“Not only is the Civil War not over; it can still be lost.”

In “They Have Blood on Their Hands,” Chauncey DeVega takes issue with those who would celebrate the 150th anniversary of the South’s secession from the Union.  The celebrants make the well-rehearsed claim that the Civil War was primarily about states’ rights with slavery being an incidental factor.  For the author this is history that “does political work,” untruthfully presenting the Civil War in the tradition of great debates over political liberty rather than what most reputable scholars deem it was, the South’s attempt to maintain white supremacy and economic prosperity through the enslavement of African-Americans.  Furthermore, those who would obviate slavery as the fundamental issue use “selective forgetting, and intentional remembering to advance certain ends in the here and now,” as Devega says.  Those ends serve a mainly older, white and conservative demographic, who struggle to cope with the dissonance of the inaccurate history they learned and the reality of a country becoming browner, where those who have been typically marginalized, increasingly decry the whitewashing of history.  The dominant version of US history, that many of us learned, was packaged as white, male, Christian, and as David Blight says in the Atlantic Monthly online, its gloss was a “romanticizing and sentimentalism” that allowed the defeated South to rewrite the history of the Civil War in exculpatory tones.  This Lost Cause made secession an easy history pill to swallow because the unpleasant truth was excised in favor of a sugarcoat that masked a willingness to treat people as property.  As Blight’s quote, used in the title of this week’s post informs us, the Civil War is still being fought and it is not a forgone conclusion that truth will overcome lies.

That a Virginia textbook states thousands of black people fought for the South, quoted in The Washington Post online, reminds us that there is a constant battle amongst some to either insert dishonesty, or perhaps more disturbingly, an effort by those who have been taught lies and wish to “correct” what they see as the distortions of others.  Am I naïve to be shocked that a school text book is not written by “a trained historian” but by someone who “has written several books.”  Or that the author’s examination of the subject was derived “primarily through Internet research.”  How did it get passed reviewers?  I can understand how it might seem innocuous to some to say ‘Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson,’ but wouldn’t someone on a review panel be either politically or historically astute enough to question that?

Larry Cebula’s post about his visit to the Baron Von Munchausen Historic Home, and the subsequent reply from its director was reminiscent of earlier readings from Slavery and Public History.  Again, we read of someone defending slavery’s omission from history in deference to the feeling of black people/students.  This speaks to the difficulty we have in discussing our past, particularly on those issues involving race or shameful actions.  I can understand how slavery might make an African-American feel angry or shameful, or uncomfortable and be painful to hear about.  However, if we avoid the conversation through euphemisms like “maid” or “servant” we perpetuate the lies that encumber our present.  And while we shouldn’t forget the positive aspects of our history—we have come a long way from Jim Crow—the director’s advice to stop focusing on negatives is a common complaint from those who want to believe an Emancipation Proclamation or Civil Rights Act cured overnight, as David Blight terms it, “the nation’s persistent racism.”

The Washington Post online story, “Conservative class on Founding Fathers’ answers to current woes gain popularity” describes a manifestation of white Christian conservative economic insecurity.  Because of the traditional hagiographical treatment of the Founding Fathers, they make ideal role models for those drowning in a sea of doubt.  Additionally, it is reassuring that they were white, wealthy grandfatherly types who were always on the cusp of banning slavery, but just could not figure out how to do it.  Or at least that is what some on the right would have us believe.  Ironically, the economic policies supported by conservative politicians and pundits have encouraged the widening wealth-gap that pushes lower or middle income people to scramble for answers in a world of uncertainty.  Rather than questioning the causes of their financial distress, many are happy to accept the scapegoating of immigrants, people of color and those who do not subscribe to their procrustean religious views.  So the snake oil salesperson’s tells us to learn from the Founding Fathers, whose feet of clay have been sanitized, their deism has been defenestrated, their elitism leveled and their slaves freed.  Of course, the snake oil salesman has to be careful, because after all, the Founding Fathers did rebel when they felt their economic interest was threatened to a particular degree.

Jeff Robinson asks, “How can historians and publics use the power of the past to catalyze social change?” in his Public History Commons post.  Can those who decry fracking use the lands’ history as a tool to persuade their neighbors to resist selling their property to oil and gas companies?   Seriously, if someone offered you five million for your fifty acres could you resist?  Apparently many do, and in this Robinson sees the power of history harnessed to the yoke of public activism.  He also theorizes about getting people of opposing views to sit down together, to talk through their point of view, in order to reach compromise.  This made me wonder about the nature of compromise.  Is compromise always a good thing?  Or is it just the best that we can expect in an imperfect world?  If some places are saved isn’t that better than none?  If some human rights are respected isn’t that better than none?  Perhaps compromise is not always the best route.  Maybe reframing the question and removing false dichotomies are a better place to start before compromise is attempted.

