Graduate students debate

By Tom M. Hill

Is the war in Iraq racist and imperialist? Should graduate students, in their capacity as instructors, support student walkouts? These questions and others were debated recently on histgrad, an e-mail list for University of Chicago graduate students of history, as Anglo-American forces flooded into the “cradle of civilization” to seize the second-largest oil fields in the Middle East. As Bush and Co. acted out their Churchillian fantasies to the horror of global public opinion, histgrad became the venue for intense debate, not only about the war, but also about “doing” history during our uncertain times.

The exchange of views on Iraq began in promising fashion, but was blown off course by a discussion about the appropriateness of using histgrad for political arguments. This quickly overtook the subject of the war. Supporters of preserving histgrad as an open forum trounced those who asserted otherwise. The outcome was decisive. As long as there are grad students in the department willing to initiate discussions and fight for this right, there will be no limits to what may appear on histgrad. This modest victory was also impressive in spontaneously gathering students from diverse historical sub-fields and research sites around the world to defend open dialogue among grad students. Though there were moments of incivility, to which I regrettably contributed, it felt good to see democratic values triumph when many former students of this university are leading the assault against them.

Yet the debate’s happy conclusion left many unresolved questions about the professionalization of history and the fragility of democratic values in American society. The arguments against using histgrad for political discussions varied in sophistication. Most, however, were about as convincing as the Bush regime’s shifting and disingenuous justifications given for the invasion. Some students were uninterested and did not want their inboxes crammed with unsolicited e-mails. One felt that the anti-war tone of several posted articles constituted proselytizing. Others suggested that histgrad was only for information relevant to historians. “Postings about the general political situation or about how to make sense of this war are misplaced…” wrote one historian-in-training, “…because they do not relate to what we do as historians, but to how we behave as citizens.”

The debate spilled over into real-time conversations. Though it was clear to many of us that the boundaries between citizenship and the practice of history are not so easily determined, it took the destruction of Baghdad’s National Museum and Library to demonstrate the absurdity of such distinctions. The Ottoman archives, along with countless other historical treasures, are lost forever. Only the most blithely partisan would fail to admit that this is a monumental loss to all historians whose responsibility rests squarely with the U.S. military. What might’ve happened if the Bush administration had devoted the same amount of resources and thought to protecting civilians and Iraq’s national patrimony as it did to securing the Kirkuk and Ramaylah oil fields? Or, more to the point, what if American policymakers had enough foresight to never create monsters like Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden in the first place?

As historians and citizens of various countries, these are the type of questions that we must continue to pose in forums such as histgrad. The war on terror has become a rallying cry for those who would sacrifice the tenets of our Constitution for Ashcroft’s surveillance society. Attempts to limit the exchange of ideas threaten the craft of history. Where will we resist such policies or even debate their efficacy and necessity? The slow strangulation of dissent coupled with the corporate monopoly of information in this country make the defense of tiny corners of the cyber-universe like histgrad all the more imperative. Taking for granted the traditional certainties of democracy, like a free press, elected presidents, and the right to challenge official pieties, is a luxury that we can no longer afford.