What They Think We Think Tells Us About What They Think

Have you ever noticed that people spend a long time constructing rather impressive and detailed explanations about what other people think, and then use that construction to justify themselves (or to attack someone else)?  It’s a very good way for some people to engage in a discussion by assaulting the other guy or to preen about their implied superiority.  It also substitutes a discussion of assumed (and sometimes simply invented) motives for evaluating evidence at face value.

I can recall nearly twenty-five years ago, when a leading journal published a piece I had written that was critical of someone’s use of evidence in a biography of Ulysses S. Grant.  I got a lot of fan mail for that piece.  One of the recurring themes in several of the letters (and the only point of criticism) was an assertion that I should have gone beneath the author’s use of evidence to speculate on his motives for writing and evaluating as he did.  Surely, people argued, there was a pattern of exclusion, inclusion, and interpretation that pointed in a certain direction.

I wasn’t very interested in doing that.  I figured that if we dealt with the evidence at hand, that was enough to call the interpretation and the narrative into question.  It would not make my criticism any more valid if I discussed motives, and, frankly, it would invite a countercriticism that would offer all sorts of assumptions about why I had offered the criticism, which would be a neat way to avoid responding to the criticism on its merits.

I was reminded of this in reviewing the posts in a certain Yahoo newsgroup (recall, the archives in that newsgroup are currently open to all, members and non-members, which renders amusing the discussions in the newsgroup about messengers and spying and lurking … learn how your Yahoo newsgroup functions, people).  A new member of the newsgroup (but not new to the internet) offers the following:

Arguing about the existence of Black Confederates, and arguing about their statistical significance, and discussing how many stayed home vs how many left the plantation avoids the real question: What does the existence of such people (and people like the Native Guards) tell us about the actual institution of slavery? To argue that slavery was anything less then and unmitigated and unredeemed evil is to strike at the very roots of Neo-Abolitionism. If we can blockade the center well enough and long enough we will never have to deal with a kingside attack.

I find this curious and interesting.  First, it distorts the entire debate.  People who question claims that there were tens of thousands of black Confederate soldiers have argued (1) that it is apparent that a good number of black slaves accompanied Confederate armies and worked on military tasks (thus the use of blacks to dig fortifications, etc., all of which was recognized when it came to the passage of the First Confiscation Act in August 1861) (2) the real argument is over their status as “soldiers,” in which it is clear that the vast majority of these blacks were not “soldiers” as the term was understood at the time (for proponents of the BCM to say that such people would today be considered in their minds as “soldiers” is wonderfully ahistorical and is an example of the very sort of presentism they claim to deplore elsewhere) (3) that while issues of individual motives are complex, it is a wild distortion of history to claim that large numbers of enslaved blacks openly embraced the Confederate cause, a cause committed to their continued enslavement and the enslavement of generations yet unborn (4) the Native Guards provide a poor case study of this whole issue of slaves in Confederate service, given that they were free blacks trying to negotiate their way in a slave society (and their offer was rejected by Confederate authorities); it’s been noted before how proponents of the BCM often fail to focus on the outright fabrication of evidence in support of the notion that the Native Guards were enlisted Confederate military personnel.

Most people (and here Kevin Levin can take pride of place) would agree with the poster what the real question is.  However, the poster, having misrepresented the entire debate, then decides that he knows what it is all about: that “neo-abolitionists” reject the BCM because they reject that “slavery was anything less then and unmitigated and unredeemed evil.”  

Funny, that.  Someone, it seems to me, can accept the notion that some blacks may have served as soldiers in the Confederate armed forces (the numbers suggest, however, that perhaps more women served as disguised men) without changing their views on the evil that was slavery.  After all, the presence of Jews in the Wehrmacht does not put a smiley face on the holocaust.

What this commenter suggests, in short, is that slavery wasn’t really as bad as we think, and the supposed presence of black Confederates in Confederate ranks proves it. After all, there were “loyal slaves,” (an “inconvenient truth,” according to one poster) and that’s not been studied, right?  (Look up Stanley Elkins’s book on slavery, published 50 years ago.)  Other posters chimed in, including the cherry picker, and our dear Ms. Ross, who assumes I’m a proponent of what she calls “The Slavery School of Thought,” now reduced to TSSOT (my, just like TSAO [The South as Other], right, folks?), which she says, asserts that “Slavery is the beginning, the middle, and the end, of everything to do with the Civil War.”  That’s news to me and to anyone who has actually read my work, but it’s important for Ms. Ross to spend more time characterizing what other people in her mind must believe instead of treating us to another example of her inability to follow her own arguments, so I understand.

Thus, it’s not surprising to read such comments as:

We should look at it objectively. We were just pointing out that slavery here wasn’t as bad as in other places and that not all slaves wanted to runaway, or that all masters were evil cruel people. I don’t think any of us are apologizing. Why should we? It was over long before any of us were living. Wether they were listed as soldiers or not is not the point. The point is that a great number of blacks willingly served the South. It wasn’t as black and white (excuse the pun) as you want to make it out to be.

