13 July 2013

Academia's Canting Ideologues Have Come Home To Roost - At Gettysburg

Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory did us a favor by drawing attention to a speech given by Doris Kearns Goodwin at Gettysburg on June 30 for Gettysburg's 150th. Kevin writes:
I watched a good deal of CSPAN’s coverage of the Gettysburg 150th, including Doris Kearns Goodwin’s keynote address earlier this evening. Needless to say, I was very disappointed.
Kevin tweeted the following about Goodwin's Gettysburg speech:
Doris Kearns Goodwin's #Gettysburg150 would be unidentifiable by every soldier who fought on that battlefield. #cw150 So disappointing.
So much for a war to preserve the Union. DKG sees Civil War as little more than precursor of civil rights movement. #Gettysburg150
The #NPS is going to have a very difficult time claiming that it is apolitical after Doris K. Goodwin's #Gettysburg150 speech. #cw150
Kevin and I don't often agree but, on this subject, we do - at least to a point. Kevin and I both agree: Goodwin laid a huge egg. Of course, Kevin wasn't the only one to take notice of Goodwin's politically charged and "inappropriate" speech. Breitbart news had this to say:
On Sunday, a stunned audience sat in silence as Doris Kearns Goodwin turned the keynote address at the opening ceremony for the 150th anniverary of the Battle of Gettysburg into a political lecture focusing on women's and gay rights.

Missing from much of her keynote: Gettysburg.

Self-centered, insular, and oblivious to the occasion, the historian who was infamously caught plagiarizing merely recycled much of what she has said before about herself in previous speeches. And her rambling, self-promoting, and borderline inappropriate lecture touched upon nearly everything except for the heroic sacrifices made on that battlefield.

In so doing, she desecrated the hallowed land on which she spoke, dishonored Gettysburg's honored dead, and disrespected the nearly 8,000 Americans in attendance who did not come to Gettysburg to hear about her life's story and a progressive history lecture.
But this really shouldn't come as a shock, should it? Goodwin's speech represents a certain perspective and agenda which is the ever-present undercurrent prevalent in academia and among many professional historians.

Goodwin did have the guts (along with extremely poor taste) to say at a very public forum what drives a whole lot of historical interpretation in the United States, particularly when it comes to the Civil War. Breitbart's characterization of Goodwin as "self-centered" is also a common characteristic of the modern, i.e.: "They are the ones we've all been waiting for."

But Goodwin's morality play and politicized speech upon the blood-soaked, hallowed ground of Gettysburg is really nothing new. It was just magnified because of the venue. The modern guru of Civil War history and the mentor to many CW historians, including *Kevin Levin, is Civil War historian David Blight. Goodwin and Blight could be viewed as ideological soul-mates when it comes to the interpretation, analysis, and perspective of Civil War history. As I noted in the comments section of Kevin's post, Goodwin's remarks are cut from the same cloth in which Blight weaves his CW "analysis." Take for example a piece he wrote for the Kansas City Star's "commemoration" section of their online paper. Like the Gettysburg event on Sunday, the Star's column is, according to their own description, meant to commemorate - not lecture the audience on progressive politics and turn the WBTS into an opportunity to advance and defend the progressive agenda. This was the Star's description of what Blight should have been doing:
Commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War & the Missouri-Kansas border region's unique place in the bloody four-year conflict.
Is that difficult to understand? Commemorate? The Oxford dictionary offers the following definition of "commemorate":
. . . recall and show respect for (someone or something) in a ceremony:a wreath-laying ceremony to commemorate the war dead, serve as a memorial to:a stone commemorating a boy who died at sea, celebrate (an event, a person, or a situation) by doing or building something:it was a night commemorated in a song
But Blight, like Goodwin, used the platform to lecture the rest of us on a "superior" ideology:
The conservative movement in America, or at least its most radical wing, seems determined to repeal much of the 20th century and even its constitutional and social roots from the transformative 1860s. The Civil War is not only not over, it can still be lost.
That is not commemoration. That is criticism of a political ideology. There is a place for that - but that place is not in a venue meant to commemorate.

The C-Span video link to Goodwin's remarks note that her speech was also to be part of a "commemorative ceremony." And Gettysburg National Military Park Superintendent Bob Kirby described the intent of the ceremony featuring Goodwin's keynote this way:
This commemorative event is meant to appeal to the widest possible audience in a way that honors what happened here.
Well Mr. Kirby, I believe the consensus is that Ms. Goodwin's speech kinda screwed that up. Y'all might want to review speeches in advance from now on, or perhaps you did? This was an embarrassment for the NPS, yet the silence from the NPS and the Gettysburg Foundation is deafening. Can those attending these types of events in the future expect more of the same? Will equal time be given to conservatives to promote their agenda, as Goodwin did? Hello . . . ??

