Reporter's Notebook: Highlights from the 2005 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association
Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4
Ronald Spector's Marshall Lecture Existential Thought and Culture in Transnational Perspective Guns, Violence, and Belonging in the Late Twentieth Century
Thursday, January 6, 2005
The convention began on a dry note under clear skies. In almost any other city in America this would not be a surprise. But this is famously rainy Seattle. And now the weatherman is talking about snow showers in a city that rarely gets snow. Only a few hours old and already this is a convention that will probably be memorable.
The big draw in the city is its new library, which the NYT calls the finest public building constructed in the United States in years. Not attending the AHA this year? This is one of the big things you're missing. Brian Lamb, the guest speaker for the evening marveled at the place. He noted he had seen a sign there which read, "Silence is un-American." "In this day and age," he commented, "where people keep crying for civilized discussion, the worst thing that could happen to us was if we silenced the discussion." (In case you are wondering about a library where people are allowed to talk. The ceiling in the main room is five stories high, so the talking's not much of a distraction.)
Getting around was mainly easy. The convention hotels are all within a few short blocks. But finding the AHA registration desk, which is located at the Sheraton, could be tricky. In what must have been a prank played on visitors, the Washington Convention Center where many of the meetings are being held featured a sign in the lobby directing people up the escalators to the Sheraton. The Sheraton is actually located around the corner.
The main event on the first day--aside from picking up free books offered by publishers at the book exhibits--was the presentation of the AHA's Second Annual Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Public Service Award. Last year the award went to Senator Robert Byrd. This year the award was given to C-Span's Brian Lamb. Byrd's award ceremony and speech drew a crowd of about 1,000 and was covered by C-Span. Lamb's drew a crowd of about 200 and was not covered by C-Span. Some people had objected to Byrd's award given his long ago membership in the KKK. No one objected to Lamb's award. As outgoing AHA president Jonathan Spence noted, historians have been grateful to Lamb for giving them a national platform to provide reasonable discussions of history.
Lamb, who comes across as a down-to-earth midwesterner, thanked historians for appearing on "Booknotes," which ended in December after fifteen years and 800 interviews. He recalled that he liked to ask short questions so as not to reveal his ignorance, but he also wished his guests gave short answers, and sometimes they did and sometimes they didn't. The person who gave the longest answer was Dick Gregory. It lasted 32 minutes.
Lamb said he had never been much of a student and did not take an interest in history in college. But one day he was invited to attend a speech by former Chief Justice Warren Burger. Burger told the crowd they should all read Catherine Drinker Bowen's Miracle at Philadelphia. "And that's where all this started," Lamb said.
Why did he always ask authors how they wrote books--how they literally wrote, with a pen or a typewriter? Apparently it was because one of his first interviews was with Shelby Foote, who revealed that he wrote his books on the Civil War--all one million words--with a pen he dipped into an ink well!
Reinforcing the impression of modesty, Lamb admitted he took up the habit of wearing French shirts and cuff links because Hubert Humphrey had. He said he decided to visit every presidential grave site because Richard Norton Smith--whom he dubbed, "Mr. Presidential Library"--had done so. He confessed he decided to outdo Smith and visit every vice-presidential grave site as well. This got a good laugh.
Lamb was followed by a presidential plenary session on a topic of interest mainly to specialists in Chinese history (which may have accounted for the evening's low turn out): "Storing China's Past: Archives, Artifacts, and Art." Jonathan Spence explained that when he was told he had the authority to pick the topic and speakers "I decided to be shameless" and picked three old friends.
Mimi Gates, an art historian who runs the Seattle Art Museum, spoke about the Buddhist caves of China (the Mogoa Grottoes), which are located in the Gobi desert. Pictures projected on a large screen showed the rich variety of images that can be found on the deteriorating walls of the caves, which are now being renovated in a model project funded in part by the Getty foundation. In all there are 484,000 square feet of wall paintings at the site, which was a major trading post along the Silk Road until the fourteenth century, when it was bypassed in favor of sea routes.
Princeton's Susan Naquin spoke about the insights historians can gain by studying the material culture of China's past. She noted material culture is particularly important in studying the Ming (1368 - 1644) and Ching (1644-1911) dynasties, which have largely been ignored in China because scholars there view the history of the last 700 years as too new. She got a good hearty laugh when she said this.
By material culture she meant the material objects that can be seen depicted in Chinese art--or the art itself (in the case of carved stones, which are tactile and were often rubbed for pleasure). Enlivening the arcane lecture were several pictures of Chinese couples copulating. One might qualify as pornography, she admitted. She joked that she included it just to keep the audience awake. This drew great laughter.
The final speaker of the night was the former AHA president from 1992, Frederick E. Wakeman, Jr. (UC Berkeley). He described the mystique of archival research, part of which he attributed to the degree of discomfort in which it must often be conducted, recalling his work at a London archive where the bitter cold came up through the Tudor floorboards. He admitted that archival research is not essential to the work of all historians, noting that Richard Hofstadter probably never set foot in an archive. But he made it sound almost romantic.
Comparing himself to a war veteran who speaks of his old battles, he told stories about the scoops in archival research. He recounted the story of a professor from Oregon who visited an archive in China for a full year before she finally was given access to some documents. He remembered that on one occasion he and a group of scholars were given access to some secret papers by Chou En-lai. But when there was a mix up suddenly soldiers with AK-47s materialized. (Eventually the scholars gained the access they had been promised.)
He said that one of the great difficulties of archival research is that sometimes one cannot use the documents one has been given without compromising the identity of the source. "I should probably be very careful because of the television," he quickly and nervously added. There were two TV cameras in the ballroom. One was filming the event for Washington state TV, the other for New Tang Dynasty Television, which broadcasts in Europe and North America--and China (for those with a satellite dish).
At the end of the evening I asked Jonathan Spence about the banner hanging prominently at the front of the room: American Historical Association, read the top line. Below it was a slogan, Protecting the future for those who study the past! " It looked like one of those banners you see hanging behind the president at photo ops.
And now to sleep.
- Jonathan Dresner: Day One: Jobs and Books [also links to other AHA bloggers]
- Jonathan Dresner: Violence and Archives
Friday, January 7, 2005
Clouds moved in. It rained a little. But there was no sign of snow (not downtown anyway).
One of the disadvantages of meeting in a place like Seattle, no matter what the weather, is that it is remote from major media centers, meaning that there will be less coverage of the convention this year than last, when the AHA was in Washington, D.C. Still, the New York Times sent Alex Star, formerly of Lingua Franca, now at the NYT Magazine. The Chronicle of Higher Education sent two reporters. And L'Express sent French journalist Phillipe Coste. L'Express? What on earth for, you may be wondering. We wondered too. Was it because he wanted to find out what historians think of Our Oldest Enemy : A History of America's Disastrous Relationship with France, the new book by John Miller and Mark Molesky? It turned out that Coste was here only because his wife is employed by a publisher doing business at the convention. Finding himself here, he decided to get credentials and attend a few panels. He said he went to an anti-war meeting held by Historians Against the War and an afternoon panel about American hubris. He thought about attending the panel on Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9-11, but decided he'd probably heard all the arguments that can be made about the film.
All three panels proved to be interesting, we discovered. Hours later a Harvard professor was still taking about the presentation at the hubris lecture by Hofstra's Carolyn Eisenberg. She started off by saying that the AHA's program committee had "expressed the concern that we would be too present minded. So now I want to do just what they feared." And she did. The title of the session was: "Hubris and the Irrationality Principle in the Foreign Policy of Recent Presidents: From Richard Nixon to George W. Bush." First she got to work on Nixon and Kissinger, calling them "the boys from Columbine" because they seemed to hate everybody--they hated other Republicans, they hated Defense Secretary Laird, they hated Democrats and of course they hated the press. Then she went at the Bush people, quoting a high official at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told her confidentially, "You don't begin to understand how crazy Don Rumsfeld is."
The closest analogy to what is happening in Iraq right now she said is what happened in Vietnam. In both wars high officials pursued a policy which couldn't possibly work. Vietnamization? It was stupid. How could you get the North Vietnamese to bargain in good faith as you drew down troop levels? LBJ hadn't raised troop levels because he was dumb. He did it because the South Vietnamese army wouldn't fight. Iraqification, she said, shows the same stupidity. Once again we are placing our faith in a force that is less committed to victory than its enemies.
Anticipating the criticism that her language might be a tad harsh, she said sharp language is needed to describe what's happening now and what happened in Vietnam, chiding diplomatic historians for using "professor-speak."
Why did the Vietnam war go on and on? Why did the United States invade Iraq and make a mess? She said it is important to go beyond the obvious observations ... that Nixon was crazy, that Bush is in over his head, that Nixon and Bush both benefited from the imperial presidency. She said that presidents don't go to war by themselves and cannot do as they please, even in foreign policy. So what is the common factor behind both Vietnam and Iraq that enabled irrational policies? She said that to find out we need to look at the role of "unbridled nationalism and racism" in American society that has allowed Americans to wage war on the Indians and drop the bomb on Japanese in Nagasaki. "You can say why did Bush go to war--because he was stupid, didn't read newspapers, was ideologically driven--but what kind of country do we have that led to such an irrational war?"
At the end of her talk the audience, seemingly in agreement, gave her a rousing round of applause.
At the meeting of HAW--Historians Against the War (where Carol Eisenberg also appeared on the panel), the discussion focused on the options the organization should pursue to help bring about an end to the war in Iraq. One option under consideration is to hold a three-day national conference of historians against the war (the unspoken assumption was that the war will continue; the conference is tentatively scheduled for the fall of 2005). Possible topics for panels might include: "historical perspective on the war and Bush's foreign policy," "past examples of resistance to war," and "attacks on freedom of speech, civil liberties, and academics." One historian in the audience rose to say that he appears to have lost his contract at a university in northern Washington State because he participated in an anti-war rally. Another historian said a friend had been heavily pressured for speaking out against the war and probably only kept her job because she had received tenure just a month before. Both were urged to contact HAW member David Montgomery, the chairman of a committee at the Organization of American Historians that is compiling a list of historians whose civil liberties have been compromised. About forty people attended the HAW meeting.
At the session on Michael Moore panel members seemed in agreement with the general observations of his 9-11 film, but uncomfortable with the way he scored his points. One historian said it is incumbent on scholars to point out the ways in which Moore distorted the historical record. But another, passionately asking "where's the beef," said he can't think of a single fact Moore got wrong.
Steve Mintz observed that one of "the most stunning developments in film" is that without documentaries the audience for film would have declined over the last few years. "Documentary is no longer spelled D-U-L-L." And historians need to account for the change. Several factors are apparent, he noted: the desire for the authenticity documentaries provide. The birth of reality TV. And perhaps most importantly, the willingness of documentarians to reveal taboo secrets. Until Moore showed the pictures of wounded Iraqi soldiers, most Americans had not seen them. Nor had they seen the compelling scene in the Congress when black representatives rose to object to the election of President Bush in 2000 and not one senator joined in, dooming the effort to review the result.
