The decision to delay the premiere of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln until after November 6 is a facile attempt to disassociate it from the presidential election. It’s unavoidable and doomed to give us a skewed view not only of our own political climate, but that of the 1860s as well. Hurricane Sandy may have caused unprecedented destruction in places like New York City and New Jersey, but for a brief moment it paved the way for what appears to be an apolitical embrace between Republican Governor Christie of New Jersey and President Obama. Whether it is apolitical is not so important as that it is perceived by many on both sides of the aisle as a welcome respite from the usual vitriol for the purposes of aiding those in need.
Update: Andrew Sullivan attempts to explain his statement, but only manages to dig a deeper hole for himself.
According to Andrew Sullivan, the Confederacy lives or at least the racism that pervaded those specific states during the Civil War era and it may decide the 2012 election. More specifically Sullivan argued this morning on ABC’s This Week, “If Virginia and Florida go back to the Republicans, it’s the Confederacy entirely. You put the map of the Civil War over this electoral map, you’ve got the Civil War.” Whether George Will is correct in the details, he at least provides a reasonable counter-explanation re: a possible shift from blue to red state for Virginia and Florida. More to the point, it reveals Sullivan’s stupidity. I certainly believe that race is a factor in this election, but by linking the modern South with the Confederacy he perpetuates the myth that racism is somehow concentrated in that region alone.
There is absolutely no reason, apart from trying to introduce a seductive soundbite, to mention the Confederacy or the Civil War. It feeds what I call the “Continued War” narrative that is so popular with the mainstream media. It’s a reductionist explanation that pits Northerners vs. Southerners and blacks vs. whites. One can only imagine what Sullivan will say if Ohio goes for Romney.
Update: Perhaps Burstein and Isenberg should be more concerned about one of their own.
Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg believe that news of Fareed Zakaria’s recent admission that he lifted part of a recent op-ed on gun control from one written by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker is evidence that journalists should not write history. This confused and downright nasty rant tells us almost nothing about the quality of history books written by journalists, though I would venture to suggest that it tells us a great deal about where they stand on who owns the past:
Frankly, we in the history business wish we could take out a restraining order on the big-budget popularizers of history (many of them trained in journalism) who pontificate with great flair and happily take credit over the airwaves for possessing great insight into the past. Journalists are good at journalism – we wouldn’t suggest sending off historians to be foreign correspondents. But journalists aren’t equipped to make sense of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
First, who exactly are Burstein and Isenberg speaking for from within the history profession? One gets the impression that the authors are not so much upset with the fact that journalists write history, but that some are successful and in a few cases have become popular public figures. Even more disturbing is that the authors fail to muster anything approaching an argument that the majority of popular history books written by journalists are flawed. Just because they do not result from the same process that a dissertation goes through does not necessarily warrant such a dismissive and condescending attitude.
Their trump card, of course, is the recent troubles of Doris Kearns Goodwin, which we all know about. Interestingly, the authors cite Peter Charles Hoffer’s Past Imperfect, but conveniently fail to mention Michael Bellesiles – an academic who manufactured evidence for his history of guns in America. No, instead of that they go after David McCullough, not because he plagiarized anything, but because he is popular:
Second best, actually. The beloved David McCullough, formerly of Sports Illustrated, is routinely enshrined as “a national treasure” and “America’s greatest living historian.” But nothing he writes is given real credibility by any careful historian because history is grounded in evidence, and McCullough isn’t familiar with more than a smattering of the secondary literature on most subjects he tackles. He hires a younger researcher (the Goodwin method) to read for him and tell him what’s important. If he doesn’t read in depth the books and articles he lists in his very thorough bibliography, which someone else presumably compiled, how honest is he being with the reader?
What makes him a historian? It’s his avuncular personality, not any mastery of the sources.
Though more than a million copies of his book “John Adams” sold, even more Americans were influenced by the HBO series of the same name, which was marketed as if based on the book. In reality, not only was the history grossly distorted, many of the scenes were stolen from “The Adams Chronicles,” which appeared on PBS in the 1970s. There are far better books on Adams than McCullough’s, but they haven’t been hyped. There’s no money in it. History is hard to sell if it’s complicated.
This is so incredibly bitter. I guess in the worlds of Burstein and Isenberg, Gordon Wood doesn’t count as a “careful historian.” Here is what Wood said about McCullough and the book:
Unlike Tuchman, who feuded with university professors of history, McCullough has the respect of academic historians, maybe because he respects them. McCullough actually attends historical conferences and sits patiently listening to long specialized papers. Anyone who does that, and doesn’t have to, deserves respect.
So well known is McCullough that any book he now writes becomes an expectant event. Learning that McCullough was working on a biography of John Adams, readers of popular history and professional historians alike have eagerly awaited its publication. They will not be disappointed. This big but extremely readable book is by far the best biography of Adams ever written.
