Posts tagged ‘Lost Cause’

Confederate Statues, The Lost Cause School, and Stalinism

I don't have a lot to say about the whole Confederate statue thing.  Most of what I would say could probably be cut and pasted from my post on the Confederate flag.

The one thing I want to comment on is the criticism that pulling down these statues is "Stalinist", referring to Stalin's proclivity for changing history books and even airbrushing men out of photos when he turned against them.  I find this comparison ironic for the following reason:  Think back to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989.  I have two images in my mind of that time.  One is of people on top of and pulling down the Berlin Wall.  But the other is of Soviet-era statues toppling in Eastern Europe.  Pulling down the statue of Lenin or Stalin or whoever became the key public declaration that people were making a break with the past.

Public statues on public land are basically government speech.  People call it "history" but in most cases it is closer to propaganda.  I think it is totally appropriate to question it.  Now, I might have gone about the whole thing differently.  If I were a city, I would name the statues that I wanted removed, and then give private individuals and groups 6 months to pay to take it away to a private site if they wanted to keep it.  If no one cared enough to do so, we'd just demolish it.  By the way, I think this gets at the heart of why many folks like myself still have a bit of fear about the current efforts -- the folks on the Left who are doing this don't tend to differentiate between public and private.  It is very likely their perfectly reasonable criticism of public speech in public spaces will soon turn into attempts to regulate private speech in private spaces.

The Lost Cause School:   I want to provide some help for those not from the South to understand the southern side of the statue thing.  In particular, how can good people who believe themselves not to be racist support these statues?  You have to recognize that most folks of my generation in the South were raised on the lost cause school of Civil War historiography.  I went to one of the great private high schools in the South and realized later I had been steeped in Lost Cause.  All the public schools taught it.  Here is the Wikipedia summary:

The Lost Cause of the Confederacy, or simply Lost Cause, is a set of revisionist beliefs that describes the Confederate cause as a heroic one against great odds despite its defeat. The beliefs endorse the virtues of the antebellum South, viewing the American Civil War as an honorable struggle for the Southern way of life,[1] while minimizing or denying the central role of slavery. While it was not taught in the North, aspects of it did win acceptance there and helped the process of reunifying American whites.

The Lost Cause belief system synthesized numerous ideas into a coherent package. Lost Cause supporters argue that slavery was not the main cause of the Civil War, and claim that few scholars saw it as such before the 1950s.[2] In order to reach this conclusion, they often deny or minimize the writings and speeches of Confederate leaders of the time in favor of later-written revisionist documents.[3] Supporters often stressed the idea of secession as a defense against a Northern threat to their way of life and say that threat violated the states' rights guaranteed by the Union. They believed any state had the right to secede, a point strongly denied by the North. The Lost Cause portrayed the South as more profoundly Christian than the greedy North. It portrayed the slavery system as more benevolent than cruel, emphasizing that it taught Christianity and civilization. In explaining Confederate defeat, the Lost Cause said the main factor was not qualitative inferiority in leadership or fighting ability but the massive quantitative superiority of the Yankee industrial machine.

Obviously this was promoted by the white supremacists after the war, but in the 20th century many well-meaning people in the South who are not racist and by no means want to see a return of slavery or Jim Crow still retain elements of this story, particularly the vision of the Confederacy as a scrappy underdog.  But everything in these two paragraphs including the downplaying of slavery in the causes of the Civil War was being taught when I grew up.  It wasn't until a civil war course in college (from James McPherson no less, boy was I a lucky dog there) that I read source material from the time and was deprogrammed.

The comparisons of the current statue removal to Protestant reformation iconoclasm seem particularly apt to me.  You see, growing up in the South, Confederate generals were our saints.  And the word "generals" is important.  No one I knew growing up would think to revere, say, Jefferson Davis.  Only the hard-core white supremacists revered Jefferson Davis.  Real lost cause non-racist southerners revered Robert E. Lee.  He was our Jesus (see: Dukes of Hazard).  Every town in the south still has a Robert E Lee High School.  Had I not gone to private school, I would have gone to Houston's Lee High (I had a friend who went to college at Lehigh in New Jersey.  Whenever he told folks in the South he went there, they would inevitably answer "yes, but where did you go to college.")  So Lee was by far and away at the top of the pantheon.  Then you had folks like Stonewall Jackson and JEB Stuart who were probably our Peter and Paul.  Then all the rest of the generals trailing off through the equivalents of St. Bartholomew or whoever.  We even had a Judas, General James Longstreet, who for a variety of reasons was reviled by the Lost Cause school and was blamed for many of Lee's, and the South's, losses.

