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.