Ratifying One’s Prejudices

During the last decade I’ve assigned Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic to a number of classes and reading groups.  I find it an absorbing book, if read in its entirety.  However, I often note that some readers dwell more on certain sections than on others, especially those featuring interesting characters who say or do outlandish things.  In discussion I ask readers whether Tony’s book can be subjected to a criticism that one can often make about studies of popular culture: that he set out to find that which was most colorful, most extreme, most astonishing, all with the result of making the unrepresentative seem representative, and in the process he reinforced unfair stereotypes.  The answers are often very interesting: Tony’s book is not about all southerners, just some southerners (and reenactors, who also seem offended by the book) who have a particular interest in the Civil War.  It’s not that the people Tony describes do not exist (they do), but that they are not representative of very much.   Or are they?

It’s worth pointing out that white southerners are not unique in this regard: advertising often relies upon stereotyping as a quick way to get a message across.  As in …

And so do movies.  As in …

Note: I don’t like mayonnaise.

Which, of course, brings me to the gift that keeps on giving, the subject of several recent blog posts from various observers.  I especially enjoy the complaints about being “monitored” from people posting links to blogs they “monitor” … and stalk (watch this get posted by my favorite stalker as an example of being stalked).

It occurs to me that perhaps these internet exchanges fashion an unrepresentative image of white southerners, even as the people who highlight the inane behavior of these groups protest that the members of fringe “heritage” groups are not representative of anything except some sort of fringe extremism.  And yet it is also true that posts highlighting this fringe attract much more traffic. including comments from “professional historians” who decry the attention paid to these groups (these same historians don’t often contribute to other threads, so commenting on these threads seems to me to be some sort of guilty pleasure for them).  It’s like how traffic slows down as people look over at an automobile accident for no other reason than they are curious: they can’t help themselves.

Someday someone’s going to write a history of how Americans celebrated the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.  We know that the world of cyberspace and the internet will be part of that discussion: the Library of Congress is archiving selected blogs (I’d love to see the selection criteria).  So, try to step back for a moment and tell me how one would treat such fringe groups (and the attention they attract) in a study of how Americans commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.  Should they receive attention?  What do they tell us about public discourse and popular understanding?  Do we risk making the fringe seem representative by highlighting it, or am I mistaken in classifying such groups as fringe extremists who provide all-too-easy targets?  Indeed, how will historians treat cyberdiscourse?

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9 thoughts on “Ratifying One’s Prejudices

  1. “stalk (watch this get posted by my favorite stalker as an example of being stalked).”

    Nice.

    I think attention would and should be paid to certain groups. This won’t be a singular micro examination of lets say the SHPG or Southern Nation but more of a broad spectrum. I can definitely see that happening. The idea of “Confederate Heritage” and all “Lost Cause” involved is not a new concept and not one limited to just the 1,300 on Facebook. I do not think you can look at the 150th Anniversary without those interpretations. Should they receive attention? Yes. Not for the reasons of credibility but for the reasons of analyzing and interpreting the different “histories” certain people have about the war. This is a study of memory if anything.

    It is also interesting to see the cultural trend 150 years later v. the historical narrative. Groups like the SHPG can explain a lot given that you have the patience to listen. Whether or not their explanation is actually correct is another matter ;-). However they do represent an interesting attachment to something a century and a half old. None of them were alive to defend the ‘nation’ nor were the alive to actually see it. Yet, they claim some divine connection to the geographical area. It tells us that there is an understanding that exists beyond the historical narrative. Sometimes that understanding parallels the historical truth and sometimes it is absolutely absurd. Are we paying them too much attention and making a fringe group seem relevant? No. The SHPG might be considered fringe, but the movement they are behind is something more which cannot be overlooked but must be educated out of. (I’m sure I’ll read an ‘indoctrination’ accusation about that later) This new cyberdiscourse is paving the way towards a new type of research approach however. We are now talking about rapidly changing information that can be altered in seconds.

    And historians are already beginning to approach this new outlet.

    http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/crowdsourcing/i-nevertheless-am-a-historian-madsen-brooks/

  2. With regard to the question posed: is this group representative. Not even. Of all the people in Mississippi I have ever personally known well enough to understand their beliefs, I count among them only one that espouses the type of madness displayed on SHPG. My niece formerly babysat for a fellow in rural Rankin County who is the most fervently unreconstructed person of whom I have ever heard. He is a dealer in Civil War antiquities (the fact that he owned night vision goggles tempted me to alert the NPS), he is carefully groomed to look like Colonel Freaking Sanders, and he greeted “ladies” with a bow and a kiss on the back of the hand (creepy factor: high).

    The real kicker is that the guy was from Ohio.

    • If I remember correctly, Horowitz mentions how popular Confederate flags are in areas (I think it was in the border states) that were pro-Union. One of my dad’s cousins (his family is from the Blue Ridge) was disappointed that the only Civil War soldier in our family she could find fought for the Union.

      No larger point other than agreeing it is weird that people would want the Confederacy to be their heritage.

      • That also plays into Horwitz’s story of his immigrant grandfather buying a Civil War history book. Everyone wants to be a part of the great adventure in the adolescence of our country.

  3. Agreed, though not sure it explains why people whose ancestors were pro-Union are now pro-Confederate. Maybe few people actually know what their ancestors were doing and draw most of their views about the war from Gone with the Wind and its ilk? That would not surprise me, but it always puzzles me why people who make something a large part of their identity (e.g. being pro-Confederate or, to be slightly controversial, anti-evolution) know so little about it.

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