New York — For the last eight years, progressive historians have been vocally critical of the Bush-Cheney administration’s war in Iraq, war on terror, stress on free markets, and push to privatize government services like charter schools and social-welfare programs. But at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association here, the collective judgment seems to be that those trends haven’t been all that new — and won’t be easy to change.
In 2007 a group called Historians Against the War was successful in its call on the membership of the association to pass a resolution against the invasion of Iraq, over the objections of some historians that doing so would take a political stand as a group of scholars. The antiwar group has continued to meet, holding national conferences and sponsoring online publications that include an analysis of the historical record of the Bush administration and studies of the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the war in Iraq, and resistance movements in World War II. At this year’s AHA meeting, the group gathered to reflect on the legacy of the Bush-Cheney years. While the session was not advertised in the official program, it drew more than 100 scholars.
“Much of my work as a historian has had to do with ideology and its role in shaping lives and policy,” said Alice Kessler-Harris, a professor of history at Columbia University. In the Bush-Cheney years, she said, three ideologies have had a major impact on American society. An “elusive concept” of terror has allowed the administration to wage pre-emptive war, support military force over diplomacy, and hide the human cost of the war in Iraq; the ideology of free markets has undercut government regulation of the economy and the workplace; and a “shift in the ideology of the individual” has emphasized that individuals need to have control over decisions — like what kind of health care they want.
None of those trends are new in the last eight years, Ms. Kessler-Harris said. The emphasis on free markets, for example, goes back at least 20 years. But the ideological trends have “reached an apogee” in the Bush-Cheney administration. Look, she said, at the language of class: In the recent presidential election, “nobody talked about the working class. We’re all the new middle class.” That means that the ideological shifts are deep-seated. While the election of Barack Obama may contain the seeds of change, it is far from clear how much change there will be, Ms. Kessler-Harris concluded.
David Montgomery, a professor emeritus of history at Yale University who is a past president of the Organization of American Historians — and a former machinist — focused on attitudes toward labor in the past two presidential terms. While many of the Bush-Cheney policies on issues like workplace safety were hostile to labor, “historians have to ask what’s new,” he said. In fact, the hostility toward labor movements and causes has been building since the end of World War II, he noted.
Similarly, Vijay Prashad, a professor of South Asian history and international studies at Trinity College in Connecticut, traced the foreign-policy assumptions of the Bush-Cheney years back to the Carter administration, when, he said, the United States tied its interests explicitly to Saudi Arabia, limiting “the ability of the U.S. to be an honest broker in the region.” American international economic policies, like the emphasis on debt-servicing payments from other nations, have also undercut the ability of other governments to provide social services to their citizens — giving rise to far-right groups like Hindu nationalists and Islamic militants, who thrive by making such services available. “We need to make the point that the United States has long-term foreign-policy problems, which won’t go away with George Bush,” Mr. Prashad said,
Ellen Schrecker, a professor of history at Yeshiva University who has written on the McCarthy era in American history and on academic freedom, and Barbara Weinstein, a professor of history at New York University and a past president of the American Historical Association, both discussed the impact of the Bush-Cheney administration on restricting civil liberties at home and limiting the international exchange of scholars. Such responses may have been heightened in the last eight years by the events of September 11, 2001, but they are typical in times of crisis in American history, and are likely to happen again, Ms. Schrecker said. Ms. Weinstein noted that restrictions on international exchange usually are carried out at the consular level, where a change in administrations will be slow to be felt.
So caution was the word of the day among progressives. The scholars who spoke were some of the most influential in the profession. The audience was clearly responsive, breaking out clapping at some criticisms of Bush-Cheney policies. But, whether because the session was not advertised in the program or for other reasons, there was also little disagreement here. The past will not be going away. —Karen J. Winkler