If you want to see the Southern generals the way much of the South sees them, watch the movie Gettysburg, which I like quite a bit (based on the book Killer Angels, I believe, also a good read).  The Southern Generals are good, talented men trying to make the best of a losing cause.  Slavery is, in this movie, irrelevant to them.   They are fighting for their beloved homes in the South, not for slavery.  The movie even has Longstreet saying something like "we should have freed the slaves and then fired on Fort Sumter."

On Displaying the Confederate Battle Flag

The Supremes are going to discuss whether displaying a confederate battle flag on your custom license plate is protected by free speech.

In 1980 when I went up north to school I had a Confederate battle flag on my wall.  I keep calling it the battle flag because in fact the flag you are thinking about (the one on the Dukes of Hazard's car) is not actually the flag of the Confederate nation.  Most folks could not describe the original Confederate flag under torture (here it is).

So the flag you are thinking about, and the Supremes are considering, was actually based on the battle flags of certain state militias, like that of Virginia and Tennessee.  It was also used by the Confederate Navy, and was incorporated into a redesign of the official Confederate flag late in the war.

Anyway, there were a couple of reasons a young Texan might put up this flag in his northern dorm room.  First, it is awesome looking.  There are a lot of bad flags in the world, but this is a great-looking flag.  Second, at the time it represented the southern pride of a lot of us who found ourselves displaced and living in that odd northeastern college culture.  It never represented (at least at the time) anything racist for me.  For southerners (many of us raised, without knowing it, on the Lost Cause school of Civil War historiography) it represented pride and pluck and scrappy determination.

Anyway, I don't remember getting any pushback on the flag at the time.  Over the years, though, I came to recognize that the flag was seen by many as a symbol of racism.  Part of that was my increasing awareness but a large part was shifts in society and its perceptions -- remember the Dukes of Hazard was a real, popular network show that could likely never get made today.   I suppose I could have retained the flag as a symbol of what I thought it was a symbol for, and just ignored other peoples' opinion.  But at some point, I realized that other peoples' good opinion of me had value and that I needed to acknowledge how they saw the flag and put it away in a box.

Which brings me back to license plates.  If a state is going to create a license plate program where people can make statements with their license plates, then people should be able to make the statement they want to make.  I know there are folks in the south who honestly still cling to the symbolism I used to attach to the Confederate battle flag.  But let's leave those folks aside.  Let's assume for a moment that everyone who wants to display this symbol on their car is a racist.  Shouldn't we be thrilled if they want to do so?  Here would be a program where racists would voluntarily self-identify to all as a racist (they would even pay extra to do so!)  What would be a greater public service?

I make this same argument when people want to ban speakers from campus.  If people are willing to come forward with evil thoughts and intentions and announce them publicly, why wouldn't we let them?  It's is fine to want to eliminate evil from the Earth, but shilling banning hateful speech doesn't do this -- it only drives evil underground.

Postscript:  I actually started thinking about this driving down I-40 from Knoxville to Nashville yesterday.  In a bend in the road, on a hill, there is a large home.  Their land goes right out to the bend in the highway, and on that bend they have put up a huge flag pole with a big Confederate battle flag.  You can see it from miles in each direction.  I didn't get a picture but there are plenty on the web. From searching for it, there are apparently similar installations on private land in other states.  As I drove, having nothing else to do, I thought a lot about what message they were trying to send.  Was it just southern pride?  Were they really racists?  If they weren't racists, did they know that many would think them as such?  And if so, did they even care -- was this in fact just a giant FU?

 Update:  Fixed the typo in the last line.  Did I mean chilling?  Not even sure.  Banning is what I meant.