January 05, 2013
By Allen Mikaelian
AHA Executive Director James Grossman opened a well-attended roundtable on the 2012 presidential election with a statement that he would like to do for historians what Freakonomics did for economists. Simply put, he’d like to convince the public that historians have something to say about everything.
Grossman referenced an earlier effort by the AHA to bring historical thinking into the public arena: In October 2012, we invited historians to provide written comments on the presidential and vice-presidential debates. We asked them to write “as historians, that is, to deliberate on how their understanding of the past can contextualize the topic at hand. We do not ask for absolute neutrality or reportage, but we do ask that participants refrain from mere partisanship, not to mention polemic.” Readers can find their responses here, here, here, and here.
The same request for historical thinking guided this panel, which featured Mary Frances Berry, William Inboden, Laura Kalman, and Sean Wilentz. There is absolutely no way we can capture in a short blog post what transpired between these outspoken historians. Luckily we don’t have to. Watch the linked video for the full conversation and read the audience reaction, as captured by their tweets and organized by us on AHA’s Storify page.
If for nothing else, watch the video for Sean Wilentz’s reaction to Laura Kalman reading to him his own 2008 op-ed on Obama. Or for Mary Frances Berry’s fascinating narrative of a case of small-town voter fraud and suppression, which culminates in the elevation to office of the bandleader of the Zydeco Cha-Chas.
Watch the video here.