Highlights from the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Milwaukee
David Austin Walsh is editor of the History News Network.
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"What I like most about the OAH meeting," a young historian confided over coffee this morning, "is how casual and relaxed it feels compared to the AHA." It's true -- the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians tends to be a more intimate affair, even when it's held in a gigantic convention center like the Frontier Airlines Center in Milwaukee. The reasons are threefold: One, the OAH is for historians of America, whereas the AHA encompasses (in theory) every historian in the United States, regardless of their field of study; two, the OAH draws a somewhat smaller crowd (around 2,000 historians and locals are expected to attend this year); and three, an early opening night reception with an open bar.
As this year's OAH meeting is in Milwaukee, the conference organizers have taken great pains to tie in Wisconsin's tumultuous contemporary political landscape with the session list -- the official theme is "Frontiers of Capitalism and Democracy." It's a doubly appropriate move, considering that embattled Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, facing a recall election this June, rose to prominence as the county executive of Milwaukee County, and that current AHA president William Cronon -- a native Wisconsinite and professor of history at the University of Wisconsin Madison -- drew national headlines last year for his expose of the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council in promoting anti-union legislation in the state (ALEC, once an obscure if influential organization, has since become a lightning rod for controversy).
This morning kicked off with a panel steeped in potential controversy: "Contesting Conservative Interpretations of the founding fathers." Though the session title suggested that it would serve solely as a rejoinder to Tea Party distortions of Revolutionary-era history, Barbara Clark Smith, Curator of Political History at the Smithsonian Institution, offered that "I've spent as much time defending the founding Fathers against liberals as I have against conservatives." It is the Tea Party that has sought to claim ownership of the founders, however. Smith noted that the anti-tax, anti-tyranny definition of freedom offered by the modern Tea Party ignores the original Tea Party's "left-wing" positions: seizing and destroying private property in the name of the common good. She also discussed the Smithsonsian's Jefferson Bible exhibit, which features Jefferson's version of the New Testament, which he edited to remove all references to the Resurrection and other supernatural elements.
Saul Cornell, an acclaimed legal historian who has drawn attention for his expertise on the Second Amendment, then talked about the glaring deficiencies in constitutional originalism. Like Dracula, he said, originalism just doesn't stay dead. He identified four main strands of "new originalist" thought. One strand, semantic originalism, holds that the meaning of the Constitution is its literal linguistic meaning, but, as Cornell pointed out, the first dictionaries -- upon which jurists like Justice Antonin Scalia rely -- didn't appear until decades after the Constitution was drafted. With nearly 1,200 law reviews in the United States, originalist scholarship doesn't want for outlets, but what it does want for, Cornell said, is actual research. He related an online exchange with an originalist law professor, who, after having his paper refuted by Cornell's historical arguments, retorted that "While we have argued the Constitution should be interpreted in accordance with original methods, we have not argyed what those methods were. We believe that this would involve an in depth and balanced inquiry into the historical materials that we have not engaged in. We do, however, believe that the leading methods at the time were all some version of originalism -- original intent, original public meaning, etc."
Bowling Green State's Andrew Schocket delved into the place of the founders and the Revolution in pop culture, noting that even movies and TV shows produced by "Hollywood liberals," like John Adams and The Patriot (Mel Gibson may be no liberal, but the producers of that movie are Democratic donors) use a classically conservative lens -- defining the Revolution as a struggle for freedom from overbearing government taxation, gun rights, etc. On a rational level, he went on, people know TV and movies do not history make, but numerous studies have demonstrated that even though most people know they shouldn't trust movies as historical sources, they subconsciously do anyway.
There's a movie coming out this summer called Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, he concluded. When someone sees that title, they understand it's complete fantasy. "We all need to be skeptical about all movies." We need to see every historical movie and TV show as Saving Private Ryan, Vampire Hunter or The Patriot, Vampire Hunter.
