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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

AHA -- the American "Huh?" Association

Courtesy, shockingly enough, of the New York Review of Books, comes news of this petition from a group of members of the American Historical Association.  It has not been ratified by the group as a whole, so don't take this as the occasion for blanket condemnation (or praise) of the group.  The petitioners write that the AHA favors the importance of open inquiry in historical work, including "reaffirming the principles of free speech, open debate of foreign policy, and open access to government records in furthering the work of the historical profession."  They write that the current Administration has violated these standards in the following ways:

  • excluding well-recognized foreign scholars;
  • condemning as "revisionism" the search for truth about pre-war intelligence;
  • reclassifying previously unclassified government documents;
  • suspending in certain cases the centuries-old writ of habeas corpus and substituting indefinite administrative detention without specified criminal charges or access to a court of law;
  • using interrogation techniques at Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and other locations incompatible with respect for the dignity of all persons required by a civilized society;

Like the title of the post says: "Huh?"  I freely grant them item numbers 1 and 3.  Item 2 I can see as well, although I should think revisionist is not necessarily a pejorative term (even if it might have been intended to be pejorative by the members of the Administration who are alleged to have used the term), and, in any event, how gravely does it violate the relevant principles listed above to have an administration defend itself and disagree with its critics in strong terms?  Surely historians should be at least strong-minded enough to withstand that. 

But items 4 and 5?  In a stretch you could argue that any detention system or interrogation techniques that are designed to keep people in seclusion, or that are not designed to bring out the truth, violate the AHA principles.  But "stretch" is the operative word here -- especially item 4, which appears to argue that setting up an alternative administrative form of detention, one that does not preclude access to a non-court tribunal trial process, somehow violates the interests of historians.  Really, what do items 4 or 5 have to do with "the free pursuit of historical knowledge?"

Because these practices are "inextricably linked to the war in which the United States is presently engaged in Iraq," the petition goes on to urge AHA members "to do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion."  Again I ask, what does this have to do with "the free pursuit of historical knowledge?"  I understand that the AHA might want to urge the administration to cease practices related to the current conflict -- such as preventing reputable scholars from visiting these shores, or reclassifying information -- that are harmful to those values.  But shouldn't the AHA's position be that, assuming those practices do end, the war in Iraq can be as bloody and protracted as the administration and Congress wish, at least as far as they are concerned as professional historians?  Is it possible the petitioners intended to allow some space for signatories who believe the U.S. should do whatever it can to bring the war in Iraq only to a speedy and victorious conclusion, no matter how much time and death that may take?  Or is this really just a way of saying, bring the troops home now?  And if so, why should the AHA have anything to say about that in its professional capacity?   

Posted by Paul Horwitz on February 21, 2007 at 10:15 AM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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Thanks for the comments, which are enlightening as always. John, I appreciate your gracious response. This time *I* was being too pithy with my "jackboot" comment. I agree with your comment about the fragility of liberty; I just wanted to draw a distinction between the war as a threat to historians' values, and the war as a threat to historians themselves, which certainly is something one is entitled to worry about, but which surely is a less immediate threat. And I didn't mean to be too legalistic in reading the document. Rather, I'm concerned about precisely what you mention: the idea of "stepping outside the bounds of a society charter," in the academic context. It doesn't bother me for legalistic reasons, but because I worry that using professional associations in this fashion weakens the bonds of disciplinarity that are so important to maintaining the standards and values of a discipline itself, to the detriment of that discipline or profession. Also, I worry that such moves often amount to an attempt by various individuals to publicly claim the mantle of expertise, disinterest, and authority to which they might not be entitled and which is not pertinent to the statement they are actually making. This leads in turn to the reification of the notion that we ought always to listen to "experts" more than we might listen to common citizens without affiliation, even in cases where the "experts" are really just speaking as common citizens, and without any particular expertise on the issue in question. It's a little like writing a huffy letter to the paper complaining about a film critic, and signing it, "Dr. Joe Smith, Professor of Botany" -- perhaps a little worse, since one is meant to assume that the historians' field actually has some bearing on their views, when in fact it might or might not. I don't mean to suggest too strongly that this is what is going on here, but in my field it certainly seems to me that law professors have used the petition process to try to claim some special authority to speak on some public issue, even where the signatories have no expertise on the matter in question and are really just voicing a standard political opinion. I'm all for technocracy, but the technocrats should exercise some caution to speak authoritatively only on issues on which they are actual authorities. Of course the stakes are high here, but I expect academics to do their best to act as academics and maintain the authority and integrity of their disciplines, and the AHA petition rubs me the wrong way for these sorts of reasons.

