“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.

20 thoughts on ““A Northern Bias”?

  1. Mark January 9, 2012 / 1:26 pm

    Looks like the “declaring” post was removed. I agree it is dangerous to jump to conclusions about one’s views, but everyone can be categorized in some way. None of the posts I could find told me anything about why he might take the line he did about “Northern bias,” but I’d love to see more about how he arrives at his views. The old Edmund Wilson position that they hate the war because it “centralized” the US gets so very much mileage it is seldom very far from the picture with those who make such claims, at least those who aren’t friendly to racist understandings of the matter which Mike clearly doesn’t have.

    Very nice and clear explanation of the problem with playing the bias card Brooks. A minor possible quibble is that I think it is possible to identify with those you study if you find yourself admiring their qualities after you do so. I don’t think one should study a person thinking that you should or would, but if you come out that way I don’t see the harm if you don’t lose your perspective and I don’t think that necessarily needs to happen. I don’t see how one could fail to admire people in the ways they are admirable, and some few may even be admirable in most ways and it is certainly likely one might identify legitimately with these if there be any.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 9, 2012 / 2:59 pm

      Interesting that someone at the SHPG turned coward once more. I think Mike Phipps would stand by his own words, and I’d be disappointed otherwise. He should not be mistaken for some of the other people who populate that group, including many of its officers.

  2. Mark January 9, 2012 / 1:36 pm

    I forgot to say that I think the “centralization” argument is a howler in and of itself. I’m a small government Conservative, but that argument is just massively problematic. Yet it has a bizarre subtlety to it (having to do with parts and wholes) such that people don’t see that it’s a truism, and meaningless without further explanation. I think that’s why it gets such mileage, and probably always will unfortunately. Here I am speculating on motives, and it really doesn’t matter but I’m only human –at least partly. 🙂

  3. wgdavis January 9, 2012 / 2:25 pm

    You are about the most unbiased professional historian I’ve read.

    Everyone is biased personally, but the true and honest historians do not allow that into their work; indeed, they toil assiduously to keep out such things as presentism, race, political correctness, victor’s glasses, religion and, of course, political philosophy.

    History, while igniting the spark of curiosity and keeping the thirst for knowledge unquenchable, must be presented without color, odor, or flavor.

    A few of the very best add a talent for writing and therein lies the formula for a true and honest historian.

    I suspect Mike feels that way because you write about northern historical figures for the most part. That does not make you biased toward the north. It makes you focused on the North to the point that you have become an expert in 19th Century American history, in particular, the Ante Bellum period, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, three phases of perhaps the most important 60-70 years in US History.

    Specialty fields do not necessarily…and should not…equate to bias.

    My 3 cents, anyway…

  4. Ethan S. Rafuse January 9, 2012 / 2:50 pm

    At the same time, it does not strike me as a total coincidence that someone who roots for the New York Yankees might have a particular interest in U.S. Grant. 🙂

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 9, 2012 / 3:01 pm

      Would you like me to speculate on your interests in sports and history and how they might be related? Such as the Washington NFL franchise and George McClellan? 🙂

      • Ethan Rafuse January 11, 2012 / 6:59 pm

        Lotta resources, not many results, perhaps?

        Actually, I stick with the Redskins because after about mid-October every year I know there is no point and can get on with other things in my life.

  5. Aaron Kidd January 9, 2012 / 5:17 pm

    My opinion is that since you attack the Southern activists(SHPG, Miss Chastain,etc.) and History, but not the yankees, I think that you do have a northern bias.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 9, 2012 / 5:29 pm

      Why, welcome back, Aaron! Is this going to be another case where you make an appearance here, then vanish when someone asks you to support your argument?

      So let’s take apart your statement. You classify the Southern Historical Preservation Group as activist? Some of its members might be activists for their particular causes, but others don’t seem very active to me. Some of them have expressed racist or bigoted views. Do you support those folks? I don’t, and I don’t think that attacking bigotry or racism is limited to northerners. Do you? Nor do I equate southerner with Confederate. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a southern activist. The only activists you name are activists for Confederate heritage. Please don’t confuse the South with the Confederacy, or southern history with Confederate history. Moreover, I believe “Miss” Chastain is married, although I can see why you might be confused.

      Then you have me attacking History. Really? I’m at a loss to understand what that means, or how that makes me (a) biased (b) a northerner (c) a biased northerner.

      But you think I should attack the Yankees. Where, who, and how? The New York Yankees? That will never happen, although I have upon occasion been critical of Yankees management and various players, which in itself would appear to challenge your assertion that I don’t attack Yankees. Indeed, Aaron, have you ever read any of my books? Tell you what … do that, and then come back and tell me that I’ve never been critical of Yankees.

      See you when you pop up again, Aaron.

      • Aaron Kidd January 10, 2012 / 4:25 pm

        If you want me to use the pc language then I will. You always attack the Confederacy, but never the Union. If you’re not biased then why not criticize both?