David Waldstreicher, who teaches at Temple University, engaged the arguments and logic of malaprop-prone congresswoman and one-time presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann, who said on national television that the founding fathers ceaselessly sought to end slavery (she offered up John Quincy Adams, the son of founder John Adams, as proof). What Bachmann said, Waldstreicher argued, had a certain logic which flowed from the arguments of historians like Gordon Wood and Joseph Ellis, who emphasize the abolitionism and anti-slavery views of, for example, men like Benjamin Franklin. But, Waldstreicher continued, historians of that school tend to "segregate" slavery and race into single chapters of their books -- "I'm most excited by work that encompasses both African Americans and the founders" in totality.
The session concluded with remarks by Louisiana State's Nancy Isenberg, who confided that she was rather jaded by engaging the public on these issues through her column at Salon.com, which she co-authors with her colleague Andrew Burstein. The media, she lamented, is "crassly commercial and amazingly uninformed," and contains a large number of self-appointed historians. The Tea Party, she offered, tries to censor what can be said about the founding fathers -- the Tennessee Tea Party asked for a law to require "no portrayal of minority experience in history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience of the founding fathers or the majority of citizens -- because they ultimately desire history to be like a Christmas card (the analogy with religion is deliberate), full of good cheer and uplifting progress.
Ironically, Isenberg intimated after the panel concluded, the consequence of the relentless pressure of the Tea Party has been a great deal of self-censorship. There's also a certain reluctance, noted by this reporter, of historians willing to speak on the record about the subjects raised by the panel.
There was also some fare for public and pop culture historians in the morning -- this morning also saw a panel entitled "Museums and Makers: Intersections of Public History Technology Buffs from Steam Trains to Steampunk" (which apparently went over quite well, judging by its reception on Twitter) and "Country Music, Country People: A Roundtable Discussion on Music and Rural Life in America," which centered on the role of class and country music, and which makes an appropriate academic epitaph for roots rocker Levon Helm, he of The Band fame, who passed away today.
Stephen Mihm, an economic historian and professor at the University of Georgia, chaired a panel this afternoon on the building of business confidence. Andrew Russell, one of the panelists, exploded the myth of a collaborative generation of pioneering engineers who cooperated in creating the Internet; innovation, as W.B. Carlson has argued, is a social process. "I have a message for Clay Shirky," he said, "there is no such thing as 'organizing without organizations.' " The Internet Engineering Task Force was created in 1986 to enact Internet standards and has been at it ever since, and there's been a lot of infighting ever since. In essence, Russell related the history of the Internet's first flame war between early developers, an auspicious occasion if there ever was one.
Meanwhile, Khalil Gibran Muhammad chaired a panel on the transformation of the Great Society "War on Poverty" to the Nixonian "War on Crime." Commentator Heather Ann Thompson suggested in an interview with HNN that the line between the two is more blurred than usually appreciated:
On another front, Ann Whisnant's tweets have kept those of us unable to be everywhere at once abreast of Thursday's public history sessions. At 1:30, a panel of seven public historians convened to talk about the gradual reinterpretation of the Indian Wars at National Historic Sites, emphasizing the dialogue between academic historians and the National Park Service, "creating programming WITH not FOR audiences," and the perspectives of "both native peoples and conquerors."
Whisnant also tweeted the details of "Readers Wanted: Academic Historians and the Publishing Market," featuring William Cronon questioning panelists from Oxford University Press, Simon & Schuster, and Kneerim Literary Agency. Oxford's Susan Ferber and Simon & Schuster's Thomas LeBien noted that author blogs are not a replacement for actual book reviewing, but some do find blogs and blogging useful. They also revealed that a review in the New York Times is actually less valuable than a review in the Wall Street Journal, which, according to Ferber, is leading the print pack in the number of book reviews published. Cronon and Lisa Kneerim also emphasized that a good book begs for a good website to tie together accompanying Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube materials.
The afternoon saw a huge working group convene to discuss the ongoing Civil War sesquicentennial. The data, anecdotes, and insights flew thickly -- it's to the great credit of tweeter JMR for keeping up with the flow. Discussion quickly turned to the Lost Cause narrative, the themes of which, Georgia historian Stan Deaton noted, are being rehashed in contemporary politics. "Having an [Sons of Confederate Veterans] historian go on TV … makes it seem like that's a legitimate side of the debate," he continued. "Do I REALLY need to explain to you the link between the Civil War and Martin Luther King? Yes, I do in the South." There was also an appreciation for the opportunity and potential pitfalls of the sesquicentennial. The centennial, Kevin Levin noted, created a new generation of Civil War buffs -- that could happen again, but he also worried that it would mean romanticizing war in general.
One of the final afternoon sessions, "The Corporate University: Capitalism, Labor, and the Crisis in Democracy," had a self-admitted non-historian on the panel. Kyle Shafer, a twentysomething union organizer in Chicago, talked about his efforts to organize food-service workers on campus. He was an industrial engineering student at Northwestern University, but his degree, he said, was more or less explicitly designed to move students into corporate positions. "I grew up in Minneapolis and my dad was a union man," he said, "but the purpose of my education was to figure out how to extract more work out of people like my dad while paying them less."
Michael Cohen, on the other hand, is very much an historian -- he received his PhD from Yale and now teaches as a visiting professor at the University of California Berkeley. And he's not happy about the goings-on in the UC system: many of the UC regents, he said, are corrupt and/or have serious conflicts of interest -- including Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein's husband, Richard C. Blum, an investment banker who is a large shareholder in for-profit education companies. "What do these investments say about Blum's vision for higher education?" the Los Angeles Times wondered two years ago. The language of the Occupy movement (which had roots in massive protests at Berkeley over tuition increases in 2009), Cohen said, has really hit home in California -- UC regents are now physically unable to meet without facing angry protesters (riot cops are now a familiar presence at regent meetings).
Cohen closed with a modest proposal: "We should sell the football team." Intercollegiate athletics has actually been a net loss for Berkeley, and he looks forward to the day that corporate sponsors will lend their names to college football teams just as they do to stadiums.
Brown University's Mari Jo Buhle concluded with an extensive reminiscence on the gradual transformation of Brown from a regional (albeit Ivy League) university college to a major corporate university. She argued that the school was a victim of its own fundraising success -- as more money flowed into the coffers, more was invested in professional and research programs, which in turn attracted a plethora of corporate sponsorships. By 2001, Brown trustees had embraced the language of "bringing Brown to the next level of excellence," classic corporatespeak.
Thursday evening saw, as always, the OAH's opening reception (with the aforementioned open bar). Given the conference theme and general tenor of the sessions so far, it was ironic that, as historians gallivanted on the third floor of the Frontier Airlines Center, the ground floor featured a chic dinner hosted by the Wisconsin Right to Life Education Fun, headlined by conservative pundit Laura Ingraham.
Thus far, no fights in the hall have been reported!
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Susan Ferber suggested that authors set up blogs to promote their books. She actually said that while blogs can be useful, they are no substitute for book reviews. HNN regrets the error.
Unfortunately, a bout of food poisoning has knocked your humble reporter temporarily out of the convention coverage game, but in the meantime here's full footage and Twitter coverage from the session "The Roots of Democratic Upheaval," featuring a panel including Columbia's Rashid Khalidi, Michigan's Juan Cole, and George Washington University's Melani McAlister:
The afternoon also saw the panel "Field Critique: The Republic of Nature: Rediscovering the Environmental Origins of American History," featuring an fascinating, quasi-experimental critique of Mark Fiege's new book The Republic of Nature by a distinguished panel of non-environmental historians: Mary Beth Norton, Eric Foner, and Linda Gordon. William Cronon chaired.
Oh, what wonders a well-exercised stomach can do to cleanse one's body of toxins!
