Johnny Reb and Billy Yank Flag Debate Continues
To comment go to B’Man’s Revolt.
This is a continuation of my email exchanges with a history professor who was a colleague of mine from 1972 to 1978 at a small private college in North Carolina. I taught economics. The first three rounds are chronicled in “The ‘Rebel’ Flag and the ‘Civil War’ Debated.” The controversy begins with B’Man’s article, “What Does the Stars and Bars Represent?” In my concluding paragraph of the previous article I had promised to publish any response to me should it be forthcoming. He did respond, and I responded to him. The ball is in his court once again. First, we have his response:
I had hoped to be able to accept an apology for your transmitting my messages to B-Man’s site without my permission. Alas, I found none, though I did find instead another condemnation of my laziness, with others following. Regarding B-Man’s site, I simply don’t want to be associated with it, but that train’s now left the station. Your opinion of how I should feel about the use of my own words is interesting, but it’s not your place to act on that opinion.
I wanted a conversation with you because I know you and take you seriously.
I can’t help noticing a parallel to the flag controversy: One party is aggrieved by another’s act and says so. The other party replies, not with an apology, but by exacerbating the grievance.
If you do nothing else, please address the following questions, which you didn’t do previously. I’m not accusing you of anything. My response then was long and this one is also.
Let’s focus on the title of the original message, “The Real Meaning of the Stars and Bars.” You had said you “do not accept” the notion that there is revulsion among “grassroots” blacks about the flag, and this summed up your response to my suggestion of courtesy to the people who felt insulted. I looked for supporting evidence but found none, and added:
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 really believe that there is no reason for black people to be insulted or hurt by the display of the flag? What evidence supports your belief of little revulsion among blacks? And, to repeat, why isn’t a courteous response to their grievances appropriate?
Could you also respond to this?
Thus far, it looks to me as though the flag controversy is improving things [i.e., race relations], not worsening them.
One more. I wrote:
Finally re MSM [“mainstream media”], 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 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.
Do you have any response to the above? Is everything from whatever you mean by MSM automatically invalid?
From here on, I’ll try again to defend myself and my profession. It’s fine with me if you don’t respond, but professional historians’ views of the causes of the Civil War, and thus the meaning of the flag, are an important part of what follows.
No, I can’t cite any historians who have written about Forrestal or Foster. I have read the piece in which you attack three of them, but your contempt seems to result from the fact that at least one doesn’t read the evidence the way you do. He’s therefore a liar. You focus with unusual intensity on those cases. Fine. But are John Hope Franklin, or Eugene Genovese, or Stanley Engerman, or Anne Scott, or Saul Friedlander, or Gerda Lerner, or hosts of others who make up the profession, including yours truly as a lesser member, to be condemned and insulted because they don’t? This seems so elementary that I’m reluctant even to mention it.
In my opinion and, evidently, in many others’, in the grand scheme of things the Forrestal and Foster cases are relatively unimportant. True, they may illustrate bad behavior on the part of people in government, but this is no shock. I’m not surprised that most historians have focused on broader issues, those that help us better understand forces that shape more people’s lives.
I was mistaken to call the JFK assassination controversy “supposed”, but numerous historians have, in fact, focused on it. I attended a session at the Southern Historical Society Convention in, I think, 1978, and as I recall, all the historians on the panel thought, to differing degrees, that there were flaws in the Warren Report. Their conclusions might not have matched yours, but historians did not ignore or suppress the topic, and continued to write about it. So did many journalists. You know this.
My conclusion hasn’t changed: You condemn a profession that contains thousands of people on the basis of flimsy evidence and analysis.
On slavery as a cause of the Civil War, which is central to how black people feel about the flag:
SC began the fighting. Virtually every historian knows that Lincoln’s goal in responding was to save the Union, not end slavery. He made this clear in the inaugural (which said some conciliatory, kind things about the South). This has been settled for decades. He may have baited the South into firing the first shot (a matter of debate, as I understand it), but they eagerly bit.
What we should do, however, is to distinguish between immediate causes and long-term, deeper ones, from which we can learn more. The two most important immediate causes are the secession, and Lincoln’s action in response. The first is more important than the second, which would not have happened without the first. How we view Lincoln’s action depends on one’s view of the importance of maintaining the union, and on assessing the deeper causes of his action.
