Monday, June 25, 2007

History Activism and the Bush Administration, Part III

In response to this post and this post on the attempts of the Bush Administration to keep itself from going down in history, Barbara Weinstein, President of the American Historical Association, e-mailed me to explain why the Executive Committee of the American Historical Association (AHA) is not currently storming the gates of the White House as I had requested. With her permission, I publish Barbara's response; in a nutshell, she reassures all of us that the organizations representing professional historians in the United States are not "sitting on their hands," as I put it, while the Administration passes a large magnet back and forth over the RNC server. Quite the opposite.

"I think Tony Grafton has already responded to your comments about the AHA and the OAH not doing enough to protest the machinations of Cheney, Bush, & Co. regarding government records," Barbara writes, "but I just wanted to add a few words. Although I personally feel like we're never really doing enough, given the size of the outrage, I'm afraid the staff wisely insists that we lodge our protests" through the paid professionals in Washington. "As Tony may have mentioned," Barbara continues, "the AHA is the largest contributor to the National Coalition for History, and we pay most of the salary for a full-time lobbyist (Lee White, a very energetic and determined guy, who has his office in AHA headquarters). I think OAH is the second largest contributor. The NCH website was the source of the HNN post, and Lee and Arnita Jones (AHA executive director) are always alert to any issue of this sort, and do what they can both to support those opposing executive policies, and to express the AHA's position as publicly as possible. Perspectives has also been full of articles decrying government secrecy (including my April column), most of which have been reprinted on other websites. The real problem is that our means of action are limited. With past administrations, expressions of outrage or simple exposure would sometimes be enough to get the government to reverse its policy. But these guys are shameless. So we work as closely as we can with Waxman and with whatever groups are bringing legal complaints, and hope Congress votes or the courts rule in our favor, since denunciations seem to have no effect. If you" -- that means all of you, readers -- "have any suggestions for other steps we might take, I'm all ears."

You might want to send your suggestions to the comments section at Tenured Radical 2.0, rather than spamming Barbara and proving once again that no good deed goes unpunished.

I am also pleased to say that the Southern and the Berkshire Conference are members of the NCH, so all of my dues everywhere are going to this effort. Yours too, assuming you paid them this year. And if you don't join these professional organizations because you think you can just read the journals in the library, and get the job ads on H-Net, and you aren't giving a paper at the annual meeting, reconsider your position, because this is one way of not sitting on your hands as the Bush Administration unimagines its own history.


G.A.S. said...

I am not a professional historian. But as a concerned citizen (and literary historian...?) I too am disturbed by the trend highlighted in a couple of your recent posts. I think it is good of Barbara Weinstein to reply to your comments. But while her response does indeed suggest that associations like the AHA are not "sitting on their hands" it also points to another problem. I can see how given our political-economic system one might need to play the lobby-game to get results of any kind. And these results are clearly important to those of us in academic fields and well beyond. But given our current political situation, where the "checks-and balances" role of the different branches of government seems to be not working (and maybe even in grave jeopardy), how much can we depend upon congress or the courts to right executive abuses (let's not give Cheney the benefit of the doubt here: he's executive!)? I'm not slamming the AHA for trying. We have to try. I'm just wondering if there are other additional means of pushing change: paths and coalitions opened up (perhaps newly available) in this oppressive / repressive moment?

GayProf said...

I have to say, I was not comforted by Weinstein's response. It sounded a lot like, "We have to be patient and trust in the system. What else can we do?"

Articles in Perspectives are great, but nobody outside of the academic world (or history world, probably) reads them. I appreciate that the AHA is in a tough spot and have no particular critique of Weinstein per se, but this sounded so defeatist.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Is there a way to form coalitions with professional organizations in other fields, such as the Society of American Archivists and ARMA (the Records Management organization), and maybe even further afield to any other type of organization who would rely on government records for their own research?

The AHA and SAA had banded together -- or at least spoke out at the same time -- against the appointment of the current National Archivist (not that it did much good). ARMA is supporting a records management policy for federal records.

Resources are stretched very thin for lobbying in most organizations, so a coalition my be able to band together to go further and to draw more attention across disiplines.

That said, my own gut feeling is that this adminstration knows no bounds to its abuse of power, so all the lobbying and lawmaking and judicial decisions in the world will not make them maintain or turn over records. To give in to that sense of nihilism is only to play into their hands.

Anonymous said...

I suppose the critique issued by Tenured Radical of the position highlighted by the AHA's somewhat lukewarm response to her call for action of any means. As an upcoming historian in a fine graduate program who is currently studying for exams in 20th century Asian-American history, I appreciate the dilemma posed to the AHA by what appears to be a quite repressive regime (Bush-Clinton-Bush....hmmm, smacks of totalitarianism if we have a Clinton next elected for the sake of a nomenclature completion). If the AHA can try to balance the conservative, but generally liberal, positions of its members, any radical suggestions will likely put a damper on both the availability of funding and the acceptability of the historical field in the eyes of tenured historians everywhere. The paradox of the tenured professor is and has been: you have a guaranteed source of income which is self-sustaining but to rise in departmental stature, you need to kowtow to department/bureaucratic politics to the extent that you must compromise yourself or become so brilliant with your work that Harvard comes calling and offers you the chance to become so busy publishing your radicalism that you have no idea who the hell is reading your material. Long sentence, but it represents a longer thought process on behalf of its author. Having just finished reading the AHA's suggestions for historians in the 20th century, I find the field as a whole: talented, but lazy....bordering on conservative. Come now historians, the study of history and the role history can and does process within its fluid social boundaries matters greatly to the future of the world and I cannot see the field making much progress (however you define it) without embracing its potential power. The AHA faces problems that face bureaucracy and radicals within a given nation-state: argue within the terms of the debate which the dominant group has established or be imaginative and try to establish a more flexible, more attuned to the historical field bureaucracy that has at LEAST the promise of enforcing social change (I use change rather than progress to agitate against standard American democratic teleology). There may not be a solution to the dilemma but PLEASE do not let the AHA sit by with its lone lobbyist and withstand the Bush administration's unceasing aberration of America's past.
chris holmes
U.Washington. M.A candidate