My Wicked, Wicked Ways

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.

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8 Responses to My Wicked, Wicked Ways

  1. Ralph says:

    Actually, I was surprised to see you at the Business Meeting and appreciate having had your support. I was surprised even more that you spoke on HAW’s resolution. There may be comfort in that unlikelihood of resolutions having any influence, but I do think that you and Sheehan identified their risk — of further alienating historians who disagree with them or with pronouncing on issues that have little to do with our common interests and wasting professional influence.

  2. withywindle says:

    Thank you for doing your bit to help. I appreciate your attitude and your efforts.

  3. nweining says:

    The thing is, from reading the text of the resolution it was *almost* a reasonable thing for a historians’ group to pass. They’d have done much better, IMHO, if they’d just focused more tightly on the bullet points about the current regime’s evil practices and left the war itself out of the complaint. A “Historians Against Creeping Fascism” resolution would have been much more defensible against your concerns, on the grounds that creeping fascism eventually imperils the free and honest practice of history in a way that urban poverty, environmental issues, etc do not.

    But the lack of focus in these sorts of things seems depressingly common; think of the absurd conflation of “Act Now to Stop the War and End Racism”.

  4. kmunoz says:

    The police are posted on that street for every major convention. They’ve been there at every Dragon*Con I’ve been to since 2001, for example. They direct traffic and let people cross between the two hotels directly, once they’ve stopped the cars. Perhaps it was different this time, but generally speaking they treat the cars and the people the same – and if a car tries to zip past them, they get very, very cranky.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    They weren’t stopping traffic this time, actually–just yelling at people to head to the crosswalks, even when there was no traffic in sight. (I know, that’s where traffic is getting off the highway, so the sightlines aren’t great.) It also turns out that the hotels are the ones who pay for stationing a police officer there. (Seems to me that they might want to consider building a walkway over the road instead…)

    In any event, it seems like handcuffing a guy in a business suit and hauling him away for doing no more than asking to see the cop’s identification (and I have to say that they looked more like private security guys in the uniform they were in on Friday, when it was raining) is excessive.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Nweining: Yeah, that’s why I thought striking the “speedy withdrawal from Iraq” part made a fairly legit resolution. HAW wasn’t having it, though.

  7. jpool says:

    I don’t live there anymore, but given that ATL cops are not generally worrying about pedestrians in midtown, my guess is that the hotels were worried that, as the out-of-towners would not know about drivers inablity to see them or alternate tendency to speed up when approaching them, they would soon have a bunch of dead or maimed historians on their hands. So of course the best solution (from a liability standpoint) was to have the police yell at the pedestrians, and of course put them in their place should they get uppity.

    The verbal tactic of arguing with people not in the room is realy annoying, but what’s shocking to me about the text of the resolution is that this is precisely the sort of document that historians relish tearing apart when they confront it as a primary document. I tend to agree with you about the fact that professional and activist organization are more effective separately rather than conjoined, and so are resolutions on academic fredom and war policy. I probably would not vote for a speedy withdrawal resolution for the same reasons that you wouldn’t, but it’s a pefectly legitimate one to offer in its on terms. If those are the reasons for a speedy withdrawal, then they’re extremely selfish and small minded ones.

  8. God, I wish I’d known you were in town.

    On Peachtree Center: can you tell all that was built in the 1970s? I’m a bit overly fond of arguing that one of Atlanta’s long-standing problems is that it started thinking of itself as a City with a capital C right when nobody — especially nobody white — wanted to live in said Cities. Thus MARTA, which got started in 1971 or so, was a serious mess from the outset, and Peachtree Center was designed in a way to minimize street life.

    Midtown, north of where you were, is much more walkable now than it was even ten years ago, and downtown is starting to improve, but there’s still a ways to go.

    More later when I am not behind on work. (In grad school now.)

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