The “Rebel” Flag and the “Civil War” Debated
To comment on this article go to B’Man’s Revolt.
Could it be I’ve learned too much?
If charged, I must confess.
My views would be more popular
If I knew much less.
I might vote for Democrats
Or for the GOP
And not have old acquaintances
Almost run from me.
Education’s big with them
And ignorance the foe,
Except for those disturbing things
That they don’t want to know.
You will find the poem above if you click on the “post-doctoral” in my message, “Welcome to the world of post-doctoral politics” on my home page. I have the distinct impression that one such “old acquaintance” has been running from me for quite some time. Actually, he’s a bit more than an acquaintance. I really thought of him as my closest friend at the small college in North Carolina where I taught economics for six years when we were both fresh out of graduate school. He’s the one person there whose email address I have retained and with whom I have remained in touch over a period of some 37 years. I grew up not far from the college and on occasion when I was in the area I would call him or drop in on him and he would bring me up to date on what had transpired since I left. Teaching history there, as it turned out, was not only his first job out of graduate school, but it was his last job as well. He spent his entire career there, retiring a few years ago.
Reflecting now on the relationship, I think that the friendship was a bit one-sided. We got along splendidly as colleagues, but I think a major reason for it at the time was that our political views were so similar. I have summed mine up with a 2002 poem entitled “A Chomsky Dissenter.”
When I trusted Noam Chomsky
I had a cozy home.
With my academic friends
I did not feel alone.
I liked his doughty dissidence;
At least I thought him bold.
And he helped me see beyond
The daily lies we’re told.
Then I saw he stayed away
From major mysteries
Like a student of the woods
Who won’t go near the trees.
Now the trees are falling down
And crushing all we see,
And all the Chomskyites can do
Is run away from me.
Another indicator of the one-sidedness of the friendship is that through the years, now that I think of it, all the emails between us, I believe, have been from me to him, except in the cases where I might have asked a question and a response was required. None, from my recollection, came at his initiative. Most tellingly, since he was on my mailing list and I write about political matters that I think should at least interest him, I have regularly sent him articles that I have written, and I never heard the first peep from him about any of them until this past week.
What did it was a very short email that I sent a couple of weeks ago. I went on two major trips in June and had little time to do any writing of my own, so I sent out a highly topical article by my frequent collaborator on videos who uses the screen name of Buelahman, or B’Man for short. It read simply:
That finally produced a response from the old friend. It came five days later and here it is:
I do enjoy reading this person, "B-Man", making a fool of himself. But I get the impression that you endorse this nonsense. Sad.
Ahem! I responded immediately this way:
Indeed, I have found practically nothing that this gentleman has written that I disagree with. I was particularly pleased to see him reference my essay, "Mencken and More on Lincoln's Speech.” I would be very interested to know why you think what he has written is nonsense and why you think my endorsement of it is sad. As Thomas Sowell says he used to write with red pencil on his students' papers, "Specify, don't characterize."
You see that he gives readers an opportunity to comment. I am placing this exchange on the comment page so all involved can defend what they have written.
I did as I promised and promptly put the exchange up, identifying my interlocutor only as an old academic colleague.
The next day the former colleague did, in fact, “specify” with this response:
Thanks for replying.
I must admit that I did not read all of B-Man’s essay. It goes on and on, and I didn’t have the endurance. Here is my response to its central question.
Let’s leave aside some important issues, such as the overwhelming consensus among professional historians about the role of slavery in causing the Civil War, what slavery meant, what “heritage” means, what our white ancestors thought they were fighting for, etc.
Let’s simply address how we should treat fellow citizens. A large segment of them, mostly black, say they are insulted, humiliated, and in other ways hurt by the sight of the common version of the Confederate flag. Even if we don’t feel them ourselves, it is not the place of B-Man, or you, or me to deny those emotions in others. We should assume them to be genuine and acknowledge that there are aspects of the symbolism of the flag that might cause them.
It is a matter of common courtesy and decency to stop doing things that cause our fellow citizens pain.
On the related issue, the right of anyone to fly the flag: Governor Haley, and most other public officials I’ve heard address the issue, have explicitly affirmed the right of individuals to display the flag on their property. The problem is its display at official public buildings, supported by taxpayers, including black ones and others offended by the flag. (I supposed ultimately it could become an issue decided by courts and/or voters in some jurisdictions.)
Just because a right exists, however, is no reason why it should be exercised.
The email came in around the dinner hour, so I didn’t respond in detail until the next day, offering only a short acknowledgment of having received it at the time. Here is my detailed answer:
May I congratulate you for the somewhat improved tone of your follow-up email. I say "somewhat" because it is still a bit lofty and dismissive concerning Buelahman's essay, beginning as it does with what I can only take as a confession of intellectual laziness, "I must admit that I did not read all of B-Man’s essay. It goes on and on, and I didn’t have the endurance."
That is to say, you admit that you fired off your 23-word insult to your old academic colleague and his frequent collaborator without having bothered to read all of what he (and I?) have written on the matter. In your short email, I might remind you, you manage to say that he is making "a fool of himself" and that he is writing "nonsense" and that it is "sad" that I should seem to go along with it.
Your opening sally in this follow-up raises an important question. Have you still not read it? You're retired and certainly have the time, but are you still just going, as it appears to me, on emotions and impressions? And how far did you get with your initial reading? Did you pitch it aside just as he set the stage?
The MSM is not our friend. They are not truthful. They are pawns used to brainwash you. Period. But I want to focus on one particular subject today: the Stars and Bars… The people who are embracing the media lies about this flag are the same people who kowtow to the media clowns doing the Empire’s bidding. The same people who are ignorant about WWII. The same people who fall for every conceivable lie meant to divide the races and every other erroneous and fake cause.
Where is the nonsense here? This looks like horse sense to me. Are you among those people who believe that Timothy McVeigh masterminded the Oklahoma City bombing, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed did likewise for 9/11, Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone culprit in the death of JFK, and the Tsarnaev brothers killed the people the MSM say they did in Boston, to mention just four examples of the sort of thing he is talking about? If so, I can see why your mind might close up tight at that point and you would do no further reading.
Is it also your considered opinion that I have made a fool of myself with "Mencken and More on Lincoln's Speech," upon which B'Man draws heavily? How so?
Now, with not the slightest sense of irony, on the heels of your short, insulting blast, you lecture us in the best New Englander tradition that it all comes down to a matter of civility. Civility! Many black people, you--and our wonderful news media--tell us, take the Stars and Bars as a symbol of racial superiority and a celebration of slavery and therefore, all of us, but Southerners in particular, should simply have the common courtesy never to display the damned thing.
The worst thing about that argument is its timing. If we were still in the 60s and Southern hardliners were waving the flag in the face of people at lunch-counter sit-ins, I might say you have a point. Considering the original motivation behind the flying of the Confederate Battle Flag on the Capitol Building in South Carolina and the fact that it is supported by public funds, I agree with you that the case is strong to take it down there. But let's take the sort of cold, clear-eyed look that Buelahman takes in his essay at this obviously orchestrated campaign to mothball the Stars and Bars forever in the wake of the event in Charleston.
For one so putatively concerned about people's feelings, you should see how this hullabaloo looks to many native Southerners. At a time when racial harmony in the South has never been greater, the national press is dragging their culture, their history, and the flag that to many is representative of their Southernness into the mud, all because of this truly bizarre and anomalous happening in Charleston. In a nutshell, it certainly looks like we Southerners are all being blamed for killing a group or righteous black people on account of our endemic and ineradicable racial hatred. I don't like that. It's easily as insulting as your first email.
I also do not accept the assertion that within the grassroots black community there is any strong revulsion to the Stars and Bars as it has been used for the last thirty years or so. This current hysteria certainly looks ginned up to me by agents of the Empire, people like Al Sharpton. The knucklehead successors to Ronnie Van Zant in Lynyrd Skynyrd might have capitulated, but I don't think the writers and performers of "The Ballad of Curtis Loew" need worry about how their display of the flag is taken by the black community. In my view they should continue to show their pride in their roots with the most recognizable symbol available, and I'm pretty confident that Buelahman would agree with me on that.
Now, briefly, let's talk about your first point. You appear not to know to whom you are writing when you invoke "the overwhelming consensus among professional historians about the role of slavery in causing the Civil War." Just this April I began my essay, "Letter to a Court Historian about Forrestal's Death" with these lines: "H.L. Mencken aptly called them 'the timorous eunuchs who posture as American historians.'” In 2009 I penned "The Case for Free Inquiry":
You say they gassed six million Jews.
I ask you how you know.
You say it's from historians;
They agree that it is so.
But what about the Forrestal death?
They agree on that one, too.
And until I checked it for myself,
I only thought I knew.
I don't need "professional historians" to do the most elementary thinking for me. The war in question was, somewhat like our two ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a war of choice. Then it was the choice of Abraham Lincoln and his cohorts to wage a war of aggression against the states that had proclaimed their secession from the Union. Even Lincoln's biggest defenders will admit that the Fort Sumter episode was designed by Lincoln to get the South to fire the first shot so that he could claim the moral high ground.
No one could deny that the slavery was an important factor in the secession. I think that it is debatable as to whether it was the most important factor, though. The war, itself, is all on Lincoln. The professional historians that you like to invoke consistently rate this butcher of so many of his fellow Americans as perhaps our greatest president, which is another good reason not to trust them.
I can say with some confidence that my great grandfather, John Henry Martin, who came from a piedmont county in North Carolina that had virtually no slaves, did not fight under Robert E. Lee and spend the last months of the war in the hell hole of the Point Lookout P.O.W. camp to defend the institution of slavery. He and his fellow Southerners were attacked by the minions of Lincoln's federal government and they felt that they had no choice but to resist. What's going on now has made me want to trek back down to Southern Maryland and plant another Confederate Battle Flag by the monument to John Henry and his fellow victims. See http://www.plpow.com and http://www.cem.va.gov/cems/lots/point_lookout.asp.
That one got his juices flowing, and his pen. The manifestly unwarranted tone of condescension is still there as best exemplified by the concluding short paragraph with its otherwise puzzling repetition of his supposed sadness, but now one can detect a rather strong admixture of dudgeon:
Thanks for your congratulations. Now I see what you mean about being “lofty.” I do enjoy being taken to the woodshed.
I wish you had not posted my first message to you on B-Man’s site without my permission; I hope you didn’t do likewise with my second.
In your latest you either stated or implied that I’ve been brainwashed, “kowtow to media clowns,” and am lazy. I emphatically reject the first two charges. On the third, I read enough of B-Man’s rant (much more than you evidently think), with its belaboring of the obvious, sweeping generalizations about his opponents, odd digressions, etc., to get enough of his point. But life’s too short, and B-Man’s piece is too long; I’ll accept the charge of intellectual laziness in this case.
You apparently accept without qualification Mencken’s belief that professional historians are “timorous eunuchs.” You certainly make clear your own contempt for them, as does B-Man.
In the cases that seem to bother you most, regarding the very existence of the Holocaust and Lincoln/Civil War causes, it is true that specialists in those topics are almost entirely against you (though many portrayals of Lincoln are complicated). Apparently you see this as the result of nefarious conspiracies, not research and reflection. Are there any other topics that cause you to condemn the entire profession?
(I have not examined your Holocaust stuff; I studied and taught the topic and am familiar with the evidence and controversies, at least until 2007. I have not looked at yours in part because my anguish about the topic itself is profound, and yes, I think deniers’ arguments that I have read are nonsense. Damn! Intellectual laziness again.)
On the other supposed controversies that you mention, I prefer not to touch those tar-babies. If you think I’m hopelessly naēve, so be it.
In paragraph 4 above, I should have said “contempt for us.” I have been a professional historian, by which I mean someone who has gotten paid for teaching and publishing, for many years. So was my father, far more distinguished than I. I know many professional historians. Some are of course charlatans and some incompetent. But I personally know or knew several who contributed significantly to debates about Southern history and the causes of the Civil War, and they are all (or were, some now being dead) diligent, honest, honorable people, trying hard to get it right, and Pa was one of them.
You and B-man rightly reject sweeping generalizations about Southerners. Heal thyself. Blanket rejection of the work of an entire class is silly.
Here’s an anecdote: In the 1950s my father taught early 20th century US history. When a colleague died suddenly (Charles Sydnor; maybe you remember the name), he added the South as a field and had to get up to speed quickly. I distinctly remember asking him, when I was trying to do a report in the 7th grade (I think), what caused the Civil War, he said “sectionalism.” I had no idea what that meant, and he tried to explain it, probably without success. I was 12.
Some years later he had changed his mind, believing slavery to be the root cause. I don’t know what caused him to take the new view. Perhaps he had become more conversant with the primary sources; perhaps he had read new stuff. Perhaps the profession itself was shifting. There is a theory that historians, influenced by the tensions of the Cold War in the 1950s, had an unacknowledged tendency to promote national unity, and highlighting the role of slavery in Southern culture might not do that. Things changed as Cold War tensions decreased. Perhaps. All good professional historians acknowledge the role of bias in their work, and that the national “mood” helps create it. The mood is different now. You and B-Man might agree.
The point is, Truth about the past is elusive, never rigid. What is accepted now will certainly be modified in the future. It’s not useful to be stuck in the past about the past.
