Thursday, April 09, 2015

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2015, April 9: Appomattox advice to Lost Causers: git over it!

Brian Beutler caught some attention recently by ruffling the feathers of the sacred memory of the noble Confederacy in Make the Confederacy's Defeat a National Holiday New Republic 04/05/2015.

The notion sounds pretty cool to me. In line with V-E Day and and V-J Day, we could call it V-C day. Since the admirers of the Confederacy and its core principle of slavery and white supremacy would say that "V-C" Day sounds too much like the abbreviation for "Viet Cong," it makes me think that the debate in Congress over naming such an official commemoration would provide some marginally informative foaming at the mouth from Rush and the rest of hate radio and, of course, the nice white folks at FOX News. I think "Day to Celebrate the Victory of Democracy Over the Confederate Treason and the God-Hating System of Slavery and White Supremacy for Which It Stood" would be a nice name. Also the acroynm DCVDOCTGHSSWSWIS wouldn't exactly roll off the tongue: "div-doc-tigis-wiss"?

Beutler writes:

This week provides an occasion for the U.S. government to get real about history, as April 9 is the 150th anniversary of the Union’s victory in the Civil War. The generous terms of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House foreshadowed a multitude of real and symbolic compromises that the winners of the war would make with secessionists, slavery supporters, and each other to piece the country back together. It’s as appropriate an occasion as the Selma anniversary to reflect on the country’s struggle to improve itself. And to mark the occasion, the federal government should make two modest changes: It should make April 9 a federal holiday; and it should commit to disavowing or renaming monuments to the Confederacy, and its leaders, that receive direct federal support.
It's worth noting that one of the failures of those surrender terms was to allow the Confederate soldiers to keep their weapons and take them back home. In the struggles to establish a biracial democracy during Reconstruction, the fact that the enemies of democracy had lots more guns than its supporters was a major factor in the ascendancy of the anti-democracy Redeemers.

[Update 04/09/2015: My comment about disarmament was too broad. Historian David Blight writes specifically of Lee's surrender of 21,000 soldiers at Appomattox 150 years ago today, "Line soldiers were required to stack their muskets and fold their flags as they delivered them to their foes, unit by unit, in an unforgettable six-hour ceremony of stern, quiet military honor." The Civil War Isn't Over The Atlantic 04/08/2015]

Beutler would like to see a sufficient national consensus against Confederate symbols and Lost Cause pseudohistory that "would also reject the romantic reimagining of the Civil War, and thus, the myriad totems to the Confederacy and its leaders that pockmark the South."

He sketches the failure of Reconstruction this way:

There was a real but inadequate constituency for crushing the Southern establishment after the Civil War, and reintegrating the country under an entirely different paradigm. Instead, the North enabled the South by giving it unusual influence over shaping the official mythology of the war. Yes, the South surrendered. The states ratified the 13th Amendment. The Union survived. These facts couldn’t be altered. But memorializing the rebellion as a tragedy of circumstance, or a bravely fought battle of principle - those narratives were adopted in part for the unspoken purpose of making the reunion stick. "You lost, we won, and we're all living in the USA," Talking Point Memo's Josh Marshall once wrote. "But we'll let you win in the battle of memory and valor and nostalgia."

People of good faith can argue over whether these kinds of symbolic concessions (as opposed to the concrete ones, which consigned emancipated slaves to a century of sanctioned depredations) were wise or necessary means to the end of preserving the Union. Some of them weren't concessions at all, so much as insufficient commitment on the part of Northerners to the livelihood of blacks in the South. "[A]s Northern Republican Party became more conservative," historian Eric Foner wrote recently, "Reconstruction came to be seen as a misguided attempt to uplift the lower classes of society." But 150 years on, we know that subjugation is a moral obscenity, and that there's no valid modern argument for spitshining the Confederacy.
Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory is critical of Beutler's proposal, Why Confederate Defeat Does Not Need to Be a National Holiday 04/07/2015. Kevin is still doing good work debunking Lost Cause pseudohistory, like the Black Confederates trope. But he's cautious about people like Ed Sebesta who highlight the links between the ritual and symbolic celebrations of the Confederacy and the politics of race today:

What Beutler seems oblivious to is the fact that memory of the Civil War among white Southerners has undergone a profound shift in recent decades. This blog has cataloged countless examples of this change just over the past few years alone as part of the sesquicentennial. White and black Southerners as well as others are in the midst of a rich regional discussion/negotiation over how the war is remembered in all kinds of public spaces, from the naming of buildings to the relevancy of monuments to the Confederacy.

