The View From the Sidelines: Scholarship and Activism

Some bloggers like to blog. Other bloggers often blog about their fellow bloggers. This begets a process whereby still other bloggers have to decide whether they want to blog about bloggers blogging about bloggers.

It’s an occupational hazard. I don’t particularly care for it, but there are times I believe there’s something worthwhile to say. I’m not sure whether that’s the case in the following instance, but we all make mistakes. Had it not been for a fellow blogger, indeed, the posts that provoked my curiosity would have passed by unnoticed by me altogether.

Several days into the debate about the Charleston murders and the resulting discussion about Confederate heritage, a blogger took it upon himself to stand back and question whether a historian could be both an activist and a responsible, dispassionate scholar. This blogger noted that there was a lot of poor history being passed around as fact by commentators. What disturbed him, however, was something else: “Passion and zeal have even crept into the circle of Civil War historians… and, let’s be clear… that’s fine, but…”

The blogger gave no names (and later defended that practice), but said:

Historians have every right to be passionate and zealous for a “cause”; they can even be activists. It’s just that when that cause intersects with their professional historical era of interests, I find it a little troubling. For one, depending on the advocacy, I begin to question the ability of the same historians to really be objective when they return to the practice of writing and speaking about their historical era (obviously, in this case, I’m talking about the Civil War). More specifically, I find it troubling when, in the course of advocacy… for that common cause… the passionate and (overly?) zealous historians are much more accepting (yes… I’ve seen this in various places on the Web and in blogs) of those who rant and rave with poor history.

Absent examples, of course, one is left wondering what sparked all this.  After all, this blogger argues: “I find it odd that they don’t keep the others in check.” One would have to name names to keep these errant blogging historians in check, no?

[Note: I have no reason to suspect that I’m among those being targeted. So let’s get that out of the way, okay?]

The blogger continues:

I’ve even wondered, considering the force of the momentum over the Confederate flag, and seeing comments made by people who can truly be classified as haters of almost anything and everything Southern) if a historian who works, in professional endeavors, to correct the “collective” (mis)understanding of some aspect of the antebellum South, might be equally virtually “beaten down” by the social media “mob”. Don’t be too quick to scoff at the suggestion.

I think there is merit in this suggestion. I only wonder why this particular blogger failed to act upon his own advice. In short, someone who doesn’t want to name names criticizes other (nameless bloggers) for failing to point fingers, name names, and so on, all the while declining to do so himself.


Had this blogger’s commentary on this issue stopped there, I would have abided by my decision to ignore this commentary. Why give it undue attention? However, additional commentary caused me to reconsider my own decision to watch, listen, think, and read without responding.

A few days later, a second post appeared. Busy as I was visiting battlefields, I did not come across it then … or until yesterday, when my curiosity got the better of me (the Islanders had already made their big splash in NHL free agent signings that morning, and I was bored to tears about Phil Kessel’s joining the Penguins).

The blogger was still listening to various debates and reading reports about the extent to which people were now expressing their unhappiness (or more) with Confederate symbols, icons, and flags. Some of what was going on struck me as excessive (refusing to sell historical simulation games because they utilized the Confederate battle flag; the defacing of monuments; and other proposals and actions I found to be curious, to say the least). Did the blogger decide to come out against these acts? Not quite. Rather, unnamed historians were once more the subject of his commentary:

It’s not my intent to spend all day listing what has taken place (and please don’t comment with a longer list), but I figured I’d share some observations. Also, pardon me if I don’t provide hyperlinks to examples of the above. Those can be found easily enough with a Google search.
There’s a lot to be considered in the wake of all of these happenings. As I said above, it seems strange that there continue to be so many discussions on the Confederate flag, and yet little or nothing said (other than the occasional press reports) about the other places the momentum is taking us.
I wonder why historians are only talking about the flag and haven’t said much about the vandalism.

I wonder why the blogger in question chose not to say more about the vandalism … directly. Rather, he leaves it to us to figure out what he might be talking about by using a search engine.

Yet, outside that which is media controlled, there are actually other venues, on the Web, to speak out about these other things… the vandalism and discussions that extend beyond the actual imagery of the Confederate flag. Ironically, I haven’t seen many at least broach (understand, I say only “broach”, and not directly addressed… which is not reflective of a level of passion I would have anticipated from historians) some level of concern over the vandalism. I’m curious as to… why? One would think vandalism of historical structures and the suggestion of removing critical films (that help us better understand our society’s waltz through history) would be of significant concern.

That somebody suggested pulling Gone With the Wind struck me as absurd, and so that’s why I did not express significant concern. I thought that proposal was bizarre. Nor do I think that the defacing of Confederate monuments is a good thing. Indeed, I think it is counterproductive, in that it feeds the narrative already being broadcast by Confederate heritage advocates (recall that I’ve suggested that such activities rescue Confederate heritage advocates from their difficulty in articulating their own position by allowing them to focus on such behavior).

But the wonderful thing about blogs is that the blogger in question could have made his own forceful protest against such acts, using the same space he reserves for telling us that he’s not going to respond to them but instead talk about (unnamed) historians who offer what he claims are (unspecified) insufficient or non-existent responses. Use your words, I suggest.

But that’s not all:
I’ll also add, that there is a giddiness in some historians… troubling, indeed… taking great joy in this being a great opportunity for “payback” to the “heritage crew”. Such happiness reflects having missed the point. This is not what started this, in the first place. I think I’ve said it before, about “zeal”… take care… take great care… and I really don’t think I need mention why. I will say, however, that the potential collateral damage (which has started to come to reality) that I’ve mentioned in my previous post, and again, here, extends well beyond the “heritage crew”.
The flags have come down. Yet, that zeal and momentum continue to spiral out of control…
While historians have been contributors to the discussion about the flag, I think it’s time for them to step up with equal interest in voicing their opinions on suggestions being made regarding additional purges, and how that stands to impact our future and our ability to intelligently look back on our past.

Well, doesn’t this sound like Connie Chastain?

I must say, I can’t quite understand how someone who maintains a “content” blog about Southern Unionists (and who thus acts as a historian) chooses to offer commentary that is usually associated with “controversy blogs” that he himself once singled out for criticism without subjecting himself to the same criticism that he levels against others. Is he not a historian? Is not his interest in Southern Unionism in its own way an act of activism in challenging stereotypes of southern white unity in support of the Confederacy?

Not that I want to name names.

This is not to say that the blogger doesn’t have a point. As someone else who chose largely to watch and listen and who kept my commentary to a minimum (in part because I was deeply disturbed at the way in which a horrible act of mass murder so quickly morphed into something else, even though the merits of the arguments about Confederate symbols, icons, flags, and mythology remained unchanged), I think that if one proposes to talk about the misuse of history, one must do that regardless of who’s misusing it or for what purpose. Absent examples, however, I can’t say more than what I believe to be an obvious rule of sound public engagement by a scholar.

Moreover, I do think it is time for historians to take a more active role in shaping this discussion. I’d argue that in the past week they have done so. I’m disappointed that someone seems to love the players more than the game (h/t to Taylor Swift) … so much so that they refuse to get into the game and make their voice heard. Enough listening.

The sidelines commentary offered by the blogger in question is limited in its usefulness. It was also limited in its exposure. To assess it is also to bring it to your attention, and perhaps that’s what the blogger wanted all along.

Or at least that’s what I’ve heard about “controversy bloggers.” Enjoy the (belated) hits surge.

11 thoughts on “The View From the Sidelines: Scholarship and Activism

  1. Patrick Young July 2, 2015 / 4:56 am

    If commenting on the Confederate Battle Flag would lead the author to “question the ability of the same historians to really be objective when they return to the practice of writing and speaking about their historical era,” why wouldn’t commenting on the graffiti or efforts to remove Confederate monumentation lead him to do the same?

  2. Rosieo July 2, 2015 / 7:59 am

    Is not the goal of the historian truth?
    With the aim of reporting the facts, why should the historian then be prevented from stating an opinion about said facts?
    An educated audience can tell the difference between straight reporting and editoralizing. Hearing an expert opinion leads listeners to thought whether listeners agree or not with the historian’s opinion.

    • Kristoffer July 2, 2015 / 8:40 am

      I do think that the goal of the historian should be truth, although I will admit that it takes effort to uncover it.

  3. Sherree July 2, 2015 / 10:45 am

    I am sorry to see that you and Robert have been at loggerheads, Brooks. I stopped reading CW blogs in 2011 not because of a lack of interest in either content or controversy, if we frame the discussion that way, but because my husband died suddenly and what happened one hundred fifty years ago in the Civil War no longer mattered to me. There are some types of grief that will rearrange your DNA. You either survive or you don’t. Well, I’m still here, and my interest in the CW has been renewed because of an experience I personally had with a Confederate flag.

    May I, as a reader of CW blogs, offer a potential olive branch that you and Robert might, perhaps, consider?

    The “content” that Robert focuses on–particularly that that concerns Southern Unionists–is, as you note, one way in which to help educate the public about the South that always existed outside of Lost Cause mythology. This is important work. I think you agree, if I correctly understand what you have said.

    Now, here is where the rub comes for the content you are attempting to deliver: the Lost Cause hold on the American imagination is so powerful that you can’t deliver that content without vitriolic attacks on you personally. Thus, in a way, you are almost forced to become an advocate–the Grant of scholars–and break the grip of the Lost Cause mythology first, before you can even begin to speak. After your truly eloquent handling of Appomattox and the surrender, (and I say this realizing that you probably won’t like that characterization, yet that was my reaction) I wanted to see what you had to say about Reconstruction. Well, hell, we don’t have to read about it; we’re living it. That is what the nation needs to understand. Now that we have lived through the Charleston massacre, read about the Colfax massacre, if you dare. We still live in a world of make believe when it comes to our history.

    Happy July 4th to you and your readers. We are all Americans, and, it seems to me, that we do all have a responsibility to the African American men and women slain in their own church, and to their families, and to the African American community at large to not go back to business as usual, or return to that “comfortable silence” that President Obama talked about. I think a good start would be a peaceful counter protest in Charleston of the magnitude of the Bridge to Unity. We’ll see. Wait. Hope. Pray.

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 2, 2015 / 11:17 am

      Robert and I are not at loggerheads. We each go our own way. That several bloggers still from time to time hold forth on the state of blogging in self-serving ways by talking about other (unnamed) blogs seems to me a poor way to go about things. When I criticize another blogger’s views or scholarship, I do so directly. But to each his or her own. As for Robert’s work on Southern Unionism, he does a fine job.

      I’ll have plenty to say about Reconstruction (and I’ve said plenty for years). No worries on that score.

      I sympathize with you in what you have been going through. These things are never easy. I’m glad to see you’re back.

      • Sherree July 2, 2015 / 12:09 pm

        Thank you, Brooks. It is good to be back.

    • Rosieo July 2, 2015 / 3:39 pm

      Off Main Topic but I cannot resist comment re:
      “There are some types of grief that will rearrange your DNA.”
      I never heard it put this way but you are so right.
      God bless us, everyone.

      • Sherree July 3, 2015 / 3:13 am

        Thank you, Rosieo.

        Grief is grief. But I think that the death of a spouse or of a child is in a special category.

        I could really relate to Rev. Pinckney’s wife. The note she left to her husband was heartbreaking.

        But grief is not enough when it comes to the Charleston tragedy. We have to do something –should have done it long ago. So, if an historian wishes to be an activist, then be an activist. That doesn’t impact scholarly work. This is a blog we are reading. What may be impacted, as Professor Simpson notes in another post, is how the media treats information gleaned from a blog. That is a failing of the media.

  4. Joshism July 2, 2015 / 7:45 pm

    This rapidly went in a different direction than I expected. I think the first quoted portion is the most interesting:

    “Historians have every right to be passionate and zealous for a “cause”; they can even be activists. It’s just that when that cause intersects with their professional historical era of interests, I find it a little troubling. For one, depending on the advocacy, I begin to question the ability of the same historians to really be objective when they return to the practice of writing and speaking about their historical era (obviously, in this case, I’m talking about the Civil War).”

    It seems like a fine line for a good and proper historian to walk, in and out of the blogsphere. You want to inject facts in the debate, but the more you learn about a subject and the more you feel the facts very strongly come down on one side of the issue (ex: slavery was the major cause of secession) and you see people regularly come down on the other side (Heritage Not Hate) even in the worst of times, it seems like a real challenge for any serious historian to maintain their composure and remain as unbiased as possible.

    A great example of failing to do this is Vincent Bugliosi. While not an academic, he was still a serious author. His JFK research and the huge tome it produced is fascinating and his arguments are really good, but his tone toward conspiracy theorists got very condescending. Yes, the arguments of most JFK conspiracy theories stand up to hard facts about as well as most Neo-Confederate arguments about why the Civil War was not about slavery, but it does not cast the author in a positive and unbiased light.

    (A simpler example: every political science professor that wears their political affiliation on their sleeve.)

  5. Rosieo July 5, 2015 / 5:50 am

    Joshism…I think there is no way to keep a writer’s point of view out of even expository writing.
    Sure, the writer gathers the facts but then decides which one to put first– to play up — and which ones need more explaining than the others, and which ones to omit. The writer’s self becomes part of the message. (Don’t even get me started on editors inserting and deleting!)
    The best to hope for is a writer with a good brain AND a good heart.

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