Confederate Heritage, Glenn McConnell, and the College of Charleston

That which is predictable often bores me, and the discussion over whether South Carolina lieutenant governor Glenn McConnell should become president of the College of Charleston is a case in point.

You see, Mr. McConnell has an affinity for Confederate heritage. He’s a Civil War reenactor and has an interest in history, especially Confederate history. That issue is at the center of opposition to his candidacy to become a college president. People are reading all sorts of things into the current kerfuffle, with media coverage embracing the usual pattern.

We have press coverage here, here, and here, with reaction from McConnell and his supporters here and here. Kevin Levin’s discussed the matter here and here.

My favorite comment may be that McConnell’s candidacy reflects a commitment to “Confederate affirmative action.”

Back in 2011 McConnell offered the following reflections on the sesquicentennial:

In the news, we see daily examples of conflict, even violence, between people who refuse to rise above old divisions. In some cases, they continue to nurture resentment, fueled by ancient disputes. Diversity among people with different traditions doesn’t have to be a source of conflict. It also offers an opportunity for mutual respect and celebration. That’s what the Civil War sesquicentennial means to me.

There are very few places in the world that wear its past as casually and comfortably as Charleston does. The remarkable history of our city is highlighted every day as scores of tourists take horse-drawn tours around town or visit the many museums and historical sites our city has to offer. Therefore, as we prepare to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we do so as a city surrounded by its past, a place where history itself serves both as a source of inspiration and an engine for the tourism that strengthens our economy.

This occasion also offers a perfect opportunity for a new generation to learn the importance of the Civil War to the history of our city and nation. By reflecting on the most divisive and violent event in our history, we can derive inspirational lessons from the long and difficult efforts so many have made to bring us, as a people, to where we are today. And we can do so without running each other down, by accenting the positive aspects of our diverse traditions.

I have long been interested in the Civil War because of the Lowcountry’s unique involvement and because much of the character of our area still retains the flavor of the mid-19th century. Our architecture makes it easy to evoke images of what life must have been like during those times. I have also learned how the study of history can play an important role in our efforts to develop a know-ledge-based economy. For example, when we recovered the C.S.S. Hunley submarine from Charleston Harbor, we knew that both vessel and crew had an important historic meaning. But I don’t think anyone imagined that we were opening a door to the future.

The restoration of the Hunley led to the creation of cutting-edge technologies that could have a pronounced affect on 21st-century manufacturing. The Warren Lasch Conservation Center not only served as a site for the conservation of the submarine, but it also became a lab where research is being done on a scale like nowhere else in the world. The Hunley also led to a partnership with Clemson University, which led to the Clemson Restoration Institute. From a Civil War-era submarine, we now have landed grants that could put us at the forefront of wind-turbine technology.

The sesquicentennial is not merely a look into the past. More importantly, it shows us who we are, and it dramatizes how far we’ve traveled together. By this commemoration, Charleston can literally show the world how people with diverse traditions, histories, and views can come together in a spirit of unity and mutual respect. That is a lesson badly needed in today’s world.

This does not sound like someone who would embrace, say, the Virginia Flaggers. Then again, it does sound like something a politician would say.

To my mind, there are three components to this discussion. First, it should be of primary importance as to whether McConnell has the skills and ability to be a good college president. There are, after all, some interesting issues currently facing the college. Second, one should try to figure out whether there would be any connection between what McConnell thinks about the Civil War and how he’d perform as president (indeed, one has to do a bit of work to find out exactly how he understands the Civil War, and I’ve not seen that set forth very well). Third, one must reflect on the question of image. Attacks on McConnell raise the stakes for the College of Charleston, while at the same time we see a more vigorous defense of his qualifications and sentiments. One might ask whether that discussion, no matter how it turns out, will lead the people making the selection to look elsewhere for a less controversial candidate.

Regardless of the decision, some people will attribute the result to McConnell’s interest in Confederate heritage. If he is not named, we’ll hear cries of anguish about people being “politically correct,” while if he’s named to the position, I expect to hear more about how that’s so typical of South Carolina, a state where stereotypes abound (do not forget that I lived in the state for three years). A victory for McConnell will also represent a setback for the NAACP, and I’m sure that will warm the hearts of some, while a defeat will lead to some people denouncing the organization with renewed fervor as a “hate group.”

And then we’ll all find something else to write about or whine about.

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