Law in Contemporary Society

Confederate History Month: It’s a Celebration!

-- By StephanieOduro - 15 May 2010

For the first time since 2001, Virginia's Republican Governor, Bob McDonnell, proclaimed April as “Confederate History Month” and without mentioning slavery. Virginia is not the only state celebrating the Confederacy. Georgia, Texas and Mississippi, just to name a few, also celebrate Confederate History Month. It is somewhat reassuring that the President has openly criticized Virginia’s omission of slavery from its proclamation, considering that past Presidents reacted with silence whenever Southern States celebrated their Confederate heritage. The separation of the issues of slavery from Confederacy is not only a gross distortion of American History, but it also romanticizes the era marked with racism and human rights violations.

Governor McDonnell soon apologized for the omission. However, he defended his initial position by stating that his intent was to honor the sacrifice on Virginia soil and to promote tourism rather focusing on the issue of slavery. He originally chose not to mention slavery in his proclamation because he was “focused on the ones (he) thought were most significant for Virginia.” Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, was less apologetic and defended McDonnell’s omission of slavery claiming that the controversy was making “a big deal out of something that doesn't matter for diddly." It seems to follow that, at least for McDonnell and Barbour, the plight of Virginia’s slaves does not rank among the most significant aspects of the civil war. It also seems as though McDonnell’s failure to mention slavery as a reason for the war was not an oversight.

To many, the notion of celebrating the Confederate History probably sounds ludicrous. A national discussion of the Civil War’s history would be more educational than celebrating the Confederacy. Everyone should know and understand American history in it’s entirely. It is one thing to reflect, remember or mourn the human calamity that the institution of slavery brought onto America. But celebrating an institution that openly embraced slavery seems anachronistic to a 21st century America that overcame centuries of racism and even elected a black president. Or is this just the resurfacing of the inherent racism that has been pushed under the rug for the past decades?

The problem with the celebration of Confederate History Month is that it venerates the secessionist, slaveholding South. The Confederacy was a movement based on the buying and selling of human beings. No amount of sugar coating can change the reality that millions of slaves had their liberty and labor stolen to the benefit of white slave owners. Is this the heritage that gives Southerners so much pride?

To say that slavery was "only one" of the causes of the South’s secession from the Union is a myth. Slavery was the actual cause and everything else was a rationalization. Can we honestly and truthfully say that the Confederates were not fighting to keep black people enslaved? For those who had any doubt that secession was to keep slavery alive, the following Mississippi declaration of secession before the Civil War speaks for itself:

''Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery -- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product, which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.''
After reading that, Confederate supporters would have to have a delusional view of what is honorable to claim that secession was about “states rights” and not slavery.

To honor the "principles" of the Confederacy is simply immoral. Would "Nazi Heritage Month" be tolerated in Germany? No. Governor McDonnell’s proclamation of confederate history month without mentioning slavery is like honoring German soldiers for their bravery in WWII without mentioning Nazism or the Holocaust. They call Germans who fondly remember the happy memories of World War II Neo-Nazis.

In addition, some argue that the Confederate Heritage should be celebrated in order to remember the death of thousands of Confederate soldiers. They point out that many Confederate soldiers were uneducated poor farmers trying to make a living conscripted to serve and die. But we can focus on the individual acts of soldiers of many unjust forces in the world. Trying to make a living does not excuse their misdeeds. Those soldiers chose to defend a system of degradation called slavery, just like Nazi soldiers were defending and perpetuating an evil genocide. The deaths of confederate soldiers do not call for celebration, only somber reflection.

The history of the Confederacy and the institution of slavery was a national tragedy. Slaves were subjected to hangings, rape, murder, beatings, separation of families via auction etc. by rich and poor white southerners alike. There is nothing to celebrate in Confederate History except the end of it. The Confederacy should be remembered, for sure, but it should not be celebrated. Rather, it should be a warning of what devastation and atrocity this country was once capable of inflicting on its own people.

People eager to participate in confederate history month have been flocking to Civil War reenactment sites. Since Virginia claims that confederate history month is a ploy to increase tourism, the following suggestions might help garner VA more visitors: enlist black actors to reenact scenes on a plantation complete with cotton picking and a white master cracking a whip on their backs. Indeed, the VA bureau of tourism might also want to have black child actors reenact scenes from the auction block with excited bidders yelling for more. And what Civil War Era reenactment would be complete without a white master/black female slave rape scene? This is the Confederacy I know, and this is their legacy. So Virginia, put your “heritage” on display for the whole world to see.

-- By StephanieOduro - 15 May 2010

This is just shooting fish in a barrel. There's no one who particularly wants to defend the absurd form in which this inexperienced governor and laughable politician took his pratfall. So you can criticize his nonsense all you please without risking any actual complications of thought.

More difficult is to leave behind the non-substantive castigation of idiocy for two more complicated issues: (1) how if at all to differentiate Southern conservatism, including "lost cause" romanticism, from mere propaganda for white supremacy; and (2) what moral judgments are appropriate in response to Southern sectionalism in the post-bellum, post-Jim-Crow, post-Brown, post-white-majority America of the 21st century. These tasks this draft, like its predecessor, doesn't directly engage. You are morally judgmental, but condemnatory rhetoric is not an argument.

Kay's edit tried to raise the right issues, but did so too weakly. He pointed out by a too-brief example the importance of comparative perspective. Lost causes often but not always have romantic value to the descendants of those who were defeated. How and why that happens is useful to think about, but the thought is blocked if one simply imposes victors' justice on one's own thought patterns. And winners as well as losers commit crimes and tread humanity underfoot, but only the morals of the winners become historically above reproach. Kay tried to raise some of the questions, but you basically ran over his points.

Germans would not tolerate a Nazi Heritage Month while the generation that fought the war lives, and I assume that even 150 years from now an official observance is unlikely. Which should say something about the romanticized Confederacy and its continuing importance in American culture, regardless of the extent to which the comparison would seem inflammatory to Southern sectionalists.

But it's precisely because I don't have a problem with the comparison that I do have a problem with the moral conclusions. My great-grandmother and all my grandfather's siblings and their offspring were murdered by Nazis. I have strong personal feelings about German society between the wars, about the relations between German nationalist ideology generally (not just National Socialism) and anti-Semitism, and about the willingness of ordinary Germans to be complicit in genocide during the war. Those intellectual attitudes shade off into emotional commitments I sometimes have to act strongly to govern in myself; they are bigoted. But committed, even prejudiced, as I am, I don't at all see the moral opprobrium of the descendants of honorable soldiers celebrating German bravery in the Wehrmacht, and I don't see the presence of some philo-Semitic exhibition or some obligatory hand-wringing about the Shoah as a necessary pseudo-exculpatory accompaniment. German prohibition on neo-fascist expression is, to my mind, more a way of burying the past than preventing its recurrence, and it holds no positive moral status for me, any more than prohibition of "hate speech" does in my own society.

Obviously, we can and should differ on this, as we can and should differ from the very people whose view of their own past—incomplete, romanticized, unrealistic and exculpatory as it is—we are discussing. But to hold their view of their own history immoral seems to me a serious category error and a threat to intellectual freedom. You and I aren't going to celebrate during Confederate History Month, or at least not celebrate Confederate history. But there will be any number of things for us to do, some of which you have suggested (apparently more in a satirical than a realistic mood), which would be both legitimate and helpful contributions, so that young people see the lost cause sentimentalism for what it is, rather than for what it isn't.

But this opens, rather than concluding, the real inquiry, it seems to me, which is about the nature of our relationship to contending historical interpretations in the culture. The political purposes presently being served by lost cause sentimentalism aren't quite the same, let us say, as the anticapitalist populism of Tom Dooley or the "12 Southerners" who authored "I'll Take My Stand." They may be no more noble, or even as contaminated by unalloyed white supremacism, but I can't imagine trying to prevent or forbid them any more than I can the shallow racism of "Gone With The Wind." Claude Bowers and Ulrich Bonnell Phillips are racist as well as brilliantly insightful, just as Alex Haley can be stupid and dishonest as well as morally uplifting. I never cease to appreciate the form of historic justice that puts the honored grave of Thurgood Marshall on Robert E. Lee's front lawn, but a view of American history that reduced Robert Lee, and the men whose qualities he epitomized, to mere defenders of slavery would be untruthful narrative. An essay that deals greatly with this subject would be able to frame a truth deeper than rhetorical denunciation can extend.


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r6 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:34:50 - IanSullivan
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