A few days ago in the Inquirer, a man billed as the "director of public history" at Ohio State University authored a piece about the 'true' roots of the Civil War. Aside from the fact that the title "director of public history" reminds me somewhat of the "Minister of Public Information" that they would regularly have in communist regimes (I mean, who "directs history?"), Professor Conn provided a decidedly skewed version of the facts. In his personal but hardly definitive view, the War Between the States was caused by rabid, racist southerners desperate to maintain slavery as their lucrative status quo. He makes the following observation about the evil Confederacy:
In the years after the war, the interpretations of Southerners and their sympathizers dominated our understanding. They couldn't turn the military defeat into a victory, so they recast the meaning of the war, turning their struggle for slavery into a principled defense of "states' rights" and a noble "lost cause." Make no mistake: The Civil War was fought over the question of slavery.
That would be news to 48% of the public which, according to a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research organization, thought that the leading cause of the war was state's rights (only 38% thought that it was about slavery, and 9% thought that it was an equal combination of both.)
But hey, this guy's an academic. What do the unwashed masses that answer those polls know, right?
I had actually forgotten about op-ed until I read today's Inquirer letters page, where two well-informed gentleman (one of whom is also a history professor) debunked the myth that the only true cause of the war was to maintain what Professor Conn calls the Conferacy's "particular system of racial apartheid."
George Tomezsko makes the strong point that "to define that conflict as a struggle over slavery is an oversimplification filtered through the mental lens of an ideology from a bygone era." He's absolutely correct. Just as the movie "Birth of a Nation" wrongly depicted the Ku Klux Klan as a group of noble freedom fighters, the knee-jerk tendency we have to see all things only and always through a racial lens is equally dishonest if it causes us to rewrite history.
And that's exactly the point Larry Steiger makes, pointing out other instances where the "director of public history" has made similar stretches in logic and noting that "a professor of history who sees history only as a means to disparage others has learned nothing from it."
Sometimes, the true wisdom comes from the letter writers, not the so-called "experts."
Bravo to both men for keeping us honest.
Perhaps they should have been engaged as technical advisers for the new film "The Conspirator," the new Robert Redford film that some critics have interpreted to be a metaphor for what's happening with the Guantanamo detainees after 9/11. As in, the Union government rigged the trial against an alleged co-conspirator of John Wilkes Booth, just as they're shredding the Constitution when it comes to Gitmo.
I'm sure Professor Conn will be a big fan.