Mark Weber — Journal for Historical Review Nov-Dec 1995
How a society views the past not only reflects its current prevailing values and outlook, but also profoundly influences the way its people will shape the future. Over the past 20-30 years, influential scholars and their political allies have succeeded in ever more firmly imposing egalitarian, liberal-democratic, “multicultural” and “one world” standards on academic life in the United States and western Europe.
Sharply at odds with both traditional Western scholarship and the deeply held views of the great majority of the American people, this “politically correct” worldview is now entrenched in the country’s classrooms and textbooks. This is reflected, for example, in the “multicultural” and anti-Western stress on “race, ethnicity, gender, and class” issues by the Organization of American Historians, the leading association of scholars of American history. (See the report on the 1993 OAH conference in the July-August 1993 Journal, pp. 20-24.)
Now this PC agenda has been formally adopted by the leading international body of historians.
Restrictive ‘Theme’ Categories
A few months ago, scholars from around the world met in Montreal for the 18th International Congress of Historical Societies (ICHS). The Congress meets only once every five years, and this gathering – August 27-Sept. 3, 1995 – was only the second to take place outside Europe. Three articles about the ICHS and its new focus appeared in the November 1995 issue of Perspectives, the newsletter of the American Historical Association (AHA), the largest US historians’ organization.
Congress organizers (the AHA newsletter reported), rather modestly “explained that their aim was the redress the ‘antiquated’ and often ‘isolated’ nature of some of the scholarly presentations in previous meetings.”
In fact, the organizers were able to significantly redirect the Congress’ “intellectual focus” – most notably by imposing a new framework for conference presentations. “Through extraordinary effort” (according to the AHA newsletter), they succeeded in requiring all Congress papers to be grouped into one of three “major theme” categories, formally designated as:
- Nations, Peoples and State Forms (Ethnic Groups and Indigenous Peoples; Nation-States and Multicultural States; Changing Forms of Nationalism)
- Women, Men, and Historical Change: Case Studies on the Impact of Gender History (The Role of Gender and Male-Female Relations in Major Historical Transformation – Political, Social, Religious)
- Peoples in the Diaspora: Changing Sources, Forms, and Meanings (Greeks, Jews, Indians, Chinese, Portuguese, Irish, Armenians, etc.)
To ensure that Congress papers conformed with the new “focus” framework, the organizers had been “carefully recruiting presenters for the major theme sessions.”
Major Feminist Role
A key Congress participant was Claire Moses, who is editor of Feminist Studies journal and head of the Woman’s Studies Program at the University of Maryland. She served as “coresponsible” of the Congress’ “Women, Men, and Historical Change” theme category, and provided a report on the Montreal meeting for the AHA newsletter.
During the past 20 years, Moses explained, there has been a virtual revolution in the history profession. At the ICHS meeting in 1975, she noted, “women were totally absent, both as subjects of historical inquiry and as participants on panels about other topics.” Today the situation is drastically different. At the 1995 ICHS meeting, reported Moses, “women’s and gender history was at the very center of attention – one of the three ‘major themes’ that was granted a full day for plenary-style panels.”
This transformation didn’t take place by accident. “Much quiet diplomacy,” Moses noted, “preceded this year’s congress and helped to ensure that women’s and gender history would receive the recognition it deserves.” Further reflecting the prominent role played by feminists at the Congress, the International Federation for Research in Women’s History “organized an entire program that ran for a number of days.”
This isn’t to say that there wasn’t controversy at the Montreal Congress. Disputes arose from “the multiple meanings of ‘gender’ and its positioning in women’s politics,” Moses reported, with some of the most heated discussions involving “arguments positioning ‘gender history’ against ‘women’s history’.”
Startling Treatment of Communism
Not everyone is happy with the drift of the “new” ICHS. One dissatisfied attendee was Wilcomb Washburn, director of the American Studies Program at the Smithsonian Institution. Having attended six ICHS meetings over the past 30 years, he had looked forward eagerly to this Montreal meeting.
Washburn was particularly curious about one issue:
“What would be the attitude of historians from the two great centers of world power following the sudden collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and its satellite states, and the general discrediting of socialism around the world?
“What I discovered startled me [Washburn reported]. The historians from the Soviet Union, of whom I had been extremely critical in my two previous essays, were open and forthcoming. The only voices raised in support of the Soviet historiographical traditions of the past came from Americans in the audience at several of the sessions, who claimed, for example, that Stalin had perverted the system and that Marxism-Leninism, despite 70 years of failure, really would work if properly implemented.”
Washburn wanted to know “why were the epochmaking events of the 1980s and early 1990s not reflected in the program of the international congress.” To his dismay he discovered that “the themes set by the controlling body seemed calculated to avoid any discussion of the collapse of the most powerful historical force of the 20th century.”
When Washburn asked the ICHS president “why the themes matched so precisely the profession’s currently fashionable concern with race, class and gender, and ignored the collapse of communism, he emphasized that the themes were broadly defined and that the specific shape of the sessions and content of the papers were the responsibility of the organizers of each session rather than of the ICHS.”
The “diaspora” session was tightly organized by the two “coresponsibles”: Natalie Zemon Davis, a prominent American feminist historian, and Israeli historian Yosef Kaplan. Some of those who attended the session, Washburn reports, “complained that the category of diaspora was being expanded beyond all recognition by many migrant groups anxious to establish their oppressed status. Others complained that the mass migrations (or diasporas) of the English, French and Spanish were being ignored because of their presumed roles as oppressors rather than as oppressed.”
But such scattered dissenting voices did little to dampen the euphoria of the Congress organizers. Herbert Shapiro of the University of Cincinnati ridiculed the idea that the radical left poses any threat to American academic life, suggesting instead that the real threat comes from the radical right. Actually, America’s history commissars have already imposed a measure of internal censorship.
In October 1992 the executive board of the Organization of American Historians formally condemned the Institute for Historical Review, and resolved to forbid any “advertisements or announcements” by the IHR in the OAH Newsletter. This singular act of censorship, which bans all IHR ads regardless of content, points up the double standard that prevails ever more obviously in American academic life. The OAH Newsletter welcomes, for example, advertisements for Marxist works issued by International Publishers – for many years the publishing arm of the Communist Party USA. (See the July-August 1993 Journal, pp. 23-24.)
The Montreal Congress reflects the currently fashionable “victimization” mania in which blacks, homosexuals, Jews, feminists and others vie for preferential “victim status.” Behind this vogue is the notion that this coveted status confers a kind of nobility or moral stature on the members of the oppressed group. Furthermore, a hierarchy of victimization attributes the greatest measure of moral authority to those who have been most “victimized.”
Completely excluded from the victimhood sweepstakes are European (white) men, who are routinely depicted as history’s stock villains. While first place in the lineup of history’s evil “oppressors” is reserved for the Germans of the Third Reich era, not far behind are Britishers, Frenchmen, Spaniards and (white) Americans.
While many outsiders may dismiss the Montreal historians’ Congress as essentially irrelevant, and its ideological agenda as absurd or ludicrous, it is more accurately a battlefield in a protracted ideological and cultural war – an intellectual clash with the most profound social and political consequences, particularly for the United States and the Western world. As Congress organizer Claire Moses candidly acknowledges, “our scholarly work never stands above the fray of political struggles.”
From The Journal of Historical Review, Nov.-Dec. 1995 (Vol. 15, No. 6), pages 32-33.