So in the follow-up to the little feud concerning my response to his review of Lincoln, Aaron Bady grew quite upset. Now, I’ve been quite up front about the fact that I’m not myself a specialist on nineteenth-century US history. What little I do know has been mostly cobbled together from introductory texts on the subject in high school and college, Lenin’s detailed study comparing the Southern slave system to serfdom in Russia, and then from numerous conversations with friends who actually are studying the subject for their doctoral research. Despite these numerous disclaimers, Bady insisted that I was “hiding behind someone else” and didn’t know what I was talking about.
More specifically, he wrote:
Aaron Bady: [C]alling Abraham Lincoln an abolitionist is wrong; he was against slavery, but he wasn’t an abolitionist. Someone who knew what they were talking about would know the difference.
This tactic is rather old hat, trying to intimidate potential critics by invoking supposedly hard-and-fast technicalities about the correct usage of terms. The takeaway from this lesson is supposed to be “Wow, this guy is obviously a specialist. I’m not; I don’t even know the most basic nomenclature! I’d better lay off, lest I put my foot in my mouth again.”
Just to hammer this point home, Bady took it further by repeating the procedure a second time:
Aaron Bady: Do you literally not know what Abolitionist means? It doesn’t mean “opposed to slavery.” “Moderate abolitionist” isn’t a thing. Like the vast majority of northern whites, Lincoln spent his life adhering to the free labor principles of Henry Clay, a near majority position that was NOT the same thing as abolitionist. To use the word in its actual meaning, abolitionist means abolishing slavery now, which was a minority position.
Turns out I wasn’t the only one who noticed him trying to give me the rhetorical runaround. There was another discussant in the thread who was wise to this schtick, who messaged me writing:
Unnamed Discussant: Wow, this Aaron Bady guy is a knob. Never had a new social historian pull the “I’m an authority on this, peasant” on me before.
I suppose there’s a first time for everything. Still, I was determined to continue arguing ad rem, without having to resort to the usual polemical barbs. I calmly clarified what I’d meant by “moderate abolitionist” and defended its usage:
Ross Wolfe: The term “moderate abolitionist,” whether a misnomer or not, was used at the time and continues to be used.
Though I’d tried to remain polite, all this did was elicit more self-satisfied snark on his part.
Aaron Bady: Are there a lot of moderate abolitionists around, these days?
Unfortunately for him, this final bit of pedantry was bound to backfire. Not only did I spell out his willful misreading of what I wrote:
Ross Wolfe: Not used to refer to a political position that exists in the present, but rather presently used to refer to a political position that existed in the past.
I also decided to twist the dagger, just for good measure. The image says it all:
Next time he might want to think twice before adopting such a haughty, imperious tone. Maybe not.
There was also some idiotic back-and-forth on Twitter after his girlfriend took it upon herself to weigh in on whole affair, pronouncing him (shockingly!) the winner of the exchange.
If you’re not in the mood to read more of that idiocy, just go ahead and skip to reading Connor Kilpatrick’s response in Jacobin, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” It’s a far better and more accurate piece.