Weekly Reading: Historians for Britain, Academic Labor, and Why We’re Addicted to War

There were SO many great articles on my docket this past week, mostly in the “current affairs” box, for which I apologize–my write-up of Kalamazoo is about 2/3rds finished, and should be up tomorrow. Medieval news is on the way.  But here are some top articles worth thinking about:

  • First and foremost, my friend and mentor Greg Daddis’ new article in The National Interest, “America: Addicted to War, Afraid of Peace.” Greg has been a huge influence on my teaching and approach to history, and I think he knocks it out of the park here, as usual. This is a more subtle malaise than Chris Hedges’ War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, and is tied directly to Bacevich’s warnings about the American people’s often unreflective worship of the American military. To my mind, it is also connected to the “revolution in military affairs” advocates, who have created, as Fred Kagan observed in Finding the Target, this interesting situation where we innovate ahistorically, in the shadow of some quasi-abstract projected future conflict, thereby, I think, subtly conditioning leaders, policy-makers, and the American people to expect war on a regular basis. There might be a book here somewhere…
  • An article by Jason Tropy, “No God in the Fight: Why a Christian Army is a Terrible Idea,” tries to dissect the attempt by Matthew Van Dyke to create some kind of “Christian Army” to combat ISIS. I say “tries” because I have read contradictory things about this endeavor, and at the moment have no basis for picking one report over another (I’ll be grateful for any recommendations on this topic). I tend to agree with his admonition, “don’t join any holy wars,” though the tinge of anti-medieval rhetoric is, as is often the case, misguided. But I’ve harped on that often enough…
  • If you’ve read anything about the historical profession in Great Britain recently, you’re probably aware of the “Historians for Britain” movement, and its counterpart “Historians for History.” The blog Historian on the Edge has a long, provocative, link-filled post on the subject titled “Why History Doesn’t Matter: Historians for Britain (or, Where does a Chaotic/Ironic view of History leave the Socially-/Politically-Committed Historian?).” The author presents an interesting analysis of the situation, along with some questionable prescriptions for the use of history in the political sphere–an insistence on history’s political value lying in “the subversion of all reifications,” which these days is a popular, if misguided, benchmark of scholarly worth. On the other hand, the author’s emphasis on contingency and by implication counter-factuals is spot-on, and mirrors my own beliefs.
  • Continuing the thread of personal beliefs about studying history, one of my favorite lectures is Fredrik Logevall’s address “The Uses of History: American Presidents and the Past,” given in January of this year. He addresses counter-factuals, but also identifies policy-makers’ and historians’ necessarily different approaches to history, and what makes studying history a fulfilling and valuable activity (starting around 13 minutes). In fact, I think I’ll rewatch it now…

  • An interesting article by Caroline Tervo called “In Defense of the South.” Basically, it’s a simple argument that there isn’t a monolithic South. It’s a lesson I learned a long time ago in a past relationship, and it’s a lesson that’s easy to forget when you teach the Civil War. A lot of the Southern prejudice against Yankees I think is bunk, but so are the silly prejudices toward the South popular among “Yankees.” Basically, these stereotypes come from a lack of empathy. To understand, you have to actively listen and learn.
  • Speaking of listening, maybe men should pipe down more. A much-commented on article, “Why women talk less,” addresses issues surrounding hearing women’s voices in academia. It’s an interesting read, and I think pretty accurate, though I have mixed feelings about the recent “all-male panels” mockery, which ambivalence I’ll sort out at a later date. At the end of the day, I love this great blog post’s strictures how to treat women [academics], which to my mind is how decent folk should act as a matter of course. But…we know that this often isn’t the case, probably because men are worried about women colleagues being distractingly sexy.
  • Brian Mahoney’s article “Trade defeat is a huge defeat for labor,” discussing how the AFL-CIO mobilized the political muscle to stop the big trade legislation last week. Given the labor issues that have been rocking the academic world, this discussion of labor organizations I found timely. Anyway, I thought it was interesting.
  • Speaking of academia, higher education, and labor, last week there were two good follow-ups to that professors-live-in-fear piece. One is by Koritha Mitchell, “I’m a professor. My colleagues who let students dictate what they teach are cowards.” The other is by Noah Berlatsky, “Professors do live in fear–but not of liberal students.”
  • Not exactly a follow up is Hunter Rawlings’ “College is not a commodity. Stop treating it like one.” I do wonder sometimes if there isn’t a contradiction between pushing back against the “commodification” of college and the attacks on tenure but simultaneously treating the situation as a labor issue, since much of the labor force doesn’t have the kind of job security that tenure provides. Unless that’s an incorrect assumption? Someone help me out here.
  • I also see a bit of a contradiction in this short piece by David Schraub, “Academic Freedom versus Academic Legitimacy,” which was widely picked up a couple weeks ago for some reason, and protests on Left and Right over various instances of intellectual censorship and discrimination. The issue is one of precedent and power–who decides what is and isn’t legitimate, and under what circumstances? One side’s illegitimacy is often the other side’s academic freedom violation. On the other hand, there ARE positions that are illegitimate–that the Nazis were misunderstood chaps, for example. So, I think most people, myself included, adopt a very “medieval” position–contradictory, and in search of some guiding principle that won’t lead us astray. Anyway, I’ll keep thinking about this.

Tomorrow I should have my thoughts about Kalamazoo up, so stay tuned.