Historians, War, Responsibility

Professors vote for end to Iraq conflict, but AHA leaders call for rare poll of all members. Statement on free speech cut back.
January 8, 2007

Sometimes it's not just what you are against, but how you are against it. On Saturday, every member who spoke at the business meeting of the American Historical Association expressed opposition to the war in Iraq and support for free speech.

But there was fairly intense debate on how to express those ideals. In the end, the association's members at its business meeting backed a resolution calling on members to "do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion." Supporters said that the war is a national crisis that calls for a response from historians, but critics said that the association was risking its political stock by taking a stance that could appear to be dictating what professors should think about a controversial issue.

In an unusual move, however, the AHA's Council, which reviews and typically accepts resolutions passed by the members, on Sunday ordered an e-mail vote of all members on the topic.

On speech codes, the association debated with some skepticism a resolution that would have put the historians on record against speech codes. Proponents of the measure said that the codes infringe on academic freedom, while critics said that the resolution oversimplified the issue. The association ended up stripping most of the resolution, leaving a measure (passed unanimously) that criticized "free speech zones" -- in which some colleges limit some forms of protest to specific areas on campus.

A Stand on Iraq

The resolution on Iraq, which passed on a voice vote, was drafted by Historians Against the War. The resolution outlines "practices inimical to the values of the historical profession," such as the exclusion of some foreign scholars from the United States, reclassifying documents about U.S. policies, suspending habeas corpus rights, and the use of interrogation techniques "incompatible with respect for the dignity of all persons required by a civilized society."

The resolution then urges AHA members to "take a public stand as citizens on behalf of the values necessary to the practice of our profession" and to "do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion."

David Applebaum of Rowan University introduced the measure as part of a response to the "great silence" about U.S. policies and in the hope -- he said -- that historians could do their part "to bring a stop to the madness."

The resolution was immediately challenged by James Sheehan, a past president of the association and a professor at Stanford University. Sheehan called the war "wretched" and "despicable," and said that he would love to see historians, acting as individuals, do whatever they can. "Let's go into the streets," he said.

But his call to go into the streets was "as citizens," not as the AHA. Sheehan said that the history group needed to be careful about how it used its "moral capital," and to restrict its use to issues that affect members as scholars and teachers. That's different, he said, from "taking a particular stand on the war."

While a number of scholarly groups have condemned the war in Iraq -- and the historians' group last year condemned the use of torture by the U.S. government -- taking a stand against the war is particularly sensitive for the AHA. The group was bitterly divided over how to respond to the Vietnam War and the defeat of 1969 resolution condemning that war (and taking a number of other stands on issues of the day) is still remembered with anger by many historians. That debate also featured less discussion about the wisdom of the war (as unpopular with history professors then as the war in Iraq is today) as about the proper role for the AHA.

No one at this year's meeting defended the war in Iraq. But other reasons were given by various historians for opposing the resolution, and especially the part that called on members to try to end the war quickly. One historian noted that the Bush administration would say that it is trying to end the war quickly, and that it might justify interrogation techniques viewed as torture as justified by that goal.

Timothy Burke of Swarthmore College said that he wanted "to leave room for my colleagues" who may not share his opposition to the war or belief that it needs to end speedily. Jonathan Dresner of the University of Hawaii at Hilo noted that AHA members have been wondering why their membership isn't growing, and he said that one reason was the perception that the group takes political stands. He said that the resolution would amount to "shutting out people."

Critics of the resolution tried to amend it by cutting the last clause -- the one calling for members to work for a quick end to the war. But they were voted down by others, who argued that there are moral reasons to take a strong stand.

Margaret Power of the Illinois Institute of Technology talked about the realization that she and others have students in Iraq or headed there, or who have relatives fighting and dying there. "We're not removed" from the war, she said.

Warren Goldstein of the University of Hartford summed up the pro-resolution sentiment by noting the "sense of crisis" in the country about the war. Further, he questioned the idea put forth by critics that there is "a divide between citizenship and professional identity.'

