Letter from the Editor: You Love HNN, You Hate HNN


Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

At the heart of HNN is a grandiose assumption that people--even scholars--can learn something useful by reading an article of fewer than a thousand or two thousand words. But that assumption isn't nearly as ridiculous as another upon which which the website is also based. And that is that something useful is apt to happen if you bring together a group of people, so dissimilar in their views and tastes, that they would never be caught dead at the same party. Imagine Daniel Pipes and Noam Chomsky politely sipping wine at the faculty club and you get the idea.

And yet week after week we at HNN persist.

Three criticisms dog our efforts. One is that the website has been taken over by right-wingers. Another is that the website has been taken over by left-wingers. And then there are those who think that a bunch of Zionist radicals is in charge.

The confusion stems from the fact that HNN is different from most endeavors of this sort. We welcome ideological diversity. At a time when America is becoming more ideologically divided and the leaders of the ideological battles are increasingly speaking to pistol-packin' followers reluctant to associate with those who pledge allegiance to a different point of view, HNN can seem downright nefarious. Every week we receive emails from readers who wonder what it is we are really up to. How dare we publish Noam Chomsky, bellowed one such reader. The next week another complained that we had obviously drifted rightward because we had published a piece by Pipes. "Cancel my subscription," this reader demanded. We did.

Were we to sit in a room and discuss the matter we are confident that most of the time readers would come around to our point of view that there is value in arranging in one place articles by a diverse group of historians writing about current events. On those occasions when we have sparred with complaining readers we have often found that in the end they came to appreciate our efforts, even if they did not always agree that our selection of authors was representative of the rich variety of responsible scholars who weigh in on public issues.

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But even those who generally concede that our goals are admirable sometimes express grave reservations about what they find on HNN. It is not the articles on the homepage themselves that seem to draw the most fiery objections or even the excerpts featured in Roundup, our Reader's Digest of articles in the media concerning history and current events. It is rather the comments readers post on the articles. The danger for HNN is that we will be defined by these comments, many of which are inflammatory and abusive and sometimes even degenerate. As one reader recently complained, "The vitriol, pure and unadulterated, that passes itself off as discussion on the site has buried any sense of collegiality, a common sense of inquiry and discussion, under an avalanche of anonymous name-calling."

We have three options. One is to pray for a grant that will allow us to hire someone to vet all comments. Two is to close down the discussion boards (as many websites have done). Three is to continue the status quo.

Thus far we have chosen to risk allowing the discussion boards to veer in untoward directions rather than take the extreme measuring of removing them altogether. But the matter is continually under review.

On any one day HNN offers plenty both to inspire and offend. The effect is sometimes like that of the loud marching band of amateur musicians in The Music Man accompanied by the fine members of the Philharmonic orchestra. A tune is definitely discernible in the cacophony of sounds, but it isn't always pleasant.

Heard at any one time are the strains of the professional historian calmly playing the notes on his clarinet while next to him an uppity media writer in Roundup is blaring away on his trumpet. And next to him is the loud and self-centered drummer boy posting comments on the discussion boards.

What to make of it all? As the editor I confess that even I am not sure but the tune sounds to me like Walt Whitman's democracy.

FAQ's About HNN

  • What rules govern the discussion boards?

  • Why can't I read comments I've posted on the site?

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  • Is HNN considered a scholarly journal?

  • Why should the public want to hear from historians?

  • What is a blog?

  • Why does HNN feature blogs? Aren't they just vehicles for people who want to sound off?

  • Does HNN screen articles for vituperative statements?

  • What Is the purpose of the Roundup Department?

  • Does HNN accept submissions"over the transom"?


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    HNN was created to give historians the opportunity to reach a national audience on issues of public concern. It is not a scholarly journal. It is a vehicle for scholars seeking to enrich the public debate.


    Historians are not entitled to be heard from simply because they are scholars. They must have something to say. But neither can the fact that they are scholars deprive them of the right to weigh in on matters of vital public importance. Indeed, the fact that they bring to the public debate a special expertise and sensibility derived from their studies is all the more reason to give them a hearing. Leaving the public square to people who lack the scholar's knowledge diminishes democracy.

    Responding to news events in a timely and wise manner is a great challenge, of course. Fortunately, none of our contributors fail at the task all of the time and most succeed at it at least some of the time. That they may fail on occasion is no reason to conclude they should therefore never be given the chance to succeed ever again.


    Blog is short for"web log." It is a kind of common-place journal or diary kept on the web. Several features distinguish blogs from other forms on the web: they are frequently updated; they include lots of links to other sites; and most maintain a personal tone. Many celebrate blogs for opening the web up to voices the mainstream media often neglect. Like talk radio, most of the popular blogs are run by conservatives. HNN is the only site that features blogs by historians.


