Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2018, April 4: Two camps of Reconstruction Historians

This 15-minute video of Kevin Levin at the Georgia Historical Society is a good introduction to the main issue of this post. He talks about how important it is not only to pay attention to primary source material but also knowing how to use it. He uses an example contemporary photos showing black men wearing Confederate uniforms being widely circulated via social media but misinterpreted as black Confederate soldiers, out of some combination of carelessness, lack of knowledge of the relevant context, and the desire to create neo-Confederate propaganda. (He uses the word "propaganda," but I know from his blog and online discussions that he generally tries to avoid "neo-Confederate," essentially because he thinks it's too vague a term to be adequately descriptive.)

He talks here about how he tries to get students to use primary sources online and to understand that "history is a constantly evolving discussion" rather than a fixed body of knowledge and conclusions.

Of course, pseudoscientists and pseudohistorians and con men (is there a gender-neutral for that now, like "con-sters"?) will make similar claims about how "scientists are still disputing the existence of X" simply to create doubt or flat-out dismissal of claims that are scientifically/scholarly sound. See: Climate change, denial of. That's not what Kevin does in his work. He's focusing attention on the fact that empirical evidence like the "Black Confederate" photos have to be understood in realistic context, and on how working out the meaning of facts and the broader interpretation of historical processes takes place through written and spoken dialogue in which people discuss how different perspectives and expertise shed a particular light on them.

The notion of "objectivity" is a good one if its understood in a reasonably limited sense. But what media critic Jay Rosen calls "the voice from nowhere" in news reporting is not what objectivity means. Objectivity involves an openness to consider facts that might challenge the prior assumption of the observer in some way. It doesn't mean that the claim of someone saying the mercury is the cure for all ills should be given the same weight as the entire medical profession saying it's not. In other words, journalists and scholars and even "amateur" researchers who expect to be taken seriously have to judge the importance of topics and evidence and remember that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

So, everyone has a perspective. Which is not the same as bias. Guarding against the latter is one reason peer-reviewed science publications require disclosure of financial ties of the author that might create an incentive to favor a particular view of available evidence. And perspective can include political or philosophical views, but perspective also relates to expertise. To return to Kevin's example, someone who knows about various kinds of related primary material has a perspective when they look at at Black Confederate photo that others may not have.

Forrest Nabors in From Oligarchy to Republicanism (2017) talks about perspectives when he reviews the treatment of slavery by what he conventionally describes as the Dunning School, revisionists, and postrevisionists. The Dunning School is a body of historical work associated with the approach of the historian William Dunning (1857–1922), who presented slavery in a relatively benign light and treated Reconstruction in ways very favorable to the segregationist approach with which neo-Confederate ideology is so closely associated. The revisionist school was a historical trend that maintained a kind of underground existence all along, particularly among African-American historians, but rose to predominance in the 1960s and 1970s. John Hope Franklin and Kenneth Stampp are two of the better-known revisionist scholars. Nabors uses Eric Foner as a representative of postrevisionism.

He summarizes the difference among the three schools this way. referring to Foner's classifications:
The Dunning School deplored the Reconstruction Congress for imposing black citizenship on beleaguered Southern whites. The revisionists of the second phase vindicated the Reconstruction Congress for attempting to affirm the citizenship of black Americans and lauded the efforts of the emancipated to live as free citizens. The postrevisionists of the third phase deplored the Reconstruction Congress for not doing enough to defend or advance black citizenship. ...

Another way to reframe the same body of literature, a way that more explicitly recognizes the organizing principles of the respective groupings, is to dispense with time altogether and to divide all of the scholars into one of the two camps into which they consciously settled: an equalitarian camp for black citizenship and a white-supremacist camp against black citizenship. The difference between the so-called revisionists and postrevisionists is really between equalitarians and uncompromising equalitarians, reflecting the difference between more and less demanding standards by which they judge prior conduct. [my emphasis]
"Equalitarian" is a less used term for the more familiar "egalitarian." But so far as I'm aware, "equalitarian" doesn't have any particularly distinct meaning or common usage.

