By Janine Jackson, Fair

The August 27, 2021, episode of CounterSpin included an archival interview Janine Jackson conducted with James Loewen about lies historians tell us. The interview originally aired July 3, 2015. This is a lightly edited transcript.

It seems appropriate to hear the conversation again, not only in the wake of Loewen’s death, but in sight of the upcoming September 11 anniversary, where no doubt many self-serving untruths will be presented to US audiences. Not to mention in the context of the boggling conflict over critical race theory, also known as the very notion of talking about the undeniable white supremacy embedded—still, until or unless we actively root it out—in US institutions like housing, like education, like media.

Janine Jackson: We spoke with James Loewen right before the Fourth of July in 2015, knowing that that would be a day filled with mystification about the United States—how it started, and what it believes in.

It’s a mistake to imagine that a misreading of history affects only those who believe it. The truth is, it affects all of us.

James Loewen understood that. He worked at and around the problem of the forceful presentation of false historical narratives and their role in present-day life. His book Lies My Teacher Told Me, like his later work on sundown towns, illuminated the hidden histories and the prominent tall tales that do damage, not just to our individual understanding, but to political and policy choices that shape our future.

So here again is CounterSpin’s conversation with James Loewen from July of 2015, where I started by asking his thoughts on the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse, and the storyline around the Confederate flag as being about “heritage, not hate.”

James Loewen: Let me say, first of all, that I think it is very important that Governor [Nikki] Haley came out against the flag, and that it looks like it’s going to succeed, that the flag will come down from this place of honor right in front of the state capitol.

Of course, a while back, it did come down from on top of the state capitol, which was just an astounding placement, if you think about it, because it implies—you know, the flag flying right over the place where the laws are made certainly implies that the laws are made in obedience to what that flag means.

So let’s look for just a minute at what that flag means, because, unfortunately, most of the people who are right now flipflopping on the flag—and, again, it’s wonderful that they are reversing themselves—but most of them still don’t have, well, either the knowledge, perhaps, or certainly the guts, to actually say that they’ve been getting it wrong all these years. They need to say what the flag stands for.

The Confederacy seceded, many people think, for states’ rights. And I know they think this, because for the last, oh, at least seven years, and certainly for the last five years, while we’ve been in the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, I’ve been going around the country, asking them, why did the South secede?

Now, this is the most important thing that ever happened in the history of this country. Because, of course, the secession of the South and its firing on various forts, particularly Fort Sumter, led immediately to the Civil War, which is far and away the most important thing that ever happened after we organized as a country.

So this is very important: Why did they do it? And you always get four answers. You get the South seceded for slavery; it seceded for states’ rights; it seceded because of the election of Lincoln; and it seceded over tariffs and taxes, or issues about tariffs and taxes.

JJ: Uh-huh.

So then we look at the facts, and it’s very interesting, the facts are perfectly easy to find. You mentioned my book, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader. Well, they’re all in here. And they weren’t that hard for us to find when we put them in there.

JL: And then I ask people to vote, and what’s interesting is it doesn’t make any difference  whether I’m asking them in Columbia, South Carolina, where I have; or Greensboro, North Carolina, where I have; or North Dakota, where I have; or an overwhelmingly Black audience in Memphis, where I have; or in Southern California; the answer comes out, almost always, the same, and here’s how it comes out: About 15%, sometimes 20%, say the South seceded over slavery. Sixty percent, sometimes 65, say the South seceded for states’ rights. About 2% say the South seceded because of the election of Lincoln. And about 10 to 30%—this is the one that varies the most—say that it was all about issues about tariffs and taxes.

The most important single statement is by South Carolina, because it seceded first, but every single state makes a similar statement when it leaves the United States. Here’s what South Carolina called its statement: “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” That kind of sounds right on point, doesn’t it?

JJ: Yes.

JL: And here’s what they say. They actually say, “We assert that 14 of the states have deliberately refused for years past to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own statutes for the proof.” Now, “constitutional obligations” sounds kind of vague, but they go right on to tell us exactly what they mean:

The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows:

No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.

