Do You Suffer From PCM Disease?

600px-no_political_correctnessHead on over to Civil Warriors for Brooks Simpson’s response to a series of posts at TOCWOC which purports to analyze the “politically correct mythology” [PCM] that pervades academic Civil War history.  You can start with James Durney’s “analysis” and then follow up with Brett Schulte’s two-part response [here and here].  I am going to let Simpson speak for me on this one:  So, tell me, dear readers … can you name a historian who embraces the notion that the North was 100% right or the South 100% wrong?  I can’t, especially as “the North” is a rather diverse place, as is “the South,” and there was no single “Northern position” or “Southern position” (for example, black slaves in the South were southerners, too, as all those fans of black Confederates like to tell us).   Does any historian say that slavery was the only difference between North and South (especially as some slave states did remain in the Union)?  And what is this rant about black Confederates?  I don’t know of any historian who rejects the notion that the Confederacy employed slave labor (thus Butler’s contraband policy), or that a handful of people of African American ancestry served in Confederate ranks.  The debate is over what this means, as well as a demand that those who argue that there were tens of thousands of African Americans who voluntarily served in Confederate ranks produce a shred of evidence to support their contention (this is one place where the cry of “politically correct” comes across loudest, from people who would rather not submit their assertions to any sort of scrutiny).

Neither Durney nor Schulte provides one concrete example for their readers to help them make sense of the specific claims.  The only historian referenced is Eric Foner, who for some reason always seems to emerge in these discussions.  I doubt Durney has ever opened a book by Foner; at least there is no indication that he has.  What I find most hilarious is reading Schulte’s response.  Will someone please tell me what he is agreeing or disagreeing with?  Durney’s analysis is so vague that it is utterly meaningless.  I guess it’s easy to critique a field that you know very little about.

Thanks for the Friday entertainment guys, but this is so irresponsible.

35 comments… add one
  • Charles Nov 20, 2009 @ 1:39

    IMHO… Terms like “Political correctness “, “Socialism” ,”Racism”, “Secularism ” and many others are hurled into discussions much to often. Not that they do not exist, but they have been over used to the point they have little impact left. They have become political wild cards and over used.

  • Charles Nov 19, 2009 @ 19:39

    IMHO… Terms like “Political correctness “, “Socialism” ,”Racism”, “Secularism ” and many others are hurled into discussions much to often. Not that they do not exist, but they have been over used to the point they have little impact left. They have become political wild cards and over used.

  • Dan Nov 16, 2009 @ 22:23

    Have you considered the possibility that a focus on military history might be the result of personal interest, rather than a conscious/unconscious decision to ignore the contributions of marginalized demographics? You're almost suggesting that students of the war are being elitists by deciding what they're interested in studying. Isn't it sometimes a matter of personal taste/interest?

    • Kevin Levin Nov 17, 2009 @ 4:39

      By definition I think that those things we choose to focus on are “the result of personal interest.” Other than that I'm not sure how to respond to this comment, assuming it is being directed to me. I'm not sure what it has to do with the post. Perhaps you can clarify.

  • Sherree Nov 14, 2009 @ 5:59


    Interesting conversation lately.

    I agree with Margaret's statement that the Civil War was more of a Greek tragedy than a morality play. I also agree with the following statement that Brooks made: “Moral judgment should not drive the narrative. But one can draw judgments from the findings and interpretations that emerge from one's research. However, rarely are they simple ones.”

    I have been thinking about the concept of memory quite a bit, and how our memory of the past helps to shape the present. I am on a somewhat different track than most of your readers, however, so I have hesitated to comment.