What are the fundamental causes of secession? It depends on how far back you want to go, which is a matter of opinion. You could look at the debates over the Constitution in the 1780s/90s. The existence of slavery almost caused the union not to exist in the first place. Isn’t that suggestive.
Or to the time of the Missouri Compromise, 1810s and onward. Some thought, JQ Adams for example, that there might be war, or some kind of dissolution of the union, if the slave states believed that slavery would be forbidden in the new states/territories. That ruckus lasted for decades.
The southern economy, and therefore the region’s way of life, was based on slavery. Can you imagine the Southern way of life being remotely similar to what it was, if it had it been based on free, non-racialized labor? Many factors caused Southerners to fear for slavery’s future, from tariffs, to the abolitionists’ actions, to John Brown’s raid, and many other episodes. (Lincoln’s election should have been the least of their worries.) All these fed secession and revolve around slavery. And there are still those pesky Declarations of Secession, whose substance you dismissed.
The reason the Southern states seceded and attacked Ft. Sumter was that they feared they could not maintain slavery. The reason Lincoln perpetrated war was to nullify secession, which most (but of course not all) of his constituency in the North wanted him to do, not because he was a bloodthirsty warmonger.
The most charitable description of a view that the war was entirely Lincoln’s fault is that it’s superficial. If I missed something in your response, please set me straight. I don’t want to insult you.
Professional historians have worked very hard to try to understand these things. They argue all the time. Most are neither timorous nor eunuchs, whatever that means (“timorous eunuchs” sounds redundant). They are often partly or completely wrong, but usually other historians provide a corrective and there is an argument, which is the way scholarship works.
(All italics are in the original.)
Amidst all the mutual verbal fireworks, petulance, and selective responses to score debating points, I have actually detected a little bit of common ground, and there might be more if we work at it. You may have noticed that I conceded on the point of South Carolina's display of its flag on its Capitol building on account of the intent behind originally running it up there. More even than the public funding, the fact that it was put up as a symbol of determined resistance to integration and the civil rights movement suggests that it should have been taken down a long time ago.
I believe you also conceded that what one chooses to do with the Stars and Bars in a private capacity is another matter, entirely, but then you go on to argue that it's not nice to do it because black people generally take offense at it as a symbol of slavery. I don't think you'd get any argument from either B'Man or me that flaunting the Confederate battle flag can be taken that way in the black community which is one reason neither one of us would put one on our vehicles and, up until very recently, neither one of us had ever even owned one. In the article on the Stars and Bars that you took such strong exception to, initiating this exchange, I don't see any advocacy on his part for the indiscriminate display of the Confederate flag. He does take a very strong pro-free speech position, saying that there should be no legal restrictions and that "no matter what a person’s reason for owning the Stars and Bars (even the most vile, racist, hating rationale), it is their freedom to use that emblem as a form of speech."
Although you don’t state it in such strong terms, it looks to me that his position and your position on the private display of the flag are essentially the same. The 28.32-minute video that requires more time to review than any part of the article (which I gather you must not have watched) takes a very balanced view of the question, and it also quite amply represents the views of blacks and whites of different generations, political persuasions, and political leanings. You will find well-represented there the views of those blacks that by “getting out,” in contrast to your supposedly cloistered former colleague, you have learned represent the overwhelming majority of the black community (reinforced by the polls you cite). But you will also see support for my position that for the past 30 years or so the Stars and Bars hasn’t been such a big deal to black people. One really doesn’t have to get out and talk with a lot of black young people to know that there’s no particular reason why they should give a damn one way or the other. It’s just a white, redneck, Dukes of Hazzard, NASCAR, country music sort of thing for generally lower class Southern white people as they—and most people in our socio-economic group North and South—see it. They have not experienced it as a symbol of oppression, they don’t see the white people that they come in contact with using it as a symbol of oppression, and therefore feel no particular reason to get all worked up over it. Common sense will tell you that that was the ascendant position in the black community up until the most recent episode, becoming more prevalent with every passing year as the veterans of the civil rights struggle die off.
I have never met him, but from talking to him, exchanging emails with him, and reading his writing, I believe that B’Man would identify most closely with the woman in the video whom one might call a middle to upper middle class liberal Southern white. For a variety of reasons, including the offense that it might cause to blacks, she doesn’t think that it’s a good idea to display the Confederate battle flag. That is also my position. But he and I also have a good deal of sympathy for the Southern whites in the video who apparently very sincerely would show the flag out of pride in their heritage, in their “Southernness,” if you will, and I would proudly display it at a gathering of the descendants of the POWs whose ancestors, like my great grandfather John Henry Martin, were held there at Point Lookout. Maybe that’s where we begin to part company and on that point have very little common ground. You give the impression that you are a rather shallow-rooted transplant, particularly into the South’s traditional white community. I have the distinct impression that you would be a good deal more uncomfortable at a Southern heritage gathering than you would be at an NAACP meeting, for instance.
That one difference hardly explains the virulence behind your short, tart, offensive initial email, though, in which you call B’Man’s piece “nonsense,” say he is making a fool of himself, and express sadness that I should appear to go along with it.
“I wanted a conversation with you because I know you and take you seriously,” you now say. That’s a fine way to start a reasoned discussion! In the early nineteenth century it would have been nearly sufficient to provoke a challenge to a duel. Forgive me for taking it at least as a challenge to a duel of words. And you take me so seriously that, with my record there for all to see you write that my main interests seem to be the Holocaust and the Confederate flag/Civil War.
You have also insisted that I respond to this statement of yours, “Thus far, it looks to me as though the flag controversy is improving things [i.e., race relations], not worsening them,” so here goes:
I’m used to taking minority positions because I like to think for myself and I care about the truth. Whatever your motivation might be, I really think you’re in a small minority on that one. Your idea of improved race relations seems to emanate from the notion that the South hasn’t been defeated enough and that the only good white Southerners are the ones who will admit once and for all times that they were the bad guys in the War between the States.
You also ask for specific examples of irresponsible press coverage of the flag issue. Might I call your attention to an editorial cartoon by Wasserman in the Boston Globe (it would be) that B’Man reproduces in his June 22 article raising questions about the Charleston event? A TV reporter is standing in front of a gigantic Confederate flag shown to be flying on the Capitol Building of South Carolina and he is saying, “Officials are still trying to fathom the roots of the shooter’s hatred.”
“Flag of hatred,” the web site Chatauqua calls it, the one that B’Man is specifically objecting to in his article, and they liken it to the Nazi flag. Thus they give encouragement to the race hustlers like Al Sharpton and the Southern Poverty Law Center, who are the George Wallaces and Lester Maddoxes of our day, but from the other side. No, I really don’t see how green-lighting these race-baiters who demonize the traditional South is improving things.
Now let’s talk about the historians you say that I am maligning. Certainly, as a group, concerning the issues I know best, they have richly earned my disparagement, present interlocutor included, but more about that later. Let’s talk about those you say support your case that slavery caused the War Between the States.
I can’t say it enough, but there are two very distinct things at issue, the secession and the war. I would almost be ready to stipulate, as the lawyers say, that the slavery issue was the primary cause for the secession, and “War of Northern Aggression” would still be a far more apt name for the conflagration than “Civil War.” There was not a fight over control of the central government.
At least two of the authors you site would be out of their field opining on the cause of the war per se. Stanley Engerman is an economic historian and expert on the institution of slavery generally, not just in the United States. Eugene Genovese was a social historian whose essay on how the institution of slavery put its mark on Southern society I once assigned to my economics classes. I found his economic-based argument for social and political control by the slave owners in the Southern states quite compelling. It was what my forebears from a non-slaveholding county in North Carolina were up against. You might remember it from the North Carolina history that we all got in the eighth grade in the public schools.
The really interesting thing about Genovese, though, is that if he were alive today he would be more likely to be on my side of the debate about the Confederate flag than on yours:
As far as I know, although residing in Atlanta at the time, former Marxist historian Eugene D. Genovese did not take a public position in this debate [over the Confederate flag in the 1990s in Georgia]. But if he had, it is not hard to divine the side on which he would have intervened. Much of Genovese's work in the 1990s has sought explicitly to specify and defend an ideal of "traditional southern culture" against its detractors, to cleanse this ideal of the stigma of slavery and white supremacy, and to offer it up as something that speaks to the modern condition in general and the perceived crisis of the left in particular. Alex Lichtenstein
Genovese later in life actually went farther in defense of the South’s hierarchical traditional conservative society than a person of my Yadkin County pedigree, in the NC foothills, would care to go. I have talked about Daddy's grandfather on his father's side, John Henry. His grandfather on his mother’s side, Barton Roscoe Brown, reflecting the sentiment of many people in the county, hid out in the mountains during the war and later became a legislator in the carpetbag government in Raleigh. His brother, though, did sign up with Lee’s army and died of illness in Virginia. Yadkin was a very conflicted county, with a far more egalitarian social structure than in the eastern part of the state and with widespread anti-slavery sentiment. Nevertheless, Abraham Lincoln did not receive a single vote for president in Yadkin in the 1860 election. It’s true that the state government didn’t even have him on the ballot, but there is no record of anyone even having written in his name. He was a very polarizing figure, seen throughout the South as purely a regional, anti-Southern politician. When he launched his military assault upon the South it is easy to see why most people would have concluded that that assessment of the man had been correct and that they had to fight to defend their homeland.
It really does all come back to Lincoln, and your grudging concession really says it all: “He may have baited the South into firing the first shot (a matter of debate, as I understand it), but they eagerly bit.”
Later on you write, “The reason the Southern states seceded and attacked Ft. Sumter was that they feared they could not maintain slavery.”
Neither you nor anyone who might wrap himself in the mantle of “historian” is ever going to sell that tale to anyone with any critical faculties. The South wanted war with the North you are telling us. They weren’t suicidally crazy. No, I can’t say it any better than that Lincoln “baited the South” into providing him with his much desired casus belli. I know it might be painful to come to grips with that reality, something akin to staring directly into the sun, but there it is. As you have as much as conceded, his first inaugural address shows that he had every intention of reigning in the seceding states militarily, that is, to kill and maim them back into the fold for the greater good, however voluntary the founding fathers might have conceived the union arrangement to be. Now let all those people who keep pointing to the secession declarations of various Southern states to show their pro-slavery sentiment find something that compares with Lincoln’s speech in showing the Southerners’ desire for war with the North.
But wait. Right after your sentence conflating the Southerners’ motivation for secession with the motivation for attacking Ft. Sumter you state, “The reason Lincoln perpetrated war was to nullify secession…” Yep. There you’ve said it. He might not have liked to think of himself and you and many who have backed him in his endeavor might not like to think of him as a "bloodthirsty warmonger." Call it nullifying secession if it makes you feel better about it, but the bloodshed and suffering are the same. The Communists in the Soviet Union, in China, and even in the killing fields of Cambodia, justified their barbarities in the highest sounding, idealistic terms. I believe that there is general agreement that Lincoln and his backers had no idea how great the bloodshed would turn out to be. They miscalculated, thinking it would be a walkover like the Mexican War of their recent experience.
Actually, upon more thought we really shouldn’t take Lincoln at his word for why he was going to attack the South. Defending the noble concept of democracy has a much better ring to it than pushing the agenda of the Northern industrialists and railroad companies and preserving the federal revenues from the largest exporting and importing section of the country. Tariffs, at that time, were virtually the only source of revenue for the federal government. And if, as Genovese persuasively argued, the economic clout of those in whose hands the primary generators of wealth was concentrated translated into political power in the South, why would it not have worked that way in the North as well?
At this point I must admit that I am not above practicing the baiting ploy myself. That was part of what I was doing in invoking the Mencken characterization, “the timorous eunuchs who posture as American historians.” Mencken was a master of the writing technique known as “exaggeration for effect.” I applied the quote to a particular event in American history and in this instance I can say from experience and with countless examples—including one of yours to follow—that in this instance it is not even an exaggeration at all.
Here you are in your General P.G.T. Beauregard role:
“No, I can’t cite any historians who have written about Forrestal or Foster. I have read the piece in which you attack three of them, but your contempt seems to result from the fact that at least one doesn’t read the evidence the way you do. He’s therefore a liar.”
The article in question, which you avoid mentioning, is “Letter to a Court Historian about Forrestal’s Death.”
Your old bugaboo has reared its head again. Once more, it would appear, you have not bothered even to read the article right in front of you all the way through before leveling a demeaning charge. Here is the article’s concluding paragraph:
As Mencken would have anticipated, [Professor Greg Herken] is in good company. Douglas Brinkley has brushed me off more than once as have the entire stable of historians at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and a host of others. Frankly, I don’t know how they live with themselves, or at least how they can refrain from spitting at what they see in the mirror when they shave in the morning.
If you go to all the links you’ll find enough historians to mount a pretty serious assault upon Fort Sumter, a lot more than three.
And about that reading of the evidence, Herken writes of recent secretary of defense James Forrestal spending a restless night copying a poem before jumping out a window. I show with the transcription entered into evidence at the official hearing and with a number of examples of Forrestal’s handwriting that someone else obviously did the copying. I also present the testimony of the Navy corpsman overseeing Forrestal’s hospital room during the hours in question in which he says officially that the lights were off in the room and that Forrestal did no reading or writing.
Where is the honest difference of opinion that you would suggest exists here? Can you read the evidence? What does it tell you? What should it tell any honest historian? Why are they all still lying about Forrestal’s death, when they bother to say anything at all? And it is also valid to ask exactly the same questions about them with respect to Vincent Foster’s death, the second highest U.S. government official ever to “commit suicide,” with Forrestal being the first.
Then you say this:
“In my opinion and, evidently, in many others’, in the grand scheme of things the Forrestal and Foster cases are relatively unimportant. True, they may illustrate bad behavior on the part of people in government, but this is no shock. I’m not surprised that most historians have focused on broader issues, those that help us better understand forces that shape more people’s lives.”
That might cover the ones who have ignored these episodes, but what about the ones that I specifically take to task who have addressed themselves to the subjects but have simply repeated popular lies? I was going to say “official lies” but in the case of Forrestal’s death the absolutely last official word is simply that he died from a fall from a 16th floor window without offering any opinion as to what might have caused the fall. Those weighing in dishonestly in the Vincent Foster case I have called “The Moral Midgets of American Academia,” with a detailed explanation.
Now let us consider your rather breathtaking assertion that they are of relative unimportance “in the grand scheme of things,” hardly worthy of the attention of a person carrying the gravitas of your profession.
Let’s stare into the sun again. The leading opponent in the government—and really in the entire country—of the creation of the state of Israel in Palestine has almost certainly been assassinated according to the best evidence now available, but all the American opinion-molding community has covered it up, calling it a suicide. Those facts, you would want us to believe, are “relatively unimportant…in the grand scheme of things,” but you get all exercised over someone waving a Confederate flag. If I were writing things like that I wouldn't want it splashed all over the Internet, either, whether or not my name was on it.
As for Vincent W. Foster, Jr., the importance of the murder of Bill Clinton’s deputy White House counsel and its subsequent cover-up should be important to anyone on its face, especially to anyone calling himself a historian. For those who need a little help I have written “Vince Foster’s Valuable Murder.”
One of the ways the Foster case has been important to me is to be found under my “Welcome” on my home page:
Welcome to the American aquarium,
Where life can be lived without care.
If you swim only where you’re supposed to,
You won’t even know that you’re there.
But thanks to my curiosity
An upsetting thing came to pass:
I followed the trail of a mystery,
And I discovered the glass.
Yes, I do “get out.” In doing so, I have apparently received quite a different education from the one you have received since we served on the same faculty some 37 years ago. That different education would explain why I would embrace, while you apparently recoil from B’Man’s article that sets the stage by making the observation, “The MSM is not our friend. They are not truthful. They are pawns used to brainwash you. Period.”
After all, early in my January 2002 article, “Michael Chertoff, Master of the Cover-up,” explaining with examples why I did not believe the official story on 9/11, I wrote, “Recent history has shown that the more important the event, the greater the likelihood [the mainstream media] will lie to you about it." Much of what I had learned about Chertoff's treachery I had learned from following his actions in the Foster case.
There is getting out, and then there is getting out.
July 21, 2015