Historical Chutzpah II

Historical Chutzpah II – On 9/11 of this year I posted an item about the chutzpah of 1100 American historians signing a petition to Congress (they planned to deliver it Sept. 17) demanding that Congress debate and pass a declaration of war before any attack on Iraq. Failure to do so, they asserted with all their assembled professional authority, would be “in clear violation of the Constitution,” presumably like all other American military actions since 1941, the last time Congress passed a declaration of war.

My complaint was not with the substance of their argument (although I am less sure of the Constitutional necessity of a formal declaration of war than I once was) or with their right to petition Congress. My concern, rather, was that they tried to pump up the weight of their argument by wrapping it with heavy banners of professional expertise. As I wrote last time:

Some of the authority claimed by the signatories … is … questionable, since many of them have no claim to professional expertise on what the Constitution requires in the making of war. Civil War historians or women’s historians or economic historians may be brilliant, and may be outstanding in their fields, but their recommendations as to what we should do, or not do, regarding Iraq are due no special deference. As citizens they have every right to express their opinions — and again, those opinions may well be persuasive — but they did not offer their opinions as citizens but as “the undersigned American historians.”

It should be noted that in the jargon of the trade “American historians” are not historians who work in America, but historians whose field is American history. That professional expertise was expected to add gravity to an argument that otherwise might appear political. (Just as there are said to be no atheists in foxholes, it would appear that their are no post-modernists on petitions.)

I shall return to this matter of expertise in a moment, but first I should explain why I am revisiting this matter at all. There are several reasons. The date of delivery to Congress is now scheduled for Sept. 25, and the organizers now claim over 1200 signatures. (The petition itself and list of signers can be found here.) More important, as a result of President Bush’s powerful speech at the United Nations and his decision to seek Congressional approval, the petition organizers have become more shrill in their rhetoric.

Earlier, the petitioners demanded only a vote in Congress; they adopted a studied indifference to the outcome of such a vote. That veneer has now been stripped away as they have subsequently been forced to argue that a Congressional resolution is insufficient; it must be a formal declaration of war. As Joyce Appleby and Ellen DuBois, the UCLA historians who organized the petition, recently argued:

After weeks of resistance, the president finally said he would consult Congress and seek a resolution authorizing the use of military force. The announcement quieted many critics and media commentators, but it should not have. It is a deceptive distraction. A resolution might be only a vaguely worded affirmation of the dangers of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. By contrast, a vote on a declaration of war would involve Congress in a sober assessment of the costs, risks, and wisdom of a preemptive strike at Iraq.

Inadequate as mere consultation is, President Bush has undercut even its limited value by telling audiences he doesn’t expect any debate on Capital Hill to alter his position. This imperious response does not sound like a man who once swore to uphold the Constitution…. Congress must debate whether or not to declare war and then take a vote. A resolution that is less than a declaration of war might satisfy those people who think Congress should have a say in the matter, but it would not satisfy the Constitution.

The petition’s organizers and spokesmen are also outspoken opponents of the doctrine of pre-emption, going so far as to label it un-American. Writing in Newsday and the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 18, Appleby and DuBois assert that

[t]he trauma of the Sept. 11 attacks may have numbed the public to how unprecedented a preemptive attack from the United States would be. It would violate every principle this country has stood for.

But after a drought of public discourse, who realizes this? Historians do. They cultivate the memory of their nation’s principles and practices.

Writing on TomPaine.com, Appleby and DuBois made it appear that we are standing at Armageddon.

We stand at a historical crossroads — the nation will either return to its constitutional provision for making war or continue the baleful practices of the Cold War and its for-us-or-against-us mentality, its imperial presidency, and the suppression of dissent.

It is quite possible that some of the signers of the petition do not share these apocalyptic visions, for they are not included in the document itself and appeared in print after virtually all had signed. But since the signers, through their spokesmen, claim to be the custodians of the nation’s Constitutional conscience, it may be worthwhile to pay some attention to who they are.

As I mentioned in my first post on this matter, I must emphasize that there are many deservedly eminent historians on this list. I will not name names here, but anyone familiar with the field of American history these days will recognize the names of some of its finest practitioners. That said, and reiterated, it must also be said again that many signatories have no more professional expertise in what the Constitution requires regarding going to war than any well-informed citizen (some of them perhaps less), and the claim that the opinions expressed in the petition deserve deference because of the professional expertise of 1200 practicing American historians is, not to put too fine a point on it, bogus.

