Sunday, December 14, 2014

Kevin Levin enabling neo-Confederates and his uncritical thinking of history and his elitism. UPDATED. UPDATE 2

I was recently going through my copy of The Journal of the Civil War Era, Vol. 4 No. 4, Dec. 2014 and I came across Kevin M. Levin, "Black Confederates Out of the Attic and Into the Mainstream," pages 627-635.

The article isn't entirely bad. Levin points out that the myth of the Black Confederates is pushed to sanitize the Confederacy. He talks about some the specific myths advanced by neo-Confederates such as the claim that there is a Black Confederate soldier on the Arlington Confederate Monument and disposes of them. However, in general the article really fails and a person has to wonder what the editors of The Journal of the Civil War Era were thinking.

There are three problems with the essay. The first is his enabling of the neo-Confederate movement. The second is his lack of critical thinking regarding history. The third is a failing to connect it to either the use of token African Americans by neo-Confederates and the neo-Confederates use of identity.

Levin refers to "Southern Heritage" groups as being the advocates of the myth of Black Confederates. On page 630 Levin states, "None of the print sources published during this period had much of an impact beyond a small select group of readers within the southern heritage community."

The neo-Confederate movement uses the term "Southern heritage" to assert that being critical of the Confederacy is to be critical of the South and to conflate the two. Levin uses the neo-Confederate movement's own terminology reinforcing the neo-Confederate assertion that Southern identity doesn't exist without embracing the Confederacy as a positive thing and that the Confederacy is central to Southern identity. The term "heritage" though technically means what is inherited from the historical past has in general use come to mean what is positive from the historical past. This is enabling white supremacy.

The magazine Oxford American and the journal Southern Cultures could be called southern heritage publications, but the UDC and the SCV are about the Confederacy and not about Southern history in general excepting as it relates to the Confederacy and Reconstruction.

On page 631 Levin states, "Southern heritage groups such as the SCV and UDC have utilized these stories to counter a narrative of the war that increasingly has come to embrace emancipation and the role of United States Colored Troops in ending slavery."

It would have been illuminating if Levin pointed out the irony of these two groups promoting the myth of the Black Confederate while at the same time promoting a white supremacist view of history. However, Levin, like many Civil War historians and enthusiasts, wishes all the controversy would just go away and they could get back to the toy soldier gaming of the Civil War. (Maybe a special issue devoted to it.) Levin has stated that he doesn't like the word "neo-Confederate." He likely fears that it will lead to loud voices at Civil War Round Tables and disquieting questions about some of the members of the Civil War history profession.

However, the essay really fails in Levin's understanding of historiography. It is something that someone might believe in when they were in middle school. It doesn't have any comprehension of the problematic nature of historical narratives.

Levin thinking in the essay goes like this:

1. Historians with their training and expertise and knowledge have in their possession true history.

2. Unfortunately with the Internet, those without this training and expertise and are wrong headed are making false historical assertions.

3. This problem would be solved by informing people to only listen to properly credentialed historical experts and authoritative institutions.

On page 627 in the beginning Levin asserts:
"The success of the black Confederate phenomena can be traced directly to the expansion of the Internet, including access to rich databases of primary sources and the availability of digital tools such as blogs, wikis, and other platforms that allow practically anyone to publish a Web site and engage and influence a wide readership. This has led to a sharp increase in the amount of history published online by individuals and organizations with little or no formal training in the field."
However, the Internet is not needed at all to propagate blatantly false history. The Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War and Reconstruction flourished in the early 20th century long before the Internet or even before radio transmissions. Holocaust denial was widely known about, much to popular disgust, before the Internet. About half the American public doesn't believe in the geological history of the earth and evolution and this refusal to accept science is previous to the advent of the Internet. Similarly the notorious "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and Anglo-Israelite identity theories both had wide circulation prior to the invention of the Internet.

The Black Confederate narrative served the interests of neo-Confederates and a broad section of the white South which embraces the Lost Cause historical narrative and so it had an audience of those who wanted to believe. The Internet merely served to make more efficient the communication of this narrative to those who very much wanted to believe it, who are grasping for straws to justify the Lost Cause.