Each of these three meetings drew impressive audiences, as did a morning panel on shock and awe, "Destruction from the Air in Warfare of the Twentieth Century." The panel that may have drawn the largest audience of the day was "Atlantic History: A Critical Reassessment." The panel that seemed to draw a disappointingly small crowd, seemingly smaller than it actually was because the meeting was held in one of the large ballrooms, was the presidential session on "Stolen Public Records."
In the evening the traditional awards were handed out to students who wrote brilliant books and teachers who excelled at teaching and scholars who excelled at scholarship. Two historians were given the AHA's Award for Scholarly Distinction: John G. A. Pocock and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Pocock accepted his award in person, Schlesinger couldn't make it. One young scholar walked off with two awards: Laurent Dubois for A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804. About two hundred people attended the ceremony.
AHA President Jonathan Spence rounded out the day by giving a delightful paper on a new book he is working on about Zhang Dai, a Ming loyalist who lost his family fortune and high position when in the middle of the seventeenth century there was a peasant revolt and the "Manchus established themselves as a new ruling dynasty." Most AHA presidents use their big speech as an occasion for commenting on history or the state of the profession. Spence seemingly took another approach. Or did he? Perhaps he was teaching by example. Of course he has two advantages over most other historians. One, he writes beautiful, sensitive prose (in his youth he wrote poetry; it shows). Two, he possesses an uncommonly good voice. Listening to him was a pleasure.
- Award for Wittiest Presentation: Peter Coclanis (UNC at Chapel Hill), who recalled that in 1982 at an earlier AHA meeting when jobs were scarce he had interviewed for one position to teach the history of agriculture and another to teach urban history. At the 2005 AHA he found himself on two panels on Atlantic history "dealing with at least as wide a divergence of themes." But then, "At the AHA anything goes."
- Best Quote of the Day: "In America Jesus always flies coach," which Duke's Grant Wacker attributed to a student term paper.
- Most Shocking Prediction: Richard Wightman Fox predicted that coming soon to a theater near you will be movies featuring a sexualized Jesus.
- Two Most Humble Historians: Stephen Prothero and Richard Wightman Fox, both of whom have written about the American Jesus and both of whom were at pains to point out the limits of their own books while heaping generous praise on each others'.
Existential Thought and Culture in Transnational Perspective (Reporting for HNN: Stephen Tootle)
The panel started promptly with the introduction by Doug Rossinow from Metropolitan State University in Minnesota. Stephen Kern from Ohio State University described how the causal factors in murder novels had changed from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries. In the nineteenth century, murders in novels were motivated by religion and morality. In the twentieth, murders were committed for aesthetic reasons. He argued that Nietzsche¹s influence in America had been part of the reason for the change. Rather than being concerned with values, learning, or status, characters in twentieth century novels were motivated by a need for self-definition, out of a sense of inferiority, to resolve existential doubt, or to realize self-worth and help one¹s identity come into focus.
The University of Miami's Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, focusing on the most important translator of Nietzsche, argued that Walter Kaufmann had repackaged the German thinker and made his philosophy more palatable for American readers. After describing previous thinking on Kaufmann and Nietzsche, Ratner-Rosenhagen posited that Kaufmann had freed Nietzsche from his immediate influence on less palatable political movements, such as Nazism, by emphasizing how Nietzche was a problem solver instead of a system-thinker. Totalitarians who used Nietsche were therefore misusing him.
Martin Woessner from the Graduate Center at CUNY was both humble and funny in his presentation on Heidegger¹s place in American existentialism. Beyond some anecdotes about authors using Heidegger as a foil, Woesnner had a difficult time proving that Heidegger had truly penetrated American culture. His use of innovative sources was appealing though, as was his personality.
George Cotkin (California Polytechnic State University), the commentaor, struck just the right note. He was thoughtful, funny, brisk, and relevant. He argued that the panelists had proven that German thinkers (as opposed to say, French ones) had been wrongly overlooked in discussions about America in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.
He suggested that Cold War had shaped the context and the reception of both Nietzsche and Heidegger.
Kern really came alive in the question and answer session that followed the papers.
- Jonathan Dresner on Day Two
Saturday, January 8, 2005
Every convention there's something to grouse about. This year it's the location of the book exhibit. It's six floors up. Worse, in a break with tradition, it's a full block from the AHA registration desk. So if you want to take a break and check messages on the AHA boards and then perhaps browse the book aisles you have to split your time between two different buildings. Worse yet, one of the escalators to the book exhibit in the sky was broken today. That gave historians the choice of either trudging up one of the escalators by foot or walking to a distant elevator. One historian in his eighties was seen huffing and puffing his way up the escalator seemingly at risk of a heart attack, thought Ralph Luker. Why had this awkward arrangement been made? The AHA's Arnita Jones told HNN it was because of the limits of the Washington Convention Center's physical layout. For those who are not in attendance, the convention is a sprawling mess of a building, a reflection of the fact that it was built in three stages, each time to increase capacity.
Several of the sessions today dealt with archival research. The panel on "Secrecy and Access in the Archives: Washington, Moscow, and the Vatican" was particularly interesting.
Want to cull the files of the Vatican? Sorry, that won't be easy. The Library of Congress has some 4,000 employees. The Vatican, with a collection nearly as large, has about ... 10 or so. Ok, this may be a slight exaggeration, but it is apparently close to the truth. One scholar recalled that whenever he would visit the Vatican archives officials always blamed Napoleon for the material they couldn't find. It was such a reflex with them that one day when they couldn't locate a document from the nineteenth century produced after Napoleon had died, they still blamed Napoleon.
American University's Anna K. Nelson, speaking about the records held by the National Archives, said, "It's not as bad as the Vatican but sometimes I think it is." But the longer she talked the more it seemed, as one man screamed from the audience, that it's "worse than the Vatican." Example. While the rule is that documents are declassified after twenty-five years declassification can only begin after the last document has been added to a file. Since files in the State Department often remain open for ten or twenty years, that means it may take fifty years (with all the attendant and inevitable delays) for documents to be declassified.
The National Security Archive's Thomas Blanton noted that under Clinton rules had been liberalized, apparently as a result of an op ed Blanton had written for the NYT in which he had chastised the administration for a declassification policy then under consideration that wasn't even "as good as Nixon's." Clinton, reading Blanton's article, scribbled in the margin that he wanted his people "to do better." They did, establishing the rule that when in doubt, let it out. But under President George W. Bush the rule was reversed. Now the rule is, "if there's a doubt, don't."
Blanton said that 9-11 had emboldened the Bush administration to limit access to documents--even those that had previously been released, as a handout featuring a document about Pinochet demonstrated. The document on the left was released in 1999 with no redactions. The same document, released in 2004, was blacked out in ten places. (Note: only one side shown.)
One way the administration has dealt with the criticism that it classifies too many documents is to stop classifying many of them altogether, labeling them instead, "Sensitive But Unclassified,"--SBU's, for short. The trouble with this is that not only are the documents not released, they may not even be saved, unlike documents stamped Top Secret, which almost always are saved. "It's not just our own history that's in danger here," Blanton told the crowd, "it's accountability. It's our democracy."
Just as Washington under Bush II has been throwing up roadblocks to stop the release of documents, so has Moscow under Putin, said George Washington's Jim Hershberg. But Hershberg was a little less gloomy abut Moscow than Blanton was about Washington, noting that 70 to 80 percent of the materials Moscow refuses to release can be obtained through backdoor archives in the former Soviet republics.
In the afternoon the career of Henry Kissinger was reconsidered in light of the release of new sources, including his telephone calls. William Burr, another National Security Archive scholar, said that the new sources have convinced him that the Christmas bombing campaign of 1972 was not designed so much to reassure the South Vietnamese that Americans would continue standing by them as to say to the world, America is a power to be reckoned with.
Kissinger's relationship with Defense Secretary Melvin Laird was fascinatingly complex. At one point Laird protested that his presidential orders gave him the power to bomb the North over Christmas for only three days. Kissinger, who wanted the campaign to go on far longer, pressured Laird to keep it going, telling him that's what Nixon wanted. The planes kept flying, though the written orders weren't changed.
Vanderbilt's Thomas Schwartz, summing up, recalled what Bismarck famously had said about diplomacy: It was like making sausage; you didn't want to watch. He then added that a few days ago a colleague unfamiliar with American history had commented seriously that what the Bush administration needs is a new Henry Kissinger. "I am not so sure," said Schwartz slowly, drawing out his words for emphasis.Then he added, almost sighing, "We historians have our work cut out for us."
Business Meeting, 2005
The day ended with the annual business meeting. Arnita Jones announced that 4500 people were participating at this year's convention, nearly a thousand more than the last time the AHA met in Seattle some half dozen years ago. One of the reasons for the higher than usual list, she explained, was that many teachers had taken up the AHA's new offer to attend the convention at a reduced rate--and to bring along up to five students. That solved the mystery of the sudden appearance this year of so many high school students.
She noted that the organization is in the black but said that earnings from AHA's investments had been flat over the past year, leading the council to drop its existing investment house and switch to Lazar.
Michael Grossberg, who is resigning as the editor of the American Historical Review after a ten year run, gave his farewell address. He noted the many changes he had inaugurated--he changed the font, he changed the paper four times, and he put the journal online--and said his goal had been to help historians speak across the boundaries of their own specialties--the same goal of the journal's founder in 1895. But mostly he told jokes and had fun. "What you don't realize if you haven't been to these meetings," he stated with a straight face, "is that when I started ten years ago I was six foot five." Later he thanked AHA staffer Robert Townsend: "More than any other person at the AHA I have come to think of him as a member of the journal, though he has not had the privilege of living in Bloomington." His final parting comment -- "I welcome your complaints and urge you to send them to Robert Schneider [his successor]" -- brought down the house. Then he made his exit. Later Roy Rosenzweig, the vice president who oversees the AHR and helped pick Robert Schneider, observed that Schneider has neither the height of a six foot fiver or a full head of hair as he starts out his career as the editor of the journal.
The next president-elect of the AHA was announced. It will be Linda Kerber, who defeated Leon Litwack. Tallies of the votes will be released later in the annual report. (Formerly they were included in the AHA's Perspectives. Then six year's ago the losing candidate complained loudly and election results began to be posted in the more obscure annual report.)
Bill Cronon, ending his three-year term as head of the Professional Division, announced that among the new initiatives the division was able to undertake this past year now that it was no longer spending time investigating complaints of professional wrongdoing was a substantial revision of the Statement on Standards. It was approved by the council Thursday and will be posted on the website soon. Several other changes: The division will shortly post on the AHA's website a curriculum on plagiarism. He said that in the future the division would post documents to help both teachers and administrators determine what they should do when confronted with a case of plagiarism.
After the officers of the AHA had finished with their reports, the meeting considered a resolution sponsored by students at Yale and Duke to require the AHA to adopt a policy of union preference to help encourage hotels and others to pay their workers better wages. When a friendly amendment was proposed the chairman, Jonathan Spence was temporarily baffled by the somewhat bewildering rules of procedure and turned to the parliamentarian for guidance. "I deal mainly with problems of Chinese complexity," he said, which prompted general laughter. More confusion followed when the vote was taken. As Spence began to tally the number of noes and abstentions, the parliamentarian interjected that that would not be in order. Spence promptly retorted, to a roomful laughter, "In China we count."
