It’s About the History

Update: Jimmy Price offers a response to this post. Just to clarify that I did not delete any comments in that post, though it is always possible that it came through as spam and was automatically discarded. I am pleased to see that Jimmy is relieved by my clarification that many of the comments expressed following the post do not reflect my own views. I will do my best to return the favor.

Jimmy Price takes issue with my last post, which features a video of three Liberty University history professors discussing the causes and legacies of the Civil War. My brief comments focus on the content of the video and do not in any way attempt to explain their views by criticizing their religious and/or political views. I don’t know anything about either. This is a way of saying that I agree with Jimmy that many of the comments that followed the post are troubling for the reasons he cites. I am glad to hear that his experience at Liberty was fruitful and that he was exposed to reputable scholarship related to the period.

That said, I am going to stand by my assessment of the content of the video. I disagree with the way Jimmy frames how university professors ought to be assessed.

It would be one thing if these professors were wearing Dixie Outfitters shirts and talking about how tariffs were the real cause of the war and that slavery had nothing to do with it. But the views espoused by the faculty were not terribly out of the mainstream. Certainly not ideal or complete, but we aren’t even privy to everything these people said to the film student during the interviews.

For this reason I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, but not so with Levin and his cohorts. For instance, Prof. Robert Ritchie is scorned for reducing “the war down to sectional differences.” Not exactly League of the South type stuff here.

The comparison with Dixie Outfitters and League of the South are non-starters here. The views of the three individuals in this video ought to be taken on their own merit and I find them lacking in certain ways.

For Professor Roberts you could look at slavery or slavery in the territories, but in the end the war is best understood as a “civilizational conflict” or a war of two “rival cultures.” It’s a “culture war.” Roberts goes on to suggest that American federalism also helps to explain why the war took place. Federations are difficult to maintain, according to Roberts, because the individual states must maintain a certain amount of tolerance for one another. In the end federalism collapsed as a result of New Englanders, who “pitched a war against tolerance” beginning in the 1820s. With this breakdown of toleration “Americans started to kill one another.”

Professor Ritchie reduces the war to “sectional differences” and two competing definitions of liberty. What did these differences revolve around? In the North they were obsessed with “money” but in the South it was “almost like a Middle Ages landed aristocracy.” Professor Jones is the only one who pinpoints the centrality of slavery, but then goes on to suggest that one of the legacies of the war is that Americans are now slaves to the federal government. It makes you wonder about his understanding of chattel slavery.

I reject this notion that my blog reflects our increasingly “polarized society” or that what I do hear is nothing more than “tar and feather” any and all people I happen to disagree. I’ve used this blog to comment on a wide range of topics over the past nine years and I would like to think that for the most part I offer reasons for my views. Comments left by thoughtful readers that I happen to disagree with are respectfully acknowledged and I have even been known to admit when a comment has led to a shift in my own position.

I am not going to try and answer for the comments left on my blog. Anyone can see that I attempted to keep the discussion focused on the content of what was said and not on Liberty University or anything having to do with the religious or political views of three individuals in the video.

It’s about the history, which I still believe is, at best, muddled and confused.

15 comments… add one
  • Pat Young Oct 30, 2014

    Mr. Price points out that the film was an undergrad effort and, frankly, would have done well to leave it at that. Anyone who has been interviewed by a student with a strong point of view knows how out words can be molded to support the student’s thesis.

    I was troubled, however, by this aspect of Mr. Price’s blog post:

    “It is unfortunate that Christians are increasingly lampooned as science-hating mindless sycophants who have no place in a discussion about history. I’m not implying that that is what Levin was going for, but the feeding frenzy that ensued shows that he certainly left the door open for what passes as civil discourse nowadays.”

    I will bet that most historians of the Civil War era are Christians, so why raise this issue? I have not seen any religious tests on historians, but I was just at a conference on abolition and the Civil War which was hosted by James Oakes and the program noted that he was educated through the Catholic School system, as was I. What his religious views are now I do not know, but since he was the only speaker that day whose pre-college education was mentioned, I assume he did not consider that his very Christian education (at least 12 years) would lead to him being branded a “mindless sycophant.” In my area, Fordham University Press, attached to a Chrisitian school run by the Jesuits, is an important publisher of scholarship on the Civil War. No one lampoons those editors as “science hating.”

    Mr. Price implies that a non-Chrsitian, or anti-Christian consensus dominates the discussion of Civil War history, as though this field has become the particular province of who? Jews, atheists, and Wiccans?

    After Mr. Price says that Christians are treated as though they have no place in a discussion about history he says “I’m not implying that that is what Levin was going for, but the feeding frenzy that ensued shows that he certainly left the door open for what passes as civil discourse nowadays.” In the discussion in the comments, Kevin Levin actually called out commenters who focused on Liberty University’s supposed religious views rather than the ideas presented in the film.

    There are many Christian colleges which have achieved a high degree of respect. In looking over the US News rankings, Notre Dame, Georgetown, and Boston College all are in the top 50 schools in the country. All are religiously affiliated with Christian orders, Notre Dame’s president is a Holy Cross priest, and the other two schools are run by the Jesuits. It is quite possible for a school to be both Christian and respected by mainstream society.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 30, 2014

      After Mr. Price says that Christians are treated as though they have no place in a discussion about history he says “I’m not implying that that is what Levin was going for, but the feeding frenzy that ensued shows that he certainly left the door open for what passes as civil discourse nowadays.” In the discussion in the comments, Kevin Levin actually called out commenters who focused on Liberty University’s supposed religious views rather than the ideas presented in the film.

      You make some really good points, Pat. To be fair Price did acknowledge that I tried to steer the comments back to the focus of the post, but you are right to note his suspicion of my motives. I am not going to go there. I may not be perfect, but I think I have done a pretty good job of steering clear of insulting people’s religious and political views. As I’ve said before, I am just not that interested in these things when it comes to topics that I’ve addressed on this blog.

      There are many Christian colleges which have achieved a high degree of respect. In looking over the US News rankings, Notre Dame, Georgetown, and Boston College all are in the top 50 schools in the country. All are religiously affiliated with Christian orders, Notre Dame’s president is a Holy Cross priest, and the other two schools are run by the Jesuits. It is quite possible for a school to be both Christian and respected by mainstream society.

      Which is exactly what I was trying to imply in the comments section. Chandra Manning teaches at Georgetown and Heather Cox Richardson and Christian Samito teach at Boston College.

    • Jerry McKenzie Oct 30, 2014

      Interestingly those three colleges mentioned are all Catholic and Pope Frances said some interesting things about science and creation just last week. Unfortunately, fundamentalists already see the Roman Catholic Church in a bad light (not all, but a very vocal part). He certainly does move in mysterious ways.

  • James F. Epperson Oct 30, 2014

    Something that troubles me, as a reasonably devout (but liberal) Lutheran, is the way some Christians are beginning to adopt the SCV’s “looking for victimhood” mode of operation. Just as it is wrong for any group to be pilloried based on vague generalizations, it is equally wrong for any group to interpret any criticism as an unfair attack on their beliefs.

    • Andrew Raker Oct 30, 2014

      As someone who pays extra-special attention when those in the Southern Heritage crowd start to talk about religion, I have no doubt that there’s a shared MO, and that this dynamic feeds into both groups. I’d be willing to make an argument that it goes back to the 1840s as well, when Baptists and Methodists were split over slavery (though there are differences in how that discussion was framed, of course).

    • Michael Douglas Nov 1, 2014

      You and Levin also worship at the alter of US Grant and unjustly criticize anyone who is critical of the general.

      For example, you referred to Professor Frank Varney’s book “General Grant and the Rewriting of History” as trash even though you admitted not having read it. Similarly, Levin devoted a blog post to criticizing the book, also without having read it.

      But, if you can’t be bothered to read Professor Varney’s book you might prefer the less industrious task of watching his presentation to the Chicago Civil War Roundtable. The audience was naturally proud of the general and readily capable of defending him against “trashy” criticisms. Yet the speech alone is convincing. His performance in the lengthy Q & A session suggests he made his points effectively…even against those who actually read the book before attempting to criticize him.

      In case you still haven’t read the book a link to the address is provided below.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FpLm-zUqalk

      • Kevin Levin Nov 1, 2014

        Thanks for the comment. Looks like you worship at the altar of Frank Varney. 🙂

        • Michael Douglas Nov 1, 2014

          Mr. Douglas,

          You are welcome to leave a comment about the subject of this post. If you just want to write personal attacks than I suggest that you start your own blog. This is your final warning.

          CWM

  • Patricia Kitto Oct 30, 2014

    Mr. Levin,

    I have been following your blog for some time now and find the whole idea of “Civil War Memory” a fascinating concept. Prior to reading your blog, I had never stopped to consider the difference between what happened and how we remember what happened and the difficulty in teasing out which is which.

    I was educated in the “northern” cities of Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota and grew up viewing the Civil War as the war between the Mexican American War and the Spanish American War. While we did spend some extra time studying Abraham Lincoln (I can’t remember how many times I made a stove pipe hat out of black construction paper!) and the institution of slavery, as I remember 🙂 we were quickly on to Teddy Roosevelt.

    I moved to North Carolina after college and was shocked to learn how very much alive the Civil War was (& still is) in the minds and memories of many native North Carolinians. Moreover, I was surprised that more often than not slavery as a cause of the Civil War was relegated to the bottom of the list if acknowledged at all. I thought your post about the Liberty University professors is a good example of this “relegation”.

    And what I have puzzled over these 30 years since is why there is still this huge disparity in memory when it comes to the cause of the Civil War – especially around the issue of slavery. I was just at The Hermitage in Nashville and the audio tour did not relegate Andrew Jackson’s Trail of Tears or owning of slaves to a footnote but clearly stated and explained his role in both with neither apology or justification. If the Ladies’ Hermitage Association can present such a clear eyed view of our 7th President whose home they are entrusted to preserve, why do some find it so difficult to do the same in regards to slavery and the Civil War?

    Forgive me if you’ve addressed this question of WHY in previous posts but it is the “why” that I find so intriguing. And in thinking about this, I have to remember to stop and include myself in asking ask why I remember the Civil War the way I do and why I view slavery as so central to its cause.

    Thank you for your excellent blog and for exposing me to the concept of memory and how it relates to our view of history.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 30, 2014

      Hi Patricia,

      Thanks for taking the time to write. I think the history of slavery and race has been relegated to a back seat throughout much of the country. In other words, it’s not simply a Southern problem. At the same time I think if you travel extensively throughout the South you will see much more attention to these issues compared with just a few decades ago.

  • Pat Young Oct 30, 2014

    On Jimmy Price’s blog post contra Levin, he writes:

    “Or consider Prof. Chris Jones, who said that slavery was the main cause of the war but goes on to say that modern Americans are being “enslaved” by the Federal government. He also cites a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll that states that the idea of secession is still popular in today’s modern political climate. That might not be your particular outlook on life, but it’s not a harebrained conspiracy theory.”

    Chris Jones says that in a poll of the former confederate states “82, 83 %” said they would support peaceful secession and around “90%” of African Americans support secession.

    Jimmy Price links to this poll as the source of the claim of Prof. Jones
    http://polling.reuters.com/#!response/TM350Y14/type/day/dates/20140823-20141029

    If that is the poll really used by Jones, it does not support his claim. In response to the question “Support or oppose the idea of your state peacefully withdrawing from the USA and the federal government?” 24% of all respondents in the former Confederacy said they supported secession. An even smaller percentage of blacks in the former Confederate states supported the secessionist impulse, a miniscule 16%.

    Either Jones is using some poll I can’t find, or he is have a brain freeze, or he doesn’t know what he is talking about.

    • Pat Young Oct 30, 2014

      That same poll did show that more than a third of LGBT folks favor secession, so maybe the next secession will be by true Rainbow Confederates.

  • Pat Young Oct 31, 2014

    Mr Price, in his response to this Civil War Memory post, cites on his blog my own comments here and says that he wonders if those who responded here yesterday “even bothered to read my original post or if they just responded to Levin’s summation.” Since my comment here last night is the first one that he mentions, I have to assume that he is referring to me (among others) as someone too incurious to read Mr. Price’s post before commenting on it.

    One would think that the fact that my two comments cited parts of Mr. Price’s post that were not reproduced on Civil War Memory would have indicated that I went beyond the four corners of Mr. Levin’s blog. Let me assure Mr. Price that I did read his post, clicked on his link to polling on secession (which did not support his contention that “the idea of secession is still popular in today’s modern political climate”, nor did it support the claim of Prof. Jone that over 80% of Southerners support secession), and looked at the linked bios of the historians whom he identifies as “Christians” who “have made stellar contributions to Civil War history.” Frankly, that list of “Christian” historians was the sort of thing one would expect to see concerning some small minority religion, not for the religion of 78% of Americans. One might put up a list of three well-respected Baha’i historians of the Civil War, but three Christians?

    Mr. Price also denies, in his response to my comment, that he implied that a non-Christian or anti-Christian consensus is seeking to marginalize historians who are Christian. Here is his original remark that I was responding to:

    “It is unfortunate that Christians are increasingly lampooned as science-hating mindless sycophants who have no place in a discussion about history. I’m not implying that that is what Levin was going for, but the feeding frenzy that ensued shows that he certainly left the door open for what passes as civil discourse nowadays.”

    I asked Mr. Price on his blog;
    What evidence do you have that Christians, as opposed to the specific professors Mr. Levin mentioned from Liberty University, are ” increasingly lampooned as science-hating mindless sycophants who have no place in a discussion about history.?”

    According to the Pew Center, 78% of Americans are Christians (26% Evangelical, 24% Catholic, 18% Mainline, 10% other). Any attempt by the 22% of non-Christian Americans to marginalize the 78% of Americans who are Christian by insisting that the Christians “have no place in a discussion about history” would seem to be doomed from the start.

    Here is a link to the Pew report for those of you interested in the demographic dominance of Christians in the U.S., in case you were unfamiliar with it:
    http://religions.pewforum.org/reports

    When one’s alma mater is the subject of negative comment, as Mr. Price’s was here, it is normal to become protective. However, to claim that the negative comments about a handful of professors at a specific university are part of an assault on Christians in the field of history is unfounded.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 31, 2014

      I don’t go after people’s religious views on this blog. I didn’t go after anyone’s religious views in the post. Anyone can see that I attempted to steer the discussion that followed. That is always a difficult proposition. What I don’t appreciate is the insinuation (however vague) that I condoned or made possible such a response. If readers want to bring their personal baggage to this site that is their business, but I should not have to answer for it.

      • Pat Young Oct 31, 2014

        There is nothing that either you or I said that criticized anyone’s religious beliefs. As you rightly say, you consistently focused on the history and not the religion Mr. Levin.

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