Levin portrays the general public which uses the Internet as naive and uncritical consumers of information on the Internet. He states on pages 632-633:
"Rather than assuming the static position of dispensing historical knowledge ex cathedra, public historians, along with academics and other history educators from junior high school through college, need to focus their efforts on teaching the kinds of digital literacy skills that will assist students and the public generally in their quest for reliable information." 
The public already knows that the Internet is full of misinformation. There is a website devoted to it and people refer to it. Misinformation on the Internet is a topic on the Internet. Levin is avoiding the issue that the Black Confederate narrative is something some people want to believe against all odds, and attempts to position it as an issue of the gullible public who unfortunately are not guided by the expert history establishment, the League of Distinguished Civil War Historians of which he is so fond of thinking that he is a member. (Didn't Coski tell him that he was a member?)

Levin continues on page 633 stating what questions an Internet user might ask to to avoid ending up in believing in Black Confederates, he states:
"Is the site associated with reputable institution like a museum, historical society, or university? Can you identify the individual or organization responsible for the site, and are in the proper credentials displayed? Is the information provided on the Web site, including text and images, properly cited? What can you discern from the site's incoming and outgoing links?"
This is fairly direct. Believe what the establishment tells you about history and be very skeptical of all others.

However, academics and institutions have their agendas and problems. If the Internet existed in the first half of the 20th century distinguished professors like William Archibald Dunning of Columbia University would  have had the reputable Internet site explaining that Reconstruction was a terrible period of "negro misrule." Dunning could probably provide footnotes.

I wonder what the reputable institutions of history in Turkey have to say about the Armenian holocaust? I am sure they have footnotes.

With all the problems with public school texts and the teach of American history in public schools should junior high and high school history teachers be employed to refute historical mythologies outside their teaching. I suggest they start first with their own text books.

Historical memory and knowledge is contested. Histories are written to serve agendas. People believe what they want to believe. That fact that history itself is problematic has been realized for some time.

Napoleon Bonaparte quipped, "History is a set of lies agreed upon," shows that even in his time, people had an idea that established history was questionable and might just be a narrative serving an agenda.

"Treason doth never prosper. What's the reason?  Why if it prospers none dare call it treason," states an epigram by John Harrington in the 16th or early 17th century. The epigram is a commentary on the contested nature of historical memory.

The historical narrative of Black Confederates is another example of many examples of contested historical memory and how different groups advance histories to serve their own agendas including the respectable establishment historians. There is a whole field of inquiry regarding historical memory.

Additionally, Michel Foucault has written "The Archaeology of Knowledge," examining how knowledge is produced.  How is historical knowledge produced and consumed?

Thomas Carlyle stated, " Every new opinion, at its starting, is precisely in a minority of one." Perhaps the website lacking institutional credentials might be a website to read.

The issue of Black Confederate historical narratives is about contested historical memory, how beliefs are accepted or rejected, and how we construct our world views.

What would be useful for the non-professional historian is training how to critically interrogate all history whether it is on the Internet or published by Harvard University or some other distinguished body. All of history is contested. All sources might be subject to skepticism.

Levin doesn't locate the invention of Black Confederates in their obvious contexts. The neo-Confederates have also proposed the idea of the Celtic Confederacy and the South being a Celtic nation. This proposed ethnic identity replaces the older Lost Cause idea of the South being an abode of Anglo-Saxon purity and the Lost Cause mythology of the Cavalier and Round Head.

There is also the issue of the invention of ethnic identities to avoid confronting the issues of race in the South.

I think also that Black Confederates is part of a larger agenda of neo-Confederates to use African Americans to justify neo-Confederate beliefs. The Sons of Confederate Veterans parades around African American H.K. Edgerton wearing a Confederate uniform and flying the Confederate flag in their defenses of the Confederacy.

An even larger context to locate this invention of Black Confederates would be to consider it in the context of the larger practice of using token African Americans to justify white racist beliefs.

Other topics in which Black Confederates might be compared to is the Melungeon mythologies which served largely for some people to escape believing in their African American ancestry. 

The article is a simplistic, cartoonish, idea that a gullible public is being led astray by persons lacking proper historical training and credentials. It is an article that would be written by an elitist unconscious of the larger issues or critical theory. 

That the editors of the journal accepted this article raises concerns about Civil War scholarship in general.


Recently published a parody of a writer in the New York Times who was upset with the Internet.

The Salon parody is online here:

The New York Time's article that Salon parodies is online here:

Information and discourse is being democratized which upsets by those who were previously privileged. When the privileged are dispossessed they usually scream in outrage.

Witness this blog posting by Brooks D. Simpson who is actually on the editorial board of Civil War Era.

As you will note his tirade doesn't actually address any specifics in my blog posting. It is just sputtering rage. When I saw the Salon parody I thought of Simpson's raging article and Kevin Levin's complaint about the Internet.

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