The Sesquicentennial and Southern Identity

Over at Civil War Memory Kevin Levin’s expressed his displeasure with a recent short commentary posted on History News Network.  A look at the commentary reveals it to be superficial, although I think Kevin errs in offering an overly-broad headline, because Steven Conn does not speak for all (or perhaps even many) public historians.  After all, readers of this blog, especially southern readers, would resent it if I titled a post “Southerners Never Learn” to discuss Confederate heritage advocate George Purvis.

That said, Conn’s piece, which speaks rather blithely of “Southerners” as if all southerners come in one size, with one set of opinions, and in just one color (white), suggests how, even as there’s hope that the Civil War sesquicentennial may help Americans develop a more sophisticated understanding of the war, that there remains much evidence that cookie-cutter commentary following the predictable pattern of casting “southerners” as backward-looking folks who still seek to rationalize their past while proudly promoting Confederate heritage won’t get us very far.

Edward Said is perhaps best known for advancing the notion of “the Other,” in which people define themselves by crafting an image of themselves in contrast to some opposing construct (the so-called “other”).  Robert Penn Warren, C. Vann Woodward, Vernon Burton, Howard Zinn, Carl Degler, and other observers applied like reasoning to posit a notion of the South as Other, in which non-southerners craft an image of the South that stresses how different it is.  Many people see Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic as an expression of this approach.  Cookie-cutter sesquicentennial commentary falls into the same trap, and it often follows the same pattern: interview a SCV spokesman, perhaps a NAACP spokesman, perhaps David Blight or someone who sounds just like him, sprinkle it with other commentary, and the result is (a) things haven’t changed or (b) things might change (this depends on who else is interviewed by the reporter).  Moreover, the reporting assumes that it is in the South that the terms of the sesquicentennial are set.

So, just to remind you … southern heritage and Confederate heritage are not the same thing.  Not all southerners are alike.  Not all southerners are white.  Not all of them fly the Confederate battle flag or put Confederate bumper stickers on their pickup trucks equipped with gun racks.  Not all southerners joined the Confederacy.  Racism was not simply a southern thing.  If the protection of slavery sparked secession, the destruction of slavery did not motivate the United States’ decision to resist secession or go to war.

Those who do not take the trouble to learn about Civil War history are doomed to repeat the same old tired predictable narratives.  It may be all the more disturbing when they pose as “experts,” trained professionals in the field of history, but the misuse of “expertise” to offer “commentary” is a subject best left for another time.


8 thoughts on “The Sesquicentennial and Southern Identity

  1. Kevin April 11, 2011 / 10:26 am

    Definitely the wrong headline.

  2. Sherree April 11, 2011 / 10:27 am

    Many thanks, Brooks, from a non cookie cutter southerner.

  3. Chuck Brown April 11, 2011 / 12:32 pm

    The sad thing is that we all have a tendency to consider those with whom we disagree greatly as The Other. Even as I accuse others of doing it, I am often guilty of doing it myself. Thanks for the post.

    “Cookie-cutter…commentary” is all around us. We may easily recognize it in people who have opinions different from our own, but be blind to it when it comes to, in my case, comments from people like David Blight, with whom I agree.

    Thanks again for pointing out the foibles human beings.

  4. Tony Gunter April 11, 2011 / 1:35 pm

    I’m not sure I understand the beef with Conn’s article. He’s not damning all southerners, he’s damning the southern spin on ACW history. The only time he comes close to a blanket dismissal of any group is when he complains about “southern historians” and “southern writers.” But it’s easily apparent he’s not talking about all members of either group.

    • Brooks D. Simpson April 11, 2011 / 4:19 pm

      I’m not so sure. In any case, it’s formulaic and predictable.

  5. Lyle Smith April 11, 2011 / 7:14 pm

    Lovely post.

  6. tim kent April 12, 2011 / 10:04 am

    Excellent post and most of these writers are just trying to stir things up so they get lots of attention.

  7. Charles Lovejoy April 12, 2011 / 12:37 pm

    I don’t think a “Cookie-cutter” identity applies to any group of people including Southerners . I feel some in the south like the SCV and some of the other Confederate groups make that same mistake by lumping all northerners, or sometimes referred to as “Yankees” 🙂 into a one minded group, that is incorrect also. I have meet and known northerners that were descendants of Union vets that subscribed to at type of ‘Lost Cause’ view on the ACW similar to the SCV’s. I know southerners that don’t agree with secession or the Confederacy. I know some southerners that are liberals and have Obama bumper stickers on their cars that are sympathetic to the South during the ACW. I know northerners that have confederate flags and I know many southerners that don’t. Its a big diverse world of thought out there when it comes to the Civil War , so I don’t think the “Cookie-cutter identity ” works north or south. I also think people pay way to much attention to the SCV. My county has a population of around 200K ,from what I have been told there are only about 10-15 active members of the SCV group in this county. And about all they do is get together once a month and drink beer and eat Chicken wings. I have also been told both the local UDC and SCV groups only uses the first National Confederate flag and don’t use the CBF. I’m finding most people are in my area are complacent about the Sesquicentennial or just have a passing interest in it.

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