(An article explaining that as long as people conflate Confederate nostalgia and legitimate pride in Southern identity, the insidious myth of the Lost Cause will go unchecked)
I recently read ‘Why Confederate Lies Live On’, an article in the Atlantic periodical by writer Clint Smith. It recounts the story of the author’s unsettling visit to a Sons of Confederate Veterans memorial event at a predominantly Confederate cemetery, in juxtaposition with a moving sojourn to a former plantation rededicated to memorializing the lives of the slaves who suffered and died there in the antebellum era. In the article, Smith condemned the pro-Confederate narrative of the ‘Lost Cause’, highlighted slavery as the ultimate cause of the Civil War, and argued the ethical necessity of remembering the lives and sufferings of enslaved people, rather than callously omitting them from history.
I agree wholeheartedly with the author on every point outlined above.
Even so, the article – like so much journalism that touches on questions of Southern identity and racism – left me, as a Southern anarchist, feeling acutely disappointed. In the first place, Smith, like so many progressive cultural commentators, condemned the Confederacy as much on the basis of its traitorousness in seceding from the Union as for the sake of its egregious human rights abuses. To quote the author:
‘In front of the gazebo [where the Sons of Confederate Veterans were demonstrating] were two flags, one Confederate, one American, standing side by side, as if 700,000 people hadn’t been killed in the epic conflagration between them,’ and, later, ‘the myth [of the Lost Cause] was an attempt to recast the Confederacy as something predicated on family and heritage rather than what it was: a traitorous [emphasis my own]effort to extend the bondage of millions of Black people’.
On the face of it, these statements are straightforwardly true: the United States of America did, of course, battle the Confederacy for the whole of the latter country’s less-than-five year existence, during which time the better part of a million people died as a result; the conflict in question arose from an attempt by the elite beneficiaries of the Southern plantation economy to preserve and extend an economic system built on slave labor; and, by founding their new nation – a nation built on a slave-based economy and the white supremacist ideology which, in their minds, justified it – the Confederate planter-aristocrats committed treason against the US by unilaterally dividing a legally indivisible federation of states.
I nevertheless take issue with Smith’s statements, however, for the reasons that they seem, in the first place, to put the ‘crime’ of secession or treason on an equal footing with that of promoting the system of slavery; and, in the second place, because they serve to erase the complicity of the United States in maintaining chattel slavery and other forms of institutional racism and degradation of human dignity before and after the American Civil War.
Seceding from the Union, ‘traitorous’ though it may have been, was not, in itself, a moral stain on the Confederate States of America. The problem was not what Confederates did (forming an independent country on the ostensible basis of self-determination) but why they did it (so that the unjustly privileged upper-crust of an unjustly privileged ‘race’ could go on reaping un-earned wealth through the exploitation of innocent people). The Confederacy was evil because of its existential dependence on forced labor and rampant racism – not because it temporarily reduced the size of the fledging empire of the United States. Calling the Confederate leaders ‘traitors’ – a term which, historically, has all-to-often been levelled by tyrannical governments at marginalized people resisting state oppression – as though the accusation had the same moral weight as, rightfully, calling the Confederate elite ‘slave-masters’, falsely and dangerously equates self-determination with crimes against humanity. In an age when a Leftist revolution might be imminently necessary in order to prevent the universal ascendancy of fascism, no one on the Left should posthumously accord slave-masters a label with which they themselves might all-too-soon be branded by the state.
For essentially the same reason, I cannot easily condone Smith’s implicit condemnation of pairing the Confederate battle flag and the flag of the United States. When the misguided Sons of Confederate Veterans assert, by the symbolism of the co-displayed Union and Confederate flags, the ideological compatibility of the United States and the Confederacy, I hold that they are essentially correct: both countries – the USA no less than the CSA – were founded on land settled by the descendants of Europeans after the ethnic cleansing of native peoples, and consistently relied for their economic stability on exploitative labor practices up-to and including slavery in the decades preceding the Civil War. The chief preoccupation of the United States during that war was the maintenance of its own territorial integrity, rather than the protection of anyone’s civil rights, and – after the resolution of the conflict, and the subsequent and ultimately abortive attempt at anti-racism that was Reconstruction – white people throughout the re-established United States (not only in the states of the former Confederacy) chose white racial solidarity over US national solidarity, allowing Jim Crow to prevail in the South, and less overt but no less detrimental forms of pro-white racism (including the outright mass-murder of Black people) to occur largely unchecked nationwide until the time of the mid-twentieth-century Civil Rights movement. That movement, although radically disruptive in its day, ultimately proved – like Reconstruction – to have been a momentary aberration rather than a true turning point: by the mid-1980s, any ethos of anti-racism that had come to pervade the American political establishment had withered away, replaced with retrograde innovations such as the ‘tough-on-crime’ movement in prosecution and policing that helped entrench white supremacist law enforcement policies throughout the lattermost decades of the twentieth century; and the ‘Southern’ electoral strategy (‘Southern’, I remind you, only in name, as it was implemented throughout the country) that saw white politicians all across the US seek, and often gain, prolonged stints in high office by presenting non-white people as enemies of the state, and scapegoating them for the social problems caused by ever-increasing economic neo-liberalism.
In sum, the United States does not refrain, and seldom if ever has refrained, from committing flagrant acts of racism and worker exploitation in the pursuit of its economic and political interests; and, thus, the Sons of Confederate Veterans – while they err grossly in believing either state to be benevolent – make no mistake in viewing both the CSA and the USA as equally steeped in racism, despite the two powers’ erstwhile existential struggle.
It is a rough equality of immorality that far too few modern denizens of the United States acknowledge. Many are those, for instance, who would deride Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis while venerating the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, when all four men were slave-owning white supremacists who traitorously rebelled against their mother countries. The only difference in their personal circumstances that accounts for their vasty different treatments in popular perception at present is that the latter duo succeeded in their rebellion, while the former failed. When popular opinion views racism and forced labor as deplorable only when perpetrated by history’s losers, any observer necessarily notes, and internalizes, the twisted moral lessons that the failure to dominate (whether in politics or society) constitutes a greater crime than the abuse of human beings; and that moral bankruptcy (whether of a person, or a nation) only matters in the case of defeat – with any fall from grace necessarily succeeding a fall from power.
Really, this is hardly surprising: ‘might makes right’, and ‘history is written by the winners’ arguably form the twin philosophical pillars of realpolitik. Thus, whereas the USA’s inherent racism remains, to a large extent, popularly unassailable (at least in the mainstream), owing to the political and economic power still wielded by its empire, the Confederacy – despite (or, indeed, because of) its less than five-year existence – is now popularly held to account not only for its own half decade of racist violence, but for all similar evils perpetrated by citizens of the US against people of color for both the 85 years of US history preceding the Civil War, and the almost 160 years since.
Of course, as illustrated by Smith’s example of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the mainstream scapegoating of the Confederacy for the systemic racism inherent to the United States doesn’t prevail in all quarters: some people, especially some white people in the Southern US, rather than magnifying the sins of the Confederacy in order to preserve the fictive notion of a non-racist or even anti-racist United States, maintain that USA and CSA alike are worth celebrating. In order to do that, they must employ one or both of two cognitive strategies: rewriting both countries’ histories of genocide, white supremacism, and involuntary servitude; and/or admitting, at least to some extent, that such atrocities occurred, but dismissing them as unimportant, inevitable, or even laudable.