This of course leads to Bart's comment. I'm familiar with at least some of these debates and I don't mean to suggest these issues aren't contested, so thanks for filling in the picture; similarly, there are lots of good debates in the law reviews about the propriety of petitions by law professors in particular contexts. It seems to me, though, that the second half of your comment doesn't necessarily support *this* petition. Your arguments might support a petition addressing abuses of history by politicians -- although if that were the case, when would the AHA ever stop filing petitions? -- or a petition discussing flawed uses of WWII analogies, although that issue seems to be a matter for individual rather than collective statements by historians. But that is a different petition from the one under debate.

Certainly historians or other academics or professionals need not be utterly detached in voicing their concerns; I just think the concerns should be more directly germane to their status *as* academics, and that academics should resist efforts to conscript the discipline as a whole into making broad statements outside their sphere of expertise. As Bruce says, once you carve away the parts of the petition that might arguably be linked to professional concerns, what you're left with is basically a statement by a variety of concerned citizens on a matter of public moment. There's nothing wrong with citizens being concerned, partial, and vocal. But, as I say, I'm not sure it's the place of disciplinary organizations to funnel the voices of their members as citizens, rather than as members of the discipline; and I'm not sure it's healthy for public participation in political discourse when credentialed folks use those credentials in a way that seeks to elevate their voices above the crowd and privilege them as "experts" where they are not.

One last thought, if you'll indulge me. I've just been presenting my work on treating universities as "First Amendment institutions," and one questioner brought up a concern that I share: that while academic institutions or individuals often claim that they should be deferred to because courts ought not disturb a considered "academic judgment" -- a claim I agree with, as it turns out -- those "judgments" are often the result of external pressure from accreditation agencies, governing bodies, and so forth, and not a genuine, considered and independent judgment on the part of the institution. How many law schools might have reached a different view on on-campus military recruiting if they did not feel pressure on this issue from the AALS; and conversely, if the law schools in that case had won, how long would it be before some members sought to have the AALS impose a no-recruiters-on-campus on all member schools, at the cost of loss of accreditation or reaccreditation? At what cost to meaningful and independent academic judgments on the part of various institutions? I think we ought to be cautious, therefore, in using various organizing bodies -- disciplinary organizations, accrediting agencies, and so on -- to make statements that fall outside the most widely shared, and thus narrowest, views about the relevant norms and traditions of that discipline, and especially cautious about allowing those bodies in turn to conscript their constituents into making similar statements. Although the situation is not completely analogous, some of the same concerns are raised in the AHA case.

Thanks again for the great comments.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Feb 21, 2007 4:19:48 PM

I think it's a little odd because it's outside of historians' expertise; historians might have special insight on how Iraq is like or not like Vietnam, or the 30 Years War for that matter, but the resolution seems focused on historians' views as average citizens. Of course, it might not attract a lot of votes, either.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Feb 21, 2007 2:41:45 PM

This question is a good one. In fact, historians have battled with their proper role as members of society and maintaining objectivity throughout the last century. Peter Novitz's book That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession discusses the academy's response to various wars and social issues. Because the American historical profession was largely educated in Germany at the turn of the century, there was greater than usual opposition to "the Great War" among them than most Americans. Likewise, in World War 2, a number of historians were isolationist, most prominently Charles Beard. (A historian that I studied for a paper in my masters course, Eric Goldman, rather emotionally defended him, while rejecting his isolationism.) This was big stuff in the academy. Come the Cold War and Vietnam, more issues emerged. Most historians could be classified as "Cold War liberals," kind of like the pre-Marty Peretz New Republic. Or as Mickey Kaus puts it, left on welfare, right on warfare. Nevertheless, many of them were involved in socially progressive causes, with perhaps the most extreme example being Howard Zinn. Zinn's not very highly regarded within the academy, probably because a generation of weary history professors have had to gently disengage their young lefty students from enthusiastically parroting Zinn's version of events. They also put themselves into the process by protesting the Vietnam war and actively collaborating with students in draft evasion.

