Waxworks and Roustabouts: History lives in San Diego

Opinion by P.G. Mann
Jan. 15, 2010, 2:22 p.m.

Oh, prosaic San Diego! Sing me your secrets. A French-fried potato stuffed in a burrito? A kidnapped Tijuana club owner stashed in a safe house? A syphilis sore blossoming in a sailor’s breeches? A thousand historians holed up in a Hyatt? What other sordid surprises do you keep in your canyons shadowed from the bleach of the blistering sun?

Destiny found me in our southern city of St. James last weekend. I had been invited to give a paper at the annual meeting of American historians: “Rethinking Fingernail Hygiene in Late Victorian Wales, 1891-1895: A Transnational Perspective.” Going into the conference, I had worried that my topic was too broad. After all, pre-1891 Welsh fingernail hygiene was a world apart from the 1895 scene. It’s nearly impossible to account for all the transformations wrought by the great Belgian cuticologist Emil Rjinsdorf and his introduction of the scrub brush into the mining culture of blackened Welshmen.

But my fears of trying to cover too much ground were soon assuaged by a look at the list of the other conference panels. I knew I would have no difficulty discussing the broad currents of fin-de-siecle filth and the emerging global perspective on cuticology with my interlocutors in Radio and Gender Performance in Postwar France or Quilting in Third Generation Filipino-American Families.

The conference began wonderfully. Under the yellow morning glow of the ballroom chandeliers, we plied our trade, broke new conceptual ground and changed our understanding of human behavior with the three to four people who were willing to listen to us. At least two of those people had come thinking there would be free coffee.

Sadly, the free coffee years were over. Like many of the humanities disciplines, history has fallen on hard job times. Granted, you would never know this from the steady stream of effluvia coming out of the historical discipline.

But there were subtle hints of underlying slump. The Career Resource Desk in Annex D of the Hyatt had a “back in five minutes” sign posted on the table for the entire weekend. The buffet spread for “Young Scholars” consisted of raw broccoli, steamed peas, sunflower seeds and a giant punch bowl of ranch dressing. And I’m pretty sure I saw a scholar of early modern Poland picking cigarette butts off the parking lot.

Of course, that didn’t stop us from enjoying ourselves. In between presentations, we historians unclipped our ties and frolicked in the San Diego sun. The terrace came alive with ill-fitting suits poring over footnotes by the pool and heated discussions in the sauna about the battle of the Bulge.

Then, things got real.

A group of masked men with guns burst into the Hyatt. They barricaded the exits, corralled us into the grand ballroom, and bound our hands and feet with duct tape. They told us we were being held for ransom. Apparently, the Mexican drug cartels had also fallen on hard economic times. To compensate, not only were they diversifying their job skills with increasing forays into kidnapping; in conducting business across the border, they, too, were adopting a transnational perspective.

Unfortunately, their plans for profit were misguided. When the university deans received the call announcing that all their historians had been kidnapped, their eyes lit up. A whole departmental budget would be free to pump into a new ergonomic finger gym for the School of Engineering. Suddenly, a new solution to the universities’ budget crisis had appeared on the horizon.

When our kidnappers started filling car tires with gasoline, we knew we had to get out of this situation on our own.  The time had come to bring our historical knowledge to bear on the present.

A young woman crawled to the podium.

“The first thing we have to do is sufficiently theorize our methodology.”

“We need to adopt a global perspective!” someone shouted.

“But one that is still attuned to the nuances of gender construction!” yelled another.

“Let’s be serious. We can’t move forward until we rethink the boundaries of kidnapper-kidnappee and the inter-subjective process of identity formation.”

“I’d like to remind everyone that digital media technology could serve as an excellent pedagogical tool.”

The crowd murmured its assent, albeit reluctantly.

Thirteen hours later, we had struck on a plan. We would survey the historiography of slave revolts, prisoner riots and hostage resistance from a transnational perspective, but with attention to the specific cultural dimensions of local institutions and practices. This would indicate a direction for future work on emancipation. Meanwhile, we would deliver a series of PowerPoint-supplemented lectures aimed at making our captors aware of the normative discourse of masculinity and the legacy of Spanish colonial oppression they were acting out in their transgressive roles.

But when we went to give our first lecture, we came upon the kidnappers at the “Young Scholars” buffet, sprawled out dead on the floor. The empty punch bowl of rancid three-day-old ranch dressing told the tale.

Once again, the unexamined past had brought the present to its knees.

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