There were heated denunciations of the American government, angry pleas for the immediate arrest of American imperialism, and widespread support for more aggressive political activism to resist the injustices daily perpetrated by America abroad and at home. It was no run-of-the-mill anti-war hate fest but the first national conference of Historians Against the War (HAW), events more closely related than they may at first appear.
HAW, notwithstanding its claims to scholarly prestige, is an activist organization. Formed in 2003 for the explicit purpose of opposing the U.S.-military offensive against Saddam Hussein, the HAW professed to be “deeply concerned about the needless destruction of human life” as well as “the egregious curtailment of civil liberties and human rights at home and abroad, and the obstruction of world peace for the indefinite future.” A fount of indignation on the subject of U.S. militarism, HAW could not be troubled to pass judgment on dictatorial Iraq.
Instead, the organization has devoted its energies to assailing the alleged “lies” of the Bush administration while rehabilitating the reputation of antebellum Iraq and shrilly declaring a rhetorical war against the “War on Terrorism,” whose prosecution by the United States unsettles HAW’s 1800-plus members far more than its targets. Long a fixture at anti-war rallies, HAW is a participating member of United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), a leading coalition of anti-war groups. At UFPJ’s Second National Assembly, convened last February in St. Louis, Missouri, HAW was a prominent attendee.
That same activist ethos pervaded HAW’s recent conference. Held between February 17 and 19 at the University of Texas at Austin, it was titled “Empire, Resistance, and the War in Iraq.” Even more revealing was the subtitle: “A Conference for Historians and Activists.” For despite the fig leaf of its billing as a “scholarly” event, aimed at examining the Iraq war from a “historical perspective,” the conference was little more than a prolonged grievance session for activists to parade their radicalism and issue yet another call for the politicization of American higher education.
Far from atypical were the remarks of keynote speaker Howard Zinn. The America-loathing Marxist and retired Boston University professor used the occasion to deliver himself of a broadside against the U.S. government. Not only was President Bush a liar, according to Zinn, but, in the words of HAW-member Judy Atkins, he also claimed that “[t]he biggest lie that many people fall for is that there is a common national interest between the common people and the government.” Zinn additionally set forth the more ambitious agenda of the HAW conference. Besides liberating the country from the oppressive Bush administration, he counseled, likeminded academics had an occupational duty to “take our history.” Lest there be any doubt about the direction history should be taken, Zinn stressed that but a single approach would suffice: a distinctly Marxist focus on the “clash of classes.”
Where Zinn urged a new dedication to the cause of politicized education, the conference’s other keynote speaker, Andrea Smith, a radical feminist and a assistant professor in Women’s Studies and American Culture at the University of Michigan, took aim at those who dared to dissent from academic orthodoxy with respect to the wisdom of military intervention. Smith singled out for opprobrium feminists who supported the U.S.-led overthrow of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime. One report quoted Smith sneering that a bombing campaign could never liberate women. Enlarging on that theme, Smith asserted that the real threat to women came not from the governments like the Taliban but from concepts like the nation state.
Extremists in the mold of Smith were in abundant supply at the conference. But even in a crowd undistinguished by political temperance, Kenneth Long, a tenured professor and a Chair of History and Political Science at Connecticut’s Saint Joseph College, upped the radical ante. In a discussion panel titled "What Can Historians and Activists Learn From Each Other?" Long, a self-described socialist, acquainted the audience with his course “History of Modern Wars,” which he devised especially for his college.
