#FakeNews, Memes, and US History

September 5, 2017 § Leave a comment

Sometimes I think that memes are going to be the undoing of all of us.  They tend towards the stupid.  I have written of this before, here and here.  This weekend on Facebook, I came across this meme:

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And once more we have a stupid meme.  The quotation from Lincoln is out of context, and it would appear that Robert E. Lee never said this.  Let’s start with Lincoln.

The quotation here comes from a letter he wrote to the prominent New York City abolitionist Horace Greeley, on 22 August 1862.  Lincoln wrote to Greeley in response to the latter’s editorial in his influential New York Tribune, calling for the emancipation of the Confederacy’s slaves immediately. Here is the full text of that letter:

Executive Mansion,
Washington, August 22, 1862.

Hon. Horace Greeley:
Dear Sir.

I have just read yours of the 19th. addressed to myself through the New-York Tribune. If there be in it any statements, or assumptions of fact, which I may know to be erroneous, I do not, now and here, controvert them. If there be in it any inferences which I may believe to be falsely drawn, I do not now and here, argue against them. If there be perceptable in it an impatient and dictatorial tone, I waive it in deference to an old friend, whose heart I have always supposed to be right.

As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing” as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.

Yours,
A. Lincoln.

In other words, for Lincoln, his primary duty was to uphold the Union.  And, as any American historian will tell you, every action he took during his presidency was directed at exactly that goal.  Slavery was not an issue for the Union, it was not why it went to war.  That, of course, changed on 1 January 1863 when Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation came into effect.

As for Robert E. Lee, there is no evidence whatsoever he said this.  It is most likely that this fake quote is a mangling of something he did say or write, but I even have my doubts about that.

Lee, of course, was the the Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia for the Confederate States of America, a failed statelet that existed from 1861-65.  During its short lifespan, the CSA did not gain the official recognition of any other state.  And it ended with the massive defeat of the Confederacy’s army.  At any rate, Lee fought to preserve slavery.  Full stop.

Slavery was the primary reason for the secession for each and every of the Confederate states.  It was also the primary reason for the existence of the Confederacy.  Not states’ rights. Not taxation.  Slavery.  And this was what Robert E. Lee fought to preserve.

So even IF this line from Lincoln could be extrapolated to mean something, and even IF Robert E. Lee said what this meme claims, it is irrelevant.  One man ultimately ended slavery, the other fought to preserve it.

But, the meme is not correct.  It is FAKE NEWS.

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History & Memory and Abraham Lincoln

March 27, 2017 § 12 Comments

Lincoln’s birthday came and went in February, largely ignored in Tennessee and other Southern states.  In the wake of his birthday, this image came floating through my Twitter feed.  This is an interesting take on the question of history and memory of the Civil War.  It fascinates me on both levels.

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Factually, there is not much in this that is true.  And the interpretation presented in this poster is, well, wrong.  The part on top, with the spelling and grammatical mistakes, was tacked onto the Wanted poster by someone as it travelled through the right wing, Confederate social media world.  I don’t know who did it.

Note how the unknown commentator claims that Lincoln waged an unholy war against the South. The Civil War, of course, was begun by the Confederacy, when it attacked Fort Sumter, in the harbour of Charleston, SC, on 11 April 1865.  Thus, the war is not the fault of the Union.  Fort Sumter was a fort held by the United States military, constructed in the wake of the War of 1812.  There are no ‘hard facts’ that can be presented to deny this historical truth.

But, of course, fact and memory are not the same thing.  And this is why the question of history and memory fascinates me.  It’s not simply a matter of how we remember history as individuals, as our own individual memories are a function of society as well, but it’s also a question of how all of our individual memories work in concert with each other to form cultural memory.

Certainly, in the South, the Civil War is remembered differently from the North.  And it is not always remembered in a cartoonish, neo-Confederate manner as this.  On a more basic level, many Southerners can express distaste for the actual causes of the war and the war aims of the Confederacy and a deep pride in their ancestors’ gallantry in battle against the North.  Hence the romance and popularity of Civil War re-enactors and their romance of the Confederacy.  And, of course, there is a careful parsing of the larger context of the Confederacy and its reasons for fighting the war in the first place.

Slavery is the first or second thing mentioned in every single Confederate state’s articles of secession.  It was central to the war aims of the Confederacy.  It was not, however, central to the war aims of the Union, despite what many Northerners believe.  It was not until the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect on 1 January 1863, nearly two years into the war, that the end of slavery became a Northern war aim.  In short, then, the Civil War happened, from the perspective of the Confederacy, over slavery.  Not states’ rights (had it been, the fight over the entry of new states to the Union and whether they’d be slave states or not, would not have happened).