    I linked to the exhibit in New York that you posted, in which the newly rediscovered “Negro burial ground” where many of the men and women of colonial New York's slave population were buried. That exhibit is a powerful statement to yet another area of our nation's collective amnesia. I can't quite shake the specter of the forgotten past that haunts one of our nation's most vibrant cities. A literal earthen wall was built by the forced labor of slaves in order to protect white colonial inhabitants from indigenous populations and rival white colonists. This is how Wall Street got its name. In addition, the four hundred graves of slaves that were unearthed revealed that the institution of slavery was just as brutal in New York as it was in Charleston. Many of the remains reveal lives of excruciating hard labor. Also, many of the graves are of children. Further, the forced labor of slaves helped to make New York the internationally important city that it became, as well as the critical financial partner for the building of the institution of slavery in America, and the building of enormous wealth in both the United States and Europe. As we approach the sesquicentennial, are we to remember this part of our history, or will we be confined to the years 1861-1865? Four millions slaves did not just appear in the South. They were kidnapped and brutalized by Americans from both the South and the North, and by Europeans, and then forcibly brought to America. It seems that to fully understand our history, that this part of the history must be dealt with as well, as we consider the national tragedy that slavery–and the Civil War that was fought to finally end it–represent.

    I hope we do remember, since the present is indeed influenced by our memory of the past. Some of the changes that current politicians are attempting to bring about deal directly with the legacies of the past, and specifically with the legacy of the distribution of wealth in our nation. That cannot be clear to the white population, however, unless the white population understands how we got to this point. The majority of African American men and women and indigenous men and women have a standard of living that is so far below that of white men and women, that most white men and women cannot fully comprehend the scope of the disparity. As we prepare for Thanksgiving, in many African American communities across the nation, and in indigenous reserves in Canada and reservations in the United States, children are freezing to death and starving. That's right. Children are starving–some of them relatives of a close friend of mine.. These facts are direct results of past actions of both nations. Just because the US elected our first African American President, those facts have not changed. The point is not to assign blame or guilt, but to fix the problem.

    I don't even know how to respond to a claim that slavery in the South wasn't as brutal as overwhelming evidence to the contrary conclusively proves that it was. From all that I continue to read, slavery was brutal wherever it was instituted, except, perhaps, in the homes of free black men and women who saved family members when they were presented with the rare opportunity to do so.

    • msimons Nov 16, 2009 @ 12:32

      Sherree I agree it is deplorable that any Child within the borders of the USA goes to bed hungery!

  • Brooks D. Simpson Nov 13, 2009 @ 23:23

    “Mc Pherson, Simpson, Levin and the rest of the crowd … want to dictate the interpretation of history. ”

    Of course. 🙂

    (Taken from an anonymous comment tin reply to the Durney post.)

    • Kevin Levin Nov 14, 2009 @ 4:36

      I consider it an honor to be grouped with you and McPherson. I'll take that any day of the week. 🙂

      • margaretdblough Nov 14, 2009 @ 6:40

        It's sort of like being on Nixon's Enemies List.

        • Kevin Levin Nov 14, 2009 @ 6:47

          Yeah, but at least Nixon had a list. These guys are content with rolling around in vague/meaningless characterizations. I can't help but think that there is a certain amount of insecurity/defensiveness at work here.

          • margaretdblough Nov 14, 2009 @ 7:33

            Good points.

  • Bob_Pollock Nov 13, 2009 @ 21:18

    No doubt historians should strive to present as complete a picture of the past as possible. We shouldn't tell only the parts of the story that support our interpretation, leaving out the parts that don't. But if we don't make a moral judgement regarding the Civil War we are doing just what David Blight said historians of reconciliation did – conclude that “devotion alone made everyone right and no one truly wrong, in the remembered Civil War”. I do believe the Union had the moral high ground.
    This reminds me of Peg Lamphier's comments regarding her study of the marriage of William Sprague and Kate Chase. She said as a historian she tried to be as objective as possible, but ultimately she had to conclude that Sprague was a jerk. (I'm paraphrasing because I don't have the book in front of me.)
    I'm not sure it is even possible to interpret without making moral judgements. Durney makes this statement in his post: “Southern slavery, while not kind, was not excessively cruel considering the standards in place.” This is a moral judgement on his part, which I reject.
    Maybe you can explain what I'm missing.

    • Brooks D. Simpson Nov 13, 2009 @ 21:42

      I think Peg did an excellent job of trying to understand a difficult relationship, and yet, given what was before her, it's hard to escape the notion that Sprague was a jerk. But that conclusion did not prevent her from being fair to both parties, and seeing that Kate Chase had her own baggage, even if she was not the horrid person Sprague was.

      Moral judgment should not drive the narrative. But one can draw judgments from the findings and interpretations that emerge from one's research. However, rarely are they simple ones.

      • Bob_Pollock Nov 13, 2009 @ 21:52

        I agree, Brooks. As the head of my graduate committee, Dr. William G. Piston, told me: “Let the material speak for itself.”

    • Kevin Levin Nov 14, 2009 @ 4:42

      I agree completely that as historians we make judgments about the past. I do, however, believe that there is a difference between the kind of analytical rigor that can be brought to bear on the past and viewing the war as a morality play. For me the big difference is the possibility of revision while the latter is driven by emotion and a need to vindicate. While I am pleased with the outcome of the war I don't find myself writing simply to vindicate one side over the other. My primary motivation is to understand as best I can what happened and why.

  • Andrea Nov 13, 2009 @ 15:22

    I find it interesting that being interested in the social, political, and economic aspects of the Civil War are classed as “PCM”. I think strictly focusing on the military campaigns misses out on a lot of what was going on in the country in the years leading up to That War and during it. The Late Unpleasantness didn't occur in a vacuum, after all.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 13, 2009 @ 15:27

      It's absurd isn't it. Since when did it become problematic to want to try to understand one of the most important and complex events in American history from multiple perspectives? I would love to know who these historians are that shun or look down upon trying to understand the military side of the war. I just returned from a conference that includes one of the largest gatherings of Civil War historians and I can't remember hearing such a view. It's simply laughable.

    • margaretdblough Nov 14, 2009 @ 0:35

      Andrea-I've long believed the reason why some cling so tenaciously to the who shot who where kind of thinking is that it's the one sure defense against ever having to deal with the complexities of the political/societal aspects.

      • Andrea Nov 14, 2009 @ 4:02

        I wonder too if there's not an element of privilege. If you stick to the military history of the war, you're sticking to the actions of mainly white men. If you expand your study to the social, political, and economic aspects, you begin to have to acknowledge the contributions of white women and people of color as well. I strongly suspect this is where the “politically correct” label comes in, as it's often used to avoid or devalue the acknowledgement of the roles of minority groups in any number of contexts, so why would the Civil War escape this rhetoric?

        Obviously not every historian looking at the period is unable to step outside the bounds of privilege, but there's just enough of them lumping things like the social history of the era in as “women's issues” (as you mentioned in a comment on another entry, it's too often assumed that social issues are the *only* things women are interested in on the war) to make my skin crawl when I see posts like the list that sparked this debate.

        • margaretdblough Nov 14, 2009 @ 7:02

          There are some people who definitely fall into the only wanting to look at the privileged. But I really feel a lot of it is that it is an aversion to facing the complexities that lie outside the safe perimeter of who shot who where. White CW veterans on both sides who favored the reconciliationist narrative helped establish that perimeter in the first place.

          • Peter Nov 14, 2009 @ 17:21

            Going along with this point, it seems that many of the people who go on about political correctness view history as a way to buttress their own dogma. History for them serves to buttress what they already believe, and thus they interpret everyone else in this light. They either won't or can't conceive that history does something other than confirm and support preexisting notions. In other words, they assume that everyone else adopts a similar process, and that the point of history is to serve only presentist grounds and add rhetorical support for a current political agenda. I think this is why “PC” is such a touchstone for them, because they can point to it and say “You are just trying to impose your dogma on me.” Note that when pressed to provide evidence beyond a tiresome and continual resort to Zinn, the next step in the argument becomes “you are wrong and I can't argue anymore because I don't have evidence, so we will just have to agree to disagree” or “you are an academic and thus anything you say is tainted. And the bogeyman shifts when you, Kevin, point out that you are not a professor, they proclaim “well, you are an elitist and thus everything you say is tainted.”

            • Kevin Levin Nov 14, 2009 @ 20:18

              Couldn't have said it any better. It is, however, difficult to understand how the PC rhetoric is used in each instance. Sometimes it does seem to be a reflection of a politicized view of the study of history and other times it is thrown around in a desperate attempt to make sense of something that you are clearly unfamiliar and uncomfortable with. I think this is a case of the latter.

              Sorry to have missed you at the Southern. Hope all is well.

  • bradmeyer Nov 13, 2009 @ 15:16

    IMO Mr Simpson makes his position clear with the opening question. To the extent that he views the contest in terms of right and wrong (quibbling only as to the proper proportions to assign) he views it as a morality play.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 13, 2009 @ 15:19

      Thanks for the comment, but I'm not quite sure what you mean when you suggest that Simpson views “it as a morality play.” What does “it” refer to?

      • bradmeyer Nov 13, 2009 @ 15:35

        “The contest”, i.e. the Civil War.IMO “right” and “wrong are personal value judgments with no objective meaning whatsoever, and to attempt to understand the war in terms of right and wrong prejudices the observer at the very beginning of the exercise.


        • Kevin Levin Nov 13, 2009 @ 15:38

          Gotcha and thanks for the clarification. I agree. Referencing “political correctness” when it comes to such judgments is just another way of saying I disagree. Not very interesting as historical judgment.

          • Bob_Pollock Nov 13, 2009 @ 18:33


            I think I have said this before, but…although I agree that historians need to be as objective as possible in their research and writing, I don't believe we need to, or even should, suspend our moral judgements of what is “right” and “wrong.” I am not a student of philosophy, and I know we can debate what is right and wrong to an extent, but no one will convince me that slavery was “right.” It was an evil institution. In this judgement, I take the side of the abolitionists and anti-slavery folks, not those who argued that slavery was an institution ordained by God. This doesn't mean I don't understand the pro-slavery argument, only that I believe it was morally bankrupt. I don't think this disqualifies me as a historian. Let me quote Arthur Schlesinger:

            “A society closed in the defense of evil institutions creates moral differences far too profound to be solved by compromise. Such a society forces upon every one, both those living at the time and those writing about it later, the necessity for a moral judgement; and the moral judgement in such cases becomes an indispensable factor in the historical understanding.”

            • Kevin Levin Nov 13, 2009 @ 20:29

              I certainly agree that we should not suspend our moral judgment. No doubt you agree, however, that we should carefully distinguish between our engaging in moral judgment as opposed to interpreting the past.

          • Brooks D. Simpson Nov 13, 2009 @ 21:25

            I think you probably would not agree. Brad's sense of moral judgment is different, and I've seen it over the years. Ask him whether slaves were complicit in their enslavement.

          • Brooks D. Simpson Nov 13, 2009 @ 21:46

            I think you have to view Brad Meyer's comment with care. He's claiming I view the Civil War as a morality play (and, of course, he doesn't). One would like to know the evidence upon which he bases that assessment. Don't wait for him to produce it. Mr. Meyer's claimed I've said things before, and when I've asked for proof, he “disappears.” Sound familiar?

            • Kevin Levin Nov 14, 2009 @ 4:36

              Thanks for clarifying Brooks. I wasn't really sure who he was referring to.

    • Brooks D. Simpson Nov 13, 2009 @ 21:23

      Wrong again, Brad. I don't view the Civil War in terms of a morality play. That's YOUR personal value judgment. We've been through this before. But thanks for telling me what I think. LOL! Just another way of constructing a strawman in order to avoid the argument.

      • margaretdblough Nov 14, 2009 @ 0:59

        I don't think one can top Ulysses Grant's classic comment, in his discussion on Appomattox in his memoirs, “”I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse” (p.735). ” I agree with you that the Civil War is not a morality play, it's more on the order of a Greek tragedy. You read the discussions of slavery in Madison's “Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787” and you have Madison, a slaveholder and a Virginian, reporting, of himself “Mr. Madison thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men” (Debate for August 25, 1787) He had earlier stated that he saw the principle dividing force as being whether or not a state had slavery and the division was North/South rather than between large and small states. (Debate for June 30, 1787). The protections for slavery in the Constitution was the price demanded by South Carolina and Georgia for their support of the Constitution.

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