On Museums and History: The Case of Clarence Thomas

Whenever a museum recording the history and culture of its subject opens, we are eager to see the stories they tell, in large part because musums are more than the mere display of artifacts. Museums, like books, tell stories, and all narratives are inherently interpretive and represent choices with consequences.

Not everyone will agree with the result, as we saw at Gettysburg when the new visitors center and museum opened several years ago. I understood and sometimes agreed with the critics of the museum, although I think some of those criticisms were overstated. At the same time, I knew that the museum was tasked to do something more than to recount the events of July 1-3, 1863, and November 19, 1863, in isolation, bereft of any context. Yet I also knew that the context would represent interpretive choices that would be open to analysis and criticism.

So it comes as no surprise that some people are not too keen on everything they’ve seen in the Smithsonian Institution’s new museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Of especial note is the claim made in some corners that the museum more than slights the career of current Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, supposedly, one infers, because of Thomas’s conservative political views.

You know what’s going to follow this report: whining about political correctness and the supposed political agenda of supposedly left-wing academics made by right-wing scholars, buffs, and “observers” (advocates) who claim that their adherance to their own political points of view is an expression of their dispassionate objectivity about the American past. We’ve seen that exercise in projection all too often.

Having not yet visited the museum (I haven’t been to DC since it opened, but it is first on my list for my next visit), I can’t testify as to the particulars of the case. Nor do I know how the museum treats other divisions among African-Americans over time, whether it be Frederick Douglass versus Martin Delaney, Booker T. Washington versus W. E. B. DuBois, or Martin Luther King, Jr., versus Malcolm X, all of which have been traditional (and overused as well as sometimes distorted or misunderstood) ways to view aspects of African American history. And that’s just for starters.

That said, one hopes that in recognizing the diversity of the American past through focusing on the African American past, the museum also embraces telling the story of the diversity within the African American past … and present. Part and parcel of that discussion is an exploration of black conservatism as demonstrating that African Americans are far from a unified bloc when it comes to many issues. At the same time, one should not make more of something than is appropriate … we’ve seen that in the discussion of whether Africans Americans served in significant numbers as soldiers in the ranks of the Confederate army. I note that when it comes to that issue, those gallant defenders of historical accuracy often shed their disguises to suggest that, regardless of what Confederates themselves said at the time, such people were soldiers and should be recognized as such … a position that reflects their own presentist attitudes and political agendas. Others just let that issue go unexplored lest they offend their fellow travellers.

Not that we’re about to hear those storied critics of political correctness hold themselves to the same standards they demand of others. No way. Otherwise we might have heard a reaction to this.

So let’s actually visit the museum before we pass judgment. Otherwise we’re little more than a clipping service bound to our personal prejudices.

Second-Guessing Bobby Lee

Several years ago I offered my observations on the challenge that Virginia posed to Ulysses S. Grant in 1864. But I’ve also pondered what choices Robert E. Lee had in the eastern theater. After all, people second-guess Lee’s offensive strategy all the time, and yet I wonder what else he was supposed to do. Abandon Virginia? Stand on the defensive and absorb punches? Leave the defense of Virginia to someone else and go elsewhere to try to win the war?

Say you concede that none of these alternatives offer any more hope of Rebel victory. Did Lee’s strategy, which featured counterattack followed by offensive operations across the Potomac, offer a real chance of victory? Or did his efforts in Virginia in June, July, and August 1862 drain his army of the manpower it needed to conduct successful offensive operations north of the Potomac that September? Did the bloodletting at Gettysburg compromise his ability to deal with Union forces in Virginia in the fall of 1863 and the spring of 1864? What were his alternatives, and did they offer more promising results?

These are not idle questions. Many historians argue that Lee’s performance in the East was the key to Confederate persistence and gave the Confederacy its best chance to win. Fair enough. But that didn’t happen, and, absent an unlikely and complete disaster on the battlefield, it was unlikely that the Confederates could have prevailed in that way. That leaves wearing out the Union’s will to persist. Was Lee’s approach likely to achieve that goal? Remember, the war was more than Virginia: I argue that Grant’s ability to neutralize Lee in Virginia in 1864, despite Lee’s best efforts, allowed the Yankees to prevail elsewhere in time to secure Abraham Lincoln’s reelection. It’s notable that after Sherman took Atlanta that September, the Confederacy failed to devise a game-changing approach to military operations in the two months that remained until election day.