Well, that’s, of course, the Fugitive Slave Clause, and they then go on to tell us which states are exercising their states’ rights in various little ways and making various little interferences. They say, “The states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont,” blah blah blah—they name 16 of them in all, ending up in the west with Wisconsin and Iowa—“have enacted laws which either nullify the acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these states, the fugitive is discharged from the service or labor claimed”—so, in other words, it is all about states rights, except the South is against states rights. And what it’s really all about is, of course, slavery, the S-word.

JJ: It’s so difficult, though, to confront that, why—I’m shocked, actually, at the lowness of the percentage that respond with the answer of slavery. I would have thought that would have at least been a contender.

JL: Twenty percent. And that’s 20% if you ask in Seattle, you know; it doesn’t make any…Cleveland.

JJ: Right.

JL: So we completely misunderstand the most important thing that ever happened in the country. Now, why do we misunderstand it? Well, I’m going to give you two reasons.

The first thing we need to do, any historian will tell you, we need to look at when we started to misunderstand it. And we didn’t misunderstand it at the time; how could we? Mississippi, Texas, every single state, says, “it’s slavery, that’s why we’re leaving,” so we didn’t misunderstand it then.

We started misunderstanding it mostly between 1890 and 1940, and this is the era that historians call the nadir of race relations. “Nadir” is, of course, an English-language word meaning “low point.” Some people say “nuh-deer.” That’s fine too.

So during this era, 1890 to 1940, the United States goes more racist in its thinking, in its ideology, than at any other point.

This is when lynchings reached an all-time high, this is when so many towns across the North go sundown—that is, they throw out their Black populations, or if they don’t have any, they make a decision, formally or informally, that they’re never going to have any. And they post, some of them post, infamous signs at their city limits, like Manitowoc, Wisconsin, saying, “Nigger, don’t let the sun go down on you in Manitowoc.”

JJ: Uh-huh.

JL: So at this point, when the neo-Confederates start saying, no, no, no, it wasn’t about slavery, it was all about states’ rights, the white North really doesn’t have the gumption to argue with them, because they’re participating in racism so heavily themselves. So that’s one explanation.

But the other explanation is to look at today’s textbooks. And one I like to pick on is the largest textbook ever invented for middle school in this country; it’s called The American Journey. It’s a history of the United States. It’s allegedly by three famous historians: Joyce Appleby, Alan Brinkley and James McPherson.

And so you would think that the stuff on the Civil War would be by McPherson, because he wrote what I think is the best single-volume history of the Civil War. But when you read it, it turns out it completely mystifies what secession was all about.

Now, McPherson knows; so what we know from this is, it turns out that these people who allegedly write the history textbooks don’t write them. The publishers write them, and then they rent their names and stick them on them. But they don’t even read them!

Now, when I’m lecturing about this kind of thing to college students, I say: Now look, if you are such an idiot that you actually buy your term paper for $9.95 from the web, I hope you at least have the brains to read the darn thing before you hand it in to your teacher. So I know that James McPherson never even read what he says about secession in this book, because he’d never put up with it.

JJ: He knows better.

JL: Yes.

JJ: One of the things that erasing that nadir period does—I mean, one of the problems with the way that’s integrated is—we have this idea that history has been a steady improvement, a steady march toward progress.

JL: Yeah. Yes, exactly.

JJ: We can’t really process the idea that it’s looped back, and things have gotten worse and—

JL: That’s right. That’s right. We don’t—and that’s the basic storyline. People often ask me, “OK, so you wrote this book, Lies My Teacher Told Me. What’s the biggest lie?” And that’s the biggest lie, that we started out great and we’ve been getting better ever since, kind of automatically. And now you people should vote. But that’s about all you really need to do, because otherwise, things take care of themselves.

And, of course, unfortunately, it’s not true. Things don’t take care of themselves. We have to take care of them. And I honestly believe we are beginning to take care of this idiotic, pro-Confederate mythology right now as we speak.