- Caught in the Act of Preparing : At the Sheraton, sitting in a stuffed chair in the lobby, his leg twitching a bit nervously, there was a young historian reading over a paper he planned to deliver. Only he wasn't just reading silently. He was reading out loud. Loud enough for the people seated nearby to hear him. Did he realize this? It was hard to tell.
- Overheard Conversation Between Two Historians: "What we missed by not going to Ivy League schools is that we didn't learn to talk fast. Those guys think talking fast means they're smart."
- Was He Tempted? As two historians walked past an exhibit for weddings being staged in the same convention hall as the AHA, one turned to the other and commented: "What would the reaction be if I walked into my department wearing a wedding dress?" (Laughter.)
- And Then There Was This: Look familiar? It's a Lyndon LaRouche table, just in case the historians in attendance at the AHA needed some help understanding America and the world.
Post War Occupations (Reporting for HNN: Tom Bruscino)
On Saturday evening at the American Historical Association meeting Ronald H. Spector of George Washington University delivered the Sixth Annual George C. Marshall Lecture titled, "After Hiroshima: Allied Military Occupations and the Fate of Japan's Asian Empire, 1945-47," on the timely topic of the forgotten areas of occupation in Asia and the Pacific after World War II.
When Japan surrendered it still controlled a vast area, including Korea and large swaths of China and Southeast Asia. The situations in each of these areas varied widely, but the Allied powers that moved into these locales and tried to establish control shared two main traits: 1) they never had enough troops, and 2) they usually knew next to nothing about where they were going. In what stands as a stark testament of the difficulty of these occupations (and what might come as a surprise to most students of the war) Spector pointed out that the resulting confusion led the various Allies to turn to the former Japanese occupiers for help. But nothing the Allies did made the occupations in any of these areas a clear-cut success or failure.
What does the post-World War II experience tell us about the current situation in Iraq? Spector concluded that history offers a "bright light of ambiguity." His presentation was a reminder that military occupations are almost always wrought with unforeseen difficulties, not the least of which come from the trouble of even defining success or failure in such operations. Perhaps even more frustrating is the fact that the factors that lead to difficulties and mistakes are not just a matter of the technique or planning of the occupiers, but more often than not stem from existing indigenous issues. As Professor Spector made clear, if history is any guide there are not going to be any easy answers for a long time in postwar Iraq.
Guns, Violence, and Belonging in the Late Twentieth Century (Reporting for HNN: Stephen Tootle)
The paper by Abigail A. Kohn (University of Sydney) drew from a relatively small sample of gun owners in northern California and Australia but her conclusion rang true. She found that Australian gun owners shunned many of the ideas that American gun owners held dear. The American gun owners she polled believed that owning a firearm was part of good citizenship. They drew on mythic traditions of individuality, moral vision, and order, believing that gun control was a kind of political oppression. Australian gun owners lived in culture with far fewer gun owners and saw guns as nothing more than pieces of sports equipment. The Australian gun owners she polled supported gun control and saw American practices as dangerous.
The Univesity of Hartford's Robert Churchill's talk on the militia movement described how the militias changed during the 1990s. Many of them were not hate groups, nor were they particularly concern with what is commonly known as the "white Christian patriarchal dominion" movement or political violence. In many cases the groups were concerned with fears of a New World Order that would emerge in the wake of the end of the Cold War. It was only after the incidents at Waco and Ruby Ridge that the groups began to worry about state sponsored violence. They saw those two events as a "wake-up call" that the state would have a monopoly on violence, even going so far as to claim that they were preventing the possibility of another Holocaust in opposing gun control. They appealed to the founding documents in defending their civil liberties. Churchill concluded by asserting that the attacks of September 11, 2001 closed the door that the fall of the Berlin Wall had opened. Post September 11, state violence would be directed outward again.
Koc University's John Drabble, focusing on the Klan, argued that the FBI¹s counter-terrorist program, COINTELPRO, during the 1960s pushed the Klan and the American Nazi Party together. White hate groups turned on the FBI in the late 1960s and early 1970s. COINTELPRO successfully broke up and disrupted the activities of many white hate groups by linking vice stories to the press about Klan leaders, sending postcards to employers of Klan members identifying their Klan membership, disrupting publication of their newsletters, arranging audits by the IRS, and diverting donation funds to bogus splinter organizations. After it became apparent that the federal government was behind this activity, the Klan abandoned much of its white Christian identity and formed new affiliations that were more paramilitary in nature. They moved from a "hard" racism tied to white male democracy to Nazism. They likewise moved from nativist anti-Semitism to a genocidal racial anti-Semitism.
- Jonathan Dresner on Day Three
Sunday, January 9, 2005
Finally, it snowed. But as usually happens on the rare occasions when snow falls in Seattle, by early afternoon it was gone--and so were most of the members, as they hurried to catch their planes leaving the city for home.
The stalwarts who remained to attend the final panels found room after room nearly deserted, leaving many panelists a little demoralized and almost desperate. As this reporter entered one session the chair called out: "Please don't leave us!" Another chair ended a meeting by saying how pleased he was that people had showed up. "Five minutes before the panel began," he said, "I thought we might not have an audience." But he was deluded as to its size. He estimated it at fifty. Keeping in mind Jonathan Spence's comment yesterday ("In China, we count"), we counted. There were twenty-five. But it was one of the three panels with the largest crowd.
The general impression is that Sundays are not really full days at the convention. This is simply not true. There were nearly as many scheduled sessions on Sunday (73) as on Friday (74).
Last year the AHA was heatedly criticized for scheduling many of the most widely appealing panels on Sunday, including one which directly concerned the war in Iraq. Some of the profession's biggest names were appalled when they found out their panels had been consigned to the outer reaches of scheduling Mongolia. The AHA did not repeat the mistake this year. Only one panel with broad appeal to the membership was scheduled this time around for a Sunday--"Historians, the Media, and the Politics of Academic Scandal"--and that was apparently because the proposal for the panel was submitted late.
The History Scandals (Reporting for HNN: Ralph Luker)
The Academic Scandal panel began at 11:00 a.m., Carla Rahn Phillips of the University of Minnesota chairing the session, which featured papers by Ron Robin of the University of Haifa and Jon Wiener of the University of California, Irvine, two of the three authors with books out about the history scandals. (Editor: Charles Peter Hoffer was omitted. Jon Wiener, who pulled the panel together, told HNN that he had been unaware of Hoffer's book when he assembled the group. As the panel began, Hoffer was reportedly preparing to leave for the airport. On Friday night all three authors appeared at a local bookstore for a joint talk attended by more than 100 people.)
Robin argued that technology has enabled academic deviance, but also the detection of it. The medium dictates the terms of the debate. The democracy of the net has undermined the gatekeeping of professional elites. The new academic celebrity is no longer the gatekeeping elite, but one made famous by exposure. Popular history has become infotainment. The real sins are not plagiarism, fraud and misrepresentation of the self, but the trivialization of history, the determination to produce a “useable past” and a false sense of how the past can be made virtually present. Too often represented as a disease, the scandals are a sign of normally vital activity; boundary control is a index of normative vibrancy within.
Jon Wiener asked why some historians survive serious charges and are ultimately rewarded, while others find their careers ended by the scandal. Some scandals become media spectacles; others are contained within academic culture. Wiener’s primary examples are the cases of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Michael Bellesiles, and Edward A. Pearson. Emory settled the Fox-Genovese case for a large payment, but held no internal inquiry. Strong conservative allies outside the profession both saved Fox-Genovese’s position and added to her honors. By contrast, her colleague, Michael Bellesiles, had powerful enemies who demanded that Bellesiles's’s feet be held to the fire. Yet, the third case, of Edward A. Pearson, yielded a dramatically different result: his book about Denmark Vesey was withdrawn from publication, but Pearson otherwise experienced no significant professional punishment, even though his work was massively flawed. There was no large constituency demanding further punishment.
In his response to these two papers, David Hollinger of the University of California, Berkeley, expanded the scandals under consideration to include the debate about ideological “balance” in academic communities, taking note of note of David Horowitz's campaign for an “Academic Bill of Rights” and a balanced pluralism of ideological representation. It presents itself as a case of scandal. Hollinger argued that professional academic standards of evidence and reasonable debate are the appropriate standard for what constitutes balance. Within the professional standards of our various disciplines, there are legitimate questions of cross-disciplinary responsibility. (Editor: After HNN posted yesterday's report on the AHA convention, David Horowitz wrote in to complain about the panel on government secrecy. Click here to read his letter.)
Carla Rahn Phillips responded to the papers by asking Jon Wiener to clarify the distinction between Fox-Genovese’s bad behavior and her contributions to scholarship, pointing out that her reward was for scholarship, not for fortitude in bad behavior. Phillips's sense was that the investigating committee at Emory handled its responsibilities with care and that the outcome was fair. That Pearson continues as a history department chairman is, she thought a serious embarrassment, as is the AHA professional division’s decision to stop adjudicating charges of professional malfeasance.
An early morning panel featured the title "World Affairs During the Reign of the Second Bush: Doing History without the Archives," which sounded like it had been put together by the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. But it was chaired by a scholar from the US Air War College, featured a paper by a historian from the US Naval Historical Center, and ended with commentary by conservative political scientist Kiron Skinner, who is well known as the author of pro-Reagan books.
Sarandis Papadopoulos, the historian from the navy, is the author of a forthcoming official history of the attack on the Pentagon on 9-11. The book is mainly based on oral histories 42 Pentagon researchers took from 1100 people--the largest oral history project concerning a single event, he noted, in the history of the United States. He predicted that most of the oral histories, which were made available to the 9-11 commission, would eventually be made public. Asked what he thought of the French book that claimed the attack was staged by the CIA using Navy-fired cruise missiles, he said that that argument simply cannot be made with any credibility. He said he has interviews with five witnesses who watched the airplane strike the Pentagon. He stated flatly that he felt no pressure from anyone to sanitize the history, though of course certain classified details had to be omitted. He finished the manuscript in November. It's now under official review. He hopes it will be published either later this year or early in 2006.
Across the hall a panel heard from the University of Oregon's Beatrice McKenzie about the fascinating case, United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898). Ark was a Chinese born American who traveled to China to find a bride. Upon his return he was blocked from re-entering the country in 1895 at the Port of San Francisco. A decade earlier a court had ruled that a Sioux Indian was not a citizen even though he had been born in the United States. And in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) , the Supreme Court held that there are different classes of citizenship, one for blacks and another for whites. So it was not clear that the Court would rule in favor of Ark. But in 1898 it did, establishing once and for all that in the United States the 14th Amendment guarantees citizenship to anyone born here (except for the children of diplomats and in the case of the occupation of a foreign army).
