“A Northern Bias”?

It should come as no surprise to you that many Civil War historians encounter each other at Gettysburg.  NPS historians, local historians (including battlefield guides), academic historians, and other historians converge at this crossroads town for all sorts of reasons having to do with their common interest in the Civil War.  Just last summer fellow blogger Eric Wittenberg and I shared beers while discussing common interests, and we were soon joined by a licensed guide and several other people.

A number of years ago at Gettysburg I encountered a fellow named Michael Phipps.  A fellow who was organizing a series of studies on Gettysburg personalities introduced us.  Mike was contributing a study of John Buford; I was preparing one on Abraham Lincoln (both of these studies appeared in the 1990s).  Because we both know Eric, I’ve been able to keep track of Mike, who has served his nation with valor in Iraq, where he was wounded in 2007.  I sent along my good wishes when Eric reported the incident, which Mike acknowledged when he learned of them in 2009.

In short, there’s been one encounter that I recall, and an exchange on a blog.  Not much to base a relationship on, to be sure, but that did not stop Mike from declaring recently: “I know Simpson and you are correct..he does have a distinct northern bias…”

Now, Mike has been prone to declare that he knows historians.  For example, he knows Joe Glatthaar, who he terms a “revisionist New Left historian.”  That makes no sense to me on a number of levels.  There’s no “New Left” view of Civil War history: that term refers to a perspective usually devoted to the study of the American state, especially foreign policy (yes, I know New Left historians, who were once far more influential then they are now, offered views on the war as an aspect of American development, but there’s no “New Left” view of Gettysburg, for example).  Furthermore, I do know Joe, having been in graduate school with him at a place noted for turning out “New Left” historians …. and I don’t think anyone who actually knows us would describe us as “New Left.”  So I don’t know what Mike means by knowing someone.  Is meeting someone enough?

Mike admits that he’s met a lot of other people who come through Gettysburg.

Mike’s comment about my possessing a “northern” bias strikes me as curious.  First, exactly what is a “northern bias”?  What does it consist of?  Is it a unified perspective?  Do all northerners have it?  Or is this term just about as meaningless as saying someone has a “southern bias,” given that what is usually meant by that is a “Confederate bias,” although even that is problematic?

Second, even if we stipulate this as true, what does it mean?  What impact does this have on my scholarship?  Does it make a difference that I’ve lived in the South for ten years or that I’m married to a southerner?  Does it matter that a healthy number of my students from my experiences in the South still keep in contact with me, over two decades later?  In short, so what?

Sometimes people see clearly in others what in fact is true of themselves.  This might be the case with Mike.  Elsewhere he’s admitted, “We always identify with people who are like us. Probably why I like Buford and Stuart because they were career Army guys.”  Does that affect his assessment of both men as the greatest cavalrymen of the Civil War?  Some might suggest that Mike’s bias affects his scholarship.  As for me, I don’t think it’s a good idea to “identify” with the people one studies, lest biography become autobiography.  Sure, one can gain insight into certain situations by reflecting on one’s own experience, but I don’t identify with the people I study.

All too often I see people declare that someone else is biased … while stepping away from the implication that if everyone’s biased, so are they (at least Mike admits his bias, although I’m not sure what that bias is or whether it influences his work).  After all, we believe that “bias” is not a good thing, and that it leads to being subjective, partial, incomplete, and ultimately unfair.  All too often someone says that someone else is biased and that they are objective … everyone else’s perspective is subjective and relative, while theirs are absolute and true.  It’s a wonderful way of ducking the responsibility of evaluating one’s work on its merits, and of offering responsible criticism.

PS: One should not jump to conclusions about Mike’s views on certain matters given where he posts.  At times his views have led to his being denounced as anti-southern (whatever that means) by some members of the gift that keeps on giving … including a slavery apologist who declared, “Michael Phipps is once again spewing his hatred for Southerners. That’s been his attitude since day one.”

See what happens when someone assumes someone’s biased, Mike?  They tend to be misunderstood.