On Museums and History: The Case of Clarence Thomas

Whenever a museum recording the history and culture of its subject opens, we are eager to see the stories they tell, in large part because musums are more than the mere display of artifacts. Museums, like books, tell stories, and all narratives are inherently interpretive and represent choices with consequences.

Not everyone will agree with the result, as we saw at Gettysburg when the new visitors center and museum opened several years ago. I understood and sometimes agreed with the critics of the museum, although I think some of those criticisms were overstated. At the same time, I knew that the museum was tasked to do something more than to recount the events of July 1-3, 1863, and November 19, 1863, in isolation, bereft of any context. Yet I also knew that the context would represent interpretive choices that would be open to analysis and criticism.

So it comes as no surprise that some people are not too keen on everything they’ve seen in the Smithsonian Institution’s new museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Of especial note is the claim made in some corners that the museum more than slights the career of current Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, supposedly, one infers, because of Thomas’s conservative political views.

You know what’s going to follow this report: whining about political correctness and the supposed political agenda of supposedly left-wing academics made by right-wing scholars, buffs, and “observers” (advocates) who claim that their adherance to their own political points of view is an expression of their dispassionate objectivity about the American past. We’ve seen that exercise in projection all too often.

Having not yet visited the museum (I haven’t been to DC since it opened, but it is first on my list for my next visit), I can’t testify as to the particulars of the case. Nor do I know how the museum treats other divisions among African-Americans over time, whether it be Frederick Douglass versus Martin Delaney, Booker T. Washington versus W. E. B. DuBois, or Martin Luther King, Jr., versus Malcolm X, all of which have been traditional (and overused as well as sometimes distorted or misunderstood) ways to view aspects of African American history. And that’s just for starters.

That said, one hopes that in recognizing the diversity of the American past through focusing on the African American past, the museum also embraces telling the story of the diversity within the African American past … and present. Part and parcel of that discussion is an exploration of black conservatism as demonstrating that African Americans are far from a unified bloc when it comes to many issues. At the same time, one should not make more of something than is appropriate … we’ve seen that in the discussion of whether Africans Americans served in significant numbers as soldiers in the ranks of the Confederate army. I note that when it comes to that issue, those gallant defenders of historical accuracy often shed their disguises to suggest that, regardless of what Confederates themselves said at the time, such people were soldiers and should be recognized as such … a position that reflects their own presentist attitudes and political agendas. Others just let that issue go unexplored lest they offend their fellow travellers.

Not that we’re about to hear those storied critics of political correctness hold themselves to the same standards they demand of others. No way. Otherwise we might have heard a reaction to this.

So let’s actually visit the museum before we pass judgment. Otherwise we’re little more than a clipping service bound to our personal prejudices.

The Confederate Flag … The Conquered Banner

Confederate Flag Rally

We’ve heard a great deal about the importance of the Confederate flag (in all of its variations and manifestations, but primarily the Confederate Battle Flag). We are told that Confederate heritage advocates are honoring their ancestors by battling to keep the flag flying, implying that such is exactly what those folks would have wanted to do.

Not so fast.

The Rev. Abram Joseph Ryan was a Catloic priest based in Knoxville, Tennessee. He was also a poet as well as passionate Confederate. Some people called him “Poet-Priest of the South,” while others dared proclaim him the “Poet Laureate of the Confederacy.” In any case no one could question his fidelity to the cause.

Father Ryan had a most interesting Civil War career. Despising Abraham Lincoln, he shorted his first name to Abram; he protested being stationed in the North by his order, and by 1863 we have rports of his being with the Army of Tennessee, without other accounts placing him at Franklin and Nashville near the end of 1864. In the immediate aftermath of Confederate surrender, he composed the following poem, which first appeared in of all places, a New York journal:

The Conquered Banner

Furl that Banner, for ’t is weary;
Round its staff ’t is drooping dreary:
Furl it, fold it,—it is best;
For there ’s not a man to wave it,
And there ’s not a sword to save it, 
And there ’s not one left to lave it
In the blood which heroes gave it,
And its foes now scorn and brave it:
Furl it, hide it,—let it rest!

Take that Banner down! ’t is tattered; 
Broken is its staff and shattered;
And the valiant hosts are scattered,
Over whom it floated high.
Oh, ’t is hard for us to fold it,
Hard to think there ’s none to hold it, 
Hard that those who once unrolled it
Now must furl it with a sigh!

Furl that Banner—furl it sadly!
Once ten thousands hailed it gladly,
And ten thousands wildly, madly, 
Swore it should forever wave;
Swore that foeman’s sword should never
Hearts like theirs entwined dissever,
Till that flag should float forever
O’er their freedom or their grave! 

Furl it! for the hands that grasped it,
And the hearts that fondly clasped it,
Cold and dead are lying low;
And that Banner—it is trailing,
While around it sounds the wailing 
Of its people in their woe.

For, though conquered, they adore it,—
Love the cold, dead hands that bore it,
Weep for those who fell before it,
Pardon those who trailed and tore it; 
And oh, wildly they deplore it,
Now to furl and fold it so!

Furl that Banner! True, ’t is gory,
Yet ’t is wreathed around with glory,
And ’t will live in song and story 
Though its folds are in the dust!
For its fame on brightest pages,
Penned by poets and by sages,
Shall go sounding down the ages—
Furl its folds though now we must. 

Furl that Banner, softly, slowly!
Treat it gently—it is holy,
For it droops above the dead.
Touch it not—unfold it never;
Let it droop there, furled forever,
For its people’s hopes are fled!

Just sayin’.

Second-Guessing Bobby Lee

Several years ago I offered my observations on the challenge that Virginia posed to Ulysses S. Grant in 1864. But I’ve also pondered what choices Robert E. Lee had in the eastern theater. After all, people second-guess Lee’s offensive strategy all the time, and yet I wonder what else he was supposed to do. Abandon Virginia? Stand on the defensive and absorb punches? Leave the defense of Virginia to someone else and go elsewhere to try to win the war?

Say you concede that none of these alternatives offer any more hope of Rebel victory. Did Lee’s strategy, which featured counterattack followed by offensive operations across the Potomac, offer a real chance of victory? Or did his efforts in Virginia in June, July, and August 1862 drain his army of the manpower it needed to conduct successful offensive operations north of the Potomac that September? Did the bloodletting at Gettysburg compromise his ability to deal with Union forces in Virginia in the fall of 1863 and the spring of 1864? What were his alternatives, and did they offer more promising results?

These are not idle questions. Many historians argue that Lee’s performance in the East was the key to Confederate persistence and gave the Confederacy its best chance to win. Fair enough. But that didn’t happen, and, absent an unlikely and complete disaster on the battlefield, it was unlikely that the Confederates could have prevailed in that way. That leaves wearing out the Union’s will to persist. Was Lee’s approach likely to achieve that goal? Remember, the war was more than Virginia: I argue that Grant’s ability to neutralize Lee in Virginia in 1864, despite Lee’s best efforts, allowed the Yankees to prevail elsewhere in time to secure Abraham Lincoln’s reelection. It’s notable that after Sherman took Atlanta that September, the Confederacy failed to devise a game-changing approach to military operations in the two months that remained until election day.

So you tell me what you think … including you, Mark Snell. This one’s for you.🙂


Connie Chastain’s War on Women … And Guess Who Supports Her?

It’s not been a good week for Confederate heritage advocates. They are unhappy about what’s happened at the University of Mississippi, where it appears that advocates of flying a Confederate flag have had a rough time telling the truth as they suffer setback after setback. Now comes news that the favorite candidate of most Confederate heritage advocates, Republican nominee Donald J. Trump, is in serious trouble because of his crass and lewd remarks (and that’s kind) anout women, which most observers believe includes an endorsement of sexual assault. No word yet from Virginia Whine Country, which has been very protective of candidate Trump, about whether protests against sexual assault are simply new examples of political correctness, the target of many a mindless post that are little more than a clipping service of the alt-right. We await efforts to find a Gordon Wood quote that can be twisted in suppport of that blogger’s position.

Without a doubt, however, one need only look at what Virginia Flaggers spokesperson and webmaster Connie Chastain says about Trump to understand that some corners of Confederate heritage advocacy are also busily engaged in conducting a war on women. Like Trump, Chastain favors criminalizing the decision of women to have abortions:

Even Trump has thought better of this, but Chastain has not.

And, just like our friend at Virginia Whine Country, Chastain decides it’s all the fault of the left and the media:


Note the identity of the single retweeter. Note also that I guess that one can conclude that Trump’s past is irrelevant, but not so Clinton’s past … or that non-leftists don’t care about treating women with respect.

Of course, one remembers that Chastain was also a big fan of claiming that women often made false claims about being raped (unless the person being accused was Bill Clinton, I guess). This was a theme of two of her underwhelmingly successful novels. Endorsing sexual assault as a way to approach women is okay in Chastain’s mind, because we can set it aside as “locker room talk”; that such talk, if put into action, results in rape seems irrelevant (will it elicit more squawking  from her about false rape accusations?).

It’s a small step from here to the reasoning of sexual predators that women “really want it” and that “no” means “try harder.”

After all, just saying one’s sorry is good enough.

war-on-women-5Note who retweeted both of these as well.

After all, Chastain wants Trump to whack people, including Clinton:


Funny that she chose that means of expression.

Mind you, Chastain thinks something’s wrong with women (“cackling hens”?) who protest such treatment:


Moreover, “real women” wouldn’t get upset:


That’s right … this controversy about advocating sexual assault is simply “nothing,” and the best proof comes from the sales of a book that is not Chastain’s (jealous, Chastain?). Let’s mock the outrage over such behavior as nothing more than make-pretend about “women’s delicate widdle feelings.”

What else could you expect from someone who seems obsessed about false rape accusations? So … anger over language advocating sexual assault is nothing more than an act to placate “women’s delicate widdle feelings”? Really?

(Yes … Chastain’s gone the fake-name route in crafting an alternative identity of “Polly Graff,” although it did not take her long to drop the pretense that it was her.)


