Tuesday, October 02, 2012

NBR: Smacking Down Bad Historians

My response to Chapter 12 of Forced Into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream by Lerone Bennett, Jr. Excerpted from a message board discussion for a graduate history class at Western Kentucky University.

Mark --
I heartily agree with you. Bennett commits a number of crimes against critical thinking and honest discourse in his often smarmy effort to destroy what he considers to be the Lincoln myth.
Bennett believes that you cannot give much credence to what Lincoln said about ending slavery, since his words did not always match his political actions. There is a good deal of truth there, but Bennett undercuts himself since his greatest weapon against the Lincoln myth are Lincoln's words. Bennett bludgeons us with quotes from Lincoln's senatorial campaign (particularly on page 249), urging us to take Lincoln's words about white supremacy at face value. So according to Bennett, when Lincoln spoke of white supremacy his words should be wholly believed, but when he spoke of equality and emancipation, he was simply politicking. In other words, you should only believe Lincoln when it serves Bennett's thesis. This is confirmation bias at its worst.
Also, the Lincoln "myth" that Bennett attacks is an utter straw man argument; Bennett uses Dr. Seuss-ish parallelism in a juvenile attempt to attack Lincoln -- "He said it in Illinois. He said it in Michigan. He said it in Wisconsin, Kansas, Michigan, Connecticut, Ohio, and New York. He said it everywhere." (Bennett, 249). (Bennett also claims on page 248 that during one speech Lincoln said it "in capitals," although I have yet to determine how someone can SAY something in capitals). Bennett says all of this to convince us that Lincoln was a racist in 1858. Among serious historians, though, that matter isn't really in dispute.
Bennett refers dismissively and in patronizing tones to "Carl Sandburg wannabes," (251) and the "fallacies of Lincoln historiography and museumography" (252) -- but not ONCE does Bennett actually quote anyone who is perpetuating the Lincoln myth that is, according to him, all-pervasive. Also on page 252, he refers to the shortcomings of "so many Lincoln enthusiasts" and yet refuses to name a real-life person. On page 254, Bennett attacks the myths that he sneeringly claims "that every schoolchild knows" (254) even though I am myself a schoolchild and didn't know that particular myth. On page 257, he refers dismissively to the "mythologists" while still leaving the reader wondering just who these bogeymen are.
As if that weren't enough, Bennett has the gall to claim that these Lincoln myths are perpetuated by a conspiracy among the white historical establishment. Lincoln loved the Constitution, "as almost every major white historian says" (Ibid., 260) -- a ridiculous claim that is not backed up. Perhaps the problem is that "twentieth-century scholars find it so difficult to decipher the Lincoln code in the white silence of their libraries." (Ibid., 264). Bennett's insinuation that the historiography of Lincoln is protected by a conspiracy within a racist historical establishment -- an insinuation that names no names and offers no evidence -- sullies the reputation of the many historians who have done so much to further our understanding of the period. The "white silence" he refers to is a myth that is easily dispelled by the works we've read so far in this class, which offer many different interpretations of Lincoln's character and attitudes, many of which are quite critical of his mythical role as the Great Emancipator. Not only that, but his depiction of the discipline as an insular white enclave is an insult to the diverse group of historians -- many of whom are African American -- who have added to the understanding of the period and been widely recognized and praised as having done so.
As if all this weren't enough, I wasn't able to find one Lincoln quote that was dated after September 1862, when Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Here Bennett has egregiously cherry-picked his data to make his argument seem stronger than it is. When you confine your work to pre-1862, it's much easier to make Lincoln look like an anti-emancipation racist. What Bennett is essentially telling us is that before Lincoln believed in emancipation, he didn't believe in emancipation. That he is able to take such a facile argument and add nothing but the most obnoxious cynicism -- "for the hard of hearing and those with reading difficulties" (Ibid., 262) is offensive. Any credibility behind Bennett's argument is therefore destroyed.

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