Before moving on to today's goings-on, I want to briefly go back to Friday's plenary session "Professional Organizations and Political Engagements," which brought together a number of past presidents of the OAH and the American Historical Association. The panel, consisting of Elaine Tyler May, William Chafe, William Cronon, James Grossman, Kimberly Phillips (former president of the Labor and Working-Class History Organization), and Linda Kerber, talked about past controveries in which both the AHA and OAH have been embroiled -- the NAACP boycott of Adams Mark in St. Louis in 2000, the OAH contract pull-out in San Francisco in 2004, the 2010 San Diego protests over Prop. 8 -- and the financial costs of such cancellations. William Cronon's and James Grossman's in particular illustrated the tension between the left-wing, pro-labor politics of many members of the major historical assocations, the practical realities of governing professional organizations (if scholarly organizations cancelled convention contracts regularly, Cronon warned, it would be "lethal" for those organizations), and the simple fact that not every member is left-wing and/or pro-labor -- and the OAH is their organization, too.
But on to today. 2012 is a year of momentous historical anniversaries -- the sesquecenntial of the Civil War is ongoing (and not coincidentally the Civil War is the subject of a number of different sessions at the OAH/NCPH this year), the sinking of the Titanic just underwent its own centennial this week, and, in October, the Cuban Missile Crisis will be fifty years behind us. Appropriately, "The Cuban Missile Crisis Fifty Years Later--New Perspectives" convened in the morning.
The session had papers presented by George Mason University's Martin Sherwin, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for American Prometheus, a biography of J. Robert Oppeheimer; Max Holland, editor of Washington Decoded and author of Leak; Svetlana Savanskaya of the National Security Archive, and the University of Virginia's David Coleman. Each speaker articulated a broader view of the missile crisis, beyond the decisions of President Kennedy and his ExComm advisors--the classic "thirteen days." Sherwin argued for a enlarged chronological and spatial perspective (the latter theme was later picked on by David Coleman); Holland noted that the missile crisis represented an intelligence failure in that the missile were detected quite late after their deployment (and the CIA never managed to locate all of them).
Svetlana Savranskaya, though, stole the show -- her presentation was mentioned by a passing historian in the hall as one of the highlights of his convention. She explored the Soviet and Cuban sides of the "Caribbean/October Crisis," using newly-released papers from the archives of Anastas Mikoyan, the top Soviet diplomat in Cuba in 1962 and the only man to sit on the Soviet Politburo continously from 1926-1966. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, she said, believed it was necessary to equip Cuba with nuclear weapons to defend against a U.S. invasion, and planned to give tactical nuclear weapons to the Cuban military. In other words, Savranskaya said, Cuba almost became a nuclear power itself. Had Cuba kept the nukes, it quite possibly would have been much more assertive in promoting revolution in Latina America--and Castro already had the Soviets on edge, particularly Khrushchev and Mikoyan, with his reckless behavior. (Since one of the lines of attack on Khrushchev by the Brezhnev faction was his recklessness in Cuba, I wonder how much of that was actually Castro acting as the tail wagging the dog?) James Hirshberg of George Washington University noted in his closing comments that the Czech archives revealed what is, in essence, an oral history by Khrushchev of the crisis given to the Czech ambassador--this source illustrates the ill will Khrushchev bore against Castro.
This morning also saw a packed public history panel on the new book Letting Go? Historical Authority in a User-Generated World led by the book's editors: Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski (they wrote an article for HNN on the book in December). Filene remarked that letting go of at least some historical authority asks more rather than less of historians and curators, but, as Bill Adair noted, the Internet and proliferation of social media have "forced the public historians' hand." This doesn't necessarily upend the traditional role of the curator -- Lisa Koloski talked about community curation and noted that sometimes historical narratives cannot be established by traditional authorities--she pointed to the Memoria Abierta in Argentina. The overarching theme of the panel and of the comments seemed to be a desire on the part of public historians to engage with public audiences collaboratively, while at the same time to subtly set basic parameters for topics. (Hat tip to Michelle Tiedje for her wonderful Tweets on the panel.)
The later morning saw two sessions dedicated to the American left. Eli Zaretsky presented his new book Why America Needs a Left: A Historical Argument at the session of the same name, arguing yes, America does need a left. He identified three crises in American history: the crisis of slavery, the crisis of industrialization, and the crisis of postwar affluence, arguing that in each crisis saw in essence the refounding of America and the reformation of American identity, a process to which the Left was instrumental. (Barbara Epstein, in her comments, criticized Zaretsky's conception of crisis as too broad, and she said she doesn't think crisis is a necessity for leftist mass movements to arise.) He also emphasized the traditional religiosity of the Left in U.S. history. (Again, hat tip to Michelle Tiedje for her Tweets of the panel.)