It may be appropriate for the AHA to speak out for another reason: to refute the Bush administration's reliance on fake history. See, e.g., the recent fabrication of a "quote" by Lincoln, that "Congressmen who willfully take action during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military are saboteurs, and should be arrested, exiled or hanged."



If historians had said, gee, the World War 2 occupation analogies that the administration is using are fatally flawed for x,y, and z reasons, maybe we would not still be mired in this morally and strategically indefensible war.

The 30% of the country who still support this failed president and his failed war are becoming increasingly unstable and out of touch with reality, and so its nice to have staid organizations stepping up and saying some principles are so fundamental, they must be supported, not simply studied with practiced detachment.

Posted by: Bart Motes | Feb 21, 2007 2:38:33 PM

Paul, your response to my comment is probably more than it deserved, having been intended to be pithy rather than complete and reasoned. Let me try to respond more seriously.

Firstly, I think it is reasonable to conjecture that the last part of the petition, about ending the war, is mostly a way of saying "bring the troops home now." That said, the petition itself argues that there is a causal link between the war and the bad practices in question (some of which you recognize as real and as bad). Sure, the correct logical position is as you say, that if the practices should end then the continuation of the war should be irrelevant. But in as much as the petitioners believe the war and practices are "inextricably linked" your logical conclusion is unnecessary. Besides, it is not clear that the petition even denies that conclusion.

Secondly, you can be dismissive of the imminent "descent of jackbooted thugs," but historians ought to be familiar with just how fragile liberty can be. It doesn't seem unwarranted to want to nip such intrusions in the bud.

But finally, I think you're looking at this petition as a legal document, picking at possible internal inconsistencies, rather than looking at is as a response of people to a situation they believe is unjust and untenable. Perhaps you feel this is an inappropriate position for a professional society, but that's for its membership to decide. Slightly stepping out of the bounds of a society charter to take up the cause of freedom might be legalistically wrong, but hardly seems deserving of a "huh."

Posted by: John Smolin | Feb 21, 2007 1:41:47 PM

John, thanks for your comment. I understand your first two arguments and, in fact, I acknowledge them im my post -- but, as I said there, I also think they're a stretch. Certainly I think it would be a substantial stretch if the argument were that these government tactics endanger historians' own ability directly to engage in free speech and the open debate of foreign policy, unless you think that we are moments away from the descent of jackbooted thugs on the campus of Tufts or Ohio State, ready to drag away dissident monograph-writers. But even if one sticks to the more credible argument -- that these policies hinder the truth-seeking process, both for the administration (where, for instance, its use of torture harms its own effort to dig out relevant facts) and for historians striving to learn about the administration, I think these arguments are sufficiently attenuated that they do not strongly counsel a general recommendation of action to the entire historical profession.

Moreover, it still seems to me that if these are credible concerns, the petition should recommend that historians address *these tactics,* and that they do so specifically and narrowly with respect to the question whether the tactics disturb the truth/debate values prized by the AHA. That is different from a blanket recommendation that the government end the war as soon as possible. Again, if the government conducts the war in a way that is as open and above-board as is reasonably possible in the conduct of a war -- and surely no historian would argue that perfect transparency is possible in such circumstances -- what should it matter to the professional historian, *as* a professional historian, whether the war is quick and painless or long and bloody? Of course they might care for other reasons, and of course as historians they might ultimately analyze whether and why it might or should have been one or the other, but what profesional interest does a historian have in the cessation of the American involvement in Iraq, except to the extent that she is concerned with specific tactics that might impair her efforts to do history?

One response, you suggest, is that historians might have some professional insight about the mishandling of wars. Maybe they would; more accurately, maybe some of them would, although I don't know how many of the historians on the list of signers are military historians or otherwise especially qualified, or why the petition wasn't then aimed only at that group, and not at the whole AHA. But in any event, the petition nowhere invokes that appeal to expertise, but is confined to the particular AHA values -- free speech, open inquiry, etc. -- that I mention in my post. So, whatever merits the appeal to professional insight about the mishandling of wars might have, it seems misplaced in the specific context of this petition.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Feb 21, 2007 12:30:11 PM

You don't think the possibility of indefinite incarceration and possible torture might stifle free speech or the open debate of foreign policy? Or that secret trials with secret records might make future historians' jobs more difficult? Or that historians might have some professional insight about the mishandling of wars?

Posted by: John Smolin | Feb 21, 2007 11:46:05 AM

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