Saturday, April 30, 2005

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 30: The Lost Cause vs. reality-based history

Ed Kilgore of the New Donkey blog - and also of the Democratic Leadership Council (DNC), aka, the corporate wing of the Democratic Party - posted some interesting recollections about his own eduction in the Lost Cause back on the anniversary of Robert E. Lee's surrender: Appomatox 04/09/05.  Also, since Jacksonian democrats don't often find nice things to say about the DLC, this is a good chance to make an exception.

And taking a look at what Kilgore has to say makes a good way to wrap up the second annual Old Hickory Weblog Confederate "Heritage" Month.  Because it's one of the best concise statements I've ever seen of why Lost Cause mythology is malignant in its effects.

He recalls his elementary school lessons about the "War Between the States," which nobody called the war at the time.  That was a postwar construction of Lost Cause advocates, meant to emphasize the sectional nature of the conflict.  Americans who were spending their lives in slavery in the South had no stake in their section winning the war.  Southerners like Newton Knight and his supporters in the "Free State of Jones" and the substantial number of pro-Union hillbillies in western Tennessee weren't siding with their section, they were siding with their country.

I remember those elementary school lessons, as well, complete with bogus discussions of why "War Between the States" was a better name for it than "Civil War."  Kilgore writes:

Far beyond elementary school, in the broader southern white culture I grew up in, there was an odd exultancy about Appomattox that had nothing to do with vicarious relief at the end of that brutal war. No, we drank in the details of Lee's peerless dress and manner at the moment of surrender, and were encouraged to think of the shabby Grant's generosity in victory as little more than the acknowledgement of a superior being--and a superior, if Lost, Cause. A Cause, moreover, that was about everything other than the ownership of human being -- about states' rights, about agrarian resistance to capitalism, about cultured Cavaliers defending civilization against philistine Puritans, about Honor, aboutDuty.

And that was the essence of Confederate Nostalgia in those days: a cult of romantic defeat, denial, self-pity and pride. I never quite shared it, even as a child, but never quite understood its pathological depths until its mirror images in Serbian and (some parts of) Arab culture became part of world events in more recent years. And remarkably, I get the sense Confederate Nostalgia is not only surviving, but perhaps even reviving among people too young to know its nature and political usages. (my emphasis)

Or too lacking in patriotism and good sense to care.  This is an important observation.  You know how James Dobson and his fellow Christian Right theocrats whine absurdly about how Christians are persecuted in the United States, and that those wicked (they-try-not-to-call-them-Jewish-in-public) judges are trying to stamp out Christianity in America?  Lost Cause hokum and its propagation for generations in the South (and not only in the South) contribute a great deal to this kind of I'm-a-victim whining, a whining in this case which sounds absurd to anyone not stoned on Oxycontin or high on the fundamentalist apocalyptic notion about how all the Jews are about to be slaughtered (except for the few who stop being Jews by converting) so that the way can be cleared for Jesus to come again.

Kilgore is right to identify it with the kind of ethnic resentments that use grand historical grievances to justify hatred and killing in the here-and-now.  Just as Serbian nationalist politicians married historical events in Serbian history like the Battle of Blackbirds Field (aka, Battle of Kosovo) in 1389 to very here-and-now amibitions for power and territory, so the Lost Cause mythology has always been married to political ideologies:  the "Redeemer" movement, segregation and Jim Crow, white supremacy and racism.  As Kilgore says:

Its inevitable defeat plunged the South and all of its people into a century of grinding poverty, isolation, and oligarchical government. Its heritage has been used again and again to justify racism and every other sort of reactionary policy.

I look at Appomattox and see the end of a disastrous folly that killed over 600,000 Americans, maimed far more, and made life miserable for those of myancestors whosurvived the Planters' Revolt. No romance. No victory-in-defeat. Just carnage and destruction in a bad cause made no better by the good men whose lives and futures it claimed.
(my emphasis)

Kilgore's statement just quoted does contain a leftover bit of Lost Cause ideology, the notion that the defeat of the South was "inevitable."  As discussed in an earlier post in this series, that too was a phony claim designed, among other things, to promote the image of Robert E. Lee as a demigod.

But his next sentence is right on the mark.  The falsified, pseudohistorical "heritage" of Lost Cause dogma "has been used again and again to justify racism and every other sort of reactionary policy."  Kilgore may be DLC.  But he's in full accord with Jacksonian Democrats in that regard.

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

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