Who Are These People?

I googled more or less randomly some of the names on the list that I did not recognize. The results were certainly not a scientific or statistically valid sample, but what I found was nevertheless interesting.

First, among the 15 or 20 names I searched there were a couple graduate students. How many of the 1200 are graduate students? Who knows. These students will presumably become professional historians, but they weren’t yet. One person is deputy executive director of a Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. At least one person signed twice (unless there are two Mary Todds at Concordia University). There were also a few law professors (wannabe historians?) and a few who were professors of some history other than American. One was chairman of his university’s Portuguese Studies program; another’s web site lists his specialty as:

Early China: seven centuries of Warring States through Eastern Han (475 BC-AD 220), with an emphasis on the sociopolitical context; aesthetic theories and material culture; and belief.

Presumably because the petition organizers, Professors Appleby and DuBois, have written extensively in women’s history, there appears to be a heavy representation of practitioners in that area. Aside from the large number of women’s historians, however, the impression I got was of a fairly wide cross-section of American historians, which is to say people who were not specialists in Constitutional history or values. Their opinions may be informed, even profound, but it is not because of their professional expertise. There is, in short, a truth in packaging isssue here.

Here are some typical examples of what I found, taken from departmental web sites:

Interests in science, race, cultural encounters, and environmental history in colonial America. She is working on book-length studies of science and colonization in the eighteenth century and on Benjamin Franklin’s science. [Found here]

works in women’s history, gender history, twentieth-century cultural history, and the history of sexuality (especially lesbian history)…. Her current project is a book on the history of sexuality in the United States since World War II. She is also an associate editor for the Encyclopedia of American Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History & Culture forthcoming from Scribner’s in 2003. [Found here]

Interested in social and cultural history, she has published a book on religious sects in colonial Massachusetts, Quakers and Baptists in Colonial Massachusetts (1991). Her current research focuses on the 17th century Anglo-Atlantic, expanding beyond New England to include all the colonies established by the English in the Americas. [Found here]

I began as a German historian, moved to British history and then began to be interested in age relations, marriage, memory, and the cultures of European and American family life. At the moment, I am moving offshore, writing about Atlantic islands and the prominent place they have had in the western imaginary since the Ancients. [Found here]

Her Ph.D. is in U.S. history, and major fields of interest include women’s history, Jewish women’s history and culture, the history of education, and history as theater. She is the author or editor of eight books, including most recently The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America and Talking Back: Images of Jewish Women in American Popular Culture. [Found here]


M 1.30-3.20 Not CR/D/F II or III(0)

A critical examination of the intersections of sex, gender, and law in the formation of American culture from the early nineteenth century to the present as evidenced in a series of sensational civil and criminal cases, each concerned with some form of sexual(ized) violence or violation. Themes include the gendered nature of sexual transgression; the correspondence of sex and violence; and the mutually constitutive nature of sexual meanings, identities, and practices. [Found here]

She is a cultural historian of the twentieth century whose scholarly field of interest is the introduction of new technologies, particularly those related to popular culture. [Found here]

… has worked in the cultural heritage and historic preservation fields as a scholar, teacher, and consultant. Educated in cultural geography and urban planning, he wrote a doctoral dissertation at Columbia University on collective memory, urban development, and the roots of the American preservation movement. [Found here]

Current Research Activities

Social history of adolescent boys and violence in the 19th and 20th century, specifically boys who murdered; the changing historical experience of female adolescence (continuing). The perspective is interdisciplinary but the methodology is primarily historical; the analysis is based on U.S. census materials, diaries, letters and family papers, institutional and organizational records, periodical literature, and medical case records. [Found here]

Again, I make no claim that the above examples are representative of the 1200 names on the petition; there are many distinguished scholars in such traditional fields as the Civil War or Colonial America and some Constitutional historians as well. Nevertheless, I do not think it is unfair to suspect that this list, taken as a whole is much more representative of political opinion on campus than of any scholarly consensus among American historians who have professional experience that would add weight to their views about Constitutional war powers.

Their views are certainly worth no less than yours or mine (and as I said in my first post, I actually tend to agree with them to a certain extent), but they are also no better. Upon close inspection (or at least my casual, brief inspection), the fancy garb of professional expertise in which those views are dressed looks all too much like the emperor’s new clothes.

Say What?