A Student of History

January 23, 2007

Activism and the Academy

Filed under: The Academy — John Maass @ 3:33 pm

I just got via my department an announcement that reads as such:

The Berkeley Journal of Sociology is holding its annual conference on March 9, 2007 on “Globalization and Social Change”. Along with our keynote speaker Walden Bello, executive director of Focus on the Global South, various graduate student presenters, and faculty discussants, the conference will also feature a special panel on “Bridging the Gap between Activism and the Academy”.  Graduate education can be two-sided. While our studies and research often bring us closer to contemporary social problems and/or movements, we can simultaneously be drawn away from them as we join professionalized fields.  Does this reflect your experience at graduate school? How have you managed the gap between activism and the academy?

I have been for some years troubled by this notion of activist historians.  I do not object to historians becoming involved in causes–they are people and as such have every right to engage in politics, social change, activism, etc.  But when we hear things like (as one famous scholar has has written), “you are not doing real history until you smell the tear gas” (a major paraphrase), I wonder/doubt that this is still engaging in historical scholarship.  At what point do activist historians lose their objectivity in their work when they become activists for causes?  It is a tricky line to draw. 

For example, an historian interested in issues of race perhaps can draw on her work of racial relations in the past or in a different country, and use this work to show modern Americans (and, of course, lawmakers) that there are other answers/ways of doing things in terms of race and that we ought to use examples from the past to try to find solutions.  Or historians’ work in Native American history could illuminate treaty rights and obligations, to say nothing of past violations. 

But as the conference announcement above implies, “bridging the gap” seems to be a goal or requirement of historians, and an unquestioned “good thing.”  I am not sure that it is in all, or even in many cases.  Can’t historians get too close to their subjects?  Does it make them lose their objectivity if they do? Doesn’t it make them like attorneys, arguing for a case, rather than presenting the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Peter Hoffer’s book Past Imperfect takes up this issue briefly, and I recommend it.   A review of the book states the problem, as noted above: “A new history arose [by the 1960s] which, written in part by radicals and liberals, had little use for the noble and the heroic, and that rankled many who wanted a celebratory rather than a critical history. To this combustible mixture of elements was added the flame of public debate. History in the 1990s was a minefield of competing passions, political views and prejudices. It was dangerous ground…”

So where does history end and advocacy begin, and should the two be mixed or kept apart, in the name of objectivity?  Historoans, afterall, study the past not the present-but they live in the present, which shapes their work.  If scholars’ work about the past is shaped by the present, should they allow their work in the past make them present day activisits?  Is that a good thing, as the conference folks at The Berkeley Journal of Sociology make plain, i.e., to “bridge the gap”?

War of the World

Filed under: New books — John Maass @ 2:46 am

In the Raleigh News and Observer, there’s a review of Niall Ferguson’s War of the World, which is a book I like a lot depite its flaws.  A piece of the review:

Ferguson, a Harvard professor, best-selling author and British television personality, is one of those Oxford polymaths who makes Americans feel deliciously inadequate. He is so darned erudite, smoothly shifting gears from philosophy to economics to politics. He is equally compelling speculating about the underlying nature of racism, analyzing economic booms’ destabilizing impact, and explaining how absolutist ideas overrode Western enlightenment to spawn Adolf Hitler’s monstrous murder spree. This wide-ranging virtuosity, along with a European’s tragic sensibility, shapes the book’s central argument: that a toxic combination of ethnic conflict, “economic volatility, and empires on the wane” set the conditions for murderous conflict expanded beyond recognition by modern technology.

Look no further than Iraq or recall the fighting in the Balkans during the 1990s to see part of Ferguson’s thesis in action. There, nations of diverse people had been held together by authoritarian leaders; after Tito’s death and Saddam’s removal, ethnic tensions were unleashed.

Similarly, Ferguson writes that many 20th century conflicts were rooted in the breakup of old empires — including the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian and the British. Today we tend to condemn those imperial behemoths, but they were means of both creating and controlling multicultural societies. Most of the great traumas of the 20th century resulted when diverse societies degenerated into warring ethnic enclaves.

January 22, 2007

Empires and Their Contested Pasts

Filed under: Ireland,The Academy — John Maass @ 5:37 pm

This week I got the exciting news that Ohio State will finance my trip to Ireland so that I can give a paper at the 2007 “Irish Conference of Historians.”  My work on North Carolina and the French and Indian War fits in well with the conference theme, “Empires and their Contested Pasts.”  The conference will be at Queens University Belfast in May, so I will go over for a week.  This is the second time in 3 years I have been to the North of Ireland, and fourth since 1997.

(A Lot) More on Jamestown

Filed under: Historic Preservation — John Maass @ 5:36 pm

Current Issue

At the US News and World Report website they have a number of new articles available on Jamestown and the 400th Anniversary of the town’s founding.  Scroll down the page to the heading “special report,” and there are several additional links.

Civil War in Texas

Filed under: The strange place called the South — John Maass @ 1:35 pm


According to the Star Telegram newspaper, the US Civil War “continues to divide Texans.”  It is similar to the R. E. Lee birthday squabbles of last week in Virginia, about which there are a few posts below. 

The Star Telegram article states:

The Civil War ended more than 140 years ago, but on the eve of Confederate Heroes Day, new battles erupted over the meaning of the Old South, statues honoring its defenders and even a stage act at Gov. Rick Perry‘s inaugural ball. 

The ongoing flash points this week highlight the raw emotions conjured up by the mere mention of the Confederacy or the iconic red, white and blue battle flag.

The flag sure has been a lightening rod for trouble….as those in SC, MS and GA have seen over the past decade or so.  Interestingly, on Jan. 19th, when Virginians celebrate Lee’s Birthday, Texans observe Confederate Heroes Day. The TX NAACP says the day and its associated memories evokes “shame and horror.” 

As the article goes on to note, “controversy over Confederate symbols is nothing new, in Texas and the South. A ban on NCAA post-season games in South Carolina, where the Confederate battle flag flies on the grounds of the state Capitol, continues to generate legal challenges.”

Will it ever end?

January 19, 2007

AHA Meeting—the Fall Out

Filed under: The Academy — John Maass @ 11:08 pm

As I noted earlier, I went to the AHA in Atlanta Jan. 4-7, as I’m “on the market” for academic jobs to begin in August (which for some reason is called “Fall” by universities not located in the South!).  The second day after I got back I was called by one school with whom I interviewd, to invite me to more interviews.  Since I am very interested in that school (a small liberal arts college) I of course was quite pleased to get the call, and what is better, all of the folks from this college who I met down in Atlanta were very nice.

Today, I got a second request for additional interviews at a larger university (10,000+ students) “west of the Appalachians” as I will call it, and that was quite good news as well.  Its a fine school, and those from the department I met in Georgia were welcoming and hospitable to me as I went through my 30-minute panel interview.  Its an interesting process, actually: you spend 4-7 years taking courses, passing exams, learning a language or two, and then the dissertation–then you have 30 minutes to convince a school that you are good enough to get an on-campus shot at the big prize.  If you think of it that way, I am sure you can make yourself dangerously nervous as you interview.  But, I was actually surprised at how in all 3 of my panel interrog…eh, I mean, interviews, I was not nervous at all.  Part of that I am sure is because I spent 15 years prior to going back to grad school in some very stressful situations.  However, I came to realize as I drove home from Atlanta that one of the reasons I felt so comfortable is that the folks who interviewed me went out of their when to put me at ease.

I hope my luck continues when I get to these two school in the next few weeks…..

Lee’s Birthday, Part 2

There are 2 stories in the Wash Post today on Lee.

One is here, and starts:

It’s the 200th birthday of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general who is revered by some and reviled by others. Commemorations and protests are planned across Virginia and other Southern states, proving that more than 140 years after the end of the Civil War, Lee is still a pivotal, controversial and complicated figure in American history and continuing race and culture wars.

Another is here:

History buffs and Confederate enthusiasts are marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Gen. Robert E. Lee, the Southern icon still revered by many as a brilliant military strategist nearly 150 years after the end of the Civil War.

