Blogs > Cliopatria > Pleasure and Pain at the AHA

Jan 9, 2006 9:58 am

Pleasure and Pain at the AHA

Used to be that I hated going to AHA conventions. They were too big, too hard to find people I really wanted to see, and the job market was an awful experience. Now that I no longer need to look for a job, I can concentrate on seeing old and meeting new friends. There were dozens and dozens of them in Philadelphia, especially the Cliopatricians, Manan Ahmed, Alan Allport, Tim Burke, Sharon Howard, Caleb McDaniel, and Nathanael Robinson. Rebecca Goetz and I somehow missed each other, but it was great meeting Juan Cole for the first time. I've been around the history circles long enough to stand in the hotel lobby meeting one old friend after another and making as many more.

Thanks to Rick Shenkman, Manan Ahmed, David Beito, Juan Cole, and Sharon Howard, the history blogging session was a fascinating experience that highlighted history blogging as a major new phenomenon in the profession. Manan's friend from the University of Chicago, Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobi, was live blogging the session at Land of Lime. Thanks to many dozens of others, The Cliopatria Awards for 2005 point to outstanding examples of our work.

But there was pain for me at the AHA convention this year. I intend to say this only once. Scott Jaschik, Rick Shenkman and David Beito have posted summary accounts of our effort to persuade the AHA to oppose speech codes, as well as David Horowitz's so-called"Academic Bill of Rights." To put it bluntly, our asses were thoroughly kicked, not just once but twice. We sought an endorsement by Historians Against the War and lost by a vote of 15 to 4. There, I argued that, if we are strong enough to be free, we must be strong enough to endure offensive speech, but a largely unthinking soft Left majority prevailed because"I'm against speech codes, but they don't inhibit opposition to the war." HAW made sure that its majority was notified when the issue arose in the AHA business meeting. There I reminded those in attendance that, despite our specific request, David Montgomery's OAH Committee on Academic Freedom had refused to address the issue of speech codes. That irritates me personally because the issue was brought to their attention and two of that committee's four members have been friends of mine for 30 and 40 years.

The only really bright spot was that Jonathan Rose, a distinguished historian at Drew University, offered an eloquent and impassioned plea in support of our position. Lest you forget – and dismiss our position as a reactionary camel's nose under the tent – I'd remind you that Jonathan Rose is the author of the multiple prize-winning The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. When our substitute resolution lost on a voice vote, Professor Rose walked out of the meeting. In a subsequent e-mail to me, he wrote:"I could no longer stand the fog of stupidity in the room and the obvious dishonesty of our opponents (‘Of course I oppose speech codes -- but...')." You read that correctly. Those who voted against the substitute resolution in HAW"because speech codes don't inhibit opposition to the war" came to the AHA business meeting to vote against the substitute motion"because speech codes are a complicated issue, not a matter of pressing concern." But I heard a couple of old war horses on the Left, who have no record in favor of free speech, say"Of course, I oppose speech codes, but ...." I, for one, intend to hold their bloody hooves to the fire on their commitment to the first part of that statement. We could have brought the meeting to a halt by persisting in pointing out that there was no quorum present, but decided that it was more important to resolve against David Horowitz's"Academic Bill of Rights." Next year, supporters of speech codes had better get at least 100 members of the AHA to its business meeting.

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Ralph E. Luker - 1/9/2006

Michael, I agree with your analysis. We'd certainly welcome your support. Keep in touch.

Michael Burger - 1/9/2006

Lots--perhaps most--faculty are indeed for speech codes. But discussions I've heard about speech codes at Emory lead me to suspect that some of the people you are talking too--"I don't approve of speech codes but" are genuinely against speech codes, but just can't bring themselves publicly to endorse a resolution that appears conservative. I think this is foolish or worse, but there it is.

And I'm grateful to those who tried to get AHA to pass this resolution. I considered going this year, and attending the business meeting for the first time, solely in order to vote for your resolution. Perhaps better planning on my part would allow me to do so next year!

David T. Beito - 1/9/2006

Thanks for mentioning Jonathan Rose. He was superb.

David T. Beito - 1/9/2006

Excellent summary. Many of the opponents claim to be against speech codes. Their total unwillingness of most of them to do anything about them, however, makes me doubt the sincerity of their claim.

I have had similar experiences in the UA faculty senate where our critics have often assured us that "yes, we agree with you." When push came to shove, however, these people almost always voted the other way, using excuses such as as "the timing isn't good," "propose this next year," the "wording of your resolution isn't quite right," etc. I've heard it all before.

A case in point, as you note, is the the OAH "academic freedom" committee which was MIA when an opportunity arose to make an official statement (any statement!) on speech codes.

Robert KC Johnson - 1/9/2006

This outcome is distressing, if unsurprising. I suspect that if the speech codes also prohibited "unpatriotic" speech, the AHA would have been more interested in acting.

As a co-sponsor of the substitute with Ralph and David, I hold no brief for ABOR, which I don't think can work and which I think addresses the symptoms rather than the causes of the current lack of intellectual diversity in the academy. But it says something about the AHA's priorities that it can vote on a resolution addressing a proposal that has yet to be adopted in even one state and has no chance of being adopted anywhere in the next year; but sees no reason to comment on restrictions on campus speech that have been around in one form or another for 10-15 years.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/9/2006

Under a hundred? Deciding things for the thirty-odd-thousand members of the AHA? I made this point over at L&P, too, but this is inexcusable. On-line voting procedures and proxy vote procedures have got to be implemented at some point, soon.