The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: The Internet, Social Media, History, and Confederate Heritage Activism

The internet and the digital revolution together have changed how we view the world, in part because they have transformed how we receive and digest information. We have more information (and misinformation) available at our fingertips. Search engines help shape and sometimes control how we discover and extract information (just try using a few different search engines to see what I mean).

For professional historians who happen to teach, the result is a mixed bag. Yes, we have access to far more information than before, and it’s easier to use it. It’s much easier to research the Congressional Globe and the Congressional Record than it once was, for example, and one can read books once deemed difficult to find. We can secure video and images to educate, and we can point students to resources they would not have been able to access easily a generation ago. On the other hand, as teachers we see students (and others) use search enginges and internet resources uncritically, and we have to deal with teaching research methods online to ensure that students can find credible sources and make sense of them. There’s plenty of fake history to go around, especially on certain websites and discussion groups. Take any halfway decent Civil War discussion group, for example, and you’ll find people still refighting the war, mocking scholarship (and scholars) who don’t embrace the poster’s own prejudices, interpreting “evidence” to suit their predilections, falling in love with their heroes and chastising their villains (and their biographers), endlessly rehashing certain questions, and taking the notion of “if it is on the internet, it must be true” to a new level …”if I say it on the internet, I make it true.”

Scholars err in simply dismissing what in truth is a rich source of what they lovingly study as historical memory in other contexts. Simply to say that something isn’t true means little in an age whether “alternative facts” and denigrating authoritative sources hold sway. Time and again those of us who are more comfortable with the internet as a place of discussion, debate, and resources have to remind less-skilled and less-aware users that the net doesn’t discriminate between the good, the bad, and the immaterial, thus allowing such themes as the myth of the black Confederate soldier to flow freely in the minds of the uncritical or the agenda-driven and be disseminated to the unaware and unprepared. In an age where anyone with access to the internet can pretend to be their own historian, the problem intensifies. That people who whine about “fake news” embrace “fake history” and engage in uncritically reposting only that which feeds their already-established prejudices while pretending to host history blogs is part of the joke … and part of the problem. For them “political correctness” means “does not agree with me.”

Failing to engage such folks concedes the argument, and suggests that perhaps some people have abandoned the role of the public intellectual in favor of writing for each other or for a small circle of like-minded folks. When that is the case, historians can look in the mirror when they wonder why people don’t listen to them any more (if they ever did). Yet engagement comes with its own risks, and historians haven’t thought much about that, either. Nowadays the marketplace of ideas has been replaced with the hockey rink of debate, complete with high elbows, stick-swinging, and cheap shots. How to engage in such an environment while maintaining one’s self-respect and scholarly demeanor (and, one hopes, a sense of humor) is a challenge. Yet, unlike, say, the confrontation in a lecture (these rarely happen) or the nasty note (and now nasty email) that remains private, it is the very public accessibility of such misinformation and fake history that presents a challenge to any historian who presumes that educating people about history is an important part of their job, and is indeed more than mere vocation.

Yet historians are not the only people confronting a challenge in the age of the internet and social media when it comes to getting things done. Presenting a somewhat different challenge for Confederate heritage apologists is the interplay of social media, digital technology, and heritage activism. People who employ social media as part of their everyday lives know the problem. Repost something, offer a comment, hit “like” or “share” or “retweet,” and we’ve indicated where we stand on something, as if that in itself is enough. Want to make a more robust statement? Take some pictures … because digital technology has revolutionized photography for the common person. Don’t worry … you don’t have just 12, 24, or 36 precious exposures per roll any more … you can click away hundreds of times and then post the images to your social media outlet. Any Virginia Flagger event will suffice as an example, especially when Judy Smith is present. How many times do you have to see Susan Hathaway rally the troops (or hear her sing)? Or see Barry Isenhour look stern while thinking of his next hot dog? When it comes to graphic design, we have Connie Chastain churning out book jacket after book jacket for books she’ll never actually write (“fake literature,” anyone? … because “fake fiction” is too funny).

Let me kindly suggest that the digital revolution and the advent of social media has been key to the dissemination of the ideas of the Confederate heritage apologist movement … and that it will also be the death of it. For it appears to be true that the more time you spend on social media, the less time (and interest) you have to be a real activist and achieve real change.

You see, just like many other pseudo-activists, many Confederate heritage apologists think that reposting, sharing, liking, and retweeting is a sufficient expression of their activism, because people see it. Attaboy, folks, seems to be the prevailing attitude. It’s not unlike the Virginia Flaggers’ own Facebook page, which once painstakingly celebrated how many people “liked” it (Donald Trump does the same thing when it comes to his Twitter account). Yet the only significant achievement the Virginia Flaggers have to claim for years of “activity” is the erection of a number of Confederate flag-bearing flagpoles throughout Virginia. That’s it. Even that activity has been as productive of mocking humor as it has been of celebrating some ill-defined “cause.” Sure, we have a flood of Judy Smith photographs of “determined” Flaggers … but the photographs and videos shot by Smith and others have provided evidence of some of the people with whom the Flaggers associate (racists, bigots, and the like) and have been used to humiliate Flaggers or make them look foolish (hello, Tripp Lewis!). The blog Restoring the Honor makes its living off capturing Confederate heritage social media as well as using the internet to uncover interesting connections.

The result reminds us that the Virginia Flaggers and other like-minded Confederate heritage apologist groups are what we’ve said they are.

In short, even as social media can be used to mobilize on some minimal level of engagement a number of wannabe activists, the proof is in who shows up to do the real work. How many times have organizers of Confederate heritage events later complained that the turnout wasn’t anywhere near what organizers expected given all those positive responses on Facebook? Memes are cute and easy to produce (even Chastain can meet that low threshhold), but do they accomplish much (and, in certain cases, haven’t they provided ammunition for critics)?

Have the proponents of Confederate heritage done anything more that preventing some defeats and then proclaiming that victory? We see fighting withdrawals, retreats, routs, and the occasional stalemate or preservation of the status quo, but have “the colors” ever actually advanced? The entire struggle for Confederate heritage likes to invoke the spirit of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart, Wade Hampton, and Nathan Bedford Forrest, but in reality the icons of the Confederate heritage movement should be Pierre G. T. Beauregard, Joseph Johnston, and Braxton Bragg. Beauregard always offered plans that could never be implemented; Johnston was good at retreating and procrastinating while claiming that someday he would strike back; Bragg’s quarrelsome nature reminds me of a lot of the ranting within the ranks of Confederate heritage apologists (rainbow Confederates, anyone? Unhappiness with the SCV?).

All this, I suggest, is also the product of social media, which promotes pseudo-activism as a substitute for the real thing. Confederate heritage activities have failed in their efforts to mobilize a movement when someone can simply click a button or type a response as their entire effort to preserve and protect their “heritage.”

Mind you, the very reaction to this post in some corners will demonstrate the truth of the arguments it presents. But the fact of the matter is that offering dozens of photographs of a half dozen protesters outside the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (and doing so repeatedly) in order to garner likes and supportive comments is testimony to the bankruptcy of Confederate heritage activism … because that’s all it is. Raise another flag, post about it, and then do it again, in part because nothing has really changed (each flag raising has become a sign of the futility of the endeavor, because, outside of a few more photographs, a few more posts, and a few more “likes,” nothing happens) … while the setbacks and defeats keep mounting up.

It truly is the best of times and the worst of times.

All In A Day’s Work

Last month, in the wake of the presidential election, a reporter for asked me to comment on the argument that explanations of Donald J. Trump’s victory that tended to emphasize the role of racism, sexism, and other expressions of prejudice in accounting for the Republican success in the Electoral College might soon give way to another narrative that closely resembled what the writer terms the Lost Cause explanation of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

That piece, with my small contribution, appears here.

To be sure, I think an explanation of Trump’s triumph that rests primarily on charges of racism, sexism, and so on in the American electorate is incomplete and flawed. There were plenty of reasons why Trump defeated first his Republican primary challengers and then Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. The list is too long to discuss in exhaustive fashion, but one can focus on Trump’s successful appeal to a sense of grievance, Clinton’s campaign management, the ways in which Vermont senator Bernie Sanders exposed weaknesses in the Clinton appeal that proved useful to Trump, and so on. In critical states Trump’s emphasis on jobs and attack on globalization, open borders, and free trade struck a chord with voters, much to the surprise of Democratic strategists and more than a few pundits who never quite saw what was coming. When asked to predict the outcome, I thought that Clinton’s win would be far narrower than some people were predicting, and events in the last week of the campaign suggested to me that there was cause for worry in key states. Trump ran the table in critical battleground states, and the (perceived) upset was complete.

Nor do I think that all of Trump’s supporters are racists, sexists, homophobes, white supremacists, or whatever. That’s nonsense and a poor way for Democrats to try to explain away defeat. That said, to deny that people who are open (and not so open) about being racist, sexist, homophobic, white supremacist, and so on flocked to Trump in large numbers is hard to deny (we’ve covered several of them in this blog). Nor is it easy to deny that many Trump supporters who proclaim that they do not share such attitudes and who resent being cast into a basket of deplorables (a turn of phrase that rightly came back to haunt Clinton as an example of stupid and mindless elitism) have remained rather quiet about signs that some people who have expressed what many find to be bigoted views have risen to places of power and influence in the incoming administration. One does not have to be a bigot to be complicit in bigotry, and those folks will find themselves in increasingly uncomfortable situations if they are sincere about what they believe … or maybe they haven’t been so sincere in the first place. We’ll see.

But, in this season of greetings and giving, I share with you a note I received less than an hour after I was notified that had posted the piece:

You must not have a whole lot of niggers living out there in Arizona near you because back east these devils rob, shoot, kill, rape and destroy just about most of our communities in our portion of the country. They make life hell for not only the majority here in America but also themselves. They have no idea why they do the things they do, let me fill you in mr. social scientist, it’s millions of years of instinct with this race! No one anywhere in the world over pays them any mind in the civilized world and nor do they allow them to have any say in government or rule of law in any other country than the USA and with good reason. Their own people sold them into slavery to begin with. I don’t hate them nor anybody for that matter, I just really pity them but myself unlike people like you living in only the bubble of the USA think that we as a nation need to sell our future down the drain to temporarily appease them. You need to take in reality and look long term, not what is going on right now, the latest fad or the next few years. CNN is shit hole and can’t be trusted with anything real to begin with, it’s a propaganda channel that drives an agenda for the elite, the elite’s kids star on their show. 

Stop hating yourself and start standing up for the majority in this nation. You leave anything to the africans and civilization ceases to exist! So, when you apply a label to ME, please remember to label me as a “REALIST” They don’t want to hear the truth but the truth is they are subversive and slowly but surely destroy America. I have no problem with Latino people nor any other race of people on the planet, they are an asset to our nation! They work and they take care of their families, two things niggers don’t do at all and their instinctual, primitive behaviors are the driving factors to the plethora of their problems. One would think they own NO mirrors as they could then look into them to see where their problems come from? I use the word “nigger” as this is what these people call each other.


Rarely has someone so effectively made the point about the beliefs of some Trump supporters as in this note.

I do resent being called a social scientist, although I have used the social sciences in my work. And, please, it’s Dr. Social Scientist, if you must call me such.

I’ve always thought that such rants are evidence that proponents of white supremacy are actually insecure folks who fear that they are examples of inferiority, as indeed they are. So be it. I guess they acknowledge that they need white supremacy to survive.


The Sage Historian Comments: The Conventions and the Election Outlook

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For those of you who want to know what a “presidential historian” does during an election year, you can start here.

Note that both the Republican and Democratic commenters turned to me as a source of information. None of this tripe about the leftist academy from people who know what they are talking about. If anything, the Republican was somewhat happier with what I said than was the Democrat.

Reconstruction at the 2016 Civil War Institute

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Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute, directed by Peter Carmichael, will have as this year’s theme “Reconstruction and the Legacy of the Civil War.” The conference has already sold out, an interesting reflection on claims that no one really wants to remember or reflect upon Reconstruction.

C-SPAN (in this case, C-SPAN 3, I believe) will be present, broadcasting live on the afternoon and evening of June 18 while recording other sessions for future broadcast. Yours truly will speak at 7:15 PM Eastern Time on “Ulysses S. Grant and the Continuing Civil War,” where I’ll give people an overview of some of the themes that will be part of the second and concluding volume of my Grant biography, entitled Ulysses S. Grant: The Fruits of Victory, 1865-1885. You may follow the proceedings and commentary on Twitter at  . Note that my talk will be the last one of the evening: clearly Peter is depending on me to finish the day (reprising my role as scholarship’s answer to Mariano Rivera). Given who’s talking before, I hope I have enough time to cover my topic and answer questions. If not, I’m prepared to burn one of his scarves.

