The Education of Eric Jacobson

Over the past few weeks I’ve taken a front seat to an interesting debate between Eric Jacobson and the members of the Southern Heritage Preservation Group.  Eric is the historian and chief operating officer for The Battle of Franklin Trust.  His organization has taken the lead in working to educate the general public on the importance of preserving our Civil War heritage.  This debate or conversation is instructive for those of us interested in how various individuals and groups attempt to come to terms with this crucial and divisive moment in American history.  In short, consider this an exercise in a not so peaceful tango between heritage and history.

Funny enough, Eric’s first post comes in a thread that started in response to a question that was posed to me by Jimmy Shirley, who asked about why many northerners were unwilling to allow the southern states to go in peace.  I thought it was a reasonable question, but as in so many cases I simply did not have the time to go into detail with my response so I suggested he check out Russell McClintock’s, Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession, which is the single best study on the subject.  That apparently wasn’t satisfactory which led to a post on the SHPG board.  Eric attempted to offer some help, but it wasn’t long before he was challenged with some of the standard responses offered to folks who do not fall in line.  One of the officers insulted Eric with the following: “Eric A Jacobson….just another Levin Tool…. Still, this one might be worth keeping around for a bit, it does seem to be a good source to bounce theories off of….as long as he behaves like a good little boy.”  Eric later shared with the group that he had been contacted via email by the same individual: “Jimmy, Great points and worthy of sound debate. We can talk again at another point. Now this morning I awoke to a gem of a private message from one —- —-, who suggested I am involved the Aryan Nation. Now that’s a new one, but typical of ongoing ignorance and outright stupidity when it comes to discussions such as this. So I’ll be signing off now, having made an effort to have reasonable discourse.”  [Just for the record, I have never met Eric in person and the only correspondence that we've had took place on this blog some time ago.]

That hasn’t prevented Eric from continuing to take part in discussions and even posting his own thread topics:

I have to say that I am quite impressed with Eric’s ability to maintain his composure in such an environment, but I am sure he sees that any serious discussion is futile.  The problem is that Eric brings an alien mindset to this group.  As much as Eric hopes to explore the history the threads inevitably slide into questions that have almost nothing to do with interpretation.  He is not interested in engaging simply in a discussion about who is to blame or which side holds the moral high ground.  Eric wants to better understand certain key issues whether they be Stephens’s position on secession or how best to handle the controversy surrounding the Confederate flag.  For Eric the history is to be explored for deeper understanding.  For the members of the SHPG this is largely irrelevant given that the moral conclusions are already etched in stone.  In short, there is nothing to debate.  It’s no wonder that he is viewed with suspicion by many.

In the end, there can be no winner.  Both sides have honestly engaged the other given the assumptions about how to approach the past that they bring to the table.  Still, there is one thing that I don’t quite understand.   Eric is one of the leading Civil War preservation advocates and the SHPG claims to be founded to preserve Southern heritage.  In all of the bickering that in the end will go nowhere, why hasn’t anyone suggested a partnership of some kind between the SHPG and the Battle of Franklin Trust?  Eric has done more to preserve Southern heritage than all 1,300 members combined.  Surely they can come up with some type of project that satisfies their shared goals.

31 comments… add one

  • Will Hickox Dec 27, 2011

    Why is a reputable historian using his valuable time to debate with a fringe group of Lost-Causers who have already made up their minds and obviously have little or no interest in actual history?

    • Kevin Levin Dec 27, 2011

      I didn’t even know he was a member of the group. I don’t assume to know anything about why he decided to engage this particular group.

    • Ben Railton Dec 27, 2011

      Hi Will and Kevin,

      I don’t know Eric at all, and of course couldn’t speak for his motivations any more than Kevin even if I did know him.

      But as someone who is (I hope!) a reputable American Studies scholar, if certainly less prominent or influential than Eric (or Kevin), I would say this: I have tried in a variety of ways to engage with communities and conversations that seem explicitly antagonistic to my own perspectives on and ideas about our national history and identity and etc; in particular I’m thinking of ones that seem driven by closed-minded and explicitly political/propagandistic goals. And the reason I have continued to try to do so is this:

      I think that many of the members of those communities, the participants in those conversations, are not driven by those same propagandistic motivations, and instead are operating from a set of narratives that have been handed to them by the more propagandistic “historians” and voices. And so while it’s often the latter who respond, and who seem never to budge in the slightest, I have some hope that providing the other members of the communities with more complex and nuanced and historically grounded narratives and details and the like can, perhaps, help some of those members develop their own, more complex and nuanced and historically grounded, voices and perspectives.

