Calling Out Edward Sebesta and Calling On James Loewen

Museum of the Confederacy's Fish

Update: James Loewen responds…well…sort of.

Since Edward Sebesta recently came up in a previous post I decided to check out his blog earlier today.  Some of you may remember that not too long ago Sebesta publicly declared that he would not accept an award from the Museum of the Confederacy for his co-edited book with James Loewen, titled The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” about the “Lost Cause”, which had been submitted by their publisher for the Jefferson Davis Award.  Why?  According to Sebesta, the MOC’s mission is to further the”Neo-Confederate” agenda.  By accepting their award Sebesta believes that he would be legitimizing the museum as a legitimate historical institution.  Yes, this is quite bizarre, but it gets even better.  At the time Sebesta promised that he would explain his stance in a more detailed essay, which is exactly what I came across at his blog today.  The post includes a link to a 4-part essay that was published at the Black Commentator. I am going to leave it to you to read through as I simply do not have the patience to do it.  It is an incredibly incoherent rant and as far as I can tell there is no indication that Sebesta has ever visited the MOC or talked with its museum staff.

Here’s the deal.  Most of you respect me on some level as a historian and teacher.  I’ve taught United States history on the college and high school level for the past 15 years and I would like to think that I’ve established myself as a conscientious instructor who does his best to provide the best resources for his students.  I say this to preface what I’ve come to know and appreciate and that is that the MOC is one of the most valuable resources in understanding the history of the American South, Civil War, and Confederacy.  I have brought classes to the museum, done research in their library, and utilized all kinds of resources in my classroom.  It is a first-class operation and I know plenty of other well respected scholars and public historians who would confirm this.

What I find most disturbing about Sebesta’s rant is that it will make the MOC’s job of reaching out to the African American community that much more difficult.  They have come so far in broadening their interpretation over the past few decades and getting involved in the community around Richmond.  Nothing I say here will make any difference, but this brings me back to Sebesta’s co-editor, James Loewen.

Many of you know Loewen from his best-sellers, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong and Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong, both of which point out shortcomings in our nation’s textbooks as well as the ways some of the most popular historic sites have been misinterpreted.  I am not calling on Loewen to speak up simply because he is Sebesta’s co-editor.  I am calling on Loewen because he has made a name for himself by pointing out irresponsible representations of the past and the institutions behind them.  The Museum of the Confederacy is not one of them and I suspect that Loewen knows this. In fact, the MOC has done more than most institutions to enrich our understanding of the Civil War in a way that compliments the goal of the Neo-Confederate Reader.

I would like to invite Mr. Loewen to share his thoughts in the comments section below as a guest post on this site or even on his new blog at the History News Network.  Let’s end this nonsense now.

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29 comments… add one

  • Arleigh Birchler Sep 15, 2011

    It’s all beyond me. Perhaps if I knew some of the folks involved it would start to make some sense. I have heard from some “Southern Heritage” folks who do not like the Museum of the Confederacy at all. I would guess that their reasons would be the opposite of this author, but I don’t think I understand any of the issues involved. I have never been there. I am talking to my housemates about going to Richmond for a day trip.

    http://www.blackcommentator.com/441/441_museum_confederacy_sebesta_guest_share.html

    • Kevin Levin Sep 15, 2011

      Spend a few hours at the museum and then get back to me. I would be interested to hear what you think. A lot of folks in the “Southern Heritage” camps believe the MOC has betrayed its original mission of functioning as a museum that celebrates the Confederacy. Sebesta seems to be completely ignorant of this strand of thought.

  • Ray O'Hara Sep 15, 2011

    the MOTC is an excellent museum. great artifacts, wonderful art work and all in an excellent facility and historic building.
    Any visit to Richmond should include a stop there.

  • Rob Baker Sep 15, 2011

    I had a hard time making it through his essays. I was recently at the MOC in July and the “production and facilitation of the consumption of Confederate identity and nationalism.” just did not seem apparent. I might try again later. But it is hard to take this seriously when the MOC had exhibits in the past that featured Southern attempts at the “Lost Cause”

    • Kevin Levin Sep 15, 2011

      Honestly, I wouldn’t spend too much time with it. It really is an incoherent rant.

