A Free-Market Energy Blog

Politicized History, Bad History

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- June 29, 2021

“You’re not getting a tote bag, and our advocacy work might not seem to benefit you directly. But no other history organization does advocacy work on the scale and scope of the AHA [American Historical Association].”

There is little hidden agenda today. Academia, and the professions within it, are all-go for Left Progressivism to remake the world (“the great reset”) in an egalitarian, government-first way.

To whatever extent there was or is true scholarship–examining both sides of complicated issues, whether it is the 1609 Project or Global Warming–that is now fringe.

My Experience

I was fortunate at Rollins College, a liberal arts school in central Florida, back in the mid-1970s. My history professors were Progressive, but one in particular was fair and open-minded. I remember him calling on me to correct or supplement his discussion of the Great Depression and the New Deal, for example. I did have a few things to say, but he attempted to be fair and that was a good start for his comments.

A profile on me by the Rollins alumni magazine 12 years ago told he story:

“I can hardly think of a student I taught over three decades at Rollins with whom I disagreed philosophically more completely, but with whom I more thoroughly enjoyed jousting intellectually,” said Gary Williams, professor emeritus of history.

Williams said he was intent on changing Bradley’s ideas about free market economics and Bradley was equally determined, at 19 years old, to “correct” Williams’ view of American history and economics.

In the end, it was an amiable stalemate, with no loss of respect on either side. “Though I mistook Rob for a conservative instead of a libertarian, which surely he would describe himself as,” Williams said, “I will give him credit for making me think more about, and more highly of, his philosophy.”

Fundraising Appeal: AHA

That’s the ideal. And here is the nadir, as presented in a fundraising letter from James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association:

Dear Robert Bradley,

I’m well aware that you’ve likely hit the delete button on innumerable membership pitches over the last several years. I certainly have. But please give me a few minutes to offer something different: a message that’s not about tote bags or member benefits, but about what we do, why it matters, and how you can help.

The American Historical Association is not where we were a decade ago. Some of you have let membership lapse precisely because of these changes; I’ve engaged in lengthy exchanges with colleagues who have declined to renew. I enjoy these email conversations and learn from them. But I hope that others will consider these changes salutary in terms of what we can do for historians, historical work, and the place of history in public culture.

“Advocacy” used to encompass largely activity on Capitol Hill, with additional work in federal agencies mostly “inside the Beltway” (a horrible cliché, but in this case literally accurate). We also raised our voices on behalf of colleagues in other countries.

We still do those things. In the last year alone, we joined with 29 tribal nations and Indigenous communities, two states, and eight local organizations to prevent the sale of a National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) facility in Seattle. With three other partners, we sued the outgoing president and other White House staff to preserve presidential records. We also joined a small group of collaborators to file suit against NARA and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), challenging ICE’s authority to destroy records documenting the treatment of immigrants in its custody. We succeeded in all three cases: the Justice Department ordered a “litigation hold” on all White House documents during the presidential transition, the sale of the Seattle NARA facility has been canceled, and a court granted summary judgment on the challenged aspects of ICE’s plan, leading to a permanent policy change by the executive branch.

In a similar vein, we’ve posted official objections to positions taken by the National Labor Relations Board and other federal agencies; registered widely publicized objections to historical claims and reports generated by commissions lacking appropriate historical qualifications; taken careful but firm positions on issues relating to monuments, the abuse of history in public policy contexts, and legislative efforts that substitute political mandates for the considered judgment of professional educators. These statements often have been endorsed by at least 40 other associations, quoted in the media, even cited in local government convenings. Many of them have also found their way into classrooms.

This work is not confined to Washington. In recent years we’ve acted on requests to support the integrity of archives and the academic freedom of historians in Canada, France, Hungary, India, Mexico, Morocco, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, along with a broad condemnation of the use of historical sites anywhere in the world as targets for destruction. Within the past year, we’ve intervened on behalf of historians working in three state university systems and nine individual higher education institutions. Most recently, the AHA joined with three other major non-history organizations, and over 120 signatories including six higher education accreditors, to denounce the pernicious “divisive concepts” legislation that has been introduced in 23 state legislatures.

That said, we don’t always speak in protest; we recently responded enthusiastically to a request to endorse the extraordinary work of a street renaming commission in New Orleans.

This work has drawn attention without precedent in our association’s history. Since November, our advocacy has made news in England, India, Poland, Russia, and Spain. We’ve driven news and editorial coverage on the Trump administration’s 1776 Report not only in major national media outlets but in local papers in Las Vegas; Colorado Springs; Davenport, IA; and Branson, MO—the hometown paper of one of the report’s authors. Similarly, our joint statement on “divisive concepts” bills has reached audiences in Bonners Ferry, ID; Covington, GA; Hammond, LA; Monroe, WV; and Moultrie, SC.

Of course, the AHA does many things besides what is traditionally defined as advocacy. The American Historical Review and Perspectives on History, both among our most popular member benefits, are the journal and newsmagazine of record for the discipline. Our annual meeting is the largest gathering of history professionals in the world, and the only one that welcomes all historians regardless of field or professional status. Our cutting-edge initiatives such as Career Diversity for Historians and History Gateways provide thoughtful and decisive leadership for advancing the discipline. During the COVID-19 pandemic, our Remote Teaching Resources and resources on the assault on the Capitol have enriched hundreds of history classrooms, and our Historians Relief Fund provided emergency financial support for over 120 un/underemployed AHA members.

You’re not getting a tote bag, and our advocacy work might not seem to benefit you directly. But no other history organization does advocacy work on the scale and scope of the AHA. Join the AHA because we’re doing what needs to be done, and because we can’t do it without members.

Sad, sad, sad….

Leave a Reply