Over at Civil War Memory Kevin Levin’s expressed his displeasure with a recent short commentary posted on History News Network. A look at the commentary reveals it to be superficial, although I think Kevin errs in offering an overly-broad headline, because Steven Conn does not speak for all (or perhaps even many) public historians. After all, readers of this blog, especially southern readers, would resent it if I titled a post “Southerners Never Learn” to discuss Confederate heritage advocate George Purvis.
That said, Conn’s piece, which speaks rather blithely of “Southerners” as if all southerners come in one size, with one set of opinions, and in just one color (white), suggests how, even as there’s hope that the Civil War sesquicentennial may help Americans develop a more sophisticated understanding of the war, that there remains much evidence that cookie-cutter commentary following the predictable pattern of casting “southerners” as backward-looking folks who still seek to rationalize their past while proudly promoting Confederate heritage won’t get us very far.
Edward Said is perhaps best known for advancing the notion of “the Other,” in which people define themselves by crafting an image of themselves in contrast to some opposing construct (the so-called “other”). Robert Penn Warren, C. Vann Woodward, Vernon Burton, Howard Zinn, Carl Degler, and other observers applied like reasoning to posit a notion of the South as Other, in which non-southerners craft an image of the South that stresses how different it is. Many people see Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic as an expression of this approach. Cookie-cutter sesquicentennial commentary falls into the same trap, and it often follows the same pattern: interview a SCV spokesman, perhaps a NAACP spokesman, perhaps David Blight or someone who sounds just like him, sprinkle it with other commentary, and the result is (a) things haven’t changed or (b) things might change (this depends on who else is interviewed by the reporter). Moreover, the reporting assumes that it is in the South that the terms of the sesquicentennial are set.
So, just to remind you … southern heritage and Confederate heritage are not the same thing. Not all southerners are alike. Not all southerners are white. Not all of them fly the Confederate battle flag or put Confederate bumper stickers on their pickup trucks equipped with gun racks. Not all southerners joined the Confederacy. Racism was not simply a southern thing. If the protection of slavery sparked secession, the destruction of slavery did not motivate the United States’ decision to resist secession or go to war.
Those who do not take the trouble to learn about Civil War history are doomed to repeat the same old tired predictable narratives. It may be all the more disturbing when they pose as “experts,” trained professionals in the field of history, but the misuse of “expertise” to offer “commentary” is a subject best left for another time.