Friday, April 9, 2010

Jim is attending the Organization of American Historians annual conference, now underway in Washington DC. It's an interesting time and place for this year's meeting, on the border of a state whose Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, declared earlier this week that April will be "Confederate History Month." McDonnell explained that "this defining chapter in Virginia's history should not be forgotten, but instead should be studied, understood and remembered by all Virginians." Slavery was initially not considered worth mentioning in the governor's proclamation, because he didn't consider it "significant enough" to be included. McDonnell reversed course the next day, but this hardly tamped down a controversy that has raged across newspapers, cable television, radio, and the blogosphere.

McDonnell initially justified his proclamation as part of a larger effort for the citizens of Virginia "to reflect upon our Commonwealth's shared history." Of course, there are few more divisive topics than slavery, secession, and the Civil War, but there does seem to be some recent recognition in the academy that exploring a shared history, is in fact, a legitimate and useful historical enterprise. Much of the intellectual orientation of the history profession in the last generation has been framed in terms of what divides us -- race most prominently, but also gender and, perhaps to a lesser degree, class (the white working class in particular has been a subject of some ambivalence on the part of those who view it as the source of much U.S. bigotry). The theme of this year's meeting is "American Culture, American Democracy," a kind of title likely to have been viewed with suspicion in the 1990s, when attempts to speak of "American" culture, or even "democracy" were often viewed as a means of obscuring or denying the historical experiences of those who did not belong to sometimes oppressive mainstream. McDonnell's recent proclamation offers a textbook case in how this can happen. But an excessive emphasis on particularism has its own dangers; at the very least, a denial of shared values makes it difficult to build coalitions. Undoubtedly mindful of this tension, organizers of next year's meeting, to be held in Houston, have given it the theme "Americans Divided and United: Multiple and Shifting Solidarities." So while the historical profession may be changing in its attitudes, the pace is slow and tentative.

Best wishes to all for a happy and timeful weekend.