Professional Historians and the BCM: A Further Response

I thank those posters who have contributed their own thoughts on this question during the past several days.  In some cases, the conversation’s reinforced impressions I’ve had, including one that there continues to be a failure to communicate with those who seem skeptical of this whole enterprise.  I say that because several of the points raised have already been addressed before, but that doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression on the minds of the skeptics.

First, what “should” professional historians write about?  I haven’t asked that question.  I’d argue that they write about what they want to write about once they are truly on their own.  That is, advisers, a sense of the interests of the profession, professional reputation, and so on have some impact on shaping those choices, but beyond the dissertation, people write about what they want to write about.  I don’t know of historians who have been forced to write on a topic against their will.

Moreover, not everyone need write about the same thing, or follow some sort of directive handed down from some supposed source of superior knowledge.  The fact is, it doesn’t work that way.  All I’ve done is suggest how professional historians might best counter the assumptions that shape the Black Confederate myth.  Sure, some historians will demonstrate that the evidence used in support of various claims is frail and flawed, sometimes distorted beyond recognition.  Historians do that all the time, so I’m not sure why doing it in this instance has irritated some folks.  But I fail to see how a suggestion that historians also concentrate on the story of how enslaved blacks responded to the challenges and opportunities presented by the Civil War is a distraction from some other more important mission.  Some people will write on battles and leaders; some will write on women and the war; some will write about common soldiers; and on and on and on.  But in writing about the experience of enslaved and free blacks during the Civil War, especially those within the Confederacy, one will inevitably, directly or indirectly, address the underlying agenda of proponents of the Black Confederate myth. Other than that, I have no advice on what professional historians should be doing in that sense.  I simply resent being told what we shouldn’t be doing by our peers.  That lecturing (again, by an even smaller minority than those who believe in the BCM) simply has to stop, and I see no reason to put up with it.  Do your own work, instead of telling me what I should be doing.  Otherwise, I get to tell you what you should be doing.

Second, while I have some interest in the BCM, it really isn’t the case that I spend much time on it as a subject of interest.  This year three books will come out bearing my name on the title page, and none of them address this issue.  Period.  It’s not a major research agenda item, except insofar as it has to do with how the general public understands history and the tools they use to find information and learn.  Here we can’t deny the growing power of the internet as a source of information, and how search engines and a rather unsophisticated way of assessing websites contributes to public misinformation and ignorance.  For those professional historians who write for each other or who care most for what their fellow professionals think of them, you can stop reading now, because we will continue to talk past each other.  I note that some of the most encouraging posts come from professional educators who have dealt with the BCM in the classroom, others have highlighted how even uninformed scholars have spread misinformation and misunderstanding.  I enjoy having a audience that extends beyond my peers.

Professional historians have no problem highlighting issues of ignorance and misinformation when they deem it important (or even fun) to do so.  Look at how scholars flock to correct the fumbled facts of a Sarah Palin or a Joe Biden.  By the way, does exposing the errors of such people cause them to change their minds?  Nope.  So why correct them?

The answer to that (which I’ve said before) is that countering these BCM tales is not aimed at changing the minds of the proponents of the BCM any more than is that to point out the details of Paul Revere’s ride is going to lead to a major confession from former Governor Palin that she messed up.  In both cases, the people challenging the misinformation do so for the benefit of an ill-defined audience that takes in what it hears.  Without such challenges, the fairy tales go uncontested and become accepted by a good number of people (as we see from teachers who say students come up with this sort of stuff when they go to the internet to do research).  That we continue to hear from skeptics that we aren’t going to change the minds of the proponents misses the point, because the critics of the BCM have never said that they aimed to change those minds: they wanted to counter the narrative and its underlying assumptions.  For some folks to overlook this response repeatedly suggests that they don’t want their minds changed, either, because that would undermine a part of their critique.  This has happened here and at Kevin Levin’s blog, where these discussions went off the rails because some folks insisted on repeating their charges after they had been countered (and they failed to wrestle with the responses to their charges).   That is not much different from how proponents of the BCM behave when challenged.  Interesting, no?

I also don’t understand how discussion of this issue on the blogosphere sucks the air out of the room.  That, frankly, is ridiculous, although it might speak to the inability of some people to fill the air in that room (which is in an undisclosed location) with something more compelling.  After all, one can trace this discussion back to a series of observations about the marginal nature of some blogging interests and of blogging, period.  So how can something that is so marginal have such a devastating impact on the ability of professional historians to be heard?  Surely this is in fact a devastating self-criticism of the inability of professional historians to broadcast their messages due to the activities of a few marginal bloggers who professional historians tend to set aside, anyway.  How can these bloggers be so marginal and yet so powerful? How do people who are not minded by professional historians limit other (and presumably more) useful historical discourse?  That argument seems to me to be about as bizarre as that embraced by proponents of the BCM.

Mind you, in truth I’ve heard this criticism from precisely one professional historian bearing a PhD.  One.

Even the BCM has more proponents than that.

As for the claim that challenging the BCM somehow gives it unintended legitimacy (and thus one should not do it), I haven’t heard the same argument used against holocaust deniers.  In fact, I have yet to see a shred of evidence to support this claim.  Absent that, I have no obligation to correct someone’s feelings on this matter, and I reject the argument as silly.

Matt Gallman says, “if you ask me about the public good and discourse on Civil War era history I would say that the larger goals are better served by talking about the actions and beliefs of actual African Americans.”  I assume he’s read what I’ve posted, asking historians to do just that.  But perhaps professional historians need to do that rather than suck the air out of the room by following their own various hobbies, including “memory” as an elaborate exercise in deconstruction that in too many cases is becoming rather predictable (and which all too often forgets that today’s exercise in deconstructing memory is tomorrow’s case study in creating memory).   I’ve seen enough hobby horses suck the air out of the room at conventions over the last quarter-century.  Was it a lack of will or a loss of will?  Who freed the slaves?  Was it a total war or not?  Give it a break.  Somehow, to get so concerned about how supposedly marginal bloggers suck the air out of the room and hamper well-established professionals in their never-ending issues to tell us how to understand (and remember?) the American Civil War is preposterous.

But then maybe that’s why only a single PhD-bearing historian has raised this complaint on this blog, and perhaps we are giving this person too much attention (since we aren’t changing his mind) and allowing this seemingly endless discussion to suck the air out of this room, distracting me from more important work.  Just a thought.

Thanks again, everyone.

20 thoughts on “Professional Historians and the BCM: A Further Response

  1. MarkD June 21, 2011 / 8:41 am

    I have not paid any attention to the Palin-Revere issue, but the track record is on reporting on Palin is miserable. I suppose you don’t need advice from me, but I wouldn’t have used her to make the point, since her opponents actions alone make her a politically charged example. I have seen where historians have defended her account, but I’ve not paid that any attention yet either. It doesn’t seem to me tossing in Biden for political fairness helps make the analogy better. I don’t care about this issue, but now it seems I must to judge if you are as fair-minded as I’ve thought you to be thus far in my readings of your blog (and books.) See the problem? I have better things to do, or so I think.

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 21, 2011 / 7:02 pm

      I don’t see the problem, unless I don’t see your problem … and I think that if it is your problem, then you are the best judge of how to use your time.

      • TF Smith June 22, 2011 / 9:37 am

        I think you have “taken your stand” and made it pretty clear; FWIW, I think you’re right.

        Historical truth exists, without quotation marks; otherwise, even with caveat, what is the point of the profession if not to seek it out and follow the evidence where it goes?

  2. Charles Lovejoy June 21, 2011 / 7:35 pm

    Raising my hand here 🙂 I don’t even rank an amateur historian. I’m just simply interested in history . I change my mind all the time about historical subjects. I simply just state my observations . I think those that present the BCM should bear the responsibility of providing the documentation to support the numbers of blacks they claim served as combat troops. So far most of the numbers I have seem are extremely low, numbers like one or three. I think there is a distinctive difference of blacks accompanying Confederate forces and blacks serving as combatants. I think you have already debunked the BCM as presented. At this point what else can be said?

  3. MarkD June 21, 2011 / 9:50 pm

    So much for hinting. I think it is a unnecessarily politically charged to imply that there should to be a “confession” over “messed up” historical details of a current political figure without any detail given. I question the relevancy to the article. I’m not expecting any sort of perfect political neutrality, if that were possible, but I think one should either state a relevant example (implicitly putting it up for critique) or else use something widely shared and less contentious unless there is a reason for not doing so. If there is any reason to think an example is uniquely illuminating for some reason then that’s all the justification one needs, but this should also be stated, rather than darkly hinting of what I think you once called “mindless gaffes.”

  4. John Foskett June 22, 2011 / 7:40 am

    The good old “blame it on the media” excuse doesn’t work here. Her own words were recorded on video. Same with Ms. Bachmann when she stood at a rally in Concord, New Hampshire and lauded it as the location where the “shot heard ’round the world” was fired. But what’s 75-80 miles distance among friends…..

    • MarkD June 22, 2011 / 10:47 pm

      John, I didn’t blame gaffes on the media. Maybe you’re right that only an idiot would be off 80 miles. Meanwhile, it takes some real discernment to say Fox News “certainly” is a “direct descendant” of the SHS as you did recently. I won’t hold my breath waiting for you to admit that you got caught up in the moment and made a pretty wild exaggeration of the sort less easily passed off as a factual error.

