I see where my posting of a short exchange of views in three part harmony on Fox has sparked a discussion at Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory over exactly how to engage such folks in debate. Kevin asserts:
While those of us familiar with this Lincoln scholarship might enjoy a good laugh, we would do well to keep in mind that DiLorenzo and Woods are probably influencing the general public more through their publications and activism than all of the recent scholarly studies combined.
I’m unaware of any empirical data supporting that assertion. Indeed, I don’t think that people who watch Fox or who have conservative leanings necessarily hew to the party line expressed in the roundtable in question. Some may in fact watch out of amusement: someone once remarked to me that it looked as if Judge Napolitano’s head looked to be on the point of exploding. Imagine how he might react if there was someone there to question his views or engage in debate?
Kevin then posts with approval a comment made by Dr. Daniel Feller in the pages of a professional journal about the work of several writers, including Dr. DiLorenzo:
The popularity of these books reminds us that academics live in a cocoon, which we mistake at our peril for the world. It is a comfortable cocoon, filled with people and ideas we feel at ease with. But outside that cocoon, convictions are being shaped that will affect us all. The inclination to ignore ersatz scholarship and go about our business is strong, for the costs of engaging are high. But if we believe what we say we do – that knowing history is important, for such knowledge has consequences – then the costs of neglect may be higher.
These sound like wise words, but an appreciation of context should inform them. I say this knowing Dan Feller quite well, for Dan, David Blight, and I were all students of Dr. Richard H. Sewell at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the early 1980s. Dan was known as someone who criticized freely and harshly, but I’ve not seen him follow his own advice when it comes to the people he discusses in his essay. I’d argue that David Blight’s work has had a lot more influence than Feller claims: Kevin’s own blog is testimony to that. Moreover, Feller’s call to engage leaves unanswered the question of how to do so.
Folks, if Judge Napolitano, Dr. DiLorenzo, or Thomas Woods wanted to engage me on television, they need only pick up the phone. The judge has a show: you might want to ask him why he finds himself contact-challenged. However, anyone who watches MSNBC or Fox News/Business knows how this goes: shows on both networks prefer sham debates that look like professional wrestling matches or seek academics who simply confirm the prejudices of the host. That’s true of both networks. Nor is C-SPAN necessarily the place to go. Brian Lamb’s interview with DiLorenzo on C-SPAN allowed DiLorenzo to go on unchecked, and he made statements which were simply amusing because they were so easy to challenge (but Lamb chose not to do that, and generally does not see that as his role; for those of you who want to read the transcript, here it is). For example, if there was a conspiracy of Lincoln scholars led by organizations such as the Abraham Lincoln Association (where I serve on the board of directors) to sanctify the Lincoln image and reputation, then why would the journal of that association publish Phillip Magness’s article on Lincoln and colonization … part of a larger work that DiLorenzo praises? Why would that association invite Lerone Bennett to speak at its annual symposium? I know, because I was one of the other two panelists, and I have some idea from that experience how these things turn out. In the end, Allen Guelzo and Bennett got into a heated exchange, while it was left to me to suggest that we need to replace “who freed the slaves?” with “how did freedom come? How was slavery destroyed?” as a superior way to understand the destruction of slavery and the advent of emancipation. Note: upon listening to what I had to say, Bennett leaned over and told me that he agreed with much of it.
So selecting a forum and a format is key. I’ve heard there’s something called the History Channel, but I’ve never seen much history on it, and that’s being polite.
Kevin concludes by saying:
What I will say, however, is that it would be nice to see DiLorenzo and Woods have to present these arguments among historians who have actually published scholarly studies about Lincoln. Let’s see how well their arguments hold up. Of course, first, they have to be engaged.
Again, at first glance this sounds fine. But the devil’s in the details. What’s the best way to do this? Who hosts? How is the discussion made available? Is any of this a guarantee that the result will reach the audience intended? Indeed, would someone define the audience(s) in question?
Here’s the problem: Napolitano, DiLorenzo, and Woods offer sound-bite assertions that a scholar could not responsibly answer with a similar sound bite without becoming just another ranting head. Yet that is exactly what is required on these shows. So let’s set that aside if we are really interested in thoughtful, responsible scholarship or a meaningful discussion. Indeed, some of the comments on Kevin’s blog can be reduced to “Fight! Fight! Fight!”
So, do we have C-SPAN host a discussion? And if so, are we going to frame it as Kevin has, with scholars responding to an indictment offered by a three-headed prosecutor? Or would such a discussion proceed with more open-ended questions, such as “Will you tell us your views on Lincoln and colonization?” Format’s critical here: placing scholars in the position of having to respond to some sort of factually-flawed indictment in an adversarial format akin to a trial or debate simply promotes confrontation and theatrics at the expense of understanding. Again, some of the comments in response to Kevin’s post suggest that’s what some people want, and I invite those people to proceed on their own, perhaps by asking Dr. Feller to step forward and volunteer to assail the tremendous trio directly, much as Dr. Feller has at times engaged his professional peers. Of course some people will pay to see that circus. But, make no mistake about it, it will be a circus, in part because the protagonists will show no respect for each other (I advise you to listen to/read the DiLorenzo C-SPAN interview again for evidence of that).
Now, one can use the internet to challenge arguments. After all, this has been an approach used by both sides in the debate over black Confederates, although that’s in part because so much of that debate occurs online. Indeed, James Epperson has done just that with DiLorenzo, in the website he cited. I invite your attention to the website constructed in response to that website. I’ll leave it to the readers to judge how that turned out.
There are ways to engage in thoughtful, responsible discussion on a civil level. Of course, even then you’ll encounter an idiot with his own agenda among the listeners/readers, and I’ve already offered my views on that. However, given DiLorenzo’s portrayal of Lincoln scholars (and the vast misrepresentation involved), I’d wager that things are a bit more complicated than some people suspect. Suffice it to say that people who study Lincoln often disagree with each other. You’ve seen it on this blog, for goodness’ sake.
DiLorenzo’s construction of the community of Lincoln scholars is a strawman, a construction of an “other” essential to his moving his case from Lincoln to those who write about him and who do not share his views. It also poisons the well for civil discussion. And, folks, you can’t tell me to drop what I’m doing and respond to someone else’s agenda while at the same time you’re asking me about the progress of this project or that project. Yet, as the Epperson example shows, these discussions are a little harder to construct than one thinks.
Taking people on always seems to be the simple answer: it is in how one conducts the discussion and what one expects that things get far more complicated.