Who’s Afraid of Kevin Levin … and Why?

Over the past several years Kevin Levin’s blog, Civil War Memory, has become one of the most-consulted blogs in Civil War era history: it also enjoys a broader audience among historians and teachers of all stripes and a public interested in history.  Over that time the blog has shifted focus a bit and become more focused on several issues, each relating to the blog’s title.  At the same time, Kevin’s gained a reputation in certain circles for his discussions of Lost Cause historiography, the evidence concerning “Black Confederates,” and the relationship between present issues and understandings of the past.

As I watched Kevin’s blog grow in influence, I looked to explain why it did.  Many of the points Kevin makes are not unique to him.  Many of the perspectives he presents are shared by a broader audience.  While he’s clearly an excellent teacher, held in high esteem by his institution and his students, that in itself does not explain the prominence his blog has attained or how that prominence has helped Kevin establish a higher profile in the historical profession.

Part of his visibility, I suspect, is the attention he draws from people who disagree with him.  I know one of the reasons I return to look at the blog during the day is because of how the comments section evolves during the day.  There one encounters heated and passionate discussions, with some contributors becoming rather angry with Kevin for what he says.  Nor does the anger always stop there.

For example, Across Our Confederation declares:

There have been many state commissions and organizations created to honor this historic event. Unfortunately they have been stacked with men like Kevin Levin, who has taken many an opportunity to discredit, insult, mock and insult the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the cause for which our ancestors fought.

A friend recently informed me that Levin : “this man has influence on the VA Civil War Sesquicentennial, The Virginia Historical Society, and receives grant money to educate our teachers on how to teach about the Civil War ( and that’s just naming a few of his influences). If we don’t get the word out, how will we be able to stop him?”

That question remained unanswered.  Oh, SCV members could find out where he spoke and show up, but that didn’t seem to go very well, and the letter-writing campaign requires that people actually write letters.  Aside from a few incidents at Kevin’s place of work, that hasn’t gone very far.  And the accusation that Kevin doesn’t like black southerners didn’t exactly stick, although friend of the blog “Border Ruffian” spoke up from the home office in Alabama.

And here’s “DixieDawn010″ decrying Kevin’s views in 2007 … although there’s been no posts on that blog since July 2010.  No worry … that month Confederate Digest picked up the attack.

Or we can turn to Dixie Outfitters, which does more than sell articles of clothing, to read another attack.  Or another.

Even the “commander” of the 37th Texas Cavalry got into the act back in 2005, which suggests just how long Kevin’s been a thorn in the side for certain people.

Someone set up a website featuring Kevin and Robert Moore, which seems to have ended where it started.

I have to admit that I don’t quite get this.  Kevin challenges certain points of view and presentations of evidence, but it would seem to me that the best way to counter Kevin would be by dealing with the evidence and arguments he presents, rather than going after him with an edge that in my view betrays a deeper fear and insecurity.  Indeed, I’d like to suggest that what gives Kevin much of his influence is the assumption among his critics that he exercises a great deal of influence: the sort of reactions offered above would lead one to ask, why are these people afraid?  Gee, Kevin must be powerful and influential if he arouses such impassioned responses.  So let’s ask him to comment or contribute.

In short, admitting the quality of Kevin’s blog, one of the factors contributing to his influence is the reaction he engenders from people who assume he possesses such influence … which, ironically, has contributed a great deal to his influence.  If people are afraid of him, then he must be saying important things, and maybe we ought to listen to him given the reaction he sparks.  By assuming his influence, Kevin’s critics have helped make him influential.

What amuses me in this regard is that there are people (including me) who take a much more confrontational public stance on various issues, and we have not been the targets of nearly as much abuse.  That sort of response comes with the territory, and some of what comes to me proves to be excellent evidence to use in classroom discussions about historians, the public, and controversy.  Yet Kevin’s become the lightning rod, although his posts often simply ask people to support their claims with evidence, which should not be so difficult if such evidence exists and can be understood.  To respond to a call for evidence with a tirade simply doesn’t cut it.

