Review: ‘Uses and Abuses of the American Past’, HOTCUS PG & ECR Conference, University of Nottingham, 20 October 2018
‘Uses and Abuse of American Past’, held on 20 October this year, addressed a variety of contemporary issues. Like the BAAS conference on 1968, scheduled just two weeks later, this conference cast an eye to the theme of the ‘appropriation of history’. Conference themes often tend towards today’s politics, organising their thoughts around a present-day issue. It is not surprising, then, that scholars have absorbed, or seek to address, our supposed post-facts era. Smoothly organised by Mark Eastwood (University of Nottingham) and the HOTCUS (Historians of the Twentieth-Century United States) committee, the selection of this year’s theme struck a suitably contemplative note. Each paper, in its own way, sought to consider changing norms. Some, more specifically, hinted at the issue of distortion of history, reinforcing that it is, as we all know, a narrative of the present.
Many papers duly looped back into the past as a way to put today’s politics into perspective. The first panel (‘Legal and Social responses to Defining Moment and Texts in American History’) produced a thoughtful discussion around the ways in which subsequent generations tell the stories of crucial moments in history, yielding insights as to how this changes over time. Samuel Taylor (University of Manchester) added a lucid paper on the historical depiction of Kennedy’s assassination over the years, and the projection of inaccurate portrayals in order to present a partial account of history. Applying the notion of ‘alternative facts’ to historiography, the paper emphasized how present-day politics inflects back into depiction of history. It also conveyed a thoughtful subtext: that while we may argue that historiography is subjective and culturally-specific, there is a limit to how far one can adapt a permissive and relativist view of history. A prejudiced reading of accurate facts is problematic, he argued, in presenting an ‘alternative’ view of history. Many subsequent papers riffed on this idea that history may represent, to some extent, a series of partial readings; the quandary presented to historians in the post-facts, Rhodes-Must-Fall era, is the extent to which partial readings of history are inevitable and equally legitimate, and the extent to which it is beholden on historians to scrutinise which interpretations and political agendas are prejudiced and illegitimate.
This self-same question appeared in the following panel on conservatism (in which I contributed a paper). It offered a series of reflections on the politics of the small state and the legacy of libertarian Republican politics, and how, why and to what extent the American right have co-opted history in various ways. Sarah Thomson’s (University of Edinburgh) paper tended mostly towards an account of how modern media has shaped the presidency, with an upbeat presentation on the political spin of Reagan’s 1984 tour of Europe. The bulk of the panel focused on how Republicans have spun partial views of history. Tim Galsworthy (University of Sussex) spoke of how Goldwater co-opted Lincoln’s legacy for political advantage, and therefore presented a partial view of history. Rob Alex Fitt (University of Birmingham) developed this theme with a lucid paper on ‘Texan Textbooks’ from 1976 to 1991. His paper reflected thoughtfully on the culturally conservative bias that influenced southern history textbooks’ accounts of recent history. This was mostly borne out in the tacit denunciation of the 1960s as a period of moral decline and single-parent families. The paper asked, like others throughout the day, whether history is a weapon. It is clearly a political tool, which most papers in the conference argued. Fitt’s paper was one of a few that discussed the philosophical quandary of who ought to regulate and write history. In the papers represented on conference day, our own narratives constituted what must be conceded as a liberal reading of modern history and politics, leading one to think that there is a grain of truth in the conservative attacks on higher education as a peddler of liberal bias.
The two panels on race and gender, ‘Women’s Struggle for Workplace/Labour Inequality in Cold War America’ and ‘The Contested and Violent History of Race in the Contemporary Moment, addressed this underlying debate of who and what ought to write history, and what should be our standard assessments of these histories. Each paper on the gender panel discussed the limitations and violations placed upon women, and the ways in which the depiction of women in history has corresponded with the social constraints on gender. Rebecca Crunden’s (University College Cork) engaging paper on female recruitment in the Korean War, emphasized how historical ideas of womanhood adapted due to necessity. This was most vividly portrayed through women’s military uniforms, which had to be adapted to appear feminine and appealing in an era in which it was widely considered unseemly for a woman to participate in the military. Lucy Mounfield’s (University of Nottingham) paper on the photography of Vivian Maier likewise considered the ways in which she broke with convention, and the social stigma that accrued to her as a result. Where Mounfield considered the constriction of female freedom, Elizabeth Evens (University College London), presented on the sexualisation of women in yearbook memorabilia considered how the same social norms gave license to young male medical students to produce demeaning images of women.
The all-female panel (dubbed a ‘wommal’ by participants) indicated starkly how changing social norms render unacceptable what was once quotidian in the same public contexts up to fifty years previously. The papers, Evens’ especially, indicated how much social progress has stagnated, these norms stubbornly persisting in the fields of Hollywood and government in 2018, as has been attested by the MeToo and Brett Kavanaugh stories (as well as the daily tribulations of women globally, to which no or little Western coverage is directed). As well as gesturing to the persistence of ‘history’ in our time, the panel riffed on that familiar theme of who can write history and how: are certain political subtexts, like those that wrote the history books in 1970s Texas, unacceptable and, if so, what is our basis for arguing this? If it is the social unacceptability of these views, it presents another quandary of establishment bias: the extent to which higher education and academia are pragmatic questions of social utility and not only the sacred question of ‘freedom of speech’, entitlements that are both lauded but increasingly put under pressure in the Kafkaesque atmosphere of today’s politics.
The question of historical truth was tackled by our keynote speaker, Professor Michael Cullinane (University of Roehampton), who argued with verve and panache that the past can be spun as a tale of mixed blessings – of regression and progression in different areas of life – rather than the upward trajectory of human development presented by thinkers such as Steven Pinker. The paper was a thoughtful bringing-together of the debates that threaded through each paper: which criteria and perspectives do we select to judge history? In an era of hastening technological progress, Cullinane’s paper was an apt scholarly intervention to a contemporary moment.
As well as the papers, the roundtables offered valuable advice to fledgling academics on the subjects of how to convene an undergraduate module and how to survive the increasing casualisation of academic employment. The conference was excellently put-together with a smooth running and a well-organised line-up of panels. The quality of the breaks were particularly appreciated: lunch was a solid-plate affair, with no floppy cardboard to be seen at HOTCUS. The post-conference drinks also provided a great opportunity to follow up half-covered subjects and to swap details of our research expertise.
Overall, the conference comprised a collection of very apt papers, all of which spoke to the theme, Q and A sessions that developed the debates nicely. Thanks must go to Mark Eastwood and the HOTCUS committee for this conference.