Another panel meeting over at the Sheraton considered court cases involving miscegenation, gay rights and religion. Claremont Graduate University's Fay Botham related the compelling story behind the case of Perez v. Lippold. Andrea Perez was a white woman of Mexican descent who in 1948 wanted to marry a black veteran in Los Angeles. The county denied the couple a marriage license on the grounds that miscegenation was illegal. Perez appealed. The California supreme court, in a split decision ruled in favor of Perez, striking down miscegenation for the first time since Reconstruction. What Botham argues is that the plaintiff's winning strategy was to claim that the refusal to marry Perez, a Catholic, was a violation of her First Amendment rights since the Catholic Church allowed interracial marriage. Botham said there is some evidence that this strategy was adopted expressly to appeal to a single justice who held the swing vote in the case. Might gay groups use the religious argument embodied in Perez to argue in favor of gay marriage? Perhaps, they could--and some apparently have, Botham said.
Commentator Steven K. Green, a law professor at Willamette University who also holds a Ph.D. in history, noted that one of the most interesting aspects of the case are the arguments the government advanced in open court in opposition to the marriage. One attorney stated that the state had an interest in prohibiting the marriage since it was well established that blacks come from the dregs of society and that a mixed couple would produce offspring that would become an unfortunate drain on society. Green said he was struck by the fact that in his lifetime one could make an argument like this in court and not receive a reprimand from the judge. But he said this was the swan song of the anti-miscegention cause. Within decades miscegenation would be legal everywhere.
Mary Ann Case, a law professor at the University of Chicago--who charmingly announced that "I am not a historian and I don't play one on TV. I exploit history"--spoke about the religious opposition to gay marriage. Citing recent poll results which demonstrate that more Protestants are hostile to gay marriage than Jews or Catholics, she argued that Protestants, much more so than Jews or Catholics, deeply believe that their own marriage values should be reflected in state law. Why? Unlike Jews and Catholics, who have long held marriage values which are at odds with the assumptions of secular laws (the Catholic opposition to contraceptives, for instance), Protestants have long used the state to enforce their own marriage principles. The first legal measure the Puritans in New England took was the establishment of civil marriage. For these Protestants marriage was a civil institution (for Catholics it obviously was a religious institution). In the early nineteenth century Protestants agreed to the separation of church and state once they recognized the danger of sectarian conflict among Protestants. But in their view disestablishment did not mean the abandonment of Protestant values in marriage law. Disestablishment enshrined those values in the law.
At 1pm the 2005 convention came to a close. As the American historians drifted away, one called out to another, "see you in San Francisco." In March the OAH will meet there.
- Jonathan Dresner on Day Four
comments powered by Disqus
Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007
Happy new year, Maarja.
With all due respect, I went two levels into your link and found nothing but boilerplate bureaucratese (I'm not able to access pdfs on the computer I am using today).
I may consequently be thinking tangentially to your post, but here is a general thought. For millennia, people like Caesar, Charlemagne, Eric the Red, etc. who wanted to "protect the future" of events recalled and recounted orally, invented and employed various sorts of scribes, chroniclers, saga-writers etc. in order to preserve at least their versions of what happened in a form accessible to future generations. No doubt, various movers and shakers in society today will also develope means of "recording" electronic communications so that their posterity can remember some selected subset of them. Whether the ultimate result looks more like a "Readers Guide to Periodical Literature" and a well-ordered set of library journals, or more like the ever-rewritten propaganda sheets of Orwell's 1984 is, to be sure, a major issue, but not (I suspect) whether there is "access to information born digital" itself.
Ralph E. Luker - 1/16/2005
Richard, I still don't understand why a person as intelligent as you are is satisfied to be an agent of right-wing propaganda. There are nobler callings in life.
Richard Henry Morgan - 1/16/2005
CVM, I'm less concerned about such things too. I do, however, subscribe to the ancient Greek trial methodology, where each side is given an equal say, and nothing is ruled out beforehand (that is left to the jury on an individual basis). That is, I am concerned when media make the decision for me what and what is not to be of concern to me, by with-holding info on select candidates.
About nine weeks before the Bush TexANG story, Rather was asked why he hadn't reported on Kerry and Vietnam and the allegations made. He said nobody was interested in something that happened 30 years ago -- that is, until he thought they had the goods on Bush.
There is only one reporter who actually did any reporting on Kerry -- Thomas Lipscomb (Nat Hentoff agrees on this proposition). Kerry and his gang have maintained for decades that he went to BU Law because he applied too late for Harvard. Not so. Just a few days before the election, Lipscomb tracked down a Harvard prof who had served on the admissions committee that year. He said they couldn't accept Kerry because he didn't have an honorable discharge, so they couldn't be sure the Mass Bar would accept him. Why didn't he have an honorable discharge? He met with North Vietnamese and Viet Cong leaders in Paris while still holding a reserve commission -- something you won't find in Brinkley's hagiography.
Turns out Kerry had an honorable discharge three years late -- to coincide with Carter's amnesty program for upgrading discharges. Now you know why Kerry never went on the record with the Swift Boat charges, and why he never released all his records. It wasn't, as campaign toadies have falsely maintained after the fact, a mistake.
So this argument I've been having isn't about the relevance of Gregoire's membership in a racist and religiously discriminatory sorority (in fact, president of it five years after the Civil Rights Act). It is about (at least for me) the omission of derogatory info for some candidates and issues, and not others. I can assure you that I didn't read about the $17.8 million mistake in the NY Times. Nor the 2,148 "unexplained ballots". I can, however, provide links to NY Times stories on problems with the Florida and Ohio elections.
But all this is becoming rapidly irrelevant. Just read Van Gordon Sauter's comments about Rathergate. The stranglehold of the mainstream media is weakening by the day. They are dead. They just don't know it yet. Well informed people on the left puncture the lies of the right, while well-informed people on the right do a similar job. Those who think they control the flow of info and can shape opinion accordingly are now sadly deluded.
Charles V. Mutschler - 1/16/2005
Hi Gentlemen -
I am less concerned about Mrs. Gregoire's membership in an all white sorority and various Bonesmen than some of the other issues. The secrecya bout it is perhaps less attractive, but in my book, there is a difference between what people did as underclassmen and what they did as public servants. Also, a matter of timing. Many of us are old enough to have gone to college at a time when all white fraternities and sororities were accepted. That was also a time when many upscale developments had racial or religious covenants (anyone else remember the 'no sales to Hebrews' language?) Even in states like Washington and Oregon, which now like to pride themselves on their liberal politics, these were probably common and unremarkable in the time when Governor Gregoire, or Mr. Luker was an undergraduate. Does that make them forever tied to that way of thinking? I doubt it. So, as I said, I am less concerned about the fact that Gregoire belonged to such a group, or that either President Bush was Bonesman as underclassmen than I would be about their behavior as public servants.
Now, I agree that Governor Gregoire's actions as Washington AG are fair game for discusssion as indicators of her abilities to serve as governor. Likewise Mr. Bush's abilities as a business executive managing the Texas Rangers, or his management of the affairs of Texas would seem to be reasonable indicators of his executive abilities, and suggest how he might serve as POTUS. I doubt that I am alone in feeling that his resume was a bit weak for the Presidency.
Was there corruption in either the Ohio presidential election or the Washington gubernatorial election? I don't think so. I see a lot of evidence of ineptitude, and some rather poor decisions made for expediency in the rush to wrap up the election, but no really incontrovertible evidence of corruption or tinkering with the election with the intent to alter the outcome in either Ohio or Washington. So in that respect, I think both states would have been well served to keep the outsiders out, and to see the loser be a gracious loser. From a tatical viewpoint, it would seem to me that Rossi has made a poor move by not just graciously conceding and going off to start tooling up for either a run for US Senate in 2006, or another shot at the governor's mansion in 2008. He comes across as a whiner. And much the same charge can be levied at Senator Boxer. Would someone please remind me just what role she has in representing the people of Ohio? She doesn't live there, doesn't vote there. It comes across in much the same tone as President Wilson telling the Mexicans that he would teach them to elect good men.
The Nethercut camapign and the questions of outside money do tie back to the initial issue of the election of 2004. George Nethercut was able to defeat Representative Thomas Foley because he had a lot of help from outside. Much of the money that helped pay for campaign materials and commercials came from wealthy Republicans and organizations which tend to support conservative issues. The vast majority of it probably did not come form the citizensw in the district who were eligible to vote for either Nethercut or Foley. Foley lost, and Nethercut won, in part due to his claim that he would serve two terms and leave. He broke his word.
On the other hand, the Gregoire campaign, in spite of all the appeal to the people of Washington, were unable to raise the money for a recount from Washington citizens. Most of it came from well to do liberal Democrats (George Soros) or Democratic organizations (John Kerry Campaign, but not citizens who were eligible to vote for either Gregoire or Rossi. I personally feel the influx of outside money is far more damaging to democracy than the bungling in either the Washington gubernatorial or Ohio presidential elections.
I am not foolish enough to believe that any kind of meaningful campaign finance reform will ever happen. The media, the big businesses, the unions, and the various NGOs and other organizations all have too much of a vested interest in keeping the current system. However, a much more democratic approach to campaign finance reform would be to require campaigns to only accept money from persons eleigible to vote for the candidate or issue, and to make the names of the donors and the amounts given a matter of public record. Campaign costs would come down, simply because candidates would have a lot less money to work with. That might actually make them get out and talk to the people they are supposed to represent. Democracy - what a concept!
Richard Henry Morgan - 1/15/2005
I haven't said that. I would think it counts against Bush, and Kerry, and Gregoire (to the extent it counts -- that's a matter for voters to decide), though apparently even reporting the fact about Gregoire is, for some, a no-no.
Ralph E. Luker - 1/15/2005
I'm trying to figure this out. When it's true of Bush, it is o.k. When it's true of the new governor of Washington, it is not o.k. Is that the way it is?
Richard Henry Morgan - 1/15/2005
That's a good assumption. For what's it's worth, it's also something that applies to both Bush and Kerry. I was once talking with Walt Rostow as we walked back to the LBJ Center, and he let on that he had been in the OSS. I knew he was a Yale graduate (at 18, I believe), so I asked him if he was a Bonesman -- a lot of Bonemen went OSS . He silently scowled until he saw my cheese-eating grin.
Ralph E. Luker - 1/15/2005
Your point includes Skull and Bones, I assume.
Richard Henry Morgan - 1/15/2005
I'll send a copy of your piece to Martha Burke. I don't think she'll be impressed by the argument that pointing out membership in a discriminatory organization is a form of smear. I could be wrong, though.
Ralph E. Luker - 1/15/2005
Good to see that Richard is back to his familiar smear by association tactics. I went to a segregated university. I assume Richard believes that believes that the NYTimes has an obligation to use that against me should I run for public office. Didn't seem to bother Richard that his candidate for president in his alcoholic youth shunned his military obligations and in his inherited presidency led the United States in military folly.
Richard Henry Morgan - 1/15/2005
All I can say is thank God for the internet. Had I been relying on the NY Times or whatever for my info, I never would have learned that Gregoire had been president, at the University of Washington, of an all-White and all-Christian sorority, and that she had cost the state $17.8 million by failing, as AG, to file an appeal by deadline. Nor would I have learned that Washington state was the last state to send out absentee ballots to the military, and that in fact they falsified the date (backdated) on which they did it. Nor would I have known that such efforts to suppress the military vote are being investigated by the Feds for possible prosecution. But none of this compares, of course, with the need to lose graciously.
