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.

Advertisements

On Al Arnold, Turner Hall, Jr., and “Black Confederates.”

There’s been some discussion here and elsewhere about Al Arnold’s tale about the tales of his ancestor, Turner Hall, Jr., and what exactly this all means for historians interested in the role played by enslaved blacks in the Confederate war effort. Andy Hall went to the trouble of reading the entire book, and he offered his reactions here. It’s a discerning response that looks carefully at the paucity of actual evidence to support Hall’s stories, which Arnold accepts at face value. Note that Arnold’s interpretation of Turner Hall’s story relies on a tremendous amount of speculation and inference that finds scant support in the historical record. As usual, plaudits to Andy for his usual skillful treatment of matters of evidence.

I also point readers to the very thoughtful post over at Alan Skerrett, Jr.’s Jubilo! The Emancipation Century. It’s a model of discerning reflection that balances respect and skepticism in a careful consideration of the evidence. Alan’s brought his usual high standards to this piece, and it shows.

Stories about African Americans’ willingness to serve the Confederate war effort serve many modern agendas. Arnold’s story, it turns out, is really about how Al Arnold dealt with a family story that he spent very little effort to verify. What we do know is that Turner Hall, Jr., told these stories about his past, and that white southerners embraced him for the telling, much as Confederate heritage advocates have embraced H. K. Edgerton, Karen Cooper, Anthony Hervey, Arlene Barnum, and now, it appears, Al Arnold, who seems more and more interested in telling the story of black support for the Confederacy. It’s interesting (and revealing) to research the life stories of Edgerton, Cooper, Hervey, and Barnum, all of who seems to have grown bitterly dissatisfied by black leaders and organizations such as the NAACP before veering right … and right into the arms of Confederate heritage advocates who welcome the chance to disassociate the Confederate cause slavery, racism, and white supremacy. Arnold’s personal quest seems to be just that: a personal quest. In the process, he’s become quite a popular speaker among certain people, as this list of events on his Facebook page suggests. He’s also become involved in the debate over the current Mississippi state flag, suggesting that this is no longer simply a matter of family history.

Truly, Al Arnold is following in the footsteps of Turner Hall, Jr.

Or course, Arnold’s rendering of Turner Hall’s life will be treated as fact in some reports by the uncritical, the unqualified, the unwary, and others who just like a good story. People who question it will be dismissed as haters. Arnold himself struggles with criticism, as a recent Twitter exchange with Kevin Levin revealed. Kevin, pointing to the story behind the banner that adorns Arnold’s Twitter account, asked him if he knew the truth behind the tampered image:

LevinArnold OneSimply put, to interpret Union soldiers as servants is a slam against the military service of American soldiers: an unkind critic would say that such a remark shows just how little respect Arnold has for some African Americans. At best, it’s a display of gross ignorance.

The exchange continued:

LevinArnold 2

Somehow I don’t think that citing the Lord in support of my methods is going to satisfy any critics of my work. Indeed, I know some very religious historians who would not dare to make such a claim.

LevinArnold 3

Given the tenor of this exchange, I doubt Mr. Arnold’s willing to engage in the sort of discussions that historians have when discussing evidence. Then again, this was never really about evidence, was it?

For some time the discussion about the service of enslaved and free African Americans in the Confederate armed forces has been one about historical fact and the consequences of those findings for larger interpretations of the war. That tends to be what historians do. However, students of Civil War memory might be better advised to turn to the modern day advocates of a story that places such service at the center of their narratives, and ask why that is. We may better understand Turner Hall, Jr., if we seek to understand Al Arnold.

History as Identity and Ideology

Over at Civil War Memory Kevin Levin commented on a report filed by Al Jazeera on the commemoration of the firing upon Fort Sumter, in part because it featured Walter and James Kennedy, commonly known as the Kennedy brothers and authors of a series of books that have become, er, controversial.

I always find interesting what the Kennedy brothers have to say.  Indeed, at times you can simply play all four of these interviews simultaneously, and they make about as much sense (and it’s an interesting experience to hear the same themes pop out from each section of the interview).  Try it.

However, Kevin made an allusion to something one hears a great deal, and one reads it a great deal on the internet, including the comments sections of several blogs.  The argument, simply put, is Continue reading

A Multicultural Confederacy Embracing Diversity?

In my world, “diversity” and “multiculturalism” are terms invoked at various times in support of various policies and programs usually deemed to cater to what some people call “political correctness.”  My own view is that people walk a tightrope between issues of identity, multiculturalism, and diversity all the time, and I’m much more interested in people who live their lives embracing such notions than in talking about them.  In short, I’m well aware of the uses and abuses of these terms as deployed in the world around me, and I wonder about the sincerity or commitment of some of the people who seem eager to inject them at every opportunity, even as I see that there’s much to be learned and valued from incorporating the merits of these concepts into one’s own life and approach to living.

I offer this as background to bringing up a topic that is a cause of amusement and bemusement for me: the claim that the Confederacy was a multicultural experience and that it embraced diversity.

Continue reading

Honoring Lincoln and Grant on Presidents Day

Today is Presidents Day.  Oh, of course people link together Lincoln and Washington (who had his original birthday shifted when there was a change in the calendar not too long after his birth), but now they get to share this day with Millard Fillmore and Chester A. Arthur.

What follows are some rather interesting ways in which Americans have chosen to celebrate two Civil War-related presidents, Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.  Continue reading