And clearly, Lincoln is remembered differently on either side of the Mason-Dixon line.  But there is also a question of history.  When the Republican Party tweeted a fake quote from Lincoln for Lincoln’s Birthday (in a tweet that has since been deleted), it wasn’t the fake quote that amused me, it was the GOP’s statement.  Lincoln certainly did not bring the nation together.  His election was the excuse the Confederacy used to justify secession.

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But at any rate, to return to the original issue here of the differing memories of the Civil War and un-reconstructed Southerners: One could indeed argue that Lincoln violated the Constitution.  Many people have made this argument, including respected historians and constitutional scholars.  Lincoln was very aware of his expansionist reading of the Constitution and reminded his opponents that they could question him, through the ballot box and via the court system.  Ultimately, however, his expansion of the Constitution has been recognized by scholars as an historical fact, more or less.

But there is also the question of other means of bending the Constitution.  In the case of habeus corpus, Art. I. Sec. 9, cl. 2 of the Constitution reads:

The Privilege of the Writ of Habeus Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public safety may require it.

However, Article I of the Constitution lays out the powers of Congress, not the Executive (that’s Article II).  However, Congress can delegate authorities to the Executive, and has (for example, during World War I, the Food and Fuel Control Act of 1917).  But, Congress had not delegated this power to Lincoln.  Thus, in ex parte Merryman, a federal court decision in 1861, Justice Roger Taney, who was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but sitting as a federal court justice, found Lincoln’s suspension of habeus corpus and his delegating of this power to United States Army officers to be beyond the law, that the suspension of habeus corpus was limited to Congress, which could, of course, delegate this power.  Merryman, however, was ignored by Lincoln on the grounds of necessity due to the unusual circumstances of the war.  He argued that the Civil War was exactly situation noted in the Constitution, a case of rebellion.  And, furthermore, he argued that the President has had to act many times when Congress was not in session.  Indeed, this is true, dating back at least Jefferson’s era.  In these cases, the President is expected to seek post facto permission for his actions from Congress. Indeed, in 1863, Congress passed An Act relating to Habeas Corpus, and regulating Judicial Proceedings in Certain Cases. 

Indeed, in my copy of Richard Beeman’s Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution, which I assign every semester, as it annotates the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Beeman merely states the following:

On at least a few occasions American presidents have suspended while either suppressing rebellion or protecting public safety.

Beeman then uses President Lincoln and the Civil War and President George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 as examples. That’s all.  In other words, this is a recognized power of the president, though Beeman does note that Bush based his actions on the USA Patriot Act, which is obviously an act of Congress.

As for the treason claimed in the Wanted post, I’m not sure where this comes from, given that the attempted secession by the Confederacy was, by definition, a treasonous act.  Treason is an attempt to overthrow or betray one’s country.  Certainly, the Confederates felt that the American government had overstepped its bounds and was attempting to claim the right to rebel, as the Founding Fathers had in the Declaration of Independence.

Nor did Lincoln imprison 40,000 Northerners in military prisons during the war.  I’m not even certain where such a number would come from.

As for the question of the plight of Southerners under Union occupation, that is another thing entirely.  Certainly, federal troops did commandeer supplies and property.  They did rape Southern women.  But, the argument about the loss of civil rights, well, the Confederacy did start the war.  There was no official declaration of war, given that the Union refused to recognize the Confederacy, nonetheless, there was most certainly a war  And the war was fought in Southern territories.  Thus, the suspension of civil liberties in a territory of open rebellion should not be surprising.

Nonetheless, while I would not state that the vision of Abraham Lincoln in this Wanted poster is a common one in the South, there is a small fringe that does view him in this manner.  And I also do not find this surprising, given the romanticization of the Civil War in the minds of many (and not just in the South).  Lincoln was the enemy, obviously.  And so it should not be surprising that someone, thinking it clever, created this Wanted poster (though I cannot speak to the editorialization attached to it).

In this romanticized version of the Civil War I have seen up close, at County Fairs and the like in Alabama and Tennessee, something interesting happens to the Civil War.  Race is removed from it, in that the Sons of the Confederacy, the ones who dress up and Civil War garb and re-enact the war, insist they have no racial malice and that there is no racial malice behind their play-acting nor flying of the Confederate Battle Flag (whether or not this is true is a matter for another blog post).  Rather, they claim, they are celebrating the gallantry of their ancestors against the Northern incursion (and, of course, the reasons for that incursion are elided).

