Why I Felt Out of Place at the World History Conference
Since I teach at a community college, it had been a number of years since I last attended a WHA gathering. Sifting through the program, and aiming to optimize my attendance, I finally decided to attend panels on Islamic Art, Literature and Travel, Edges of Premodern Christendom, Gandhi in World History and a more methodological offering, Conceptions of World History.
I must confess I pointedly skipped presentations with titles such as Coding Cattle and Revising History, Marx, Gurdjieff and Mannheim: Contested Utopistics of Self and Society in World-Historical Context, Different Markets: the Divergence of the U.S. and French Bicycle Markets, 1894 (1899)-1910 (you mean Franco-American differences started before Bush became president?) and Are We What We Wear? Clothing and World History. (Actually, I think a good guideline for academic conferences is to eschew anything with "postmodern," "gender," "subaltern" and/or "Said"--as in Edward--in the title.) But to paraphrase J.R.R. Tolkien: some who attend academic conferences find my preferred topics "boring, absurd or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similiar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer." Perhaps that makes me a Neanderthal (albeit an educated one) in the eyes of many of you readers, but I'm too busy teaching my students about what actually happened in world history, and grading their essays thereupon, to obsess about arcane topics and theory.
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There were some very interesting and worthwhile papers presented at the panels I attended: Stephen Gosch's (University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire) on Muslim travelers before Ibn Battuta; A.J. Andrea's (University of Vermont) on the Crusades as global phenomena; Deborah Smith-Johnston's (ABD, Northwestern) on conceptual frameworks for teaching world history. And for the most part my sensitive (some would say borderline paranoid) conservative antennae detected only the faint static of political correctness and lefist cant.
Until I went to hear about Gandhi.
The paper presentations on the great Indian nationalist leader were informative, particularly Howard Spodek's (Temple Univeristy) on "Gandhi: From Gujarat to the World," which explained how Gandhi built on Gujarati traditions, especially that of shaming those in power when they were lording it over others, to confront the British. After this discussion, and one by Ane Lindvendt (McDonough School, Baltimore) on a survey of online sources about Gandhi, the America- and Bush-bashing began.
The august chair/discussant of this panel, Dr. Mark Gilbert of North Georgia College and State University, segued from "Eight Ways to Use Gandhi in World History" into the following absurd analogy: like in Gandhi's time, opponents of the American administration are "being beat into submission" and "called anti-patriotic [sic]" by a "hegemonic opponent." (OK, now I have another buzz word to avoid in panels: "hegemonic.") I hurriedly reviewed my program, thinking I had inadvertently stumbled into a Howard Dean campaign stop, or perhaps an Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial board meeting. Beat into submission? I let it pass, theorizing to myself that perhaps Professor Gilbert, living even farther north in Georgia than me, had become, against his will, a Dixie Chicks fan and thus unable to differentiate between actual censorship and the market reaction of livid country music fans out there in red America (the parts that didn't vote for Al Gore).
A bit later, however, a discussion of volunteerism in Gandhi's ideology sparked the discussant to opine that American students should be apprised of this element "because our government, in the future, will be less interventionist, and more libertarian." Less interventionst? Can someone say Iraq? Liberia? As if the Bush Adminstration, being pilloried by conservatives for increasing domestic spending to new heights, hopes to bring back soup kitchens? And just what does this have to do with Gandhi, anyway? Last time I checked, my church was doing a fine job of enlisting its youth membership to volunteer for every cause under the sun. What say we stick to Gandhi's place in world history, and how best to communicate that to our students? Is that too old-school?
The panel wound down with a debate over which lefist icon Gandhi most resembled: Che Guevara? Marx? Nelson Mandela? Susan Sarandon? (OK, I'm kidding about the last one.) Wishing to put a bit of stick about, I finally spoke up, addressing a serious (but admittedly provocative) question to Professor Spodek: "isn't it possible to see anti-Soviet activists such as Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel in a Gandhian vein, too?" No sooner had the words left my mouth than a grad student (easily identifiable by his glaring sartorial ignorance, manifested by a fetching socks-and-Birkenstocks motif) butted in with "Well, they became millionaires and Gandhi didn't, HAR HAR HAR!" Leaving aside the rudeness of butting (and I mean that literally) in, what was the relevance of such a remark--even if true? The point, I have little doubt, was simply to belittle my contention and to keep Gandhi purely as the property of the Left--or at least the left attending that panel.
Much ado about nothing, you say? Perhaps. But I, for one, wish academic conferences could be venues for debating ideas free from the casual, and arrogant, assumption that all present must share a distaste for a Republican administration. I yearn for a day when history panels (and their attendees) are judged by the content of their presentations (and comments), not the correctness of their ideology.