Sunday, April 29, 2007

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 29: Neo-Confederacy in San Francisco

John C. Calhoun: his (white-supremacist) soul goes marching on, too

Well, in the San Francisco Chronicle, anyway:
Give the Confederate flag a break by Jaime O'Neill 04/29/07. O'Neill claims to be a devotee of the honorable heritage of the Confederate flag. You have to wonder how devoted he is to actual history, though, when the Confederate flag that is disputed is the Confederate battle flag (although the rectangular form that is usually seen would be more accurately called the Confederate Navy Jack flag) but he refers to it as the "Stars and Bars", which was the first official flag of the Confederacy. The familiar one to us today features the St. Andrews Cross or Southern Cross, which is not even included on the Stars and Bars.

But you stumble across stuff like this all the time in the faith-based but factoid-cluttered world of Lost Cause devotion. I was going to focus for today's post on a newspaper manifesto of the Lost Cause from a Mississippi newspaper in 2001. But when I saw the Chronicle article, I decided to do that one today and save the other for tomorrow.

The Stars and Bars, the first official flag of the Confederate States of America

I'm going to summarize it here. It's only fair to say that it won't be an entirely reverent summary. And I'm going to "desublimate" some of the subtext that commonly lies behind these sentiments, though of course O'Neill can deny any such intent for things he didn't actually say.Lost Cause advocates, like most other rightwingers, can be as obsessive as Protestant fundamentalists in comma-dancing on the sentences of their critics. When it comes to reading history, though ideology and fantasy serve just as well as actual facts for them. After the summary, I'll say a few other things about this stuff.

So by all means read O'Neill's little piece of radical-right ideology. You'll find several common pieces of the neo-Confederate/Lost Cause faith in his article:

1. Most importantly, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton criticize the Confederate flag, if you know what I mean.

Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton criticize white people who make bigoted cracks about black people? Why should us poor persecuted white folks have to listen to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton? (I should mention here that "Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton" is a common phrase for Republicans to mean "bad black people" because they are the two most famous civil rights leaders in the US right now.) The whole first part of the article is about race, including whining about how pore ole Imus got criticized for his "nappy headed ho's" crack, reminding us of course that such talk by white people is all the fault of black people.

But the Confederate flag has nothing to do with racism or slavery, oh no! Except because Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton make a big deal about it.

The Confederate flag most people know today; this is the Navy Jack; the battle flag was the same design but square

2. Robert E. Lee was the greatest human being since Jesus Christ.

Maybe better, because, you know, that Jesus fellow was a Jew!

3. Nathan Bedford Forrest loved black folks.

Pay no attention to the massacre of black prisoners at Fort Pillow. O'Neill doesn't mention Fort Pillow, but he does mention that Forrest founded the Ku Klux Klan. So maybe that means the KKK likes black people, too!

4. Most Confederate soldiers didn't own slaves.

Most American soldiers in Iraq don't own oil wells, either. What does either of those things say about the purpose and goals of either war?

5. The Confederate Army had droves of black soldiers.

Oh, yeah, the Confederate Army - the whole Confederate nation, in fact! - was a near-paradise of multicultural tolerance.

6. The American flag symbolizes racism and slavery.

Why do neo-Confederates hate America? My guess is, they hate us for our values.

7. The Confederate flag symbolizes racial diversity.

Yeah, Sanjaya is a great singer, Richard Nixon was not a crook and Dick Cheney is a nice guy. And for just $500, I can send you the exclusive secret story on what happened to Saddam Hussein's WMDs!

8. Only some black people resent the Confederate flag.

Like, you know, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton! O'Neill says that an unnamed "recent survey" shows that most young blacks today associate the Confederate flag with the TV show
The Dukes of Hazzard, which "many of them had grown up with."

You Lost Cause fans might better update that one. The idea you want to convey is "black kids are so stupid they don't know what the Confederate flag is". Plus they enjoy white-redneck humor. But that TV series ran from 1979 to 1985. So pretty much anyone who remembers seeing it in the first run would be in their 30s or 40s now. I mean, it is a creative thought (as racist ideas go, anyway), combining several insults, sneers and pure nonsense in one sentence. But it's time to update that one, white boys.

John C. Calhoun, the godfather of secession

9. Country music fans like the Confederate flag.

I suppose this would be persuasive to someone who knew nothing whatsoever about country music.

10. Yankees and liberals sneer at us persecuted white bigots.
Why are damnyankees and damnliberals so insensitive to white bigots? What about a little inclusive attitude for white racists, huh?

A corollary of this is the Democratic Party should kiss up to white bigots. Oh, yeah, with a few kind words, all the Confederate flag fans will be happy to vote for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

I want to elaborate on a couple of points. O'Neill writes:

Any country music concert you might attend will be festooned with that flag, either in the parking lot, or in the apparel of those attending, whether the group appearing is Alabama, Willie Nelson, Toby Keith or the Dixie Chicks. Does that mean that all those people are professing a belief in the rightness of slavery? Are they all racists?
Uh, dude, Willie Nelson and Toby Keith are individual people, not "groups", but we'll let that slide.

But when I think back, I've been to country music concerts in the South and in California for years. I can remembers seeing Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Gillian Welch, Steve Earle, Buck Owens, Ricky Skaggs, Rodney Crowell, Alison Kraus and Union Station, Kelly Willis, Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels [gag! choke!], Rosanne Cash, Johnny Cash and June Carter, Dwight Yoakum, Kte Campbell, Nanci Griffin, Utah Phillips, Haxel Dickens, Steve Earle, Guy Clark, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, Bruce Robison, the Del McCoury Band, Ramblin' Jack Eliot, Iris Dement, Stacey Earle, Bill Monroe, Eliza Gilkyson, Doc Watson, Buddy and Julie Miller, Kasey Chambers, John Prine, Tony Rice, Peter Rowan, to mention the ones I can remember right off.

I don't actually recall seeing a Confederate flag of any kind at any of those concerts, though I'm sure there were some around when I saw Chuckie (CHARLIE DANIELS) live. He may have even displayed one on the stage in some form.

But I guess if you go to the Theodore Bilbo Country Jackasses or the Ross Barnett Bluegrass Boys or groups with names like that, you might see a Confederate flag. I remember seeing a Confederate flag displayed on a door in the Spanish island of Mallorca once, in the German tourist section of town. You didn't have to ask to know that it was some kind of neo-Nazi or other far-right group that used that particular place.

You often see American flags at country music concerts, though.

This business about blacks fighting in the Confederate Army is also a favorite pile of horse-poop for the Lost Cause crowd, too. O'Neill writes:

Between 60,000 and 90,000 black men, both free and slave, also served under the banner of the Stars and Bars.
There's the Stars and Bars thing again. Though if you wanted to comma-dance on it, the actual Stars and Bars flag was the official flag of the Confederacy from March 1861 to May 1863. So any blacks that actually did serve in the Confederate armed forces could have served under the Stars and Bars.

My April 3 post this year dealt with a case of what certainly appears to be a Lost Cause advocate using fabricated evidence to pump this "black Confederate soldiers" business. As I said there, this business about blacks fighting for the Confederacy and for the sacred right to be held in slavery by white people is a favorite theme of neo-Confederate pseudohistorical hokum. My impression is that it's meant not so much to be taken seriously but rather as a sneer at African-Americans and at anyone who prefers reality-based history.

The paper I linked there,
Retouching History: The Modern Falsification of a Civil War Photograph by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, Jr., cites this book review on the topic, Desperate Measures: Were slaves really so loyal to their masters that they went to war to defend the Confederacy? by David Blight Washington Post 03/05/06, saying:

In the past decade, the neo-Confederate fringe of Civil War enthusiasm (with tentative support from some academic historians) has contended that thousands of African Americans, slave and free, willingly joined the Confederate war effort as soldiers and fought for their "homeland." A quasi-debate over the existence of "black Confederates" has seeped into academic conferences, historical journals and many Web sites. The issue of competing popular memories is driven largely by the desire of current white supremacists to re-legitimize the Confederacy while tacitly rejecting the victories of the modern civil rights movement. What could better buttress the claims of "color-blind conservatism" in our own time than the notion that the slaveholding leaders of the Confederacy were themselves the true emancipators and that many slaves were devoted to the Southern rebellion? George Orwell warned us: Who needs real history when you can control public language and political debate?
This, by the way, is a typical tack for pseudohistory of all kinds. Invent some kind of whopper and assert it as obvious fact. Even a specialist in the field might immediately realize it's horse-poop but still not be able to come up immediately with a factual refutation. You see this in Holocaust denial all the time. Holocaust deniers like to say, for instance, that even Austrian Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal said that there were no death camps in Germany, implying that he was denying their existence. Wiesenthal actually said that, and it's true: only four of the concentration camps were designated by the Nazis as death camps, intended to kill people in mass numbers with efficient industrial organization. All of those were outside the borders of Germany. There was no shortage of concentration camps in Germany, though, many of them death camps in fact for a lot of their prisoners.

But unless you are familiar with the particular fabrication or slight-of-hand, you wouldn't necessarily know what to make of it. In that sense, bald-faced liars can have a short-term advantage over honest people in a dispute like that. Real scientists encounter the same kind of thing in debate "creationists", which is why scientists active in refuting them have become much more canny about the conditions under which they will debate them face-to-face.

Blight's article is a review of Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves by Bruce Levine, which addresses this particular Lost Cause claim. This claim is largely based on the fact that, in desperation in early 1865, the Confederate Congress actually considered a proposal to allow slaves to fight in the army and be rewarded by emancipation for it. Blight writes:

In late February and early March 1865, after intensive debate and facing huge desertion rates in the Southern forces, the Confederate Congress adopted a halfhearted bill authorizing black enlistment. The House voted 40-37 and the Senate 9-8 to allow [Jefferson] Davis to implement a voluntary plan in which no slaves were to be conscripted. Owners had to come forward and give their slaves to the cause. The law itself did not free a single slave and operated, as one of its proponents admitted, as a "free-will offering." Gen. Lee demanded urgent action to usher black men into his army, which was about to collapse in front of Petersburg. The war ended before anything could come of this last-ditch Confederate effort to find manpower - which now looked, as a Mississippian gravely confessed, "like a drowning man catching at straws." Only in Virginia were any blacks actually mustered into companies, totaling at most perhaps 200 men. None saw meaningful combat, and, as Levine found, some of those who did wear Confederate gray did so as a means of running away to Union lines.

... [Levine's] conclusions are judiciously tethered to the evidence. And how can he avoid letting despairing Confederates speak for themselves, as does a South Carolina planter with remarkable candor right after Appomattox? "Born and raised amid" slavery, said Augustin Taveau, he had believed "that these people were content, happy, and attached to their masters." But "the conduct of the Negro in the late crisis of our affairs convinced me that we have all been labouring under a delusion." That delusion both made and unmade the Confederate quest to save their slaveholders' republic by arming blacks. In the end, Levine successfully counters the "spirit of reactionary nostalgia" that has fueled the "black Confederate" mythology. For more than a century, the pernicious story of the faithful slave took deep root in the American imagination, where it still provides an active, if declining, currency in race relations. (my emphasis)
The Handler and Tuite article links above tells us:

The actual 1st Louisiana Native Guards, consisting of Afro-Creoles [i.e.,mulattos], was formed of about 1,500 men in April 1861 and was formally accepted as part of the Louisiana militia in May 1862. The Native Guards unit (one of three all-black companies) never saw combat while in Confederate service, and was largely kept at arm’s length by city and state officials; in fact, it often lacked proper uniforms and equipment. “The Confederate authorities,” James Hollandsworth has written, "never intended to use black troops for any mission of real importance. If the Native Guards were good for anything, it was for public display; free blacks fighting for Southern rights made good copy for the newspapers." The unit apparently was never committed to the Confederate cause, and appears to have disobeyed orders to evacuate New Orleans with other Confederate forces; instead it surrendered to Union troops in April 1862. (my emphasis)
Such is the fidelity of the Lost Cause ideologists to the actual heritage of real American history.

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