Perhaps the institution of slavery as it existed in the antebellum South was permitted by the Bible, as my Fundamentalist and Neo-Confederate opponents insist. I rather hope not, but I have never challenged them on that point. It strikes me as a nineteenth-century coffin they are welcome to continue nesting in if they like. But it never ends there. They must always go on to recast the South’s “peculiar institution” as a positively “pleasant” and worthwhile experience for southern blacks, and I, perhaps foolishly, have felt obliged as a professional historian to explain that such views are not in agreement with the documentary record.
The very public controversies surrounding these encounters have produced some interesting results. My opponents have learned, for their part, to use increasingly clever arguments to arrive at their foregone conclusions, and, just as important, to enlist the expertise of conservative scholars like Eugene Genovese to assist them in that effort, while I have become increasingly inured to a broad range of personal attacks, character assassination, and efforts at political intimidation. None of it has helped me professionally in my quest for academic recognition and tenure, and it might well be asked whether the cost of public engagement is worth the withering punishment that can sometimes come with it. The question seems all the more pertinent as the academy finds itself increasingly under assault from conservative activists such as David Horowitz, whose credentials as a former Marxist turned conservative are not far different from Genovese’s (I will leave the significance of this to the prosopographers). Yet rightwing offensives against mainstream scholarship do not all operate from a common ideological foundation, and I feel that our challenges to Neo-Confederate historical fraud have helped reveal some of the fault lines that distinguish those co-belligerents on the right from each other. Most importantly, I argue that scholars can put such fault lines to work in the public square as they seek to defend the mission and value of the academic enterprise.
Even so, the benefits of public engagement can be slow in coming and frustratingly subtle. For two years after a colleague and I issued our initial challenge to Pastor Douglas Wilson and Steven Wilkins (co-founder of the League of the South, identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center), they clung to the myth of a righteous and beneficent slave system with a tenacity that we never expected. In their notorious Biblical defense of racial slavery, Southern Slavery, As It Was (please be aware: the booklet is being hosted by a “kinist” website that includes what I regard to be racially offensive material), they had made a pretense of grounding their celebration of slavery on historical data, especially the narratives collected from former slaves in the 1930s, but that was intended for a select audience of believers. For objective readers, we reasoned, the slave narratives simply did not support Wilson’s contention that former slaves remembered the experience of forced labor in “overwhelmingly positive” terms, or that “the majority of those interviewed complain that they would rather be slaves again than to be free.” So it seemed inconceivable that they would prolong the farce in full view of their neighbors. But they did. Wilson in particular had a great deal to lose in material terms if he acknowledged his errors, especially in his role as founder of the Classical Christian School movement and president of the Association of Classical and Christian Schools (he was recently interviewed by an admiring Pat Robertson on CBN). At no time in the three years since we issued our book review have Wilson or Wilkins acknowledged any substantive flaws in their pro-slavery booklet, aside from foot-noting and citation mistakes. Indeed, Southern Slavery As It Was continued to be assigned in high school history classes at member schools in Wilson’s Association of Classical and Christian Schools as late as November 2004. It was finally withdrawn after the North CarolinaNews and Observer published an expose about its continued use at Cary Christian School, along with extensive quotes from the booklet.
Behind his public intransigence and propaganda, however, Wilson knew the booklet was flawed and, worse, that the obvious nature of the flaws made the core argument more difficult to sell to a mainstream audience. He discontinued publication of it (easily done since he published it himself) and privately sought the advice of scholars who were sympathetic toward his religious views and his classical school movement in order to revise it. Bancroft prize winning historian Eugene Genovese, famous for his groundbreaking study of slavery, Roll, Jordan, Roll, helped Wilson find ways of answering the critical obstacles that we had put in his way, and Wilson’s revised and expanded (and still self-published) version of the book, Black and Tan: Essays and Excursions on Slavery, Culture War, and Scripture in America, is a testament to Genovese’s skill as an editor and mentor. It is trumpeted as Mr. Wilson’s triumphant response to “liberal” academics like me who criticize southern slavery as a harsh system, and Genovese's blurb on the back cover drives the point home by denouncing “most professors of American History, whose distortions and trivializations disgrace our college classrooms.” So has anything really changed over the last three years? Were we foolish to challenge Neo-Confederate historical misinformation in the first place, and what, if anything, can be learned from it all?
Despite the obvious power differential between Wilson’s new defender and the untenured assistant professors from Idaho who first challenged him, the revisions in the new work are telling. They reveal much about the Wilson/Genovese agenda, on the one hand, and demonstrate, on the other, that something can be done to frustrate it, even by relatively insignificant academic functionaries working in isolation. Gone from Black and Tan, for instance, is the claim that “slavery produced in the South a genuine affection between the races.” (38) Gone are all references to the beneficial effects of slavery on the “black family” and the raw denunciations of “abolitionist propaganda” and “civil rights propaganda.” Wilson ignores the WPA slave narratives altogether in the new book and has even taken our advice with respect to the edition of Robert William Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross that should be used: the 1989 as opposed to the 1974 edition. Gone also is his original co-author, Steven Wilkins, whose role in founding a secessionist hate group might have raised concerns about his objectivity in discussing the history of southern slavery and race relations. Cognizant of mainstream observers, Wilson no longer contends that “there has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world.” (24) Aside from the obligatory ad hominem attacks on me and my colleagues at the University of Idaho, I could hardly have asked for more under the circumstances. It represents a serious capitulation to the obvious.
What remains is mostly an attack on the empirical evidence that forced him to make those concessions, and this I argue is where the fault line between the Genovese and Horowitz camps becomes most apparent. There are no such things, Wilson now claims, as “neutral facts.” “Believer and unbeliever alike,” must abandon all hope of finding “the pristine data.” Pastor Wilson thus urges us to regard “objectivity as a false God,” and declines to provide evidence for his positions on the grounds that it would be like pulling a thread from a “tightly knit sweater.” (6) “One thing will always lead to another,” he explains, “and answering one objection will always lead to another objection.” (66) Nevertheless, in a sly nod to the Neo-Confederate audience still fond of his former unabashed defense of racial slavery, he expresses the hope that sympathetic readers will “weigh charitably the possibility that I have not manufactured all these opinions ex nihilo.” (67) In this and other ways, I feel, he effectively “grandfathers” many of his previous contentions, which recent controversies have taught him are too outrageous for public scrutiny, into his new work even as he dismisses the need to prove them. Obviously, such an attitude toward the very idea of evidence makes the violent misrepresentation of it a matter of only passing concern for Wilson and his admirers.
Our challenge to Wilson has thus forced a strategic withdrawal from empirical evidence in favor of a more strictly ideological repudiation of the Enlightenment (facilitated by his gleeful discovery of Genovese’s “southern conservative intellectual tradition” within the past year). Significant in its own right, this retreat has produced unanticipated consequences of its own. Pastor Wilson’s retrenchment, for instance, appears to have undercut the tacit racialism that made his “historical” writing attractive to a broad range of southern partisans. As a result, his symbiotic relationship with the Neo-Confederate movement appears to have been shaken, temporarily at least, by his new sophistication.
Initially, Neo-Confederate “kinists” rallied to his defense when our book review of Southern Slavery As It Was first began circulating in late 2003. The Knave and Antihumanist websites described us as the “hired guns” of the Southern Poverty Law Center, sent to “correct” Mr. Wilson in the name of an oppressive intellectual regime. They claimed that our purpose in challenging Wilson was “to squelch any and all diversion from the Authorized History of the Origin of All Negro Failure and Ineptitude.” The Little Geneva website (Reformed Confederate Theocrats) also announced its support of Wilson and even posted a digitized copy of his booklet as a token of its admiration. Throughout 2004, as he consulted with Genovese, denounced “professional” historians in local newspapers, and revised the booklet for republication, Neo-Confederates continued to cheer his labors.
They were taken aback, however, by the results of that effort. It was not enough apparently that Wilson continued to defend racial slavery on Biblical grounds, or that he maintained white superiority in cultural terms. They disliked the new characterization of the institution as being against the “spirit of the gospel.” When Wilson responded in kind by calling them “skinists,” they began to pour out the same venom on him that had formerly been reserved for us. Within two months of the publication of Black and Tan (August 2005), one of the most virulent racists operating in the blogosphere, Badonicus, had labeled Wilson a “Lying Racist Horse’s Ass.” As proof of Wilson’s betrayal, Little Geneva published its correspondence with him during the time that the book was being revised. Some of the letters were signed “Confederately Yours.” Thus, by forcing Wilson to modify his overt strategies, we feel that we have managed to compromise his appeal among core supporters. Even moderate revisions in vocabulary and tone have cost him the support of radical admirers as he moves reluctantly toward the mainstream.
As a result, Douglas Wilson and his postmillennial empire (160 “Classical Christian” schools, thousands of home-school clients, New Saint Andrews College, and his personal publishing arm of Canon Press) appear to have reached a crossroads. Having built his foundations on the festering racism of the Lost Cause, he must now raise up a façade that can survive the scrutiny of “secular” historians and the pluralist, post-enlightenment society they serve. Having built his appeal on the manipulation of historical evidence, he must now discredit historical evidence entirely while at the same time persuading home-schoolers and Classical Christian school students nationwide that his version of American History has some basis in fact. This is not as impossible as it seems. Genovese’s name still carries some weight in the public sphere regardless of the argument to which it is attached. The mere charge of being “unregenerate,” moreover, is enough to discredit most professional historians in the eyes of Wilson’s staunchest supporters. For the rest, he needs only to create enough confusion and “controversy” to throw doubt on the academic endeavor, and he is by all appearances willing to spend a life-time playing shell-games with the evidence. Indeed, Wilson claims in Black and Tan that the Enlightenment, rather than the Confederate ideals that he admires, will be proven in time to be the “lost cause.” (91)
This I think is the real thrust of Wilson’s movement, more than the white supremacy with which it was initially entangled, and Genovese’s support likely suggests a shared spiritual disdain for enlightenment rationalism, the prospect of human perfectibility, social equality, and notions of secular/bourgeois “progress.” Wilson is attempting to mimic true academic inquiry solely in order to baffle it and thus advance his “biblical” conclusions. The initial foolishness of his approach has given way to an increasingly sophisticated assault on the foundations of academic scholarship, made possible by Genovese’s tutelage. Perhaps in ten years time, Wilson, Wilkins, or others inspired by them will have mastered the historical data and the scholarly literature sufficiently to cause genuine confusion among sincere students of southern history. It will mark an important step forward for Neo-Confederate, Christian Reconstructionist, and white supremacist activists, whether Pastor Wilson (or Genovese) consciously intends to advance these specific causes or not, and will open new legislative possibilities for them at both the state and national levels.
There is more at stake, then, in efforts to challenge Neo-Confederate historical misinformation than the surface features of the portrait of southern slavery presented in private Christian academies and home schools. The very definition of evidence itself is under attack along with academic methods of analyzing evidence. This quarter of the rightwing assault on academia therefore shares a common ideological foundation with broader Fundamentalist campaigns to advance Creationist and Intelligent Design claims at the expense of legitimate scientific findings with respect to evolution. It shares very little, however, with the political objectives of David Horowitz and his Center for the Study of Popular Culture. Distressing as his attacks on “liberal” academics surely are, Horowitz’s rhetoric consistently acknowledges and even champions our society’s post- Enlightenment commitment to open-ended intellectual inquiry as guided by empirical evidence. Indeed, the entire framework of Horowitz’ attack presupposes the importance of the academic search for knowledge and endorses all its core principles.
As such, it is disheartening to me that academics have rallied so fervently against Horowitz while largely ignoring the more substantial threat offered by Fundamentalist and conservative opponents who denounce the Enlightenment wholesale. Untenured assistant professors in Idaho will continue holding key trenches along that vital front against hate groups, Neo (and Paleo)- Confederates, and Bancroft prize winning former presidents of the Historical Society and the Organization of American Historians, but scholars interested in the more glamorous cause of opposing David Horowitz should at least put some of our insights to work. Forget about McCarthyism, for instance, and invite Mr. Horowitz to apply his Academic Bill of Rights to Fundamentalist schools and Colleges, where courses on “Christian Apologetics” frequently teach students to manipulate evidence in order to defend a set of unwavering Biblical propositions. The level of “indoctrination” available at Bob Jones University, I would wager, is likely equal to or greater than that offered at UCLA, which is currently being sued by Fundamentalists for “viewpoint discrimination.” If the GOP is serious about maintaining its hold on the Christian Right, we would likely see the ABOR set adrift in an unmarked dinghy.
William L. Ramsey: The Late Unpleasantness in Idaho: Southern Slavery and the Culture Wars Jeff Chu: The Historians Who Loathe Lincoln Eric Muller: What You Should Know About the Author of the NYT Bestseller, Politically Incorrect Guide to American History Ralph E. Luker: Genovese and Aryan Supremacy ...