Land of Confusion

Kevin Levin uses social media rather skillfully to broadcast his activities and accomplishments. Last week he publicized a piece he did in The Atlantic that was based upon a previous blog post at Civil War Memory. Simply summarized, he argued that for all the fuss made about the Confederate Battle Flag as a divisive symbol in media reports that seek to tell a conventional story, that noise should not detract from the larger truth that more and more southerners are willing to place the CBF in the past where it belongs. Efforts to display the flag at various public venues have fallen short. Those southerners who passionately protest such setbacks are a minority, regardless of how much attention they get: if anything newspaper and other media that pay any attention to these people distort the larger picture.

There’s much truth in what Kevin says. I’ve remarked before on the cookie cutter journalism that we see in many reports about Confederate heritage (and they need not be restricted to the South). Yet there is also a great deal of irony in the terrain he describes. For it must be admitted that proponents of the display of the Confederate flag have tried to use the same tools Kevin has used to broadcast their perspective. Between Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs, and websites, they have presented their message. The fact that news media reports are now circulated on the internet means that a local television station’s report can be shared globally provided the station has a website where it presents its broadcast stories. Newspaper articles enjoy the  same sort of circulation. Moreover, various blogs also assist in the circulation of this information, even as they contest claims and reflect on larger issues … and that would include blogs such as Civil War Memory, Dead Confederates, and Crossroads. After all, Kevin’s own blogging activity opened the door to his career as a commentator at The Atlantic.

All of these factors resulted in something of a perfect storm over the last several days. Kevin shared with his readers and friends the news about his forthcoming article; that news received wider circulation; among those who learned of the article were those folks who proclaim themselves defenders of Confederate Heritage (TM); and off went several of those people (and one in particular) to vent in the comments section. I paid a visit early on and left a single clarifying observation about the display of Confederate flags to help someone understand the First Amendment rights did not mandate that the government display such banners on public ground; I returned this morning to survey the damage and leave a comment about the correct date when the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified.

It was a good thing that I waited so long to return to contribute. By yesterday afternoon, I had heard that the discussion had devolved and degraded as it moved away from Kevin’s central points. Such remains the case as of this morning. causing Kevin to reflect on the whole mess, which had become self-sustaining and predictable. Indeed, there was some truth in one commenter’s claims that the spectacle had taken on the appearance of public performance art.

I can understand Kevin’s disappointment, but I’m not surprised (and neither was he … in announcing the appearance of The Atlantic essay, he remarked: “I have no doubt that it will raise the usual cries of South/Confederate heritage bashing from the usual suspects”). Indeed, this is part of the world of public discourse through social media. The democracy (anarchy?) afforded by such platforms gives everyone a say, regardless of what one may think about what is said. In turn that gives rise to one of the major criticisms leveled at bloggers by other historians … that they give undue attention to fringe elements (which, when you reflect on it, is exactly what Kevin and others have said about unimaginative cookie-cutter journalism). Not that Kevin necessarily gave much attention to those elements in his piece for The Atlantic. He did not need to do so: the comments section afforded the stage for a response. The shrillness of some commenters (as well as the usual commitment to historical inaccuracy) drew the attention once more to the loud minority, its voice magnified in cyberspace.

The entire affair illustrates the dilemmas inherent in conducting public discourse in an age of social media. Once upon a time someone much better known than Kevin would have been asked to prepare a piece on this issue (Kevin’s prominence is due to his social media profile; without the internet, most of us would never have heard of him). It would have taken some time for that piece to find its way into print (a few weeks). Even if it inspired a flurry of responses, they would be directed at the article (one of the features of online comments is that people respond to each other as much or more than they respond to the original article). The publication in question would reprint a select number of these responses, and perhaps the original author would respond in turn … and that would be about it.

In short, the same cyberworld that gave us Kevin Levin also gave us Connie Chastain (who first came to my attention when she commented at Kevin’s blog). The same environment that gave rise to Civil War Memory also made Backsass! possible. No internet, no Southern Heritage Preservation Group, and no easy access to the messages circulated by groups such as the League of the South and the Southern Nationalist Network (which also uses social media effectively, as does Occidental Dissent). Academics used to “controlling the message” as well as being the chief messengers in classroom-like forums express discomfort with the result and have a tendency of blaming not the groups they deem extreme, unreasonable, or fringe but the people who engage in debate with them, which has led to a very interesting discussion about the academy, social media, and communicating with a broader public (including educators and students who seek information on the internet). In short, the internet makes everyone a historian who can share views with a broad audience in unfiltered fashion, rendering it essential to understand how to use this new tool as a platform for disseminating information and hosting discussion.

