Publication Date

May 1, 2014

Perspectives Section

From the President

Post Type


Photo by Bill Sewell

Photo by Bill Sewell

About a decade ago I occasionally watched a TV news show featuring a panel of conservative and liberal journalists. At the end of each show, after they’d chewed over the events of the previous seven days from their respective political positions, the moderator invited them each to pick the “outrage of the week.” That expression always made me smile. Embedded in it were several largely true observations about the 21st-century public sphere: that each week brings a bumper crop of occurrences violating someone’s sense of justice, fairness, and common decency; that outrage is in the eye of the beholder; and that, because outrages are so ubiquitous, venting about one’s pet outrage is unlikely to change much on the ground.

It was something of a surprise, when I became president-elect of the AHA, to learn how often our Association is asked to respond to various functional equivalents of the “outrage of the week.” These outrages don’t present themselves at regular intervals but ebb and flow unpredictably, and almost all of them carry a peculiarly arresting charge, a signal that one ought to stop in one’s tracks, raise one’s voice in protest, and try to do something to rectify the situation. Appeals of this sort, when directed to us as individuals, often produce an internal dialogue. We wonder: Should I sign the petition, attend the meeting, make a cash contribution? But when they are addressed to the collective person of the AHA, they become more complicated still, generating lengthy conversations among AHA officers and Council members and sometimes, implicitly, efforts to rearticulate the mission of the AHA in the face of a particular request for its intervention. Calls for the AHA to speak out can thus double as miniature identity crises. Since the AHA is not a static entity, they can force us to ponder what the Association is now and what it aspires to be. To what purposes should it lend its authority and good name?

In the past 15 months, the subjects on which the AHA has been asked to speak out have included: the deliberations of the US Supreme Court on the Defense of Marriage Act; revelations that former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels had hoped to remove a book by historian Howard Zinn from the state’s system of public education; a bill on the professionalization of history before the Brazilian legislature that refused historians of science the designation “historian”; the tendency of the current Turkish government to convert Byzantine-era churches into mosques, with uncertain consequences for scholarly access to their original artifacts; a bill introduced in the New York State legislature that would bar the use of public funds to support any academic association that boycotted institutions of higher education abroad; an ­allegation that US State Department regulations had forced a MOOC provider to suspend service to students in countries (Syria, Iran, Cuba) subject to US trade sanctions.

The most obvious feature of this list is the dizzying variety of appeals and hence the sheer amount of information required to verify the facts of each case. For verification, the AHA frequently turns to experts within and beyond our membership. In addition, we often do rudimentary research ourselves. Little did I imagine when I got this job that I’d become an aficionado of the New York State Assembly’s website of pending legislation!

But confirmation of basic facts, while hardly simple, is only the beginning. Interpretation is, as we historians well know, a more elusive and contentious art. And when the interpretation of a purported outrage is combined with considerations about the legitimate purview of the AHA, the plot palpably thickens.

So what is the AHA’s purview? Let me take a stab at answering that question, at least in a way suitable to the present historical moment, since it can never be resolved once and for all.

Most of us would agree that the AHA has two core missions. The first concerns the promotion of historical scholarship by ensuring the preservation and accessibility of historical documents, the vitality of the institutional spaces for free scholarly debate about matters of historical interpretation, and the free dissemination of the results of historical research through publication and teaching. This aspect of the core mission is basically the application to a particular domain—the study of the past—of fundamental liberal values concerning freedom of thought and expression. The second mission concerns history as an occupation. The AHA promotes fair and nondiscriminatory hiring practices and satisfactory workplace conditions for historians.

In recent years, the first part of this core mission has expanded to include advocacy for the use of historical thinking in the public sphere. At a time when economic considerations and calculations seem to reign supreme and are applied to policy issues across the board, the AHA has sought to redress the balance and to assert the relevance of historical knowledge to the problems facing our society.

If, then, the AHA has a warrant to speak out in all these areas (historical scholarship, historians’ employment, historical reasoning on public issues), does that warrant extend to ­political matters? The boundaries of the “political” are, of course, notoriously fuzzy, and the category is difficult to encapsulate with any rigor. But, nonetheless, as a general principle, the AHA places partisan politics outside its purview. It does so on the grounds that, while individual historians have political views, and while those views may responsibly shape good historical scholarship, the common denominator that brings us together in the AHA is our politically neutral commitment to studying history. For the AHA to use its collective voice to speak out politically threatens to divide the membership. And a divided membership weakens the Association’s ability to implement its core mission.

The corollary of this self-denying ordinance is the AHA annual meeting—a forum for the free discussion in a historical register of some of those same politically controversial issues. What gets excluded when the AHA speaks with a single voice, then, is not merely restored but actively embraced in those public settings where we address one another and air our disagreements as individual historians.

With these rough guidelines about the legitimate purview of the AHA in mind, we can return to two of the issues on which the AHA was recently asked to take a stand and see how the guidelines informed our decisions.

Early in 2013, some historians asked the AHA to sign the amicus brief they had crafted on behalf of the appellees who challenged the constitutionality of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Since DOMA defined marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman, wouldn’t ­endorsing such a brief amount to taking a political stand in favor of same-sex marriage? Some members of the Council thought so and warned against AHA endorsement. But the argument that eventually carried the day construed endorsement differently: DOMA’s supporters routinely defended the law by citing bad history (they claimed, inaccurately, that the federal government had always played a major role in the legal definition of marriage). Hence AHA endorsement of the amicus brief, as a document that set the historical record straight, fell securely within the AHA’s core mission of advocating for the importance of expert historical knowledge as a guide to public policy. A second argument that swayed the Council concerned the financial penalties (higher tax rates and insurance premiums) borne by same-sex couples denied access to the institution of marriage. From this perspective, the AHA’s endorsement of the amicus brief additionally fulfilled the AHA’s pledge to defend nondiscriminatory workplace conditions for all historians. The AHA signed the brief.

In July 2013, the Associated Press brought to light some e-mails written by Mitch Daniels three years earlier as governor of Indiana. Daniels had been reading obituaries of the recently deceased Howard Zinn and was alarmed to learn of the nationwide popularity of Zinn’s left-leaning American history textbook. He instructed his staff to find out who in Indiana assigned the textbook and seemed poised to ban it from the state’s school and university curricula. How far Daniels actually went in this direction remained murky, but the gist of his musings was unmistakable, and it contradicted the AHA’s core commitment to the free dissemination of the results of historical scholarship through teaching. The AHA thus issued a statement “deplor[ing] and condemn[ing] the spirit and intent” of the e-mails—a statement subsequently quoted in a widely circulated Associated Press story, which described the AHA, appropriately, as a “nonpartisan group.”

I’ve intended this column both as an exercise for myself—to try to systematize in rough terms the principles that the AHA applies to the multifarious “outrages of the week” brought to its attention—and also as a way to give AHA members a clearer, behind-the-scenes look at this aspect of the Association’s work. As I’ve stressed, no abstract guiding principles can ever be fully adequate to this job (the cases are simply too particular and complicated) nor definitive, since the AHA is a constantly evolving organization. Our intention, when we do speak out with the AHA’s collective voice, is that the vast majority of our members feel that the AHA is speaking for them.

Jan Goldstein is president of the AHA.


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