Reflections on an Interview

In 2000 the Southern Poverty Law Center interviewed me about neo-Confederate distortions of Civil War history.  The interview came the year before David Blight’s Race and Reunion appeared, and years before blogs became an established part of the scholarly landscape.  I recall that many of the people who seemed to pay the most attention to the piece were folks who espoused the arguments I was challenging.  If you read the piece, you’ll see that several of the themes people argue about today are far from new, and they’ve been contested for some time.

The point is that some of us have been at this notion of challenging and contesting certain versions of Civil War history for some time.  As I said at the time:

This is an active attempt to reshape historical memory, an effort by white Southerners to find historical justifications for present-day actions. The neo-Confederate movement’s ideologues have grasped that if they control how people remember the past, they’ll control how people approach the present and the future.  Ultimately, this is a very conscious war for memory and heritage. It’s a quest for legitimacy, the eternal quest for justification.

Over a decade later, I would make some slight modifications to this final statement, just for clarity’s sake.  Not all of these ideologues are southerners (and I’d argue that most white southerners are not actively seeking to control the past, although a good number of Americans, especially white Americans, passively accept certain components of this narrative).  We can argue about the use of the term “neo-Confederate,” but it was state of the art ten years ago: I’m still working on the ways in which Secession Apologists and Confederate Romantics, two clusters that hold on to key components of this interpretation (which I hesitate to call “Lost Cause”) differ from those folks who find common cause with the League of the South and other such organizations.

I was reminded of the influence of these interpretations and the way in which understandings of the past influence understandings of the present (and vice versa) when I came across a comment in Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory blog this morning from a mother who was looking for information to help her daughter complete a school project.

My daughter wanted to do a report on Rose O’Neal Greenhow, the female spy for the Confederacy. Her teacher told her that the report was supposed to be on someone who made a positive contribution to America, so she would have to choose someone else because the Confederacy was only trying to destroy America. I responded that I thought it it was a positive contribution for the South to take a stand against what they thought was an encroachment of the Federal Government on State’s rights, which is what we learned from last year’s Civil War Reenactment we attended. (Sounds like the same mess we are in right now.) Her teacher is going to allow her to do the report. I hope we can be persuasive enough. If you have any information she can use to prove her point about the South taking a stand being a positive contribution to America, we would greatly appreciate it.

There are so many things one can say about this comment that’s it’s hard to know where to begin, and yet one would want to proceed carefully so as not to be unfair to anyone.  The comment offers evidence of the durability of certain notions and the way some people obtain and apply their understanding of history.  How would you respond to it?  How would you design teacher education programs to equip teachers with ways to respond to this parent’s inquiry? 

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17 thoughts on “Reflections on an Interview

  1. You said: “There are so many things one can say about this comment that’s it’s hard to know where to begin, and yet one would want to proceed carefully so as not to be unfair to anyone.”

    Which is why I decided to steer clear of it.

    • Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons I brought it up. How does one respond to a comment like this? After this past week, I thought it might be interesting to see what other people made of the comment as comment. Sometimes it’s the replying that presents the most challenges, as I’m sure you know. :)

  2. I think the first thing to do would be to ask the commenter/parent to clarify what those encroachments of the federal government on states’ rights were. What were the “encroachments,” and which state’s rights were being threatened?

    • Marc, I get the same response as Jeffry and Mark, at least online. Part of the Lost Cause, for many, is that theirs is an ongoing political struggle that comes uninterrupted right down to the present day. A great many of them have entirely reframed secession 150 years ago in terms of “big gubmint,” Lincoln’s supposed Marxism, et al. For example, this recent post from a blog whose masthead proclaims itself to be “your voice in the Sons of Confederate Veterans”:

      Contrary to popular belief, these states did not secede on behalf of slavery, rather they were trying to protect the freedom that their ancestors had fought for in the American Revolution, the main factor being unfair taxation. President Lincoln believed in something called the “American System”, which used taxpayer dollars to fund mass government projects such as canals and railroads (which usually ended in bankruptcy). Most of this money came from the Southern states in the form of import tariffs.