One may employ these strategies singly or in concert. For instance, the mainstream view of the Civil War that prevailed between the collapse of Reconstruction and the dawn of the first Civil Rights movement – which exonerated Confederates of any wrong doing during the conflict while celebrating the fact that the Union had prevailed – made ample use of both: simultaneously minimizing both the extent to which slavery had caused physical, emotional, and psychological harm to slaves, and the part which that ‘peculiar institution’ had played in Confederate secession; and promoting the idea of the United States as a white nation, in which the needs, aspirations and historical narratives of non-white citizens had little to no importance. In the mainstream, this view began to lose traction during the cultural upheavals of 1960s and 70s, and – after a partial resurgence in the late twentieth century – has largely been brought to heel by the newly resurgent Civil Rights movement of the present century. The only cultural region of the United States in which large swathes of the populace (or, at least, the white populace) still uphold it is my own – the South.
One could posit various reasons for white Southern obstinance in refusing to reject the myth of the Lost Cause. The most straightforward – and arguably the most popular among non-Southern Progressives – is simply to dismiss every Southerner with apparent Confederate sympathies as a white supremacist, and to suggest that, therefore, the Lost Cause narrative still has explanatory power in the South for the sole reason of a uniquely pervasive Southern racism. I strongly disagree with this view.
While the South certainly has no shortage of white supremacists, I suspect that the West Coast, West, Midwest, and Northeast harbor proportionally similar quantities: the US, as I have said, is a deeply racist state, and – although its systemic racism, by nature, does not intrinsically depend on individual action – the systems supporting racism throughout the country would long ago have been dismantled if not for the pervasive presence of racist individuals operating at all levels of government and civil society on a nationwide basis. I hold that there is no great disparity of white supremacist attitudes to be found among those people living within the South, and those living outwith it.
Instead, I see the persistence of the Lost Cause narrative, and by extension, almost all Confederate apologetics in the South, as stemming from one source: the false equation of the Confederacy with the South. This false equivalency is as pervasive as US racism, and, I would argue, far less well examined: so much so that I suspect than many of those who read the preceding sentence had to re-read it, in order to register that it was not tautological. Even academics specializing in the Southern US and the Confederacy often conflate the two terms – as seen, for instance, in the recent book by Heather Cox Richardson, How the South won the Civil War, in which the author traces the post-bellum entrenchment of oligarchy, white supremacy, and patriarchy in the US sociopolitical landscape, but identifies these characteristics not as belonging to the USA, or even the CSA, but, rather, as specifically Southern in origin. And yet, the concepts denoted by the two words, ‘Confederate’ and ‘Southern’, differ immensely: the former, denoting the attributes of a short-lived polity founded by planter-aristocrats to preserve an economic system based on slave labor and the white-supremacist ideology that underpinned it; the latter, denoting those of a vibrant cultural and ecological region of the North American continent, which, although biologically and ethnically diverse, with roots extending to Africa, Europe, and various regions of the Americas, has a unique character centuries in the making and shaped in no small part by the struggles of menial laborers and small-scale agriculturists, and which could exist as it does no where else on earth.
The former of these entities (the CSA) died in its blood-soaked cradle in 1865, and, conceived as it was on the false premise that the ‘white man’ was inherently superior to people of all other colors and genders, richly deserved its untimely end. The latter (the South) has no interest in promoting either white supremacy or the institution of slavery – comprising, as it does, in many of its districts, more descendants of slaves than of slavers, and more and more people who seek actively to dismantle all unjust hierarchies, including those of race. Furthermore, the South, as a distinct cultural region, is – unlike the Confederacy – still very much alive today, and embracing it as a cornerstone of personal and communal identity would give many of its denizens who wittingly or unwittingly kneel at the altar of white supremacy an alternative to membership in the soul-destroying cult to which they now belong. In order for loyalty to the living South to eclipse loyalty to the long-gone CSA, however, the two entities must be definitionally and ideologically disentangled. As the situation stands, with the concepts of Southernness and Confederateness so thoroughly conflated, people who wish to express Southern pride often do so by means of Confederate (and, by extension, white supremacist) iconography; and perceive well-warranted Leftist attacks against the Confederacy and its symbols as attacks on the South. Conversely, many people outwith the South – and, all-too-often, even within it – who justifiably wish to condemn the Confederacy, instead, or in addition, unjustly attack the people and cultural commodities of the South on the mere basis of their Southernness. Returning to Smith’s article in the Atlantic, one may observe the second tendency in his treatment of the dialogue from his conversations with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, vis-à-vis dialogue from his conversations with other interviewees for the piece: on some occasions when Smith presents quotations from a seemingly ignorant or racist interviewee, he renders the dialogue in question with Southern dialectal features (as when, for example, one of the Sons of Confederate Veterans is reported to have said ‘I been in his ear good’ when referring to his attempts to persuade a friend of Smith’s of the justice of the Confederate cause); by contrast, when he presents quotations from seemingly enlightened or morally upstanding interviewees, he always renders the dialogue as dialectally unmarked, making use of the same high-register, largely non-regional journalistic English that prevails throughout the rest of the piece. This could, of course, simply reflect the actual character of the dialogue in question, with only the arguably racist interviewees having had Southern accents strong enough for those accents to be evident in transcription – and, as a question of good faith, I am prepared to give Smith the benefit of the doubt on this point. However, as a Kentuckian – many of whose friends and family, if not myself, come from heavily accented communities – a lifetime of experience has taught me to expect that where mockery of a Southern accent is implied, it is often intended: if Smith did not use his interviewee’s cultural Southernness to underscore their racism in the assumption that the two must necessarily correlate, than he is, by the standards of popular culture and journalistic convention, exceptionally enlightened. In any case, however, the implicit association of Southernness and backwardness, whether intended or not, does little to endear the article in question to a Southern readership, and neither does its implicit reiteration of the now-prevailing view of the Confederacy (and, because of the aforementioned popular haziness about the differences between Confederate and Southern identity, the South by extension) as culpable for not only its own brief history of white supremacy, but for those of the entire United States throughout the whole of its existence. That narrative is unacceptable to many if not most Southerners, and – indeed – unacceptable it should be, as I’ll explain.
In his article, Smith states, correctly that ‘Confederate history is family history, history as eulogy, in which loyalty takes precedence over truth.’ I would argue, however, that he errs in limiting the scope of his observation to Confederate history alone. The business of the historian is weaving past events into coherent narratives. Many are the stories that can accurately encompass a given set of data points, and the ones that historians choose to tell – and that their audiences choose to believe – are usually selected according to what interests they serve. Between Reconstruction and the first Civil Rights movement, when the US (or at least white people in the US) had embraced the consensus that American imperialism was a benevolent enterprise that existed to advance the interests of middle-to-upper-class white English-speakers, the histories they told themselves about the past (and disseminated to others via the media they monopolized) justified the status-quo they controlled, and lay the foundations of their hoped-for future. That narrative – white supremacist, capitalist, hyper-masculine and individualistic – told history of, by and for a collection of rich, white men. In it, slavery was an unfortunate mistake (but not nearly as bad as some had made it out to be) that had had little if anything to do with the Civil War (another unfortunate mistake), that had tragically but gallantly pitted (white) brother against (white) brother in a conflict the causes of which could be little understood, but which had ultimately strengthened the Union and paved the way for the glorious US expansionism of the late nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth centuries. Such histories truncated or completely excluded the narratives of non-white people and women, since those writing the histories in question viewed the sufferings and contributions of such people and their communities as inconsequential.
When, beginning in the 1960s, a new generation of activists (many of them non-white and non-male) arose to belatedly shatter that consensus, the popular narrative eventually stretched to incorporate new perspectives and address new priorities. Suddenly, in at least some quarters (and, importantly, in some publications), the opinions of the descendants of slaves concerning slavery mattered, as did the opinions of American Indians concerning the Indian wars, and women concerning the role of women in society. When these revolutionary currents were counterbalanced by the inevitable retort of reactionaries, the muted synthesis became the new consensus of the late twentieth century – the notion, all too familiar to those of us raised in the 1990s – that ‘bad things’ had indeed happened in the US of past ages, especially to minorities, but that the indefatigable and uniquely American spirit of progress had slowly erased all distinctions of race, class, and gender, except those that were natural and right; and, furthermore, that America had always been ‘good at heart’, as evidenced by its propensity to clobber the truly evil ‘bad guys’ of history (like the CSA, Nazi Germany, the USSR, and Communist North Korea). Just as the earlier popular paradigm had left no room save at the outermost fringes to mention Black perspectives on slavery or First Nations recollections of Native American genocide, the new one carefully excluded any mention of the various states that the US had invaded and occupied with no excuse but greed (ie. most of Latin America), those that it had helped establish on conquered land for the service of its own geopolitical interests (such as Panama and Israel), and those that it had tried and failed to conquer (Vietnam, for instance); or the numerous stateless nations that this so-called ‘defender of the free world’ had declined to liberate in their hour of need (like the Tibetans, the Rohinga, or the Uyghurs); or plied with false promises, used, and then shamelessly abandoned (like the Kurds).
Now, in the face of a new Civil Rights movement – this one fully attuned to the sensibilities of the United States’ long-suppressed Leftism, at last largely unfettered from even the memory of the Red Scare – that second consensus, too, has begun to crumble. The insistence of reformers on memorializing those Black Southerners whose bodies were so cruelly used and broken by the plantation system is not the result of a bland, philosophical, objective search for historical truth, as Smith’s article seems to suggest. Rather, it is a deeply emotional quest for vindication, motivated by Black Americans’ yearning to see the stories of their ancestors told in a way that accords them the human dignity they were so callously denied in life – and, as I see it, the pathos and passion of that quest are not a liability, or a hindrance, but the guiding light and ennobling spirit that make the exercise of historical revision worthwhile. Thus, as we throughout the American empire structure a new historical consensus in the wake of the old, we should assess its worth by the number of downtrodden communities whose perspectives it valorizes, and whose stories it interweaves with its own – and I remain adamant in insisting that the people of the Southern United States should number among those communities.
If we aim to turn people like Sons of Confederate Veterans from their unfortunate adoration of the Confederacy (which, as earlier stated, is, for many, an unwitting misdirection of their wholly unobjectionable love of the South), then we must present them a viable alternative. The currently prevailing view – that the Confederacy was simply the South in nation-state’s clothing; that everyone who fought for the Southern cause plainly, willfully, consciously, and irredeemably endorsed both slavery and white supremacy; and that, in order to renounce that legacy, modern white Southerners must condemn their ancestors and all their folkways as evil, and assimilate to the cultural and linguistic norms of the white US mainstream – serves neither truth nor justice, and will lure not one Confederate apologist from the warm glow of the Lost Cause.
I propose, instead, another narrative: that the Confederacy was the brainchild of a twisted and corrupt cabal of landed Southern gentry – a tiny minority of white Southerners who sought to maintain slavery as the means of safe-guarding their tenuous position atop the capitalist hierarchy over which they presided, and which stood on the backs of poor whites, enslaved Blacks and displaced native peoples alike; and that these men, through reinforcing the then-century-and-half-old lie of white-supremacy, and the new but equally compelling untruth that the nascent Confederacy embodied the political will and national spirit of the Southern people, duped large swathes of the white Southern populace into fighting and dying in service to the interests of their societal overlords, ultimately in vain. By the light of this narrative, the evil of the Confederacy remains apparent, and slavery – in all its unvarnished hideousness – remains unassailed as the first and foremost cause of the Civil War; but the rank-and-file Confederate soldier is seen as victim of class-war rather than an aggressor in race-war, whose struggles can be considered solidaristically with other marginalized peoples in the South, and in which the South itself – with all its diversity and uniqueness (and, for that matter, its Blackness) – stands untainted by the sins of the Confederacy.
That is a narrative all proud Southerners could embrace, irrespective of (and, I hope, as an alternative to) racial identity, and one I fully intend to propagate; any non-Southerner who is serious about defeating Confederate nostalgia ought to consider doing the same.