Blogs > Cliopatria > Around HNN

Mar 29, 2004 4:41 am

Around HNN

A couple of items caught my eye while looking through HNN pages recently.

The first came in an attack on the standards and accuracy employed by the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Project offered by Sheldon Stern. Stern is a longtime critic of the project, who previously had written on the topic in The Atlantic.

I was part of the Miller Center’s project for several years (working on LBJ tapes), and just finished a book based on those tapes on the 1964 presidential election. I still remain astonished at the resources that the Center devotes to ensuring accurate transcripts—even though this has delayed the release of transcripts that, even if 99% accurate, would be of enormous value to historians of the 1960s and 1970s.

What most struck me about Stern’s critique came in his comment that the Kennedy tapes authors too often used [unclear] when they were not sure of what a voice said, rather than offering an educated guess, “especially when they make sense in historical context.” Such an approach, I’m afraid, is exactly what scholars working with the tapes—and the Kennedy and Nixon tapes, unlike those of LBJ, are often exceedingly difficult to make out—need to avoid. Nine times out of ten, I would guess, Stern’s approach would yield the correct transcript. But the tenth time, Stern would place in a policymaker’s mouth a word or phrase that reflects our current interpretation of “historical context” where, in fact, the policymaker said something quite different. It seems to me that in transcribing, the mantra should be “better safe than sorry.”

The second article that caught my eye came from the OAH, where the Historians Against the War (HAW) passed a resolution to establish a committee that would investigate reports of repression among historians. The associated petition listed eight types of “repression,” including: “restrictions of research and surveillance of library use under the USAPATRIOT Act”; “reports of teachers, especially in high schools and community colleges, reprimanded or confronted with suspension or non-renewal for allowing students in their classrooms to express opposition to the occupation of Iraq”; “Systematic denunciation of historians who have criticized government policy by Campus Watch, No Indoctrination, Students for Academic Freedom, and other groups”; “Dismissals and refusals to employ faculty members allegedly on the basis of their views on foreign policy”; “Restriction of historians' access to government records, and new limits to enforcement of the Freedom of Information Act.”

The petition was coupled with another HAW petition denouncing the Bush administration’s doctrine of preemptive war.

I didn’t attend the OAH this year, and so will defer to my colleague Derek Catsam for more details on what type of discussion, if any, this resolution produced. The final item in this list strikes me as a serious item of concern for the OAH, especially since the Bush administration’s record on releasing documents has been abominable. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see how passing this particular resolution will help the profession on the document-release question, since administration officials now can make the claim that the leading professional organization of American historians has linked its call for more liberal release of documents with an attack on Bush’s foreign policy.

As to the other issues raised in the resolution, while I support the repeal of the Patriot Act, one look through the caseload of an organization such as FIRE demonstrates that the chief threat to academic freedom and free speech on the campus today doesn’t come from right-wing ultra-patriots. And I for one have personal experience on the question of"dismissals and refusals to employ faculty members allegedly on the basis of their views on foreign policy," though not of the type that seems to concern HAW. I’ve yet to learn of any instance when such a dismissal or attempted dismissal occurred because of a faculty member’s criticism of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Perhaps such a dismissal occurred at a place like Duke, and I just overlooked it: I certainly can imagine how afraid a faculty critic of the war in Iraq would be to speak out in a History Department like Duke’s where every professor who is a registered voter is a Democrat.

Now that the OAH has passed its resolution, I’ll be very, very interested to see what evidence the investigatory commission brings forth. I’m not holding my breath waiting for its report.

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Michael Burger - 3/30/2004

A propos FIRE, campus speech codes do seem a more clearly established challenge to free speech on college campuses. Would OAH support a statement condemning speech codes? Perhaps there's an interesting experiment there.

Sheldon M. Stern - 3/30/2004

Delighted that you mentioned the PC double-standard on free speech often defended by these very historians--see my March 27 comment (which also mentions the work of FIRE) on the HAW petition presented on the first day of the OAH convention.

Richard Henry Morgan - 3/30/2004

One need look no further than the current HNN entry concerning the proposed bombing of Auschwitz to perhaps find an abuse of supposed recordings.

Sheldon M. Stern - 3/30/2004

For the record, I have never used the term "educated guess" in anything I have written--because I don't support it at all. On the other hand, if I'm sure about a transcription I have to say so even if there is a chance it could later turn out that I was wrong. I don't see any real choice. Also, I don't question the incredibly hard work done by Tim Naftali and his tapes project staff at the Miller Center-- as I said at last year's tapes conference. However, errors are inevitable by all of us and my March 15 piece was aimed at getting errors and unresolved differences on the website--a step promised a year ago and one on which we can all agree.

Robert KC Johnson - 3/30/2004

Since I haven't listened to the particular tapes that Sheldon is talking about, I can't respond definitively on this point, and it may be that our approaches are, in fact, nearly identical on this matter. From my own dealings with the Miller Center, however, I've always found that they're quite rigorous in using the [unclear] bracket.

It does seem to me, in general, the better approach. One thing that I always assumed with the transcripts that I did is that while we always say that readers should verify the transcripts by going back and listening to the tapes, in the real world, that just isn't going to happen very often. The conservative use of [unclear] in this sense provides a subtle reminder to the reader, especially to a serious researcher, that he or she should consult the tapes.

Richard Henry Morgan - 3/30/2004

I can't agree with KC Johnson more, when it comes to creating transcripts of tapes.

In my former incarnation in intel, I was once tasked with translating a captured document. After many hours of intense work, I produced a translation that exactly reproduced the ambiguities and vagueries of the original, only to have an end-user inform me that my translation was worthless. I informed him that it wasn't useless, but could serve as the basis for generating all plausible interpretations, as it was necessary to separate translation from analysis, and I had been tasked with translation. Similar considerations governed the work of 98G's, whose product directly parallels KC Johnson's examples.

Similar uses of guesswork dominate the transciptions of Bernal from the Mit Rahinah inscription -- and from there, onward an upward to even greater fantasies. In a similar vein, there is no end of people who paraphrase Herodotus as saying that Greek gods came from Egypt. Yet Herodotus is much less categorical, as his writings reveal his deductions, as opposed to informant testimony (some classicists have gone so far as to question whether he ever actually went to Egypt, just as others now think it unlikely that Diodorus Siculus went anywhere other than Egypt, his other places visited being simulacra of regnant Polybian methodology).

Herodotus actually says:

"I will state that the resemblance cannot be accidental between what is done for the god in Egypt and in Greece."

We can see the rationalism of the Grrek enlightenment at work -- he argues from certain resemblances.

He then says:

"Roughly speaking, the names of the gods as well came to Greece from Egypt. For I made inquiries and found that it was true that the names came from the barbarians, and so I believe it is most likely that they came from Egypt."

Merely informed that they came from foreigners ('barbarians' denoted foreigners, but paradoxically at the time, most particularly Persians), Herodotus hypothesizes that they came from Egypt.

Later writers reify Herodotus' hypotheses into facts.

It is extraordinarily important when dealing with original documents and recordings to separate what is known from what is guessed.

Sheldon M. Stern - 3/30/2004

Prof. Johnson's point is well taken. But, a close look at my March 15 piece, my three earlier articles and the Appendix in my book reveals that I NEVER advocated taking an "educated guess." There are inumerable cases when I was reasonably sure about something described as "unclear" in the published transcripts but I did NOT go with what I heard as a quote in my book or as an "error" in the Appendix because I was not confident. However, if I was confident, then I had to say so. Of course, I may end up being wrong in some cases but I would be quite satisfied if I turned out, as Prof. Johnson suggested, to be right 90% of the time. Taking an overly conservative "better safe than sorry" approach can equally misrepresent the historical record by leaving it full of holes.

Robert KC Johnson - 3/30/2004

Yes, I definitely was being sarcastic in this case!!

Derek Charles Catsam - 3/29/2004

KC --
Maybe I just did not hang out in the right circles, but the war seemed relatively less hot button than at recent conferences. There are those true believers, but there might also be some war fatigue. I had a couple of great discussions with folks about some issues related to war, but on the whole, it seemd that many people are trying to move away from the knee jerk and back into actual history -- lots of good stuff on Brown, for example.
I also have to note that my impression may be colored by the fact that almost from the outset I avoided most of the antiwar stuff. My politics on this issue, at least, are such that I'd feel a need to speak up against some of the worst idiocies, something a vulnerable junior faculty member cannot be doing to senior members of the profession, or else I'd just sit there biting my tongue and loathing myself for not speaking up.
Lots and lots of the whisperings around the campfire seemed to indicate that even many who opposed the war are now far more committed to maiking sure we do the right thing than they are to an instant withdrawal. Finally, there are some reasonable folksout there who are anti war but are at least willing to listen to other views. I also found this with talking to some folks about Israel, another issue almost bound to get a junior person in trouble if he is on the wrong side of the fence. We still have lots of good, smart, open-minded, (and fun) folks in our profession. Letting the shrill outliers represent all of us may well be a mistake.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/29/2004

Ms. Wagner, I think KC was speaking facetiously.

Wendy Wagner - 3/29/2004

KC write: "I certainly can imagine how afraid a faculty critic of the war in Iraq would be to speak out in a History Department like Duke’s where every professor who is a registered voter is a Democrat."

I can also imagine a world with tangerine trees and marmalade skies. :) Having been a grad student at Duke (not in history), I can assure you that party affiliation in North Carolina is not necessarily a predictor of one's political views. Furthermore, I am quite amused at the idea of any faculty member at Duke cowering in fear of expressing his or her beliefs on any issue.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/29/2004

The other issue in KC's post involves the use of brackets in transcribing taped conversations. I don't quite see how this can become such a big issue. Within brackets, one can indicate a wide variety of certitude about what the subject has said.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/29/2004

Jonathan, I thought that senior administration at both Columbia and the New Orleans institution were both quite clear that the speech in question did not rise to a threat to the position of the two men involved. Compared with what we've seen at the University of Southern Mississippi, those two characters should thank their faculty handbooks and the administrations behind them.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/29/2004

Both were threatened with loss of position, though. Very public calls by very prominent people, and disciplinary proceedings which raise the spectre of all kinds of consequences by not excluding loss of position from their consideration.

I'm the first to agree that criticism and exchange are at the foundation of free speech, but when administrations become involved it really does cross the line.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/29/2004

David, Neither Kirstein nor de Genova have lost their positions. As far as I'm concerned, both were rightly under fire for what they said. Freedom of speech on campus can never mean freedom from criticism of speech.

David Lion Salmanson - 3/29/2004

Peter Kirstein and Nicholas de Genova over at Historians on the Hot Seat provide examples of historians under fire for publicly expressing their views. Dick Berthold got forced out of UNM, but having read his column in the student newspaper, I would guess that they had been looking for an excuse to get rid of that dead wood for years.

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