Land of Confusion

Kevin Levin uses social media rather skillfully to broadcast his activities and accomplishments. Last week he publicized a piece he did in The Atlantic that was based upon a previous blog post at Civil War Memory. Simply summarized, he argued that for all the fuss made about the Confederate Battle Flag as a divisive symbol in media reports that seek to tell a conventional story, that noise should not detract from the larger truth that more and more southerners are willing to place the CBF in the past where it belongs. Efforts to display the flag at various public venues have fallen short. Those southerners who passionately protest such setbacks are a minority, regardless of how much attention they get: if anything newspaper and other media that pay any attention to these people distort the larger picture.

There’s much truth in what Kevin says. I’ve remarked before on the cookie cutter journalism that we see in many reports about Confederate heritage (and they need not be restricted to the South). Yet there is also a great deal of irony in the terrain he describes. For it must be admitted that proponents of the display of the Confederate flag have tried to use the same tools Kevin has used to broadcast their perspective. Between Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs, and websites, they have presented their message. The fact that news media reports are now circulated on the internet means that a local television station’s report can be shared globally provided the station has a website where it presents its broadcast stories. Newspaper articles enjoy the  same sort of circulation. Moreover, various blogs also assist in the circulation of this information, even as they contest claims and reflect on larger issues … and that would include blogs such as Civil War Memory, Dead Confederates, and Crossroads. After all, Kevin’s own blogging activity opened the door to his career as a commentator at The Atlantic.

All of these factors resulted in something of a perfect storm over the last several days. Kevin shared with his readers and friends the news about his forthcoming article; that news received wider circulation; among those who learned of the article were those folks who proclaim themselves defenders of Confederate Heritage (TM); and off went several of those people (and one in particular) to vent in the comments section. I paid a visit early on and left a single clarifying observation about the display of Confederate flags to help someone understand the First Amendment rights did not mandate that the government display such banners on public ground; I returned this morning to survey the damage and leave a comment about the correct date when the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified.

It was a good thing that I waited so long to return to contribute. By yesterday afternoon, I had heard that the discussion had devolved and degraded as it moved away from Kevin’s central points. Such remains the case as of this morning. causing Kevin to reflect on the whole mess, which had become self-sustaining and predictable. Indeed, there was some truth in one commenter’s claims that the spectacle had taken on the appearance of public performance art.

I can understand Kevin’s disappointment, but I’m not surprised (and neither was he … in announcing the appearance of The Atlantic essay, he remarked: “I have no doubt that it will raise the usual cries of South/Confederate heritage bashing from the usual suspects”). Indeed, this is part of the world of public discourse through social media. The democracy (anarchy?) afforded by such platforms gives everyone a say, regardless of what one may think about what is said. In turn that gives rise to one of the major criticisms leveled at bloggers by other historians … that they give undue attention to fringe elements (which, when you reflect on it, is exactly what Kevin and others have said about unimaginative cookie-cutter journalism). Not that Kevin necessarily gave much attention to those elements in his piece for The Atlantic. He did not need to do so: the comments section afforded the stage for a response. The shrillness of some commenters (as well as the usual commitment to historical inaccuracy) drew the attention once more to the loud minority, its voice magnified in cyberspace.

The entire affair illustrates the dilemmas inherent in conducting public discourse in an age of social media. Once upon a time someone much better known than Kevin would have been asked to prepare a piece on this issue (Kevin’s prominence is due to his social media profile; without the internet, most of us would never have heard of him). It would have taken some time for that piece to find its way into print (a few weeks). Even if it inspired a flurry of responses, they would be directed at the article (one of the features of online comments is that people respond to each other as much or more than they respond to the original article). The publication in question would reprint a select number of these responses, and perhaps the original author would respond in turn … and that would be about it.

In short, the same cyberworld that gave us Kevin Levin also gave us Connie Chastain (who first came to my attention when she commented at Kevin’s blog). The same environment that gave rise to Civil War Memory also made Backsass! possible. No internet, no Southern Heritage Preservation Group, and no easy access to the messages circulated by groups such as the League of the South and the Southern Nationalist Network (which also uses social media effectively, as does Occidental Dissent). Academics used to “controlling the message” as well as being the chief messengers in classroom-like forums express discomfort with the result and have a tendency of blaming not the groups they deem extreme, unreasonable, or fringe but the people who engage in debate with them, which has led to a very interesting discussion about the academy, social media, and communicating with a broader public (including educators and students who seek information on the internet). In short, the internet makes everyone a historian who can share views with a broad audience in unfiltered fashion, rendering it essential to understand how to use this new tool as a platform for disseminating information and hosting discussion.

It’s a new frontier we explore as we encounter a land of confusion. Enjoy the adventure.