And this brings me to what I see as the greatest irony of the lionizing of the Confederacy.  I had a student who wrote an MA thesis on the Confederate soldiers between the Battle of Shiloh in southwestern Tennessee in April 1862 and the Battle of Mobile Bay in southern Alabama in August 1864.  She used soldiers’ diaries as a major primary source.  Shiloh was their first battle and many of these men responded much as you’d expect: abject terror at the actual grizzly face of mid-19th century war.  And almost overnight, these young men went from being keen to be battle-tested to bitter.  They were bitter at their inadequate supplies and medical care and leadership.  But they were also bitter that they were being compelled to fight for the right of rich men to own slaves.  As they marched South, chased by the Union Army through Mississippi and Alabama to Mobile Bay, they became increasingly angry and bitter.  Those that survived did fight, against insane odds. And generally lost in this theatre of war, which was very different than the one commanded by Robert E. Lee in Virginia.  In Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi, they were outgunned, outmanned, and victim to poor leadership.  But even the soldiers in Lee’s Army of Virginia were well aware of the irony that they, too poor to own slaves, were laying their lives on the line for the rich slave owners.

It’s certainly a historical truism that poor men are the cannon fodder for the rich.  Even today, the US Armed Forces tend to draw their recruits from the poorer areas of the South. So that the poor white men of the South found themselves in grey uniforms and fighting the US Army should not be surprising.  So, in many ways, this is what these men, the Civil War Confederate re-enactors are interested in: the plight of poor men.  And celebrating their ancestors.  But, their ancestors were on the wrong side of history.  And the wrong side of the Civil War.

And so they’re left with the uncomfortable problem of unsorting the simple fact of slavery and racism from their views of the Civil War.  Hence the rise of the states’ rights claim.  Or others.  The simple fact is that they’re confronted with a double dose of difficult knowledge in confronting the Confederacy and the Civil War.  First, the slavery issue.  Second, their ancestors’ plight of fighting and dying for rich, slave-owning plantation owners.  And perhaps this is their way out of the racial conundrum: these men and women, their ancestors weren’t the slave owners.

 

Left Wing Nut Jobs

February 20, 2017 § 8 Comments

We tend to live in ideological echo chambers these days.  This is as true of the left as it is of the right and of the centre.  But something has shifted in recent months that I find rather interesting.  Until 2015, liberals and lefties could, and did, say with smug superiority that they dealt in facts and reality and too many people on the other did not (the latter is proved by the ‘alternative facts,’ or lies, that come out of Whitehall in London and the White House in DC, for example).

But since the autumn of 2016, I have been harangued on Twitter by leftists who trade in alternative facts and lies themselves.  In October, I found myself in the cross-hairs of the anti-Hillary Clinton left.  I had been having a discussion with one of my tweeps about President Bill Clinton’s attempts to introduce universal health care coverage in the United States in 1992-94.  This push was led, to a large degree, by Hillary Clinton.  It failed for a multitude of reasons, but the simple fact of the matter is that Mrs. Clinton and her husband attempted to introduce universal health care to the US.

During this discussion, I got attacked, in increasingly vicious language, by two leftists who apparently believed that Mrs. Clinton is the face of evil incarnate.  They accused me of lying, and, of course, being a Clinton apologist, amongst other things.  Not all that interested in this argument, I posted a link to the Wikipedia page explaining this (note that ‘Hillarycare’ also redirects to this page).  Sure, it’s Wikipedia, but it gives a general idea of what happened.  Not good enough for one of my accusers.  She pointed out Wikipedia is ‘not a primary source.’  No, it’s not.  But there is a whole bibliography leading to such sources.  So, instead, she sent me links to heavily redacted documents and heavily edited YouTube videos of Mrs. Clinton’s speeches on the matter, including one video that showed her in four different outfits.  None of this changes historical fact.

In December, it was British leftists who insisted that white people had been slaves in the United States.  This isn’t really anything new, the Irish have been claiming they were brought here as ‘slaves,’ but now this was expanded to include the Scots, English, and Welsh.  And they did not mean what people usually get confused, which is indentured servitude.  They meant that white people were chattel slaves like Africans.  In this case, though, they provided no sources, just their beliefs.  And, as one pointed out to me, she was entitled to her opinion.  Sure. She is. But she’s still wrong.  And I have the realities of history behind me on that one.

And then, a couple of weeks ago, the subject was the Civil War in the US.  The Republican Party tweeted a Happy Birthday to the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, claiming that Lincoln united the country.  Whatever one thinks of Lincoln as president, and I consider him one of the best presidents all-time (and it’s not just me, as my new favourite Wikipedia page shows), he did not unite the country.  Lincoln’s election was the excuse used for Southern secession.  So, in the midst of a conversation with a tweep, also an historian on this matter, I got harangued by a lefty.

He insisted that slave owners ‘were killing in the name of slavery from 1856 on.’ He wasn’t wrong.  And I could point to events such as Bleeding Kansas in 1854.  But, that doesn’t change the simple historical fact that Secession began with Lincoln’s election.

In all three cases, my credentials as an historian were challenged.  I have been called a ‘Professor of Bullshit,’ a ‘Doctor of Horseshit.’ I have been called a fascist, and a genocidal apologist (of what genocide, I’m not sure, I’m presuming she meant the genocide of white people sold as slaves in the 18th and 19th century).  In all three cases, lefties have based ‘arguments’ on ‘alternative facts,’ or, what I would call bullshit.  But all the weight of historical reality meant nothing to them.  They didn’t like the facts, so they decided they weren’t true.

