News and Notes, November 30, 2012

And as the days grow shorter …

  • Kevin Levin was all over the Trace Adkins Confederate flag earpiece controversy (although he was cloyingly coy about it). Now comes word that Adkins was simply celebrating his Southern heritage and welcomes an “honest conversation about the country’s history.” Like this one?  Given what Adkins has said in the past, we know what he means by “honest.”
  • If Ta-Nehisi Coates has anything to say about it, Tony Kushner won’t be participating in that conversation. Sounds familiar, no? No word yet on whether there will be a “Saving Tony Kushner” movie.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Bizarre Behavior at Amazon Reviews

I have found the review section at Amazon.com to be a mixed bag in some cases.  To be sure, some reviews are thoughtful and informative, and others point out areas of disagreement or place a book into context.  Once in a while one comes across someone with an axe to grind. That’s part of the business.

Then again, occasionally one comes across someone like this, a soul so brave that one might at first overlook the fact that the reviewer is afraid to identify himself/herself.

The reviewer offers eighteen reviews, all awarding a single star. I am one of the targets, although at least in my case the reviewer struggled to come up with something more substantial (even if in the end those claims fell far short … the reviewer simply doesn’t understand what I wrote about Grant and drinking, choosing instead to engage in a mindless rant).  However, the reviewer spews his vitriol across a broad spectrum of authors, attacking Larry Daniel, Thomas Lowry, Benson Bobrick, Chester Hearn, and Richard Williams. It is in his review of Mr. Williams’s book that the following howlers appear: “I am one of the nation’s leading Civil War historians and thus feel qualified to comment on the merits of this work…. My apologies for the tone of this review; it’s hardly my practice to invoke invective.”  Yeah, right.  Elsewhere the reviewer assures us: “As the author of sixteen books on the Civil War and Indian Wars of the American West, I feel qualified to judge the relative merits of this work.”

The comments section following his review of Mr. Williams’s book is engaging.

I saw the hostile review about my book years ago, and shrugged. Recently, when I was looking at more recent books, I came across more wild accusations against another author, and I decided to take a look at the reviewer’s track record.  As you can see, it’s an interesting one, leading to some speculation among commenters as to the identity of the author.

Oh, well.

News and Notes, November 29, 2012

Very interesting …

  • Apparently Gary Adams isn’t the only plagiarist at the Southern Heritage Preservation Group, as we see when we compare this post to what appears here.  At least take out the “B” next time.
  • Speaking of plagiarist Adams, I find this statement amusing: “There is no shame in admitting to the truth as long as one stays faithful; to the cause.” Interesting condition.
  • Guess those SCV folks really don’t want to talk about fraud in their own organization.

Of course, highlighting these transgressions is getting as old as hearing that Lindsay Lohan was arrested again. Wait … she was?

Happy birthday to Mariano Rivera, as #42 turns 43.

A Question to Answer

Here comes an inquiry from a member of the gift that keeps on giving that I think is reasonable.  He says:

Here’s a question for you to ponder.
Have you ever wondered why the yankees/North/Federal Government or the reconstructed hate our banner?
Education?, fear, stupidity…or just the slavery issue?
I don’t think so. I believe that our Heritage and pride the South has in her past puts all those folks in an uneasy feeling that they just can’t explain.
Why is it if those people do not understand something or disagree with it, it’s racist?
Maybe they don’t know their own history! I know mine.

True, it’s posted in an echo chamber, and you would think that the poser of the question would offer it in a place where he might actually gather useful information. And it’s also true that in effect he poses the question because he wants to offer his own answer, although that means that he’s really answering the question “Why do I think those people hate that flag?”

I concede that the question assumes much that is not in evidence. But we work in an imperfect world. In any case, the floor is open.

It Takes All Kinds

Sometimes it pays to live rent free in someone else’s head, if only for the amusement value. Take the case of Mike Lamb:

Brooks Simpson is more than an antagonist, he is a perfect example of what the system is composed of and has become. He gets a nice big fat pay check and the government accolades for defending their usurpation of our Rights. While anyone can call themselves a historian or anything else they desire and they can get government approved papers stating such, that does not mean they are experts in their claimed field. Simpson is one such character that also perfectly shows this. He gets government sponsored trips to spread the government propaganda as well as invited to all sorts of government approved historical events all in order to build his name and character. All of which is done in order to further the governments propaganda in retaining the status quo. What we see is also another good example of how the government spends your tax dollars in order to keep you enslaved to the system by educating the public with their propaganda.

Really? Really?

While Simpson is a Marxist in his core beliefs, a revisionist historian, that doesn’t mean he can understand the history he claims to teach. Anyone can memorize names, dates, places, documents and events, but it takes another added dimension in understanding what all that means, putting things into perspective considering context and today’s society. Simpson fails miserably here all because he already has his mind predetermined and disposed to another whole philosophy that is opposed to that of the Classic Western Civilization. Of course his ideas originated from Classic Western Civilization, they are opposed to it. Simpson simply interprets history, revising it to make it fit the Marxist agenda, plain and simple, and he gets paid big money for it as well as gaining much acclaim.

I’d love to know what makes me a Marxist.  Heck, it would be interesting to see whether Mike Lamb understands what it means to be a Marxist. Then he can explain it to Michael Lucas.

One day I hope to corner this bully in front of a much larger audience and he WILL be mine! He doesn’t know history, but he does know plenty of stats and much about revising history to suit the Marxist agenda, which includes the government. What I do is out of love of my fellow man, doing what is right by them. What Simpson does is for the lust of money and power. One day Truth will once again reign over mite!

That opening sentence suggests just how twisted Mr. Lamb’s fantasy life has become. Ahem.  Right over “mite,” indeed.

It says something about Mr. Lamb’s approach that none other that the gift that keeps on giving decided to block his contributions. Apparently that makes it “PC” … but, then again, he thinks I’m a Marxist.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that … especially when Mr. Lamb doesn’t know what he’s talking about in the first place.

Filmmakers Aren’t Historians …. And Shouldn’t Pretend Otherwise

First at his blog Civil War Memory and then at the Atlantic Kevin Levin takes to task those historians who are criticizing the movie Lincoln on grounds of historical accuracy.

Over the past few days I’ve read numerous reviews of Spielberg’s Lincoln by professional historians, both in print and in my circle of social media friends. All of them are informative, even if they tend to reflect individual research agendas much more than the movie itself.

Beyond nitpicking specific moments such as the roll call in the House or whether Lincoln ever slapped Robert, my fellow historians have pointed out the lack of attention on women and abolitionists, as well as the free black community in Washington, D.C. Do any of these critiques help us to better understand the movie? No. They simply reinforce what we already know, which is that Hollywood will never make a movie that satisfies the demands of scholars. Nor should it ….

As historians, we need to be much more sensitive to the artistic goals of filmmakers and the limitations they face. In short, we need to stop critiquing them as if they were something they are not. They are artists, not historians.

Someone had better start telling the filmmakers that instead of wagging one’s finger at scholars.

Take, for example, screenwriter Tony Kushner, who weighs in on the question of what had Lincoln lived … and what that meant for Reconstruction:

I think that what Lincoln was doing at the end of war was a very, very smart thing. And it is maybe one of the great tragedies of American history that people didn’t take him literally after he was murdered. The inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way, without any question, was one of the causes of the kind of resentment and perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote-unquote ‘noble cause,’ and the rise of the Klan and Southern self-protection societies.

The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe, and helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering. So had Lincoln not been murdered, and had he really been able to guide Reconstruction, I think there’s a good reason to believe that he would have acted on those principles, because he meant them. We know that he meant them literally, because he told [Ulysses S.] Grant to behave accordingly.

[Expletive deleted.]

What sort of Lost Cause-Gone With the WindBirth of a Nation garbage is this? Does Kushner know anything about Reconstruction? Has he done any reading, let alone research? Are we going back to that white supremacist romantic fantasy that the KKK and white supremacist terrorism in general was a reaction to a Reconstruction policy that was not even in place when the violence began?

There’s rich irony here. Those people who speak glowingly of Lincoln remind us that it puts the destruction of slavery at the center of the story of the Civil War. Indeed, the racism we see most movingly portrayed in the movie comes from northern Democrats determined to resist emancipation. It’s as if white southerners had nothing to do with slavery … that, to use a turn of phrase often embraced by my colleagues, it is as if the film deprives white southerners of agency by making this a story of white northerners. Are we really to believe that white southerners had nothing to do with the course of Reconstruction? After all, who followed Lincoln as president? Not Thaddeus Stevens … but Andrew Johnson, perhaps the archetypal white supremacist president. Don’t you recall, Tony, that Johnson was … gasp! … a white southerner?

Kushner’s ignorance is as breathtaking as his arrogance.

This isn’t about a movie, including what was put in and what was left out. This isn’t about what filmmakers should have done by following the scholarship of a scholar-critic. What this is about is a filmmaker pretending to be a historian and holding forth on Reconstruction by embracing a fairy tale immortalized on film nearly a century ago.

Perhaps the whining of scholars has offended some folks, and I think the whining about the whining should have run its course. Now that everyone feels smug and warm about holding forth on the shortcomings of scholars, their egos, and so on, and about art for art’s sake (and entertainment), let’s not go too far. Ken Burns did that some time ago when he had no problem becoming “Homer with a camera.” Tell you what, Tony; I won’t disrespect your craft …  so long as you don’t disrespect mine. Talk all you want about your film … but you’re fair game when you go beyond that to tell us what you think about Reconstruction. Try doing a film about the Memphis and New Orleans riots or the Colfax massacre first. Try reading this first.

(This is all your fault, Noma. :))

Predictability

I’ve been asked by several people why I’ve had nothing (or next to nothing) to say about the movie Lincoln. The reason is simple: predictability. If anything, I’ve been bored by what I have read, in part because it was so predictable. I understand that some people were breathlessly awaiting the movie’s premier (goodness knows I read enough blogs announcing one’s anticipation, sometimes in wording that reminded me that Chris Matthews isn’t alone in feeling a little tingle). I also know that there would be others who were already denouncing something they had yet to see (but then many of the same people criticize books they have never read, so what’s new?). There were even commentators anxious to stir things up (in large part because they have nothing better to do) who made what they could out of what they read. It was all so predictable … and boring.

I was also prepared for the reaction to the movie when it came out. The people who had criticized the movie before it appeared continued to sound the same notes … without viewing the movie. Non-historians who like history generally enjoyed the movie, as one would expect from a well-executed production with able actors. Professional historians offered their reservations, although in some cases those were muted by involvement in the production of the movie. Those reservations followed a predictable pattern, as did some of the responses to those criticisms. Again, boring.

My sole contribution to the post-release discussion locally was a television interview that could have been conducted with or without actually having viewed the movie. It was the usual “historian compares movie to history,” a construct designed to allow a cranky scholar to pick away at some minor points (and perhaps a few major ones) because no movie can bear the burden of the entire story of emancipation (or even Lincoln, slavery, and emancipation). I did my best to stay away from that format precisely because it was so … wait for it … predictable.

Most of all, I am very aware of how movies shape how we understand history, to the point that historians need to be aware of the interaction between the silver screen and the audience. This is especially true of the period of the American Civil War and Reconstruction, where movies such as Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, Glory, Gettysburg, and now Lincoln have done so much to shape popular impressions of this period. There are even those who celebrate such films as Gods and Generals because they affirm their own personal take on what happened. So be it. Given that historians often express reservations about the work of their peers, it should come as no surprise that they would express reservations about the impression left by a film (as well as point out various issues of fact and fiction). It also now comes as no surprise that we now see folks chiding the critics for not simply seeing a movie as art, craft, and entertainment as well as education. Whatever. I hope y’all feel better now.

What interests me more is thinking about how to break out of these patterns to use these moments as opportunities to enlighten and educate, as ways to open discussions and conversations that engage more of us in constructive ways. I’m far from having the answers there, but it may be time to start asking the question of whether we can all do better, or whether we will continue to settle for bland predictability in such discussions.