Then there is this opinion column from the Richmond paper, by M. P. Williams:

In attempting to pick apart a proposed apology for slavery, Del. Frank D. Hargrove Sr., R-Hanover, picked at a 2,000-year-old scab.

Asserting in The Daily Progress of Charlottesville that black Virginians should “get over” slavery, he asked, “Are we going to force the Jews to apologize for killing Christ?” He salted this wound by later telling an upset Jewish lawmaker that his skin was too thin.

Alan Criswell’s response to Hargrove’s remarks was not for the thin-skinned.

“Oh, that schmuck,” Criswell, who is Jewish, said Wednesday night, shortly after watching a rehearsal of Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers” at the Weinstein JCC.

Hargrove perpetuated a discredited assertion that inspired the mistreatment of Jews over the centuries.

“That is a horrific lie that is at the root of anti-Semitic propaganda,” Roberta Oster Sachs, who is also Jewish, said at a downtown Richmond restaurant yesterday.

But Criswell was hardly shocked. “Underneath many people, there’s this creeping anti-Semitism that most people don’t let come to the surface.”

Hargrove was addressing a proposal by Del. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico. McEachin also plans to seek an apology for Virginia’s treatment of American Indians as an act of reconciliation leading up to this year’s Jamestown 400th anniversary commemoration.

Black and Jewish Americans, whose historic alliance from the civil-rights era has frayed in recent years, once again were bound by shared injustice and insult.

“Certainly to dredge up the canard of the Jews killing Jesus is appalling,” said Rabbi Gary S. Creditor of Temple Beth-El. “To come at this moment in 2007, saying the Jews killed Christ shows his abysmal ignorance.”

Creditor cited the scholarship and reconciliation efforts between Jews and Christians during the past four decades, including Vatican II, where Pope Paul VI declared in a church document, “What happened in his passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.”

The Rev. Dr. Donald Dawe, professor emeritus at Union Theological Seminary-Presbyterian School of Christian Education and an authority on Jewish-Christian relations, said that relationship should not be defined by events during the first century in Palestine. No whole religion or race should be cursed based on the past.

The Presbyterian Church USA’s position, which Dawe helped shape, is that “the Roman government, through its various officers, including Pontius Pilate . . . were very much involved in [the Crucifixion] and the Jews had no power to do anything without them,” he said.

Back at Weinstein JCC, Criswell was asked how he felt about McEachin’s proposal.

“Apologies are in order,” he said, shrugging off the controversy. Slavery is a stain on America, Criswell said.

Hargrove is “no different than Virgil Goode,” said Merian Stallings of Henrico, referring to the Southside Virginia congressman and his recent anti-Muslim tirade.

Stallings happens to be black. On this evening, the Weinstein JCC, where people swam laps, shot hoops and exercised on treadmills, contained more gentiles than Jews. Whites, blacks and Asians played pingpong on tables arranged in a gymnasium.

Those folks appeared to reside comfortably in 21st-century America. Hargrove, in recycling slurs and dismissing the pain of others, clings to the past by refusing to reconcile it.


Robert E. Lee’s 200th Birthday


Tomorrow is Robert E. Lee‘s 200th birthday.  There are to be a number of events across the commonwealth to recognize this event, but one which caught my eye is quite different.

The Independent Media Center‘s website contains a call by the Virginia Anti-War Network to protest the observation of Lee‘s birthday last weekend by the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Richmond.  The Independent Media Center is “a global network of collectively run media outlets for the creation of radical, accurate, and passionate tellings of truth. We are motivated by a love and inspiration for people who work for a better world despite corporate media’s distortions and unwillingness to cover efforts to develop an egalitarian and sustainable society.”  There’s no indication on the site why this media group is in favor of this, which I find curious.  The IMC website is very slow, so I gave up trying to navigate around it to get more info on this.

I then went to the Virginia Anti-War Network website, and found a statement about the protest–and a long on-line article about why this Anti-War group has decided to target a general from a war fought 140 years ago.  Here is a sample of what is there:

Robert Edward Lee — the Virginian who owned and exploited Black people; helped steal half of Mexico during the U.S.-Mexican War; led the attack on abolitionist hero John Brown at Harper’s Ferry; deserted the Union Army; took up arms against the country he had sworn to defend in order to preserve the immensely profitable system of chattel slavery; and lost the Civil War by getting his reactionary butt decisively kicked by a force that included 200,000 armed people of African descent — was born on Jan. 19, 1807, in Stratford, Va. 