I think Burstein and Isenberg owe McCullough and apology. And what exactly is wrong with hiring an assistant, who can help to sort through the immense amount of documents that come with any major project? The last time I checked university professors use graduate students as assistants in pretty much the same way.
Throughout the essay the authors blur the distinction between popularity, plagiarism, and the difficulty of writing analytical history to the point where it’s not even clear to the reader what they are so upset about. What is clear is that they believe the only people who should write history are historians with a PhD. They close with the following:
The trend will no doubt continue. The public seems to like what is most easily digestible, especially if it comes from the word processor of someone congenial whom they regularly see on TV. And publishers know they can successfully market a book from a household name, no matter how derivative its content. Name recognition trumps quality. Appearance is everything.
You know, once in a while those charges of elitism directed at academics holds and here is a wonderful example. They seem to have no grasp as to what the general public wants in a good history book. I suspect that most people who read a lot of history are looking for good stories that help to make sense of the world around them and give meaning to their lives.
I could go on and on about this article, but I want to get back to a really good biography of Andrew Jackson by Jon Meacham.
My editor at the Atlantic asked me to revise a recent post on the DNC and the Confederate flag. You can read it below or at the Atlantic. I have no doubt that it will raise the usual cries of South/Confederate heritage bashing from the usual suspects. What I find funny is that the posts I’ve written for the Atlantic that could be construed as Union bashing or whatever the equivalent is this side of the Mason-Dixon Line rarely receive any kind of condemnation. Funny how that works. Click here for the rest of the my Atlantic columns.
Next month’s Democratic National Convention and the nomination of the nation’s first black president for a second term in the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, will provide an ideal backdrop for those looking to assess the region’s progress on the racial front. At front and center for many sits the Confederate flag.
Reports are likely to resemble this recent article from The Charlotte Observer, written by Elizabeth Leland, who believes that “remnants of the Old South linger in our region — and none as divisive as the Confederate flag.” Such articles follow a well-worn pattern that includes interviews with one or two white southern men who fly the flag on their property or pickup truck and believe it represents “heritage, not hate.” (As an auto mechanic quoted in Leland’s story puts it, “I’ve lived here since I was a little rascal and my daddy always had an American flag and a Confederate flag, and I do, too.”)
Word came earlier today that David Barton’s publisher has pulled his most recent book on Thomas Jefferson. Barton is best known as the evangelical Christian, who has built a career on uncovering or reclaiming the truth about America’s founding and Founding Fathers from the community of secular and liberal historians. Barton claims to be a historian. Over the past few years he has amassed a growing following who embrace his interpretation of the role of Christianity in the lives of individual Founders and in the establishment of this nation. Barton enjoys support from a wide range of public figures and is now the official court historian for Glenn Beck. So what happened?
First, it is important to note that Barton’s published works have been scrutinized from the beginning by professional historians, but to little avail. What made the difference in recent days is the growing resistance from fellow conservative Christian historians and scholars, who are actually trained in the field. It’s a growing list, but I would start here and for a critique of Barton’s book, Jefferson’s Lies, I recommend John Fea’s 4-part series.
On the one hand it is unfortunate that it took fellow conservative Christian historians to finally bring about the removal of this book from stores since their religious and political views have nothing to do with the strength of their arguments. Their arguments stand or fall based on how they read the relevant evidence cited by Barton as well as the strength of his interpretation. Barton is not being attacked because of his personal beliefs, but on his skill or lack thereof as a historian. Anyone who spends enough time reading these rejoinders will conclude that there are serious flaws with Barton’s work. In the end Barton claimed to be offering the general public a corrective to those evil secular/liberal historians without taking the essential step of engaging the relevant historiography. While Barton may not understand this his publisher certainly does.
So, what does this have to do with the Civil War? First, Barton and Beck recently tried their hand at doing some Civil War history and as you might imagine the results were pretty abysmal. More on point, however, it is important to keep in mind that we have plenty of David Barton-types in our own community. Check out any number of titles from Pelican Press, for example, and you will find the same flawed approach to doing history. Authors rail against what they see as a liberal/secular bias among professional Civil War historians and other writers, but when it comes to actually engaging their arguments they are silent. Either they are unfamiliar with their publications or they are simply incapable of engaging the arguments.
Let’s face it, the study of history has become so incredibly politicized that we’ve forgotten that the discipline involves the mastery of certain skills that can be learned in any number of places. Without getting into another tired discussion of who is and who is not a historian, we can at least say that one’s claim to the title stands or falls on the quality of the work produced. What we now can say with confidence is that Barton is no historian.
Today was a good day for the discipline of history.