So you tell me what you think … including you, Mark Snell. This one’s for you.🙂

 

World War I Comes to Your Video Game Console

Once upon a time World War II was a favorite subject of video games, especially first person shooters (FPS). It’s where the series “Call of Duty” got its start, first on personal computers, then on video game consoles. Nowadays such series foucus on modern and future combat, weaving missions into narratives that question the very subject of the game (and the interest of the player).

Previous conflicts have not fared so well in the FPS genre. Efforts to present the Civil War on video game consoles proved feeble. Here and there PC efforts gained an audience, but on the whole the pre-World War II period were represented by titles that explored conflicts, campaigns, and battles. One exception was aerial combat, but that seemed to be in part because the differences between World War I and World War II dogfighting were not great (as opposed to the heat-seeking missiles, sometimes offered in incredible payloads, for more modern games such as the Ace Combat series).

This fall, however, video game consoles will turn to World War I with the appearance of Verdun (a PC port) and Battlefield I. The makers of the latter game have offered twelve minutes of in-game action for us to absorb.

Of especial note is that when “you” die, you die. As a player, you assume someone else’s character, but the character that dies is not doing to be revived by the reset button or some other eternal life device.

Having not played Verdun and with Battlefield I delayed for the XBox1, I can’t tell you how the games play, or how they simulate anything. We’ll see whether a grittier view of war is something that video gamers want to explore.

Stonewall at Gettysburg … Again?

Recently The Civil War Monitor asked several historians (including yours truly) their opinions about Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. The answers appear in the current issue, but space restraints in the paper edition offered an opportunity for the journal to share on its website how people responded to that traditional counterfactual query, “What if Stonewall Jackson had been at Gettysburg?”

You can find the answers here.

It’s a question that is as problematic as it is popular. I’ve tired of it, largely because I’ve learned that people who don’t know nearly as much about the Civil War as they claim to know prefer to talk about what could have happened (where research and knowledge gives way to fantasy and imagination) than to discuss what really did happen and why (thus Civil War discussion groups thrive on such debates). Besides, there are other what-ifs I find more interesting.

Nevertheless, these discussions are just the thing for people who like that sort of thing, so enjoy.

Silly Season is Underway

One of the amusements of blogging is the knowledge that some people who really don’t like you are among the most faithful readers of your blog. You learn this when you see that there is a surge of incoming traffic from a blog that you may not hold in high regard, and a check of the link leads you to another elaborate denunciation of your blog for its open partisanship, commitment to political correctness, or whatever tends to offend these overly-sensitive folk who ventured forth from their intellectual and emotional safe space to see what other people were saying. Indeed, some blogs probably would not exist or have even smaller audiences than they currently enjoy were it not for this desire to draw attention to themselves in front of their fan base.

(Note: that’s one reason I don’t link to these blogs. Let them earn their own hits. I know they’ll come here anyway.)

We can expect more of this cross-blog commentary as we enter the heart of the presidential election contest. Politicians love to draw upon historical images and comparisons to make their points, and every presidential election offers case studies in the use and misuse of history, the state of historical memory, and the propensity of some people who claim to be historians to render their fledgling efforts at historical understanding primarily through the lens of political partisanship.

Take a recent whiny complaint from someone whose obsession with left-wing academics (a redundancy in his mind) and political correctness overwhelms what might be considered useful observation and information. Apparently we now know that the political season is upon us because of a surge in posts attacking Republicans, and only Republicans: “They prove it by only doing this type of thing to Republican candidates. And the virtue-signalling is extremely nauseating.”

I guess I struck a nerve.

We note that this protest appeared just a week after a post appeared declaring “Why Progressives Love Abraham Lincoln & Why Conservatives Don’t Undertsand Him.” I’ve retained the original spelling. Oh, no politics here, right? That’s surrounded by three more posts, two reflecting this blogger’s obsession with political correctness and another about protesters bearing Soviet flags outside the Democratic National Convention, something, the blogger asserts, should warm the hearts of “moral reformer” historians.

Now that we’ve established which blog is primarily an exercise in political commentary, we can test its claims for historical accuracy. The blogger appears to be upset that comments to various entries here that talk about how politicians use (and misuse) history are simply political commentary (and thus that the posts to which these comments allude were framed to elicit such commentary, betraying the nefarious motives of the blogger). One need only to examine the comments section of the blog in question to realize that this is just another case of the pot calling the kettle black (given the propensities of some of the commenters over there, “black” will drive them nuts). What people say is what people say. But to see in others what one does note recognize in oneself is telling.

But does this blog restrict itself to commenting on Republican candidates’ misuse of history? The record suggests otherwise. This blog commented on Hillary Clinton’s flawed commentaries on Reconstructiontwice. Nor would it be true the say that we don’t follow up on stories concerning Republicans who take positions where it’s assumed that we agree with them. This blog also followed up on leads that suggested that an advocate of removing the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina state house may have misstated the facts when she claimed to be descended from Confederate president Jefferson Davis (suffice it to say that the post in question received substantial traffic with the politician in question ran for office and lost).

In short, these are issues of historical accuracy, not political correctness. We conclude that either the critic is incompetent or dishonest. Which is the case, and why that’s the case, we leave to others to decide.

We do notice, however, that while the critic is loud about the supposed faults of others, we have yet to see any commentary on the critic’s blog about the historical shortcomings of his heroes. I bet you didn’t know that there were twelve articles in the Constitution, although Donald Trump (another not-so-well-informed foe of political correctness) says he will defend Article Twelve. And we are surprised that a man who wants to share with us how well a certain Confederate general treated his slaves had nothing to say when Bill O’Reilly asserted that the slaves who helped build the White House were treated rather well. But does our critic note such lapses? No. He’s practicing his own form of political correctness, I guess.

In short, someone who complains that certain blogs are partisan forums without admitting that his blog is indeed slanted for political and philosophical reasons is something of a hypocrite who lacks integrity. But did we really expect anything else?

Talk about “virtue-signalling.”

We admit, however, that we are amused to hear that this blog and other blogs are “nauseating” for this poor critic. We suggest that the best remedy for this particular reaction is to cease reading such blogs. Exercise some self control, please. As for me, I find such whiny rants amusing. I have indeed struck a nerve, and, it appears, more. To point out someone’s incompetence, hypocrisy, dishonesty, and lack of integrity is to fill an empty net with pucks. But whenever I come across such tripe, I’m reminded of this:

Lighten up, Francis.

PS: Yes, we expect to hear from the offended party that he’s endeavoring to prepare a forthcoming reply. Invariably these promises are never fulfilled. That was the case a few weeks ago with another blog, and it’s been the case with me several times.

 

A President Thanks Soldiers for their Service: October 10, 1865

On October 10, 1865, Andrew Johnson greeted members of the First District of Columbia Colored Regiment on the grounds of the White House. He wanted to thank them for their service, and give them some advice now that the war was over and they would be leaving military service.

You do understand, no doubt, and it you do not, you cannot understand too soon, that simple liberty does not mean the privilege of going into the battle-field, or into the service of the country as a soldier. It means other things as well; and now, when you have laid down your arms, there are other objects of equal importance before you. Now that the government has triumphantly passed through this rebellion, after the most gigantic battles the world ever saw, the problem is before you, and it is best that you should understand it; and, therefore, I speak simply and plainly. Will you now, when you have returned from the army of the United States, and take the position of the citizen; when you have returned to the associations of peace, will you give evidence to the world that you are capable and competent to govern yourselves? That is what you will have to do.

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Frederick Douglass Pays Tribute to A Flawed Hero: Abraham Lincoln

emancipation_memorial

On April 14, 1876, prominent Americans, led by President Ulysses S. Grant, gathered to dedicate a monument that tells a story that we today do not entirely accept: an image of Abraham Lincoln freeing a representative slave, who (depending on one’s point of view) is rising or kneeling (note, however, the clenched right fist). Among those who offered a somewhat dissenting point of view was Frederick Doulgass. You may find his complete remarks here.

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