No One Needs To Give You the Opportunity to Speak

Nina Silber, Gary Gallagher, and David Blight

The other day I posted two videos of some of the most respected Civil War historians writing today.  The group had taken part in a conference sponsored by the Citadel and were asked to share some thoughts about popular misconceptions of the war as well as the upcoming sesquicentennial.  Anyone familiar with Civil War scholarship is familiar with their names as well as their scholarship.  However, there was some frustration expressed in response to the videos, not because of anything having to do with the content, but with the decision to invite the same cast of characters.  One reader expressed it as follows:

Give us the opportunity and we’ll speak, but I’d wager that the producers of these videos sent out an e-mail blast to the usual suspects, and no young scholars. It’s the nature of the profession that those better established will have the podium, and those of us in the beginnings of our careers will be struggling to have our voices heard. In general, and especially in public history, we’re all having a tough time getting that podium because the folks inspired by the centennial are still firmly ensconced in the positions they obtained thirty and thirty-five years ago. Give us a microphone and we’ll talk your ear off, but until someone offers us the stage we can’t help out with any efficacy.

In one breath you ask “where are our younger scholars taking an active role in this?” and in the next you claim that “no one would give such responsibility to young people today.” It is this major disconnect, this distrust of us to do justice to the history, which keeps our voices out of the sesquicentennial. We are an ipod and youtube generation, but that doesn’t diminish our interest or scholarly aptitude.

I certainly understand the frustration and, to a certain extent, I sympathize with such a view.  However, it rests on a faulty assumption and that is that we need to wait for someone to give us the opportunity to speak.  I am the first person to admit that it’s always nice to receive an invitation to take part in an academic conference or panel discussion and other such events that have a traditionally scholarly flavor.  But to be completely honest, these types of events make little sense to me in an age of social media.  Events such as this are opportunities to catch up with friends and check out new books.  The sharing of ideas could be done much more effectively online.   I do my speaking and connecting with people here.  This is my podium and this is where my voice can be heard.  I connect with more people in one day here at Civil War Memory than I would in roughly 10-20 standard conference presentations. [Update: Let me just clarify that I am not suggesting that the traditional conference format no longer has any value.  I should have been more careful with how I characterized such events.  Of course, I attend these events to listen to top-notch scholars and, on occasion, to share my own ideas.]

As much as I respect and enjoy listening to the folks included in those videos those are not the voices that will be heard over the course of the next few years.  It’s going to be those individuals who figure out how to effectively utilize the many social networking tools that are currently available.  Consider my friend, M. Keith Harris, who recently finished his PhD in American history at the University of Virginia and now lives in Los Angeles.  Keith specializes in the Civil War and historical memory [see his, Slavery, Emancipation, and Veterans of the Union Cause: Commemorating Freedom in the Era of Reconciliation, 1885-1915, Civil War History - September 2007, pp. 264-290] and he is also a fitness nut.  Keith does not currently hold an academic position, but that has not prevented him from finding interesting ways of sharing his knowledge and building an audience.  You can find Keith at his blog, Cosmic America, on Twitter, and on UStream, where he is currently in the middle of a series of lectures on the Civil War.

Whether you approve of Keith’s style or not, he is not sitting around waiting for someone to provide him with an audience.  He is creating one from the ground-up.  The author of the above comment is right to point out that this is an iPod and YouTube generation, but that is not something that ought to be frowned upon, but rather embraced.  It’s exactly the generation that has the potential to revolutionize what it means to engage in scholarly discourse as well as connect with others.

You want to make an impact?  You want to be heard?  Just Do It!

“Now, I am a Conservative, a Neo-Confederate so That’s My Point of View” – William Scarborough,

Yesterday, I linked to two videos that feature Civil War historians discussing various issues related to the Civil War and historical memory.  In the second video, the panel was asked to share what they take to be one of the most popular misconceptions of the war.  While Emory Thomas and James I. Robertson highlight the tendency among some to downplay the importance of race and slavery in the war, Professor William Scarborough offers the following curious assessment:

There is a misconception about how harsh slavery was.  I mean it was not akin to the Nazi Concentration Camps at all.  It wasn’t great, that’s for sure but it was a lot more flexible than a lot of people think today.  Now I am a conservative, a neo-Confederate so that’s my point of view.

I have no idea what one’s identification as a conservative has to do with a question about the history of slavery and its brutality so I am going to steer clear of it.  Scarborough’s identification as a “neo-Confederate” is baffling given that those who group themselves around such a label or are identified as such steadfastly resist coming to terms with its importance to the coming of the war and if they do discuss it it comes wrapped in the old “loyal slave” or black Confederate narrative.  Yes, historians have clearly shown over the past few decades that slavery was flexible in any number of ways depending on where you look and at what time.  What’s is truly baffling is that Scarborough himself has contributed to this literature on slavery and has even highlighted its brutality.  One of the most interesting studies that I’ve read about slavery is his, Masters of the Big House: Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-nineteenth-century South (Louisiana State University Press, 2003).  It’s a thick book, but well worth your time.

Scarborough opens up chapter 5, “Toiling For Old ‘Massa’”, with the following:

Whether they toiled in the miasmic rice swamps of the South Carolina Low Country or in the broiling heat of the cotton and cane fields in the Southwest, the African American slaves of the antebellum South earned handsome profits for their owners but often at the expense of human suffering almost without parallel in modern times.  It should be remembered, however, that the condition of laboring people generally in the nineteenth century was little short of deplorable.  It was that condition that impelled Karl Marx to launch his midcentury assault against the exploitation of labor by capital in the rapidly industrializing nations of the Western world.  Indeed, with respect to the material conditions of life–food, clothing, shelter, and hours of labor–the chattel slaves of the South did not fare badly compared to their working class counterparts elsewhere on the planet.  Rather, it was the absolute denial of freedom that set them apart from other workers and often made their lot unbearable.  Slavery rendered them impotent to protect the integrity of their families and frequently exposed them to the erratic behavior of insensitive owners.

While some may have trouble swallowing Scarborough’s placing of slavery within the broader context of nineteenth century labor he still makes the point about the brutality of slavery, which, at its core involved the denial of freedom and the treating another individual as a means to an end.  Unfortunately, I don’t think such a paragraph and the book as a whole qualifies Prof. Scarborough for “Neo-Confederate” status.  This is historical scholarship at its best.  No “Gone With the Wind” fantasies in this book.

I know “Neo-Confederates”.  You sir, are no “Neo-Confederate”.

Remember To Put It In Perspective

The upcoming Secession Ball scheduled for Saturday in Charleston is certainly getting a great deal of attention from the mainstream media.  I’ve spent my fair share of time perusing through coverage from local newspapers in Charleston to national coverage as well as the blogosphere and other social media sites.  What stands out to me, however, is the amount of critical coverage of the event.  The criticisms are coming from all sides, but what is most impressive are the critiques from both black and white folks who identify deeply with the history and culture of the South.  There never was a monolithic view of the history of the South; the difference is now it has an opportunity to emerge and compete for attention.  These are people who have as much claim to the past as anyone and they are voicing outrage with the idea of celebrating an event that was carried out in defense of a social, political, and economic system built on slavery and which led to the deaths of over 600,000 Americans.  I have no access to any kind of statistical data that would give us a sense of the percentage of Americans who do not see this as worthy of celebration and I don’t think it really is important.  What is apparent is a fundamental shift in the way that Americans – regardless of race and region – are now coming to view the Civil War since the Centennial celebrations of the early 1960s.  You would be hard pressed to find anything reflective of this current shift in perception during the Centennial.  Again, that’s not to suggest that it wasn’t present, just that it did not surface in any sort of way that posed a challenge to the status quo, which was clearly a deeply rooted collective memory built around the Lost Cause.

While I have no doubt that the good people who attend the Secession Ball will enjoy themselves thoroughly, it should be clear to everyone that this broader view of the war will continue to be on the defensive for the foreseeable future.  Consider these recent setbacks:

  • A Fourth Grade Virginia textbook that includes a reference to black Confederates has been identified as out of place based on the author’s research strategy and current scholarship on the subject.
  • A series of videos slated to appear on the History Channel that outline a Lost Cause view of secession and war has been canceled.  You know you are in trouble when you are banned from a channel that runs continuous loops of UFOs, reruns of Pawn Stars, and Hitlers last days in the bunker.
  • Courts have almost unanimously upheld the decisions of a number of school districts to ban images of the Confederate flag from school property.
  • Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell apologized for a Confederate History Month Proclamation that ignored slavery and went on to correct it by issuing a new proclamation declaring next April Civil War History in Virginia Month.
  • The Museum of the Confederacy removed a black Confederate doll from its website and the National Park Service removed literature referencing the same after being notified of the problem.

As much time as we spend on the staying power of the Lost Cause it is important to put it in perspective.  What I see around me is a vibrant Civil War Sesquicentennial community that includes plenty of institutions that are organizing conferences, exhibits, and other educational opportunities for their respective communities.  Best yet, they are taking full advantage of the latest Civil War scholarship.  It really is a breath of fresh air.

Try not to get too caught up in all this silliness.