived. Anticipating trouble, quick-thinking staffers had xeroxed copies of the program to hand out to waiting members who wanted to know where their favorite sessions were being held. But at nine fifteen suddenly the printed guides arrived. Smiles replaced looks of anxiety. The convention would get off to a smooth start after all.

The morning began with a session on "History from the Bottom Up." The room was packed, with over 100 in attendance. Two of the headliners unfortunately weren't there, waylaid by the assorted health issues that attend the old. Howard Zinn sent word that his wife was dying of cancer. Jesse Lemisch is suffering from severe back pain. Staughton Lynd, as spry as ever, lightened the mood by joking that the OAH had to hold this session fast because "the old codgers" like himself who invented history from the bottom up wouldn't be around forever.

Just what is history from the bottom up? Lynd explained that there's no hard definition. It's an approach that takes into account the feelings, thoughts and actions of ordinary men and women. "My hope," he said, is that "the history of the people at the bottom, by the people at the bottom and for the people at the bottom shall not disappear from academia."

Staughton said that he hoped the session would mark the passing of the torch to the next generation. The next panelist to speak was Jim Pope, who said that in his case the torch is being passed from the graying to the bald. Next up was Carl Mirra, a conscientious objector during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, who with his youthful appearance actually looked the part of a new generation historian, though his ponytail suggested the sixties. He began his brief talk with a compelling discussion of the great price activist historians like Lynd, Lemisch and Zinn often made. He held up a stunning photo from Life Magazine showing Lynd drenched in blood following a violent encounter during a demonstration.

After lunch some fifty historians squeezed into a little room that comfortably could seat about twenty to hear a series of talks about "Academic Freedom and the Early Cold War." Leading off was Brandeis's Julian Nemeth, who identified the sharp differences that permeated the approaches of Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley. But both sounded remarkably radical. Nemeth pulled up some choice quotes of Kirk that made him come across like a sixties era radical in rebellion against the corporate education system. Buckley, the ultimate elitist, reveled in rebellion against experts.

Andrew Hartman (Illinois State University) discussed the variety of responses of liberal intellectuals to the question of communist teachers.

The session ended with a typically pungent and witty commentary by the conservative John Patrick Diggins, who, knowing his audience, began by saying: "I think I might need some bodyguards to get out of this room." He didn't. With his wit and light touch he immediately on over the crowd.

At three o'clock a large group of historians turned out to consider the impact of the Cold War on race relations. Baruch College's Charlotte Brooks explored the shrewd ways in which Asians in California were able to use the Cold War to breakdown racial barriers by repeatedly warning of the deleterious effect discrimination would have on our anti-Communist allies in Korea and elsewhere. It simply made no sense to be discriminating against Asians at home while fighting for their freedom abroad.

The major event of the first day of the conference was the plenary session held at five pm in the Hilton Hotel's Grand Ballroom. More than 350 people turned out to learn how historians are rewriting the history of 1968 on this the fortieth anniversary of that pregnant year. Setting the tone was the University of Pennsylvania's Thomas Sugrue, who struggled with a pair of broken glasses. His head bowed down as he strained to read from his notes, Sugrue argued that 1968 did not mark the collapse of the liberal consensus.

Georgetown's Michael Kazin disputed the conventional wisdom that 1968 marked the end of the liberal moment. No it didn't, he said. The culture was permanently changed by the sixties. Today hardly anybody under forty is racist or homophobic.

The University of Michigan's Matthew Lassiter directly confronted the belief that Nixon and other Republicans wooed whites in the Deep South and Canarsie to cobble together their string of electoral victories. What Nixon and the others were after, Lassiter insisted, was the white suburban voter. LBJ may well have said that he had signed the death knell of the Democratic Party in the South by approving the Civil Rights laws, but Paul Krugman to the contrary, the political change in the fortunes of the Democrats cannot be simply summed up with the word race.

The University of North Carolina's Heather Thompson broadened the discussion by focusing in part on the explosion in the prison population since 1968. In the four decades since 1968 she noted that some seven million people in the United States had been caught up in the justice system, dwarfing the numbers who were incarcerated or on bail in earlier decades. Because the census counts prisoners as residents, conservative communities where many prisons were built can claim extra political resources, enhancing the power of whites at a time when laws were supposedly giving blacks more power.

The University of Wisconsin's Jeremi Suri argued that 1968 "marked a shift in forces already underway." The world that came after is very different though from the world that existed before. Today NGO's play a critical role in shaping events. Oil has become a barometer of global power (he reminded us that before the seventies the US was an exporter of oil). And people like Henry Kissinger jet around the world in a way their political equals wouldn't have dreamed of doing. By Nixon's time in the White House the era of a masculine style in foreign affairs had passed. No longer was anybody asking Americans to pay any price for freedom. Instead leaders were expected to manage complicated global relationships with deftness.

Finally there was Columbia University's Manning Marable, who spoke movingly about his decision (at the behest of his mother) to travel to Atlanta in 1968 to attend the funeral of Martin Luther King.

And all that was just Day 1!