Over at Civil War Memory Kevin Levin’s speculated about the decline and eventual disappearance of Confederate heritage commemorations, implying 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.
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.