If the war goes on, with more deaths on all sides, more atrocities and more suffering, for another year or another five years, "when will it be OK" for the association to take a stand? he asked. As it turned out, members thought it would be OK to take a stand on Saturday. The final vote -- by voice -- didn't sound close. But while more than 4,700 people attended the convention, there did not appear to be a voting quorum of 100 by the time of the final vote. Under association rules, a voting quorum isn't required when the sentiments of the group are clear from a voice vote.

In an interview Sunday, Arnita R. Jones, executive director of the AHA, said that there were two reasons the Council voted to accept the resolution conditional on a ratification vote by the full membership. One is that the anti-war resolution was not submitted early enough to be published in the AHA's newsletter, so it was unclear whether all interested parties were aware of it. In addition, she said that the Council noted the "intrinsic importance" of the issue.

Jones said that in the seven years in which she has been executive director, the AHA Council has never previously sent a resolution to the full membership (which tops 14,000) for a vote in this way. She said that the Council was not motivated by a desire to block the resolution, and that she expected the resolution to be passed.

Applebaum, of Historians Against the War, said via e-mail Sunday that while his preference would have been for the Council to just approve the resolution and to take "a lead role," he understood "why they opted for this additional step," which he said could be useful.

"This resolution is important. It is a matter that should engage all members of our profession. The paper ballot will allow each and all to clarify the moral and ethical obligations of membership in the American Historical Association," he said. "The notion that we can and should speak with a social voice -- as other professions within and beyond the borders of the United States of America -- is one that is worthwhile as well as important."

Other leaders of Historians Against the War were more critical of the Council's action. Marvin E. Gettleman, a professor emeritus of history at Brooklyn Polytechnic University, said that members of the group were discussing what to do, but that many were returning home from the meeting Sunday and were just learning what had happened. He said that he personally was disappointed and considered the Council's action to be "anti-democratic." He also noted that AHA leaders who were present when the resolution was discussed at the business meeting didn't mention the possibility of sending the measure to the full membership.

Jones said that there was no timetable for the membership vote.

Speech Codes vs. Zones

For the historians, this was the second year in a row that speech codes were considered at the annual meeting. Last year, the association considered and adopted a resolution condemning David Horowitz's Academic Bill of Rights, which he says protects student rights and which many professors believe would force them to let ideas such as Holocaust denial or creationism into their classrooms. Several historians proposed that the association expand their condemnation to also criticize speech codes. Historians rejected that idea, with opponents arguing that it didn't make sense to muddy the anti-Horowitz resolution by adding on other issues.

David Beito of the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, who was one of the sponsors of the speech code amendment last year, returned with this year's version, which stated that speech codes restrict academic freedom and should be repealed. Beito reminded the group of what members had said last year about opposing speech codes, but not wanting to do so when attached to the resolution on the Academic Bill of Rights.

The resolution was opposed by many speakers, almost all of whom stressed that they were opposed to censorship. Pamela Smith of Columbia University said that the resolution didn't reflect the extent to which colleges need to "balance the right of free speech" with "responsibilities that go along" with free speech. She also noted that free speech could be a "cover for hate and discrimination."

Barbara Ransby of the University of Illinois at Chicago recounted how a colleague at a predominantly white institution had been called "a black bitch," and said that unrestricted speech can be "hostile" and "intimidating." For everyone on a campus to be able to speak out, she said, "a climate of civility has to exist."

Ransby noted that with laws against libel and slander, "there's no free speech that's absolute."

The criticisms of the resolution against speech codes frustrated sponsors. Ralph E. Luker, one of them, said, "I'd be a little hesitant to move the adoption of the Bill of Rights in a body like this."

After some back and forth on the resolution, it was amended so that it condemns only free speech zones, and not speech codes more broadly. The more minimal resolution then passed.

Beito said after the vote that taking a stand against free speech zones was a "comfortable" and "selective" way for the historians to appear to be for free speech, without actually taking on the issue. "I think the AHA wimped out," he said.


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