The Wild West of the Internet Versus Real History

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.”



  1. Al, where I disagree with you is that I have no problem with Guelzo’s response. He needn’t respond to each “heritage” commenter, but his funny-snarky reply might serve some good. At least it gave A.G. a much more human cast for me.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Pat. I understand what you’re saying, and I personally also don’t have a problem with what he said. Where I’m coming from is that he basically wasted his time on those folks. It could leave him with a bad taste for internet interactions as a whole, and I would hate to see that happen. Also, I think he would be better served to not get involved in those types of interchanges using his Gettysburg College email address.

  2. I couldn’t access the article Al but did see his response. My attitude about comments to articles like Prof. Guelzo’s or the Disunion articles is that some of the comments are off the wall. Sometimes, one of them will have some interesting information or links but generally they’re not worth getting excised about. The term “consider the source” comes to mind. I do belong to a couple of forums and I can understand how you get caught up in a debate with another poster.

    1. I don’t disagree, Brad. I think there’s a great value for a scholar to get involved in a dialogue with his/her readers, but the way to do it is where the comments are moderated so only civil replies get through. Disagreement is fine as long as the person disagreeing isn’t disagreeable.

  3. Allen C. Guelzo · · Reply

    Hello, Al: Like Byron, I’ve awakened to find myself famous over this. Let me insert something here which may give a little clarity. First, I did not respond to the Comments on the WSJ page. Having said my say in the public square, it’s only fair to let others have theirs, even if some of it seems a little strange. Second, I began receiving e-mails from various persons connected with Southern “heritage” organizations, directed to me at Gettysburg. These were personal in nature, and I’m afraid that I was always the first one on the playground to take a swing at the bully. Since they invaded my Gettysburg College e-mail queue (I do not have another e-mail site), I replied. (The e-mail does not carry either the logo or other formal identifiers of the College). I did not expect to achieve much in the way of persuasion, but I do not believe in letting these people interpret silence as assent, or living in ignorance of the shortcomings of their own arguments. These people then turned and used what were otherwise private communications and posted them publicly, along with sending me e-mails which grew more vile and even anti-Semitic. I have never planned to spend the rest of my life arguing with them; I just wanted to say enough for them to know that there are people who will hit them back. This is not as Christian as I wish it could be, or as I should be, but I will work at it. I wonder if the problem here is whether academics should stoop even so far as to recognize the nonsense these people peddle. Perhaps not; but I’m not too good at feigning indifference, and I’m anxious that a lofty turning-of-the-back only ends up convincing them that their bullying tactics work. I’m open to some thoughts on this. (BTW, I should add that a great deal of what I see on Facebook to-day, especially on politics, sounds a great deal like bullies, huffing and puffing in order to silence or demonize others; this, I think, is true on both sides of the political aisle).

    1. Thanks for the clarification, Dr. Guelzo. Just as in football, it’s the reaction to the cheap shot that gets the attention. I agree with you regarding what gets seen on Facebook in this political season especially, and woe be to the one who inserts a comment contrary to whichever side the hallelujah chorus is on. But I digress. 🙂 I suppose my biggest concern in all this is that you might be turned off to other internet opportunities to interact with the general public. That would truly be a shame.

  4. There are conflicting tugs here. Like Prof. Guelzo, I think certain kinds of ignorance should be engaged, lest those professing it come to think that lack of opposing argument means they are correct; or, worse, that the general population come to see it that way. My standard example here is creationism, which the biology community refused to engage until it became so entrenched as to be beyond dismissing. On the other hand, one has to be mindful of the adage about wrestling with pigs: Regardless of who wins, you end up in the mud! As my good friend Al Mackey knows, I have had my own share of arguments like this, and I applaud Prof. G. for standing up for his opinions.

    1. I agree with both of you, Jim, that their ignorance and in some cases outright mendacity has to be opposed. The question is which is the best venue for it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: