No Time Like the Present
AHA18 and Life under Trump
Almost a year after Donald Trump’s inauguration, historians gathered in Washington, DC, just two miles from the White House, for the 132nd annual meeting of the AHA. The setting heightened the inescapable conversations about the historical significance of Trump’s presidency and the administration’s role in shaping the place of historians in public life. One needed only walk through the hotels—with their TVs tuned to news about Michael Wolff’s Trump exposé Fire and Fury, released on the second day of the meeting—to understand just how strongly contemporary events now influence historians’ conversations.
The issues of today were hardly confined to lobby chatter, nor were they limited to Trump’s presidency. Perhaps more than usual, attendees anticipated discussing pressing issues, from immigration to voting rights to #MeToo. A cursory reading of the 2018 program revealed sessions about teaching history in the “post-fact” age, the place of “master narratives” in today’s historical debates, the relevance of capitalism to modern pedagogy, the history of “walls” and borders, and the historical roots of “fake news.”
Even sessions that didn’t deal with issues of obvious contemporary significance revealed that historians couldn’t escape the influence of current events. As Noa Shaindlinger, a postdoctoral scholar who studies the history of urban cultures and the Middle East at North Carolina State University, told me, “Even the language that is being used, the choice of terms,” reflects what’s happening today. Shaindlinger observed that some panels on ancient or medieval history referred to historical boundaries as “the wall” or “the fence,” evoking media descriptions of contemporary Palestine and Mexico. The parallels, while certainly not all intentional, were unmistakable due to heightened sensitivity around these issues.
Shaindlinger also lamented that many academics seemed apprehensive about engaging in classroom discussions of politics or directly confronting the ways history informs political discourse today. She meant going beyond keeping a healthy distance or maintaining “sober-mindedness and a respect for the past,” as Robert A. Schneider, professor of history at Indiana University and former editor of the American Historical Review, put it during the popular panel on walls and borders.
Whether speaking from the dais or asking questions from the floor, historians in a number of sessions said or implied that they felt silenced by what Shaindlinger called a “climate of fear,” which prevented them from “acting in more meaningful ways.” Ussama Makdisi, professor of history and chair of Arab studies for the Arab-American Educational Foundation at Rice University, described a “right-wing backlash in academia” mirroring a broader trend in American society. “Look at what happened at Drexel,” Shaindlinger said, referring to political scientist George Ciccariello-Maher’s resignation from that institution amid threats resulting from a controversial tweet. (In December 2016, Ciccariello-Maher mocked the term “white genocide,” used by some alt-right groups, in a sarcastic tweet that went viral.) Emerging scholars and scholars of color remain particularly uneasy about being labeled “too political” or “too biased,” Shaindlinger added.
But some scholars urged discretion in engaging in punditry. On Twitter, Moshik Temkin, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University, warned against “meaningless” historical comparisons, linking to a June op-ed he’d written for the New York Times. “We teach our students to be wary of analogies, which are popular with politicians and policy makers (who choose them to serve their agendas) but often distort both the past and present,” the piece cautioned.
Temkin elaborated on this point during the Friday-morning session “Commentary, Not Punditry: Historians, Politics, and the Media,” suggesting that historians today risk making facile analogies and “easy comparisons” between Trump and reviled historical figures like Hitler, Mussolini, and Nixon. The danger, Temkin argued, was that analogies could betray historical precision and simplify narratives; ignoring the complexities of Trump and his ascendancy would fail to serve the public interest. Georgetown University professor Michael
Kazin also noted that using the “f-word” (fascist) to describe Trump not only distorts the specifics of fascism (and of Trump); it also might induce a sense of powerlessness that paradoxically would aid the rise of authoritarianism. President Trump, Kazin pointed out, could not prevent the publication of Fire and Fury, signaling at least one limit to his power. But institutions, including those that represent historians, said Ibram X. Kendi, a professor and founding director of the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University, should nevertheless remain vigilant to growing attacks on intellectuals and institutions of knowledge, since “power works through institutions.”
Meeting attendees generally agreed that historians cannot afford to stand on the sidelines in these “bizarre times,” as Temkin called our present moment during his panel, or to fool themselves into believing they can do history without letting the present influence them. As Schneider noted, “It would be stupid and artificial to ignore the present” when teaching and writing about the past. Even Temkin agreed that “historians should be loud and engaged and involved.”
There were other reminders of the contemporary relevance of the historian’s craft at the meeting. The Exhibit Hall, where historians perused the newest historical literature, showcased an array of recent “resistance books” with titles like Antifa, White Rage, and How Democracies Die. Some historians took time to visit Washington public history institutions like the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a sobering testament to African American resistance, located on the National Mall. The irony of the museum’s proximity to the White House was not lost on some attendees.
Another necessary, if uncomfortable conversation spurred by contemporary politics occurred at the late-breaking session “Historians and Sexual Harassment: The Challenge for the AHA.” (Editor’s note: see AHA president Mary Beth Norton’s report to members on AHA policy and sexual harassment in this issue.) A number of historians shared their own stories of sexual violence, including one who described being assaulted at her first academic conference. Just a few years ago, she said, she wouldn’t have been able to imagine having this conversation. After the panel, several women attendees characterized it as “raw,” “inspiring,” and “emotional.”
Rebecca Brenner, a graduate student at American University, told me that the stories historians shared at this panel (attended mostly by women) were “not surprising at all.” But she also said she felt empowered by the testimonies of women “who have persevered through so much.” “I felt a lot of solidarity in the sense that I knew these things were common and were not my fault,” she said, referring to experiences of sexual harassment that she was compelled to share on social media following the session.
Although gender politics was consuming the country—at least since the #MeToo movement ignited in October after allegations of harassment and assault against film producer Harvey Weinstein—Brenner and others suggested the sexual-harassment session might not have happened were it not for the precedent set by Trump, who was heard on a recording released during the 2016 campaign saying derogatory things about women and bragging about an apparent act of sexual assault.
As the annual meeting wrapped up and the deep freeze gave way, historians returned to their home institutions, where they will surely continue to ponder and debate their role in contemporary politics, examine ways in which the past shapes the present and vice versa, and grapple with professional issues that have finally surfaced as a result of broader discussions.
How the next few years will shape our profession is, as historians know better than most, impossible to predict. Our individual and collective choices as historians and as AHA members will steer our course. Talk of “crisis,” declining enrollments, and the imperiled academic job market does not have to define our discipline. As National History Center director Dane Kennedy argued, historians “are speaking to a receptive audience.” “What historians do always matters, but at this year’s AHA, our work felt even more pressing and important,” said Heather Ann Thompson of the University of Michigan; reflecting on the meeting, she added that “from weighing in on how fascism rises, to how we became the world’s largest jailer, to how sexual harassment persists, we have much to share with the nation.”
Eladio Bobadilla is a PhD candidate in US history at Duke University.
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