Having said that, it is still legitimate, I believe, to say that slavery was the root cause of the war, not merely an “important factor.” More emphatically, it was the “primary cause”, despite B-Man’s belief to the contrary. Sectional pride, the Southern way of life, and anger at self-righteous Yankee bullies and tariff mongers, etc., become pale imitations of what they actually were if you remove slavery from the mix.
But you needn’t do a thought experiment. Read the Declarations of Secession of the rebel states. Of course, defending state sovereignty in general is right there, but what specifically are they defending? Slavery. It’s discussed at length at the beginning of the SC, GA, TX, and MS declarations and is virtually the only specific issue mentioned. As I understand it, only four states produced Declarations wherein they detailed causes of their action, rather than legalistic Ordinances of Secession (which all did).
I had suggested that we lay this thorny problem aside. We did not. Fine. Nevertheless, given all the above, I don’t see how any rational person can deny that black people, particularly those who are descendants of slaves, are entitled to believe that the Civil War, and the flag widely considered to be the symbol of the Southern side, are linked to slavery and therefore racism, even if some say that’s not what they mean when they display it. An insult can still be an insult despite the intent of the issuer. “I’m sorry you misunderstood me” is a lame response to criticism. And others, you’ll acknowledge, do have racist intent by flying the flag.
Now, I must respond to the issue of my New England background, from which I am allegedly lecturing you. It is true that my father was born in MA. My mother was born in KA. I am 70. I went to school 7 years in MA but have lived 63 years in the South. I was born in Alexandria VA, but my parents came to NC when I was 13 months. I decided to come with them. I went 10 years to segregated NC public schools, and, I’m sorry to say, absorbed and lived a lot of racism, despite my parents’ efforts to resist it. I agree, however, that my Southernness is tainted; I can’t help it.
However much it comes from a Yankee background, which is actually irrelevant, and however much my concern for others’ feelings is “putative,” the only way you addressed the substance of my call for decency and courtesy to our fellow citizens is to assert that you “do not accept” that there is revulsion for the flag in the “grassroots” black community. You give no evidence for this.
This is anecdotal, but I know and frequently meet with a number of “grassroots” black people, assuming by grassroots you mean wage earners, schoolteachers, preachers, healthcare workers, etc. They are all offended by the flag, in varying ways. At least one dismisses it as white folks being white folks; at least two are brought nearly to tears as they discuss it; and another seethes quietly, to take four examples. Poll after poll says that blacks see the flag as a symbol of racism. For example, CNN: 72% of blacks nationwide, 75% in the South. I know: this is MSM. But do you have evidence of your own that removes us from the realm of anecdote?
Do you get out much? The only way I can keep a straight face about your belief that race relations in the South over the past several decades “have never been better” is to note how low the bar was set. From that standpoint, yes, things have improved, and white and black Southerners deserve credit. Thus far, it looks to me as though the flag controversy is improving things, not worsening them.
And I still see no reason for rejecting the plea to flag displayers to consider the feelings of their fellow citizens, however much you impeach me, the messenger. Generosity is a noble trait, well within the best Southern tradition.
Finally re MSM, which is a blanket whose size I don’t know. You and B-Man reject them totally, as near as I can tell. Another sweeping generalization. Wouldn’t it make more sense to evaluate them newspaper by newspaper, network by network, pundit by pundit, etc.? When, for example, in the aftermath of the Charleston murders, a report launches a sweeping, stereotyped condemnation of Southern racists, chalk it up to the fact that the reporter is a simpleton (as many are) or an idiot (fewer, perhaps, but plenty nonetheless). Then also note that that many of the same MSM widely publicized moving, humane statements by Paul Thurmond, Mayor Riley, and many other white folks, some ordinary, some not. They were an eloquent contradiction of the crude, false stereotypes sometimes perpetrated.
Anyone in his or her right mind knows that there were and are many honorable Southerners like your great-grandfather (and your father, from what I remember about him). If MSM or anybody else state or imply otherwise, shame on them. But there is often a baby in the bathwater.
So ends the lecture. I apologize for its length. I remain sad to participate in this.
I must say that that response got my juices flowing, and I responded immediately, which was just yesterday:
Thanks for responding. Concerning some of your main points:
"I wish you had not posted my first message to you on B-Man’s site without my permission; I hope you didn’t do likewise with my second."
I see what you mean with your confession of intellectual laziness. How hard would it have been to check the site to see that I did? What's the problem? Are you ashamed of what you have written? I didn't identify you after all? As Buelahman suggests with his comment, it really does look like you have a free speech problem. You know as well as I do that I would be wasting my time discussing these important topics in private with you. I think they should be aired.