        • Andy Hall January 10, 2012 / 5:20 pm

          Couple points, offered in good faith. Take them as you will.

          First, drop the continual references to “political correctness.” It’s lazy shorthand for something-I-don’t-like-but-won’t-bother-to-explain-why. It’s a cliche. If you disagree with something, make specific points.

          Second, understand that Professor Simpson (and other bloggers) are far less occupied criticizing not the Confederacy, but present-day narratives about it, put forward by present-day people, that are simply false and misleading. Calling those claims out — and the people who put them forward — is not “attacking the Confederacy.”

          Please be specific in your criticism, of Professor Simpson or anyone else, and come prepared to back up your challenge. At the end of the day, whinging about “political correctness” and bias accomplishes nothing.

        • Brooks D. Simpson January 13, 2012 / 3:21 pm

          Evidence? Examples? “Always” and “Never” are absolutes, after all.

  6. Jerry Desko January 9, 2012 / 5:18 pm

    I am sure you must agree that all Civil War historians should like the New York Football Giants (Eric, I hope you read this).

    We all must be careful of what we say or write so as not to be mis-underestimated. Spoken as a registered Republican in red Adams County Pennsyltuckey, while holding on to my Bible and guns (and that is not easy to do).

    I think President George Bush’s malapropisms were pure genius and make a lot more sense than what most politicians are saying today. (This was an aside.)

    I am sure you can tell my political bias. It is something I am proud of. When I study history I make every effort to be objective. On another matter, enjoy life, it’s too damn short. Time for a Scotch and ceegar!

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 9, 2012 / 5:31 pm

      If all historians liked the New York Giants (or the New York Yankees, or the New York Islanders), I’d have no one to tease. I just ask that my peers stick to the same teams … you know who you are.

      • John Foskett January 10, 2012 / 9:09 am

        I do admire anybody who willingly starts every hockey season knowing that Rick DiPietro is (still) under contract. Rick reminds me of GBM on the Peninsula – “we’ve got him, but he’s on the Galena, not feeling well…”

        • Brooks D. Simpson January 13, 2012 / 3:21 pm

          Thank goodness that’s not my money. BTW, news today (1/13) is that he’s out with a hernia, and will probably miss the rest of the season.

  7. Brian Hampton January 9, 2012 / 7:20 pm

    I am a Chicago Cubs fan, which I suppose, given this construct, means I am biased toward lost causes. Somehow, I’ve never been a fan of Pollard or Early or Reverend Pendleton and think Lee definitely needed to be considered, though the results of that consideration are certainly open for criticism. Still, whenever I find myself north of Tennessee, I bemoan the poor state of the art of frying hash browns or even an understanding of what a hash brown is. I have a definite southern bias when it comes to cooking, as my waistline shows.

    More seriously (not that I wasn’t being) I admit to a time when I was sucked in to this notion of regional bias of the type suggested by Dr. Simpson’s antagonists, and it played a large part in many of the battles that have taken place across the Internet over the years. Back then many people who didn’t truly pay attention to what I was saying believed I had a southern bias. The interesting part of that is that the people who believed this mostly thought of it as a good thing, as though they had found a fellow traveller who shared their own bias they denied having. Of course I was always under suspicion as the champion of a known scalawag.

    I eventually lost my ability to justify it for many of the reasons Dr. Simpson implies with his questions about what it means to have such a bias. I know bias exists, but more often than not the bias I run across is fundamentally a bias against objectivity, by which I mean a tendency among some professionals to ignore or manufacture “evidence” to push a particular point of view they prefer over what the evidence actually shows. Among genuine historians — as opposed to journalists pretending to be or “independent researchers” advancing a modern political agenda — I believe this is relatively rare. The most common “bias” I see is a bias against work, not to suggest it is all that common, just that it exists and is more apparent to me than regional bias, which I can’t even define clearly. I unfortunately ran across this in a biography these past few months and ended up spending more time than I would have liked verifying sources because of an important error I found. I discovered eventually that there were a few too many “mistakes” in citations for a pattern of laziness not to be suggested. However, none of it could have been construed by a sane individual as a regional bias, emphasis on “sane” because I know there are people who think Pemberton was a Yankee mole.

    • Brooks D. Simpson January 9, 2012 / 7:24 pm

      For some 2 1/2 years I took a great deal of interest in the travails of the boys from the North Side of Chicago … and I was very relieved when the cause of my interest, former Yankee Bobby Murcer, was traded back to the Yankees in June 1979.

  8. Brooks D. Simpson January 17, 2012 / 8:27 am

    I gather from someone who read such things that Mike says he’s met me at other times, which may well be true, although I don’t have any recollection of it. These encounters probably also happened at Gettysburg. However, I still have no idea what he (or anyone else) means by a “northern bias,” and I note none of these folks is willing to clarify what they mean.

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