Day 2: Highlights of the Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians

Historians in the News
tags: OAH2015

Rick Shenkman is the founder and editor of HNN. 

Related Links:  The 2015 OAH Annual Meeting:  Videos, News, Everything

The overwhelming favorite of Day 2 was the session featuring New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff. Maybe he should have been named Jon Stewart's replacement.  The guy is hilarious.  Kudos to Patty Limerick for having the wit to ask him to come.  Mankoff agreed instantly, but with one condition, alas.  No recordings.  You will therefore have to use your imagination.  For those who lack the requisite imagination you can always read HNN's interview with Mankoff, which Robin Lindley did for us a few months back.  

In case any of you are thinking of becoming a humorist yourself Mankoff opened with this key insight.  Humor works when it takes something familiar and makes it seem unfamiliar.  See Lemmings falling off a cliff.  Not funny.  See Lemmings hitting a cliff and rising up in a column headed up instead of down and you have something funny.  Or not.  You still need a resolution, says Mankoff.  A caption does the trick:  "What Lemmings Believe," it says.  That works!  See ...

On the theory that historians should only be allowed so much fun, the next panel up was deadly serious.  It concerned the subject of the growing inequality in the profession, with a smaller and smaller group of full professors on top and a larger and larger group of adjuncts on the bottom.  To get a flavor of the discussion, which featured terribly depressing statistics, watch this:

Speaking of taboo subjects -- remember, that's this year's OAH theme -- several panels today tackled a question few historians in the past would have felt comfortable addressing:  Bad Gays.  This is what historian Cookie Woolner calls gay people with sordid pasts, people like the Oregon murderer Jeannance Freeman, a butch lesbian who killed her lover's two children by throwing them off a cliff.  (She later claimed she was only trying to kill her lover, not the kids.) In the past -- and by the past I mean just a few years ago -- hardly any historian would have thought it judicious to tackle this story.  It was just too horrific and it plays into stereotypes about predatory gay people.  But it's 2015!  Gay people are getting married!  And the time has finally arrived where gay history -- the good, the bad, and the ugly -- can finally be told.  In this case, as historian Lauren Gutterman discovered, the story of the killer's own past as an abused child (her stepfather raped her at age three or four) humanized her in the eyes of the general public, contributing to the abolition of the death penalty in Oregon.  Here's Gutterman:

Later in the day a different kind of taboo was broken.  Historians listened respectfully to economists discussing slavery.  If you are under 30 this may not strike you as particularly daring.  If you are older you may remember the fight of the century that took place in the 1970s over Fogel and Engerman's book, Time on the Cross, which used economic data to prove (to the authors' satisfaction) that slavery wasn't as bad as historians made it out to be.  In the decades since the backlash over the book economists seemed to take a decidedly low profile in slavery studies.  But they're back now and they even had the courage to show up at the OAH.  I wondered.  Were they looking for a fight?  You be the judge.

In the middle of the afternoon CSPAN showed up.  What's bringing us national attention?  The panel on the Church Committee's fortieth anniversary.  You can watch the proceedings on CSPAN next week sometime.  Here, meanwhile, is an excerpt, including an unforgettable performance by Marquette's Athan Theoharis, who reports the difficulties he faced trying to pry information out of the federal government when he agreed to help the Church Committee investigate abuses by the FBI. There's a villain.  His name is Henry Kissinger. 

(You can watch videos of other Church Committee panelists here.)  

A second anniversary panel -- "Assessing The Nation magazine's heritage on its Sesquicentennial Anniversary -- did not take place as scheduled.  FBI plot?  No, Eric Foner told us in an email.  One member of the panel got pregnant and couldn't travel and another was inadvertently scheduled to appear on two panels at the same time (the Church Committee panel). Alas.

More happened than all this, of course.  We also had interviews with historian Jonathan Zimmerman, who has written more published op eds than probably any other living historian.  He tells his secret of getting published here

We also featured an interview with historian Hasia Diner, who revealed the truth few people want to admit:  Despite what Emma Lazarus wrote in her famous Statue of Liberty poem, we didn't get the poorest of the poor.  They couldn't afford to travel. 

And that's it for Day 2 of HNN's coverage!  

But wait, there's more!  I almost forgot to add this Picture of the Day.  What the heck is this?  I believe it is a man knitting.  The picture was taken at the slavery panel.

Related Links:  The 2015 OAH Annual Meeting:  Videos, News, Everything

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