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.
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.