Brag Bowling and Mark Potok Talk Past One Another

“Brag Bowling, SCV member and Director of the Stephen D. Lee Institute, and Southern Poverty Law Center Research Director Mark Potok represent two sides of the contentious debate over a large and looming question: what was the Civil War really fought over?”  As far as I can tell neither of them possesses any serious knowledge of Civil War history.  They are, however, quite entertaining.  The following clip is from an upcoming documentary titled, The Lost Cause: An Old War in the New South.

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It appears to me that both have serious personal investments in their respective causes. Mr. Bowling defends his Civil War ancestor’s motives, while Mr. Potok brings up the specter of Holocaust denial as a comparative tool.

It’s hard to tell what question they are responding to, but Bowling takes the popular position of filtering the war through his understanding of his ancestor and Potok would rather make a broad moral claim about those he believes are in denial. Not very helpful at all.

Mark Potok was in my college class. He his style of argument was exactly the same then as it is now (btw, I agree with the assessments expressed in the comments).

Definitely seems to reflect a certain kind of personality. :-) Thanks for the comment.

In all fairness, I don’t think the SPLC is actually interested in the Civil War, per se. I believe their interest is in the use of Lost Cause ideology as both a perpetuation of and a cover for white supremacy now and in the future. Bringing in the Holocaust does tend to push some pretty major buttons but the point becomes that the use of history texts and national stories to rewrite and even erase what actually happened is a recurring theme throughout history.

As for Brag Bowling, if one did a drinking game in which one took a shot when he comes up with another Lost Cause cliche, you’d be passed out and in danger of death from alcohol poisoning before the clip was over. He also comes up with one of the League of the South’s favorites gross oversimplifications-New England Puritans v. Cavaliers. What Bowling will never accept is that, if we insist on a history in which the secessionists and Confederates are allowed to speak for themselves using what was written and said during the antebellum period and the war (at least until it became clear that there was a serious risk of Union victory), then the postwar revisionism he clings to will inevitably be blown out of the water.

To be honest, I don’t know much about the SPLC, but you are probably right re: their interest in the Civil War. The uphshot, however, is that Potok’s commentary sounds hollow. Bowling couldn’t argue his way out of a hat. He just sounds utterly ridiculous.

You’re right on, Margaret. Mark and the SPLC are more focused on the more extreme, racially-based hate groups in our country–the fringe of this movement. They do, however, recognize the influence that people like Brag Bowling and organizations like the Stephen D. Lee Institute and Sons of Confederate Veterans have on these extremist outliers–though I would argue that any resulting violence or acts of hatred have never been the intention of either Brag Bowling or these organizations.

As for Brag Bowling, if one did a drinking game in which one took a shot when he comes up with another Lost Cause cliche, you’d be passed out and in danger of death from alcohol poisoning before the clip was over.

Par for the course. Bowling and Potok are both go-to-guys for media inquiries, in every DC reporter’s Rolodex.

I am one of the producers of this documentary, and ultimately this clip, and wanted to add some quick comments myself. First of all, thanks to Kevin for sharing this, and to everyone else for all the great thoughts and commentary!

As for this clip, it is meant only to be a quick glimpse into a much larger conversation on the topic, highlighting a few of the extremely disparate thoughts of two of the main characters within our documentary. It merely scratches the surface of an extremely complex subject, and does not necessarily present either side–or the subjects–to their fullest.

With that in mind, I look forward to reading more! We’ve been in the seemingly endless phase of logging and transcribing our footage and interviews, but will be posting more clips like this in the coming weeks and months. You can see them all on our website, http://www.lostcausefilm.com–and hopefully Kevin will find them interesting enough to keep sharing! Feel free to contact me with any questions you might, have as well.

Hi Matt,

Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. I spent some time on your site and I wish you all the best with the documentary. It’s a fascinating subject and you couldn’t have picked a better time to explore it.

Potok does score the points, and he is right, it is mostly about a modern agenda.
Bowling fails to score points and he also admits it’s about modern perceptions.
Bowling’s comment that his ancestor wouldn’t have gone through all that horror for a rich man’s right to own slaves, Does he believe his ancestor went through all that for tariffs?
When the deny slavery wasn’t the overriding cause that is what is left.
And does he still think it’s force holding the USA together? that the South is still being occupied like it was in 1866 through the 1870s?

But Potok goes a little far when he brings in the Nazis. That always sets passions on fire and peoples teeth on edge, and it’s not just the SCV that doesn’t like such comparisons people who have no interest in the ACW or the lost cause bristle at such comparisons.
It’s terrain that needs to be tred lightly upon.

They both sound like broken records. We already know where they stand. My bigger concern, however, is that they don’t add anything interesting to the question of Civil War memory and they stifle honest discussion between various constituencies. They have become the standard spokesman for a specific narrative that no longer reflects the total spectrum of public discourse on this subject.

An interesting part of the story we discovered while speaking with both Brag and Mark, as well as history scholars like Roberts Engs of William and Mary is the idea of a “gentleman’s agreement”–essentially an unwritten pact between North and South following the war that the South would not be demonized in history as long as they accepted their loss. This of course meant that African Americans and slavery were written out of the popular history of the Civil War; something both North and South had little problem with. Where you see the rise of what we call the Neo Confederacy occurs shortly after the success of the Civil Rights Movement and the resulting empowerment of African Americans. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions there.

Ray-That’s why I don’t generally bring up a very valid parallel, the one between the Lost Cause and the post-WW I German “stab in the back” dogma rationalizing their defeat. The Nazis did not create the latter nor did they give it its strong anti-Semitic flavor. They simply exploited it and took it to their own horrific extremes.

In both cases, you have a highly militarized group that starts a war with people it largely holds in contempt, particularly in terms of military ability (The Franco-Prussian War was in the lifetime of many WW I Germans) certain that they must be victorious against such inferior enemies and stunned and disbelieving when they weren’t. Since it would be unacceptable for them to even consider the concept that the despised enemy actually WON on the merits, the only answer that could possibly be acceptable is that defeat was due to an enemy within but that enemy must be an outsider/marginalized. Just because it ended it genocide in Germany doesn’t mean that it has to do so but, on most discussion groups, if the parallel is even hinted at, one quickly finds oneself assuring an irate poster that you are most assuredly NOT calling their great-great-grandfather a Nazi.

That’s why I don’t generally bring up a very valid parallel, the one between the Lost Cause and the post-WW I German “stab in the back” dogma rationalizing their defeat.

FWIW, the fine, upstanding folks at League of the South use *exactly* that phrase to describe Governor Perry’s rejection of an SCV license plate.

Ray-I’ve described in in the past as the ultimate false syllogism (my ggg-father was a good man, slavery is a bad thing, a good man could not have fought for a bad thing, so the Civil War could not be due to slavery). Nevertheless, I am tired of it. The fact is that the antebellum South was a very closed society and the deeper in the South you got, the more closed it was. By the time of the Civil War, almost every voice criticizing slavery in any way was silenced, either by social pressure or violence/intimidation (Hinton Helper was actually a vicious racist; his criticisms of slavery came, in part, because it brought blacks into the country at all). The major Protestant churches, especially the ones that were prevalent in the South, had been split over the issue of slavery. Presses had been brought into line (one of the rare exceptions was Cassius Clay in Kentucky, a feared duelist and fighter). A man of military age in any of the rebel states had been told his entire life, by every authority figure that he had been taught to respect, that slavery was a positive good for both races and that the abolitionists wanted only to incite servile insurrection with white men and children murdered en masse and women raped or otherwise violated like Santo Domingo, etc. Fighting to protect their way of life included the core institution of slavery which, even if they didn’t own slaves, they hoped they or their children would some day.

I’m not surprised that young white men in the rebel states fought for the Confederacy. I’m amazed that so many fought to preserve the Union.

Wel-l-l-l-l, yes. “Talking past each other” is an accurate analysis.

First, I would put myself in two general categories: 1) Southern; 2) Liberal. (Yes, you can be both!!!)

There is a going rule in progressive/liberal discussion guidelines that whoever invokes “Nazi” first to describe the opposition, loses.

With that rule operating, while I agree with a lot the SPLC has done, their spokesman loses the “debate.”

Now, that is the “liberal” part of my brain talking.

For the “Southern” part of my brain, with some overlap into the liberaI part, I just have to say, it was a very complicated situation that led to the shooting.

Now, in my… some other part of my brain… thought, it was unfair to these two men to have them taped without interaction. Better documentarians would have done it differently and, likely have given us a better chance for better understanding.

It would have been much more fun if they had been in the same room.
Potok is seen on Liberal Talking Head shows fairly often,the Rachel Maddow Show and the like. Face to face Potok would probably be more aggressive, the SPLC is not a job for the shy and they like nothing better than to confront their “enemy” in person..
Bowling probably isn’t used to being seriously grilled and he would probably act very defensively and I doubt he would agreee anyway. The Lost Causer’s don’t like any pushback.

From what I can tell Potok comes off as just as defensive in his stance. We need to move beyond this false dichotomy in our collective memory of the Civil War.

I rather suspect that all we’d get, if they were in the same room, or even on separate screens but able to interact, is they’d be talking at the same time, at the top of their lungs, trying to drown each other out. It’s the rule, rather than the exception on TV , these days.

A few months ago Brag Bowling had an article in the Washington Post’s Civil War blog and he argued WW1 and WW2 may have been avoided if the Confederacy would have become a nation. I’m not sure how he came to this conclusion but it was pretty bizarre.

He should have just gone for it and argued that an independent Confederate nation would have brought about world peace and the end of hunger and disease.

We’ve got another clip up from this documentary (still in progress) that poses a very interesting question. Robert Lee Hodge (of “Confederates in the Attic” fame) wonders how these young soldiers could go through the horrors of battle for something like slavery. We then had Jeff Shaara give us a feel for what Civil War battle was really like–which I think we can all agree is something we would hope to never have to experience. A real twist on the conversation, I think.

Thanks so much, Kevin, we appreciate it. The feelings are mutual – we are fans of your blog and are honored to have been featured.

Hey guys, a little late to the party, but I recently found Matt & Andrews film bits and have been catching up on the story. I live in Brunswick Maine, the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and I finally read Uncle Tom’s Cabin about a year ago. One of the things that really stood out for me, beyond the moralizing of the narrator against the evils of slavery, was the contemporary accounts of racism and toleration or indifference of slavery by white Presbyterian Northerners. There’s a particular account of how a slave family is separated forever when their Southern owner defaults to his New York banker, and the banker, who talks all about abolition on Sunday, liquidates the “assets” of the farm on Monday, selling the farm, livestock and slaves to the highest bidder. In this case, the Northern Christian man is not a slave owner, but a slave trader. And I have never heard that in any discussions of North v. South and slavery.

Stowe’s work is a lot more complex that being a crude polemic against slavery. You might also want to look at A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which she published soon after in response to complaints (still being made today) that characters and events in the novel was made up from whole cloth, and grossly exaggerated. A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin include Stowe’s notes on characters, news clippings, letters, action receipts and so on, upon which she built the plot of her novel.

I highly recommend David S. Reynolds’s Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America.

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