Politics masquerading as history
To the Editor:
I was both bemused and offended by John Coulter’s article (Jan. 2) attacking Professor Anita Gaul’s work on the KKK in Southwest Minnesota.
Mr. Coulter is apparently charging Professor Gaul with revisionism, but there is nothing revisionist about her discussion of the KKK in Chandler. The signature characteristic of the KKK in the 1920s was that it went national. They pioneered in direct mail marketing to reach people all over the country. They were unabashedly public, openly lobbying for anti-immigration and anti-Catholic legislation. And they proudly marched ten thousand strong in full regalia down the streets of Washington D.C.
Mr. Coulter says what disappoints him most was that Professor Gaul talked about the KKK instead of talking about the Civil War, railroads, and immigration. This is absurd. The first rule of honorable criticism is that you critique the material the author presents, not something you would prefer to be reading about.
Professor Gaul could certainly talk about Southwest Minnesota immigration. She is an expert in the subject. But on this occasion she was talking about the KKK. Don’t criticize her for doing the work she set out to do. What offended me about this piece was that it was not an article about history. This was politics masquerading as history. It was a petulant swipe at a person of one political party by a person of the opposing side.
Anita Gaul does not “denigrate and destroy America’s history.” Good historians start from the evidence, gathering as much material as they possibly can (often a daunting task), assess it with as much care and honesty as they can bring to it, trying to understand people in their own time and place. And then they move on to share it with other people, something Professor Gaul has done consistently and generously through such projects as the KKK exhibit.
History is not a club to wield against enemies. It is not an unquestioning patriotic song. It is the story of real people, not people who live in “paradise.” It is something I think is sacred, and I don’t like to see it cheapened.
— Joan Gittens is a professor Emerita, Southwest Minnesota State University