Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Radical Presents an (Unnecessary) Defense of the University of Iowa History Department

I want to start this post by saying that I admire the History News Network. It is one of the few recent attempts any group of historians has undertaken to make our profession relevant to a larger audience, and to offer some kind of public forum that links us to each other and to the world. The first time they listed me was long before I became a blogger: it was several years back,when I gave a paper at the OAH about that big homo J. Edgar Hoover, and that, I would have to admit, was a thrill. Although I sometimes wonder why they publish what they do (one of the subjects of today's post) they link my blog occasionally and I am on their permanent blog roll, so there is an ecumenical spirit at HNN that is quite rare in the media and ought to be applauded. The publicity and the new readers this brings me is something I will be the first to acknowledge -- although the last couple of times I have been linked by Cliopatra it has re-energized a howling mob of sans culottes who hate academics and whose bully of a leader, KC Johnson, leads them from target to target as he seeks out perpetrators of thought-crimes.

But before getting to this bone I have to pick with them, let me emphasize that, despite my mixed experience with it, I think the people who work on HNN do us all a service, and they do so for no compensation, as far as I can tell. Therefore, because I support the mission of HNN I urge all of you to go to this link before the tax man shuts down your deductions on December 31, and give them a couple bucks to help support the enterprise. In addition to giving them money, for the holiday season I am also going to shelve my snarky remarks about the HNN column "Top Young Historians," edited by Bonnie Goodman, because she has begun to choose my friends as top young historians. Okay it is still a very white and very male crew, but Santa's elves are white and male too, and you don't see the Radical trashing them, do you? Not before Christmas, at any rate.

One of these Top Historians is not only a friend, he is my very first Honors Student from my very first year at Zenith, Todd Shepard of Temple University. You can read about him here. Furthermore, in the last three weeks Goodman has also honored John Wood Sweet, who I can't say I know well enough to call a friend, but we had a sandwich together last year up in Cambridge during Southern Intellectual History Circle, which allows me to claim that we get along well and that we both know All the Right People. And then there is also Amy Greenberg, the most recent honoree, who I met briefly when I was in Happy Valley giving a paper in October, who would probably also be my friend if we didn't live a long, nauseating ride in a small plane apart. So brava, Bonnie, and Happy Holidays to you. Keep up the good work.

In other news, however, it seems that KC Johnson, a regular Cliopatra blogger (and I believe a co-founder) has shifted his attention from cleaning up liberal filth at one university he doesn't work at (Duke) to striking deep into the heart of corruption in another place he doesn't work (the University of Iowa) in order to expose the practices of a search committee he is not on and evaluate the depth of a candidate pool he knows nothing about. It is, however, a known fact that one person who Johnson considers qualified for a campus interview in a current Iowa search did not receive one. Very strange.

The thinly disguised political biases of the University of Iowa's History Department are at issue here because KC has vetted the candidate and deems him worthy of a campus interview despite intellectual differences in their mutual field of foreign policy. Iowa's choice not to bring in this candidate (out of perhaps the hundred or so who applied for the job) is, therefore, being "exposed" as possible discrimination against the candidate's politics: read about it here. The key to this situation seems to be (gasp), that that the history faculty at Iowa is almost exclusively registered with the Democratic party: read about that here. A description of the candidate's politics, and the politics of his work, cannot be found in the piece.

Now, I realize your head is probably already spinning with this wealth of irrelevant information, but my question is this: Why won't somebody at HNN stop this man? That KC Johnson even spends his time finding out these things strikes me as, well, odd, and more symptomatic of generalized, manic resentment rather than the focused, constructive critique our profession undoubtedly deserves and should encourage. But that the Iowa History Department's collective party registration should be something that the members of that department are asked to defend at all in an ad hoc professional context seems nothing short of McCarthyite. Others have described KC's style of scattershot attack as Horowitzean: invent a threat for which you have no direct evidence and then beat people over the head with it in a way they cannot possibly respond to. And I must say, even given the extent to which Republicans have embarrassed themselves in the last eight years, the Democratic party seems not to be poised for National Domination, much less World Domination, so even if the department at Iowa has been conspiring to do something more pernicious than write and teach history, they have done a rotten job of it.

Now in case you are not getting the importance of Johnson's muckraking in this instance, and since you too dear reader are probably a Democrat, and since Johnson himself claims to be a Democrat (for reasons that are not entirely clear to me since his ideological bent seems indistinguishable from standard cultural conservatism, something one of KC's biggest supporters seems to imply here), the charge is that these Iowa Historian-Democrats vet candidates for ideology during the hiring process; and that Our Hero -- although a Democrat -- is out to expose this unprofessional and dishonest suppression of conservative historians.

This, my friends, is a very serious accusation to make against one's colleagues, it is a matter of professionalism and of discrimination law, and it ought not to be made by inference, something KC and his supporters have been screeching at me about for months.

The Iowa History Department has no answer to this charge because, of course, they didn't know they were all Democrats and I doubt party affiliation has ever come up in their discussions about hiring, nor should it, according to AHA professional standards. I mean, who the heck knows these things about their colleagues? Who wants to? I don't. We never discuss political party registration in our department, much less in our job interviews. That said, I am quite certain that all my colleagues are registered Democrats (except the Canadians, who smile sweetly and find something else to do, like offer you a nice cup of tea, when politics come up) because being a Republican in Zenith is a lot like being a Snowball in Hell, whereas the Democratic party offers a nice cozy home for conservatives of all kinds.

But other than printing articles that invent controversy and encourage uncollegial, irrelevant attacks on other scholars; and other than allowing itself to be used as a platform for creating a cause celebre at the expense of decent historians in Iowa, HNN should be concerned. Why? Because telling us that our midwestern colleagues are all registered Democrats is not news, and hence, not a worthy item for something called the History News Network. Here are the things I want to know about the History Department at the University of Iowa that I would consider news:

1. When they have department meetings to hire a job candidate, do they vote, or do they gather in corners trying to persuade others to leave one caucus and join another?

2. How many run their cars on gasoline, and how many on ethanol? Or a gasoline/ethanol mix? Huh? Wouldn't you like to know.

3. Are they part of what seems like a larger plot to hide it from us that Barack Obama's staff seems to be made up entirely of Democrats? I wonder. I haven't contacted the chair of the department to find out what she has to say about it, but if I did, I bet she would say "No comment." I just bet.

4. Are any of them polygamous? Oops -- that's the history department at Utah. Never mind.

5. Was that "yellow cake uranium" Saddam was buying really just a big piece of --corn?

You see what I mean? This, my friends would be news. A disappointed job candidate (who will, by the way, probably have a tough time getting any job anywhere if he becomes the centerpiece of a baseless ideological attack on a well-respected history department) is not news. It is slander: and I feel that I can say this because for months now this man has been attacking me because of two or three lines of a blog post last April which I refuse to retract because, in fact, he deliberately misread it for the sole purpose of providing another object of scorn for his readers. We are not for suppressing First Amendment rights here at Tenured Radical, and God knows we benefit from them, so we are silent on the question of whether HNN ought to be preventing this man from publishing such trash under their auspices. But there are a growing number of us who think the answer to this question would be important news, Professor Johnson:

"Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"


Sisyphus said...

hah! I like the caucusing question.

Does this mean I should be making multiple visits to "early primary departments" to shake hands and kiss babies for my job search? 'Cause, man, _any_ advice that would give me an edge I'd take.

Anonymous said...

"claims to be a Democrat (for reasons that are not entirely clear to me since his ideological bent seems indistinguishable from standard cultural conservatism"

If only eschewing cultural conservatism were a pre-requisite for joining the Democratic party.

dance said...

I'm sad to see that KC's argument doesn't even hang together. Two books over-qualifies one for Asst Prof/early Assoc. That in itself is plenty of reason not to put someone on an interview list.

I suppose that a Tenured Radical is exactly the one who should make a formal stance against KC, but I hope you get some backup from other tenured radicals.

Anonymous said...

Caucusing at department meetings. My large and respectable department can barely vote by show of hands without potentially apoplectic rage breaking out -- and we're usually pretty much unanimous.

I'd be shocked to find registered Republican historians in serious #s, but might it not have something to do with knowing some history?

Robert Zimmerman said...

Do you think it counts as news that there is no intellectual diversity without at least one Republican? I believe that's the implication of the first paragraph of Mark Moyar's editorial. And from the rhetorical overkill you can see why he and Johnson get along so well: ".... neither [department chair Colin Gordon] nor the university has expressed any concern about the total absence of intellectual diversity. Rarely have the hypocrisy and mendacity of academia been so thoroughly exposed as in the history department’s damage-control campaign."

Anyway, here's a bit of wisdom that one of Johnson's fans passed on to me by way of putting me in my place: "...when he applies his formidable intellectual rigor to any question, whatever he contends can be countered only by an equally formidable and rigorous intellect."

Don't say nobody warned you.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I'm just bemused at the idea that one can come up with a list of qualifications that, if someone possesses them, *guarantee* that person an interview for a given position. No one is EVER guaranteed an interview for anything. If Iowa begged this guy to apply and told him he was their top choice then didn't interview him, they'd have behaved inappropriately. If Iowa advertised in this guy's field and then hired someone who worked in a different country three hundred years earlier, they'd have behaved inappropriately (although it still wouldn't mean that this guy had been treated any more unfairly than anyone else). It just seems to me the height of arrogance to declare that someone - ANYONE - is sooooooooooo good that any school who decides not to interview them must be corrupt somehow.

(It also annoys me because it implies that those of us who don't get interviews must in fact be hacks who don't deserve them, but then, I'm sensitive about such things at the moment.)

Anonymous said...

