Sunday, December 27, 2009

American Civil War denialism

Along with all the other forms of denialism, here in the US we have a large fraction of political conservatives who deny that our Civil War was primarily or even partially about slavery in the South. You can see it in this Krugman post that pointed out the obvious, and some of the comments that still couldn't see the obvious. Here's one by Hal Horvath:

I think I’ll stick to the well-known scenario: Lincoln started the war for the public reason: to preserve the Union, and only changed the primary reason much later, in order to justify the bloodshed and uplift the nation.

Yes, Lincoln used sneaky Jedi mind tricks to start the war by making the Confederates attack Fort Sumter.

Contrary to Horvath, both pro- and anti-slavery forces in the US prior to the Civil War believed that slavery had to expand to new states in the West in order for it and the Southern Way of Life to survive. Lincoln and the Republicans opposed expansion, and that was enough for some Southern states to secede when Lincoln won the presidency. More at wiki for those who care.

Add another denialism to the list. It would be interesting to see how many denialist beliefs can be found in a single person.


  1. The term "denialism" only maintains a negative connotation because it once used to refer to denial of the Holocaust. The more you try to expand it into other realms, the more you water down the term as a catch-all slander for your enemies. Throw in a few more cases like this and pretty soon "denialist" will simply mean "somebody who disagrees with my conclusions." The main remaining negative connotation will be on the person who uses the term, since doing so demonstrates their inability to figure out why somebody might disagree with them combined with their unwillingness to ask for clarification.

  2. The more common term is Holocaust "deniers" instead of denialists. I used the denialist/denier term but never made the Holocaust connection until after Roger Pielke Jr had a hissy fit about it.

    Anyway I welcome a dissociation of denialist terminology from the Holocaust, so we can avoid that charged connotation while getting a better term than "skeptic" for non-skeptical, irrational, or deliberately misleading assertions. There are some global warming skeptics, but the loudest ones seem to me to be denialists.

    And you're right that "denialist" will be misused for people who are actually skeptical, but misuse of language is always possible.

  3. I guess you could call me a "denialist" denialist.

    Near as I can tell, the intent of the term "denialist" is to claim that the people you disagree with are just like Ayn Rand villains. To use the term is to say: my position is so clearly correct that anybody who disagrees must secretly know I'm right. My enemies are "in denial" of the truth that I am privy to, because they don't want to admit I'm right or because they are being paid off by The Bad People or because my knowledge is too powerful and scary to contemplate!

    Let's get serious here. When presented with somebody who disagrees with a position that seems clear to you, which is more likely?

    (a) they secretly know you're right and are just arguing to the contrary because they enjoy being spiteful and wrong, or

    (b) they have different priors and different background knowledge that has led them to different conclusions than yours and they haven't yet changed those conclusion because you're doing a really crappy job of constructing an argument that works as well in their knowledge-context as it does in yours.

    My money is on (b), however convenient and emotionally appealing it might be to want to believe (a).

  4. You inspired me to write a new post, Glen, it's the one following this one. Short version is that denialists can be sincere in their beliefs, but wrong beyond the level of rational skepticism. And, inconsistently, I tend to refer to people I think are sincere as skeptics.

    I'm sure you're sincere, Glen, or you wouldn't spend this much time arguing with me.

  5. Ah, more appeals to cry me a river. Denialism of all kinds (tobacco, aids/hiv, asbestos, etc have claimed a river of victims. Climate change denialism's victims are in the future, but so were a lot of victims of tobacco, aids/hiv, asbestos, mercury, lead and more when that sort of denialism started.

    Forgive a simple Bunny, but the cast of characters leading the climate change denialism charge are pretty much the same, the Milloys, Singers, Bates, Seitzs of the world. When have they ever been right and why should anyone pay them any head, let alone their packs of baying monkeys.

  6. Eli: the "when have the ever been right" argument would seem to work similarly well for the skeptic side given the vast array of predicted environmental apocalypses that didn't happen and the similar cast of characters. The analogous question is "When has Paul Ehrlich ever been right and why should anyone pay him any heed?" To which you might counter that Paul wasn't central to "your side" of the debate, merely a fellow-traveller on the same road. To which I would likely assert the same of Milloy and Singer (who I've at least heard of) and those other two guys (whoever they are).


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