These discussions are by their very nature messy and often divisive, but they are absolutely necessary in cases where communities acknowledge that their past remains relevant to the present. There is something naive and even dangerous about the way Beutler understands the politics of historical memory.

On Thursday the National Park Service is calling for communities around the country to ring bells in recognition of Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant and the end of the war. Brian Beutler will be happy to learn that many of those bells will be heard throughout the South. [my emphasis]
It's "naive and even dangerous" to object to honoring traitors who touched off the deadliest war by far (for Americans) in American history in defense of slavery? It's legitimate to ask, what is "dangerous" about it? That some white supremacist might have his tender fee-fees offended? Because part of being a white supremacist is a continuous state of griping about how your tender fee-fees are offended by something or other the Mean Libruls and Bad Negroes are doing.

I posed the question in a comment to Kevin's post as I was writing this. I'm guessing that he means that the kind of confrontive, anti-Confederate approach Beutler takes would cause some kind of backlash that could be avoided with a kinder, gentler approach. But I'm really just guessing here.

[Update 04/09/2015: Kevin responded to my comment on the post: "My concern is with what appears to be an unstated assumption that memory can be easily shaped by instituting a new holiday. The kind of fix that Beutler imagines functions to impose memory from the top-down rather than allowing it to evolve organically on the local level." So he was thinking more of ineffectiveness, not some kind of backlash concern. I noted in response that an Appomattox Day could fairly easily be coopted as an Honor Robert E. Lee Day by those so inclined.]

Beutler has a follow-up post, Southerners Shouldn't Take Attacks on the Confederacy Personally 04/07/2015. To the title, I'm inclined to think any Lost Cause advocate who claims to be personally offended by literate criticism of that viewpoint is most likely putting on a WATB act. But then, the whole kinder-gentler approach to this issue doesn't really work for me.

Ironically, Beutler concedes too much to the WATB pitch:

This isn’t entirely an artifact of white supremacy, or of secessionist sympathies. It’s also a matter of state and family pride. If you’re a proud Georgian and your great, great, great grandfather died fighting for the Confederacy, you might not take kindly to the federal government celebrating the day his death was rendered in vain - even if your general perspective on the war and the Cause is modern and progressive.
Oh, &!/#$@+*. Lost Cause advocates aren't defending the Confederacy out of respect for their long dead great-great-grandpappy. If you're an adult and can't have any perspective on the Civil War beyond, "Don't say nothin' bad about the Confederacy, 'cause mah daddy's Pappy Pap fought in that war against the damnyankees," don't expect me to pretend you're talking in good faith. Because ah know you ain't.

This means Brian Beutler is almost surely a Yankee. Yankees tend to be generous that way.

But I'm on board with him on the following:

In the Southern right’s mythical telling, the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery at all, but about governing principles that still define conservatism. Those principles took on enormous retrospective significance as a consequence of that historical revision, and thus contribute to the impoverishment of millions of Southern blacks to this day.

As [Ed] Kilgore explained, the reason for celebrating Appomattox, and not the abolition of slavery alone, is that “the same horrific ideas - the inferiority of people of color, the power of states to nullify and secede, the unconstitutional nature of democracy—keep coming back over and over again.”

And to the extent that the legacy of the Civil War still scars the South, or explains its economic history, a Reunion Day would serve as a reminder that the fathers of the Confederacy - who would stoop to anything, including treason, to preserve slavery - are the ones to blame.
And if hearing yore daddy's Pappy Pap described as fightin' fer treason and slavery jus' 'cause, y'know, he was fighin' fer treason and slavery bothers you, you should take the advice conservative whites love to give African-Americans about the history of slavery and Segregation 1.0: git over it!

No comments: