Update: I don’t think I was vague about my opinion on the Confederate flag in public venues, and you can see that below. How the symbolism of the flag contributed to the actions of the shooter are also mentioned, but only briefly. To be clear, the issue of the flag is only an aside to my post. Understand, I see how the shooter used the symbolism of the flag for his horrific purposes. It seems clear enough, he saw it (and the flag of Rwanda) and used both as symbols of hate. That said, however, this was not the crux of this post. It’s more about how some historians are activist in the removal of the flag from all public venues… even private… and how overlap with their chosen historical era of study might create issues (specifically, how zeal for matters may have negative bearing on objectivity in historical works created outside this activism). My thoughts, I believe, are also clear enough on this. I just choose not to do the “naming names game,” as I find it unnecessary. If one thinks I’m incorrect in my observations, please feel free to express that opinion in the comments section, below. End of update.
In the wake of the horrible event in Charleston (and, without a doubt, it was among the worst type), I’ve remained quiet. I find “listening” to be a worthwhile thing before expressing personal ideas. There’s no need for me to elaborate on the obvious, but, in the act of listening (considering how media is often too hasty to release information… and then has to backtrack on poor information released), I’ve also had time to observe how people react (perhaps this is the historian in me), as to where fault is to be placed, and what and how justice should be delivered… and I’m not just talking about justice to the criminally guilty. Certainly, I need not tell anyone how guilt is being distributed beyond the person accused of the crime, but… there is that matter of symbolism as a catalyst for the shooter.
If, however, you haven’t heard… the focus is on the removal of the Confederate flag from public venues.
Understand, I am not an advocate for the flag in various public venues where it currently flies. I suppose, in some ways, I’m an historical purist. The flag’s placement, for example, is more a contemporary matter… often being used purposefully, as a means of initimidation, during segregation and the civil rights movement (which just happened to take place very close to the Centennial of the Civil War). In some places, Confederate flags have more recently been placed… as standing, regular features… at Confederate monuments. As this was not originally done at time most of these monuments were placed, I think doing so now is proactive and purposeful in a different way (most often, not in the same intent as before the Centennial), often redefining the meaning of these monuments. Not being original to the purpose for which these monuments were erected (reflection), I disagree with such placement.
Yet, this issue of the flag is not really at the center of my concerns. I’m more fascinated… and concerned… about public advocacy.
I’ve especially taken notice of the vast “wealth of knowledge” among so many in their advocacy… not only for the removal of the Confederate flag in public venues, but more… much more. After reading my news feed this morning on Facebook, I commented:
I never knew there were this many Civil War historians. Of course, that’s not to say that the same who profess “vast knowledge” are actually right… and that goes to arguments being made on both sides of the pendulum swing. I don’t mean for this to sound “elitist” of me, it’s just that… wow… some of the stuff I’ve read lately.
Let’s just say, opinions are aplenty… as is a demonstration of bad historical knowledge. Passion and zeal appear not only to have brought out the best in many (our sympathies directed to the victims and families… and even the community in Charleston), but also the worst. I’ve read all sorts of arguments, for and against the removal of the Confederate flag… and a lot of it is testimony to the horrible knowledge of U.S. history in the American collective. It’s not that this “bad history” didn’t exist before… it’s just that it’s been tremendously magnified because of recent events.
Passion and zeal have even crept into the circle of Civil War historians… and, let’s be clear… that’s fine, but…
Historians have every right to be passionate and zealous for a “cause”; they can even be activists. It’s just that when that cause intersects with their professional historical era of interests, I find it a little troubling. For one, depending on the advocacy, I begin to question the ability of the same historians to really be objective when they return to the practice of writing and speaking about their historical era (obviously, in this case, I’m talking about the Civil War). More specifically, I find it troubling when, in the course of advocacy… for that common cause… the passionate and (overly?) zealous historians are much more accepting (yes… I’ve seen this in various places on the Web and in blogs) of those who rant and rave with poor history. I find it odd that they don’t keep the others in check. I’d say it might be a matter of one battle at a time, but then… there are also examples where I’ve seen selective dismissal of one ranting of poor history, but not another. I believe the “temporary lapses of forgiveness” of poor history displays compromised professionalism for zeal. I don’t think such compromise, even in the midst of passion for advocacy, is a good thing.
Furthermore, given a momentum that is strong enough… well, I’m more concerned.
If the momentum continues to trump professionalism, what else stands to be changed? Seriously… in this day and age, social momentum (perhaps being fed more by social media and the simple ability for everyone to have a “stump” from which to speak) appears, at times, to have a strong pull. In the extreme, could it even be that those who are practitioners of history get caught in the “crash” of the “wave”. I’ve even wondered, considering the force of the momentum over the Confederate flag, and seeing comments made by people who can truly be classified as haters of almost anything and everything Southern) if a historian who works, in professional endeavors, to correct the “collective” (mis)understanding of some aspect of the antebellum South, might be equally virtually “beaten down” by the social media “mob”. Don’t be too quick to scoff at the suggestion.
Advocacy can be for positive change, but let’s be careful not to become carried away by the wave that can too easily become a mob with pitchforks… in the wake of this recent horror, there are positive steps that can be made in our society, but take care… there is also a very real possibility of collateral damage attributable to zeal left unchecked.