Now that things have calmed down a bit re: the petition asking Obama not to send a wreath to the Confederate monument at Arlington, I thought it might be time to offer a few words of advice. James Loewen recently offered some thoughts in the wake of the controversy. He finds it difficult to understand the media’s coverage, including its emphasis on Bill Ayers and the overlooking of some of the top scholars in the field:
It turned out that the only name the media cared about was Ayers. The Chicago Sun-Times, for instance, headlined its story, “Radical Bill Ayers dogs Obama, even on Memorial Day.” Within the story, Ayers’s name does not appear until the 14th paragraph, which is appropriate. But no other signer’s name appears at all — not mine, not Sebesta’s, not even McPherson’s, surely America’s pre-eminent scholar on the period, whose Battle Cry of Freedom won the Pulitzer Prize. Today, searching for “Ayers Obama “Memorial Day” wreath yields 7,570 hits, while “McPherson Obama “Memorial Day” yields just 2,570.
Given the recent political fallout over President Obama’s tenuous connection with Ayers should we really be surprised that the media immediately picked up on and emphasized the inclusion of his name? The ignoring of the other signers goes without saying. Most interested parties in this debate could care less about what some scholar believes. In fact, as I’ve learned over the course of writing this blog many people have an irrational distrust of academics and have probably never read anything by James McPherson, not to mention Manisha Sinha and others. In the end most people’s memory of the war is fueled by stories and other popular cultural expressions and has almost nothing to do with anything that can remotely be characterized as scholarly. [That’s not to be taken as a criticism, but as an observation that may or may not be accurate.]
Loewen also seems a bit puzzled by the heated debate that followed on a number of websites. Yes, the crazies came out in full force and even my name entered the mix, but anyone who follows these issues should have expected just that. Part of the difficulty for Loewen is that he wants us to distinguish between two types of Confederate monuments. “One type remembers and honors the dead. The other,” according to Loewen, “glorifies the cause and typically obfuscates what it was (which was slavery).” I may be wrong but I don’t think most people make this distinction. The lone Confederate soldier in front of the court house is as much about a preferred interpretation of the cause of the war as the Davis statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond. Likewise, the Davis statue can easily be interpreted and used as a setting for an SCV parade that wishes to honor their Confederate ancestors. These are academic distinctions that mean little in the real world.
In preparation for next year Ed Sebesta has already set up a blog, which he will update as a new petition is organized – that’s right another petition. Given the results this year it is appropriate to ask what good it will do to try it again. Should we simply anticipate a differently worded petition with a new list of signatures? More importantly, how will a new petition advance the debate and force us to look beyond what are deeply-held assumptions about our Civil War memory? As far as I am concerned petitions such as this are non-starters. I would encourage Sebesta and Loewen to rethink their overall approach. I can’t tell you how many times one of my lesson plans has gone awry. In those situations it is incumbent on the instructor to evaluate and make the necessary changes.
One of the positive results is that the petition led to the sending of a wreath to the African American Civil War monument in Washington. Think of how many people now know that this monument exists, not to mention that our memory of the black experience in the Civil War remains largely hidden. Why not work to bring more of this narrative to the public’s attention next year? How about a well-publicized tour of the USCT section of Arlington next Memorial Day?
We all want to be activists, but we should never lose sight that we are educators first.