"In the cases that seem to bother you most, regarding the very existence of the Holocaust and Lincoln/Civil War causes, it is true that specialists in those topics are almost entirely against you (though many portrayals of Lincoln are complicated)."
More intellectual laziness on display, I'm sorry to say. On the record, it is you, not me, that they seem to bother the most. I have written relatively very little on either topic, which is not to say that they do not bother me.
"Are there any other topics that cause you to condemn the entire profession?"
I must say that this pretty much takes the cake in the intellectual laziness department. I name the article in which I invoke H.L. Mencken favorably in his denunciation of American historians and I give its date of April 2015. Do you know I have a web site? I have sent you articles from it over and over. Did you just trash them all? I guess I have to give you a link: "Letter to a Court Historian about Forrestal's Death." Were you to have only bothered to read the article to which I referred, you would have discovered that I have written quite a bit about Forrestal's death and you would have discovered that YOU professional historians have richly earned every bit of the contempt that Mencken and I pour upon y'all, and then some.
A critical reader can also see that the poem in my rejoinder to you, "The Case for Free Inquiry," is a great deal more about Forrestal and about professional historians--and about the poem's title, for Pete's sake--than it is about the gassed six million story.
Your chosen profession also comes in for its share of contempt from me for what it has said or not said about the death of Deputy White House Counsel Vincent W. Foster. See http://ariwatch.com/Links/DCDave.htm#VinceFoster. See also my poem "Ignoble Historians." You will notice that in that third-person web site listing the categories in which I have weighed in there is no mention of the Holocaust or anything having to do with Lincoln or the Civil War.
"You and B-man rightly reject sweeping generalizations about Southerners. Heal thyself. Blanket rejection of the work of an entire class is silly."
Point me to one professional historian who has written anything truthful and worth reading about James Forrestal's death that takes into account the latest evidence, available to the public since 2004, and I might begin to reconsider my blanket rejection of their work. (Would you like to join me in a joint article for publication?) Show me one American news organ that reported on the full contents of the Starr Report on Foster's death, including the part that the 3-judge panel that appointed Kenneth Starr forced him to include, and I might begin to have second thoughts about that entire class, as well. More recently and closer to home, show me the American news organs that are reporting on the federal case against the nation's biggest alien smuggler, headquartered in North Carolina.
No, on the record, I would say that accepting as truthful almost anything that these groups tell us about anything that is really serious is not warranted.
"But you needn’t do a thought experiment. Read the Declarations of Secession of the rebel states. Of course, defending state sovereignty in general is right there, but what specifically are they defending? Slavery."
I do believe you mean the "seceding" states. Your bias is showing. You also are talking about those states' stated reasons for seceding. Yet, in your first response to me you strongly imply that slavery, which you say your evidence shows was the reason for the secession, caused the Civil War according to a consensus of historians. Just look at Lincoln's first inaugural address. He could hardly make it clearer that he is going to war against the seceding states and that he is doing so for one reason alone, and that is for their act of secession. It's almost enough to make one ask not what all those historians have been reading, but what they have been smoking.
"On the other supposed controversies that you mention, I prefer not to touch those tar-babies. If you think I’m hopelessly naēve, so be it."
Supposed controversies? The JFK assassination, 9/11, etc.? What about the RFK and MLK, Jr. assassinations? Surely you must see why I have a problem with your profession. You want the public to trust your judgment and your opinions and here in debate (which you would clearly prefer not be open) you virtually confess to hopeless naiveté on the most important subjects of our day. How can you compartmentalize your thinking like that? Who's being silly and who's being serious?
I have repeated the exchange just as it transpired with links as I had them. Perhaps I should have put them in more freely, because my debating opponent seems to be somewhat cyber-challenged. Buelahman linked to my “Mencken and More on Lincoln’s Speech,” so I didn’t really see the need to do it again, and perhaps that leaves him with an excuse to continue to ignore it, like he ignored my letter to the “court historian.” What strikes me about the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s first inaugural is the great similarity of their arguments. The war is all about the mortal danger to the noble experiment of democracy that the secession represents. Don’t take my word for it. Take Lincoln’s.
I also failed to put in a link to the tribute to all little-known black blues performers everywhere by the quintessentially Southern rock band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, either, so here it is: “The Ballad of Curtis Loew.”
Call me unfair for putting this exchange up at the point where I have the last word, but stay tuned. Should another response, lachrymose or otherwise, be forthcoming, I shall publish it. In the meantime I have plans afoot to take to task publicly one of the surviving cohorts of my debating opponent’s father for some public utterances of his about the Vince Foster case.
July 9, 2015