Cries for Attention

The open nature of the internet has led to a crisis of authority among professional historians. Simply put, professional historians who once thought they controlled the flow of information and interpretation and who thus claimed the prerogative to dispense it find that they can no longer enforce that claim. I’m not sure that they ever could have done so. Many people claim to be historians regardless of their training or expertise or knowledge. Indeed, the amateur as historian has always been present in the writing of American Civil War history, from businessmen (James Ford Rhodes) to newspapermen (Bruce Catton) to novelists (Shelby Foote) to television pundits (Bill O’Reilly). People without training or a certain skill set claim to be historians in ways that no one would imagine claiming to be a chemist, brain surgeon, aircraft pilot, or professional hockey player. Reading one book, watching one show on the History Channel (hello, Pawn Stars!), or donning a uniform seems to transform some people into historians magically, at least in their minds.

Mind you, it is not the possession of a professional degree that makes one a historian. I know plenty of people who do not possess that training but who turn out wonderful books, largely because they have the same skill set and intellectual tool box needed to succeed. Nor does possession of an advanced degree in itself make one a skilled historian, judging from some of the careers I’ve seen (although it helps in the making of a college professor). So this is not an effort to revive the academic/non-academic debate about history that so many seem so fond of having, largely so that they can be snide and snarky. But what is true is that some historians attract more attention than do others, and those others may not like it. Two examples from this week stand out this week as illustrating that trend.

In the current issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era Kevin Levin offers a glimpse at the significance of the continuing controversy over what some people call “black Confederates.” Kevin is himself a product of the transformative nature of the internet on historical authority: a few decades ago people holding MA degrees who taught in small private secondary schools would have found it challenging to get past the self-appointed gatekeepers of the profession to contribute to such a discussion. That this article appeared at all also suggests that those professional historians who decried the very existence of a discussion of this issue have found themselves thwarted by one of their own professional journals.

It was thus left to Edward H. Sebesta once more to seek the attention he so dearly desires (and which this post will give him … well, he may not desire this sort of attention). Sebesta’s quest for attention included declaring that he did not want a book he co-assembled to be considered for a prize (his co-author, James Loewen, generally remained silent about Sebesta’s outburst); Sebesta’s also taken on Barack Obama over the laying of a wreath at the monument to Confederate soldiers at Arlington, a memorial that has received all sorts of attention over the past decade for foolish reasons. Sebesta has an obsession with Kevin, and I’ll leave it to you to figure out why he’s so jealous.

Sebesta declares that “in general the article really fails and a person has to wonder what the editors of The Journal of the Civil War Era were thinking.” In other words, “why didn’t they ask me, Ed Sebesta, to offer informed commentary?”

Why did the article “fail”?

There are three problems with the essay. The first is his enabling of the neo-Confederate movement. The second is his lack of critical thinking regarding history. The third is a failing to connect it to either the use of token African Americans by neo-Confederates and the neo-Confederates use of identity.

You read that right. Kevin Levin is being attacked for enabling the “neo-Confederate movement.” By the same reasoning, Ed Sebesta is enabling Kevin Levin, and I’m enabling Ed Sebesta. I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life.

People know that I find that the term “neo-Confederate” lacks definitional and analytical clarity, and so long ago I decided to set it aside as useless. It’s right up there with “politically correct.” None of this deters Mr. Sebesta, who is the Connie Chastain of his own “movement.” Not that he is totally wrong. I think people should not use “southern heritage” and “Confederate heritage” interchangeably. Southern heritage is so much more than Confederate heritage, and Confederate heritage is but a small part of southern heritage and should not be taken as representative of the whole South. But we’ve had that discussion before, even if Sebesta’s failed to follow it (precisely because he isn’t in it).

It would have been illuminating if Levin pointed out the irony of these two groups [the SCV and the UDC] promoting the myth of the Black Confederate while at the same time promoting a white supremacist view of history. However, Levin, like many Civil War historians and enthusiasts, wishes all the controversy would just go away and they could get back to the toy soldier gaming of the Civil War. (Maybe a special issue devoted to it.) Levin has stated that he doesn’t like the word “neo-Confederate.” He likely fears that it will lead to loud voices at Civil War Round Tables and disquieting questions about some of the members of the Civil War history profession.

I guess Sebesta doesn’t read Kevin’s blog, just like most people don’t read Sebesta’s blog, which is a collection of self-serving rants. Hope he enjoys the attention he’ll get now.

Levin thinking in the essay goes like this:

1. Historians with their training and expertise and knowledge have in their possession true history.

2. Unfortunately with the Internet, those without this training and expertise and are wrong headed are making false historical assertions.

3. This problem would be solved by informing people to only listen to properly credentialed historical experts and authoritative institutions.

Really? REALLY? Oh, the irony here is rich indeed. Kevin Levin, whose professional identity is defined not by his degree and training but by his blog and his work, is being chided for his defense of the castle known as the world of professional historical scholarship.

Sebesta would get a failing grade in my undergraduate course if he handed in this tripe as an essay.

After offering some commonplace observations with which Kevin would agree as evidence that Kevin is wrong, Sebesta presents this concluding observation:

The article is a simplistic, cartoonish, idea that a gullible public is being led astray by persons lacking proper historical training and credentials. It is an article that would be written by an elitist unconscious of the larger issues or critical theory.

That the editors of the journal accepted this article raises concerns about Civil War scholarship in general.

And who will fix that? Why, Ed Sebesta!

Meanwhile on Twitter, people saw a sign of the very arrogance in the historical profession that Sebesta decries. See, Ta-Nehisi Coates asked me a simple question about Grant and corruption. I happened to be at work when he asked, and by the time I came home and clicked on Twitter there were all sorts of replies and observations, many of which I found interesting as indicating what people represent as the current understanding of Grant. Then I came across a response from the Twitter account of History News Network, and that led to the following exchange:

HNN one HNN two What, you may ask, is History News Network, anyway? Well, it’s lots of things, and it’s not particularly good at many of them. After all, if it wants to parade as the source of all historical knowledge, it might have a simple “Ask a Historian” page that one could readily identify. If you’re a historian who wants to offer a historian’s two cents on an issue, well, HNN provides a forum for your op-ed. If you are an author who wants to pump up your own tires, well, contribute something to HNN as part of the publicity campaign for your publication. Want to gossip about your colleagues or highlight instances of perceived professional wrongdoing? Well, HNN will give you that forum, and give it uncritically.

But the remarkable arrogance of HNN’s Twitter feed (which HNN wisely chose not to feature in its own collection of its Twitter activity) in saying that HNN is the source of knowledge and information and interpretation (all the while failing to name a single expert in the field at HNN) and that people simply need to go there (and stop talking to real scholars on Twitter and the openness of social media) … well, doesn’t that just about top all? I’ll overlook their ignorance about my own professional identity, because, really, given what I saw, could you expect anything else? In short, HNN wants you to believe it is the ultimate source of information and it’s where scholars are to be found while remaining entirely clueless about the people engaged in a conversation. Yup, that’s where I would go to find out more about less and less about more, and in either case I’d be lucky to learn very much.

One of the consequences of social media is that historians who want to reach out and engage a more general public need not go through a portal such as HNN. It seems that HNN resents this … because the openness of social media means that fewer and fewer people will go to HNN, and not that many ever went in the first place, especially if they had a question to ask.

I don’t suffer fools gladly. Add the HNN Twitter feed to that list.

HNN isn’t where scholars publish. It’s where some scholars contribute views. Indeed, as you’ll see from this link, it isn’t really all that discriminating when it comes to the “experts” who publish there … people like (wait for it …) Ed Sebesta.

And that’s the way it is, Thursday, December 18, 2014. 🙂