    The challenge of writing a blog is particularly great given the pressure to keep it up to date. But doing a blog is not fundamentally different from writing articles that appear in other places on HNN. In both cases the pressure to publish something in a timely manner necessitates foregoing the slow and steady approach common in peer-reviewed journals. By the peer review standard, none of the articles we publish pass muster as none of them are peer-reviewed in advance; the peer reviewing comes after they have already reached the public. But if that standard is the only standard, then historians must retreat from the journalistic fields and leave the harvesting of interesting views and opinions to others.

    This does not sound like a reasonable approach to us. In the fast-paced world in which we now live, public attention is focused on issues for ever briefer periods of time. If scholars want their analyses to be taken into consideration--and why shouldn't they?--they have to jump into the debate early and with forcefulness.

    HNN is committed to the scholarly discussion of issues in a timely manner. A person can achieve a scholarly analysis even if they write fast. Their very familiarity with the issues at hand gives them an advantage over others in arriving at a considered opinion in a quick period of time.

    It may be argued that blogs fall into a separate category because they need to be updated constantly. But what is a blog? It is nothing more than an old fashioned common-place journal in a new setting. It gives the reader the chance to look over the shoulder of a historian who's reacting daily to events.

    Blogs are so new a device on the Internet that no standards have yet evolved to govern their use. Anything goes on a blog. One of the functions that HNN can perform is to help establish standards for blogs. The only way we can do this is by trial and error. Slowly over time as readers provide more and more feedback--readers like you!--we will get a better sense of what should appear in a blog written by a historian and what should not.

    Unique though a blog may be, the speediness required by a blog is not unique. When a reporter rings up Arthur Schlesinger Jr. for a comment on an issue in the news Schlesinger has even less time than a blogger to get his thoughts in order before committing to a certain analysis or viewpoint. Yet no one argues that the public is not benefited by Schlesinger's participation. He brings to bear in an instant a lifetime's worth of reading and reflection from which everybody can benefit, whether they agree with him or not.


    Deciding where the line falls between personal vituperation and freedom of the press is, of course, a challenge. The line moves constantly. What is acceptable today wasn't acceptable a decade ago. What can be said about a politician with power is different from what should be said about a historian, even a prominent one. Applying the same standard to a historian as a politician is unfair given the disproportionate power that they exercise in our society. But what is personal and what is political? The distinction is a pretty fine one. And as the women's movement made clear, what is personal is often political.

    Because publishing a piece confers legitimacy on it, it is vital to screen out pieces that are solely vituperative. But what about a piece that is both vituperative and educational? Many pieces fall into this category. And deciding what is and is not vituperative is often difficult, liberals and conservatives reaching different conclusions.

    Then there are the articles that seem worthwhile as artifacts of the age--primary sources, in effect--valuable not so much for the analyses they offer as for the evidence they provide of the broad range of American opinion.

    Completely ignoring writers who indulge in strong personal statements would be a disservice to our readers, leaving them with a falsely narrow impression of the parameters of the national debate. At the same time it is inappropriate for HNN to appear to endorse attacks which are needlessly personal or incendiary.

    A practical solution, fortunately, is at hand given the way HNN is now organized. Pieces that we publish in full -- these are the pieces listed on the homepage -- must pass the Above Board Test, meaning that strictly vituperative statements will be disallowed. But to give the reader a clear picture of the wide range of statements being made we include excerpts in ROUNDUP and other places where appropriate. Excerpting a piece does not confer on it the HNN seal of approval. Plainly libelous statements of course will never be published anywhere on the site, though determining what is and is not libelous is a matter of judgment.


    HNN originally was conceived as primarily a national platform for historians wishing to comment on current events. This remains our primary function as is evident on our homepage, where week after week historians write about news subjects within their area of expertise.

    But as the website evolved we added various features that we thought our readers would find interesting and useful. The most popular feature has turned out to be ROUNDUP, which includes excerpts from the media about various issues related in some way to history.

    We don't vouch for the accuracy or scholarship of the excerpts. We simply reprint them. The purpose is to give readers in one handy place a broad sampling of American (and indeed world) opinion. In effect, we turn every reader into his own Walt Whitman, strolling through the alleys of the Internet to see what strange and wonderful and often ugly things the world has to offer. Everyman his own journalist, to paraphrase Carl Becker.

    But even the ugly?

    Walter Lippman in the 1920s pointed out that journalism is about creating pictures in our minds of what the real world is like, a most difficult task. How much more difficult, indeed impossible, it is to attain that goal if we blind ourselves to sights that make us shudder or shrink in horror.