As for Nethercutt, wasn't he one of those term-limits hypocrites? All that outside funding also reminds me of Hillary "Futures Dealer Extraordinaire" Clinton's race in NY (you know, the one where her finance director has been charged with fraud). There's something to be said for in-state financing. Hell, Ralph's favorite anti-Semitic crackpot Congresswoman (McKinney) might not have been reduced to sucking the hind teat of Cornell if there had been in-state financing only.
Charles V. Mutschler - 1/14/2005
I agree that Jim Lindgren is correct, there is a lot to be said for gracious losing. However, Mr. Morgan is correct about one thing. The issues in Washington's 2004 election are certainly as much of an issue as the ones in Ohio in 2004. So the call for gracious concession might be a little more even handed. What was Nancy Pelosi's issue with Ohio other than partisan politics? And where were the Clipatriarchs calling for her to be a good sport?
Like many of Washington's citizens, I object to outside money and political activists who cannot legally vote in our election campaigning for candidates here. Since this is a history forum, I simply point to the defeat of the sitting Speaker of the House, Rep. Thomas Foley, by George Nethercutt. Foley, who was a Democrat, and regularly re-elected by his conservative eastern Washington district, was defeated by an intense campaign larger than anything previously seen in the district, with a large influx of funds coming from outside our state.
Personally, I agree that Rossi and the Republicans would be better served by gracious concession, but an investigation of the election problems seems like a reasonable idea to me. Like Mr. Morgan, I find the arithmetic in King County doesn't add up. I'd fail any student who came up with such caluclations, but apparently fuzzy math is permissable in King County elections.
Richard Henry Morgan - 1/13/2005
Just for the record. In statewide polls, 59% of Washington state residents believe that Rossi actually won, and 62% believe there should be a new election.
Maarja Krusten - 1/13/2005
on the issue of government information in electronic records, I see the survey closing date has been extended from January 11 to January 20. The notice is buried in "breaking news" at
The survey itself is at
Richard Henry Morgan - 1/12/2005
True, Florida and Ohio have had their problems, though of a different sort. Yet, I don't find these elliptical allusions to past elections, Lindgren, the Volokh Conspiracy , and "gracious losing" all that helpful to me in my quest to understand exactly how 2,148 more votes were cast in heavily Democrat King County than there were voters -- mired as I am in my unsophisticated Red-State mindset, I find it metaphysically impossible for there to be more valid ballots than valid voters, though I can understand how the opposite could occur. This would not be of much concern to me if the winning margin of 129 votes were not a mere fraction of these "unexplained ballots". I'd be most interested if you could shed some light on this, or even give me a more precise link to where such questions have been seriously addressed.
Ralph E. Luker - 1/12/2005
Richard, I'm surprised at your concern here. I don't recall your having been upset about the Florida debacle in 2000 or Ohio in 2004 -- and _they_ were about the presidency. Jim Lindgren at Volokh Conspiracy has already given the signal to Republicans on this one: there's something to be said for gracious losing.
Maarja Krusten - 1/12/2005
Copied from the just released 01/12/05 edition of Steve Aftergood's Secrecy News (Federation of American Scientists):
"DHS: NO MORE NON-DISCLOSURE AGREEMENTS FOR UNCLASSIFIED
In an abrupt reversal, the Department of Homeland Security last week
rescinded its controversial policy of requiring employees to sign
non-disclosure agreements in order to gain access to unclassified
information that is marked "for official use only" or "sensitive but
The non-disclosure agreements, first reported by Secrecy News last
November 8, drew opposition from employees' unions and others
because, for example, they granted the government extraordinary
permission to "conduct inspections at any time or place for the
purpose of ensuring compliance."
The revised DHS policy on sensitive but unclassified information
eliminates the non-disclosure agreement (NDA) requirement. Such
agreements are only rarely used by other agencies for unclassified
The change was reported yesterday by Eileen Sullivan in Federal Times
"Those NDA's previously signed by DHS employees... will no longer be
valid," according to a January 11 transmittal memo from DHS Under
Secretary Janet Hale. "DHS will take reasonable steps to retrieve
these documents and destroy them." See:
A copy of "Safeguarding Sensitive But Unclassified (For Official Use
Only) Information," DHS Management Directive 11042.1, revised January
6, 2005, is posted here:
The DHS move does not resolve the challenges posed by the poorly
defined information control category "sensitive but unclassified."
But it is nevertheless a hopeful sign. It represents an
increasingly unusual ability to review existing policies in the light
of changed circumstances and to revise them accordingly.
By way of contrast, the CIA's crippling inability to rethink inherited
security policies keeps the Agency in litigation seeking to uphold
the secrecy of half-century old budget totals."
Posted on personal time during lunch break
Richard Henry Morgan - 1/12/2005
While historians gathered in Seattle to catch up on the study of history, history itself was being made right under their noses -- to very little notice by historians, if the HNN site is any indication.
As of this date, there are now (in the final totals for this past election in Washington State) a total of 2,148 more votes in King County than voters. That includes several hundred provisional ballots which were counted without being checked first. The King County Election Director Dean Logan explained away the remaining unaccounted votes by offering the theory that many of the "unexplained ballots" were probably cast by registered voters that failed to sign in when they cast their votes. Seriously. You can get off the floor now. I didn't just make that up. It's in the Seattle Times and the blog soundpolitics.com. Dean Logan then went on to say that the check is in the mail, that this wouldn't hurt, and that he would marry you if you got pregnant. (Actually, I did make up that last sentence).
Maarja Krusten - 1/12/2005
A clarification for Andrew and some observations about partisanship.
I’m not picking on you, Andrew--you know a great deal about fields of which I largely am ignorant and I learn a great deal when I read most of your posts. But I have to counter one of the points you made above.
(1) Andrew observed above that “If today's technology had been available thirty years ago, the Carter and Clinton administrations would have long since published practically all papers relating to Allende and Pinochet, Watergate, etc., etc., simply as a matter of political score-settling, and the Republicans would have retaliated in kind with respect to Kennedy and Johnson. For a document to avoid being published, both sides would have to agree that it was in fact sensitive.”
While there are numerous stakeholders in the process of releasing documents to the public, decisions on whether or not to disclose information largely rest with what the courts previously have referred to as the “disinterested” government archivists rather than representatives of political parties. That is to say, the archivists have no vested interest in the content of the records, they apply consistently the guidance on privacy, national security, etc. That is not to say that the records creators cannot voice their opinions on disclosure. For example, in the case of Nixon, the regulations did permit him to file claims against release. Such claims were supposed to be adjudicated in an orderly process, with public notice that he had objected, etc. That worked for a while but blew up big time in 1989.
Back to your point, it is not a case of “both sides” having to agree that something was sensitive. Such a process would not work. You imply that a Democratic administration might release information about Republicans for score settling, and a Republican about Democrats, for the same reason. But there is another possibility. Given a voice in disclosure, a Republican President might agree to withhold information relating to a Democrat President for the precedential value. Or vice versa. I suspect that Presidential lawyers look at issues in terms of precedents and case law, once you allow something to be released, you weaken your own guy’s chances of shielding information in the same category. As a member of the public, you want to leave the politicians and the parties of interest out of the release process. That is why there has been so much outcry over Bush’s executive order on Presidential records.
(2) It is unclear to me how much support remains among scholars and historians for the type of nonpartisan mission embodied in the “charter” of the National Archives. I noted in my posting above that rarely do you hear a right leaning scholar express concern about archival abuses involving Republican Presidents. Or left leaning scholars decry abuses involving Democrat Presidents.
This raises an interesting question. Say a right leaning scholar kept silent about problems, such as those I described above, which cropped up in archivists’ attempts to apply disclosure statutes to information about a Republican President. Would such a scholar also believe that a Democrat President deserves to shield or suppress information about his activities? In other words, would he argue for the same standards to be applied to all Presidents’ records, regardless of party? Or would he view the issue as a partisan--shield what happened during Republican administrations and disclose what happened under Democrats?
What about the writing of interpretitve histories? If he called for a celebratory, triumphalist approach to writing about Republican Presidents, would he do the same for Democrats? Or would he apply situational ethics and support a deconstructivist approach to writing about Democrats?
What about the reverse? If a left leaning scholar fought for release (whether through declassification or through systematic screening of unclassified records) of information about a Republican President, would he also support--or at least not argue against--exposure of similar information about a Democrat?
In my younger days, I would have guessed that most historians would argue for equitable treatment of the records of all officials, and an objective approach to interpretive history, regardless of their personal politics. Nowadays, I’m not so sure. After reading HNN, I have to say I have lost a lot of confidence in how scholars view these things. Have these issues become totally muddied by partisanship? I started thinking about this, when I recentlhy saw someone post a question about Presidential Libraries on Richard Jensen’s List. I didn’t bother to post a reply, archival issues are so complex, objectivity so rarely praised and accountability such a hard sell, and I already have spent thousands of words trying to explain them in this forum, already. To what effect, I don’t know - LOL
david horowitz - 1/12/2005
This is simply false. If you go to www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org and check the lefthand frame "Intimdiation of College Liberals" you will see that we defend liberal students who are being politically harassed by conservative professors too.
david horowitz - 1/12/2005
Don't believe everything you read. I thought historians understood this. You can find a critique of the Chronicle's distorted account at http://www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org/archive/December2004/ChronicleResponseonMerantoSaraDogan120804.htmwww.studentsforacademicfreedom.org or on www.frontpagemag.com.
Maarja Krusten - 1/11/2005
When I say "deleting from the record" above, I literally mean removing from government custody and returning to Nixon. The question was not one of restricting information temporarily, thereby potentially merely deferring public disclosure. There is a proprietary concept embedded in the regulations governing Nixon's tapes and documents. The question under consideration by the high level review board centered on were whether information was governmental and historical, or personal-returnable. Had things gone Nixon's way, the information would have been removed from the physical custody of the National Archives and returned it to Nixon. See 36CFR1275.48(a). The Nixon regulations are codified in 36CFR1275, see
Posted on personal time during lunch break
Maarja Krusten - 1/11/2005
I was in college during the Vietnam War, I did not enter federal government service (first as an archivist, later as an historian) until 1973. As a student, I did not follow closely the activities of historians' professional associations.
Were there examples of notable moral courage displayed by historians' in the past? Before you hit the reply button, be forewarned that I see very little moral courage in the profession right now, so many people seem to take kneejerk predictable positions. Perhaps I am getting a skewed view, because there is so much hot air and right and left name calling on HNN. Oscar Chamberlain is one of the few people here who seems to want to listen to and learn from perspectives other than his own, I respect that.
Here's where I learned about lack of moral courage in the history profession. The fact that I had voted for Nixon, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush, did not stop me from fighting hard as an employee of the National Archives to ensure that public access to Nixon's historical materials be nonpartisan, objective, and in compliance with the law. (See also my comment above to Andrew Todd on his speculation about the Carter and Clinton administrations). I worked with colleagues whose personal political opinions ranged from socialist to libertarian to Democrat to Republican (and I was not then the only Republican. I now call myself an Independent.). Nowhere could you see that divergence of personal opinion reflected in our work, which, as the courts demanded and you historians depended on, consistently was objective, fact based and nonpartisan.
When Stanley Kutler filed a lawsuit for public access to the Nixon tapes in March 1992, his action brought to light previously concealed political pressure against the Archives. I was subpoenaed as a witness and after my testimony, followed the court filings carefully. Nixon's lawyer admitted in a legal declaration that he used threats of litigation against the Archives to try to persuade the agency to change and and make more restrictive its guidance to staff on what to release to the public from historical materials. The handling of the lawsuit also raised serious questions about what individuals testified to under oath and what the Bush administration's lawyers averred in court filings. I later wrote to the Department of Justice, raising questions of witness intimidation, etc.
Two historians are identified with asking questions about political pressure at the National Archives in its handling of the Nixon materials--Stanley Kutler and Joan Hoff. (While I would guess that Stanley and I mostly have diverged in the way we have voted over the last 30 years, I respect him. He did the right thing in filing the lawsuit.) Why did no right leaning historians speak up to protest some of the problems that came to light as a result of the court case? As someone who had voted for Nixon but who argued for proper handling of his materials, I certainly felt very much alone. Why was that? I would have applauded the moral courage of any historian who did not bear the "liberal" label who would have joined the battle to ensure statutory compliance. But there was no one for me to applaud, then or now.
Obviously, I knew the type of information that Nixon's lawyers were attempting to suppress. During the Reagan and Bush administrations, a high level National Archives review board considered overturning the decisions of working level archivists and deleting from the record comments by Nixon, such as his order to Kissinger to "get best deal [on Vietnam] - let Thieu paddle his own canoe," or his complaints about a "Jewish cabal" at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Without citing those particular comments, Jack Anderson wrote a troubling column about the review board in 1989.) We archivists believed that the law called for us to release such information. Ultimately, during the Clinton administration, a review board with a different composition largely upheld our determinations and the information I cited above was released, within several thousand pages of previously blocked materials.. It has been available for anyone to examine for nearly ten years, ample time for scholars, right, left, and center, to understand what might have been lost to history, had Nixon prevailed, as he came close to doing during the Reagan and Bush administrations.
Why are right leaning scholars so hesitant to speak up about archival abuses, when they involve Republican presidents? Why don't left leaning scholars speak up, when there is potential abuse of materials involving Democrat presidents? If historians, who rely on objective data, can't do this, who will? If people working at the National Archives can screen out their own personal political views, why does it seem so hard for historians to unite on important issues relating to historical truth? Has it always been thus? Or is it just a sign of our message discipline, talking points era, where it is easier to call people names and to sit back, satisifed that that constitutes public courage, than to think through complex, ethical issues?
Maarja Krusten - 1/11/2005
Andrew, you wrote above:
"If today's technology had been available thirty years ago, the Carter and Clinton administrations would have long since published practically all papers relating to Allende and Pinochet, Watergate, etc., etc., simply as a matter of political score-settling, and the Republicans would have retaliated in kind with respect to Kennedy and Johnson. For a document to avoid being published, both sides would have to agree that it was in fact sensitive."
As it happens, I was working for the National Archives during the Carter administration. I had absolutely no sense that the administration was pushing for release of information from Nixon's tapes and documents (my field of specialty) "as a matter of political score-settling." That is not to say I didn't see political pressure, but it was the other way, under another administration, in the form of efforts to delay releases from Nixon's records. I've mentioned in other postings that Nixon's lawyers met with Reagan Justice Department officials in 1985. They discussed how the Kennedy Library was opening "only favorable" information and that Nixon should have the ability to veto releases from his materials.
The delaying tactics largely worked. Only after 1996 -- and after Nixon's death in 1994 -- did the Archives start releasing significant amounts of information from Nixon's tapes. The releases were tied to a court settlement, not to action by the Clinton administration. Prior to that, a mere 63 hours of a total 3,700 hours had been released, despite the fact that archivists finished screening them for public access in 1987. That in itself disproves the speculation that the Carter administration could or would have used physical custody of the Nixon materials as a means of political score settling.
Whether documents are hard copy only or electronic, the National Archives strives hard to avoid being placed in positions where political score settling is a factor. Historians depend on it for that!! Its employees work under a series of complex regulations which implement federal statutes. In the case of Nixon's records, the rules were set up by Congress to ensure objective, nonpartisan disclosures. They worked pretty well up until 1989, when we became embroiled in bloody internal battles within NARA over "backdoor" acceptance of a list of Watergate tape deletions from Nixon's agents. Sy Hersh described those battles pretty accurately in an article drawn from court records in 1992.
Speaking of courts, keep in mind that in its ruling in 1977 on Nixon v. Sampson, the Supreme Court referred to the "unblemished reputation" of federal archivists. We were keenly aware of the heavy responsibility placed on our shoulders by all the stakeholders. Perhaps that is why we archivists argued so vehemently against acceptance of the surreptitious deletions in 1989.
HNN - 1/11/2005
Meeting on the west coast made the "Sunday" attendance problem worse. I saw a number of Sunday panels I would have liked to attend, but given my air choices, I would not have been able to go to these and still reach home before Monday ( or at least before midnight). As it was, with the 3 hour time difference, I got on a bus to the airport at 5 a.m. (PST) and still didn't reach my front door until 7:00 (EST). Because of connections, leaving later was not an option. Remember, that the AHA now meets when many campuses are starting a new term, and few people can afford to cancel both a Friday AND a Monday session of the same class (although this was not an issue for me).
Charles Lee Geshekter - 1/10/2005
The running commentary of "The Reporter's Notebook" on selected panels at the AHA meetngs in Seattle and the florid, testy hysteria which greeted Horowitz's shrewd observations of our profession helped to affirm my pleasure with maintaining membership in The Historical Society.
Lisa Kazmier - 1/10/2005
Amen on that point about tougher. Keep in mind, though, that the "single sanction" doesn't work. Students at "honor code" institutions don't want to use it much and their powers to investigate (like even seeing a student's credit card statements to see whether or not he bought a paper) are very limited. It reminds me of England when it had over 200 capital offenses. No one wanted to hang someone over stealing a piece of fruit.
I have turned in several students myself. "Academic probation" doesn't seem like anything significant to me. Getting an "F" or a notation on one's transcript seems more fitting, maybe a special kind of "F" that says there was a plagiarism issue. I went after one student hard after she found out too soon why she got an incomplete (paper went to the Dean, but the initial fax failed to transmit); she tried to ask me to identify the offending passages, then later tried to send what was the "right" version. It too had plagiarized passages so the question of whether to believe the draft story was immaterial imo. I hate when students try to snow me, and this was an obvious case of copying someone's online film review it wasn't funny.
I hope that isn't par for the course but it could be.
Michael Green - 1/10/2005
I think our profession should be tougher on plagiarism and cheating. I also decry any effort to limit free speech in any way, shape or form. But just as some of us lefties regret the perception that we are all part of some grand communist cabal, Mr. Horowitz and his friends have done a great deal to create that unfair and incorrect perception, and they define academic freedom as agreeing with their point of view
Lisa Kazmier - 1/10/2005
Sorry, but I've read accounts in the Chronicle of Higher Education that point out that this doublespeak name of academic "rights" is used to intimidate faculty. The last I saw concerned a Native American female who was the subject of a coordinated campaign; she wound up taping her own lectures to refute an accusation against her. I have been both the subject of confrontation from supposedly attacked male students and I have witnessed several attempts to attack faculty all by conservative students who wanted to object to something based on their own preconceived biases. This goes back a ways, so conservatives have not invented the wheel. The two professors in question were Michael Sherry and Garry Wills. Wills outmaneuvered his students who didn't expect him to say what he said; Sherry kept on his point, since the student wasn't asking a question so much to get a reply.
I don't need to read better; experience tells me how to interpret that Chronicle article. Intimidation is about censorship and potentially censure. There are some of us around, though, that will never bend in what we believe and in how we teach. I am one of those people.
david horowitz - 1/10/2005
First, I am the author of Radical Son and Unholy Alliance and am not to be confused with the consumer advocate with the same name. Second if anyone thinks that the Academic Bill of Rights is about censure or censorship they should get a new pair of reading glasses.
david horowitz - 1/10/2005
I appreciate that most historians either may be or are scholars before they are partisans. But they also need to take responsibility for the academics they elect to represent them as well as for the actions of large numbers of historians whose public pronouncements go unchallenged. Richard Posner has written scathing critiques of the various "Historians' Statements" on impeachment and the war. I do not remember any group of historians protesting this abuse of the profession for political ends, nor am I familiar with any formal discussion of these abuses at the AHA meetings. Thirty odd years ago Eugene Genovese made a notable stand at the AHA against the politicization of the profession. He won the battle but lost the war. He has oranized his own Historical Society to carry on this effort. You will admit that this is a small segment of the profession and that the political attitudes of the AHA and OAH remain dominant. Finally, having a radical from the leftwing National Security Archive make the case for releasing documents was not a way to put the profession's best foot foward.
Lisa Kazmier - 1/10/2005
Good point Maarja. It seems the public's rights to vote or know both suffer even against this one-time consumer/public advocate. He winds up supporting a paternalistic, secretive society under the banner of patriotism and thinks historians -- who have a clear, abiding interest in access to material -- are supposed to go along. That apparently makes us "radicals" whereas to me it is a pretty routine complaint. Given I'm not an American historian, only the names of the archives or files change. I haven't gotten the sense that such an issue is as politicized elsewhere (but I'm not a political historian).
Here's another irony: the only one whining actually is Horowitz himself, just as he does with his "Academic Bill of Rights" -- which has sounded to me as if students have the right to censor or censure any academic who challenges their views (and imo does their job). If he's so concerned, maybe he ought to get a PhD himself and teach. Of course, given his stridency, I doubt he'll make a good graduate student. Still, hint: try the University of Virginia. Surprise, surprise -- it's a conservative program. I ought to know, having spent 2 1/2 years there.
Maarja Krusten - 1/10/2005
You may find of interest my comments from a year ago (01/17/04) on last year's AHA convention, posted at
http://hnn.us/comments/28922.html . Historians may indeed have an image problem in some circles, but some of it is due to the filters through which political figures view their function. Note especially the concluding paragraph in my comment from last year. Personally, I dislike stereotyping, wherever I see it.
There's another image problem to consider, as well, one which I raised this past summer from my "Nixon goes to China" perspective as someone who had voted straight Republican during the Cold War. You may recall what I wrote in a comment in August as I sought information on how scholars on the right, as well as the left, view the public's right to know. Here's the extract:
"Here's the tricky part for Republican scholars. Starting with Reagan, the papers of three former or incumbent Republican presidents have fallen under the Presidental Records Act of 1978. Add Nixon and the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act and that makes four Republican Presidents whose records are supposed to be under public control. Of Democratic Presidents, only Clinton's fall under the PRA. (Carter was the last President whose papers follow the old "donor restricted" personal property standard that was applied before passage of the PRA.) For whatever reason, and unfortunately for Republican scholars, most of the pressure on the National Archives against public disclosure of historical records has come from Republican or right leaning sources (the Reagan Justice Department, The American Spectator, the Washington Times). And most of the arguments for public accountability and statutory disclosure have come from scholars such as Stanley Kutler.
