What’s a Historian to Do?

In a continuing conversation over at Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory, a commenter offers the following observation:

Indeed, as more people turn to the internet for information, the more these black Confederate sites have an impact. Obviously we can’t control the content of these sites (nor should we), so the question becomes if it’s worth fighting them. So it’s important to understand who it is that goes to these sites, and what it is they pick up from it (how many people that see it believe it? and to what degree?), and most importantly to your point about education: how many of these people who visit such sites are even open to education? Or do they have a conclusion in mind already and only find what they already believe (which means they will find a forum to do that through, no matter what, online or not)? These questions require evaluation as suggested by Professor Orr, in order to answer the question of whether it’s worth rebutting these sites (i.e. are their audiences even open to our interpretation? and thus, is it worth our resources? or are we better off spending those resources elsewhere?) — which gets precisely to the heart of your question: “it’s a fair question to ask as to whether they are passing up opportunities to educate others through online sources and conceding the field to this so-called ‘fringe.’ ” Is it worth the fight?

A larger point (and not speaking directly to your point, but related): in my opinion, the more we argue with them on their terms, the more we create that there is a “debate” and legitimize their position, and the more we lose the fight, because unfortunately the people who want to believe this black Confederate stuff would accuse us of ignoring evidence, etc. This is always their accusation, no matter how strong your argument is. Thus, my new approach is this: ok, fine, so 10 zillion African Americans fought for the Confederacy, but really that’s irrelevant to why the Confederate States of America was established as a nation (i.e. to protect the institution of slavery), if we look at any/all of its foundational documents. In other words, it is impossible to be accused of ignoring their evidence, because I am acknowledging their evidence, and then refocusing the question to the heart of the matter (since I think the number of black Confederates is irrelevant to why the CSA was established). Unfortunately, I think by arguing on the numbers of black Confederates, we argue on their terms (i.e. implicitly acknowledging the number of black Confederates who enlisted is connected to the question about how important slavery was to the Confederacy). I think the answer is irrelevant: whether 0 black Confederates, 10 of them, or a million of them, what does not change is this: all the forming documents of the CSA explicitly state why the CSA is formed. Period. This has absolutely nothing to do (and cannot be changed) with the number of black Confederates that “fought for” the Confederacy. Thus, I think it’s time we don’t get sucked into the neo-Confederate Red Herring paradigm of the importance/relevancy of the number of black Confederates, but it’s time we simply point out the CSA’s foundational documents.

I find this position problematic, and it frames the choices as either/or.  Either you contest the evidence someone offers (because you can demonstrate it’s false) or you set that aside and say, “so what?”

Readers of this blog already know that I have long ago raised the “so what?” argument, so I see nothing original in that.  But I think that simply going directly to “so what?” while leaving the evidence uncontested as the approach is simply wrong-headed.  Moreover, isn’t simply accepting the evidence as true a way to legitimize the evidence offered?  I’m very careful to say when I offer “so what” that the evidence is very much contested, but, for the sake of argument, I’ll stipulate it as entered into the record.

Inherent in this commenter’s claim is an accusation: replying to certain people gives them legitimacy and recognition, while ignoring it will leave it to die.  I’ve raised this question before, and there is a counterargument.  The notion that people who contest the claims concerning black Confederates are responsible for the fact that there is an argument (and one that some people speculate may distract professional Civil War historians from getting their own messages across) seems to me mistaken in its import, and I could with equal justice raise it about any issue.

I truly doubt that battling proponents of what’s becoming known in some circles as the myth of Black Confederates will cause many of them to change their minds.  As Andy Hall has argued, it’s an article of faith with them: good old “BorderRuffian”, for example, has left open the notion that one need not have served in the military to be a veteran (how do those of you who are veterans feel about that denigration of your service?).  But there are other audiences, other publics, other consumers of online information.  If we don’t contest the factual basis of these claims, the NPS finds itself supporting historical falsehoods; Virginia’s fourth graders are fed inaccurate history; and people turning to the internet for information will find fraud presented as fact, with nothing to contest it.

Contesting both the narrative and the supposed evidence adduced in support of these claims is what historians do all the time.  Should we let photographic forgeries and false claims go uncontested?  Would that be a good rule for historians to follow, period?  I don’t think so.  Oh, I don’t think we should spend every waking hour in a vigilant reactive mode, and I’ve seen idiots suggest, for example, that not contesting everything that falls out of the mouths of political candidates serves as a tacit endorsement of that candidate.

The commenter on Kevin’s blog later offered this observation:

Moreover, you are missing the big picture if you get sucked into arguing over numbers with them. These people argue for black Confederates why? What is their larger point? Their larger point is to say that slavery was not important to the CSA. Thus, while you are busy arguing on their terms on their paradigm and creating a forum of debate so these people are heard (instead of letting them just talk to each other), I would rather get to the heart of the matter and point out the irrefutable official CSA documentation that explicitly states why the CSA was formed. To me, that undermines their larger point, and thus defeats their argument.

Put another way, the “number” of black Confederates is simply the means to an end — the end/goal being that the CSA was not a nation fighting for preserving the institution slavery. So, I like to go for the goal, because once again, they will simply say to you that you are denying their evidence and put you in some liberal conspiracy or something — but if you acknowledge them and calm them down, and then show your own evidence in return (evidence that gets to the heart of the matter), you will defeat their argument another way.

Again, I’ve already raised the same point before, but I think this tactic is miscast as an act of persuasion directed at the person who believes in the Black Confederate story as an article of faith.  You may come away from this confrontation believing that you have defeated an argument, but how so?  Certainly the person with whom you are arguing doesn’t make that admission if that person is already committed to a position.  The only way any of that matters is when an audience eager to learn and open to discussion wants to weight the merits of various arguments, and one way to undermine the Black Confederate narrative is to undermine its evidence and logic (for example, if there were so many Black Confederates, why was not mention made of them in the debates over enlisting blacks in the winter of 1864-65?  Are you really going to tell me Robert E. Lee was not aware of their existence?). If one confines oneself simply to saying so what, then one’s given away a lot of history, and the presenter of the Black Confederate tale will simply dismiss you as “politically correct” and walk away, declaring that you had nothing … NOTHING … to say about their evidence, leaving the audience to scratch their heads.  Counter evidence, logic, and implications, and then you may be getting somewhere, or at least that’s what I think.  

What do you think?