That means that 2007 marks the 200th anniversary of Lee’s birth. And that means that Virginia can expect to see a wide assortment of neo-Confederate yahoos coming out to march around Lee statues, practice the Rebel Yell and wave the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, while piously insisting that they are simply celebrating “heritage, not hate.” But what is more disturbing and outrageous is that the state government of Virginia is using our hard-earned tax dollars to promote the myth that Lee was some kind of hero, a saintly role model for all Virginians – including our school children.

The article (they call its “an expose”) goes on to assure us that “We are also working with civil rights, anti-war and other progressive forces to oppose this official reactionary, pro-Lee, pro-Confederate, pro-white-supremacist campaign.”  They are upset that the state created a Lee Memorial Commission of the Commonwealth in 2005, which is of course bent on celebrating the general.  Others support the protest: NAACP executive director King Salim Khalfani doesn’t have a problem with those who mark Lee‘s 200th birthday “as long as public dollars aren’t used for promoting the Lost Cause.”

In a related story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, a state delegate is under fire for telling the local NAACP to “get over it,” when it comes to slavery.  The article states that assemblyman said “asking the state to apologize for slavery is akin to asking Jews to apologize for killing Christ.”  During the House floor session on Tuesday, two black lawmakers and a Jewish delegate took offense at published comments made by Del. Frank D. Hargrove Sr., R-Hanover, about a proposed state apology for slavery.  In an earlier article, we learn about this movement for an official state apology: 

Advocates of reconciliation also are preparing a resolution expressing contrition for the treatment of American Indians.  Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, D-Richmond, and Del. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, said at a news conference yesterday that they are not seeking reparations for past mistreatment. They said they thought the observance of the first permanent English settlement at
Jamestown in the New World would make an appropriate time for an apology.  The slavery-apology resolution has been introduced. The resolution dealing with American Indians will be introduced after consulting with American Indian leaders in Virginia, McEachin said.

On a less heated note….At the blog “Civil War Memory” there’s also some info on REL’s 200th, so be sure to check that out too.  And, as reported here,

History buffs and Confederate enthusiasts are marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Gen. Robert E. Lee, the Southern icon that many still revere as a brilliant military strategist and a Virginia gentleman nearly 150 years after the end of the Civil War.Several events were planned Friday and through the weekend at key Lee sites, including

Washington & Lee University
, Lee‘s birthplace at Stratford Hall Plantation, and in Richmond, the former Confederate capital. Some events already have taken place, and others are planned in the upcoming months. Stratford Hall will feature a special “Lee pilgrimage” and a historic interpreter portraying Lee‘s decision to resign from the U.S. Army upon the secession of Virginia from the Union. Cannon artillery salutes will be held, and visitors can take candlelight tours of the Lee family’s home. Saturday’s events feature “Lee for Children” tours that allow youngsters to hunt for key items that figured into Lee‘s childhood, and an opportunity to have their photos taken with “
General Lee.”The Museum of the Confederacy is showcasing an oil painting of Lee that was last displayed publicly in 1868 in Paris. The gilt-framed oil painting is on loan from a Richmond-area man who purchased it at an estate sale, and more than 200 limited-edition prints have been sold over the last few weeks to help the struggling museum erase its deficit. 

January 16, 2007

Robert A. Caro Lecture-NYC

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Maass @ 9:24 pm

Robert A. Caro, whose biography of Robert Moses, THE POWER BROKER, won a Pulitzer Prize and was selected by the Modern Library as one of the hundred greatest nonfiction books of the twentieth century, will lecture on Robert Moses at The Museum of the City of New York.