If that sounds like Nabors is viewing all three as similar forms of inadequate perspective, his further argument reflects that, as well:
Scholars in both camps ["equalitarians" and white-supremacists] have always recognized that their work necessarily drew them into their contemporaneous battles over civil rights, because their work has had real political consequences in assisting respective movements for and against equal citizenship. The lines between scholarship and political activism have always been blurred, down to the present day. ...

Because scholarship has played a role in the battles for civil rights, it has been difficult to maintain philosophical distance. This has occurred despite the urging of Howard K. Beale to maintain that distance in his 1940 essay, “On Rewriting Reconstruction History,” which began, “For many years both Northerners and Southerners who wrote on Reconstruction were dominated by sectional feelings still embittered by the Civil War.” As a result, Beale noted, our “understanding of the bewildering complexity of conflicting interests and social phenomena of the day has been lost in the midst of historians’ proud or unconscious partisanship.” [my emphasis]
Nabors offers his republicanism/oligarchy frame as a more scholarly and less politically influenced than, well, basically all previous civil war scholarship. It's not unusual for scholars to make overly sharp claims for their own innovative approach.

But he also uses a kind of both-sides-do-it comparison to illustrate the differences between the two camps he designates:
Adherents on both sides adopted clear and sometimes strident moral positions on the question, and both often condemned Reconstruction Republicans, either for supporting black citizenship or for not supporting black citizenship. A Dunningite lamented that “savage political leaders” like Senator Charles Sumner (“whose chief regret had been that his skin was not black”) gave the ballot to “three millions of former slaves, some of whom could still remember the taste of human flesh and the bulk of them hardly three generations removed from cannibalism.” Scholars on the other side of the issue blamed Republicans for allowing “counter-revolution in the South after Reconstruction,” which “was as dramatic as it was ugly,” ending in “constitutional disfranchisement, state-sponsored segregation, widespread spectacle lynching and black rural poverty.” And the scholars attacked each other’s positions on the central question that divided them. A contemporary Dunningite praised the “excellent scholarship” of Claude Bowers, averred that “Dunning and his disciples provided accurate descriptions of ex-slaves,” and attacked the “Marxist revisionists” for being outraged by those descriptions. A critic of the Dunning School imputes to them the view that “blacks were inferior beings ... little better than beasts.”

For more than one hundred years, Reconstruction scholarship has been shaped by moral warfare of this kind. [my emphasis]
So, we have Both Sides. One Side refers to black citizens as “three millions of former slaves, some of whom could still remember the taste of human flesh and the bulk of them hardly three generations removed from cannibalism.” To say that it's a sleazy, false, and racist claim would be to confer it more legitimacy than it deserves. (One of the books by prominent antebellum slavery defender George Fitzhugh was entitled Cannibals All! or, Slaves Without Masters (1857). It also worth noting that the historian he cites complaining about "Marxist revisionists" is Thomas DiLorenzo, one of the more notorious neo-Confederate historians, of the extreme conservative Ludwig von Mises Institute. Links to various of his articles can be found at the neo-Confederate, paleo-conservative, including "The Real Lincoln" and NY Leninist Times." Sourcewatch features a profile of him. In the cited article from a Mises Instiute publication, DiLorenzo refers to the Civil War as the "War for Southern Independence," a polemical phrase of neo-Confederates. (The Consolidation of State Power via Reconstruction, 1865–1890Journal of Libertarian Studies 16:2; 2002)

Then there's the Other Side, the "equalitarians." Nabors quotes one of them as describing the anti-Reconstruction "Redemption" movement as bringing "constitutional disfranchisement, state-sponsored segregation, widespread spectacle lynching and black rural poverty.” All of which is empirically accurate and extremely well documented. And all accomplishments of which the Redeemers were extremely proud. And on purely empirical grounds, the Dunning School's description of the realities of American slavery has been challenged in important ways, notably by Kenneth Stampp's The Peculaiar Institution (1956), to mention just one important example.

So, One Side repeats sleazebag white racist propaganda. The Other Side recounts the story of a verifiable past.

Both Sides Do It!

This suggests that Nabors' republicanism/oligarchy theme deserves close scrutiny for possible anachronistic ideological implications, i.e., current political perspectives read back into the antebellum/Civil War/Reconstruction period.

No comments: