Erin Bartram: Any ideas for how we want to frame this/limit it? So it doesn’t turn into a collective primal scream?
Chris Bouton: I don’t really have any ideas in terms of starting off, we can talk about the response or the protest itself.
David Mislin: I dunno. I’ve been at collective primal scream since Tuesday.
Erin: Is it worth talking about the difficulty of talking about it with white Americans?
I say this because yesterday I just had a moment of “F*ck it, I can’t just make the same arguments with the same evidence over and over for you.”
David: Yeah, though I guess I’d modify that slightly. There are plenty of white Americans it’s easy to talk about this with. The issue is (like everything else, it seems) no one is willing to reconsider their position.
Chris: Why don’t we use this as the jumping off point.
I’d add to David’s point and suggest that the unwillingness of people to reconsider their positions speaks to a greater truth about dealing with human beings in general. Rational argumentation and evidence won’t convince everyone because many people don’t understand the world that way.
David: I think you’re right, Chris, though I also think the current political polarization in the country has exacerbated the phenomenon.
Chris: And that’s frustrating for people like us, who are trained in critical thinking and believe in its value.
I’d agree on the polarization issue as well.
Erin: That the evidence-based arguments don’t work for the discussion around the Confederate monuments is, to me, what reveals the deeper issue. There’s no way to say German Jewish kids shouldn’t have to go to the Goebbelsgymnasium but black American children should have to go to Robert E. Lee Middle School that doesn’t come down to “one of those causes was bad and one of them wasn’t.”
Chris: The monuments speak to that “Deep Story” that I keep harping on–and for good reason, I think it has a lot of explanatory power. That also highlights the different ways in which the Germans and Americans confronted their pasts. The Germans remembered and made it a societal impetus to learn from it. Americans erased it and constructed a new narrative that absolved everyone of blame. The Lost Cause has had a long reach in American History, Last year, during the presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton referred to Reconstruction in terms of the North punishing the South.
David: That’s the critical point, I think. And to historians it’s not especially surprising, but I think most Americans would be stunned by how much the narrative about the Civil War changed in the span of two decades.
One of the things that strikes me as someone who writes about the late 19th century is that you see these people who literally change their tune in their life. You’ll read their autobiographies from c. 1900 and they’ll talk about how they always thought the Civil War was a mistake when in their letters from the 1860s they were cheering for it.
Erin: I think those switches are often baffling to people, to the point that they don’t believe them, or don’t believe they happen “naturally.” See also: changing views of Indian land ownership.
David: I’m still surprised by them myself.
Erin: Because people are so sure you could never “evolve” like that. They’re sure they never would.
Chris: I’m not really surprised. Guess I’m too cynical.
David: I should clarify. I’m not surprised that people evolve; I am a little surprised by these particular people evolving given their other commitments. But that speaks to Chris’s point about how potent the Lost Cause was.
I’ve been thinking of Charlottesville in terms of confronting the Lost Cause legacy, and that it’s taken over a century to begin the process of dislodging it from the public sphere.
David: Yeah. I guess what’s weird to me about all of this is that it doesn’t seem like most Americans have given a second thought to the Confederacy. People are attached to these monuments. Because history. But if you asked them, they’d have no affinity for the figures depicted or the Confederacy.
Erin: Yesterday I saw a clip of Chuck Todd having a revelatory moment about this, saying “Wait, how did I just think it was normal to have statues of traitors around.” You thought it was normal because it was normal. THAT’S WHY WE CALL IT NORMALIZATION, CHUCK.
Chris: Status quo bias?
David: Ah, yes. Chuck Todd’s moments. There have been a lot of those this week.
Erin: (We’d call them an “aha” moment in the classroom, which is where they should happen. You shouldn’t be having them live on air on your own show.)
David: (Sorry for that aside)
Chris: Asides are welcome. We spent an entire chat deconstructing David “Restrained Masculinity” Brooks.
I think part of the issue is that since most people don’t think too much about statues, they assume that they’re there for a good reason. After all, who puts up a statue to something bad? So you have to overcome that initial bias.
Erin: My town has one statue. It’s a temperance statue. Statuary mistakes were made.
But that’s a good point. It parallels the idea that people have that if something’s appeared in print, it must be real and valid, because clearly someone reviewed it.
Chris: Right, because our human brains are inherently lazy and they want things to make sense. And that answer is clearly the most satisfying one.
Erin: It’s makessense stop
Chris: I’ve been rereading Thinking Fast and Slow, so that’s also been in my head a lot. And I think the book’s insights are useful for dealing with stuff like this.
Erin: This sort of gets us to the question of how, as historians and (hopefully) decent people, we “start” conversations. Not conversations with Klan members, but conversations with white people who consider themselves well-meaning, but who hold the views of white supremacy but bristle at the thought of being called racist.
I think we as historians struggle because to us, it’s such a complex matrix, and there’s an avalanche of evidence, and it sometimes all comes tumbling out at once.
But can it be helpful just to get people to think about what “the Confederacy” was? For the first time?
Chris: We’re also dealing with different definitions of racism.
David: Perhaps it’s being avoidant of the deeper issue of race, but I think framing the initial discussion around the question of loyalty/betrayal to the nation is a good starting point, back to the earlier point about why we have statues to traitors.
Chris: As academics, we take a broader and more inclusive definition that not only includes racist acts, but institutional structures as well.
I’d agree with it about avoiding the deeper issue of race.
David: I’m hesitant to go there, because I feel like the statues are a symptom of a deeper problem that isn’t about them in particular. But perhaps it’s a way in to a deeper conversation. Get people thinking about Confederates as traitors, then get them thinking about why the Confederacy seceded.
Chris: That’s a good way to think about it. They’re the entry point into a deeper reckoning with the Lost Cause ideology that millions of Americans think of with pride.
Erin: That’s where people either own it or pull up short – the realization that defending Confederate “heroes” means that you don’t think what they did was wrong. I think that approach can work with some of the “it’s just history, I never really thought about it” crowd.
David: As I sit here, I’m actually thinking about how I’ve taught the Civil War, and realizing that I don’t make a big deal about secession itself. But that’s really the crux of it: I feel like we think about civil wars as wars over the future of a country. But the Civil War started with secession. Maybe that’s something that we should make more of? (and by we, maybe I just mean me?)
Erin: People say “they’re American veterans!” It’s instructive to remind them that these men died under the flag of another country. Put up all the monuments you want in the cemeteries of the Confederate States of America.
Chris: I don’t know how more times I’ll have to say it, but Lee committed treason. He was an officer in the US Army and resigned his commission to take up arms against the United States. That’s treason, pure and simple.
That’s an aside.
Erin: I mean, it’s not, because it leads to another common response that we have to grapple with: “Well, he was defending his state.”
Chris: Which is a pretty weak argument because there were plenty of Southern-born officers who fought for the Union.
David: Yeah, though I can see how that argument would resonate with certain people.
Chris: The defending his state is an argument about loyalty and we all like to think of ourselves as loyal.
David: But I also think that people can understand misguided loyalty.
Chris: And in the case of misguided loyalty, he can be forgiven for that.
“We’ve all made mistakes.”
Erin: And it furthers the “it was about states’ rights” argument.
David: I mean, if people need to think of Lee as a tragically misguided figure who was blindly loyal to his state with its abhorrent system of slavery, I could live with that.
It’s not ideal, but it’s also not deserving of a statue.
Chris: That last point is the most important one.
Erin: And it speaks to the same low bars for heroism we see today. No one should be applauding the CEOs of that dumb council.
Chris: Right, they did the bare minimum.
David: Yet they did more than the Evangelicals!
Chris: Yes, they did.
Erin: I mean, even in David’s scenario, Robert E. Lee was privately dismayed, furrowed his brow, and voted through the cabinet nominees anyway.
David: And tweeted his reservations!
Erin: And much like today’s GOP heroes, his dismay was false. He owned slaves, they own and benefit from the system they tut-tut.
And that’s a *charitable* reading of the Lee myth
Chris: He’s the Marco Rubio of the 1860s?
Or is he the Mitch McConnell?
And as David said, even under that favorable reading, he’s still not worthy of a statue.
Erin: Maybe he’s just the 1860s John Kelly.
David: I was going to say John McCain.
Chris: I was thinking about McCain, but McCain’s vote against the health care vote complicates that a little bit.
Erin: I still want to punch a hole in a wall rather than have another one of these conversations, which is not a great place to be in a week and a half before the semester starts.
David: If it’s any comfort, I’m on leave this fall and am sad I don’t get to have these conversations with students (the grass is always greener, I know)
Chris: I’d be happy if more people read the Confederate Constitution or the SC Ordinance of Secession
David: Does any of this change plans for teaching?
Erin: I mean, I’ve been struggling a lot with how to deal with the “history doesn’t really matter” crowd. As my roommate put it, those people are now saying “history doesn’t matter to me, and I don’t care that it matters to and affects you, my classmates.” I’m far more anxious about apathy than I am about having these conversations, and part of that is just because, as a white woman, I can have them with greater impunity. That’s where I think I, as a professor, need to spend my whiteness capital.
David: Yeah, I’ve seen some of that too. Not just “history doesn’t matter to me,” but “this person’s viewpoint doesn’t matter to me, and I don’t care that it matters to you, my classmates.”
I guess I’m feeling more motivated to push back at that with greater force than I have in the past
Chris: Concluding thoughts?
Erin: I think my thoughts are that as much as I don’t want to have these conversations and beat my head against the wall…I still do.
And even if I don’t want to, I have to. The moral imperative is too great.
David: Yeah, I think you’re right, Erin.
I’ve been thinking back to some students I had who were really dismissive when we read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, dismissive in a way that was quite racist, and I should have pushed harder against it. I think we all have an obligation to do that, even when we don’t want to. Because Charlottesville is what happens when we don’t.
Chris: And the pushback against Confederate monuments is growing, so this issue isn’t going away. Especially if 45 continues to tweet about it and make slippery slope arguments and false equivalencies.
Erin: He is worried about history being “erased,” so I guess we need to make sure history – and historical thinking – aren’t!
David: Yup. But if we’re still chatting about this next week, I’m having a drink before we start. (edited)
Erin: :cocktail emoji: