I’m back from both my holiday travels and from a post-holiday trip to Atlanta to attend the American Historical Association meetings.
I have a confession: in Atlanta, I did one of the most perverse, inexplicable things that I’ve ever done in my life.
I attended the AHA business meeting for the first time since I started graduate school many moons ago. No, no, worse than that. I actually said something at it. That, my friends, is as true and sad a revelation of compulsive bigmouthery as you’re ever likely to encounter.
Now keep in mind that a goodly proportion of the historical profession has the good sense to stay away from the AHA meeting, period. I give the current staff and officers of the AHA a lot of credit for streamlining the process of registering, being a member and so on: it’s become a very efficient organization in those terms. The meeting program has gotten a bit more interesting, a bit lighter in leaden sessions of six people reading in a monotone from papers. However, the main reasons to attend (as in the case of other major professional associations in the humanities) are still to interview, to be interviewed, to see friends, and possibly to visit a nice city.
Given that this year’s meeting was in Atlanta, a city that I’m not particularly fond of, in a set of hotels that are thoroughly charmless (the Marriot Marquis is like LA’s Bonaventure Hotel redesigned by a Soviet bloc architect with a surplus of concrete and tacky carpeting on his hands). It was also in the most depressingly featureless and modular part of Atlanta (the Peachtree Center area), so that kind of knocked reason #4 out of the running. (Atlanta’s lack of appeal took a further knock when the city incomprehensibly decided to station police in between the Marquis and the Hilton to prevent jaywalking, eventually nailing prestigious historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto and hauling him off to jail.)
I was there mostly for yet another reason, because I’d been asked to be part of a panel and had said yes. I’d been asked to go to the business meeting to help support a resolution on speech codes, so I reluctantly trundled down there. (Missing, I might add, a really good part of the movie Army of Darkness on a local Atlanta TV station.)
If I had to update Dante’s Inferno for the 21st Century, I’d definitely make one of the circles of hell into an endless faculty meeting governed by the most intricate version of Robert’s Rules of Order that one could possibly imagine. The business meeting was a little appetizer-sized taste of what such a fate might be like.
So we got through various reports and to the speech code resolution. That discussion wasn’t substantially worse than the average faculty meeting, I suppose (which is not a compliment). One critic of the resolution made the standard-issue complaint that the resolution lacked sufficient appreciation of the complexity of the problem. This is a standard maneuver in all academic discourse: I do it, we all do it, and sometimes with justification. On the other hand, when one is talking about a parliamentary-style resolution designed to express the general view of a professional association, a twenty-page pseudo-statutory code designed to cover all possible particulars is not exactly what is needed. Another critic of the resolution offered a different standard-issue academic tactic, which is to not bother reading the thing being debated, which in this case meant assuming that the resolution rejected all possible speech codes, rules about civility, and so on, when in fact it only expressed opposition to the use of speech codes to constrain academic freedom.
Anyway, that ended with an amendment to the resolution that more or less rendered it irrelevant.
Then we had an intricate discussion of a highly technical demand that the AHA subscribe to a union-related informational service, where the symbolic difference between commanding the AHA to subscribe and urgently requesting that it consider subscribing appeared to matter substantially to some of the participants in the discussion.
I grimly hung on, figuring that if I’d been there this long I ought to stay until the end. The end was a resolution against the Iraq war. James Sheehan offered the objection that I ended up echoing, namely, that an organization like the AHA has a limited amount of political capital to expend (Sheehan said “moral capital”, I said “political capital”) and that this is best expended on matters directly proximate to the professional interests of the organization.
Let’s get real here: the attempt to make the resolution relevant to the direct professional interests of historians was pretty thin once we got to the part that urged members to support a speedy end to the Iraq war. If that’s directly relevant to an umbrella organization of historians, then next year we ought to consider a full battery of resolutions on global warming, urban poverty, globalization, CEO salaries, abortion rights, the minimum wage and so on. I could construct very similar and sincere arguments about how these are urgent and important matters for historians to take a position on as a profession.
I added that it seems to me that the AHA ought to be a very “big tent” in political terms, which means not committing it to political positions that are not directly relevant to professionalism that even a small proportion of its membership might find objectionable.
There are totally legitimate objections to this argument, but I have to say that the one moment where I went from being basically bemused by the meeting to engaged irritation was when two defenders of the Iraq war resolution spoke against what Sheehan had said and I had seconded.
The first scholar’s rambling objections included, as I understood it, a blanket objection to the entire concept of limits in terms of available time, institutional resources and labor to moral or political energies. That’s a fantastically efficient route to ceaseless political defeat, if so.
The second objection annoyed me more: it was a classic assembling of the left-wing circular firing squad. Here you’ve got a room where every single person is an opponent of the war, and endorses the specific complaints in the preamble of the resolution, where probably everybody sitting there would come to a protest, and many would support an organization like Historians Against the War. So what do you do? Misrepresent the modest objections of the few who question the specific form of a resolution based on a specific understanding of the specific institution of the AHA. In this case, what the scholar defending the resolution said (I think it was Warren Goldstein, but I’m not sure) was that those of us opposed to the resolution were claiming that all professional activities must be completely divorced from any expression of citizen activism. Look, you want to march at a demonstration under a banner that says, “Historians Against the War”, that’s completely and utterly ok. I’m writing here at this blog as a historian and scholar against the war: my professionalism and my arguments against the war are intertwined in all sorts of ways.
I’m just saying that if an umbrella organization intended to speak for everyone in a given discipline takes this position, then I don’t see why it should not take a hundred similar positions on matters of urgent public concern. Except, of course, that the AHA really doesn’t have any influence to speak of on such matters (a specific organization like Historians Against the War has far more, in my view, precisely because it is focused around a particular issue), and becomes all the more irrelevant for every such position it takes. It seems to me that this is just a reprise of where academic activism went wrong in the 1970s and 1980s: when the real targets of politics become too remote and well-protected from the relatively comfortable precincts that academic intellectuals inhabit, then turn to the institutions most closely at hand (universities and professional institutions) as proxy targets. It’s easy enough to mobilize them as a paper army, particularly through a meeting that only the perverse and the committed attend, but the only real consequence of said mobilization is a bleeding out of any professional particularity to such an organization and a loss of the ability to credibly claim to be a big tent that welcomes all possible configurations of practice and principle.