      To me, I would say that all of us who are trying to do public scholarship in one way or another think that such an effect is both ideal and possible–not for all, not in some absolute way, and not with any single outcome or goal, but just as a broadening and deepening of conversations and narratives.

      Thanks,
      Ben

      • Kevin Levin Dec 27, 2011

        Part of the problem us that a few voices dominate the discussion. At times it looked like an honest discussion might develop, but it was quickly stifled.

  • Jim Dick Dec 27, 2011

    It is interesting to look through some of those discussions and see that the issue of justifying secession was a major part of them. The states that attempted to secede did so through conventions and produced Declarations of their reason for doing so. The reasons for secession are contained in those documents. Any attempt to justify secession that does not include those declarations misses the mark and that’s what I see being done. There was a lot of revision as to why the South attempted secession after the war, but it ignores the stated reasons given by those states and their delegates at those conventions.

    • Will Stoutamire Dec 27, 2011

      Very true – and don’t forget the secession convention records themselves, I believe Virginia’s amounts to a few volumes!

      Most of these online debates, including the ones Kevin has linked to here, inevitably spiral down to the same old, tired talking points – my personal favorite being the supposed crusade by historians to “justify” the war, glorify the North, demean the South, etc. These debates go nowhere, as such comments are neither based in an interpretation of history nor an understanding of scholarship – they are purely polemical.

      What interests me far more is how people who hold this perspective try to interpret documents like the Declarations, and that is perhaps where some actual dialogue can occur. If, of course, dialogue (not just arguing and “heritage defense”) is what both persons are after. In one of these threads, for instance, we see how some believe that references to the territories, agriculture, and the “social system” in the Declarations don’t have slavery at their core. Or, perhaps more interestingly, how Mississippi’s not-so-subtle references to (correct me if I’m interpreting this wrong) abolitionist “incindiarism” and John Brown’s raid + his “martyrdom” in abolitionist circles are, in actuality, more general references to a reaction against a supposed widespread Northern hatred of Southerners and the Southern desire for greater “security,” respectively.

      The Declarations are the starting place for any discussion, but, like almost anything else, apparently even they can be misconstrued. Perhaps where this particular round of debates went sour here is in presenting the Declarations without interpretation, thereby allowing others to take them out of their historical context. Thus we see another favorite of internet debates… quote throwing.

  • Pat Young Dec 27, 2011

    Seems more like he’s running a gauntlet than having a debate.

  • Roger E Watson Dec 27, 2011

    I just read a lot of the posts in Eric’s threads. An excercise in futility ! His patience is boundless !!

    “Funny enough, Eric’s first post comes in a thread that started in response to a question that was posed to me by Jimmy Shirley, who asked about why many northerners were unwilling to allow the southern states to go in peace. I thought it was a reasonable question, but as in so many cases I simply did not have the time to go into detail with my response so I suggested he check out Russell McClintock’s, Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession, which is the single best study on the subject.”

    This is the problem. A person like Jimmy Shirley knows the answer they are looking for. If you have a different answer or try to point them in another direction (recommending further reading), they are not interested. Their position is their position. So they slink off to a venue that is sympathetic to their point of view.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 27, 2011

      One of my readers suggested that I was wasting my time, but I wanted to give Mr. Shirley the benefit of the doubt. As I suggested in response to Ben’s comment, part of the problem is that their boards are dominated by a few angry people. That tends to stifle discussion, which I’ve seen happen on this site. I have no doubt that there are plenty of reasonable people in that group who are truly interested in history and would love to engage Eric.

      • Dudley Bokoski Dec 27, 2011

        On the subject of why the South was not allowed to go in peace, I believe an overlooked factor in the motivations of the North and South is how they defined themselves in relation to the American Revolution and the Constitution. 1776 was only 75 years past and these were the close descendants of the founding fathers wrestling with the concept of what had been created in the not so distant past. I suspect each side believed they possessed a true understanding of the Constitution and the other fellow was defiling the temple of liberty.

        It’s a bit amusing to hear arguments today about the Constitution and original intent and then realize in 1861 there were people who could go back and ask their parents what their grandparents meant when they dreamed the whole thing up.

  • Rob Baker Dec 27, 2011

    Does anyone else think it is hypocritical that the SHPG folks are accusing Kevin of ‘stalking’ their page, while at the same time providing numerous direct quotes and links from Kevin’s blog?

    • Kevin Levin Dec 28, 2011

      I don’t think anyone really expects consistency from this particular group. :-)

    • Brooks Simpson Dec 28, 2011

      Members of that groups can dish it out, but they can’t take it. They claim they don’t stalk, but they “monitor.” They complain about censorship, but they remove embarrassing threads. According to their own claims, they could be subject to legal action … if they hold themselves to the same standards they claim for others.

      Those folks simply don’t know history. Case in point: Gary Adams thinks that the Thirteenth Amendment discussed in 1865 at the Hampton Roads Conference was the Corwin Amendment. In fact, the Thirteenth Amendment in question was the one just passed by Congress and sent out to the states … abolishing slavery. And Adams thinks he’s committed to historical accuracy … right. Another case in point: passing off fabricated Lincoln quotes as real. These folks simply aren’t very bright. They are committed, and some of them should be.

      • Kevin Levin Dec 28, 2011

        I still find it interesting that Eric was accused of being involved in the Aryan Nation and yet apparently no action was taken against the offender, who is also an officer of the group.

        Like I said, Eric has done more to preserve more of our Civil War heritage than all of the members combined.

        • Rob Baker Dec 28, 2011

          Oh yea, they are quick to call everyone tools and throwing around the word ignorant, yet they won’t ban that member.

          • Brooks Simpson Dec 28, 2011

            It’s a surreal world that presents a rather easy target. Between the deniers, the apologists, and the romantics, it’s a buffet of buffoons, blowhards, and bitter-enders.

            • Karl Gottschalk Dec 28, 2011

              As contrasted with the battalion of bloviating butt-kissers who frequent this blog — and your own.

              • Kevin Levin Dec 28, 2011

                Nice to hear from you, Karl. I hope you had a nice Christmas.

                • Karl Gottschalk Dec 28, 2011

                  Oh, Kevin — you so sweet!

                  • Roger E Watson Dec 28, 2011

                    Gee, not stalking but “monitoring” !! Glad you had something constructive to add, Karl ! Happy New Year !!!

                    • Brooks D. Simpson Dec 28, 2011

                      It’s the best Karl can do. Have pity on the poor fellow. He’s just bitter.

  • Amanda Bunkle Dec 28, 2011

    Nice try, Mr. Roden. I think you owe Mr. Jacobson a very public apology for suggesting that he is associated with the Aryan Nation.

    • Brooks D. Simpson Dec 28, 2011

      I think the entire SHPG owes Eric an apology and should condemn such bigoted intolerance by one of its members. But that would assume that they are decent human beings. In many cases I would not make that assumption. They’re cowards.

      • Rob Baker Dec 29, 2011

        Said member made his big apology on the SHPG. Though certain aspects of the speech were somewhat odd, it seemed sincere. I paid more attention to the comments on that post. I wonder if they would have given the same treatment to Meyer, Me, You (Brooks) or Kevin if we made a comment like that on their heritage site. I can tell you first hand that I still can’t access their page and all I did was disagree.

        • Kevin Levin Dec 29, 2011

          Ultimately, I care very little about whether he apologizes. It’s the initial response that is reflective about how people, who don’t simply fall into line with a certain narrative, are treated. Roden actually attempted to sneak a comment through on my blog yesterday. I will have to check it out, but for the life of me I don’t understand why he or anyone in that group cares what I think.

          • Rob Baker Dec 29, 2011

            They secretly admire you.

            • Kevin Levin Dec 29, 2011

              I serve a function as does Brooks and the rest of us “Yankee” bloggers.

  • Pat Young Dec 30, 2011

    I’m new to this neo-Confederate stuff, but the Southern Nationalist cited me (and mocked me) this week in a blog with a commenter denouncing me for posting my own comments on CWM. Those folks really are stalking this site, since I’ve only submitted a handful of comments here.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 30, 2011

      Sorry about that, Pat. Unfortunately, some people have a vested interest in maintaining a short list of enemies that somehow helps to justify a particular position.

      I hope you don’t mind that I deleted the URL. There are certain sites that I don’t want to help to promote in any way.

      • Pat Young Dec 30, 2011

        I just included the link for your reference. No need to give a site like that a better google ranking.

        Anyway, I enjoy your work here and hope you have much success in the New Year with your many endeavors.

        • Kevin Levin Dec 30, 2011

          Thanks for understanding, Pat. All the best to you as well and thanks for reading.

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