One of the most bizarre aspects of heritage politics is the tendency of people to confuse past and present. Take this recent exchange over at a certain Facebook group about a mobile exhibit provided by Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission:
Who are “we?” I’m unaware that anyone who participated in the secession movement of 1860-61 is alive today. And as for these “awful people who hated us then and now,” I am unaware that anyone who was alive during the events of 1860-1865 is alive today. I understand that one might want to argue that “they” hate “us” to make “us” feel better/outraged/whatever, but it’s begging the questions of who “we” and “they” are. In this case, it becomes even a little more problematic when someone points out that “they” are in fact “our own people,” which reminds me of that old expression from Pogo:
Another characteristic of this variation of the Confederate heritage movement is the incessant need to construct an Other, a group of people who are out to get “us,” who hate “us,” who want to deny “us” “our” heritage, and additional nonsense. Among other things, this tactic represents an interesting way to evade defining in positive terms what “we” are celebrating and honoring. Have you ever noticed that failure of heritage advocates to offer a compelling positive affirmation of what in fact they think should be honored and commemorated, and what about those qualities is distinctively “southern” or Confederate? Defending family? Not uniquely southern or Confederate. Defending a belief system or a way of life? Not uniquely southern or Confederate. Is there anything, in fact, about Confederate heritage that is distinctive? If there is, you would never know it from the outbursts of its most visible activists on the internet (even those who have asserted that they want to be less visible).
Take the Virginia Flaggers. They would like the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to “restore the honor” by placing Confederate flags
in and around on the outside of the Confederate Memorial Pelham Chapel. Am I to understand that the VMFA has the power to take away the honor? Must be, if they can “restore” it. I’d argue that what the VMFA does or does not do has anything to do with “restoring” the honor of the service of Confederate soldiers. As someone once put it nearly 149 years ago, “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” So what we have here instead is a group that rips off a slogan offered by Glenn Beck and claims that the VMFA has within it the power “to add or detract” from the service of Confederate soldiers. I think not.
The same observation goes for the flurry that accompanied the opening of the Museum of Confederacy’s Appomattox facility. I saw no affirmation of Confederate heritage among the protesters. I saw flags, some group bonding, and a sign reminding us that Ulysses S. Grant once owned a slave, as if somehow saying that was enough to shutter the museum. The museum’s still there … and the Flaggers are not.
In short, many advocates of the Confederate heritage movement in fact do not celebrate Confederate heritage. They even have trouble defining it. The best they can do is to claim that “it,” whatever “it” is, is under attack. It is in fact the failure of this movement to define what they are celebrating and to make that case, to provide a compelling alternative, that tells me that in the end this movement will continue to fail to achieve anything else than the obfuscation of historical understanding.
Finally, every once in a while I hear the following cry: “Remember: If you can’t leave, you are not free!” To this I say: No one is preventing you from leaving. Go somewhere else. Be as good as your word. There’s nothing preventing you from emigrating elsewhere. After all, none of you are actually able to mount a secessionist movement within the United States. All that talk is just hot air. So assert your freedom, first by renouncing your United States citizenship … now. The people you claim to honor did that. Why are you too afraid to do so? If you really wanted to honor Confederate service, you would do what they did and stand up, renounce, and leave. Until you do that, you bring dishonor upon the cause you seek to honor, and you reveal yourself to be the very cowards others think you are.
If you want to make this about “you,” go ahead. Make my day.