Friday, April 1, 2005

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 1: "Slavery As It Wasn't"

One of the most interesting papers on the neo-Confederate ideology that I've come across is this one by two historians at the University of Idaho: Southern Slavery As It Wasn't: Coming to Grips with Neo-Confederate Historical Misinformation by Sean M. Quinlan and William L. Ramsey, Oklahoma City University Law Review, Vol. 30, No. 1, 2005. (An earlier version of the paper was published in 2003; I'm quoting here from the 2005 version.) The paper can be downloaded from that site as a *.pdf file; you may have to look twice for the download buttons, but as of now they're there in the "SSRN Electronic Paper Collection" section.

Quinlan and Ramsey devote their paper to critiquing the pseudo-history in a neo-Confederate pamphlet that is popular in that ugly corner of American politics, Southern Slavery, As It Was (1996 ) by Douglas Wilson and Steve Wilkins. In the process, they provide and excellent glimpse of the type of scam techniques that pseudohistorians typically use, and by no means exclusively about the Confederacy.

Bad Theology, Bad Politics

As Quinlan and Ramsey explain, the perspective of the pamphlet's authors shows a heavy affinity for the kind of Christian extremist ideas associated with the "Christian Reconstructionists" or "Dominion Theology." They describe the theological perspective of the Wilson/Wilkins pamphlet as follows:

As we see it, Wilson and Wilkins hope to whitewash the legacy of southern history. They do this, it seems, because they fantasize about a new southern cause – an evangelical re-demption, the creation of a New Jerusalem. They believe that the South is historically the locus of Christian regeneration. The South is God’s promised land for the chosen white race, a race that will redeem all others through blood and fire. But in order to memorialize the South – past, present, and future – they must expunge the historical realities of racial slavery, violence, oppression, and civil war. These are huge memories to overcome. As a result, Wilson and Wilkins need to create a new myth – a myth of an evangelical, righteous, and moral South. They want to believe that southerners were exemplary Christians even when they were slaveholders. And so, the South was just in its war for slavery because slaverywas condoned by the Bible. In some ways, the war to defend slavery was in itself a war to defend biblical authority. Wilson and Wilkins even argue that the South underwent an evangelical revival at the beginning of the Civil War, making the unbelievable claim that "the Confederate army was the largest body of evangelicals under arms in the history of the world." Here, drawing upon the racist ideologue R. L. Dabney – that "godly man who fought for the South" – Wilson and Wilkins argue that the South ultimately lost the war because God used a truly iniquitous people (northern abolitionists) to punish a nation of simple sinners.

Quinlan and Ramsey cite the following article in connection with neo-Confederate theology: The US Civil War as a Theological War: Confederate Christian Nationalism and the League of the South by Edward Sebesta and Euan Hague Canadian Review of American Studies 32 (2002). Sebesta and Hague write of this unholy marriage of anti-democratic politics with vicious theology:

Collaboration between the Christian Reconstructionist movement and the [overtly secessionist, yes, secessionist] League of the South has also increased, evidencing a growing overlap in the historical, political and theological perspectives of participants in both organizations. This indicates a conflation of conservative, neo-Confederate and Christian nationalisms into a potent reinterpretation of United States history, one centred upon the thesis that the Confederate states were a bastion of orthodox Christianity standing in the face of the heretical Union states. For example, Otto Scott, a regular contributor to both Chalcedon Report and Southern Partisan, has argued that civil rights and anti-apartheid activists detrimentally re-enact abolitionist policies and that nineteenth-century Transcendentalism was a heretical philosophy followed by the Union during the Civil War (see "Transcendentalism," "Heresy," Lifeboat, Secret). Such opinions enabled Scott to speak at the League of the South’s second annual National Conference (held 2–3 June 1995) and co-produce video sets outlining neo-Confederate political, theological and historical interpretations of the Civil War with League of the South directors Steven Wilkins and Clyde Wilson.

In that paper, Sebesta and Hague also identify Steve Wilkins, co-author of Southern Slavery, As It Was,as a director of the League of the South group and "arguably the most prominent member of the current neo-Confederate clergy."

Why bother with crackpot history?

There's always a question when legitimate scholars are dealing with crackpot versions of work in their area of expertise, if they are giving a underserved legitimacy to the work they are debunking. I doubt that anyone who read the Quinlan/Ramsey paper with even minimal comprehension will come away with the idea that they consider the Wilson/Wilkins pamphlet as legitimate history.

It's interesting here to look at what seems to be the biggest revision between the 2003 and 2005 versions of the Quinlan/Ramsey paper. In the 2003 version, they wrote:

So, if their work is so hackneyed and flawed, why bother responding? If the authors of Southern Slavery, As It Was are not interested in responsible scholarship, why engage them on a scholarly level? First, they have attempted to cloak their agenda in the mantle of academic legitimacy, and, second, the booklet has circulated in that guise unopposed for seven years. It has clearly found an audience outside of academia that is unfamiliar with serious scholarship but still admires the scholarly mystique. As members of the community, we see its effects all around us. As teachers, we even see it in our classrooms, and we know too well that it will not serve the reputation of our state. It is imperative, therefore, that real historical scrutiny be focused on this unusual performance.

In the 2005 version, they put their response into a broader political context:

Yet they have retooled those arguments and deployed them in the service of modern neo-Confederate and Christian Reconstructionist causes. Wilkins is co-founder of the League of the South, identified as a white supremacist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group possesses over 15,000 members in sixteen states and has been a decisive factor in at least three gubernatorial elections in the deep South. Wilson, meanwhile, pioneered the "Classical School" movement and currently services 165 elementary schools and thousands of home-school families nationwide with his self-published curricular materials.

As such, their peculiar version of American history is rapidly gaining influence not only
among far right extremist groups but even among some mainstream conservatives and members of Congress
. Their views on southernslavery in particular have helped to launch a new and increasingly sophisticated wave of white supremacy that civil rights activists and attorneys will be dealing with for years to come. The determination of the League of the South and its allies, for instance, to restrict the franchise, dismantle affirmative action, destroy multiculturalism, impose biblical law, and re-impose racial segregation has already precipitated numerous local clashes that have played themselves out in the state and federal court systems.
[my emphasis]

In opposing these threats to our modern freedoms, civil rights advocates have generally failed to perceive that all of them are grounded in and inspired by a grassroots insurgency against the consensus academic view of historical truth. ... This homespun history, however, is becoming a significant social force among conservative, white, evangelical Christians in the South and Mid-West. ... If professional historians do not assist civil rights advocates in rebutting the myths of neo-Confederate writers, moreover, we will likely see those ideas forming the basis of actions by state and national legislatures.

Their comments in this regard, sadly, are not at all far-fetched.  As Joe Conason writes in Big Lies (2003):

Amazingly, there remains a strong emotional reverence for the symbols of the Confederacy, not only among the Klan, the Aryan Brotherhood, and skinhead Nazis, but among certain Republican politicians and intellectuals as well. They nurture a political cult of neo-Confederates, diehard defenders of secession and states' rights. Aside from romanticizing the Old South, neo-Confederates tend to advocate a regional brand of conservatism that is chauvinistic, hostile to immigrants, and often blatantly bigoted against blacks, Hispanics, Jews, and Asians.

Like Strom Thurmond and his followers, who abandoned the Democratic Party in 1948 during the early struggle over civil rights, the neo-Confederates are Republicans now. The GOPreciprocates this support by pretending not to notice their Dixie flags, their racial obsessions, and their scurrilous attitude toward Lincoln. The loyalties of the neo-Confederates are uncertain. According to Clyde Wilson, a leading neo-Confederate ideologue and professor at the University of South Carolina, these devotees of Dixie should feel no loyalty to the United States at all.

In a long interview in a neo-Confederate organ called the Southern Partisan, Professor Wilson suggested that the South should still be seeking to secede. The professor further complained about the well-known propensity of young men and women from the South to serve in the U.S. military. "It's terrible that Southerners have been so willing to sacrifice their lives for the United States," he said. "We have to stop that kind of knee-jerk American allegiance." The publisher of the Southern Partisan happens to be Richard Quinn, a former partner of [the late] Lee Atwater [Republican campaign consultant who worked for George Bush senior and was notorious for race-baiting campaigns], and Southern Carolina's most successful Republican consultant.  He has advised Ronald Reagan, Strom Thurmond, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham, but his magazine puffs John Wilkes Booth and David Duke.

As Conason dryly observes, "it may reasonably be asked what is patriotic about all that."

Defense of Slavery

It's one of the chief propaganda claims of the neo-Confederates - and of Lost Cause advocates, if they can be meaningfully distinguished from neo-Confederates - that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War, even that the war had "nothing to do" with slavery. But you don't have have to tug very hard on the threads of neo-Confederate/Lost Cause dogma to find that a defense of slavery, at least in the form of minimizing its evil or the extent to which the Southern planters were devoted to preserving the Peculiar Institution forever, is very much a part of this perspective. Quinlan and Ramsey write:

One controversial cultural critic [Slavoj Zizek] has argued that the difference between neo-conservatism and fascism "consists merely in the fact that the latter says openly what the former thinks without daring to say." In this sense, Wilson and Wilkins are walking a fine line indeed.We are fascinated to observe how they formally deny any racist sympathies but then seem totally oblivious to the actual content of their work. This, we conclude, is sheer calculation.