This is deeply disturbing.

 

Resuscitating Lyndon Baines Johnson

August 8, 2016 § 3 Comments

Last week, I finally got around to reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63.  I hadn’t read a Stephen King novel since I was around 16 and I discovered his early horror work: Dead Zone, Christine, Carrie, The Stand, The Shining, and Cujo. I read and devoured them, then moved on to other things.  But my buddy, J-S, raved about this book.  So, I humoured him, bought it, and read it.  It was pretty phenomenal.  I’m not really a fan of either sci-fi or alt.history, but this book was both.  Time travel and a re-imagined history of the world since 1958.

The basic synopsis is that a dying Maine restaurateur, Al Templeton, convinces 35-year old, and lonely, high school English teacher, Jake Epping, to go back in time. See, Templeton discovered a rabbit hole to 1958 in his stock room.  He’s been buying the same ground beef since the 1980s to serve his customers, hence his ridiculously low-priced greasy fare.  Templeton went back in time repeatedly, until it dawned on him he could prevent the assassination of JFK.  Templeton figures if he prevents JFK from dying, he’ll prevent Lyndon Baines Johnson from becoming president. And thus, he will save all those American and Vietnamese lives.  So he spent all this time shadowing Lee Harvey Oswald, and plotting how to stop him.  But then he contracted lung cancer.  His time was almost up.  So, he got Epping involved.

After a couple of test runs, Epping agrees. So back to 1958 in Maine he goes again, spends five years in the Land of Ago, as he calls it, under the name George Amberson.  I’ll spare you the details.  But, he is, ultimately successful in preventing the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dealey Plaza in Dallas on 22 November 1963.

But when he returns to Maine in 2011, he returns to a dystopian wasteland.  Before entering the rabbit hole back to the future, Epping/Amberson talks to the gatekeeper, a rummy.  The rummy explains that there are only so many strands that can be kept straight with each trip back and each re-setting of time.

Anyway.  Read it. You won’t be disappointed. I cannot speak to the series on Hulu, though. Haven’t seen it.

I found myself fascinated with this idea of preventing LBJ from becoming president.  See, I’m one of the few people who think that LBJ wasn’t a total waste as president.  This is not to excuse his massive blunder in Vietnam.  Over 1,300,000 Americans, Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians died in that war.  And the war left a long hangover on the United States that only really went away in time for the Iraq War hangover we’re currently living in.

But. LBJ wasn’t a total disaster.  Domestically, he was a rather good president.  He was, of course, the brain behind The Great Society.  LBJ wanted to eliminate racial injustice and poverty in the United States.  This led to the rush of legislation to set the record straight on these issues.  We got the Civil Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and a whole host of other initiatives in the fight against poverty in inner cities and rural areas.  We got the birth of public television that ultimately led to the birth of PBS in 1970.  Borrowing some from JFK’s Frontier ideas, the Great Society was envisioned as nothing less than a total re-making of American society.  In short, LBJ was of the opinion that no American should be left behind due to discrimination.  It was a lofty goal.

LBJ’s Great Society, moreover, was incorporated into the presidencies of his Republican successors, Richard Nixon and Gerald R. Ford.  In other words, the Great Society met with approval from both Republicans and Democrats, to a degree anyway.

Of course, the Great Society failed.  In part it failed because LBJ’s other pet project, the Vietnam War, took so much money from it.  It did cause massive change, but not enough.  In many ways, the rise of Donald Trump as the GOP nominee can be seen as long-term response to the Great Society.  Trump has the most support from non-college-educated white people, the ones who feel they’ve been victimized by the liberal agenda.  And, as the New York Times pointed out this week, Trump is really the benefactor of this alienation and anger, not the cause of it.

Nevertheless, I do take exception to the dismissal of LBJ as a horrible president based on the one glaring item on his resumé.  No president is perfect, every president has massive blemishes on his record.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order for Japanese Internment. Abraham Lincoln only slowly came to the realization that slavery had to end, and he did not really believe in the equality between black and white.  I could go on.

King also makes an interesting point in 11/22/63: when Epping/Amberson returns to 2011 after preventing JFK’s assassination, he learns that the Vietnam War still happened.  JFK, after all, was the first president to escalate American involvement in great numbers.  And worse, the Great Society did not happen.  There was no Civil Rights Act, no War on Poverty, etc.  JFK, as King notes, was not exactly a champion of equal and civil rights.

Thus, as maligned as the Big Texan is by historians and commentators in general, I think it is at least partially unfair.  LBJ had ideas, at least.  And he was a visionary.

 

 

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