The Historian’s Place in Tumultuous Times
This column is my last, my swan song as AHA president. In January 2020, I will pass the gavel to my successor, Professor Mary Lindemann, a specialist in early modern European history and the history of medicine. But as I reflect on my year as president, it is clear that 2019 has been an interesting one for presidents here in Washington, DC.
For my part, the most interesting developments have been the exponential increase in calls for the AHA to take a stand. As James Grossman noted in the October issue of Perspectives, hardly a week went by in 2019 without someone urging the AHA to express concern (or more) at the mistreatment of historians in this or that country; or to decry new restrictions on research access here or there; or to sign onto an amicus curiae brief for this or that lawsuit; or sign onto a letter of protest; or in some other way express either support for or condemnation of something somewhere. Often these urgings involved matters of direct interest to historians and the AHA. Sometimes the connection was much looser. Much thought, research, and discussion went into decisions about what to do and what not to do. I hope the AHA did the right thing more often than not.
These cases have been interesting, if often disturbing. Many parts of the world seem to be sliding in an illiberal, authoritarian direction. Intellectuals, historians included, seem more often to be targets of authorities bent on censorship or intimidation. While journalists feel the impact of this illiberal turn more sharply than historians, it has reached our ranks too, at least overseas.
Now, this sense of mine might be mistaken: it could merely be that more cases of maltreatment of historians have been brought to the notice of the AHA but that the number of such cases is not actually increasing. Or perhaps both could be happening at once. In any case, as one of those tasked with shaping the Association’s reaction, I have the feeling that the political winds have brought chillier times for historians around the world. And it feels as if the AHA is spending more of its time and energy in a reactive mode, trying to keep up with what it is asked to respond to. I imagine officers of the AHA felt similar pressures during the period 1967–74, when the war in Vietnam and the draft riled and roiled American society, college campuses, and the AHA membership.
As one of those tasked with shaping the Association’s reaction, it feels that the political winds have brought chillier times for historians around the world.
All this makes me wonder what obligations—if any—tumultuous times place upon historians. Should we go about our business as usual, without altering our habits and routines? Or should we use our expertise and our platforms (such as they are) to speak up? My first answer to that question is that no one, including an AHA president, should tell historians what to do. We should all decide for ourselves how to conduct ourselves in turbulent times—as in placid ones.
But my answer does not stop there, for I think that historians have useful perspectives that are too rarely expressed in public settings. For instance, who better to say whether or not the behavior of a different, and more consequential, president here in Washington is unprecedented in the annals of presidential history? Who better to judge whether the current illiberal drift represents a return of fascism? (I am pleased to note that the annual meeting will devote a plenary debate to that question.) Who better to point out instances when political factions concoct and conscript distorted versions of history to serve their agendas?
I am always pleased to see historians rising to the challenge and weighing in on such matters—as many are already doing. Americanists, especially political historians, can put the current dramas in Washington in perspective better than anyone else. Modern Europeanists, Latin Americanists, even perhaps historians of the late Roman Republic are also equipped to illuminate aspects of our current travails.
As AHA president, I have shied away from using my columns to reflect on current politics at home or abroad. I have found it quite enough to try to keep pace with the many requests for AHA endorsement of this or that protest or case. In any event, the AHA is not a political organization, and its presidents, in my view, ought to avoid taking positions that might jeopardize its apolitical standing, even in tumultuous times. Professor Lindemann may or may not see matters differently. In all likelihood, with a presidential election due in November 2020, her watch will see more acute division—and more riling and roiling—in American society than mine. I wish her the best of luck.
Blogging, tweeting, podcasting, writing for the local newspaper, speaking up at events in our communities—there are many avenues that are open to historians.
And I hope that historians will more often enter the lists, offering their wisdom and perspectives on the election, its candidates, and its issues. I hope they will, more frequently than ever, illuminate questions of domestic and foreign policy. Blogging, tweeting, podcasting, writing for the local newspaper, speaking up at events in our communities—there are many avenues that are open to us. The odds are against getting an op-ed into a national newspaper, but historians have succeeded there too, and will do so again. There is no risk of a surplus of long-term or comparative perspective in current political discourses. I encourage you to weigh in as historians.
In my first column, about the struggles historians have maintaining a healthy work/life balance, I wrote that as soon as my term as president is up, I would practice what I preach and devote more time to life and less to work. Life in an open society, as I see it, includes the possibility, maybe even the responsibility, to take part in public debates. So when my term of office is up (I assure you I have no intention of imitating China’s president and overseeing constitutional changes allowing me to be president for life), I intend to practice what I preach and return to my former habit of writing very occasional pieces for my local newspaper. I’ll have a bit more time for such things. Over to you, Mary.
John R. McNeill is president of the AHA. Laura McEnaney is vice president of the AHA Teaching Division.
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