Friday, August 10, 2018

Thoughts on Recent Conference

As promised, I have returned to offer some brief thoughts on the conference I attended with two colleagues two weeks ago. "Confederate Icons: History, Memory, and the Future of Our Past" was held at James Madison University and sponsored by the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation. First, let me say that the facilities at JMU were top notch in every way, and that everyone we encountered was friendly and helpful. Having attended all seven Virginia Sesquicentennial conferences, I believe this was on par with those larger events, and I made sure to tell the organizers that. I am going to post links to each of the presentations so you can watch them yourself if you choose, but here's a brief synopsis.

James I. "Bud" Robertson, Jr. was first up and I hate to say it, but I was terribly disappointed. While his presentation started out moderately enough, he quickly went off the rails and stayed there. His talk lost all professionalism in my mind when he used the oft-heard conservative jab at young liberals, "snowflakes." And that was only the beginning. One colleague pointed out that he cited no historiography past the 1950s, though he certainly knows better. His worship (and there's no other way to say it) of Robert E. Lee and attack on the Episcopal Church was over the top. Basically, he came off sounding like an angry old white guy. There is so much to break down about his presentation, but I'll spare it and you can watch it yourself if you choose. Link

Caroline Janney gave what maybe should have been the first lecture of the day, which put every other presentation into historical context. Her presentation outlined the activities of both Union and Confederate veterans in the years following the war, up to about World War I. This offered a gentle corrective to some of Robertson's thoughts by taking the issue further back in time than he bothered to do. Link

Christy Coleman was nearly the polar opposite of Robertson in her presentation, though she didn't go spinning wildly off into left field. She did have a few miscues/stumbles, but offered the real counterpoint to Robertson. She proved elusive during Q&A, not really answering the one question that was posed, to which everyone wanted to know the answer (regarding the committee recommendations on what to do with Richmond's Monument Avenue). She also invited some pointed criticism during Q&A that the moderators fairly quickly shut down. Link

John Coski came in right where I thought he would - straight down the middle. He was easily the most moderate of the speakers, though not conciliatory in any way. He laid out the facts in a straightforward and honest way, and his conclusions fell squarely where they should have. He was pushed a bit during Q&A, but not to the extent that Coleman had been. Link

Keven Walker wrapped up the day by giving the SVBF official position on the matter. Link

Overall, it was a very balanced conference, with all sides represented in some way. Unfortunately, the audience for this was probably not the audience that needs to hear such reasoned debate. The demographic was about what one would expect for such a conference, 99% white and over the age of 50. Those of us in our 40s felt like the young ones in the room, save for a few grad students. One colleague mentioned on numerous occasions that he was surprised to see armed law enforcement presence at the conference and wondered what message that sent. The officers were JMU campus police and there were two of them in the facility throughout the day. I didn't find this too unusual, surmising that the campus probably requires law enforcement to be present at most events held on campus. Maybe it was their appearance that he noticed. They didn't look like contract security guards (mall cops/rent-a-cops), but were regular, uniformed police, one of whom was wearing a vest. I chalked it up to campus policy, but maybe they were hedging against any kind of unrest. Suffice it to say, it was a very low-key and respectful crowd.

I will definitely keep up with the program offerings from SVBF in the future, as I was very impressed with this event. If they do something that interests you, I would highly recommend attending. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

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