To say that the course had a political focus is to grossly understate matters. As Long explained it, the course had “the conscious goal of helping students see the ugly realities of American military aggressions over the past sixty some years and with an unspoken hope that this course might somehow contribute something toward a social and political milieu conducive to the emergence of a viable resistance campaign to help end the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.” Students had every right to disagree with him, Long insisted. Nonetheless, he explained in no uncertain terms that his chief aim was to instill a hostility to American military intervention: “Specifically, my goal was to design and teach a course that would help students learn that there have been no good American wars, that the country has never come at all close to living up to the values it professes, and, thus, that there is really little new about the current American aggressions in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Toward that end, Long introduced a curriculum long on anti-American conspiracy theories and short on anything that might be described as fact-based history. For instance, Long informed his students that American-led wars were “immoral and worthy of resistance;” that Franklin Roosevelt’s administration had “worked very hard to provoke a Japanese attack;” that the U.S. was a would-be ally of the Nazis during World War II and American “society at the time was very eugenicist and virulently racist.” Following a “radical critique” of American wars from World War II to the War on Terror, Long ended by contending that the “United States has not demonstrated, or even made a systematic attempt to demonstrate with evidence, reason to conclude [sic] that Al Qaeda was in fact responsible for, or participatory in, the September 11 attacks.” At the end of the class, students were asked to take a survey on their political attitudes. “On all thirty questions, my students reported more anti-war attitudes on the post-test than they had on the pre-test,” Long enthused. “The course clearly seems to have had some affect in the desired direction.”
Long conceded that some might be “uncomfortable” with his teaching methods. Happily, however, he pointed out that his college’s “administration, faculty, staff, and students are all preponderantly liberal, and very liberal at that” and so he had “no worries” about teaching the class. Not that he had much interest in dissenting views. “I almost certainly would have taught the course anyway,” Long boasted at the conference.
Long’s aggressively political approach was widely embraced. Margaret Power, a co-chair of HAW and an associate professor of History at the Illinois Institute of Technology, dismissed as “absurd” the notion that historians can “stay removed from the political currents that swirl around us…” Political activism, Power explained, was a job requirement. “As people who have the time and opportunity to study and learn, we also have the responsibility and the ability to speak out.” Warming to that theme, Power claimed that heretofore “we have been far too silent." It was a sentiment sharply at odds with the longstanding political posturing of the academic Left.
Perhaps the most curious statement at the conference came from Shanti Marie Singham, a professor of History at Williams College in Massachusetts. After announcing her preference for teaching the Iranian Revolution as an illustration of “Islam as an anti-imperialist ideology of resistance in the contemporary period,” as well as her devoted attention to the “anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racism as practiced by Westerners,” Singham trained her sights on critics of politicized education, most notably Frontpage Magazine Editor-in-Chief David Horowitz.
In particular, Singham took issue with the criticism, made by Horowitz and other observers, that not a few professors have abandoned any pretense to objectivity and balance in the classroom. For her part, Singham claimed that “history does not strive for balance.” Rather, she said, it was concerned with the “truth.” Singham helpfully elaborated on the kind of truth she had in mind. Examples included “pointing to the downfalls of previous imperialist missions in the Middle East,” and “a truthful rendition of the costs, for example, of the establishment of the state of Israel at the expense of the dispossessed Palestinians.”
Having at length castigated the critics of the universities, Singham concluded with a striking admission. In portraying the American system of higher education as a haven for academic radicals, more concerned with political advocacy than scholarly instruction, these critics, Singham said, were essentially correct:
In this, the charges of the right are right – leftists and liberals do have great influence in most of the colleges and universities in this country, thanks to the opening up of higher education in the aftermath of the revolt of the 1960’s. It is time for us to think creatively about using this power – and not just in the classroom, but with teach-ins, national days of protest, the passing of anti-war and impeachment resolutions in our schools in conjunction with the movement of towns to do likewise, holding solidarity filibusters with the courageous Princeton students who enacted one last Spring, descending on Congress in anti-war t-shirts, publishing manifestos in newspapers and on-line, showing anti-war movies, like Fahrenheit 911, Uncovered, Soldiers Pay, Why We Fight and accompanying them with discussion, and encouraging our colleagues and students to work for congressional and senatorial candidates determined to end the war in the upcoming primaries this spring and summer and the elections in November– in short, to do everything we can so that the world, at least, will know how strongly we protest the inhumanities committed daily in our names.
Unwitting though it was, it was an indictment of the modern university worthy of David Horowitz.
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