Digital History -Confronting Falseness

As I relaxed on the couch last night, I watched a re-broadcast of the PBS documentary Looking For Lincoln hosted by Dr. Henry Lewis Gates, Jr. It struck me how this documentary to reconcile the seemingly conflicting aspects of Lincoln's political beliefs related to the internet and history. It is not really that big of a leap but it illustrates the worry historians have about the way history is already twisted and used by individuals. This feeling of worry is furthered by the internet's ability to spread these twisted histories. Consequently, this documentary both affirmed my belief that history must get on the internet and confirmed my fears of the democratic features the internet provides. I arrived at this conclusion during the latter part of the documentary Looking for Lincoln. Dr. Gates went to a Sons of Confederate Soldiers convention looking for various points of view on President Lincoln. He affirmed that he did not expect to find a favorable opinions about the President who save the Union. To my surprise, and Gates too, his suspicions were confirmed in terms that were surprisingly hostile. One of the members interviewed called Lincoln a "war criminal". I was astounded. Granted, I did not think that Lincoln would be embraced en mass; but war criminal! While I am not an expert on Lincoln, I have studied enough of the Civil War to sit down and ponder this superfluous point of view. War Criminal???? How on earth could this be the case???? I understand that being brought up with the mythical cult of Lincoln as savior that my bias might be challenged. Indeed it was. But, War Criminal!!! I just cannot get past that one. I can see how Lincoln's approval of the way the War of the Rebellion was executed would solicit bitter feelings from those whom it was inflicted upon. Yet, this is over 150 years since the "Civil War". All I could think was . .. "the madness of these deluded people". As a historian I certainly can see that Lincoln would not hold a high opinion in the South, but the twisting of history to perpetuate a mythical victim psychology by southerners is the best example of what historians dislike about the idea of "democratic" principles of history. First, it's factually wrong. Lincoln prosecuted a war to save the Union because the SOUTH rebelled. And during War there are things that armies do that are unspeakable, on both sides, but are necessary to win. Should Sherman not have marched to the sea? If he had not would the North have won the Civil War?? This was key to the reelection of President Lincoln. We can imagine that if Lincoln had not won George B. McClellen would have become President negotiated a peace and maintained the institution of slavery. Plausible assumptions all. Secondly, historians cannot let the perpetuation of this type of twisted history to continue. This is where the problem of "democratic" history perpetuates prejudice and falsity. Democracy is fine for some governing institutions. Even in a Representative Republic, to allow these voices to be heard is necessary in contradistinction to censoring materials. However, to allow history to go unchecked by someone who has studied the subject exhaustively, does not spell good history. It spells history by consensus where a version of history emerges that reflects all the OPINIONS of the extremes. Hence, it becomes a mathematical formula whereby historians must write history to gloss over some areas of historical work so as not to offend others. This is DANGEROUS. Sometimes as we learn from history and new evidence emerges to explain past actions, evidence emerges that is incontrovertible and no point of view pro or con can doubt its authenticity. While I am all for democratic systems within the republic we live, some academic areas cannot be conducted by consensus. And the claim that eventually the democratic process gets it right reminds me of the Death of Socrates. Here a jury afraid of his methods, the method we use today, condemned him to death for corrupting the youth of Athens. Socrates did not bow to the consensus so he was silenced. That is the dangerous road we take when we bow to consensus. If this is allowed, every area of history will be subject to consensus review rather than peer review. It's a far leap, but so was the internet 15 years ago. I saw one glimmer of hope in the documentary Looking for Lincoln. Dr. Gates interviewed an African American woman who was a member of the Confederal Sons auxiliary, forgive the mis-naming of the organization. Dr. Gates reaction to her presence remained surprise. Then the woman explained that: "I am hear because if I am not here nobody will discuss the history of African Americans" A noble objective indeed. The organization also had a ceremony to honor a family whose slave ancestor served in the Confederate army. That was also surprising. Though I cannot help thinking that if the South had won what kind of compensation those slaves would have received? Emancipation? It is a question? Consequently, I have started to arrived at some conclusions. First, historians do need to become more active in providing information on the internet to counter all the wacko theories out there. Secondly, there is not time enough to go around and edit all the incorrect problems out there. Therefore, historians have to start somewhere else. Beginning with blogging and with online publication, historians can start to counter all this crap. Third, in order to obtain correct information Americans must overcome their problems with intellectuals. Intellectuals while not omnipresent do have the training and expertise to provide informed historical works. This does not mean that all amateur historians should stop dabbling in history. In fact, amateurs often find and pass along information to academics who would not have thought of the idea in the first place. Hence, they deserve credit for bringing ideas to the table. In that sense, historians should be more democratic. The notion of ideas being democratic remains a frightening prospect. I like the idea that people can believe what they want. However, sometimes we have to be told we are wrong. Hence, historians must confront the two types of democracy on the internet. There is democracy where intellectual equals can exchange ideas; there is anarchy. What Wikipedia represents is a form of "organized mob rule". Where the mob reaches a consensus of opinion. This is not an intellectual exercise in obtaining information it is twisting facts to not offend someone's sensibilities. Do we allow those with the opinion that Lincoln was a War Criminal to perpetuate the historical record. Granted it might sell books but it is not history. It's fiction that passes for historical interpretation. As a historian, I accept that Lincoln made mistakes. However, I cannot negotiate a consensus on the notion he was a War Criminal. It is as if the makers of Wikipedia believe that history can be likened to negotiable instruments. As Leopold Van Ranke asserted, some aspects of history are non-negotiable due to the inherent nature of the basic foundation of things called facts.

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