So this is the newsgroup that sees “benevolent slavery” as a cure to racism (as opposed to a way to fend off abolitionist criticism; that “the people that owned slaves were generally the least racist in antebellum and post-war society”; and, of course, that “Southern black slaves and their white masters, for the most part, had affectionate extended family relationships.”

I guess that what these folks find objectionable is that some people like me find racism and slavery to be bad things.  I personally think that says much more about their views on slavery and race than mine, but if I’m going to be attacked for thinking that slavery and racism (and white supremacy) are bad things, well, I rest comfortable with that.  I only wonder why they don’t agree with me that they are bad things, or why it’s a bad thing to think they’re bad things. But some people think it’s a bad thing to say that there are bad things.

I’m reminded of this film clip:

I think slavery, racism, and white supremacy are bad things.  My question is, why don’t you?

Now, people speculate all the time about the motives of someone who offers an argument.  It’s part of the human condition.  While such speculation might reflect on why someone offers the interpretation they’ve offered or why they have (mis)handled evidence as they have, it’s no substitute for examining the case and the evidence on its merits.  However, people who like to look at motivation often rely on issues of ideology, identity, or personal experience.  So it’s useful to look at what the original poster soon posted about his own life experience and turn his analytical approach on himself.  Do we see in that comment someone who resents affirmative action, feels himself a victim of it, and thus targets its authors? (Kudos to him for not targeting the successful applicant.)  Maybe he sees in such people an example of neo-abolitionist thought and action.  Who knows?  Of course, if he’s free to speculate on the motives of others, then I’m free to speculate on his motives, and when he responds, I can say that of course his response is an attempt to divert our attention from his true feelings about race.  And on and on and on.

It’s a source of amusement and education to look through the newsgroup, and see how people attack each other and flame each other while protesting the practice, as in usenet days of yore.  And, folks, Ms. Ross would be delighted if you paid them a visit … that is, when she and some of her fellow posters are not insulting you (sorry, Charles Lovejoy … caught in the crossfire yet again!).  Apparently, for example, some of you are “loons,” although Ms. Ross is above that level of name calling: (she prefers smug and condescending sarcasm when speaking of the people who comment here).  So please, if you feel inclined to so so, pay these folks a visit.  I know from the administrative tools that come with running a blog that a rather impressive number of their members come over here a great deal, even as they publicly protest that they don’t.

There will be those that think that I’ve given this little crowd undue attention.  I find, however, that the lines of reasoning several members of the newsgroup employ are not unique to them, and it’s always useful to remind people who say that no intelligent person really believes X or Y that some people do.  One can learn a great deal about how people today view the Civil War (and, as these people are interested enough to exchange views and information, one might well conclude that they are more interested than the average American); occasionally, a useful piece of information is posted, although one has to backtrack and read the original source, as we’ve seen.

17 thoughts on “What They Think We Think Tells Us About What They Think

  1. Sherree July 24, 2011 / 2:09 pm

    I will claim the “loon” designation, Brooks, since that particular comment was directed at me, and not at you or at any of your other readers. I expected as much, and suppose I opened the door for the comment, so I accept it. I also claim and accept loon status (gladly) for claiming, categorically, that there is no defense for the institution of slavery. In fact, claiming that there is a defense of the institution of slavery, seems to me to be a moral decision in itself.

    I would take this conversation to the group in question, but after reading commentary there, I am simply not interested. I agree with you that we all should attempt to discuss the evidence only. That is not always possible, however, when it becomes apparent that no amount of evidence will suffice. Then it is time to dislodge the person from his or her position by confronting the person, or it is time to walk away. The most important thing for me in this entire exchange was the information concerning Tocqueville on the excellent website to which you linked.

    Thanks, Brooks. Have a good evening. Sherree

  2. TF Smith July 24, 2011 / 2:24 pm

    Godwin is hard to avoid when it comes to apologists for slavery in the United States, but I think it is very apt; you certainly deserve accolades for wading into the sewer.


  3. Charles Lovejoy July 24, 2011 / 5:30 pm

    “(sorry, Charles Lovejoy … caught in the crossfire yet again!)” Being a Southern liberal I’m use to it 🙂 I always seem be in the middle.

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 24, 2011 / 5:39 pm

      Well, Charles, while I understand that some people think I’m attacking the entire group, I’ve simply highlighted a few statements made by a select few people in the group. It’s been left to those folks (and a few others) to make some rather broad-based assumptions about contributors to this group.

      You would think they would be more adept at discrimination.

  4. Al Mackey July 24, 2011 / 5:50 pm

    Another old “friend.” Maybe we can get a certain smug “friend” to join that group as well. Perhaps they’ll achieve critical mass then. 🙂

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 24, 2011 / 6:05 pm

      I think he’d actually broaden their ideological representation. But it’s good to see that some people have found a home where they feel welcome, at least for a while.