The evening's star attraction, other than the multitude of honorees who were presented with their OAH awards (a fullt list of winners can be found here), was OAH president Alice Kessler-Harris, who gave a presidential address entitled "Capitalism, Democracy, and the Emancipation of Belief," which explored the alternatively close and tempestuous relationship between, appropriately, capitalism and democracy.
Finally, no convention in Milwaukee would be complete without a conversation about beer. Fortunately, the History Guys at Backstory have that base covered, and their show on the history of beer and spirits in America was broadcast live on C-SPAN 3 right after Alice Kessler-Harris's speech. (it'll be rebroadcast at midnight tonight Eastern, and tomorrow at 1:00 pm Eastern) Twitter also kept up with the intoxicating talk:
Correction: A previous version of this article identified Kimberley Phillips-Fein of NYU as a speaker at the "Professional Organizations and Political Engagements" panel. The actual speaker was Kimberley L. Phillips of Brooklyn College, past president of the Labor and Working-Class History Organization. HNN regrets the error.
The OAH is no different than any other convention in at least one regard -- come the last day, the attendees (over 2,100 this year!) scatter. That's why it was so surprising that of the very last sessions in the program were so well-attended. On the other hand, with titles like "The Rise of Political Spin: Advertising and Publicity in Twentieth-Century American Politics," "Populists and Progressives, Capitalism and Democracy," and "The Context and Practice of the 'Occupy' Movement," perhaps it shouldn't have been.
Brian Balogh, looking fresh after Saturday evening's scintillating BackStory with the American History Guys broadcast on the history of alcohol in America, chaired the political spin panel. Rutger's David Greenberg, Johns Hopkins's Adam Sheingate, and Wayne State's Liette Gidlow sketched out the history of political consultants and public relations in twentieth-century American political history. Greenberg spoke at length about George Creel, a muckracking Progressive-era journalist who became the head of the Committee on Public Information during World War I, an independent federal agency which essentially led the government's propaganda charge during the war. Creel, Greenberg said, was described (rightly) by his contemporaries as "an arrogant son-of-a-bitch," and he does tend to be remembered by posterity as a cartoonish villian, if not an outright American Goebbels. But Greenberg reminded the audience that the vast output of the Committee for Public Information was mostly mundane press materials and public sentiment was already highly jingoistic. But more relevant to the theme of the panel was this: Creel was a salesman. He was selling the war to the American public. Creel himself titled his wartime memoirs How We Advertised America.
Adam Sheingate followed by discussing pioneering political consultant Edward Bernays, whose survey-based political research in the '30s and '40s foreshadowed the poll and data-based microtargetting of today. Liette Gidlow focused her remarks on a particular but very, very broad subset of targeted voters: women. She outlined the broad history of political TV ads targeted directly to women, beginning with Dwight Eisenhower (whose campaign actually won an Emmy for their pioneering work in TV spots). She noted that, with a few exceptions (notably Barry Goldwater in 1964), TV ads featured and appealing to women overwhelmingly focused on the role of women as wives, mothers, and homemakers as opposed to independent citizens. This is one of the reasons why Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton had a such a problem in 2008 -- women have only recently (and fitfully) become treated as independent political actors in targeted advertisements, and hence there's almost no history of women being portrayed as leaders until the 2008 election.
Vanderbilt's Sarah Igo summed it up succinctly in her comment: Creel, Bernays, and the political ad illustrate the vanishing line between the practice of business and the practice of politics in twentieth-century (and twenty-first-century) America.
San Francisco State's Charles Postel chaired (and sat on the panel for) the concurrent populists and progressives panel, which sought to contextualize modern left/liberal politics with the progressivism of a century ago. U of I Chicago professor Robert Johnston (who won accolades on Twitter "for presenting, not reading!" argued that, at the present moment, the idea of capitalism is being questioned by the public -- only half of respondents approved of capitalism in a recent Pew poll.