Had there been some Republican voices supporting the Archives' efforts to apply nonpartisan, nonideological standards to screening Nixon's records during the 1980s and early 1990s, archivists might not be feeling so uneasy right now. I have done literature searches looking for thoughtful assertions of support for NARA's nonpartisan mission from Republican scholars but have been unable to find any such articles."
I had hoped then to find voices from the right speaking up for the public's right to know. But I heard no responses on HNN. In the context of another forum, someone who identified themselves as a conservative Republican told me that he believes we have "too open of a government." I cannot draw any conclusions from that one comment, but would be interested in knowing the extent to which right and left leaning scholars' views converge or diverge on issues of public access to government documents.
Tucker Carlson recently voiced discouragement at the difficulty of feeling he had to represent the White House position on CNN's "Crossfire" while he personally opposed the Iraq war. How many people posting on HNN feel they have to present "packaged" views along those lines? (Dumb question, Maarja, no one is going to admit it if they do, LOL.) Let me rephrase that. Is it possible to support Bush's policies but argue for declassification and reasonable public access to government information, let the chips fall where they may? I'd love to hear citations to scholars who have done so.
Jonathan Dresner - 1/10/2005
This is a "they said it, so it must be wrong" fallacy.
That some, even most, historians are politically opposed to the Bush administration does not mean that all are, or that even those opposed to the Bush administration should not have access to documents which legally (and ethically) belong out of classification.
The proper response to this, if Mr. Horowitz is a serious historian, is to say that it is a non-partisan issue, an archival issue which affects historians of all stripes interested in doing serious historical study of recent (which includes decades-old material) events. That the panel was critical of the administration does not mean that it was partisan. I did not attend the panel (nor, from the comments above, did Mr. Horowitz) and I see no evidence that the panelists' critiques went beyond evidentiary access issues with which they had direct personal experience.
Maarja Krusten - 1/10/2005
I wrote above, "Government officials are human, just like you or I. Would you or any other HNN reader face with equanimity the prospect of someone leaking the internal deliberations from your workplace to your opponents or competitors?" The first sentence is somewhat misleading. For anyone reading this who does not know me already -- most of you do -- I should explain that I _am_ a federal government official. That being the case, I should have written, "Government officials are human, just like you" and left off the "I" -- LOL.
Maarja Krusten - 1/10/2005
Interesting thoughts, Andrew, but I disagree with one of your underlying premises. The biggest problem with electronic records, and the greatest difference between them and paper documents, is the ease with which they can be duplicated and disseminated, even leaked. I suspect that is one reason why Government Executive magazine advised officials this month that if they do not want their views to appear on the front page of the newspaper, they should not write them down in e-mail. Remember the trouble that Daniel Ellsberg went to, laboriously and surreptiously xeroxing the Pentagon Papers? Had those documents been electronic, he could easily have had them copied on to CDs or flash drives in a matter of minutes, instead of sweating it out over days at the copier.
I disagree with you that had electronic records existed during Watergate, the information soon would have been made public. First of all, few government employees leak information. Most of them take seriously their obligations to protect records and information. Even when officials know about wrongdoing, whistleblowers have little protection and it takes enormous courage to act as one.
Second, some agencies now are starting to require employees to sign secrecy oaths, which prohibit them from disclosing sensitive information. (It already is against the law to leak security classified information.) That means there are criminal penalties. It is more likely that information about Watergate never would have been captured or recorded anywhere and that there would have been little audit trail for investigators. Had electronic records and e-mail existed during the Nixon administration, I would bet that officials would have discussed matters related to Watergate orally, written down as little as possible, left no paper trail, and that it would have been difficult for investigators to unravel what happened. As a historian once noted, “Records not created are not available, ever, for historical research.”
A lot has changed in the post-Watergate era. Historian John Earl Haynes explained the problem this way in 2001, “Pre-emptive sanitization of the record is not episodic but nearly universal among policy making officials and their staffs since the mid-1970s.” Haynes, who now works as a political historian at the Library of Congress, described his earlier experiences as a state employee, “As a staffer for policy-making officials in the executive branch of state government in that era I and my colleagues drastically changed our record keeping habits after the passage of mandatory rapid disclosure of executive branch records. Earlier our internal debates over policy decisions (balancing budgetary effects against often conflicting policy goals and including advice from legislative supporters and, sometimes, legislative opponents) were embodied in written memoranda, position papers, back-and-forth exchanges, and records of conversations. That these records would one day be opened for research was of no concern because that day was many decades away and of no political or personal
After the passage of freedom of information laws that opened these records either immediately or after only a brief period of restricted access, our practices changed. Our discussions became largely verbal supported only by ephemeral personal notes immediately discarded and the written record contained only technical documents and our final decisions with the supporting rationale. We cared greatly for our policy goals which we regarded as in the public interest and were determined that nothing would exist in the record of use to our political opponents or those of the media seeking controversy. We were not at all unusual. In my post-political role as a acquirer of historical records, the drastic diminution of the richness of the record between those created before the mid-1970s and later is obvious.
The practical result of legally mandated rapid disclosure of the records of policy makers has been to impoverish the historical record. Records not created are not available, ever, for historical research.”
Haynes’s comments are discouraging for historians, but understandable. Government officials are human, just like you or I. Would you or any other HNN reader face with equanimity the prospect of someone leaking the internal deliberations from your workplace to your opponents or competitors? Would the knowledge that someone could do so lead you to be guarded in what you wrote in e-mail and electronic documents? Would you protect yourself and your company from embarrassment, by reverting mostly to oral communications for sensitive matters?
It is useless to look at the problems with electronic records without also looking at the other barriers to good record keeping. A National Archives official noted in 2001, “"I've talked to many people high up in the White House who said they don't keep journals or even take notes at meetings,’ she said. ‘In the future, we will be missing the kinds of journals that presidents and aides kept in past.’” The guidance in Government Executive suggests that it may not just be journals that historians will be missing, but also e-mails and other pre-emptively sanitized documents. Imagine trying to write history based on press releases, RNC and DNC talking points, pre-emptively sanitized documents created to CYA, and self serving memoirs -- as opposed to the rich pre- and post-decisional documentation that officials left behind before Watergate. As the political environment in Washington has changed, so too has the attitude towards records and record keeping. The National Archives does what it can--having worked there as an employee, I know its staff is trained to properly balance the public's right to know against the need to protect governmental information from premature disclosure. But the challenges are much greater than they were 30 years ago.
I think historians would do better to consider how these issues look to officials who create records, and to use arguments that might resonate with them, rather than to argue simply for earlier disclosure, more declassification, etc. Some officials have argued against the relatively short restriction periods in the Presidential Records Act (PRA) because they believe it is unfair to saddle officials with relatively early exposure of private deliberations, comments which might hamper or embarrass them later in their careers. The PRA calls for most unclassified information to start being released when it is a mere 12 years old. How often do you hear historians acknowledging that that could be a problem for the officials? Think about it. Look at it from the other side. Given what Haynes says, what incentive is there now for government officials to leave behind a candid electronic paper trail? I believe it would be useful to have a public documents commission to look at all sides of these problems, just as it did during the 1970s after Watergate.
As for the public, even if restriction periods for White House records were longer than they now are, how often do you hear arguments for historical accountability? There was a brief flurry of interest in “good government” and public access to documents after Watergate but that died down long ago, to be replaced for all too many voters by the application of situational ethics and relativism. (“I’d rather just accept my guy’s word that what he’s doing is fine and proper. Of course, it’s ok to do ‘oppo research’ and dig for dirt in records relating to his opponents, they don’t have the same right to shield their actions.”) Whether they are Republicans or Democrats, many voters give off a vibe of “my guy’s intentions are good, his goals are well worth supporting, and the ends justify the means. I don’t need to hear what is going on behind the scenes and neither does anyone else.”
I think partisanship has clouded many of these issues. Consider the debates this past summer and fall here on HNN among Bush and Kerry supporters over their respective actions during the Vietnam War. I mentioned in my earlier post above that I would be hard pressed to pick anyone from HNN’s posters to do a governmental audit or to screen information for public access, although there a couple of people I would consider for such jobs. Suppose, as a hypothetical, that records existed somewhere that would definitively answer unresolved questions about all of Bush’s AND Kerry’s Vietnam era actions. Based on what they posted on HNN, would you put any of the people who bashed Bush and defended Kerry on HNN’s message boards in charge of searching both men’s records to reveal the truth in response to freedom of information act requests? Would you put those who bashed Kerry and defended Bush in charge of such a project? Nope, for the most part, the answer would be no.
If I put most HNN posters to work on such a project, I’d be afraid that each partisan might suppress negative information about his guy and maybe even suppress positive information about the other guy. That’s because rarely do you hear people say they believe in accountability, regardless of politics. Granted, very few of the people who post on HNN are archivists or historians. (Archivists especially are trained to take a purely objective, nonpartisan approach to screening information in records. For them, facts just are facts, politics plays no role in their work, although they sometimes face external political pressure.) Most of the people who posted on HNN during the election season were advocates who happened to be history buffs. Maybe that is why I heard very few people on HNN say, well, there are unresolved questions about both candidates’ actions during the 1970s, I support a full records search to get at the answers about both.
All in all, it seems historical accountability and good record keeping are a tough sell these days. The problems go way beyond the delete key and the difficulty of capturing electronic records.
HNN - 1/10/2005
Reading the complaints of Thomas Blanton about the Bush Administration's reluctance to release sensitive government documents to academic historians I am struck by the adolescent posture of this whine, so typical of the contemporary university. The American Historical Association is run by radicals who have deliberately and self-consciously turned it into a partisan political organization. Its leadership has publicly and in the name of an "engaged scholarship" declared its opposition to (and indeed hatred of) the Bush administration and its policies. Over 500 professors signed a public ad -- as historians -- declaring that the Bush election of 2000 was illegal. Many thousand have signed petitions as "scholars" against the war in Iraq and there is even an organization which includes some of the most prestigous members of this field which proudly calls itself "Historians Against the War" (as though the study of history entailed a particular political agenda).
The historical profession has shown itself particularly ruthless in excluding dissenting viewpoints from the pages of its scholarly journals (vid. John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, In Denial) and through the hiring process has intellectually cleansed its ranks of faculty who are not politically to the left, as several recent studies have shown. So now the chickens have come home to roost and this same academic left wants to eat its cake and have it too (no surprise here). It wants to abandon the cloak of scholarly objectivity and declare war on America's war and on the Bush Administration and then it wants to turn around and hide behind its scholarly aura, appealing in the name of knowledge for access to documents it can use for its partisan agendas. This would be laughable if some did not take it so seriously. In fact it is both tragic --for the enterprise of knowledge in our times -- and pathetic in what it reveals about the narcissism and arrogance of the species.
