Into the Fray

Noting years of misreading of the past by those in power, historians vow wider engagement with the public.
January 12, 2011

BOSTON -- The old saw about those who ignore the past being doomed to repeat it may apply to historians, too.

At a Saturday session of the American Historical Association's annual meeting here, a panel of historians lamented their relative silence in recent years as politicians and policy makers appropriated history for their own ends -- and they vowed not to make the same mistake again. “I think there has been a genuine abdication of responsibility by historians,” Carolyn Eisenberg of Hofstra University told about 50 audience members during “The Public Uses of History and the Global War on Terror.”

The panelists focused almost exclusively on what they characterized as the misuse of historical analogies during the administration of President George W. Bush, though several made passing criticisms of President Obama's military policies, such as stepped-up drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pointed attention was aimed at such conflations as Vice President Cheney's likening of al Qaeda to the Nazis, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's attempt to minimize the threat posed by insurgents in post-war Iraq by comparing them to the German Werwolf, an ineffective assortment of former SS officers who had little impact on peacekeeping in post-WWII Germany.

Eisenberg argued that historians whose views were most consonant with those in power seem to have been given the biggest platform to speak out. She said that, for every Bernard Lewis, the historian whom the New Yorker described as providing the "intellectual muscle" for Middle East policy under Bush, “There are 1,000 dissenters -- and you’d never know it.”

Many scholars worry about being too inward-looking -- a tension that only seems to grow when economic forces compel those in higher education to make the case for the relevance of the academy. Engaging with the wider public is seen as a viable way to make that case. Some even see it as an obligation. A scholar at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association last week described intellectuals as public servants, and, in November, a cultural anthropologist-turned-journalist advocated for scholars to become more engaged in public debate. Historians, through the AHA, have also weighed in on current events, and on the Iraq War in particular; the AHA took a stand against that war (albeit four years after it began). At the same time, some on the panel acknowledged that it is unclear what impact such declarations and efforts really have. More than 2,600 scholars signed a petition organized by Historians Against the War in the months after the United States invaded Iraq, and -- even if more historians had lobbied for top-level meetings -- the Bush Administration was not exactly famed for seeking out dissenting opinion, they said.

The thrust of Saturday’s session was less institutional and more on what individuals can do. Many panelists urged their colleagues in history to opine on current events as often as economists and political scientists seem to. Historians, they said, should don the mantle of public commentators by speaking out publicly, seeking out Congressional staff members, submitting op-ed pieces to newspapers, and working with grassroots organizations. Otherwise, an inaccurate view of the past can remain unchallenged -- a view that too readily transplants one set of historical circumstances to another, or relies too heavily on theory instead of on the hard-won lessons of human experience, said Priya Satia, assistant professor of modern British history at Stanford University. "If you know something relevant," she said, "you should be obligated to share it.”

In addition to the fact that higher education tends to reward and promote academics for scholarly rather than popular works, there are two reasons for the relatively demure public profile cut by historians. The first was unintended: the shift in popularity in recent decades to studying cultural history and the everyday experiences of groups that have been left out of traditional historical scholarship. Eisenberg, whose research interests include President Nixon, said that many historians trained after Vietnam turned away from studying “powerful white men” to look at more marginalized groups. “Meanwhile, back at the ranch, powerful white men still held power,” she said, and not enough historians had expertise in the ways this power continued to be exerted.

As a member of the steering committee of the anti-war historians, Eisenberg found, perhaps, an unexpected ally on the panel in Peter Mansoor, a military historian at the Ohio State University and a retired colonel in the U.S. Army, who led battalions into battle in Iraq and advised Gen. David Petraeus on the counterinsurgency there. Mansoor, who agreed that historians' failure to comment publicly has had the effect of ceding ground to the think tanks, also favored studying “out-of-fashion” topics, like military history and the use of political power. A more widespread familiarity with military history would have meant the public was better-informed about the strategic implications and mistaken historical comparisons made by the previous administration, he said, both during its planning stages and as the insurgency spun out of control. “Humanity has a violent past,” said Mansoor. “We ought to study it.”

The other reason for historians' lack of stature was grounded, essentially, in fear. One audience member described the consequences of taking unpopular stands now as being similar to being blacklisted during the Cold War-era Red Scare. Greg Grandin, a panelist from New York University, was sympathetic to this argument. He said figures such as Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, who have taken strong positions against power, were able to do so at a time when higher education was still a growing industry -- not financially under siege. To speak out now is to risk being marginalized and have trouble finding a new job, he said.

But this argument was forcefully rebutted by several others on the panel. Mansoor and Satia asked what the point of tenure was if scholars were afraid to use it. Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor who both organized and presented during the panel, also refuted the contention that speaking out publicly was tantamount to career suicide. “I bashed Bush every day and nothing bad happened to me,” he said, referring to his blog, Informed Comment. But Cole also appeared to be taking a sanguine view of his own experience. In 2006, he was at the center of a controversy at Yale University when conservative critics pressured administrators to deny him a joint faculty position in history and sociology. Though his appointment had been approved at the departmental levels, a senior committee later overruled it.

Mansoor acknowledged that there were risks -- or discomfort, at least -- in speaking out. “If you take a position, be prepared to take bruises,” he said. “You become a political player at that point.”


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