Over at Civil War Memory Kevin Levin commented on a report filed by Al Jazeera on the commemoration of the firing upon Fort Sumter, in part because it featured Walter and James Kennedy, commonly known as the Kennedy brothers and authors of a series of books that have become, er, controversial.
I always find interesting what the Kennedy brothers have to say. Indeed, at times you can simply play all four of these interviews simultaneously, and they make about as much sense (and it’s an interesting experience to hear the same themes pop out from each section of the interview). Try it.
However, Kevin made an allusion to something one hears a great deal, and one reads it a great deal on the internet, including the comments sections of several blogs. The argument, simply put, is that most historians come to their work with overarching preconceptions to which they rigorously adhere, and seek out that evidence that supports that line of argument, ignoring other evidence and other explanations. Thus, in the end, history’s nothing more than a simple explication of one’s opinion and/or ideology, and that in turn is essentially linked to their identity. Thus there are Yankee historians, politically correct historians, southern historians, Lost Cause historians, court historians, and so on. Moreover, if someone identified with a group does not espouse the positions commonly associated in this interpretive scheme with people of like identity, they must be telling something approximating “the truth.” This helps to explain the scramble by some folks to identify African Americans who agree with the notion that many enslaved and free blacks embraced the Confederate cause (which thus must not have been at all associated with slavery). Since they are black but not toeing some supposed party line (as described by the person celebrating the individuals in question), they must be right.
By the way, I’ve never heard the issue of the racial identity of a historian used in this way in Civil War scholarship when the historian in question is white. “He must be right because he’s white!” Then again, I do sense this in some discussions when it comes to Native American history. To highlight this is to reveal the underlying assumption that one’s race usually determines one’s scholarship, a statement that is self-indicting.
This is a bizarre way of conceptualizing how responsible scholars do history. It is perhaps one of the most visible signs of projection we have, since the people who offer this analysis of other historians are in fact the best examples of this approach to history by some folks. Moreover, by denigrating the historian through identity politics, one neatly sidesteps the need to assess scholarship on its merits: one’s findings must be wrong because of who they are, which in itself is sufficient evidence of motive and methodology.
There’s one big problem here. If everyone is a prisoner of their own identity and ideology, then that must be as true for the people who offer this analysis and the historians with whom they agree as for the historians with whom they disagree. All historical interpretation becomes relative, even autobiographical, and there is no way to say that any interpretation is any better, is more carefully crafted, makes better use of evidence, explains more things, or is simply superior than any other view.
This, of course, is not what the people who make this charge mean to say. What they mean to say is that the history with which they disagree is warped by issues of ideology and identity, while the history with which they agree is true and honest and dispassionate and objective. And yes, I have someone in mind, but he’s not alone (see the nice company that he keeps).
By the way, this dynamic is not limited to folks who tend to look upon the Confederacy with fondness, as you’ll see here.
This is the part where you should expect me to say why this is all wrong, right? After all, it should be the work that comes under examination, and the quality of the scholarship should be determined based upon the merits of the scholarship itself, right? One should strive to be detached, let the chips fall where they may, accept complexity, even contradiction, so long as one is committed to figuring out as best one can what happened, how, and why. Right?
Here’s the problem: either you agree with those premises, in which case I’m preaching to the converted, or you don’t, in which case we have very little to say to each other. So all I wish to say is that if you believe in history as projection of identity and ideology, you’ll have to accept that people will hold you to the same standards, and thus find ready-made cause to dismiss your arguments, using the same reasoning you use to dismiss theirs. Knowing that, why waste your time or mine by pursuing that line of argument?
Enjoy your weekend.