Monthly Archives: September 2011

Public treasures, private turf

The always-readable Knoxville historian Jack Neely weighs in on the disappearing Farragut monument, and considers the wider implications.  His assessment is that we East Tennesseans have been pretty lousy stewards of our historic resources, and I heartily agree with him.

“Laws of probability suggest that every privately owned historic site will eventually end up in the hands of someone who doesn’t care much about history,” he writes.  “Independent-minded property owners have an advantage over preservationists: one property owner can cancel generations of care. Without some permanent enforceable protections in place, a community will erase its own history.”  Of course, “permanent enforceable protections” will mean curbs on doing what we darn well please, which is anathema to a great many people.

I’ve been a conservative for quite a long time, and historic preservation is one of those areas where I often find myself in disagreement with fellow members of my political persuasion.  Look, I’m all for a robust conception of property rights.  The notion that a man can be told what to do or what not to do with what he owns gets my blood boiling; if you can’t do what you want with your property, one wonders if it’s really your property.  But I also believe there is such a thing as responsibility to the common good, and protection of historic resources is very much a part of that common good.  Few people ask for the onerous responsibility of stewardship over these resources, but a responsibility is never abrogated just because it isn’t desired.

We conservatives are a rather schizophrenic lot.  We cheer when our leaders pose for photo-ops at museums and historic sites to spout platitudes about our heritage, and then we cheer just as loudly when they make decisions that deprive those museums and sites of the resources they need to maintain and share the heritage they invoke.  We preach about looking back to our predecessors who sacrificed to secure the freedoms we enjoy, and then we exercise these freedoms by erasing all trace of those predecessors whenever it serves our immediate self-interest. 

Oh, we absolutely love to invoke the past, so long as it doesn’t cost us anything.

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Filed under Historic Preservation, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Bits and pieces

One of the mainstays of history survey courses are collections of primary source excerpts that profs assign to supplement the textbook. The excerpts are invariably short, since the only practical way to expose students to a wide array of important primary documents is to cut them up into tiny little bits.

I’ve secretly wondered much students really benefit by reading these little snippets.  When it comes to shorter works like the Declaration of Independence, the excerpt system works pretty well.  But some longer sources don’t take to dismemberment.  How much insight can you really get from a few out-of-context paragraphs of Ben Franklin’s autobiography or the Lincoln-Douglas debates?  It’s like driving a golf cart through an art gallery at top speed while trying to catch glimpses of the paintings along the way. You can assign longer selections of fewer works, of course, but that’s a trade-off.

That’s the thing about teaching a survey course.  It’s all about trade-offs.

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Confederate battle flag accidentally leads to small-scale construction boom

From the AP:

SUMMERVILLE, S.C. — A year ago, dozens marched to protest the Confederate flag a white woman flew from her porch in a historically black Southern neighborhood. After someone threw a rock at her porch, she put up a wooden lattice. That was just the start of the building.

Earlier this year, Annie Chambers Caddell’s neighbors built two solid 8-foot high wooden fences on either side of her modest brick house to shield the Southern banner from view.

Late this summer, Caddell raised a flagpole higher than the fences to display the flag. Then a similar pole with an American flag was placed across the fence in the yard of neighbor Patterson James, who is black.

Here’s the whole story.  Before this is over, they’ll be breaking out the concertina wire and machine guns.

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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

It seems the Farragut monument mystery

…has been solved.  Sort of, anyway.

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Filed under Civil War, Historic Preservation, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Virginia textbooks: Now with less horseflop

Remember that Virginia history textbook that had us all in a tizzy last year, the one written by a non-historian who used SCV websites as a source?  The new edition is out, and it’s slightly less inaccurate than the old one.  High fives all around!

They’ve evidently whittled down the errors in Our Virginia and a similar textbook on general U.S. history to a manageable hodgepodge of “dubious quotations, misleading images and maps depicting inaccurate borders,” sort of like when McDonald’s decided to cut down the trans fat in its fries while leaving all that lip-smacking overall fat and salt content in place.  Virginia’s Board of Education has put the two books back on the list of approved texts for use in elementary classrooms.

Oh, and earlier this year, the Old Dominion changed the textbook vetting process. “Under the new rules, publishers must certify that their textbooks have been checked for accuracy by subject-matter experts,” according to the above-linked article. “They also have to agree to fix mistakes discovered in their texts.”

This seems to suggest that getting qualified authorities to check the books before printing them has not been a standard procedure for textbook publishers.  I’m visualizing this scenario where a manuscript for a new history textbook has just arrived by FedEx at a publishing office, and the editorial staff are passing it around a conference table.  One of them finally says, “Sooooo, should we, like, get an actual historian to look at this, or should we just start cranking out a few thousand copies and let the chips fall where they may?”

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Maybe it’s time to let this one go

Historical memory combined with small-town politics.  It’s like a perfect storm of petty histrionics!

The tiny Missouri town of Osceola has a simple request.

It wants the University of Kansas to drop its mascot, the Jayhawk.

Oh, and another thing: Get rid of that big K.

“No citizen of the City of Osceola or the alumni of the University of Missouri shall ever capitalize the ‘k’ in ‘kansas’ or ‘kU,’ as neither is a proper name or a proper place,” Osceola’s Board of Aldermen ordered in a resolution passed last week. The resolution marked the upcoming 150th anniversary of a Civil War raid in which an abolitionist Kansas militia — “a group of domestic terrorist(s) referred to as ‘the jayhawkers’” — burned down four of the city’s five buildings and executed several Osceola residents.

The “Sack of Osceola” was the work of anti-slavery Kansans commanded by Senator James Lane who blew into town on September 23, 1861 and proceeded to loot private property, rob the bank, and set the buildings on fire, leaving nine dead citizens in their wake and taking a couple hundred slaves with them. 

I can see how that sort of thing would leave a bad taste in one’s mouth, but to be fair, the Missourians gave as good as they got

Besides, we’re talking about an anthropomorphic bird.  Sheesh.

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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

Spielberg has found his Confederate VP

Jackie Earle Haley of Watchmen fame will be playing Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens in Spielberg’s Lincoln movie. Let’s do a comparison:

Lincoln knew Stephens from his congressional days, describing the Georgian as “a little slim, pale-faced, consumptive man.”  You can read a letter Stephens sent to Lincoln between the latter’s election and inauguration here, and the text of one of his most famous speeches here.  It seems Stephens never got the memo regarding how the war wasn’t really about slavery.

Both images above are from Wikimedia Commons.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War