My blood was boiling….but Marc Bloch helped me

Post for 4/14/15

I think my blood boiled on most of these…
And it all brought back the Lynne Cheney effort to “set historical teaching right…”

For my irate tangent, see these:
Lynn Cheney’s moves toward sanitized history education and leftist brain-washing – read this by Paul Gottfried http://www.commdiginews.com/politics-2/guidelines-for-teaching-history-24411/

Lynne Cheney and Gary Nash: Teaching a PC version of History
Read more at http://www.commdiginews.com/politics-2/guidelines-for-teaching-history-24411/#XvUhe0hbwdl4z7i6.99

And this NY Times article, History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past- by Gary B Nash, Alfred A Knopf – NY https://www.nytimes.com/books/first/n/nash-history.html

Some quotes: “Cheney also charged that the U.S. History Standards presented a “grim and gloomy” portrayal of American history. Why so much attention, she asked, to topics such as the Ku Klux Klan and McCarthyism? “Citing other teaching examples rather than the standards themselves, Cheney found six references to Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who used the Underground Railroad to rescue scores of other slaves. In contrast, such white males as Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee were mentioned only one and zero times, respectively. The standards give no hint, she complained, “of the spell-binding oratory of such congressional giants as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.” And Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, and the Wright brothers, she claimed, “make no appearance at all.”
“What went wrong?” Cheney asked. Cheney concluded her Journal attack with a call to arms. National certification of these standards, she warned, must at all cost be blocked or “much that is significant in our past will begin to disappear from our schools.” She urged that the standards be stopped in their tracks because they were the rubbish produced by an “academic establishment that revels in . . . politicized history.”

My favorite Nash quote of the article: “History does matter, and it is important for Americans at the end of the twentieth century to understand how the recent history wars have unfolded, how these struggles are connected to earlier arguments over interpreting the past, and what this tells us about the state of our society…contention over the past is as old as written history itself, that the democratizing of the history profession has led to more inclusive and balanced presentations of American and world history, and that continuously reexamining the past, rather than piously repeating traditional narratives, is the greatest service historians can render in a democracy.”

OK, sorry for the rant…now to my comments abut the readings…

• DeVega Blog: “They Have Blood on Their Hands: The Sons of Confederate Veterans”

Secession Ball- I was horrified at the invitation: “a joyous night of music, dancing, food and drink.” Public announcements can be devastatingly revealing: ignorance, or arrogance?

I identified with his thought that “History does political work. As a corollary, memory is a function of power, selective forgetting, and intentional remembering to advance certain ends in the here and now.” This gave me room to think both about politics and memory – and the power of both. Sometimes, they lead us to forget or remember erroneously.

The NY Times link with comments by Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina N.A.A.C.P. addressed the more terrible thought: “I can only imagine what kind of celebration they would have if they had won,” and was dumbfounded by “all of this glamorization and sanitization of what really happened.” The terrible facts of slavery and human chattel should be indelibly seared in everyone’s history – not just a select few, and not skewed by select memories or belief systems…

• The Virginia 4th grade textbook story by Kevin Sieff in the Washington Post, Oct 2010
My question: Who is responsible for truth in history?
Misrepresenting history is even more of a danger when it is aimed at schoolchildren, with moldable minds and very often, parents or caregivers who really don’t know what is happening in the classroom or in assignments. Or conversely, what power do “concerned and actively involved parents” have to question and rectify errors in historical memory that end up in the classroom? (“The issues first came to light after College of William & Mary historian Carol Sheriff opened her daughter’s copy of “Our Virginia” and saw the reference to black Confederate soldiers.” “It’s disconcerting that the next generation is being taught history based on an unfounded claim instead of accepted scholarship,” Sheriff said. “It concerns me not just as a professional historian but as a parent.”) It seems to me that parents must educate themselves, and they must help in accountability for truth. Sadly, I fear, many do not know enough to be able to assume this role. So, then, who is? Great discussion thoughts….

• NW History “Open Letter to the Curators of the Baron Von Munchausen Historic Home” by Larry Cebula, 2010 (two reads)

I just cringed at this!!! I think this letter shows the need for honest and constant debate in the teaching of history. (Thank you, Mandy, Michelle, and Dr M-B!)

Good for Mr. Cebula calling out poor history, misinformation…but, respectfully so.
I can’t image what the reply wuld have been if he not been so kind with his words.

