An irate reader sent a number of nasty e-mails to Gordon Belt, claiming that he was out to tarnish John Sevier’s reputation. This surprised me, because I’ve been following Gordon’s fine series of posts on Sevier, and for the life of me I can’t recall a single instance in which he’s said anything particularly derogatory about Nolichucky Jack.
Sevier possessed an undeniable personal courage, he was a skilled practitioner of partisan warfare, his contributions to the American victory in the Revolution were substantial, his role in the founding of Tennessee was the equal of anyone else’s, and the respect he earned as a leader of men (and one didn’t become a leader of men on the frontier unless one earned a good deal of respect) indicates a level of charisma rare in any time or place. But he was a human being. He put on his pants (or knee breeches, I suppose) one leg at a time like the rest of us. The John Sevier you’ll find in Gordon’s posts is neither a marble demigod nor a scoundrel. He’s a fascinating and complex character, and all indications are that this is basically what the historical John Sevier was.
But what really surprised me was the fact that Gordon’s correspondent accused him of using history to promote an “ideological agenda.” Mind-reading of this sort—assuming that someone presenting an argument with which you disagree must be doing so for sinister reasons—is all too common in the blogosphere. If you’re blogging, sooner or later you can expect to have somebody attempt to gaze into your soul and reveal some nefarious motive of which you yourself were unaware. It’s happened to me a few times. I once wrote a post about the accuracy of a children’s book about the Civil War set not too far from my hometown, and one lady subsequently informed me that I had a “progressive presentism agenda,” based solely on the fact that I mentioned two other bloggers. I kid you not.
One of the problems with this instant online mind-reading is the fact that most people aren’t cut out to be psychics. The lady I just referred to, for example, managed to get my political inclinations completely wrong, which sort of torpedoes the whole ideological motive thing. You’re not likely to try to further a progressive agenda when you don’t put much stock in progressivism.
The other problem is that it doesn’t address the actual argument being presented. Let’s pretend for a moment that I am a “presentist progressive,” and that my motive for discussing the use of regional geography and history in a kids’ book was to further some agenda. Would it have any bearing on the accuracy of my statements about the details in the book? The question of whether or not I’m a flaming liberal doesn’t affect whether or not I was correct in stating that Fern Lake didn’t exist in 1863, or that there really is a cave near the saddle of Cumberland Gap.
Motive and bias can indeed affect interpretation, but these aren’t matters of interpretation. They’re matters of simple fact, and a fact is a fact regardless of who’s stating it. Accusations of underlying motive aren’t helpful in such cases. It reminds me of something Orwell wrote about Communist propaganda during the Spanish Civil War: “It is as though in the middle of a chess tournament one competitor should suddenly begin screaming that the other is guilty of arson or bigamy. The point that is really at issue remains untouched.”