JJ: And that is hopeful. We shouldn’t almost need to spell out—part of what is so problematic about this steady march of progress is that it says to people who are outside of power, who are disadvantaged today—

JL: Yeah. Be passive.

JJ: You know, your people, your ancestors—you say at one point in Lies, the message of textbooks to nonwhite kids is often, “Well, your ancestors didn’t do very much.”

JL: Yeah.

JJ: “And so you’re probably not going to do very much.” That’s a real message.

JL: And furthermore, just be passive, because it’s all going to take care of itself.

JJ: Right. Right.

Do you believe—I know that you have gone back and taken a look at textbooks more recently than you initially did, and I understand you think that maybe the treatment of slavery, the way it’s taught to kids, has improved somewhat?

JL: No. Of course, it has improved compared to, say, what we said about slavery during the nadir.

JJ: Right. Sure.

JL: But the textbooks of the period, the 1970s, ’80s and ‘90s, already, I have to admit, except for one of them, did make slavery [sound] not so good, you know? Which is good, because in the ‘50s, even into the ‘60s, they made slavery sound pretty good. You know, maybe you might want to be a slave yourself. People take care of you and stuff, and you don’t have to worry about what to do next. They’ll tell you.

JJ: Right.

JL: Which is just a completely inadequate, shall we say, view of slavery.

JJ: Absolutely.

JL: So they corrected that. But they eliminated the R-word, that is, racism. And the problem is, of course, we ended slavery. I mean, we really did. We have to admit. But, yes, we still have enslaved prisoners. And certainly the fact that there was a lot of prisoner enslavement, in the 1890s and during the nadir.

But as a whole, we did end slavery. We did pass the 13th Amendment and so on. So it’s a great country; we fixed it.

But the R-word, the racism, which is, of course, the handmaiden of slavery, which grows up to accompany slavery, which rationalizes it and makes it seem appropriate, that didn’t just disappear with the passage of the 13th Amendment. We still have that problem. And, as I indicated, it even intensified during the nadir. And it is that that we’re still dealing with today.

Now, I keep being an optimist, and I think that getting rid of these statues will help. Because I think if you’ve got a Confederate statue at your county seat, and it says the Confederacy was wonderful, I think it’s easier for you to grow up with a Confederate mindset, and maybe even a Confederate heart.

So I’m hoping that we go beyond just removing the flag, and end up either taking these silly statues down, all the way from Helena, Montana, to deepest Florida, and putting them in a museum. Or, if we leave them up, put right next to them a plaque that explains what’s wrong with them.

JJ: Well, journalism is a kind of a text, too. Both represent how we—I’m choosing that word carefully—how we tell a story when we want to tell it simply, you know? And there are similar failings, I find. There’s a passive voice. There are truncated timelines that imply a causality. And then, another thing you were just reminding me of, which is that we tell history and current events through the story of big men, of famous people.

JL: Yup.

JJ: And I think it dovetails with this idea about eliminating racism from the conversation. In the book, you talk about how if we would have an honest depiction of just, say, Abraham Lincoln, we would see how somebody can grapple with an idea can change their ideas over the course of their life. And we would see that racism is not a solid object that exists inside some people.

JL: That’s right.

JJ: We’d have an active idea of how history is made.

JL: That’s right. Abraham Lincoln was, of course, a racist. And he also was an anti-racist. And so are we all, I submit. And if we can understand that in him, then we could understand that we are not fixed with our ideas.

And, again, I think we have a current example right in front of us. How many of us have changed our ideas, just in the last 20 years, about whether gay people should be disparaged, whether they should be allowed to get married? If we can change our ideas on these things, we can change our ideas on race as well.

JJ: We’re going to be hearing about the Fourth of July soon, when, as I understand it, white men in wigs got together and thought up democracy.

JL: Yeah.

JJ: And they had some influences, but mostly they just had this spirit of egalitarianism. One important influence on the ideas of governing is not generally part of the conversation, and I wonder if you could talk to listeners a little bit about the Iroquois League, because I bet we’re not going to hear about that.

