Reflections on the Future of Civil War History, Part 3: The End of “Political Correctness”

Other posts on the conference: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, and Part 5

One of the panels that I was unable to attend at the conference related to the training of seasonal interpreters and historians in the National Park Service. However, I heard quite a bit about it on Twitter and through my friend Bob Pollock at Yesterday…and Today, who did in fact attend this panel. The following thoughts are exclusively my own.

Apparently there was a bit of contention during the panel regarding the question of “opinions” and whether or not National Park Service staff should share their own personal views with visitors to their sites. One of the panelists mentioned that he never shares his opinions to visitors at Harpers Ferry National Historic Park. The gentleman stated, in sum (and again, correct me if I’m wrong) that if a visitor asks him whether or not John Brown was right, he avoids answering the question and instead asks the visitor what he or she thinks. This is done in order to maintain “objectivity,” “neutrality,” “fairness,” and “avoid politics,” supposedly.

I believe this is wrong on several fronts. First, it assumes that objectivity is something that can be achieved, which is false. We are our biases through and through, and our participation in the world of 2013-a world much different than the one in 1863–biases our observances of the world of 1863. As Howell and Prevenier remind us on page 109 of their magisterial work on historical methods, the most vocal proponents of “objectivity” are oftentimes the most biased of all. Leopold Von Ranke, one of the first “modern” historians of the 19th Century, strove to recreate the past “as it actually occurred.” However, “appearing only to recount the events concerning the powerful men on whom [the Rankean historians] narratives almost inevitably focused, they in fact implicitly endorsed even the most outrageous of their characters’ actions–murder, pillage, deception. Ranke himself also regularly betrayed his own biases in his prose, displaying his anticlercism with every paragraph he wrote about the history of Christianity,” which was a reflection of his views on religion in the 19th Century.

So much for that.

Second, there is a tension underlying how much authority NPS staff should exert on their audiences. The concept of “shared authority” has dominated the public history discourse for a while now, and I support it to a certain extent, but at what point is it appropriate for a Park Ranger to share their opinions and expertise about a topic? We must remember that many people go to National Parks to not only experience the sights and sounds of the park, but to learn about history from a trusted authority, the National Park Ranger. At some point the Park Ranger has to help guide the discussion along and share their thoughts on a given topic, in my opinion. At the end of the day we’re not discussion moderators, we’re historians. That doesn’t mean we dominate or eliminate the discussion, but it means we guide it towards our own specific ends, which is in itself political.

Which gets me to my third point. There is simply no way to avoid politics. By choosing not to make an opinion on something, I am making a political decision. I am choosing to maintain the status quo and implicitly support the interests of certain power bases that are typically the source for calls to objectivity. Once again, let’s go back to the Civil War Centennial (1961-1965). The dominant interpretation of the war during that time centered on reunion and honor. Both sides were right, former enemies became brothers. In order to avoid “controversy” and “politics” while maintaining “objectivity,” any discussion of slavery or the causes or consequences of the war were avoided. However, rather than objectively recreating events as they occured, these interpretations were instead subverted by powerful forces who sought to promote American Nationalism, an escalating war in Vietnam, and the maintenance of racial segregation in the South. Furthermore, former Superintendent of Gettysburg National Military Park John Latschar acknowledged at the conference that site interpretations at the battlefield for a long time advocated the “lost cause” interpretation of the war, which argues that the Confederacy and ONLY the Confederacy was right. That’s not objective.

It’s not so much that I take issue with this person’s refusal to answer a question about John Brown. Rather, I take issue with the idea that an avoidance of all personal opinions somehow keeps a person’s hands clean from the muddy terrain of politics or that it somehow eschews controversy. Well, as the centennial shows us, even when you work really hard to be “objective,” controversy still calls.

All of this should also indicate that I do not believe in the idea of “political correctness.” The term is used by those only interested in stifling discussion and not addressing complex social topics with evidence and forthright honesty. Once again, during the centennial it was not “politically correct” to talk about slavery. Less frequently was it mentioned during that time that discussions about both the Union and Confederacy being right was also a form of “political correctness.” Likewise, we often heard in the 1990s (and today still) that people who use terms like “African-American,” “Asian-American,” or “Caucasian,” were engaging in “political correctness” or that politicians who use those terms were pandering to a certain demographic.  Less frequently mentioned is that terms like “Wetback,” “Jap,” “Hun,” “Guido,” and “Redneck” are also terms of “political correctness” that have been used by politicians to pander to certain demographics.

The future of Civil War History, in my opinion, will require an acute awareness amongst public historians that their interpretations are going to be political no matter what. We have a limited time in which to educate our audiences about the past. We will necessarily have to pick and choose what we decide to talk about. If I’m creating an educational program for a school and I have to choose between teaching the students how to churn butter or teaching them about slavery, I must be cognizant of the fact that I am making a political decision if I choose to teach the kids how to churn butter, especially if I’m looking to do so in order to avoid “controversy.” Likewise, if I choose to teach them about slavery, I’ve made a political decision as well. I think we all need to do a better job of being aware of this reality. All National Parks and their staff are “political” and they all deal with “controversy” related to their interpretations. I think the best way to avoid “controversy” is to demonstrate a level of transparency with audiences by stating your interpretive goals upfront and being frank about your mission as a site. If you don’t want to answer a question about John Brown, that’s fine, but make sure to explain why without making some sort of vague platitude about being “objective.”

Is there a point in which NPS staff should avoid expressing their opinion? Absolutely. But if I’m working at a Civil War related site and I am asked to share my professional opinion on a Civil War related topic (i.e. was John Brown right?), I think it should be acceptable to share my professional opinion because I’ve been trained to interpret the past. There might be other non Civil War opinions that I might be able to share as well. It just depends.

By the way, I think John Brown’s course of action (violence) was wrong, even if his goals were well-intentioned.