Past as Present

Should more historians weigh in on current policy debates? Panelists at historians' annual gathering say yes.

January 6, 2020
 

NEW YORK -- A retired historian in the audience stood up and thanked her peers for keeping things topical, following a panel discussion at this weekend's meeting of the American Historical Association.

Sandi Cooper, professor emerita at the College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said she’d joined the AHA in 1957 and found that annual meeting discussions rarely tackle anything that happened after the 1940s. This panel -- on the Nazi legacy in the Trump era -- was different, and welcome, she said.

Nodding heads and murmurs of agreement followed her statement, even if it wasn’t technically accurate. The AHA seeks to make its meetings relevant, such as with late-breaking sessions related to current events and plenaries open to the public.

Yet Cooper's comment wasn’t wholly inaccurate, either: AHA meetings aren't known for rousing policy debates. At this year's gathering, however, there was a sense that historians’ perspectives are sorely needed in current policy discussions -- and that historians are increasingly willing to step up.

“There’s an urgency,” said panelist David N. Myers, Sady and Ludwig Kahn Chair in Jewish History at the University of California, Los Angeles, following his remarks on the recent rash of anti-Semitic attacks, the "malleability" of Jewishness and President Trump’s recent, controversial executive order on anti-Semitism.

Myers said that weighing in on the present as a historian also means pushing back against the so-called humanities crisis, in that makes history vital.

In his George C. Marshall Lecture in Military History at the meeting, historian H.R. McMaster, a retired three-star Army general and one of President Trump's former national security advisers, also urged historians to overcome their reluctance to frame and inform contemporary issues of foreign policy and national security strategy. Without their measured input, he said, that work is left to those who haven't studied the lessons of history, especially as they pertain to the uncertainty of war. McMaster suggested that historians are well suited to promote what historian Zachary Shore has called "strategic empathy," and to avoid what McMaster called "strategic narcissism."

The Presentism Trap

Historians are, by training, often hesitant to analyze current events through that lens, lest they fall into the “presentism” trap of interpreting the past anachronistically. And historical expertise is not a crystal ball for predicting the future. But many historians are feeling less inhibited about sharing their perspectives on what’s happening right now.

Janet Ward, a professor of German history at the University of Oklahoma who chaired the Nazi legacy panel, said that historians “have to move beyond what we were trained to do.” And they “have to be braver.” Activism, for example, isn’t necessarily a bad word, she added.

Ward and about 25 colleagues nationally, including academics from other fields, have organized an outreach program, in response to the political moment. Their mission is to help preserve liberal democracy via education. They seek to address not only fellow faculty members but also students, military veterans and the general public.

Panelist Geoff Eley, Karl Pohrt Distinguished University Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Michigan, asked what conditions might have allowed for Trump's election and similar political movements abroad, linking climate change and other factors to increased anxiety surrounding national borders.

Following the panel, Eley said that his role as a historian has morphed over his long career, in response to such major events as the fall of the Soviet Union and the advent of the internet and social media. Eley also said that the present always informs which questions we ask about the past. But he, too, used the word “urgency” to describe the need for historians’ involvement in political discourse today.

Fascism and Beyond

Fascism, including whether the U.S. is veering toward it, was the topic of several AHA panels this year. During what was billed as an “Oxford-style” debate on whether fascism is “back,” for instance, several scholars went head to head to advance “yes” and “no” positions. Federico Finchelstein, professor of history at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College, argued that fascism has not made a comeback -- yet. While fascistic elements are present in Trump’s leadership style and policies, he said, "populistic" is a more apt term as of now.

Quoting the adage that defeating one’s “enemies” requires understanding them, Finchelstein said, “This is work we should be doing as historians.”

While the fascism question obviously animated discussions, other contemporary questions were posed. Various panels focused on the border crisis, the Second Amendment and the separation of powers and impeachment, for instance.

During the separation of powers session, moderator Jeremi Suri, Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, said that historians are increasingly in the "public eye" because "many of the political and constitutional questions we face, perhaps many of the crises we face, come down to a series of explicit historical issues related, in particular, to the separation of powers in our constitutional democracy."

Another panel highlighted how Trump’s recent proposal on immigrants as public charges would constitute a major departure from the U.S.’s historical approach. Dating back to colonial “poor laws,” panelists said, public charge exclusions and related deportations have not targeted the working poor or sought to prohibit or chill immigrants’ use of some social services. The current proposal, meanwhile, does all of that, speakers said.

Torrie Hester, associate professor of history at Saint Louis University and chair of that panel, said that proponents “have sought to justify the rule changes on the grounds that a sweeping definition of public charge is rooted in American history. And historical sources tell a very different story.”

Hester and some of her colleagues have also spoken out publicly against the changes, in op-eds and comments to the federal government.

Jennifer Tucker, associate professor of history at Wesleyan University, edited a book last year called A Right to Bear Arms? The Contested Role of History in Contemporary Debates on the Second Amendment, to which her colleagues on the gun rights panel all contributed. She also wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post, pushing back on the narrative -- pushed by the National Rifle Association and others -- that the individual right to bear arms is rooted in the English Bill of Rights of 1689.

“Based on archival evidence,” Tucker wrote in that piece, “historians have found no record in English common law of an untrammeled individual right to bear arms. On the contrary, common law in England and 18th-century America always recognized that personal security was best protected through a well-ordered society in which the public carrying of dangerous weapons was closely regulated.”

Following her well-attended panel here, Tucker cautioned against thinking that historians have always shied away from policy debates. Many historians have dared to get involved, and some subfields “have always been politicized.” In the case of gun history, she said, “so much of what's wrong is that the field is that it's bedeviled by presentism and Second Amendment questions, where there are myths of history enshrined as facts.”

What's needed is more "rigorous historical scholarship on gun ownership, possession and use," she added.

W. Fitzhugh Brundage, William B. Umstead Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a speaker on the border crisis panel, said he’s “never been too worried about presentism,” as “well-argued and well-sourced scholarship should able to withstand any scrutiny.”

‘Of Contemporary Concern’

“I know it sounds trite, but I believe it," Brundage said. Echoing McMaster, he added that if "we historians don't address directly the relevancy of our scholarship to questions of contemporary concern, others will fill the void.” 

Given recent events, Brundage also said, it's “understandable” and “laudable that historians are speaking beyond the disciplinary silos" that circumscribed much of the scholarship the 1980s and 1990s. Most historians were "shocked and surprised” that history appeared to go “backwards” in 2016, with Trump’s election, he continued, and now they’re “scurrying to explain a historical trajectory that defied prevailing wisdom.”

James Grossman, executive director of the AHA, said that historians “always think about context.” And the point is not that history "repeats," but rather that we learn from the past.

That learning, Grossman said, “tells us that that this an unusual moment in American public culture." And while he hasn't been "among those who see fascism creeping into our political processes," he does "see something happening that differs from anything I’ve seen before.”

If a “clear and present danger does exist -- and I recognize the legitimacy and imperative of debate here -- then we must recognize the obligations of institutions of civil society when the rule of law itself comes under threat from those sworn to enforce it," Grossman also said via email. Under those circumstances, the AHA “has a responsibility to participate beyond its normal conventions.”

Cooper, the longtime AHA member, said later during the conference that history "is a window into where we are." Clarifying her earlier statement, she said she'd noted a "positive move in the AHA meetings towards including topics of contemporary importance and not treating history as some kind of disconnected narrative that feared touching the present."

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