Princeton's Daniel Rodgers followed by offering caution: progressivism was not a monolithic force even at its peak, and in any event the major story of the twentieth century has been the triumph of the corporation. Still, as Postel pointed out, other Pew polls have indicated that "progressive" is the most favored term in American politics today.
Progressives have certainly welcomed the rise of the Occupy movement, and indeed Occupy was the focus of this year's "Hot Topic" panel in the very final series of sessions -- and amazingly for the final panel, it filled the room. Alexander Shashko, a lecturer in the University of Wisconsin's Afro-American Studies department, talked first about the protests against Scott Walker in Madison last year. Was Wisconsin the forerunner to the Occupy movement? "You betcha," he said. Even in addition to the obvious spiritual precedence (which Madison shared with Tahrir Square in Cairo), many Wisconsin organizers actually traveled to Zuccotti Park at the beginning of Occupy Wall Street. So, the question is not if, but how Occupy and Wisconsin are connected, he argued, saying that both movements are address a crisis of political legitimacy, locally, nationally, and globally.
Obviously, the connections between the movements offer fertile ground for researchers -- George Mason's Sheila Brennan was kind enough to share a link on Twitter to the #OccupyArchive, a digitial project dedicating to documenting the Occupy movement in real-time (there are at present 3255 entries).
Alice O'Connor, currently at the University of California, Santa Barbara but also a longtime New Yorker, reminded the audience that, despite its global significance, Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park was and is also a local struggle unique to New York City, and she implied that it could not have succeeded in refocusing the blame for the financial crisis on Wall Street if it had not been a protest rooted in its locality.
In a broader sense, though, O'Connor argued that Occupy has provided everyday language for talking about capitalism's problems -- which is, in my experience, absolutely true. On the long train ride back to Minneapolis that very evening, I was enraptured by the conversation of two elderly women next to me -- whom I gathered had met on the train -- who were talking about Scott Walker, Wisconsin politics, and the politics of capitalism generally using the language of Occupy. Neither appeared particularly radical -- in fact, one was quite conservative -- but nevertheless the conversation hinged around the 99 percent and the 1 percent.
Penelope Lewis, who is an assistant professor at CUNY's Murphy Institute, followed by talking about Occupy's relationship with traditional and progressive organized labor. The connections are there: a lot of the first Occupiers -- even tthe young ones -- were veteran labor activists. Some parts of labor, she conceded, feel that some parts of Occupy are needlessly adventurist, but in her experience in New York, there's space for reconciliation. It's not just that Occupy needs to learn self-discipline and organization, either; labor, Lewis said, needs to experience more of the democracy of the Occupy camps. Occupy's nimbleness, she concluded, can complement labor's traditional institutional strengths.
The panel would not have been complete without the presence of an actual Occupy activist -- Susan Dirr came up from OccupyChicago to talk about the Occupy movement's stance on the war on reproductive rights. Despite the natural sympathy within Occupy to reproductive rights issues, there isn't the pre-existing social movement infrastructure to incorporate into Occupy, as organizations like Planned Parenthood are more concerned with actual service Dirr also noted that many reproductive rights organizations are too close to the Democratic Party for Occupy's comfort -- she had some rather choice words for Chicago mayor Rahm Emaneul's treatment of OccupyChicago and his planned slashing of municipal service budgets, which include funding for child care and family planning -- disproportionately affecting women.
Linda Gordon concluded the panel (and, for the audience in the room, the OAH) by offering that identity politics is one of the many challenges to the Occupy movement (which remains mostly young, white, college-educated activists), but that the movement remains a source of great strength for the Left.
Ironically, a rumor was making the rounds on Twitter the evening before that Scott Walker was at the Milwaukee Hilton, one of the OAH's official convention hotels. Given the overall political tenor of the conference, it's unlikely he was there (if it was really Walker) to chat history.
OAH/NCPH 2012: Your Highlights
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