Maarja Krusten - 1/9/2005
Thanks, Mr. Shenkman, for posting the interesting account of the session on archives and records declassification. You know that one would catch my eye! I understand why Dr. Nelson and Mr. Blanton raised the concerns they did. I thought I would add one thought and one clarification.
I understand why it may be frustrating for historians to have State Department files kept open within the department for 10 or 20 years. In archival terms, the closing off of an open file is referred to as a “file break.” A file that is closed off at the end of a calendar year is referred to as having a yearly file break. But subjects and issues don’t neatly end or tie up at the conclusion of each calendar year. Some files contain older information that may be needed for ongoing business.
From the State Department's viewpoint, and I'm just guessing here, it probably is easier to have the files in question still active and available on site and easily reachable for precedential research during that time period, even if that seems like a long “file break.” If the files were closed off earlier and sent to the Archives for screening for release to the public, State Department officials would not have as ready access to them for ongoing business. I have to admit, 20 years seems long, most government files have much shorter file breaks.
One small clarification. Mr. Blanton, or you in describing his presentation, implied that documents stamped with a national security classification are more likely to be saved than unclassified documents. You wrote, “The trouble with this is that not only are the documents not released, they may not even be saved, unlike documents stamped Top Secret, which almost always are saved.” This seems misleading. Most of the federal records transferred from creating agencies and departments to the National Archives as permanent records are not stamped Top Secret.
Federal records are kept permanently or disposed of depending on their content and category (policy documents, working papers, annotated drafts, transitory documents, etc.), not whether or not they are unclassified or stamped security classified. There are specific retention periods spelled out in comprehensive and general records schedules for series and categories of files. Here is how the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) explains it:
“The law provides that Federal records may only be destroyed with NARA authorization. Agencies submit records schedules to NARA that describe the records and propose recommended retention periods for each series or category of records. NARA appraises the records to determine which are "permanent," that is, records that have historical or other research value that justifies preservation as part of the National Archives of the United States. Permanent records are normally transferred to the legal custody of the National Archives before they are 30 years old, although some records, especially electronic and audiovisual records, should be transferred as soon as practical because of the fragility of the media. All records not designated as "permanent" are considered "temporary," though their retention period can be as short as a few months or as long as a century. Temporary records are destroyed at the end of the retention period specified in the schedule.”
For more information on how this works, see two useful NARA publications at
To see an example of a federal agency’s comprehensive records schedule, check the Environmental Protection Agency's public website at
http://www.epa.gov/records/policy/schedule/titl-a.htm . Click on the numbers in the first column to read the disposition instructions for each of the categories of EPA records. You'll see that each also cites the NARA approval, or disposal authority.
Andrew D. Todd - 1/9/2005
Practically, the distinction between electronic information and paper is becoming increasingly meaningless. Computer printers have advanced to the stage where they occasion grave concern at the various central banks and mints. I understand that the the Australians have actually gone to the length of adopting semitransparent plastic money, in order to keep ahead of a $3000 printer. Unless you have performed a chemical analysis on a paper document, purportedly from 1970, you cannot assume that it was not printed off last week. I doubt that any archival reading room is set up to enable scholars to perform scientific analysis at the kind of level practiced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms' counterfeiting experts, even assuming that scholars possessed such competence. I think that in the long run, we will wind up where the medievalists are: they know up front that they are working with a copy of a copy, and the question is whether it is an honest copy.
Scanners are also improving, to the point that they are displacing photocopying machines. Some high-end scanners come with robots to turn pages, etc. An archive might well decide at a certain point that its people are more usefully employed in scanning documents than in running a reading room. Almost any kind of manipulation or handling of a document is most practically done by computer. To take one example, "redacting" a document with a magic marker is unwise, because there are imaging programs which can detect subtle shades of black, and recover the hidden text. A prudent redactor will have to use Photoshop instead. Once something is in the computer, it can easily be republished unless there is some reason not to. Size, and bulk, and even disorganized condition, are no longer prohibitive issues. The archive system, as traditionally understood, assumes that there is a significant middle ground between actually publishing something and deliberately keeping it a secret. Under the new dispensation, everything clearly releasable will already have been published, and the only reason to physically go to a federal archive would be to serve them with a FOIA request. Publication is by definition irrevocable. If today's technology had been available thirty years ago, the Carter and Clinton administrations would have long since published practically all papers relating to Allende and Pinochet, Watergate, etc., etc., simply as a matter of political score-settling, and the Republicans would have retaliated in kind with respect to Kennedy and Johnson. For a document to avoid being published, both sides would have to agree that it was in fact sensitive.
I am not particularly impressed by the technical difficulties of recording and preserving electronic information. I dare say it comes of having written computer programs that do that kind of thing. If anything, what is happening is "Napsterization," meaning that information starts to flow through increasingly grass-roots back channels, using clever automatic tools, and that official attempts to stop this become increasingly futile and desperate.
Maarja Krusten - 1/8/2005
Hi, Peter, Happy New Year to you, also!
Feel free to fill out Mr. Barry’s survey and to include your comments in the block for general comments. He is looking for a wide range of opinion so if you want your views to be represented, fill out the survey! I think he needs to hear not just from people who work within the government or who are interested in records and archives, but also from responders in the private sector and even from people who are indifferent to the issues he raises. He really does seem to be interested in taking the pulse of the public through his survey.
I’d like to address two points in your post and add one of my own:
(1) Bureacratic language: If you feel the electronic records working group relies too much on bureaucratic boilerplate language, say so in your comments in the survey! Do you feel the bureaucratic boilerplate in itself is a barrier? If so, say so at the survey site, not just on HNN. Those of us who work in the government don’t necessarily like the fact that our colleagues often fall into jargon traps. If the public at large doesn’t like it, either, we need to hear from you.
(2) The challenge of preserving electronic information: You write, “No doubt, various movers and shakers in society today will also develope means of ‘recording’ electronic communications so that their posterity can remember some selected subset of them.” There are enormous barriers to capturing and preserving electronic information. Some of them are technical, some of them are political.
How do you balance historical accountability against fear of litigation or exposure? I hear little discussion of this problem anywhere. Most articles take a narrow short-term view of these issues. For example, the January edition of Government Executive magazine includes an article which discusses the pitfalls of e-mail and provides this among several tips: “E-mail travels fast. If you wouldn’t be comfortable reading your words on the front page of a newspaper, then don’t write them down.” The article also notes that Entrust, Inc., a Texas contractor, has a software program which reads between the lines of e-mail. It “prohibits” managers from sending e-mails unless they delete certain passages which might get them or their companies in trouble. Both of these approaches encourage sanitized, public relations oriented e-mail rather than candid exchanges among officials. The lawyers would love that, historians not.
(3) Both in postings and in blog articles, I’ve seen little comment on archival or records related issues on HNN. I’ve concluded from that that most of the people who post on HNN are not equipped temperamentally or by training to address and consider issues related to accountability and record keeping. As for the bloggers, most of them work in an academic environment and naturally spend their blogging capital on issues of interest to teachers and professors. It seems nearly impossible to move them out of the academic arena and engage them on other issues.
As for the people posting on the comment boards, few of them have worked in professions such as auditing or archives, which require objectivity and value records for their pure evidentiary value. They seem to be more comfortable in arguing for partisan purpose. Based on what you’ve read here over the last couple of years, would you hire any of HNN’s posters to conduct an audit of governmental activities, screen federal records for release to the public or respond to freedom of information and open records requests? I’d be hard pressed to find any to whom I would hand such responsibilities. For whatever reason, HNN does not seem to draw people who have experience in handling evidentiary records. Perhaps it once did, perhaps it may in future, but right now, other voices predominate.
What is history? It is everything that happens (good, bad, and indifferent) -- the sort of issues covered in internal documents, e-mail messages, candid pre-decisional documents, as well as analytical reports, post-decisional announcements, etc. It also is what people say happened. Aspects of the latter appear in many guises, ranging from DNC and RNC talking points, to press releases, to interpretive histories. Discussion of the former requires enormous mental toughness and a willingness to confront some thorny ethical issues. I mostly find that in forums other than HNN.
To some extent, HNN postings remind me of “Crossfire.” The Washington Post noted this week that Tucker Carlson was leaving CNN and that CNN was cancelling “Crossfire” shortly and “Capital Gang” later this year. The Post noted, “Carlson told CNN last April that he was through as a co-host of ‘Crossfire’ but agreed to continue while trying to negotiate a new role before his contract expired next week. He praised the show but said that he felt constrained by its left-right format and that ‘when my opinions diverged from those of the White House it was difficult’ to conduct the expected debate, particularly when he opposed the Iraq war.”
I reflected on Carlson’s comments as I thought back on some of the debates I read on HNN during the past election season. To have meaningful debates on HNN about archives and record keeping would require candid discussions about political and governmental message discipline, the role of talking points, public relations, and spin control in history, and how those people who post on HNN view records, past and present, which contain facts that undermine or counter partisan spin. If faced with responsibility for records, do you think most of the people posting on HNN would break the law and destroy federal records if they do not fit talking points or a partisan agenda? Would they regard the sanitization of records as their highest obligation, with partisan loyalty trumping historical accountability? Would they bend the rules to avoid disclosing records to the public? Or would they say, the facts are the facts, history is what happened, let the chips fall where they may?
However they feel, it would be interesting to see HNN's bloggers and posters fill out Mr. Barry's survey and make their voices heard, one way or another.
Nathan M Williams - 1/8/2005
A shocking prediction, 17 years late.
Jonathan Dresner - 1/8/2005
re: Fox's Day 2 prediction that a "sexualized Christ" will be portrayed cinematically in the near future.
Isn't that what "The Last Temptation of Christ" was?
Maarja Krusten - 1/7/2005
Speaking of "protecting the future". . . . Mr. Shenkman mentions Dr. Wakeman's address, which referred to the mystique of archival research. I'm not at the convention so I'm interested in hearing, did Dr. Wakeman look backwards and focus on traditional archival records or did he also address the challenge of using electronic records? Rick Barry, a well known and respected management consultant, has just put out an intriguing survey on barriers to using electronic records. It's posted under "breaking news" on HNN. Check out http://hnn.us/readcomment.php?id=50047#50047 The survey refers to some very interesting conclusions from two interagency reports and is well worth looking at and completing. Getting access in the future to information that is born digital is something that is going to affect all of us, one way or another, but is of particular interest to historians.
- On Time-Lapse Rocket Ride to Trade Center’s Top, Glimpse of Doomed Tower
- Turkish Premier Says European Stance on Armenian Genocide Reflects Racism
- Ben Affleck Asked PBS to Not Reveal Slave-Owning Ancestor
- Archaeologists Take Wrong Turn, Find World’s Oldest Stone Tools
- Evidence of Pre-Columbus Trade Found in Alaska House
- Historian Jack Ross says the Socialist Party was the most important third party of the 20th century
- Mourning a People’s Historian: Michael Mizell-Nelson
- Robert V. Hine dies at 93; historian wrote of losing, regaining sight
- Historicizing Ferguson: Police Violence and the Genesis of a National Movement
- Historians as Public Intellectuals