In preparation for the conference, I answered a few questions about my topic.



On the Challenges of Punditry

In my role as a historian of presidents and the presidency, I find myself in a every interesting position during election years. Media outlets and audiences want me to do two very different (if related) things: offer historical perspective (“Has this ever happened before? What happened then?”) and political prediction (“What will happen next?”). The former task is fairly straightforward, although there are a lot of amateur presidential historians out there (and, to be honest, it doesn’t take much to be a superficially compelling talking head or authority).

The latter function is a bit more challenging. Predictions, after all, no matter how well grounded in past patterns, are subject to change, and never is this more evident when one has to write in anticipation of an event where the outcome may change things or somrthing might happen to render one’s prediction pointless. We’ve seen that a lot this election year.

We’ve seen Donald J. Trump seize the Republican nomination despite all sorts of claims that he would not do so (although early on I suggested that the discussion about the Republican establishment was problematic: it suggested there was such an establishment, that it agreed on certain things, and it had a candidate who could take Trump on and win). We’ve weathered talk of a contested/brokered convention. It’s been interesting to see the rise and levelling off of Bernie Sanders, and process that as much as anything suggested some of the weaknesses of Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate. Moreover, in a process where so many rules have been broken and where conventional wisdom has suffered some big hits, it behooves the historian to tread carefully, qualifying answers in the face of pressure to say something new and sensational (although I must admit that saying the obvious and even banal in an authoritative manner is also part of the job).

Let me give one such example. Several months ago it looked as if both Trump and Sanders might find themselves stymied by the nomination process. Both candidates complained about the rules and their respective party establishments. That much was obvious. After all, these men were both outsiders, and one could expect as much. But was there anything else to say? Not unless one wanted to engage in somewhat rather wild speculation … that perhaps Trump and Sanders ought to make common cause against a system that didn’t work and that prevented the sort of insurgent candidacies that they were pursuing from getting very far. Perhaps particular differences needed to be set aside in light of this common assumption that government simply wasn’t working. That’s right … didn’t it make some odd sort of sense for Trump and Sanders to unite, at least in attacking the system?

A wild idea? Of course. I noted at the time that to make it was quite risky (it was highly unlikely that this would occur), but, even offered as “a modest proposal” in Swiftian style, it would make a splash. All it would take would be for Trump to fall short in New York and the door would open to advancing such a radical proposal. Even mockery of it would be useful in initiating a discussion about the inability of the present system to get things done and the growing impatience with such a stalemate. That Trump made several comments about Sanders’s struggles and criticisms in rather supportive and understanding fashion suggested that this was not a completely bizarre idea, although no one in their right mind would think of a Trump-Sanders ticket.

But Trump won New York. So did Clinton. It did not take long for the Republican field to falter, then fold, while Sanders could never quite get over that setback.

I don’t think the Trump story is very interesting lately. Amusing, yes, but not interesting. Watching prominent Republicans squirm as they reconcile their support for the presumptive nominee with their increasing horror at what he says (especially on that most presidential of mediums, Twitter) is sure to make one’s day. But the process of foes becoming supporters and endorsers if not friends is old hat. It just may be more fun this time around.

That left the drama of Bernie Sanders’s struggle to continue his fight, the candidate growing ever more shrill and nasty as his chances continued to evaporate. What would Bernie do? What could he do? And what could I say about it?

It was with those thoughts in mind that I set down the following thoughts last Saturday:

The Democratic primary season came to an end this week with voters in California and New Jersey choosing once more between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The actual results don’t matter all that much, except in the eyes of reporters who cover the primary season as if it was a horse race (it’s more like a marathon). Clinton emerged from the primaries with a majority of the delegates chosen through that process pledged to support her: the rest is interpretation of the political optics offered by the results.

For Sanders, the challenge is simple. Having protested the rules through which Democrats choose their presidential candidate—notably the provision for superdelegates who are free to make their own choice as to whom to support—he now finds himself dependent upon that very process in order to secure the nomination of a party he has only recently joined. He must win them over to prevail. Moreover, having shared with voters his impatience with discussions of Clinton’s email server while she was secretary of state, Sanders must now rely on that continuing controversy as Exhibit A in making the case that he is more electable than his rival in the general election against Republican Donald J. Trump.

Sanders’s supporters have waxed eloquent about the unfairness of the superdelegate system, which is fulfilling the function it was designed to perform: making sure party leaders had a disproportionate role in selecting the party’s presidential nominee as a way to deflect threats from outsiders just like Sanders. The Vermont senator has basked in playing the role of the anti-establishment outsider whose outspokenness challenges all the rules, so he cannot be surprised by what’s happened. Instead, he must now rely upon persuading superdelegates to support him and thus to overcome Clinton’s margin of pledged delegates selected through primaries and caucuses—the people’s choice, if you will—and to be the choice of the party elite, not exactly where an outsider should want to be.

Sanders knows that his best chance to win superdelegates’ support rests with his claim that he’s more electable than Clinton. But what makes him more electable? For all the passion involved in his candidacy and his message, it is doubtful that a majority of voters in a general election would embrace a self-described Democratic socialist. Instead, he must rely upon exploiting Clinton’s Achilles heel: her repeated fumbling responses to stories of scandalous and corrupt behavior, primarily her handling of e-mail while she was secretary of state. Such controversies raise questions about her integrity and fitness for office. Nor is Sanders alone in hoping for new revelations or more mismanaged damage control: Trump’s chances this fall depend on whether independent voters see him as the lesser of two evils.

Sanders’s chances for victory depend on his embracing a system he once attacked and hoping it will react to the continued prominence of a scandal he once set aside. It has been that kind of year.

As of last weekend, that was a reasonable analysis of Sanders’s dwindling chances. He would have to challenge his own brand, so to speak, if he wanted to win. Only if bad things happened to Clinton did he really stand a chance.

Now, for such a piece to have any influence or impact, it would have to appear in print this week … and only if certain things happened. But it’s reasonable to assume that circumstances might have made this an interesting analysis … depending on what happened next. So file this under if/then analysis.

Then came Monday evening. I was watching the Stanley Cup Final when a news crawl on NBC notified me (and, I assume, lots of other hockey fans) that several news organizations had concluded that Clinton had secured the support of a majority of all the delegates. Now she, too, was a “presumptive nominee.”

Mind you, the primary contests on Tuesday would have secured a majority of delegates for Clinton … she was in position to proclaim on Tuesday what news organizations declared on Monday evening. But the Monday annoucement sparked all sorts of discussion (and recriminations), making Tuesday anticlimatic. Fair enough. But, almost in anticipation of what might happen next, Democratic leaders, led by Barack Obama, decided to transform triumph into coronation, complete with sympathy for the loser’s good fight.

You fought the good fight, Bernie, but now it’s time to step aside. We can do this nicely, with smiles, handshakes, and congratulations all around … or, if you don’t get the message, it could get nasty. Capisce? 

That strategy appears to have worked. Today, as the Obama administration rolled out the president’s powerful endorsement of his former secretary of state, party leaders met with the runner-up and consoled him while paying tribute to his campaign. At this writing Sanders seems placated, even happy, and his pledge to keep up the fight all the way to Philadelphia has lost much of its edge. What looked at one point to be a bitter fight appears now to be a vibrant and lively discussion between people who agree on fundamentals (note I said appears). Image and impression and perception are everything.

Under such circumstances it would be foolish indeed for Sanders to pursue what I believed last Saturday was his last chance to secure the nomination. Nor would it make any sense now to offer last Saturday’s take as meaningful commentary on the situation as we see it today. In sort, those words go away now, consigned to a discussion of what-ifs that are characteristic of discussions political as well as historical.

That is, unless things change.

Sometimes they do.


Gary Gallagher and the Continuing Civil War

Nearly a month ago the Twitterverse tweeted with commentary on a lecture delivered at the University of Virginia by Gary Gallagher. Apparently Gary was determined to take on current understandings of the American Civil War, namely the emphasis paid to emancipation and the debate over when the Civil War ended. Gary took several authors to task concerning the first point, which received most of his attention, before turning to the second point at the 40:45 mark of the video below:

As I understand it, Gary’s argument is that present concerns shape our inquiry of the past, framing the questions and suggesting the answers we seek. There’s nothing exceptional about that observation: it’s often at the core of many a historiographical essay, the sort of discovery usually reserved for first year graduate seminars and for the occasionally perceptive undergraduate.

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