      There’s no distinction between the political landscape of 1861 and 2011.

    • Sorry, meant to add — this notion that secession in 1860-61 was a revolt against Lincoln’s tyrannical big gubmint is continually refreshed by economists Thomas DiLorenzo and Walter E. Williams who, by virtue of their academic affiliations, bring a sheen of scholarly authority to the modern Lost Cause and neo-secessionist movements.

      • That’s why it’s useful to ask the question. The answer you get will determine what response, if any, would be useful. If the commenter, or parent as the case may be, is really complaining about the current government then it’s important to point out the differences between 1861 and 2011. Some people are just not open to hearing that, of course, but if a student is involved then it’s important at least for the student’s sake. However, if the commenter really doesn’t understand the issues involved in 1860/61, perhaps they invoke the tariff as an example, then we can direct them to the actual history. It becomes an opportunity, especially for the student. Send them to the actual words of those who pushed for secession, and let them find out for themselves what the complaints were.

  3. I have, and mostly I get an immediate change of subject to what the federal government is doing right now.

    My experience also just recently. I am actually now seeking to take the question of what exactly the CW changed more seriously and looking for books that might help. I have heard that McPherson’s “Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution” said something about the dramatic changes brought on. Maybe something I don’t see?

    Up to this point at least my sense is that what people are complaining about are changes that were primarily because of the unification of the nation and the wealth that it produced, along with the changing times. But I want to read what McPherson’s book to see his perspective.

    To think of it was a business, it would be if the employees dreamed of the simpler days when they didn’t make much money and longed for the simpler life before they got successful. Wiser sorts would point out “yeah but the tradeoff is the great wealth and concomitant opportunities … are you really longing to be poor again … and were those times that good?” I think many see the antebellum period as some do pre-imperial Rome. But I cannot buy that the nation was corrupted politically –just no reason to think that. Even the federal income tax was repealed ofter the war. I think the federal gov. is to large and encroaches on individual rights, but I just can’t see how to attribute this to the CW except for the ways I’ve mentioned and I can’t get over the vast benefits the complainers enjoy with the rest of us.

  4. Her teacher told her that the report was supposed to be on someone who made a positive contribution [and] Confederacy was only trying to destroy America.

    As far as the teacher, if I were her I would have been more mindful of the sensibilities of the students. For example, some idolize RE Lee for reasons we can see are part of the mythology, but I wouldn’t have the heart to destroy the hero of a child by assertions. First, often people simply turn to cynicism and go destroying heros generally. Second, she believes what she does based on mere assertions of others, shouldn’t the student be guided to do her own research in a fruitful way?

    How about this? “Well Annie, since this is a spy and that is a controversial subject perhaps you could summarize the main reasons for the CW from thus and such fair book instead of or before the report on the spy?” Then again if the parents are going to tell Annie that what the teacher said or the book she referred her to is crap anyway (a distinct possibility,) then I’m not sure how much difference anything will make for Annie.

    Has anyone else read the chapter in “The Fiery Cross” where JFK learned he had been hoisted on his own petard during the Civil Rights era with “Profiles in Courage” when he suddenly realized he was the radical and evil guy even 100 years later when he sent in the federal marshalls. According to it he fumed “Don’t they know they lost the war? According to the book he hotfooted it to the library and started reading C. Vann Woodward and realized he had been had by a Southern partisan view that he accepted uncritically. That JFK bought it hook, line, and sinker as a young man in Massachussetts tells you the power of that narrative in those days far beyond the South.

  5. My observation so far is that it’s one thing to go back and forth on the internet and elsewhere with certain folks. That may satisfy a certain sense of intellectual combat, but it doesn’t address issues of education. Here’s a family, interested in history, that goes to a reenactment and hears an interpretation of the Civil War (probably from “a living historian”). The young lady wants to do a report on Rose Greenhow, because she believes (as does her mother) that “the South” took a stand on behalf of “state rights” against the federal government, not unlike more recent protests against the actions of the federal government, and that was a positive contribution to America.

    There’s your teachable moment. How do you deal with it? How can teachers be educated to deal with it? After all, the Confederacy was not out to “destroy” America, and one could argue that there’s a difference between “the United States” and “America.” What would you say if the student wanted to study Chief Joseph, for example?

    • The parent and the girl are two separate matters, and as a teacher my concern would be for the girl. It’s not clear what grade she’s in, and that would make a difference in how to approach this. What can be asked of a high school student is much different than a fifth grader. In any case, the assignment itself to my mind needs to be clarified. The notion of a “positive contribution” is often in the eyes of the beholder. I’d gladly let the student do the report on Rose Greenhow, and as a part of her “research” I’d as her to read the secession documents and talk with her about the reasons for secession and about how this related to federal power and state’s rights. That’s the teachable moment and the opportunity for the girl to arrive at her own understanding of Rose Greenhow’s contribution and it’s context.

      • “. . . it was a positive contribution for the South to take a stand against what they thought was an encroachment of the Federal Government on State’s rights, which is what we learned from last year’s Civil War Reenactment we attended. (Sounds like the same mess we are in right now.)”

        I am guilty of not reading carefully enough in my comments earlier. If it is really true that the child, and even the parent, actually just got this view from a guy in a park one day then they aren’t heavily invested in it then less care would be needed in challenging the student. If that were really true then that is itself a teachable moment in showing how it takes care to know the truth about most things and we need to do a little investigation before accepting such things.

        On my earlier assumption that the girl and perhaps parent were invested in the partisan Southern view, perhaps here are a couple of questions a teacher might ask of a young student without offending them and maybe prodding them to think more about it?

        1) What do you think were the grievances the South had against the North and how do they compare to the grievances that the West Virginians had against the East? East/West Tennessee? Northern/Southern California today?

        2) Write a summary of the “The States Rights Fetish” by Arthur M. Schlesinger.

      • Marc, I think that makes a lot of sense. I’m not in education, but I do hope that teachers in this spot would help students learn how to learn. Instead of making an aloof statement like this teacher did on what s/he thinks was good or bad or right or wrong, a teacher caught like that should be teaching the student how to look these things up and find the truth. In fact, I would say that the teacher making such aloof statements only serves to hurt her cause as if she knows better than anyone else, and it’s likely that the students who differ in perspective going into the classroom only feel more entrenched that way coming out of it. The mother should also be aiding her child in the same, in my opinion, and not trying to do the research requests for her, although all of this is easier with older children than younger ones, as has been noted here.

        Who knows- maybe the student would have discovered problems with the reenactment to make her think twice about what she saw, or maybe she would have reinforced her belief and forced the teacher to totally reevaluate. Either way, I don’t like the concept of telling students that their points of view must be wrong like this teacher did because it only reinforces ideology over learning, and I think that the teachable moment here for all involved would have been to actually help the student learn to do such research and thereby aid all of them in discovering truths, both confirming and challenging. Doing so would teach the student how to filter through false history and rhetoric to find reality, not just in this case, but in life, a skill that is much more important in general than it is in the classroom or in relation to the CW.

        By the way, I must say I don’t think it necessary to ask the student to read the secession documents for the project, because it’s like asking the student to argue for the entire Confederacy as a concept instead of focusing on the spy herself and how she might have been a positive influence, as if every other student’s report but hers did not have to prove an extra level of acceptability. But that is a specific mostly outside the scope of this post and its comments.

  6. I wonder if the teacher’s comments were as crass as the parent claims or if the teacher put it more gently and the parent just re-words it to fit what she wanted. Did the teacher really say the Confederacy tried to “destroy America” or did she say it like “the South fought against the federal government and wanted to form a separate country” only to have the parent twist her words.

  7. Assuming that by “America” what is meant is really “the U.S.A.”, then there is an easy way out, really. Rose Greenhow was spying for the C.S.A., which claimed to be a completely separate country, and was trying to make a positive contribution to that country, not the U.S.A. So perhaps best to borrow from Ben Butler and say that Greenhow’s actions cannot be apply to the assignment because they were made for the benefit of a “foreign State,…and she must count it among the infelicities of her position, if so far at least she was taken at her word.”

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