      • MarkD June 22, 2011 / 10:54 pm

        Oh dreadfully sorry John, I attributed the Fox News quote to you, but i see now my memory was bad and it was someone else. My apologies. .

  5. Neil Hamilton June 22, 2011 / 4:13 pm

    Professor Simpson,

    Odd how one’s time and his/her use of it seems so important to others who seem to have the need to explain how one should use their time while they take time to do such, does it not?

    Enjoyed this recent series on the BCM and look forward to viewing your site each day.


    • MarkD June 23, 2011 / 1:02 am

      Well Neil, I may be an amateur scholar, but I take questions seriously. I maintain that the Palin remark was a bad analogy, that undermines the point of the post. Either the Palin analogy on Paul Revere’s ride to BCMers claims are valid for some publicly explainable reason, or it is just some irrational prejudice of the sort in the article we’re commenting on.

      How is a factual gaffe of Palin about Paul Revere’s ride similar to BCMs treatment of the facts? Is BCM merely a factual error, or does it satisfy a need as we’ve all speculated? Or if Palin’s gaffe was more than a factual error and met a similar need in any way analogous to what might be attributed to a BCM proponent, as we’ve all speculated about here, what was it? If none of those, and the only similarity is that you think neither will admit they’re wrong, then doesn’t that raise the question of role of motive and/or need-fulfillment in the analogy once again? Isn’t it likely that not admitting error in the face of a public mistake is a common form of self-defense, and not exactly remarkable?

      If no one feels the need to attempt an answer, but still wishes to maintain the reasonableness of thinking Palin and BCMers analogous in a way relevant to this discussion, could that be because the reasons for believing it aren’t fully rational, similar to the way the article claims or implies BCMers beliefs are not?

      • Ray O'Hara June 23, 2011 / 5:53 am

        BCM vs Sarahgaffe,
        those pushing the BCM have a specific agenda in regards to the Civil War memory and they are trying to change the past.

        Sarah is merely stupid, she gave a garbled account and then when she was called on it she first insisted she was right and that it was an unfair ‘gotchya” question, the question was “what have you taken away from your visit to Boston?” very gotchya indeed and who wouldn’t have been tripped up by it :). The following kerfuffle wasn’t over the answer it was her and her fans response to the laughter she got., the attacks on the Raul Revere wiki entry and her insistance she was right. a simple”oops I was tired after a long day and mispoke a little” after all she hadn’t been that far off, she knew a horse was involved and redcoats too. an oopsie and it’s over. instead she blames the media.
        the whole thing was good for a minor chucle.

        the BCM is different, it’s gaining market share and how long before Texas and Va school books start having it in them. If they can delete Tom Jefferson without a hint of embarrassment they can add the BCM as easily.

        what they have in similar is using history as an ideological tool for a modern political agenda. and where the past fails to measure up the past must be changed to fit the agenda.

  6. Jeff Henkel June 23, 2011 / 6:22 am

    Mark D, it’s not Palin getting the fact wrong that’s at issue. It’s not turning around and saying, in no uncertain terms: ‘History is important, facts are important, and look I’m now reading this book to get a better understanding…and so should you.’

    The issue here is how we understand, promote, and ‘keep’ history. How we deal with mistakes is as important as the mistakes themselves. In the BCM, it’s the issue of trying to make their cause the central issue. They skirt the subject to grant legitimacy to a fallacious notion that Black Confederates in arms can somehow undermine the entire slavery issues. As if the the years of debate, angst and passion leading up to the Civil War, most of which centered on Slavery were coincidental. It’s an obfuscation.

    The reason I find the modern parallel apt is because we have a tendency to trivialize ‘facts’. It’s exactly what Palin did when she realized her gaffe. I’ve detailed above what I feel her response should have been. Such a response would have said: watch me take personal responsibility for my mistake and stress the value of history and education all at once. But that isn’t what happened.

    Truth, despite the fact that it can be hard to pin down, is important. It is our responsibility to understand history, share history, analyze it, and point out where we think it’s being presented wrong to the greater public body. It doesn’t matter if it is a BCM argument or a presidential candidate…wrong is wrong.

  7. Matt Isham June 23, 2011 / 7:13 am

    I’ve enjoyed the discussions of the Black Confederate Myth in the blogosphere and even participated in it when I wrote a blog post that wondered about the impact of the BCM on academic historians. The resultant discussion and debate has been fruitful and worthwhile precisely because of the vigor with which the participants have pressed their arguments, as demonstrated here.

