Tag Archives: Academic Civil War Historians

The South as Evil Twin

(March 1, 2018) Since the 1960s civil rights era historians have increasingly descended toward a Pious Cause Mythology interpretation of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The myth portrays the North as the “good” twin and the South as the “evil” twin.

As one legacy, the South is held responsible for lingering postbellum racism and the country’s slow adoption of progressive ideals. Historian Eric Foner, for example, falsely accuses Southern congressmen as being responsible for the failure of Social Security to initially include household servants because they were mostly African Americans. The true reason for the exclusion was an IRS warning that it would be difficult to enforce compliance in the sector since most employers were housewives who paid their servants with cash.

Lest Pious Cause Mythologists become too enamored with the evil twin narrative, however, they should consider that the metaphor does not always apply as they expect. One example is John Steinbeck’s version of the tale in East of Eden.

The twins are teenagers Aron and Cal Trask who live with their presumably widowed dad, Adam. Aron is the “good” and self-righteous twin. He is like the college student who has been brainwashed with Pious Cause Mythology, while Adam corresponds to the sanctimonious anti-Southern history professor. Aron can only imagine the family’s history as noble and is incapable of investigating the truth for himself. He can only survive in a delusion. Fortunately for Aron, Adam censors the truth from both boys. Thus, Aron is like a snowflake college student who will not permit anyone to speak a contrary opinion even to the point of denying others the right to free speech.

Cal is the “evil” twin because he is skeptical of Adam’s sanitized version of the family history. He suspects it is mostly a self-serving interpretation that hides the truth, which he resolves to learn. When he discovers that his mother is still living but a murderer and an otherwise monstrous person, he can acquiesce to the reality. But when he discloses the facts to Aron, the “good” twin is shattered. His life descends into chaos and irresponsibility. He abandons his family and fiancé. Consequently, Adam physically collapses and Cal emerges as the new family leader. In Steinbeck’s version, the “evil” twin is revealed to be the morally stronger one and the “good” twin is disclosed to be a stuffed shirt, lacking the courage to face the truth. Despite his noble reputation, Adam is disclosed as a well-spring of dishonesty.

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Two Opposite Views on Confederate Monuments

(August 4, 2017) The current issue of Civil War Times contains an article in which a number of authors state their opinions about the future of Confederate monuments. Provided below are two contrasting examples.

First is the summation provided by Megan Kate Nelson who writes the regular “Stereoscope” column for Civil War Monitor.

I [Megan Kate Kelly] would like to propose that Confederate memorials should neither be retained nor removed: They should be destroyed, and their broken pieces left in situ.

On a scheduled day, a city government or university administration would invite citizens to approach a Confederate memorial, take up a cudgel, and swing away. The ruination of the memorial would be a group effort, a way for an entire community to convert a symbol of racism and white supremacy into a symbol of resistance against oppression.

Historians could put up a plaque next to the fragments, explaining the memorial’s history, from its dedication day to the moment of its obliteration. A series of photographs or a YouTube video could record the process of destruction. These textual explanations may be unnecessary, however. Ruins tend to convey their messages eloquently in and of themselves. In this case, the ruins of Confederate memorials in cities across the nation would suggest that while white supre-macists have often made claims to power in American history, those who oppose them can, and will, fight back.

Second is Robert K. Krick who is  Civil War historian whose interest is concentrated in the Eastern Theater.

We live in an age riven by shrill and intemperate voices, from all perspectives and on most topics. No sane person today would embrace, endorse, or tolerate slavery.

A casual observer, readily able to convince himself that he would have behaved similarly in the 1860s, can vault to high moral ground with the greatest of ease. Doing that gratifies the powerful self-righteous strain that runs through all of us, for better or worse. In fact, it leaps far ahead of the Federal politicians (Lincoln among them) who said emphatically that slavery was not the issue, and millions of Northern soldiers who fought, bled, and died in windrows to save the Union—but were noisily offended by mid-war emancipation.

It is impossible to imagine a United States in the current atmosphere that does not include zealots eager to obliterate any culture not precisely their own, destroying monuments in the fashion of Soviets after a purge, and antiquities in the manner of ISIS…On the other hand, a generous proportion of the country now, and always, eschews extremism, and embraces tolerance of others’ cultures and inheritances and beliefs. Such folk will be society’s salvation.


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Compounding Revisionism

(June 6, 2017) To those of us with some gray hair it seems like the trend that is culminating with the defacement and removal of Confederate memorials is a recent, if not abrupt, development. Fifty years ago, for example, there was a spirit of reconciliation regarding sectional heritage between the North and South that no longer exists. Presently, most historians insist that our Southern ancestors were the immoral ones who must bear the burden of “being on the wrong side of history.”

My purpose today is not to address the merits, or demerits, of such an interpretation but instead to demonstrate that it has been building for a long time and only seems to be a recent phenomenon.  It began with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, which drew the focus of such now-prominent historians as James McPherson and Eric Foner to the racial side of the story. Although the Academy is now obviously dominated by their acolytes, they did not seem to have such overwhelming influence until “Only Yesterday”… as Frederick Lewis Allen might have put it.  That, however, is characteristic of compound growth.

To illustrate, consider a pond that at the first of the month has Lilly pads on only 1% of its surface area. Swimmers hardly notice the weeds. If the pads grow at a 16% daily rate, after a week they still cover less than 3% of the pond and remain ignored by swimmers. On the 27th day they cover a little over half the pond and even the casual observer can see that a problem is developing. But the significant point is that the second half of the pond gets fully covered by Lilly pads in only the last 4 days of the month. The pad-free surface, like the minority opinion of the Civil War, gets suddenly, and completely, choked off. The chart below illustrates the pattern of compound growth.

The hostile attitude of the Academy toward Confederate heritage is only one sign of a compounding growth in intolerance for minority opinion on American campuses. Recently students  at Evergreen State College demanded that a biology professor be fired because he disagreed with their proposal to require that white students abandon the campus for a day. The politically progressive and racially enlightened professor was stunned to be thus targeted. He felt he should be immune because of his political beliefs.  Such are the consequences of unchecked compound growth. Once the Confederate monuments have been removed the intolerant will seek other fuel to keep their fire burning.

Nobody is immune to tyranny except the tyrants and any excuse will serve a tyrant when deciding to exercise her tyranny.

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