Of course, there may be some brave academic historian willing to challenge this post. But I doubt it. They used to come here often to do so. That's become much more difficult to do and retain any credibility these days. Even their own studies have revealed what Eugene Gevonese pointed out years ago:
. . . in these dreariest of days in Academia . . . American history has largely become a plaything for canting ideologues . . . our times call for a correct ideological line, which at its increasingly popular extreme regards the Old South as a rehearsal for Nazi Germany and calls for the eradication of all traces of the conservative voices that have loomed so large in southern history . . . [There is a] step-by-step domination of departments of history in our southern as well as northern universities by those who regard what Richard Weaver aptly called the Southern Tradition and all its works as an evil past to be exorcised by all means, fair and foul. ~ Eugene D. Genovese (The Southern Front - History and Politics in the Cultural War, page 25.)
But canting comes at a price. Consider a recent (January 2013) study and report by the National Association of Scholars titled, “Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?” As one writer at Real Clear Politics noted:
. . . as the NAS report documents, history departments promote a drastically incomplete and distorted vision of America by concentrating on the teaching of race, class, and gender at the expense of nearly everything else.
This ideology and perspective is what I believe motivated Goodwin's speech at Gettysburg; as well as Blight's comments in the Kansas City Star. 

The RCP writer further noted:
The NAS report concludes with a list of moderate and common-sensical recommendations designed to depoliticize the study of history.
I've pointed this out before many, many times. And, as previously noted, more than one academic Civil War historian has come to this blog to ostensibly take me to task for suggesting the study of history in many (if not most), colleges and universities is highly politicized (and in one direction) and that the politicization is present in the classroom. Forgive me if I'm wrong but if, as the NAS report suggests, schools need to "depoliticize the study of history", then it stands to reason it is currently politicized, correct?

Specifically, the NAS report makes this observation and recommendation:
The root of the problem is that colleges and universities have drifted from their main mission. They and particular programs within them, increasingly think of themselves as responsible for reforming American society and curing it of prejudice and bigotry. When universities and university programs consider it necessary to atone for, and help erase, oppressions of the past; one way in which they do so is by depicting history as primarily a struggle of the downtrodden against rooted injustice. This pedagogical conception may be well-intended, but it is also a limited and partisan one, and history teaching should not allow itself to become imprisoned within a narrow interpretation. A depoliticized history would provide a comprehensive interpretation of American history that does not shortchange students by denying them exposure to intellectual, political, religious, diplomatic, military, and economic historical themes.
. . . Historians and professors of United States history should return to their primary task: handing down the American story, as a whole, to future generations.
This issue has become such a problem that even popular historian David McCullough has spoken publicly about it. In a 2011 Wall Street Journal interview, McCullough echoes speaks of many of the same issues that the NAS study pointed out:
"History is often taught in categories—women's history, African American history, environmental history—so that many of the students have no sense of chronology. They have no idea what followed what."
What's more, many textbooks have become "so politically correct as to be comic. Very minor characters that are currently fashionable are given considerable space, whereas people of major consequence farther back"—such as, say, Thomas Edison—"are given very little space or none at all."
The bottom line is that we can probably expect more of the type of unfortunate event that was Goodwin's speech at Gettysburg. I emailed NPS park officials on July 2nd about this asking them if there would be any response and if Goodwin's speech was reviewed prior to her giving it. Thus far, no one has responded. Kevin Levin said in one of his tweets that, "The NPS is going to have a very difficult time claiming that it is apolitical after Doris K. Goodwin's Gettysburg150 speech." Indeed. But perhaps they won't don't make that claim.

While Goodwin's speech was certainly over the top, the same underlying progressive agenda-driven analysis is pervasive in modern historiography in America. She was just much more open and bold about it. Everyone seems to be willing to admit this now, except those who are complicit. What we often see is more subdued, but still quite obvious to those of us paying attention. 

But the canting ideologues of academia have come home to roost and I suspect the cocks and hens will continue to crow and cluck. I also suspect the egg laid at Gettysburg won't be the last one.

*Kevin thinks I'm obsessed with Blight. Search "Blight" on my blog and search "Blight" on his and see who's obsessed. And I've been blogging longer than Kevin Levin. 

Note to readers: I'm working on two reviews that I'll post soon. The first will be on Ron Maxwell's latest film, Copperhead, which my wife and I watched on demand last week. Also, Kent Masterson Brown's office contacted me a few weeks ago and asked me to review his latest documentary, The Southern Cross ~ The Story of the Confederacy's First Battle Flag. I've received the DVD, but haven't had a chance to watch it yet. I hope to do so this weekend and write a review within a few days. 

I'll also be posting some comments about Thomas Flemings's latest book, A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War. And, I've got some thoughts and comments about the recent dust up between academics and reenactors. There's some misinformation and silliness being bandied about by both sides of that debate.

2 comments:

E.J. D'Agrosa said...

A very well written article. I look forward to the reviews as well, especially on "Copperhead" as that I've been wanting to see that myself.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks E.J. - nothing original. Just observation and something many others have also written about.