It’s more regrettable that at times people who dislike what Kevin says forego challenging what he says and seek instead to try to prevent him from expressing his views through means that simply would not stand open scrutiny.  This sort of bullying and intellectual intolerance is in fact a confession of weakness, an admission by the people who participate in these tactics simply can’t challenge Kevin on the merits of the case.  Oddly enough, that’s not all that much different from the way proslavery advocates responded to criticism: by seeking to prevent the circulation of ideas, the presentation and discussion of petitions, and resorting to threats of violence (and worse) to try to silence people they could not confront on the merits of the issue.  These threats, in short, are confessions of weakness as well as acts of cowardice.

The people who object to Kevin’s message ought to confront the message rather than attack the messenger.  If they can’t do that, that’s a confession of their intellectual bankruptcy and suggests that they lack integrity.

In short, those people who are afraid of Kevin ought to come out from the darkness in which they reside, stand in the light of day, and simply set forth their issues and engage in reasoned historical discussion using evidence and defending their point of view.  If they can’t do this, that in itself is an admission that they can’t defend their beliefs, and so they engage in indefensible behavior.  After all, all Kevin’s done is to engage these folks in debate and discussion.  Why are they afraid to respond in kind?

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Update: here’s Kevin’s response.  Stipulating Kevin’s skills and ability as a given, my observation would be (1) how he’s used the blogging medium to advance his career in very skillful ways by making himself heard … something people who believe they have something to say should consider (2) while influence and competency are related, Civil War Memory and the reactions it engenders (and, I remind you, there are many positive reactions to what Kevin does, far outnumbering the detractors) creates opportunities for Kevin to display his skills and do his work.  If he could not get the job done, then those chances would soon cease.

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24 thoughts on “Who’s Afraid of Kevin Levin … and Why?

  1. Brooks,

    I think it’s fear of the truth.

    There’s an old cliche that we lawyers use: When the facts are against you, argue the law. When the law’s against you, argue the facts. When the facts and the law are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.

    From where I sit, it looks like there’s an awful lot of pounding the table and yelling like hell going on. When Kevin asks for evidence, the response is hysteria and personal attacks. What else is it but pounding the table and yelling like hell?

  2. Unfortunately, it’s a common modus operandi. When people can’t fight against the facts or with logic, they fall back on trying to discredit or silence the messenger. If an attacker can successfully smear the messenger or create doubt as to their credibility, competence or motives, they can undermine the target’s message even if it is 100% verifiably factual. Or alternatively, they create a sufficiently hostile environment that the target gives up and goes quiet. It happens in science (the evolution “debate”), in politics, and in history – especially when the history is being used for political ends.

  3. Pingback: Brooks Simpson on Kevin Levin and the Lost Causers | Rantings of a Civil War Historian

  4. Certainly Mike Kelley and Kevin Levin have very different views of “Black Confederates”. They both, however, seem to me to be gentlemen who discuss things reasonably with little vitriol. Mike is passionate in his opposition to the KKK. I would think that Kevin is also. Those issues may be more important than the black confederate issue which generally just deteriorates into a meaningless exercise in semantics.

    • You seem to comment a great deal on an issue you see as meaningless, and you appear to have opinions on what people should be discussing. That’s fine. Why not join the discussion by leading it from your own blog? As for Mike Kelley, my impression differs from yours, in part because I know he continues to feature material on his website others have proven to be false and misleading.

  5. I have been having problems opening Kevin’s site today — it takes forever and has often timed out. No problem with yours or any of the other blogs I look at. I dislike conspiracy but I wonder if it is Comcast or perhaps some denial of service attack on him.

    • Sorry Bob. The problem is with my server, but hopefully they will have the problem corrected shortly. Thanks for the post, Brooks. My response will be up shortly. :)

  6. Dear Sir,
    While it is obvious that some fear the indefatigueable Mr. Levin, I think others just find him insulting. On occasion his remarks have been juvenile,mocking and snickering, and irreverent, regardless of the veracity of his remarks. Often the perception is everything.

    • Given the vitriolic (and occasionally vile) things that have been said about Kevin on various other blogs, that he is occasionally “mocking and snickering” shows remarkable restraint and equanimity on his part.

    • Let’s stipulate that what you say is true. So what? Does it justify how some people respond to him? And, as you admit, those exchanges come “regardless of the veracity of his remarks.” In short, people go after the messenger because they can’t respond to the message. It’s a concession of defeat. That is the perception and the reality.

      I have no idea why Kevin’s critics don’t set up their own websites and engage in sustained historical analysis of the facts in order to contest Kevin’s interpretations, or why they find themselves unable to support the positions Kevin attacks and attack those positions Kevin supports. Perhaps you can explain that.

      I find that some of Kevin’s critics are “juvenile, mocking and snickering, and irreverent,” including at times “Border Ruffian.” So if Kevin gives as good as he gets, why does that bother you? And what happens when his critics cross that line? Why doesn’t that bother you? Often the perception is everything, right?

      • Dear Sir,
        One expects less than civil responses from the public in general, but from a teacher one expects decorum and proper deportment. Or once did. One could not imagine David H.Fischer or Gordon S. Wood guilty of condescension.

      • I was curious as to why you would hold Kevin to a different standard of behavior. Sometimes I see people try to take advantage of someone’s status or profession to be abusive without expecting the same treatment in return, then charge “gotcha” with the double standard.

        You’re essentially conceding that we should not expect Kevin’s critics to adhere to minimum standards of civility. Yet many of them are quite civil, so what’s lacking in the other people?

        Both Wood and Fischer give as good as they get, so I would not be so sure of how they might react to such abusive behavior as has been directed at Kevin. That’s why most professional historians don’t go online. Wood and Fischer don’t, so I find your comparison, although understandable, essentially unfair.

  7. …while over at the other blog-

    Kevin Levin:
    “…my detractors are irrelevant..”
    “…They are at best a sideshow…”

    Margaret D. Blough:
    “…you stick to the evidence and avoid the invective…”

    …hilarious.

      • Border Ruffian isn’t quite as anonymous as he thinks. Thus the real reason he doesn’t post under his name must be because he’s afraid to stand in the light of day, defend what he says, and be held accountable for it.

    • It seems to me that you concede the point that you can’t deal with the message, so you go after the messenger. This is how you usually do your commenting, popping in the office in the morning and launching a few attacks before you get down to work in the mistaken notion that no one could find you out if they so desired. So you are at best a sideshow, an illustration of how those people who can’t wrestle with Kevin’s messages decide to take a few swipes at him.

      • Sounds like hypocrisy in that statement, after attacking the messenger. I should say that you are a self proven hypocrite. Please do not attack me for what you yourself has proven, your own hypocrisy. Then again take your best shot since the cat has crawled out from under its bag.

        • I’ve attacked the message and criticized the messengers (who are also the authors). I can see that you can’t defend your message, so you don’t offer your true identity. Apparently you are afraid to be held accountable for what you say and you know that what you say can’t stand the light of day. Why are you so cowardly? And inarticulate?

          I would have expected better from a resident of the Old Dominion.

  8. I actually don’t think it’s an undue insult for Kevin to refer to some of his detractors as an irrelevant sideshow. From the standpoint of historical discourse, that’s exactly what they are. There comes a point where an argument can get so out of touch with reality that you may as well laugh a little.

    –ML

  9. It’s no secret that Kevin and I have had our share of differences over the years, and at times, they have been of a personal and vitriol nature. Both of us are guilty in this regard and I myself have fanned the flames on more than one occasion. Frankly, there are still many issues that we do not agree upon, although I believe that there are many others that we do. Regardless of our past, I vehemently agree that Kevin’s blog has made a big impact on the CW blogosphere while bringing many important issues to light, such as the Black Confederate myth. I myself have posted on this subject with the same frustration that Kevin has. In my declining health, I find myself needing less conflict in both my professional and personal life, especially conflict that serves no greater purpose. Perhaps even Kevin Levin and I can come to terms and express a mutual respect for one another. That would show everyone on all sides of the argument that the blogosphere is not only a place where historical opinions and truths can be shared with the masses, but also a domain where stubborn historians can find a way to work toward a common goal. That goal of course is the proper preservation and presentation of our Nation’s precious history. As we begin to acknowledge the Civil War’s Sesquicentennial, we must celebrate the reunification of our country. If our forefathers could find a way to come together after four years of horrific fighting, why the hell can’t we find a way to get along too…eh Kevin?

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