    This post encouraged me to write and ask if you’ve had any interest in creating a site dedicated to combating the BCM? Taking on the myth through the blog format obviously gives you more flexibility to respond immediately to the changing incarnations of the myth, but do you think a dedicated “educational” site would be similarly effective in engaging a popular historical issue like this? Having tinkered a little with the Omeka platform, it struck me that a dedicated Omeka site might be particularly useful as an online “classroom” that could host primary documents, essays, and blog links that would expose and debunk the BCM.

    • BorderRuffian June 24, 2011 / 6:55 am

      “Taking on the myth through the blog format obviously gives you more flexibility to respond immediately to the changing incarnations of the myth, but do you think a dedicated “educational” site would be similarly effective in engaging a popular historical issue like this?”

      Please do, I pray thee…

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 24, 2011 / 7:46 am

      The short answer is yes. I think that if an academic host set up a site that addressed the myth and set forth the evidence (and lack of evidence) on this issue, we would have a place to direct inquiring minds, including educators and students. I have suggested this in private. I think such a website would actually do much to address Matt Gallman’s concerns.

  8. MarkD June 23, 2011 / 6:27 pm

    Ray takes option 2 of the possible answers I outlined in my response to Neil above, but fails to say how Palin’s use of the Revere story served as an “ideological tool,” which is what I said was required if one wants to claim the analogy with BCM works.

    Jeff takes option 1 of the possible answers I outlined above, in saying she merely couldn’t admit her mistake, which I think is a tacit admission that the analogy with BCM fails because most here tend to think that BCMers are using their stories as ideological tools. If they weren’t we wouldn’t care so much.

    But both firmly believe in the analogy nonetheless. Ray is right that she should have just said ”oops I was tired after a long day and mispoke a little,” but then probably Ray and Jeff should admit that the Palin Revere analogy to BCM is a bad one since they can’t defend it coherently. Will that happen? Not a chance.

    The irony, as I’ve already strongly hinted, is that the attempt to assert the Palin analogy with BCM is likely itself an analogous example to the BCM phenomenon.

    • Ray O'Hara June 24, 2011 / 4:37 am

      Oh, I’m sorry. Sarah then went on about how Revere was warning the British they weren’t going to take our guns away. she turned it into an NRA -2nd Amendment rant.

      She was totally”on message” even if she was confused about the history.
      for the record I don’t equate Sarah with the BCMers, The BCMers are lying and know it.
      Sarah is just ill-informed about “facts” and other liberal plots.

      • MarkD June 24, 2011 / 8:04 pm

        >> The BCMers are lying and know it. Sarah is just ill-informed about “facts” and other liberal plots.

        I think that is the difference, a very fundamental difference.

        My only other problem with those who condemn people over their supposed historical ignorance, is that traditionally the indispensable discipline, the one without which no one dared call themselves educated, was philosophy, and encompasses history. It is often said “All history is the history of philosophy.” History without philosophy is a very incomplete education. In my opinion, the difference between “professional historians” who slam Sarah Palin and a Victor Davis Hanson who doesn’t, isn’t politics. I have no idea if he’d ever consider voting for her. It is philosophy. Wise classical philosophers have learned things about human nature that the classics were always known to teach, and they are mindful and respectful of the various types of knowledge and ways of expressing it. The bottom line is that they are inherently multi-disciplinary animals who have at least as much respect for, and knowledge of, crucial parts and aspects of history as the historians.

        So though I consider myself an avid “history buff,” and in my darker moments I get discouraged over the general public’s lack of interest in their history (and that of others,) I am still pretty unfriendly to the strident claims that those who keep saying gaffes are a sign of stupidity. For one, the more you know the more you know you don’t know, which makes such condemnation unseemly and highly dangerous, as well as the fact that the many folks often don’t express themselves well verbally. Secondly, because these folks never, ever fail to discriminate friend from foe. In other words, it really isn’t about ignorance after all. The last reason, as I’ve said already, is that history teaches quite clearly that philosophical knowledge was always considered the uniquely indispensable discipline. It seems to me those who claim the most loudly that history is so important tend to scoff at such historical truths when presented.

        Honestly, the “more historical than thou” crowd that like to claim a gaffe is evidence of stupidity look to me like the Nick Burns “computer guy” SNL character who famously uses a narrow set of knowledge skillfully to his benefit, at others expense. If there is a moral fault involved, then of course it is perfectly fine to name it. Moral questions are always interesting. Otherwise, the condemnation heaped upon the unlucky or unprepared after only offering innuendo and such as justification is an attempt at manipulation.

        • Brooks D. Simpson June 24, 2011 / 9:55 pm

          Stupidity and ignorance are different things. Whatever one may make of politician X’s policies, usually the gaffes are signs of ignorance or a case of verbal stumbling. Whether Politician X will own up to the gaffe is another thing entirely.

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