Wednesday, April 7, 2010

It was Just an Inconvenient Fact: Slavery Omitted from Virginia's Confederate History Month

Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. [Applause.] This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It is so even amongst us.

--Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy

Damn those minor inconveniences of history!

Question: who the hell longs for The Confederacy? Why do these folks clamor for The Lost Cause and Redemption? The South lost--or did it? Who still believes that state's rights is somehow inseparable from the chattel enslavement of black people in this country? Are there folks, dead-enders in my mind, who really believe that The Confederacy was something to celebrate?

Apparently, Governor Robert McDonnel does. He has proclaimed April as "Confederate History Month" in order to honor how citizens of the state fought so bravely to protect their homes and communities. Interestingly, no mention of slavery appears in his proclamation. This whitewashing of slavery out of Virginia history may seem like an outlier, an interesting news piece that does not tell us anything about politics at large. But it is not. Rather, it is a central example of the political vision that is the core of the Palin, Right-wing Tea Party populism.

The struggle over history and historical memory has been central to American politics. Are we a country of small towns or cities? Were the framers saints or were they flawed men? Is white supremacy central to American history or peripheral to it? Just what is the American Dream? Is America an Empire? Or is she a benevolent power that only does good in the world?

The appeals to "real America" by Palin et al. as well as the "we want our America back" slogan adopted by the Tea Party brigands are signals to a particular and narrow version of American history. Not to be forgotten, the efforts by Conservatives in Texas to rewrite U.S. history textbooks are also a cousin to this phenomenon. The know-nothingness of which these examples are representative has always been present in American political and social life. Now, they are elevated to respectability by Fox News and enabled by a 24 hours news cycle that is desperate for a story...any story to fill its allotted time.

We live in an age where all opinions matter and are considered of "equal" merit. And sadly this is also a moment where willful stupidity is a virtue ("look I read the Constitution and I can interpret it at opinion is at least as valid as those "arrogant" smarty pants professors and 'experts'" or "Glenn Beck reads books and I like him so he is right because I agree with him and it makes me feel good." Or alternatively, my favorite: "knowledge and facts are 'subjective' so my opinion is at least as good as yours."

Sorry, it is not.

We often treat a failing educational system and the dumbing down of our public discourse as separate problems. No, they are a symptom of a deeper rot. The idiocracy is winning. Their slogan? "My opinion is..."

The forces who win from the faux populism and advocacy offered by the Right-wing tea party brigands are the very same elements who want to see a distracted and confused public. Because of their influence on the tea parties (aided and abetted by the Right-wing media echo chamber) this public is ill-equipped to engage in a critical analysis of the structures that have contributed to their angst about America's future. Like a team of horses or mules, the tea parties are egged on by their masters to lash out at "those people" and yearn hopelessly for the return of their "real America."

The rabble are not made virtuous or right because they are in the majority--or even the plurality. There is such a thing as expert knowledge and it is to be respected and cultivated.

Sadly for some, there is a right side of history. The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history Governor McDonnel. It is best to accept that fact and to move on.

Courtesy of The Washington Post:

Gov. McDonnell's airbrushing of Virginia history

Wednesday, April 7, 2010; A16

IT WAS only in 1997, 132 years after the Civil War, that Virginia finally retired "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia" as its state song, acknowledging that the lyrics (including "this old darky's heart" and "old Massa") offended blacks, among others. Now, inexplicably, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has issued a proclamation that blatantly airbrushes the history of Virginia, the Civil War and the United States, again raising questions about how far the Old Dominion has evolved, or not.

It's fine that Mr. McDonnell decided to proclaim April as Confederate History Month; the Confederacy is an important chapter of history that merits study and draws tourists to Virginia.

But any serious statement on the Confederacy and the Civil War would at least recognize the obvious fact -- that slavery was the major cause of the war, and that the Confederacy fought largely in defense of what it called "property," which meant the right to own slaves. Instead, Mr. McDonnell's proclamation chose to omit this, declaring instead that Virginians fought "for their homes and communities and Commonwealth." The words "slavery" and "slaves" do not appear.

Even more incendiary is the proclamation's directive that "all Virginians" must appreciate the state's "shared" history and the Confederacy's sacrifices. Surely he isn't including the 500,000 Virginia slaves who constituted more than a quarter of the state's Civil War-era population, who cheered the Union and ran away to it when they could.

As James McPherson, dean of Civil War scholars, commented on learning of Mr. McDonnell's proclamation: "I find it obnoxious, but it's extremely typical. The people that emphasize Confederate heritage and the legacy, and the importance of understanding Confederate history, want to deny that Confederate history was ultimately bound up with slavery. But that was the principal reason for secession -- that an anti-slavery party was elected to the White House. . . . And without secession, there wouldn't have been a war."

It's difficult to understand why Mr. McDonnell, who in his inaugural address paid eloquent homage to former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the grandson of slaves, and spoke movingly of slavery's evils, would now trade in such glaring historical omissions. Charitably, we might suspect sloppy staff work; less charitably, we'd guess he is pandering to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group that lionizes the Confederacy and pressed for the proclamation. It's possible the governor thought he was being sensitive by eliminating the obnoxious glorification of the Confederacy's "cause," a word that appeared in a similar proclamation by former governor George Allen (R), whose idea of office decor ran to Confederate flags and nooses.

If Mr. McDonnell was unable to draft a historically honest statement, the best course would have been to follow the example of his direct predecessors, former Democratic governors Timothy M. Kaine and Mark L. Warner, who sidestepped the issue. After all, Virginians have studied and recognized the Civil War for generations without instructions from the governor. And as Mr. Warner said, such proclamations are too often lightning rods that exacerbate racial wounds rather than soothe them.


ish said...

Nice post. I threw a bunch of quotes from the Confederacy up on my own blog (including one you have also cited) when I heard of this. I guess I'm glad for the opportunity to refresh my memory about how central to the Confederacy slavery was, and how emotionally attached to white supremacy its leaders were.

Shady_Grady said...

The older I get the more I think that the big reason that we still have all of this Confederate glorification is that unlike in post War Germany or Japan there was never any sort of reckoning in 1865 America.

I mean perhaps if a few more of the secessionist generals and politicians had swung at the end of a rope for treason, we wouldn't have this stuff going on today.

ijuhtfws said...

It is no surprise that people claim that the South "won". We have raised the latest generation with the notion that there is no such thing as last place. We give out ribbons for 8th place in kids athletics, its no wonder these over-pampered and undereducated fools are thinking that they "won".

Anonymous said...


But of course, the reason why said "reckoning" didn't happen, is because the winners were as white as the losers, AND they spoke the same language. The only real difference between the North and the South was that the South said publicly what the North thought privately. The Emancipation Proclamation didn't happen because Lincoln was pro-black...he wanted to ship people back to happened because Lincoln was on the verge of losing the war and needed boots-on-the-ground and a public morale boost. All of this is merely a continuation of the evil inherent in white cultural power and dominance. I, for one, think that many white Northerners wish that they could fly the Stars and Bars...

White Man in a Black World

Bill the Lizard said...

One of the most telling things to me about this whole situation is that while Governor McDonnel glorifies the Confederacy in Virginia, Arlington National Cemetery's Section 27 (which contains the remains of thousands of Freed Slaves and United States Colored Troops) sits in a state of neglect and utter disrepair.

And has been in that state for well over 20 years - even after Congress told the cemetery to fix it.

Arlington may be a national cemetery, but this really sends a disturbing message about where the Commonwealth of Virginia's priorities are.