I'm not sure if Zizek had foreign-policy "neoconservatives" in mind. But the point Quinlan and Ramsey make about the neo-Confederates' racism is correct. Defending slavery and segregation while denying any racism is a calculated pose - a calculated sneer to be more precise.

Quinlan and Ramsey show how the Wilson/Wilkins pamphlet uses one ofthe most valuable documentary sources on slavery in a completely hack way, and therefore come to bogus conclusions.  The source he means is a collection of interviews with elderly former slaves conducted by the WPA''s Federal Writers' Project in the 1930s.  The Library of Congress has an online page that talks some about the collection: Born in Slavery(The LOC has some great stuff online, but their search capabilities leave something to be desired.  I'm certain that I fairly recently saw an LOC page that had excerpts from the audio interviews available.  If anyone happens to come across that one, please post the URL address in the comments section.)

There are excerpts from a few of the narratives available at "Been Here So Long."

An important point in using the WPA material is to look at the interaction between the interviewers and the subjects.  The responses individuals gave to white interviewers was sometimes different, even contradictory, to those they gave to black interviewers.  Looking at one instance of that, Quinlan and Ramsey explain:

The reasons behind this discrepancy are complicated, stemming from a lifetime of white intimidation, the ever-present reality of Jim Crow segregation in the South in the 1930s when the interviews were conducted, and the fact that many of the interview subjects were elderly and still living on the lands of the planters who once owned them. The WPA records cannot be taken at face value, and every reputable historian who has made use of them has been careful to take these many distortions into consideration. For Wilson and Wilkinsto suggest that the narratives are a prima facie case for widespread slave happiness is more than mere  incompetence. It is a fresh act of violence against the memory of these wronged individuals.

One of the claims that Wilson and Wilkins make is that "the black family has never been stronger than it was under slavery."  Anyone with more than a passing familiarity with the slavery system in the antebellum South knows how preposterous a statement this is.  Quinlan and Ramsey illustrate the point by quoting Susan Hamlim, one of the former slaves interviewed by the Federal Writers' Project.  To a white interviewer, she related:

... sometimes chillen was sold away from dey parents. De Mausa would come and say "where Jennie," tell um to put clothes on dat baby, I want um. He sell de baby and de ma scream and holler, you know how dey carry on. Generally, dey sold it when de ma wasn’t dere.

Now, that account of family life under slavery was grim enough.  They relate her account with a black interviewer as follows:

She recalled that when slaves got married "no minister nebber say in reading de matrimony ‘let no man put assounder’ cause a couple would be married tonight an’tomorrow one would be taken away an’ be sold." ... Maybe Wilson and Wilkins could have done something with the tearful mother of the bride who stood inconsolably in the middle of Charleston’s main street screaming over and over "dat damn white, pale-faced bastard sell my daughter who jus’ married las night."

Altogether, Quinlan and Ramsey have provided a good analysis of this piece of crackpot neo-Confederate thinking.  And in these days, when the delusional has become mainstream in the Republican Party, the fact that it's crackpot doesn't mean that people with power and responsibility don't take it seriously.  Their paper is an excellent example of the value of well-argued "debunking," which not only throws real light on the topic discussed but shows the tricks used by the pseudohistorians.

I haven't found an online version of the Wilson/Wilkins pamphlet yet.  But there are other articles available commenting on it:

Steve Gilliard Slavery sucked 12/09/04

The Late Unpleasantness in Idaho: Southern Slavery and the Culture Wars by William Ramsey (one of the authors of the main paper discussed in this post) History News Network 12/20/04.  He tells about the reaction to their original 2003 paper.

Steve Clemons Exposed: A Christian (Madrasas) School's Pro-Slavery Booklet Washington Note blog 12/10/04

(See the Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month posts 2005 for links to all this year's posts.)


amkpantera said...

Hell, if I was the president I would acknowledge these idiot groups as terrorists and they'd be on their way to Guantanamo.

bmiller224 said...

But haven't you heard?  Rightwing terrorists we don't worry about.  The domestic terrorists are the environmental fringe groups.

Of course, it wasn't an environmental group that got busted in Texas with way more WMDs than Iraq had, but somebody much closer to the neo-Confederate viewpoint.  But Dear Leader and his team undoubtedly have important secret intelligence on these things that the rest of us don't know about.  You know, kind of like with Iraq.

David Neiwert follows these things in more detail than most of us would know how to:
- Bruce