Yesterday’s Inside Higher Ed has a detailed account of the business meeting of the American Historical Association — a meeting that resulted in the members backing a resolution calling on their colleagues to “do whatever they can to bring the [Iraq] war to a speedy conclusion” and also defeating a resolution calling for an end to speech codes. Two comments from the article stand out. First, regarding the war: “No one at this year’s meeting defended the war in Iraq.” And the second, regarding speech codes: “The resolution [condemning speech codes] was opposed by many speakers, almost all of whom stressed that they were opposed to censorship.”
I was all set to write a post about the appropriate absurdity of historians opposing the war without dissent then opposing a resolution that protects the right of dissent itself, but the first commenter to the article, Jonathan Cohen of DePaul, beat me to it:
It is disturbing that a resolution to condemn the war passed with no dissent and a resolution in support of free speech was defeated. It leaves the unescapable impression that the community of American historians is not a very open place for the discussion of ideas.As a final note, the Iraq War resolution was drafted by Historians Against the War, which called the war’s practices “inimical to the values of the historical profession.” Which values are those? Are American soldiers plagiarizing or writing unoriginal theses in the Anbar province? Are they ignoring primary documents in favor of secondary sources? Are they advocating against tenure and reduced teaching loads? Not really. It turns out that the “values” of the historical profession mysteriously echo the “core values” of Harvard Law School — historians (like law school deans) are concerned about interrogation techniques. Well, thank you for that. I’m glad to know that your doctoral degrees (with core emphases in the study of the relationship of gender, power, class, and sexuality to, say, the television sitcom from 1955 to 1995) have given you the moral position and strategic, political, and tactical frame of reference to instruct us all in the precise number of hours an al Qaeda prisoner should be deprived of sleep during an interrogation. Or, perhaps, one of the “values” of the historical profession is terrorist naps on demand.
To be certain the war is controversial, with much to be said for and against. But when a debate over such a difficult issue produces not a single dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy it is a reflection of how closed minded the academic world has become. People who disagree are simply intimidated from speaking out.
The reason speech codes have become controversial is because campuses have gotten involved in free speech controversies over suppressing unpopular views (on campus they are unpopular) under the guise of preventing harassment.
It is unfortunate that an attempt to create a more open academic atmosphere is rejected but it is not surprising in light of the fact that the historians want to force a conformity of views on the Iraq war on their own community.
And academics wonder why they make us laugh.