It’s a new frontier we explore as we encounter a land of confusion. Enjoy the adventure.

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9 thoughts on “Land of Confusion

  1. I wonder what a typical Atlantic reader would make of the donnybrook of comments on Kevin’s article. It looks like a bunch of discordant cousins fighting things out at a dysfunctional family reunion.

    • I tried to follow the exchanges but have since given up. I saw very little that addressed Kevin’s post. I saw a lot of posturing which drew return comments, and then it was off to the races. However, I’ve noted in the past (and will do so again rather soon) that non-responsive retorts are usually the order of the day; the problem comes when people respond to those retorts assuming that rational discourse is a common interest. In the end, Kevin was correct: while discussions about the use of the Confederate Battle Flag produce a lot of heat from the usual sources, to concentrate on that is to ignore the fact that more and more Americans (and especially southerners) do not rally behind that flag. He’s indicting lousy and lazy reporting. I think it would have been even better to be more explicit about that.

    • Well, I try. Like you, I expect to see a lot of mindless and lazy reporting about “the South” at Charlotte, which is just an hour away from where I used to teach. Charlotte’s representative of a region within the South, but it’s not representative of the South. Nor do I see it being particularly interested in Confederate heritage issues. So what we’ll see are lazy and uninformed reporters filing stupid stories based on the usual pattern, tracing the extent to which “the South” has “outgrown” its “past” as delegates gather to renominate an African American as its candidate for president. One could just as easily file a story that claimed that in renominating Obama, the Democratic party has outgrown its past as the party of Roger B. Taney, Horatio Seymour, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Clement Vallandigham. The irony is that such reporting stereotypes white southerners past and present.

      Then again, maybe the Flaggers will show up. :)

  2. I have an acquaintance who is the editor at a local newspaper, which is part of a chain. He totally loathes the chain’s online comment policy, especially the use of pseudonyms. It all too often leads to the comments section turning into a toxic waste dump where the worst offenders try their utmost to bully anyone who doesn’t see things their way into departing. The powers-that-be are averse to policing the comments because the hands-off approach protects their ability to maintain deniability for liability purposes.

  3. I’m surprised The Atlantic discussion went on for so long. I believe that I was banned there within five or six comments.

    In any case, the comment sections of virtually all mainstream newspapers and magazines reflect the near total collapse of legitimacy in the news media and academia among conservatives.

    The liberal faithful increasingly congregate in their own segregated world. They spin out narratives that appeal to other liberals. The rest of the country is gradually tuning them out.

    As for Kevin’s political speculations, he couldn’t be more off base. The South is now a one party Republican sea from Virginia to Texas whereas that wasn’t the case just a few years ago. The handful of remaining Blue Dogs who survived in 2010 will be wiped out in November including several Democratic seats in North Carolina.

    The South is becoming more racially polarized, not less. Obama nearly lost the Democratic primaries in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Joe Manchin avoids him like he has political AIDS. Clinton’s Arkansas is a great example of this. Republicans will take all the House seats and capture the Arkansas state legislature in November.

    We’re actually going back to Jim Crow politics after a fifty year realignment: Democrats are now firmly the black party, the Hispanic party, and the Northeastern Yankee and Jewish party, and Republicans have become the White Man’s Christian Party.

    The idea that we are progressing to a colorblind utopia is absurd: when I was a teenager, Bill Clinton could win Arkansas, West Virginia, Georgia, Louisiana, and Kentucky. In the 2000 Bush vs. Gore election, Tennessee was a swing state. That is unimaginable today.

    We have come so far under Obama that Hillary just turned down the chance to replace Joe Biden as VP because she didn’t want to be identified with Obama when she runs in 2016. That’s because the White working class Clinton voters in the Upper South and Lower Midwest – voters which John Kerry could win in 2004, and which gave Bubba two terms in the White House – have now gone completely over to the Republicans.

    As for the Confederacy and “Civil War,” the South and parts of the West like Arizona and Montana are openly practicing nullification again, and congressional Republicans control the House and have blocked Obama’s agenda. If Obama does win November, it will be four more years of unrelenting gridlock because redistricting has taken the House out of play.

    BTW, the link that I posted to the PP survey shows that as recently as 2000 most Republicans trusted the media – in just ten years, every mainstream national institution except the police, military, and the churches have suffered catastrophic declines in legitimacy.

    Oh, and the feedback that Kevin received in The Atlantic comments puncture a lot of his triumphalist happy talk, and just confirms the cultural situation in the South as I described it above.

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