1220 Fifth Avenue
Sunday, February 11, at 3 PM
For tickets call 212 534-1672 x 3395

January 15, 2007

Hill of Tara Update

Filed under: Ireland — John Maass @ 3:57 pm

From the Irish Times of Thursday, January 4, 2007:

Preparatory work for the new M3 motorway from Clonee to Kells in Co. Meath was temporarily disrupted yesterday when Save Tara campaigners held a protest against the controversial road. A handful of protesters entered a site at Baronstown, near Dunshaughlin, where scrub, trees and soil were being removed. They sat in front of machinery that was being used to move the scrub. They also sat in the buckets of earth-moving equipment to prevent them from being

Work on the site was halted and workers vacated the area in advance of an inspection by health and safety consultants.
The action marked the beginning of a campaign against preparatory tree felling along the route of the M3, including near national monument Rath Lugh, the site of a promontory fort in the Tara-Skryne Valley and at Ardsallagh, where a large number of trees have been removed.

Protesters argued that work other than archaeological excavation should not be taking place before an oral hearing on the National Roads Authority (NRA) draft tolling scheme for the motorway takes place later this month and before contracts have been signed with Eurolink, who are the preferred bidder for the project.

Eric Burke, a protester who lives close to Ardsallagh and whose garden is included in a compulsory purchase order for the road, said the tree felling began just before Christmas.
“They did not give us notice the trees would be coming down, they just came in and did it,” he said.

“They haven’t finalised the tolling scheme yet, so why have they started this?”  Local Sinn Féin councillor Joe Reilly has called for work on the route of the M3 to cease as the public-private partnership contract has not yet been signed.  However, a spokesman for the NRA said the preparatory work was not part of the main contract to build the M3 but was being done ahead of the site transfer and was being carried out by a firm sub-contracted to Meath County Council.

He also said the draft tolling scheme was a separate issue from the construction of the motorway and the motorway could still go ahead regardless of the outcome of the oral hearing.

“The gap can be filled in other ways,” he said.

On yesterday’s protest, the spokesman said the contractor had taken appropriate measures.  “There was no need to cause controversy, the decision was to make sure no one was put in harm’s way, even if they were willing to put themselves in harm’s way. The mature stance was not to engage and to move to work elsewhere,” he said.

“That is what the contractor did. A health and safety consultant was called in and the gardaí were informed of the situation, but because it did not escalate they did not need to come out.”

Is the Dream (Partially) Forgotten?

Filed under: The world today — John Maass @ 3:09 pm

According to a Valerie Strauss article in today’s Washinton Post, “in a recent survey of college students on U.S. civic literacy, more than 81 percent knew that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was expressing hope for “racial justice and brotherhood” in his historic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”

The bad news?  “Most of the rest surveyed thought King was advocating the abolition of slavery.”  Strauss writes that “The findings indicate that years of efforts by primary and secondary schools to steep young people in the basics of the civil rights leader’s life and activities have resulted in a mixed bag. Most college students know who he is — even if they’re not quite clear on what he worked to achieve.”

Remember, these are college students polled, not high school or younger.  The study was conducted by conducted by the University of Connecticut’s Department of Public Policy for the nonprofit Intercollegiate Studies Institute.  More than 14,000 college freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities earned an average score of 53.2 percent in the survey.  Another sign of the times: 

In many schools across the country, teachers say social studies has taken a back seat under the federal No Child Left Behind law, which stresses math and reading. Squeezing history into the curriculum can be difficult, educators say, and taking time out of a scheduled lesson to use a federal holiday — even King’s — as a teaching moment can be tough.

Never mind the issue of “social studies” replacing history in the schools, at least for the lower grades.

January 14, 2007

Revolutionary War Cavalry Conference

Filed under: Wars — John Maass @ 7:21 pm

This Nov., in S.C., there will be a conference on Revolutionary War cavalry operations and leadership.  Go here for much more information on what promises to be a superb event.  Main speaker will be Dr. Gregory Urwin of Temple University.

For info on another Revolutionary War Cavalry event in 2008, click on this Tarleton Tour 2008 link!

The Battle of Eutaw Springs 1781

(A Don Troiani image of the Battle of Eutaw Springs, 1781)

Dragoon, Lee's Partisan Legion

Dragoon, Lee’s Partisan Legion (same artist.)

For info on another Revolutionary War Cavalry event later this year, click on this Tarleton Tour 2008 link!

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