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Reporter's Notebook: Highlights from the 2008 OAH Convention: Day 2

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Day 2: Saturday March 29, 2008

Everywhere we went today there was the ghost of Roy Rosenzweig, a luminous presence in the profession and, coincidentally, the founder of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, the home of HNN. This was the first OAH since Roy had passed away--and many people keenly felt his absence. As happened at the AHA in January, friends and colleagues gathered to trade stories. Some two hundred people turned out (at eight in the morning, no less), among them, Yale's Jean-Christopher Agnew, one of Roy's many collaborators, who gave a talk,"Roy as Humorist." No, Roy wasn't a prankster. And he didn't tell jokes particularly well. But he had a great sense of humor and joie de vivre.

One of the most intriguing panels at this year's convention was about The Forgotten War. Korea? No. The War of 1812, then, perhaps? No. Though those readily qualify, the Forgotten War historians were debating this morning was the Mexican-American War. (That we have so many forgotten wars must mean something. Graduate students, pull out your notebooks and get to work!)

To contemporaries the Mexican-American War loomed large. After the Battle of Buena Vista a newspaper declared that the battle was likely to be remembered as the greatest ever fought on the North American continent. Another good prediction ruined by history. As Penn State's Amy Greenberg noted, today there aren't too many Americans who have ever even heard of the battle, including members of Congress, though they have to pass a giant painting of the scene on their way to and from the House floor. (Most people in the audience had, as a show of hands indicated. But heck, this was a group of historians. If we don't remember these battles who will? Not even re-enactors bother re-enacting the Battle of Buena Vista.)

Why did we forget what once had seemed like an important war? One obvious reason was that it was quickly followed by the most horrific of our wars, the Civil War. But as Greenberg argued, another reason contributed to our national amnesia. Like US Grant, we didn't want to remember a war in which, as Grant put it, a stronger nation callously waged war on a weaker one without legitimate cause.

In the afternoon a crowd of historians gathered to discuss the question,"Does liberalism have a usable past?" Columbia University's Todd Gitlin asked if the question wasn't really whether liberalism has a usable present? He was only joking, but from the reaction of the crowd it was apparent that the question is an uncomfortable one for liberals. Used to being beaten at the polls many expressed the doubt that liberals could win even this year, though the stars are aligned in as favorable position as they are ever likely to be.

Why have liberals faced so many defeats at the polls? It's not because ordinary Americans disagree with liberals on major issues, insisted Rutgers University's Dorothy Sue Cobble. She cited data compiled by Larry Bartels which indicate that Americans earning under $50,000 a year agree with the liberal agenda.

Not so fast, answered Columbia University's Thomas Edsall. Americans' chief default position is conservative. They favor individualism, markets, triumphalism, and manifest destiny.

As time passed it became clear that opinion is sorely divided, as an exchange between Rutgers historian David Greenberg and Gitlin demonstrated, followed by a comment made by Eric Rauchway.

Over on the other side of the hotel historians were discussing conspiracies. Just why do so many people believe in them? The eminence grise Gordon Wood offered an intriguing answer: conspiracy theories give people an explanation that provides"moral order" to the universe. Formerly, say a few hundred years ago, when angels and devils roamed the planet--or were believed to--events could be chalked up to mysterious but concrete phenomena. In the modern world, however, social scientists have offered abstract and difficult-to-understand explanations for events. Many explanations are expressed in a shorthand vocabulary that obscures as much as it illuminates. As the University of Washington's Bill Rorabaugh later suggested, even capitalism is a kind of abstract shorthand that is difficult to absorb. Hence, people turn to conspiracy theories to reassure themselves of the existence of a moral order.

But only part of the answer is that people are susceptible to conspiracy theories. What's also true is that sometimes they are tricked into believing in them. Rorabaugh noted that just a few days after JFK was assassinated the KGB was busy spreading rumors of a conspiracy. Rorabaugh himself said he didn't buy the JFK conspiracy theories. But, chirped up a member of the audience, you do believe that the KGB conspired to plant conspiracy rumors? Rorabaugh had to admit, he later confessed, this was one conspiracy in which he did believe.

One of the major events of the day was a debate about the meaning of the 40th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. First to weigh in was Stanford's Clayborne Carson, the editor of the papers of MLK.

Next up was Michael Honey, the author of a new book about the sanitation strike that King was working to support when he was killed in Memphis. Some wondered what King was doing in Memphis as they had wondered the year before when he had decided to publicly oppose the Vietnam War. What was he up to? Why did he keep fighting when he could have declared victory and retired after the '65 Voting Rights Act had been enacted? The answer, said Honey, was that King was simply fulfilling his pursuit of social justice, the cause he had first embraced in the fifties when he suddenly and unexpectedly found himself on a ten year detour because of Rosa Parks.

By now it was becoming clear that this was no ordinary panel. It was simply impossible to discuss MLK without politics intruding. Barbara Ransby (University of Illinois at Chicago Circle) bemoaned the ways in which conservatives have tried to hijack the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement to defeat the aims of the Movement. Moving on to the topic of the election, she averred that no man, not even Barack Obama, can be a substitute for a movement. No single man, she said (not even King), can take people to the Promised Land. It takes a movement to achieve great ends.

At long last -- long after he was supposed to speak -- Columbia's Manning Marable finally was given his chance at the podium. He began by saying the panel's time had expired, leaving the impression he was going to abandon his talk. Fat chance. He had too much to say. MLK, social justice, the war in Iraq, and the election of 2008--and the words just poured out.

The evening ended with the handing out of history prizes--and the sensational presidential address of Nell Irvin Painter. More on that later.