    • Charles Lovejoy July 24, 2011 / 8:14 pm

      Col Macky Ret, you should start posting

      • Brooks D. Simpson July 24, 2011 / 8:31 pm

        I’ve talked to several people who have visited the group and who have concluded that the minds of certain members are shut and that there’s way too much name-calling practiced by a few members. However, I am glad to see that Helga Ross has said that I know nothing of the group, which would not be true had I been lurking/posting there for years, as she and others have claimed.

        See what I mean about an inability to follow one’s own argument?

        Many of us have been in groups where we have left because it’s become combat for combat’s sake. Those people migrated to StudyoftheCivilWar, which allowed many people to come in. Some people just could not grasp the idea that we were tired of the name-calling and personal abuse and insults, and when some people showed us they could not abandon those practices as standard means of discussion, we dropped them (and not because of their perspectives, etc.). Life’s too short for that garbage. CWH2 has no problem with personally abusive behavior on the part of certain posters. To each their own.

  5. Lyle Smith July 24, 2011 / 6:43 pm

    I’ve ordered the book about Andre Cailloux who was in the Native Guards on the advice offered in a poster here by Matt Gallman. However, what is the fabrication that they were enlisted Confederate military personal? I’ve gathered from posts made here and elsewhere online that they were never given muskets or rifles, and never used in any kind of military capacity (no Battle of New Orleans happened). However in reading some secondary sources written by historians I’ve seen them described as having been a unit of mustered Confederate militia. What were they actually?

    Clearly, being from New Orleans, Louisiana, they were they exception as far as “black Confederates” go.

    I took William Cooper’s antebellum South class in college and he expressly said that a handful of free blacks who owned large plantations in Louisiana and South Carolina offered their services to the Confederacy, but were rejected because or their race.

    Then of course there are the odd exceptions of quadroons and men of mixed ethnicity who held themselves out as white (but maybe today would not, who knows?) and enlisted as Confederates.

    I’m totally fascinated by the couple of Chinese Confederates there were though. I’ve read of a couple anyway. One from Texas, one from somewhere else.

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 24, 2011 / 6:59 pm

      The Native Guard never made it past serving as a local militia unit before state law disbanded those units in early 1862. To me their status resembles that of Joe Brown’s Georgia militia. They were mustered into state service … not Confederate service.

  6. Lyle Smith July 24, 2011 / 7:14 pm

    Thanks for the answer! So not Confederate militia, but briefly Confederate Louisiana state militia. Makes sense.

    • Andy Hall July 24, 2011 / 8:20 pm

      There was also apparently a Creole Guards Company at Mobile, formed from a prewar volunteer fire-fighting unit, that also served as a sort of home guard unit controlled by the state of Alabama. Same deal as in Louisiana, coming out of a similar cultural environment.

      • Lyle Smith July 24, 2011 / 8:32 pm

        Yeah, that Frenchy culture. Mobile was even founded before New Orleans I believe.

        • Lyle Smith July 24, 2011 / 8:37 pm

          … and I guess your Galveston has some of it too. You guys celebrate Mardi Gras too.

  7. EarthTone July 24, 2011 / 7:39 pm

    Arguing about the existence of Black Confederates, and arguing about their statistical significance, and discussing how many stayed home vs how many left the plantation avoids the real question: What does the existence of such people (and people like the Native Guards) tell us about the actual institution of slavery? To argue that slavery was anything less then and unmitigated and unredeemed evil is to strike at the very roots of Neo-Abolitionism. If we can blockade the center well enough and long enough we will never have to deal with a kingside attack.

    Neo-Abolitionism? Cute… I guess that’s the rejoinder to the term Neo-Confederate…

    • BorderRuffian July 28, 2011 / 6:43 am

      Neo-Radical would be more appropriate.

      The original wanted to exterminate people. The current want to exterminate your very identity.

      “It is plain that nothing approaching the present policy will subdue the rebels. Whether we shall find anybody with a sufficient grasp of mind and sufficient moral courage to treat this as a radical revolution and remodel our institutions, I doubt. It would involve the desolation of the South as well as emancipation, and a repeopling of half the continent. This ought to be done, but it startles most men.”

      -Thaddeus Stevens, September 5, 1862

      “To speak positively about any part of the Southern tradition is to invite charges of being a racist and an apologist for slavery and segregation. We are witnessing a cultural and political atrocity – an increasingly successful campaign by the media and an academic elite to strip young white Southerners … of their heritage, and, therefore, of their identity. They are being taught to forget their forebears or to remember them with shame.”

      -Eugene Genovese, The Southern Tradition

      • Brooks D. Simpson July 28, 2011 / 8:30 am

        I’m sure some people feel as you do. However, I haven’t gotten the memo that outlines this campaign against southern heritage … although I am amazed that even some southerners confuse it with Confederate heritage. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., is part of southern heritage, and I don’t see any campaign against him except from those folks who feel warm and cuddly about Confederate heritage.

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