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?