JL: Sure. It wasn’t even only the Iroquois.

JJ: Right.

And so it kind of amazed them. How can they govern themselves? Some of them, like the Choctaws, governed about half of Mississippi and maybe an eighth of Alabama. So that’s a pretty big area. That’s a bigger area than whole nations in Europe, and they’re doing it without any king. How can they do that?

JL: Many Native American nations or tribes, whatever term you want to use—and some Native Americans prefer tribe, just for the record—many of these groups were much more equalitarian than anything the Western Europeans knew when they first got to these shores in 1492, in 1607, or whatever group we’re talking about, before or after that.

And, of course, you rightly mention the Iroquois, who governed an even larger area, in Western New York and northwestern Pennsylvania and going into Canada. And they did this as a league, as a combination of six different nations, that somehow managed to ally and stay allied. How did they do that?

And so we were very curious, we white folks, and, for that matter, Black folks, were very curious about that. And that had an impact on European philosophers, like Montesquieu and Montaigne and what’s-his-name, Locke, the British, and influenced their thinking that then became influential in our thinking, and these white folks with the wigs that you mentioned that come up with democracy. So there’s an influence.

Plus, there was a direct influence. Benjamin Franklin literally used the Iroquois influence as an example for our Articles of Confederacy.

So that’s part of the story. And we don’t really credit Native Americans with ideas. We do credit them with crops. Which is new; we didn’t even used to do that. You know, they invented corn! And they did. But we need to give them credit for some ideas, and some interesting ones as well.

JJ: I remember from Lies that cartoonists used to use images of Native Americans to represent the colonies fighting against the British.

JL: That’s right.

JJ: Which is a funny kind of thing. And yet, as time has gone on, that image has been shifted or distorted. And I guess acknowledging their influence on the very principles of the founding of the country, that would entail acknowledging the horror of what was done to them.

JL: You know what? If we did that, we might actually have to change the name of the National Football League team that’s in our nation’s capital.

JJ: Right.

JL: And, of course, I’m referring to the Washington Redskins. We don’t got no team called the Atlanta Niggers or the Chicago Polacks or New York City Hymies. But here we use a racial slur for the team in the nation’s capital. And we get away with it. Why? Well, because they ain’t but about 1% of the whole population of the country. And here in DC, they’re nowhere near 1% of the population around here. So, yes, it is a racial slur. But we didn’t mean anything by it. And so we’re just going to keep it.

JJ: Right.

JL: Well, if we really thought these folks are important people who had some good ideas, who maybe still have some good ideas, who maybe are part of our country and we need to think about them, well, then, maybe we couldn’t use that term.

JJ: I keep coming back to—Bill Kristol had a tweet that had some pretty hilarious responses to it, in which he said, “The left’s 21st century agenda: Expunging every trace of respect, recognition, or acknowledgement of Americans who fought for the Confederacy.” And it just reminds me of the bigger critique: When you argue for a more clear-eyed assessment of US actions in history, people say that you think textbooks should be anti-American.

JL: Yeah. That’s the biggest criticism I get. And I actually have now been dealing with it in my own presentations. So I end with the American flag. And it says, “Patriotism, not nationalism.”

And here’s what I say when I show that. It says, “I take my definition of patriotism partly from Frederick Douglass.” And Frederick Douglass—and I say he was really good on women’s rights, so please pardon him for using the “he” pronoun—he says, “I call him a patriot who rebukes his country for its sins and does not excuse them.”

Now, by contrast, a nationalist says, “What sins? We don’t got no sins. And if we ever did anything wrong, it was completely by accident. We were innocent. And if you’re going to say anything else like that, we’re going to fight.”

I would submit to you that nationalism is not patriotic. We don’t need nationalism. We need intelligent, informed patriotism.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with James W. Loewen from the University of Vermont. Thank you very much, James Loewen, for joining us today on CounterSpin.

JL: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you.

JJ: That was author and historian James Loewen speaking with CounterSpin in July of 2015.



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