We await Chastain’s efforts to identify which men engage in such talk. As her previous interaction has been with Republican politicians, Confederate heritage apologists, and false rape accusation protesters, we can’t wait to hear about her experiences about what is said in these locker rooms.

But don’t mistake Chastain for a feminist …


Note the wording: it’s not “pseudo-feministic women,” but “feministic pseudo-women.” Real women aren’t feminists: feminists are “pseudo-women.” And no, folks, that’s not a mistake … she says “pseudo-women” twice.

We await the usual retort from Virginia Whine Country that protesting lewd talk and endorsements of sexual assault are nothing more than exercises in political correctness from a leftist academic who’s attacking a political candidate … because, apparently, these things should not be attacked. They are nothing more than locker room talk, as if that’s an acceptable excuse.

Finally, note who likes (and retweets) Chastain’s Twitter activity on behalf of sexual predators … Susan Hathaway. The fact is that Hathaway and her followers have politicized their movement in explicit ways by endoring Trump, not just as individuals, but as an organization:

flaggers-trump-1Oh, well.

The heritage of hate continues. If anything, it’s grown, because it now includes people who protest sexual assault and the victimization of women not named Susan Hathaway.


Oh, My … Flagging for The Donald?

Most fair-minded people would agree that Hillary Clinto was wrong when she claimed that half of Donald J. Trump’s supporters were “a basket of deplorables.” That claim painted with too broad a brush that tarred too many people.

That said, it is true that some of Trump’s supporters are truly deplorable, especially those who have been associated with what one Pensacola blogger claimed was the future of Confederate heritage … the Virginia Flaggers.

Susan Hathaway supports Trump. Connie Chastain supports Trump. Matthew Heimbach, once a Flagger darling, has actually attacked protesters at a Trump rally.

Chastain’s political views, indeed, appear to be straight out of the Trump playbook.

We’ve seen Confederate flags at Trump rallies, which does little to promote the notion that either the Trump campaign or Confederate heritage is especially tolerant. For Trump supporters outside “the basket,” it’s an unfortunate association.

And then came Friday’s revelation of a video, some eleven years old, of Trump and television program host Billy Bush making crude and lewd comments about women.

Guess who came out swinging for Trump? That’s right, Connie Chastain. Given her obsession with the notion of false rape accusations … a theme that has shaped several of her works of fiction … one might well expect that she would shrug off Trump’s crass talk that smacked of sexual assault and rape. And so she did (check the comments section … where Chastain posts under her own name as well as the name “Polly Graff”).

So much for southern womanhood. We recall that Susan Hathaway once said that Chastain did her “heavy hitting.” Now we have a better idea of what that means.



World War I Comes to Your Video Game Console

Once upon a time World War II was a favorite subject of video games, especially first person shooters (FPS). It’s where the series “Call of Duty” got its start, first on personal computers, then on video game consoles. Nowadays such series foucus on modern and future combat, weaving missions into narratives that question the very subject of the game (and the interest of the player).

Previous conflicts have not fared so well in the FPS genre. Efforts to present the Civil War on video game consoles proved feeble. Here and there PC efforts gained an audience, but on the whole the pre-World War II period were represented by titles that explored conflicts, campaigns, and battles. One exception was aerial combat, but that seemed to be in part because the differences between World War I and World War II dogfighting were not great (as opposed to the heat-seeking missiles, sometimes offered in incredible payloads, for more modern games such as the Ace Combat series).

This fall, however, video game consoles will turn to World War I with the appearance of Verdun (a PC port) and Battlefield I. The makers of the latter game have offered twelve minutes of in-game action for us to absorb.

Of especial note is that when “you” die, you die. As a player, you assume someone else’s character, but the character that dies is not doing to be revived by the reset button or some other eternal life device.

Having not played Verdun and with Battlefield I delayed for the XBox1, I can’t tell you how the games play, or how they simulate anything. We’ll see whether a grittier view of war is something that video gamers want to explore.

Two Celebrations

This weekend, Americans will finally get to see what many of us have been waiting to explore: the opening of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. I’ll be at a conference at Illinois State University discussing the Supreme Court decision ex parte Milligan (1866), so I’ll have to wait my turn to step into this museum (I visited the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History for the first time in 1966, some fifty years ago, just two years after it opened).

To me, the new museum is for all of us, much as other Smithsonian museums are for all of us (the National Museum of the American Indian comes to mind) as well as other museums on the National Mall (as in the Holocaust Museum). I can’t wait to see what stories the new museum will tell and how they will be told.

That museum looks forward in part by looking backward, suggesting the journey ahead in part by reviewing where one’s been. Elsewhere, however, maybe a hundred miles to the south, people who look backward all the time will also be gathering that weekend. That’s right … the Virginia Flaggers will celebrate their fifth anniversary of existence and three years since the Comedy at Chester was first unveiled. I remember that day very well, and it always brings a smile to my face.

It’s a remarkable contrast to see the rest of America looking forward and learning some history while some folks remain stuck in a past they don’t actually understand very well. But we can always wonder who the Flaggers will invite to the picnic this year. Any guesses?