New Kid, he wasn't qualified for the post. I looked up the job advert in the H-Net archive when KC originally posted, and this guy's field is at best loosely related to what they set out in the job description. (IIRC, he's a 20th-century presidential historian; they wanted someone researching 'the USA and world affairs', emphasising the 19th century. Just because he's good at what he does, doesn't make him good at what they want. End of story.) Cultural conservatives might complain about what the department advertised for in the first place, but that's a different argument.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the spirit of your post that KC's argument is neither valid nor news and is designed to continue an increasing attack on intellectual freedom in academe. However, I am sorry to say that people do ask about political party affiliation during jobs interviews. I have witnessed people ask any number of unethical questions outright or in round about ways at interviews including questions about: political affiliation or candidate choice for president, pregnancy, sexual orientation, and even ethnic background. At least twice departmental infighting based on identity politics has been a key part of the interview process, ie "what side would you be on?" KC's argument clearly has no merit but it does highlight behavior - ie KC's behavior - that is becoming all too common.

Anonymous said...

Does one have to register by party to vote in Iowa? I find it extremely peculiar for Johnson--whose actions I find peculiar in general--to search out department members' political affiliations. Can't he find something constructive to do with his time?

Belle said...

Maybe HNN just hopes that KC will get tired of being a pariah and go away? Or they keep KC on in the name of intellectual diversity? A token jerk in a sea of sanity?

Anonymous said...

I wish it were this benign, or even ridiculous. But I think instead the media blitz that has followed and compelled this poseur KC to crass attacks and a politics of desperate divisiveness is sufficient notice for the rest of us that the attack machines are ready and able and armed. We will either disappear into academic speech amongst ourselves, or claim the public marketplace.
Blogs like this one do the latter. Thanks Claire for the daylight on the sunshine band.

Anonymous said...

I think KC Johnson is angry because he was "dissed" by his department, because his field isn't "popular" now, and because he's not at a "top-tier" school. Thus, hiding behind his "I'm a Democrat, I support gay marriage, I support B. Obama for president" rhetoric, he attacks various academic targets from the right. His attacks on particular interdiciplinary programs are shocking to me. His sunshine band considers him brilliant, but I find his arguments to be full of holes and his "evidence" often simply his opinion. So, yes, this blog--and others like it--are important in the court of public opinion. Keep up the good work!!!!

BTW, my department certainly isn't always collegial, but if anyone asks interviewees illegal questions, I don't know about it. Moreover, as with the Supreme Court, colleagues know one can predict a future voting record...

Anonymous said...

Excuse me/Correction to 1:01 EST

..., colleagues know one can't predict a future voting record...


Ralph Luker said...

If no one else enters this conversation, TR's chorus will just continue KC-baiting, with sensible and non-sensible comments alike. Reminds me, in an odd way, of the chorus at D-i-W.
KC is using data gathered by other people. No one has challenged its accuracy. He acknowledges that party registration data are, at best, a very rough measure of departmental diversity.
Even if you find his perspective tiresome, KC is untiring and neither HNN nor Cliopatria want him to be otherwise. What would TR have to do if she didn't have KC to beat up on? We wouldn't want TR to be without things to do, would we?
If you have comments, objections, corrections, reservations, or whatever to KC's posts, all of you are welcome to make them known in comments at Cliopatria. Here, you merely re-enforce each others' biases. There, you might run into folk with whom you disagree. That's o.k. We encourage it.

Anonymous said...

Ralph Luker is an annoying apologist for his pal KC Johnson. The TR would have plenty to do if KC weren't around "to beat up on" (RL's incorrect assertion) as her blog postings demonstrate. Did Ralph Luker not notice this or do facts not matter to him? I'm thinking the latter.

I don't find KC Johnson's perspective tiresome, I find it worrisome. He represents himself as one thing, a "democrat," so he can claim to demagogue from the center.

I wouldn't think of donating to HNN precisely because KC Johnson uses it as a space to pontificate. I think his views are hateful and that he has permitted really awful, indeed, racist and hateful, comments to remain up on his blog. Insofar as he continually sticks his nose into other people's business in really offensive ways, I wouldn't think of supporting those sites which encourage this behavior.

But, please do remind me who did the data collecting on the University of Iowa's history department voter registration?

And, no, Ralph Luker, I don't think the people who post here have the same prejudices. I don't assume I am appalled by KC Johnson's offensive behavior in the same way as anyone/everyone else. Certainly, I find you a snippy little man. Besides, who are you to tell me I need someone to reinforce my opinions?

Anonymous said...

If you have comments, objections, corrections, reservations, or whatever to KC's posts, all of you are welcome to make them known in comments at Cliopatria.

This isn't meant to beat up on you, Ralph, because I understand your point, but last I checked, Cliopatria didn't take pseudonymous comments - has that changed? If it has, forget I've made this comment. If it hasn't, then that's one reason to comment here and not there.

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