American History · News Media · Politics · Racism

Where Have the Historians Gone?

One of the long-term consequences of Dylann Roof’s brutal attack in Charleston, SC back 2015 has been a reevaluation of the place of Confederate monuments and memorials in the Southern states. In the weeks following Roof’s attack, attention focused on Confederate flags still flying at Southern state capitols. The Southern Poverty Law Center began taking an inventory of public symbols honoring the Confederacy and found that there are 1,503 commemorative symbols of the would-be slaveholders’ republic and its heroes. These symbols include statues, monuments, and memorials dedicated to Confederate soldiers, as well as public streets, schools, and facilities named after famous Confederate leaders.[1]

Other civil rights groups have actively protested the continued prominence of many of these statues and memorials, claiming that they celebrate the Confederacy and normalize racism. Most recently, several statues in New Orleans commemorating Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and P. G. T. Beauregard, and Confederate president Jefferson Davis have been dismantled and put in storage. Unsurprisingly, this move by the New Orleans city council has prompted a stormy backlash from the statues’ defenders. They say that the monuments have historical value, and removing them is something akin to cultural warfare against Southern history. The result has been a veritable barrage of online news articles and blog posts expressing a wide range of opinions about the matter.

All of the opinions make some claim or another about our nation’s history, and how it should affect us today. Should we let bygones be bygones and leave the old statues alone? My own hometown has a Confederate memorial prominently displayed outside the courthouse, but no one pays any attention to it; starting a debate over removing it would probably bring much more attention to it and to the values that it projects than simply ignoring it. Or should we deny these monuments a place in the public square? Public property should not be used to protect messages of rebellion and racism; the monuments are more suitable for a museum that can properly contextualize Americans’ evolving memory of the Civil War and its meaning.

Both camps make good points, but hardly any of the commentators receiving airtime are historians. Who better to weigh in on the historical circumstances surrounding the construction of the monuments than historians? And who better to help the American people understand the postwar reconciliation between North and South than historians? Some historians actually specialize in this subject, yet their voices are hardly heard. There are a few notable exceptions. For example, Slate talked at length to David Blight (prominent historian of Civil War memory and sectional reconciliation).[2] A historian of the civil rights movement, Sharlene Sinegal DeCuir, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times.[3] The Washington Post included some brief quotations from historians in a lengthy article covering the removal controversy.[4] But the loudest voices appear to have no historical training, and no recognition of the fact that there are thousands of historians qualified to teach the American public about these monuments’ place in our nation’s history.[5] Why not talk to them?

The ugly truth is that journalists and commentators on both sides are not interested in history despite their claims to the contrary. Keeping statues of Lee and Davis do not add to Americans’ appreciation of history, nor can removing them change the ugly history of the Civil War and Reconstruction in the South. What the debate over the monuments can do is pit conservators of the past against the soldiers of progress in a futile cycle of empty argumentation. Both sides subjugate the study of the past to the political present, and the historical profession by and large allows them to do so with impunity.

There are two reasons for historians’ collective abdication of their responsibility to engage the public on issues relating to history, and both of them arise from a disturbing lack of civic virtue in our society.

  1. There is little public interest in the perspective of the historian. Anti-intellectualism is rampant, and politicians consistently tell their prospective voters that the issues are clear-cut, and that solutions would be simple if only their party had more power. This environment leaves no room for some scholar to descend from an ivory tower and tell Americans that our problems and our past are more complicated than they appear.
  2. There is no incentive (in fact there is a strong disincentive) for historians to engage the public on matters of national interest. Their university departments typically do not reward them for publications aimed at the general population, and any potential controversy arising from such publication could jeopardize their careers.

Those who are well-versed on a particular subject have a civic responsibility to participate in public conversations about that subject. Historians, like all scholars, serve a civic purpose in this country by being repositories of knowledge. They pass that knowledge to younger generations through teaching, they advance that knowledge by conducting detailed research, and they use that knowledge to inform the public about matters of national concern. The final leg of this three-legged stool is sorely absent from our country, at least when it comes to the humanities. Why?

Because scholars have been chased out of the public square by a citizenry utterly devoid of civic virtue. A committee somewhere decided that elementary education no longer needed to include “civics,” and we have reaped our societal reward: rampant anti-intellectualism. Those ignorant of a topic either refuse to acknowledge their ignorance or go so far as to relish in it. Scholars who dare to chime in are often drowned in a sea of scathing social media comments that, democratically speaking, are just as valuable as a statement informed by a decade of graduate education. No wonder the historians have run away.

 

P.S. I’ve tried to keep my own thoughts about the Confederate monuments to myself. If, however, a reader is interested in what I think, follow me on Twitter and ask me to write about it. @agresvhistorian

[1] The SPLC report can be found at https://www.splcenter.org/20160421/whose-heritage-public-symbols-confederacy

[2] See Dr. Blight’s interview at http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/interrogation/2017/05/should_new_orleans_remove_its_civil_war_monuments_historian_david_blight.html

[3] See Dr. DeCuir’s op-ed at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/28/opinion/good-riddance-to-confederate-monuments.html

[4] See the article at https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/new-orleans-begins-removing-monument-to-confederate-gen-robert-e-lee/2017/05/19/c4ed94f6-364d-11e7-99b0-dd6e94e786e5_story.html?utm_term=.be999fd1d07c

[5] Some prominent articles include a rebuke against removal by The Federalist at http://thefederalist.com/2017/04/25/new-orleans-wrong-remove-confederate-monuments/; a presentist reevaluation of Robert E. Lee by The Atlantic at https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/06/the-myth-of-the-kindly-general-lee/529038/; and a scathing response from National Review at http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/448276/was-robert-e-lee-hero-or-villain