The Growing Vacuousness of Confederate Heritage

Over at Civil War Memory Kevin Levin’s speculated about the decline and eventual disappearance of Confederate heritage commemorationsimplying that perhaps confining such ceremonies in time and place may prolong their existence by confining their expression to appropriate venues and occasions. As you might well imagine, some of Kevin’s most vocal critics (who also happen to be among his most loyal readers) offered their usual pitiful petulant protests. Fine, folks: just go raise another flag somewhere and claim victory.

Although I appreciate Kevin’s argument, I hold a different view (although I suspect that Kevin agrees with much of what I am about to say). I think that the real problem with Confederate heritage today is that it has less and less to do with the Confederacy or any sort of heritage and much more to do with serving as a vehicle through which people express their political views and cultural preferences. There are several themes sometimes associated with Confederate heritage that come through in these declarations, much as other themes woven throughout Confederate heritage reappear in the claims made by critics of Confederate heritage (think slavery, folks: there’s no Confederacy without it).

Neither advocates nor critics comprehend Confederate heritage as a whole, although critics do a better job of relating that heritage to history, an area where Confederate heritage advocates often struggle, largely due to their ignorance or their anxiety to find a usable past to justify their present perspectives. Rather, they rest with complaining about the “race card” or “political correctness,” a sure sign that they can’t actually articulate a compelling defense of Confederate heritage on its merits or why Americans should honor or at least tolerate it. In short, the concept of Confederate heritage is increasingly intellectually bankrupt, and its advocates have no one but themselves to blame.

It is precisely this difficulty in framing a defense of Confederate heritage on its own merits that proved so devastating to Confederate heritage prospects in 2015 in the aftermath of the Charleston murders. Simply put, the defenders never articulated a defense of Confederate heritage on its merits. They were reduced to assailing their critics and tossing around slogans. We see the same incapability in New Orleans and Charlottesville. Take the latter case: we already know that sooner or later we’ll see a Confederate battle flag go up somewhere in Albemarle County.  We may see even more than one. Surely the residents of Charlottesville have read about the proliferation of Confederate battle flags in Danville. Yet that concern does not drive the debate in Charlottesville, in part because the folks in Charlottesville remember the sight of Karen Cooper ranting and raving uncontrollably about social policy.

You can see Karen Cooper start her comments at 1:34:25 on the video.
You can see Karen Cooper start her comments at 1:34:25 on the video.

Cooper’s life story, which draws attention because people find her to be an unusual advocate of Confederate heritage, actually suggests that she is quite typical except in the blunt frankness with which she expresses what really makes her tick. It’s not as if her fellow Confederate heritage advocates are not intellectually lazy. They are. But at least some of them do a better job of concealing their political and cultural agenda, one that would not tolerate someone sharing Cooper’s assertiveness for very long.

One could point out, of course, that heritage has always had its inherently political aspects, and that is true. Tales of heritage often have a political message, including explaining, justifying, or challenging the existing order of things. But what makes the cutting edge of current Confederate heritage so interesting is that it has very little to do with the historical Confederacy, at least not in ways that its proponents want to highlight. This helps explain all the bleating about “playing the race card” and “political correctness” to obscure the white supremacist aspects of the Confederacy while overlooking the ways in which proslavery forces themselves endorsed “big government” to protect the peculiar institution (see the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850) and how the Confederate experiment repressed self-determination (ask southern white Unionists) or moved in the direction of “big government” (see conscription and impressment, to say nothing of the Confederacy’s sorry record when it came to civil liberties).

What this means, of course, is that efforts to defend Confederate heritage are so muffled by the rhetoric of current politics and cultural values that surround it that the proponents of that heritage fumble away any effort to defend it on its merits. They would rather raise the specter of removing other statues, for example, because they really can’t tell you why those statues they adore should stay where they are. The “you are erasing history” mantra is equally bizarre, because the “history” being erased is evidence of the reasons the statues were put up, not the story of the person or event being commemorated (are you going to tell me that white southerners needed a statue of Robert E. Lee to remember who he was?). Indeed, to explain all the reasons the statues went up (however unpopular that might be in some corners) is, I think, a worthwhile project, but one that advocates of Confederate heritage might not endorse. And let’s not forget the advocates of a Confederacy that celebrates “diversity.”

For many advocates (and apologists) of Confederate heritage, the politics of heritage correctness rest upon people in the present identifying with people in the past who are, to a greater or lesser extent, creatures of  Confederate heritage advocates’ imagination that sometimes barely resembled the people heritage is supposed to honor. Whenever I hear about how “we” lost the war or what “we” are going to do next time, I know that that person or persons are living in an imaginary land where heritage is little more than a device selected to service present needs, desires, beliefs, and prejudices. That’s presentism with a vengeance, but then it’s never been about history, but heritage. Once we understand that Confederate heritage in some hands is little more than identity politics (I can’t make this stuff up), then we should be able to comprehend why exploring the historical record, however much it may do to wreck heritage claims of what happened in the past, has very little effect on the understanding of the past as professed by proponents of heritage as identity politics. After all, “heritage correctness” is really nothing more than a certain kind of “political correctness,” at least as defined by those people who whine about it all the time. It’s just a matter of explaining what sort of political and cultural beliefs we are discussing.

Remember, Confederate heritage apologists: it’s not all about you.

Then again, maybe it is.


8 thoughts on “The Growing Vacuousness of Confederate Heritage

  1. bob carey May 20, 2016 / 2:30 am

    In a strange way I feel sorry for the Heritage crowd. I mean look at what they have to work with, a slave holding republic which lasted a little over four years that plunged the nation into a civil war which cost approximately 720,000 lives, not to mention hastened the demise of the very institution they held so dear. Not a lot of positive things here.
    However I don’t expect this crowd to be going away any time soon. First of all, they have social media which enables them to connect with like minded groups and secondly, outlandish lies and statements (building a wall, Cruzs’ father being involved with the JFK assassination etc.) are more accepted now than at any other period in my lifetime. God help us.

    • Derek May 20, 2016 / 10:26 pm

      According to James Robertson and other historians at the 150th marking of the Battle of Antietam, that number of lives loss of 720K is a significant underestimation. They now believe that the number is well north of 800K lives. The south did a terrible job of counting their dead and on both sides, soldiers that died when arriving at home from wounds would not always be counted. There was also a feeling among commanders of a need to under report their casualties. Additionally, civilian deaths were never included. For example, they said by having the armies near Sharpsburg, caused significant civilian deaths due to disease and destruction for farmland. So we will never know the true number of lives lost but if someone were to someday say it was even 900K, historians will not be surprised.

  2. Sandi Saunders May 20, 2016 / 9:00 am

    Very well said. For a long time the efforts of the neo-confederates and flaggers have had “very little to do with the historical Confederacy” and much, if not all, to do with conservative white southern identity. They have felt the effects of diversity, equality and inclusion efforts and it has made them yearn for Dixie for all the wrong reasons.

    Otherwise they would have built their organizations, events and efforts on memorializing, commemorating and respecting the soldiers where they are, not trying to take over the public square and force acceptance of their message even though the Confederacy was defeated.

    • Brian May 25, 2016 / 11:12 am

      Most admirers of the Confederacy today support the federalist ideals that prompted the southern states to secede from the Union. There will always be the few racist loons who use Confederate symbols but they are a tiny minority.

      If you are referring to these racists as being concerned with “conservative white southern identity” then I agree with you, If you are labeling the majority of Southern admirers with this pejorative, I disagree.

      And I am only referring to the political, more controversial aspect of this issue. Also involved is a reverence for family who fought, died and suffered through the war and reconstruction. It is a very complex, multifaceted issue and it is just wrong to boil it down to only slavery.

      As is 1861 admirers of the positive ideals of the South just want to be left alone. They do not care if you accept their message, but want to keep their monuments and fly their flags in peace.

      Being conservative in nature they are not inclined to spend their spare energies organizing, protesting and creating organizations to promote this cause or that, probably to their detriment.

      • Brooks D. Simpson May 25, 2016 / 11:40 am

        Defenders of Confederate heritage who believe as you do might consider which advocates of Confederate heritage catch the public eye.

        As for the federalist principles of the Confederate founders, the war sure tested them, and as it was, proslavery forces were perfectly willing to use federal power when it suited their purposes and criticized efforts by northern states to defend accused blacks using personal liberty laws. So at times the principles one honors were not honored by the people one honors.

        Note that I didn’t bring up the issue of race or racial attitudes.

      • Sandi Saunders May 25, 2016 / 12:23 pm

        I do not see “most”of the “admirers of the Confederacy” as being people who “today support the federalist ideals that prompted the southern states to secede from the Union” nor am I sure that the federalist ideals were at all what “prompted the southern states to secede from the Union” when the available documented evidence is that they went for secession and war when they perceived that the federal government was no longer going to cater to or defer to their slavery based economy and way of life.

        Yes, there will indeed always be “racist loons who use Confederate symbols” but I disagree (after many debates and arguments with them) that “they are a tiny minority”.

        It is by no means just admitted or avowed racists who are “concerned with “conservative white southern identity”. As I stated, I see many Trump supporters and Obama haters who have felt the effects of diversity, equality and inclusion efforts and it has made them yearn for Dixie for all the wrong reasons. They are often clumsy in their aversion to “the PC crowd” and “equality” but the intent of their support of the Confederacy and what they consider to be “Southern” is very much based in that same conservative white southern identity that says others should “know their place”. It is not so much a “pejorative” as it is a simple fact.

        Southern heritage that involves “a reverence for family who fought, died and suffered through the war and reconstruction” can be a “very complex, multifaceted issue” but not for all and I have never chosen to “boil it down to only slavery”.

        As is 1861, when people “just want to be left alone”, they do not go to war and attempt to tear the nation asunder. I am well aware that neo confederates “do not care” if other Southerners or anyone else “accept their message”, but then, as now, wanting “to be left alone” does not mean the rest of us agreeing not to change what goes on around us or why. Monuments and flags will never be without opposition again.

      • Al Mackey May 25, 2016 / 7:18 pm

        The majority of the confederate heritage advocates I’ve come across on the internet are indeed racists. It’s not even close. Of course, that’s anecdotal evidence, and I’ve probably not come across the majority of all confederate heritage advocates, but one would think the nonracists would should down the racists among them. That’s not happening that I can see.

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