Sunday, July 25, 2010

An Academic's Duty

Posted by Chris at 1/19/2008 9:21 AM...

Earlier this week, Brooks Simpson asked what responsibilities historians had to expose/correct politician's misuse of history for political purposes. The specific case is that of the Ron Paul segment, in which the Presidential candidate railed against Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War as a remedy for slavery, but it applies to any deliberate mangling of history to push a political viewpoint.

In Brooks' case, someone with malicious motives claimed that he must agree with Paul since he didn't make any negative comments, but just posted the video. I, and most other reasonable people, understood that Brooks posted the Ron Paul video to illustrate how twisted a view of the Civil War it represented. Other commentators lambasted Paul in long and thoughtful essays, while I simply provided links to two of the best works countering Paul's misrepresentation of history.

So, what duty do academics have to challenge public figures that deliberately manipulate the past in ways damaging to the public good? The commentary at Civil Warriors ran from simply highlighting to ridiculous nature of their assertions to insisting that misinformation be challenged at every turn so that it doesn't get repeated and adopted as fact. The idea being that this will prevent such nonsense from gaining traction and acceptance as an acceptable view in our national dialogue.

Brooks concludes that while it is obvious that academics should respond to false information, exaggerations, and deliberate misinterpretations of the past, it is best to do so in a thoughtful manner, not a knee-jerk or ham-handed manner. If others respond to the challenge, not all of us need to leap on the dog pile. More importantly, academics need to respond in their own way to efforts to reinvent the past for political purposes. Brooks observes that he'll need to post a pithy response along with his links in the future, if only to prevent the malicious and ignorant from attacking him for posting something without commenting on it. For me, pointing out detailed scholarly works that show that slavery was embedded in the national discourse, and the source of sectional discord in the first half of the 19th century.

The nullification crisis and its aftermath clearly show that Southern ideologues closed ranks on the issue of slavery, and became more and more unwilling to even discuss it as a negative aspect of life after 1833. Contrary to what Ron Paul and like figures would like to believe, Abraham Lincoln did not start the war, South Carolinian secessionists did that. Lincoln, despite all efforts of Southern ideologues to argue the contrary, was not going to force the South to give up its slaves, but wanted to limit slavery to the South as a first step toward abolition. He specifically stated on multiple occasions that slavery could not simply be abolished over night without dire consequences. I recommend William Lee Miller's Lincoln's Virtues for more on the 16th President. Also see these posts from A. Lincoln blog (hat tip to Brooks for the links).

Brooks sees a campaign against Lincoln's memory as part of a larger strategy to misuse history, and that a better strategy is needed than simply responding in Pavolvian fashion. I fear, though, that in the age of the sound bites, both instant and reasoned responses are necessary. Delay allows the news cycle to continue unabated without contest, and increases the likelihood that large numbers of people might be exposed to falsehoods and manipulations without a counter-argument. The downside is that instant responses play into the modern media's tendency to portray public debate as two equally valid arguments, possibly leading credence to those who want to misuse history.

Obviously, there is not a good solution, unless our media figures actually become educated themselves, and more aggressively question politicians' assertions in historical and other matters. In these days of corporate media, I somehow doubt this will happen. That means that academics and other educated people have to take it on themselves to write letters to editors, publish op-ed pieces, and to contact local and national television news organizations to counter the lies and propaganda they blithely pass on to the public.

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