Taking Civil War Historians to Court

Here is a little levity to end the work week.  This little exchange from the Southern Heritage Preservation FB Group is worth a good laugh, but it’s also a reminder that many people simply do not understand the first thing about what is involved in historical research.  The scholarship that historians produce is not the result of a process, but simply a reflection of personal bias and nefarious motives.  It’s a wonderful reminder of why education matters.

Perhaps Dimitri Rotov will offer his legal services as prosecuting attorney.

23 thoughts on “Taking Civil War Historians to Court

  1. Ben Railton

    Hi Kevin,

    Funny indeed, but as a professor at a public state university, I have to say that I also find this, like so much of the last few years’ rhetoric, sad and frustrating in the extreme. That is, I see this less as an attack on historians and more as one on professors, teaching, institutions of learning, etc–and there the attack is even more ridiculously off base, since what the vast majority of us are trying to do is to teach our students to think, research, read, analyze, write, and do this historical work for themselves. So to read folks like this accusing us of indoctrination and the like, as I have so often over these years–well, one of many through the looking glass moments for me.

    Ben

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Ben,

      Nice to hear from you. I am certainly sympathetic with what you’ve written here, but the increase in skepticism re: the academy and what historians do specifically when engaged in research has not occurred in isolation from an increased visibility of historians and other academics who wade into public discussions of various sorts. Part of the problem is that academic historians have not done such a good job of explaining how the process of researching and writing works. Most people come into contact with historians when they are commenting on a topic that may or may not directly relate to their research.

      Best of luck with the new school year.

      Reply
    2. Lyle Smith

      Why was it again you were in the minority among your Harvard classmates about the Shaw memorial not being racist? ;)

      I understand you’re larger point though. Academic scholarship is mostly serious business and serious scholarship deserves respect. The general public, I think, just doesn’t like being talked down to and will respect serious work if they themselves are taking seriously, even if they’re ignorant.

      Kevin makes a good point about how many people come to interact with academics.

      Reply
  2. Jon Morrison

    Facepalm anyone? Seriously though, if you try to bring academic credentials to an online fight, the first thing they do is dismiss it & tell you that you are a victim of the yankee propaganda system. I would LOVE to find the manual these folks use to argue with as there must be something out there-too many of them use the same tactics, words, phrases, etc.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      As you can probably guess credentials of any sort mean very little beyond your personal affiliation/identification with something that they already agree with. I have no doubt that no one in this thread has read a book or article by James McPherson not to mention a proper and thorough critique of any thesis or argument contained therein. As best as I can tell history for this group is about sharing stories that reaffirm a set of assumptions that have a great deal of moral weight about the past. The idea that history is constantly being revised based on new evidence and interpretation is a foreign country to this crowd.

      Reply
    2. Andy Hall

      They have an elegant tautology working for them, that academic historians (by definition) have an “anti-Southern” agenda and are willing and active propagandists for the war of “cultural genocide” that’s being waged against the South, etc. etc. They are not willing to credit that academic historians who disagree with them come by their analyses honestly, and insist that the academic study of history of that conflict is nothing more than indoctrination, rote memorization of specious arguments that “evilize’ the South and Southerners. Anyone who actually has an academic background or credentials, therefore, can be effectively dismissed out-of-hand, and need not be taken seriously, except to the degree that they might poison the minds of impressionable youth, etc. I say it’s elegant because it (1) gives them an excuse to actively avoid serious, scholarly works that might challenge their preferred narrative, and (2) turns a lack of higher education into a positive virtue. Deo vindice, yall!

      Reply
      1. Billy Bearden

        I didnt comment on that thread when I saw it, but I will here:
        In a broader scope, yes Andy, young minds do get brainwashed by some spewers
        of tripe in college and university classrooms. Was not Bill Ayers and Barack Obama teachers of young minds for a certain anti American agenda? Jonathan Farley?

        This thread mentions history folks. I am sure there are or has been the Ayers/Farley/Obama type amongst history teachers.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          I didnt comment on that thread when I saw it, but I will here:

          And we are so much better off for it. Thanks for sharing your deep understanding of the world of academia. :-)

          Reply
        2. Andy Hall

          In a broader scope, yes Andy, young minds do get brainwashed by some spewers of tripe in college and university classrooms.

          Interesting example, given the such students are almost invariably adults, who, presumably, can think for themselves and have the same right of speech and association as the rest of us. Not by your lights, obviously.

          We’ve seen again and again that the Southron Heritage movement isn’t about “freedom” or “liberty” in any general sense, but about shutting down dissent and demagoguing anyone (“Deniers”, “Axis of Fascism”) who happens to disagree about politics, culture, or (God forbid) the existence of black Confederate 150 years ago. But by all means, keep it up — every time y’all come out with something like this, it moves y’all a little more off the to side from rational people.

          This thread mentions history folks. I am sure there are or has been the Ayers/Farley/Obama type amongst history teachers.

          The specific example given was James McPherson. I’m still waiting for someone to give an example of a libelous statement made by him.

          [cue Final Jeopardy music.]

          Reply
          1. Kevin Levin Post author

            Like I said in a previous comment, I’ve never seen anyone at the SHPG actually provide a thorough critique of an interpretation by an academic historian. They know the names, but they seem to have no ability to analyze their scholarship.

            I know blogs that would be very receptive to Billy’s point-of-view and I am happy to point them out.

            Reply
            1. Michael Douglas

              But, as Brooks Simpson likes to point out, y’all live rent-free in Billy and company’s collective head. ;)

              They need you historians and bloggers to rant and rail against. Their usual circle-jerk, on their own sites, bore them after a while.

              Reply
  3. Jimmy Dick

    I find this one hilarious for a few reasons. One being that they would have no chance in hell of winning in any court except a Southern Heritage kangaroo court packed with themselves. The second being that they would have to actually present factual evidence in a courtroom which would be the stuff that Comedy Central cant’ even dream up. The third is that I don’t think they realize that they could be sued just as easily.
    Now I think suing them would be pointless since winning the case would only anger them more and you would only win a collection of the finest CBFs China can make.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      The second being that they would have to actually present factual evidence in a courtroom which would be the stuff that Comedy Central cant’ even dream up.

      I agree. It would be quite entertaining to watch them struggle to piece together a historical interpretation and then demonstrate why it is inadequate based on competing interpretations or better yet one of their own. You could easily substitute my name for McPherson’s in this post. My name has come up quite often over the years, but as far as I know not one person from this group has ever tried to formally challenge anything I’ve published.

      Reply
  4. Michael Douglas

    “You can point out to his school his errors. . .”

    They’d just laugh at you too.
    I tell you one thing; y’all better learn to write decent English, in intelligible sentences, before attacking academia. It might be a good idea to educate yourselves about what a class action actually is too.

    Reply
    1. Margaret D. Blough

      I’m still at awe at learning about this new cause of action, “liable”. They didn’t teach us about that in Yankee law school. They just taught us about “slander and libel.” I always thought that “liable” was part of the wording of an award AFTER a verdict, i.e. “The defendant is liable for damages in the amount of :$…” T

      Reply
  5. Matt McKeon

    When David Irving sued Deborah Lipstadt for libel, he was ground into dust. Pinned to the stand, he was unable to do his usual dance, and was throughly discredited. If these yahoos went to court it would be hilarious.

    But of course, its impossible. Ignorant yahoos.

    Reply
    1. H Donald Capps

      I note that David Irving’s name has popped up, which should serve as a warning to those wishing to tangle with Clio’s disciples. The intellectual/ideological distance between those in the Irving camp and those in the Southern Heritage Preservation camp is minimal at best. When the work of David Irving first began to appear, many were taken in by Irving, including many who should have known better. As a military historian, however, my impression was that either he actually had come across sources/material that had been overlooked or not examined as closely as it should have been, or was being more than a bit free and loose with his interpretations. It was soon clear (at least to me and a number of others I knew and worked with), of course, that it was most probably the latter, it being very difficult to square Irving’s interpretations and facts with those of everyone else’s. As mentioned, when Irving’s ego led him to go to court, he was mincemeat when the real historians, led by the work done by Prof. Richard Evans and his team, came into play. The book that Prof. Evans wrote about the trial was given the very appropriate title of “Lying About Hitler.”

      Whenever I see the sorts of comments that were made by those on the Southern Heritage Preservation site, it simply reminds me that it seems that there are those who have no problem not letting the facts get in the way of either a good story or influencing an opinion or belief that they hold. Make no mistake, they tend to not care very much for historians as well as academics in general. The anti-intellectualism trend is quite alive and very well in a number of places. Apparently one need only be in Kevin’s shoes to appreciate this being true.

      As an aside, I recently picked up my well-worn paperback copy — 95 cents (!) when new for an undergrad history course in 1967 — of Catton’s first volume of the Centennial history of the War of the Rebellion (The Coming Fury) off the bookshelf and began reading it. I was pleasantly surprised as to how well it holds up for the most part. It left little doubt — just as when I read it intially many years ago — as to the role slavery played in the coming of the War. I also wonder what beef they have with Jamie McPherson other than not parroting the party line of The Lost Cause and Other Myths.

      Reply
      1. Woodrowfan

        “which should serve as a warning to those wishing to tangle with Clio’s disciples.”

        I so want a leather jacket with “Clio’s Disciples” on the back, maybe with a skeleton holding a copy of a history book and a motto of some kind… “Kill Them All, We’ll Sort Them Out!” or some such…. 8-)

        Reply
        1. H Donald Capps

          “Clio’s Disciples” — This is the sort of approach you get when a Ranger (RVN ’68/’69) becomes a historian. I have long thought of something appropriate for Dr. Evans and you have given me a great idea….

          Reply
  6. Mark Douglas

    WHy not let the Southern leaders speak for themselves? Why not accept at face value Jefferson Davis own speeches about his demand for the spread of slavery?

    Why not let SOuthern documents speak for themselves? Why not accept at face value the “Southern Ultimatums” announced as “THE TRUE ISSUE” in SOuthern newspapers before the outbreak of the CIvil War?

    Why not let Tooms, Stephens, Davis, speak for themselves, from things they said 1858-1861.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Mr Douglas (or perhaps it’s Mr. Curran),

      You will notice that I have gone ahead and deleted the links for all your comments. I am fairly loose when it comes to allowing readers to include a website URL in the comments form. On occasion, however, I deem the website to be so far afield from mainstream history that it is deleted.

      KL

      Reply
  7. Michael Rodgers

    The word principal is almost always an adjective; principle is always a noun. When principal is an noun it’s as a shortcut:
    The principal amount of money you invested = your principal.
    The principal person at your school = your principal.
    The principal people at the company = the principals.

    Reply
  8. John Buchanan

    So Kevin, I guess this means when The Revolution comes it will be lawyers AND historians first against the wall!

    These folks is why there needs to be some chlorine added to the gene pool!

    Reply

Join the Conversation