      The sad thing is that the evolution of the MOC over the course of the 20th century would make for a fascinating study that would appeal to public historians and historians interested in memory.

      • Rob Baker Sep 15, 2011

        I was just running through the history of the MOC exhibits, and the use of Jefferson Davis’s family in the early days of the museum’s history. It is definitely an interesting transition.

  • Lisa Laskin Sep 15, 2011

    I recall with great fondness and respect a week or so working in the MOC’s archives. several years ago. Knowledgeable, supportive, friendly staff who went out of their way to make this Yankee studying Confederate soldiers feel at home, and helped me immerse mysef deep in excellent primary sources. I can see how folks might interpret the Museum perhaps as tending toward the neo-conf. side of things – but we can’t pretend it didn’t exist! And the MOC in Richmond is way way better than that one in New Orleans.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 15, 2011

      Many of the most important scholarly studies of the Civil War to be published over the past few decades benefited from their rich archival collection and supportive staff. Nice to hear from you, Lisa.

    • Ray O'Hara Sep 15, 2011

      The one in NOLA is a nice museum with some great stuff, and the cannon out front with the dent in the muzzel where a cannon ball his it said volumes to me at least.
      no museum not matrer how small is a bad museum, they all can’t be the Smithsonian
      and sometimes the little museums have that one thing that makes you go “that still exists ! wow” Like the Warren Rifles museum in Front Royal having Turner Ashby’s “nondescrip” mountain howitzer and the Gordonsville Hotel museum having Kilpatrick’s coat.
      Never diss a museum, they do the best they can and usually that’s pretty damn good.

      • Rob Baker Sep 15, 2011

        how about Illinois State Military Museum that has Santa Anna’s captured leg….talking about your rare antiques.

  • Wallace Hettle Sep 15, 2011

    I like your blog, Kevin, but I think you are perilously close to guilt by association here.

    In the 1980s Jesse Jackson was raked over the coals for failing to denounce Louis Farrakhan. More recently, Barack Obama was made responsible for the utterances of Jeremiah Wright.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 16, 2011

      You completely missed the point if you believe that I am implicating Loewen in any way. I am doing no such thing. I am simply calling on him to speak out in a way that he has done before. Professor Loewen has made a living on pointing out institutions that engage in bad history. I was simply hoping that he would do the same in the name of those institutions that serve as positive examples. Furthermore, I believe it is important for everyone in the field to speak out in response to such irresponsible and potentially damaging claims. Finally, I want to know if James Loewen would refuse an award from the MOC.

      In the past I called on James I. Robertson to speak out in response to the Virginia textbook/black Confederate scandal. At no point did I suggest that failure to do so implied any sort of guilt. At times it’s important to hear certain voices.

    • Arleigh Birchler Sep 17, 2011

      Wallace,

      I cannot speak for everyone, nor even a small percentage. I can only speak for myself. I would like to think that there are quiet a number of people who would agree with me that the “guilt by association” attacks against Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama were very obvious. A sufficient enough number rejected these claims so that Barack Obama was elected. I remember (mostly from Hollywood and media portrayal) that many white people were accused of guilt by association because they rejected the racism of the 50’s and 60’s. I hope that would never be used as a reason for such people to be quite and protect themselves by their silence.

  • James W. Loewen Sep 16, 2011

    I received your email, referencing your above blog, half an hour after completing a session in Richmond, VA, for the AASLH (American Association for State and Local History). The panel, which I had organized, was chaired by Marti Blatti of the National Park Service, currently president of the National Council on Public History. The titel: “Secession and the Confederacy: Issues for Local History Sites.” I was the first panelist. Readers of our book, THE CONFEDERATE AND NEO-CONFEDERATE READER (which I co-edited with Ed Sebesta) will anticipate the points I made, quoting appropriate Confederate sources. Dwight Pitcaithley, former Chief Historian of the National Park Service, spoke next. He seconded my points, citing the 65 proposals to amend the Constitution to prevent the Confederate walkout, among other data from the time. John Coski, Vice-President for Research of the Museum of the Confederacy, spoke last. He noted the MOC’s agreement with our take on the cause of secession and also spoke about other Richmond institutions and their agreement. A lively discussion concluded the session, indeed, ran over-long. I recruited my two co-panelists. I also chose to work with Ed Sebesta on the book because he knows a lot about neo-Confederates and their writing. “Call me out” indeed, I do not respond because you “called me out.” I responded because I thought you might enjoy the coincidence of the morning. Best wishes — Jim Loewen

    • Kevin Levin Sep 16, 2011

      I appreciate your taking the time to respond. It sounds like you had a very lively session in Richmond and I am pleased that you were able to include John Coski on the panel.

      I should clarify that I wasn’t “calling you out”; rather, I was calling on you to respond to your co-editors comments about the Museum of the Confederacy. Once again, I thank you for your response, but I am sorry that you have apparently decided not to address the issue at hand. You have a forum here to do so if you so choose.

      One question: Would you accept an award from the Museum of the Confederacy for your co-edited book with Ed Sebesta?

      • Brooks Simpson Sep 16, 2011

        Actually, Ed might want to address why he chose to work with someone who “recruits” someone who represents the MOC. Given Ed’s notion of complicity, that means that Ed is complicit with someone who accepts the legitimacy of the MOC. That would make Ed a hypocrite unless he denounces Loewen and declines further association with him.

        • Kevin Levin Sep 16, 2011

          Good one, Brooks. Given Sebesta’s overly simplistic analysis it seems he has no choice but to do so.

      • Arleigh Birchler Sep 17, 2011

        Kevin,

        I am very glad that you contacted Dr Loewen and that he responded. It adds a lot to the blog (just my humble opinion). I have never understood “The Lost Cause” or “Neo-Confederates”. I suppose it is something I could learn about, but other things have seemed more imporatant.

  • FWT Sep 16, 2011

    Thank you for using your blog to address this issue constructively. I’ve seen Sebesta’s name pop up fairly regularly for a couple years now, usually in news articles where a lazy or sloppy reporter uses him as a go-t0 guy for a soundbyte on confederate flag controversies but also without really getting much out of him in the way of substance. It’s almost always done to fit the media formula of “controversy,” where it’s paired up against the standard SCV go-to guy spouting an opposite line.

    They often describe Sebesta as a “researcher” though they never list his institutional affiliation or education credentials. A while ago I wondered “who is this guy and what qualifies him to speak on this subject to the media?” I googled him and discovered that he really doesn’t have any. I also found the same blog you did, and quickly realized that he’s little more than a loon with a keyboard who sees “neo-confederates” lurking behind every corner and strings them together to modern political subjects with highly conspiratorial, rambling, incoherent rants not unlike the one you link to. (For example, right now he has a post claiming Michelle Bachmann is part of a “neo-confederate” conspiracy because some clip of her showed a bookshelf with, among many other titles, a bio of Robert E. Lee. Think what you will about Bachmann’s politics on other things, but the old saying “if all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” comes to mind)

    In short, I can’t for the life of me figure out why anyone should take this guy seriously on anything.

    So imagine my shock a few months ago when I came across the book that’s being considered for this award on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, pairing a fairly well known historian – Loewen – with a guy whose only job seems to be little more than a professional internet troll of – to put it quite frankly – questionable sanity.

    Your questions to Loewen are very tactful and reasonable. But I’d like to know the answer to another one – why associate yourself with such an obvious internet troll with no real credentials? I don’t care if he’s got the world’s largest collection of clippings from the Southern Partisan Magazine, strung together no doubt in “John Nash – A Beautiful Mind” fashion all over the walls of his parent’s basement. It cheapens the product and makes me question the editorial standards of the University of Mississippi Press. But most of all I simply don’t see what good he brings to the table, though I do see a lot of downsides.

    It’d basically be like Bruce Levine reaching out to H.K. Edgarton and saying “hey, let’s edit a book of historical documents on Black Confederates.” Any reader who knows anything about Edgarton or Sebesta simply sits there scratching his/her head.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 16, 2011

      Thanks for the response. Somehow he managed to establish himself as an authority on the “Neo-Confederate” movement with the support of university presses. I used his co-edited book of primary sources in my own classes with much success. It’s a nice collection. My problem with Sebesta is that he has one broad brush that he uses on every target from Bachmann to the Museum of the Confederacy and this is what is irresponsible. His stringing together of stories from the Southern Partisan is laughable and suggests that he has no idea of how to go about a mature analysis of an institution with as rich and complex a history as the MOC. I can’t speak to why Loewen would join forces with this guy. Only he can explain that.

      • FWT Sep 16, 2011

        I suspect that the weight of Loewen’s name as co-editor went a long way into convincing a university press to publish him.

        I have serious doubts that an editor who even made a cursory read of his stuff would choose to publish him without that endorsement. And I even doubt that Sebesta could compose a book on his own because his prose is that terrible – rambling, ungrammatical, and incoherent.

        It’s a good example of someone without any credentials and a lot of baggage riding entirely on the coattails of someone who does have them. Why Loewen offered him those coattails to ride on is another question.

    • Bruce Miller Sep 16, 2011

      If the blog post of Ed Sebesta’s being referenced here is http://bit.ly/pB1qcA, it does *not* say that “Michelle Bachmann is part of a ‘neo-confederate’ conspiracy because some clip of her showed a bookshelf with, among many other titles, a bio of Robert E. Lee. ” In fact, it quotes from Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker article on Bachmann “Leap of Faith”, (http://nyr.kr/nfPjae) in which he reports, “While looking over Bachmann’s State Senate campaign Web site, I stumbled upon a list of book recommendations. The third book on the list, which appeared just before the Declaration of Independence and George Washington’s Farewell Address, is a 1997 biography of Robert E. Lee by J. Steven Wilkins. ” Lizza’s article goes on to describe the Lost Cause and white supermacist perspective he finds reflected in the book.

      Sebesta characterizes the passage he quotes by saying it “covers her interests in neo-Confederate ideology, but I am not sure they recognize it as being neo-Confederate per see [sic].”

      • Kevin Levin Sep 16, 2011

        It is unlikely that anything of interest will come from such broad strokes. What it does do is provide fodder for those looking for any sort of confirmation of their worst fears.

        • Bruce Miller Sep 16, 2011

          Kevin, I wouldn’t describe Ryan Lizza’s article as “broad strokes.” He’s trying to understand Bachmann’s ideology based on the material available in the public record. The fact that she recommended on her website a book that took a Lost Cause view of slavery and race is certainly worth noting. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything and she just liked the cover. And maybe Ryan Lizza misrepresented the contents as badly as FWT misrepresented Sebesta’s post. Or do you think FWT was giving Sebesta’s post a fair reading?

          • Kevin Levin Sep 16, 2011

            Re: Bachmann, you said: “Maybe it doesn’t mean anything and she just liked the cover.” I have no idea, but the recent batch of articles painting everyone connected with a Confederate flag or a particular book is just a bit nauseating and uninteresting.

        • James F. Epperson Sep 16, 2011

          Sebesta is well known to those of us who participated in the USENET Civil War news groups alt.war.civil.usa and soc.history.war.us-civil-war. I think it is fair to say he was not considered a “high-value poster.” My recent experiences trying to get some documentary help from him (and Prof. Loewen) only confirmed that impression.

          • Ray O'Hara Sep 16, 2011

            To add to JFE’s post, Edfish wasn’t a CW poster at all and he only posted on Neo-Confed topics, I doubt he could even tell you when Gettysburg was fought or in which state. and I also doubt he cares about that or thinks it is in anyway relevant.
            His agenda is strictly modern day politics.

            But despite that he was right about the Kirk Lyons crowd and their agenda. and I don’t see Lyons having any interest in the CW except for where it feeds his White Supremacist ideas.

            If the Heritage not Hate crowd had any integrity they would have quit the SCV

            • Margaret D. Blough Sep 16, 2011

              It was kind of hard NOT to be correct about the Kirk Lyons crowd & their agenda. The SPLC has done excellent research on them & Lyon’s League of the South website was not subtle. One thing that does need to be remembered is that there were a significant number of SCV members who fought hard to try to prevent the takeover. Ultimately, they lost, but the fact that there were SCV members who refused to be coopted deserves recognition.

  • Michael Lynch Sep 16, 2011

    I just can’t fathom how anyone could think the MOC in its current form is a Neo-Confederate institution. To put it bluntly, no one who had the slightest familiarity with the MOC could make that equation. It boggles the mind.

    –ML

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