Professor Allen C. Guelzo, Henry Luce Professor of History at Gettysburg College, recently published an Op-Ed piece in the Wall Street Journal titled, “How Lincoln Saved the ‘Central Idea’ of America.” It is an outstanding, thoughtful piece you can read here. It’s in the subscriber only section, so if you’re not a subscriber you can still access it by Googling “Allen Guelzo Lincoln Saved Central Idea of America” and clicking on the Wall Street Journal link that comes up. I think it’s an excellent read and has a good number of points we students of the war need to consider.
Unfortunately, there are some folks out there who have no clue about history and are only interested in what is loosely called “heritage.” Whenever they see some item they perceive to be an “attack” on their beloved “ancestors,” they get into a huff, and they don’t care a whit about civil discourse. This can be seen in the comments section for the article. The WSJ’s comments section is basically unmoderated, so these folks are free to display their massive ignorance of actual history and combine it with their poor manners. Those of us who have been in a number of Civil War discussion groups on the internet are used to this.
Professor Guelzo, though, isn’t. He made the mistake of reading the comments and thinking some of these folks are actually interested in learning how their beliefs are mistaken. So he responded to one of these folks.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying historians should be above criticism. I’ve done my share of criticizing them when I thought they deserved it. I think, though, my criticisms are not founded in ignorance or an agenda to twist the truth, and I pledge that if a historian responded to one of my criticisms their response would be taken seriously and I would respond in a civil, respectful manner. Such is not the case with the crew that Professor Robertson refers to disdainfully as “professional Southerners.”
Both Kevin Levin and Brooks Simpson have blogged about this incident involving Professor Guelzo. You can read about it here, here, and here. Brooks is an old hand at dealing with these folks. In fact, that’s how he and I “met” (virtually, that is). We were both part of an internet discussion group. He’s made a number of observations of these folks on his blog.
I’ve highlighted a number of cases where the internet has been a godsend to us students of the war, and I’ve called for historians to have more of an internet presence, but this is a case that shows the underside of the internet, and explains why there are professional historians who shun having an internet presence. I happen to think the benefits outweigh the costs, and if I may be so bold as to offer some advice to Professor Guelzo, whom I like and respect, I urge him not to let this experience deter him from a greater presence on the net. He has a lot to bring to the table for us to think about and to digest. I also recommend he refrain from engaging the “professional Southerners” directly, because they’re not interested in learning anything. This is not to say that all who espouse that point of view are unreachable. Some simply haven’t been exposed to actual history, and it’s not their fault. There are those out there who have intellectual integrity and are really interested in learning. However, the more one views internet groups, the more one sees that there is a set of “the usual suspects” who have no intellectual integrity and are not interested in learning anything. Their “research” consists of trying to find out what supports their preconceived notions. Those folks are not worth directly engaging because they lack intellectual honesty. A real conversation depends on both sides being able to put forth their points, be willing to honestly consider the other person’s point of view, and be willing to honestly admit if they have misunderstood something or were wrong. These “professional Southerners” can’t do any of that.
There are few rules on the internet, and unmoderated fora have the fewest rules. Having engaged moderators on a forum gives us a place with rules and takes away some of the “wild west” aspects that comes with having a “Send” key instead of face-to-face engagement. So don’t take this incident as a sign to no longer appear on the internet, Professor Guelzo. Pick your appearances to take advantage of those of us who are actually interested in learning something and not “scoring points.”