(4/20/2019) Last month over at Relics & Bones, Richard Williams questioned whether many Civil War experts have morphed into Political Activists instead of historians. He suggests that those active at Civil War online forums, FaceBook Groups, and especially Twitter, have become absorbed in corrosive debates intended to intersect their political activism with the role of historian. Cyberspace enables them to congregate into packs that behave much like high school cliques.
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To be “in” with the “in crowd” it is necessary to despise a pre-defined group of historical figures and organizations while venerating a select group of others. Furthermore , it is also necessary to censor, shout down, bully and ridicule any contrary voices. Chief among the pariahs are anyone (or thing) associated with the Confederacy while Ulysses Grant is among the sacred cows. Thus, any Twitter user who tries to defend Robert E. Lee or criticize Ulysses Grant is promptly cyber-lynched.
To his credit, Richard admits to sometimes participating in such debates. As a dissenting voice to the “in crowd” he has endured his share of abuse. But recently he decided to withdraw from, or at least minimize, future debates. Instead he intends to focus on history without activism. He even made nice with a blogger on the other side. I suspect, however, that he will not completely abandon the defense of his Rebel ancestors.
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Activist Historians & Our Undeclared Civil War
I recently recommended Keith Harris’s blog post about Twitter and the corrosive nature of the “debates” that take place there. Professor Harris opined that historians who have embraced social media platforms are attempting to “intersect” their goals of being an activist with that of being an objective historian. I agree with much of what he says, but I’m more pessimistic in regards to the possibility of pulling off that “intersection.”
The agenda always seems to trump the history. And that damages the credibility of those historians and becomes a turn-off for those really interested in history. The approach does, however, attract many activists. Perhaps that is the real goal.
I understand that both sides of the aisle are guilty of this, but there’s no debating that one side vastly outnumbers the other. When I read the Twitter feed of some of these historians, I come away with the same feeling I get when I’m behind a car at a stoplight that’s plastered with political bumper stickers. You know I’m right. In the case of these historians, activism and the agenda is the destination. History is simply the vehicle to get them there. Their obsession is obviously overwhelming; and controlling.
But it is important to understand the social media optics create a false confidence and a false narrative. The activists who engage on social media seem to vastly outnumber Americans in the general population who are primarily interested in American history, simply for history’s sake, and who do not engage [argue] on social media. The activists are more vocal and less contemplative and objective, in my opinion, than are the vast majority of Americans.
If you doubt me, just go to Twitter and inspect the feeds by “historians.” You’ll see lots of anger, lots of activism, lots of protesting, lots of politics, lots of silly memes, lots of insults, lots of virtue-signaling, lots of moralizing, lots of obsessing and lots of rage. Oh, and you will see some history; primarily mixed in to support the agenda. But the focus is not history. It’s activism. That’s fine if that’s what you’re about. But that is what they’re about. Oddly, that seems to be obvious to everyone but the activists.