    HNN encourages readers to send in articles for possible publication concerning subjects in their area of expertise.

    Articles should either tell the reader something new or frame an old issue in a new way. Articles may include the author's opinion but primarily serve as vehicles for informed analysis with an emphasis on history.

    HNN encourages the wide dissemination of information and therefore allows other publications to reprint our articles unless the author expressly requests copyright protection.

    Please be sure to tell us how you would like to be identified.

    If possible, articles should be forwarded by email as a Microsoft WORD attachment. If this is impossible, please simply paste the article into an email. Submissions should be sent to Rick Shenkman at the following address: editor@historynewsnetwork.org.

    Article length may vary depending on subject matter. Most articles run about 1,000 words.

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    More Comments:

    victor greene - 12/14/2003

    I already asked you to unsubscribe me from your HNN. But apparently
    it did not work and I continue to receive your news. AGAIN PLEASE UNSUBSCRIBE ME. Thank you.

    victor greene - 12/14/2003

    I already asked you to unsubscribe me from your HNN. But apparently
    it did not work and I continue to receive your news. AGAIN PLEASE UNSUBSCRIBE ME. Thank you.

    Allan - 11/12/2003

    I'm new to this page. Has anyone noticed, can anyone explain, this anachronistic error in Stephen Ambrose's essay "The Atomic Bomb and Its Consequences," which appears in his 1997 book "Americans at War"?
    He is discussing the question of whether dropping the atomic bombs on Japan was necessary to end the war.
    After writing, "The terrible casualties [the Japanese] inflicted and suffered in the hopeless defense of Okinawa ...forced Americans to believe that the home islands would have to be invaded, overrun and forced to submit," he says this:
    "America's military leaders had to assume that the casualties in such a campaign would be unbearable. Colonel Dwight Eisenhower (later general and supreme allied commander, in Europe, for NATO, of the War Department was one of the officers working on casualty estimates He took the number of Japanese troops on Okinawa and compared it to the number defending Japan's home islands, calculated how many Americans on Okinawa the Japanese had killed, took into consideration the better defensive positions and terrain the Japanese had on the home islands, and concluded that American casualties in an assault on the home islands would be twenty times the number suffered on Okinawa. It came to around half a million." (Page 101)

    Ambrose has General Eisenhower still a colonel in 1945! He can't be referring to a prewar estimate because he mentions the Americans "the Japanese had killed" on Okinawa.
    It's a puzzlement!

    Steven Lowenstein - 11/12/2003

    I am often disappointed by the fact that HNN looks more like a "normal" irresponsible chat-line than like a dialogue of scholars. Isn't there away of keeping the discussion to serious discussion of the issues using responsible methods of argument rather than detereorating to the equivalent of a call-in talk show?

    Irfan Khawaja - 11/11/2003

    As far as I'm concerned, HNN is a great resource and all of the criticisms of it are spurious. They publish from the Left and from the Right, they cover stuff that no one else will touch, and best of all, they've published me. (No higher accolades are necessary or possible.) Shenkman's "grandiose assumption" is precisely on target. When I'm weary of all the party-line crap that's out there, I go to HNN. Enough said.

    NYGuy - 11/11/2003

    F. H.

    It is so easy to forget and fail to understand what some men did to make this the country so great. I just lost my brother-in-law, an unassuming guy who flew the Hump and I now learn he was in gliders which also played a dangerous role in that theatre of operation. I convinced him to get all his medals and tell his children a little more of his experience. But, it was hard. I was pushing him one day and he had a flashback, watching the ack ack coming up and one of his engines gone. Many of our veterans surpress their war experiences.

    I also convinced him to have a military burial, not just for him but for his children. We had one for my father and it is a precious memory. I know many veterans can't talk about their experiences but they should at least give the name of the units they were in and the battles they were in to both their children and grand children. They deserve to be remembered.

    You brought back the memory of my dad. The only thing he complained about was the mud and the rats. His other complaint was that it took too long for the Armistice to arrive. Many may not know that there was still fierce fighting on November 11th in the morning. When I finally got his unit history, I realized why he lamanted the long time for the Armistice. At the time his unit was on the front lines. In the unit history they talked of a German soldier who was killed that morning. And in his pocket was a letter from his mother. It was to me another example of the humanity of our service men. I am sure that memory of the German soldier was with him all his life.

    I do hope we start to give our veterans the respect they desire. Just ordinary men doing extra ordinary things that we all benefited from. ,

    Enjoy your posts. See you are an opera fan.

    Have a drink on me.


    Derek Catsam - 11/11/2003

    Agreed. I love the image of great minds quaffing tankards of claret and sucking down oysters and arguing.

