SCV Hoists Another Big Ass Confederate Flag

Here’s a sure fire way to announce to the world just how irrelevant you are.  More to the point, the SCV would have us believe that this is nothing more than an attempt to honor the men who carried this flag into battle, but anyone with an undergraduate degree in child psychology can see that this is a classic example of children who are desperate to be seen and acknowledged.  The best part of this ceremony, however, is the inclusion of everyone’s favorite black Confederate, H.K. Edgerton.  He is in classic form:

This place should be full of black folks.  I don’t know why [I’m the only one here]. Maybe your newspaper should have told them to come to celebrate and sing Dixie and salute our flag. It’s a shame white folks and black folks make people think this is an evil flag. This is a southern flag. You can’t attack this flag and call yourself a southerner. You can call yourself a traitor….I represent four and a half million black folks who’ve been beat down and would love to be here, too.  If they tell you they wouldn’t be, the first thing you ask is where they’re from. Then you tell them to go on back.

Tracking Civil War memory can at times be downright fun.  Way to go boys.

If the SCV were really interested in ensuring that the flag is interpreted “properly” they would retire it and push for its display only in museums where it can be given the kind of attention it deserves.  As always my thinking on this issue has been influenced by John Coski’s The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Harvard University Press, 2006).

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A Few Thoughts for Ed Sebesta and James Loewen

Now that things have calmed down a bit re: the petition asking Obama not to send a wreath to the Confederate monument at Arlington, I thought it might be time to offer a few words of advice.  James Loewen recently offered some thoughts in the wake of the controversy.  He finds it difficult to understand the media’s coverage, including its emphasis on Bill Ayers and the overlooking of some of the top scholars in the field:

It turned out that the only name the media cared about was Ayers.  The Chicago Sun-Times, for instance, headlined its story, “Radical Bill Ayers dogs Obama, even on Memorial Day.”  Within the story, Ayers’s name does not appear until the 14th paragraph, which is appropriate.  But no other signer’s name appears at all — not mine, not Sebesta’s, not even McPherson’s, surely America’s pre-eminent scholar on the period, whose Battle Cry of Freedom won the Pulitzer Prize.  Today, searching for “Ayers Obama “Memorial Day” wreath yields 7,570 hits, while “McPherson Obama “Memorial Day” yields just 2,570.

Given the recent political fallout over President Obama’s tenuous connection with Ayers should we really be surprised that the media immediately picked up on and emphasized the inclusion of his name?  The ignoring of the other signers goes without saying.  Most interested parties in this debate could care less about what some scholar believes.  In fact, as I’ve learned over the course of writing this blog many people have an irrational distrust of academics and have probably never read anything by James McPherson, not to mention Manisha Sinha and others.  In the end most people’s memory of the war is fueled by stories and other popular cultural expressions and has almost nothing to do with anything that can remotely be characterized as scholarly.  [That's not to be taken as a criticism, but as an observation that may or may not be accurate.]

Loewen also seems a bit puzzled by the heated debate that followed on a number of websites.  Yes, the crazies came out in full force and even my name entered the mix, but anyone who follows these issues should have expected just that.  Part of the difficulty for Loewen is that he wants us to distinguish between two types of Confederate monuments.   “One type remembers and honors the dead.  The other,” according to Loewen, “glorifies the cause and typically obfuscates what it was (which was slavery).”  I may be wrong but I don’t think most people make this distinction.  The lone Confederate soldier in front of the court house is as much about a preferred interpretation of the cause of the war as the Davis statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond.  Likewise, the Davis statue can easily be interpreted and used as a setting for an SCV parade that wishes to honor their Confederate ancestors.  These are academic distinctions that mean little in the real world.

In preparation for next year Ed Sebesta has already set up a blog, which he will update as a new petition is organized – that’s right another petition.  Given the results this year it is appropriate to ask what good it will do to try it again.  Should we simply anticipate a differently worded petition with a new list of signatures?  More importantly, how will a new petition advance the debate and force us to look beyond what are deeply-held assumptions about our Civil War memory?   As far as I am concerned petitions such as this are non-starters.  I would encourage Sebesta and Loewen to rethink their overall approach.  I can’t tell you how many times one of my lesson plans has gone awry.  In those situations it is incumbent on the instructor to evaluate and make the necessary changes.

One of the positive results is that the petition led to the sending of a wreath to the African American Civil War monument in Washington.  Think of how many people now know that this monument exists, not to mention that our memory of the black experience in the Civil War remains largely hidden.  Why not work to bring more of this narrative to the public’s attention next year?  How about a well-publicized tour of the USCT section of Arlington next Memorial Day?

We all want to be activists, but we should never lose sight that we are educators first.

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Do You Want Richard Dreyfuss Teaching Your Kids?

It’s hard to take issue with someone who is passionate about the teaching of civics and American history in our classrooms.  Apparently, actor-turned activist, Richard Dreyfuss even took a few years away from his acting career to study at Oxford in preparation for his non-profit campaign.  Dreyfuss is working on a video series that pulls together lectures from various scholars on civics and government as well as our responsibilities as citizens.  To promote this campaign Dreyfuss has hit the talk show circuit and has recently been interviewed by the likes of Bill Maher and Mike Huckabee.

Let me say again that I have nothing but the highest respect for this man’s commitment, but there are a few things that I am having difficulty with.  First, Dreyfuss seems to be driven by something akin to a savior complex.  You can see this in the videos news articles:

In May 2006, Dreyfuss had lunch with an old friend, Bob Tankard, an all-island school committee member and former school principal. “We’ve known each other for more than 20 years,” says Tankard. “We always talked about changing the world. Years ago I told Richard that he should give up acting and go into education or politics, but he said he needed to pay the bills.” Over lunch the two men caught up on each other’s lives and discussed modern democracy. They agreed that the role of civics had been forgotten and that schools needed to reinstate a civics curriculum from kindergarten through high school. “That’s when Richard reminded me that I had urged him to change professions,” Tankard says. “He told me he was ready to make the leap.”

I have no doubt that Dreyfuss has been warmly welcomed by the teaching community, but do we really need him to promote civics education in our schools?  Do we need to be saved by Dreyfuss and his video series?  And if we do, from what exactly?  I can’t help but think that we’ve returned to the old argument that this generation of students is fundamentally different from previous generations.  Supposedly, they know and care less than their parents and far less than their grandparents about government and history.  Something along these lines is implied in Dreyfuss’s justification for a renewed civics education.  At times he sounds like one of these conservative broken records who laments on the loss of civil discourse or a point in American history that was pre-partisan – a golden age of American democracy.

The notion that this generation of students knows less than their elders or that the state of history education has been in free fall for the last few decades is absolute nonsense.  Contrary to Dreyfuss, our politicians have rarely, if ever, risen above political partisanship and I suspect that our citizenry is just as gullible and ignorant as in any other time in the past.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to send these people back in time to the 1790s for that heavy dose of civil discourse that they so dearly crave?  Until then, I recommend that Dreyfuss read Joanne Freeman’s Affiars of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (Yale University Press, 2002).  Perhaps Dreyfuss has played one too many sleazy politican or perhaps he has spent too many hours watching MSNBC, FOX, etc., which masquerade as serious news channels that pretend to engage in civil discourse.  Actually, I don’t even think they pretend.

Dreyfuss is right about one thing.  We do need to teach our students how to think critically and ecourage them to become what I prefer to call healthy skeptics.  We want our students to think through complex questions not simply as Republicans or Democrats or as participants in some reality show, but as “thinking beings.”  I’ve always thought that my most important responsibility is to teach my students to think – the content is secondary.  Let’s face it, most of my students will forget much of what they are taught, but they can use the analytical skills throughout their lives.

So, welcome aboard Mr. Dreyfuss.  You’ve put your finger on one of the fundamental challenges facing history/civics teachers.  Now take a seat, breathe, and notice that we’ve been at this for a long time now.  Best of luck to you.

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Two Thousand Maniacs

An entire town bathed in pulsing human blood from madmen crazed for carnage! The 2000 Maniacs of a small Southern town celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Civil War by forcing a handful of Northerners to serve as “guests” for a variety of macabre, blood-crazed fun and games.

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David Blight on the Civil War Sesquicentennial

In the following commentary published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, David Blight reflects on the first major event of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, which took place in Richmond, Virginia back in March.  Blight comments on the purpose and significance of the day-long symposium and how it reflects a fundamental change with the way the war was remembered during the Civil War Centennial (1961-65).  The final paragraph caught my eye:

Legacies can take endless forms — physical, political, literary, emotional. This time, we must commemorate our Civil War in all its meanings, but above all we must commemorate and understand emancipation as its most enduring challenge. This time, the fighting of the Civil War itself should not unite us in pathos and nostalgia alone; but maybe, just maybe, we will give ourselves the chance to find unity in a shared history of conflict, in a genuine sense of tragedy, and in a conflicted memory stared squarely in the face.

[Check out Blight's Online Civil War/Reconstruction course at Yale.]

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