This discussion of “the biggest problem with the interpretation at the Baron Munchausen House was the absence of slavery,” and then the “sayings” origins that were inaccurate elicited three thoughts from me:
– The perpetuation of myths is something anyone can be guilty of. I probably have done the same thing…BUT if you are in apposition of interpreting the past for the public, and schoolchildren, you are responsible for historical accuracy. It would be fine if the myths were called out as myths, but to purposely repeat myths or distort the truth is just not acceptable in the public arena.

– The issue of docents and volunteer training is also very important. I know not every volunteer is watched carefully, but proper education and training should be required in all public forums. This won’t tackle the whole problem, but it could help tremendously, and it can put hose who tend to veer form the truth on notice that it’s unacceptable.

– The need for updating: The Wisconsin State Historical Society story about out-of-date Native American history and the Idaho Historical Society’s ancient exhibits call to mind the fact that today, public historians MUST be current, vigilant, and yes, participatory, so that at least the vocal visitors can set the record straight.

Lastly, “You as a Professor should stop bringing into the 21st century all this negativism.” I could not believe this reply that was sent to Mr. Cebula!
The “hateful subject” was cruel. It also was hateful. Perpetuating that by avoiding it, or by disguising it as a kind and benevolent action is just ludicrous.

I liked this Blog reply: I certainly look forward to teaching “World History 101 (No Negativity: only the nice bits)”

• Washington Post article – Conservative class on Founding Fathers’ answers
By Krissah Thompson, Washington Post Staff Writer , Saturday, June 5, 2010


Made my blood boil again!! The thought of people inculcating young, impressionable minds is just reprehensible. I guess that is how Hitler trained his youth, or how cults do the same with children. I don’t want to tread to much on religion, but it surely has been used for centuries to propagate hatred, fear, and misinformation.
“We’re trying to flood the nation . . . and it’s happening,” said Taylor, 63, a charter school principal….and “That led him in 1995 to create Heritage Academy, a public charter school where he teaches American history. He has a master’s degree in Christian political science from Coral Ridge Baptist University in Florida, an unaccredited school.”
Can someone tell me about the state of American charter schools, or home-schooling?

And then, politics and history again…
“Inspired by conservative commentator Glenn Beck, Republicans, home-school groups and people affiliated with militias. Here in Springfield, the day’s students sipped coffee and chewed on peppermints while seated at folding banquet-hall tables. They included a lawyer, a farmer, a local politician and a project manager for a construction company. Except for one man, all of them were white. Most were middle-aged, and there was nary a Democrat to be found.”
!!!! I was bouncing off the walls with this excerpt, and the ties between politics, militias, and the search for political purity (is that code for racist?): “Taylor spun stories of Benjamin Franklin as a praying man who wept after signing the Constitution, and Thomas Jefferson as a conflicted soul who wished to abolish slavery but because of his benevolence was reluctant to free his own slaves. “If you’ve been to Monticello and you see how Jefferson cared for them, they didn’t want to leave,” Taylor told the class. He avoided what he called “negative stuff” about the Founders’ “supposed immorality.”

• Jeff Robinson, 2012 Public History Commons

This was perceptive: Locals have no choice but to look to their history for answers, resources, and inspiration, no matter what side of the debate they’re on.

• The Civil War Isn’t Over, Atlantic Article
“150 years after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Americans are still fighting over the great issues at the heart of the conflict,” by David Blight. April 8, 2015

“Over time, the Civil War became the subject of great romanticization and sentimentalism in cultural memory. No one can grow up anymore at their Civil War veteran grandfather’s knee, learning deeply mythic stories of the Blue and the Gray, or hearing of slavery times from a formerly enslaved grandparent….The Civil War epoch has always resonated as a family affair for many Americans, transmitted through the generations.” This made me reflect on the importance of oral transmission, and generational perspectives being passed along…

The “Past and present are always utterly interdependent.”
What a great application of this thought, correlated to Marc Bloch, history’s founding father: “Misunderstanding of the present,” wrote Bloch, “is the inevitable consequence of ignorance of the past. But a man may wear himself out just as fruitlessly in seeking to understand the past, if he is totally ignorant of the present.”

YES. OK, it took Marc Bloch to help me re-center.

Politics, Education, and Idiots.

“History does political work. As a corollary, memory is a function of power, selective forgetting, and intentional remembering to advance certain ends in the here and now.” (DeVega). The truth in this statement is astounding. This piece and the two Washington Post pieces reflect the issues that arise when political issues infiltrate history, and history education in particular. By turning the Civil War into a struggle over states’ rights, the narrative of the history is flattened and the people involved are forgotten. The denial of slavery as a major issue devalues the entire history of the Civil War. It becomes a half-story. I’m with DeVega: “I do not know if the Sons of Confederate Veterans and their related ilk are good people or bad. In fact, I could care less. All I want is a little honesty in how American history is taught and remembered.” Masoff and her ilk are bad people. They aren’t evil. But anyone who writes a textbook for children by using three unverified internet sources and can still sleep at night is not a good person. Also, how is this a defense: “As controversial as it is, I stand by what I write,” she said. “I am a fairly respected writer”? You may be a fairly respected writer of romance novellas, but that does not make your poorly researched history book anything other than fairly full of inaccuracies. So maybe that is a little harsh and it isn’t entirely Masoff who is to blame. The fact that a panel of educators read this book and thought “Hey, that all sounds pretty good” is extremely infuriating. “The book also survived the Education Department’s vetting and was ruled “accurate and unbiased” by a committee of content specialists and teachers.” What?! The other Washington Post article might make me despair even more than the state of Virginia’s idiotic panel of content specialists and teachers. Earl Taylor may actually be evil. “That led him in 1995 to create Heritage Academy, a public charter school where he teaches American history.” This is the type of charter school that leads to bad press about all charter schools. I read about this school last summer. The Skousen books, The 5,000 Year Leap and The Making of America both have heavy religious tones and teach what most people would consider a biased, racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic history of the United States. See either this Salon article or this Huffpost article for more information.

The interaction between Cebula and the manager of the Baron Von Munchausen historic home is a great example of one professional attempting to help another who is incapable of responding professionally. Having worked in a small historic house as a volunteer guide, I understand the stories that get passed from one generation of volunteers to the next. I feel this is usually harmless as they are normally anecdotal stories about past family members, not blanket statements about life during an entire historic period. Cebula addresses the issue we discussed a while back about the “servants” who kept the house running. In reading the manager’s response, it seems clear she missed or misunderstood most of his points. And then she blames the schools: “You have to understand the younger visitors know very little about the Revolutionary War period, due to the fact that the schools have gone downhill and do not give this generation a good education ..The younger students can barely start a sentence without the word “like, like” and continue to ramble with the worst English imaginable.” While her defense for not discussing slavery is because it is too hateful of a subject and that children would treat black children as slaves. How were you teaching about slavery?! It seems her institution isn’t much better than the schools she blames if she decides it would be better to sugar-coat history. The best part is that fact that the “Mission Statement” for her historic house is to both preserve history and educational projects. “It was very disturbing to us that these children would feel less of a person if we continued to banter about slavery….our “Mission Statement” for this house is to preserve our history, patriotic service and educational projects…Not to bring into the mix about a most heinous practice that existed over two centuries ago…I feel that bringing up a hateful subject would be cruel to the student, who would start hating the messenger ..details of cruelty is a subject most people with sensitivity do not want to hear about….So there you have it.” Yes, so there you have it…a terrible way to educate visitors and an excellent way to not preserve the past.

Now I will step down off my high horse on a soapbox. (Sorry).

If We Ignore Them, Will They Go Away?

Lately, there has been a lot of media attention in regards to the Sons of the Confederate Veterans.   Being that it is the anniversary of the end of the Civil War, it is interesting to see the war’s lasting legacy. The Sons claim that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights, and not over slavery.   They see the north as an entity that marched in, took over, and ruined the (ahem) good old days.

I wonder how much of this media attention is seen as antagonistic by the SCV’s and in a skewed way, encourages them to dig their heels in further. Though the articles are trying to show the fallacies of SCV thought and lack of serious scholarship, as well as the constant denial of the horrors that occurred during the Civil War era, I noticed tactics that were used in the articles that I could see would be condescending or hostile to the Confederate Sympathizer. These tactics, I feel, are counter productive and instead of educating, it creates deeper chasms between facts and the so-called romanticism of the memory of the antebellum south. For example, in the Blood on Their Hands article, the crossed out sentence calls the members of SCV a series of names, and in the Open Letter, the word facts presented in parenthesis, seems to me a way to make people who have a long history of feeling taken over by “outsiders” hold on to their views even more.

So, how do we help correct bad or misleading history without making things inadvertently worse? Cebula’s letter seems to have been written with the best intentions, backed up his claims with scholarship, and yet, the director of the historic home did not take kindly to the letter at all. The response, “You as a professor” is a great reminder to not write and send while angry.