    F.H. Thomas - 11/11/2003

    Thank you, my young colleague.

    On 11/11/1918, my father's life hung by a string in France, as it had for a month since his wounding. He eventually pulled through and lived a very productive life.

    On 11/11/1969, we struggled against the muck and mire of the monsoon, on the central region of Vietnam, trying to mount operations, and wished we were elsewhere. A friend of mine who was musically inclined composed the following:

    "The Saigon Commandos

    The Saigon Commandos
    all wear the bronze star.
    The got it for writing
    reports on the war!
    They've never been shot at,
    or seen a VC,
    but you know that they earned it
    they worked for MACV!"

    I can tell you, it goes well with a guitar and a couple of bottles of beer. I hope he is still alive and well, and that someone said the same to him, as did you to us here.

    You know that I admire your wit and energy. Please keep at it.

    Gus Moner - 11/11/2003

    Firstly I will say thanks for the effor to communicate with us and I encourage you to in future do it with some frequency. Secondly, I would pony up to the comments by Messrs. Thomas & Catsam. That being said, I'd like to add a third point, an observation.

    Regarding this comment "Three criticisms dog our efforts. One is that the website has been taken over by right-wingers. Another is that the website has been taken over by left-wingers. And then there are those who think that a bunch of Zionist radicals is in charge."

    There is a fourth criticism I have heard (well, no, read) here and agree with. Lack of diversity is the fourth criticism. There is simply too much Carpenter and Pipes, to keep the comment simple.

    I would beseech you to please print more diversity of sources, be they on the left, right or merely pragmatic.

    Otherwise, it is worth repeating that it is generally a good place to start discussions, even if it gets vitriolic at times and some odder than usual commetarists have been turning up the past two weeks or so.

    Sometimes we cannot see that a remark has been made in a humurous or sly way without trying to offend. That's life, we'll work that out ourselves.

    Thanks again

    F.H. Thomas - 11/11/2003

    I understand that the most interesting three-way match-up during the enlightenment period was Adam Smith, David Hume, and Francis Richardson, the teacher of both of the others. Hume, appropos the sceptical philosopher that he was, was apparently the first to get personal, but he was apparently held in check easily by his uncle, Lord Kames-Home, who was just as feisty as was he, but was chief justice of the Edinborough high bench as well.

    Smith, used to debating, and the acknowledged master of many subjects that the others were not, never lost his cool, while Richardson kept matters on focus with his great resorvoir of good will and sympathy. I often hope that we can at some point achieve that level of engagement and productive discourse here.

    One of their methods (which is unavailable to us), was to hold many discussions while drinking their ubiquitous claret by the tankard, rather than by the wine glass, often while eating heaps of North Sea oysters. This was apparently almost a nightly event! Interesting that they all seemed to live to ripe old ages.

    I appreciate that, notwithstanding our occasional policy differences, that we both actually read what they other has to say. That is what engagement is all about, here or elsewhere.

    NYGuy - 11/11/2003

    Today is a time to say thank you for those who sacrificed for all of us, our veterans, both living and dead. Thank you.

    Certainly a current history topic.

    David - 11/10/2003

    I've seen articles here by Daniel Pipes, AND Gnome Chomsky.

    Enough pretty much said.

    Derek Catsam - 11/10/2003

    I'd like to agree with Mr. Thomas, something that does not often happen. Most people have pretty thin skins, and so any criticism comes across as personal. I grow frustrated by the attack mentality that so often pervades on hnn (and it is bait I have more than once swallowed myself) but I also think that being, as Thomas says, caustic, wity, or entertaining, and others doing the same, is also the main reason to read the comment boards. Better that that those comments that sit on the sideline and snipe and criticize but don't actually engage. I think HNN does a good job. When the right kvetches about it being too lefty and the left whines about it being to righty, maybe, just maybe, Rick and company are doing something right (er, I mean left) after all.

    F.H. Thomas - 11/10/2003

    The major impediment to good communication, as the stars of the enlightenment would have had it, is a lack of politeness. Without it, the new ideas of one side are not even considered, because of emotional rejection by the other. Some may say that this is a problem of the 20th century, more than of individuals, but we can do better. It is frustrating to see good commentary on both sides not considered as people "talk past" one another.

    I try to teach this method in my comments, encouraging the good and chastising the bad, and have had a little success, and more rejection. But you cannot legislate it. That would look too much like censorship and enforced blandness.

    At the same time, the "politeness" method is not meant to discourage the witty and sometimes caustic rejoinder, nor the sincerely emotional one, which are among the most entertaining, because direct and free communication is the object.

    Overall, in this difficult environment, you have done well. You should take it as a compliment that there is so much interest.