The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: The Internet, Social Media, History, and Confederate Heritage Activism

The internet and the digital revolution together have changed how we view the world, in part because they have transformed how we receive and digest information. We have more information (and misinformation) available at our fingertips. Search engines help shape and sometimes control how we discover and extract information (just try using a few different search engines to see what I mean).

For professional historians who happen to teach, the result is a mixed bag. Yes, we have access to far more information than before, and it’s easier to use it. It’s much easier to research the Congressional Globe and the Congressional Record than it once was, for example, and one can read books once deemed difficult to find. We can secure video and images to educate, and we can point students to resources they would not have been able to access easily a generation ago. On the other hand, as teachers we see students (and others) use search enginges and internet resources uncritically, and we have to deal with teaching research methods online to ensure that students can find credible sources and make sense of them. There’s plenty of fake history to go around, especially on certain websites and discussion groups. Take any halfway decent Civil War discussion group, for example, and you’ll find people still refighting the war, mocking scholarship (and scholars) who don’t embrace the poster’s own prejudices, interpreting “evidence” to suit their predilections, falling in love with their heroes and chastising their villains (and their biographers), endlessly rehashing certain questions, and taking the notion of “if it is on the internet, it must be true” to a new level …”if I say it on the internet, I make it true.”

Scholars err in simply dismissing what in truth is a rich source of what they lovingly study as historical memory in other contexts. Simply to say that something isn’t true means little in an age whether “alternative facts” and denigrating authoritative sources hold sway. Time and again those of us who are more comfortable with the internet as a place of discussion, debate, and resources have to remind less-skilled and less-aware users that the net doesn’t discriminate between the good, the bad, and the immaterial, thus allowing such themes as the myth of the black Confederate soldier to flow freely in the minds of the uncritical or the agenda-driven and be disseminated to the unaware and unprepared. In an age where anyone with access to the internet can pretend to be their own historian, the problem intensifies. That people who whine about “fake news” embrace “fake history” and engage in uncritically reposting only that which feeds their already-established prejudices while pretending to host history blogs is part of the joke … and part of the problem. For them “political correctness” means “does not agree with me.”

Failing to engage such folks concedes the argument, and suggests that perhaps some people have abandoned the role of the public intellectual in favor of writing for each other or for a small circle of like-minded folks. When that is the case, historians can look in the mirror when they wonder why people don’t listen to them any more (if they ever did). Yet engagement comes with its own risks, and historians haven’t thought much about that, either. Nowadays the marketplace of ideas has been replaced with the hockey rink of debate, complete with high elbows, stick-swinging, and cheap shots. How to engage in such an environment while maintaining one’s self-respect and scholarly demeanor (and, one hopes, a sense of humor) is a challenge. Yet, unlike, say, the confrontation in a lecture (these rarely happen) or the nasty note (and now nasty email) that remains private, it is the very public accessibility of such misinformation and fake history that presents a challenge to any historian who presumes that educating people about history is an important part of their job, and is indeed more than mere vocation.

Yet historians are not the only people confronting a challenge in the age of the internet and social media when it comes to getting things done. Presenting a somewhat different challenge for Confederate heritage apologists is the interplay of social media, digital technology, and heritage activism. People who employ social media as part of their everyday lives know the problem. Repost something, offer a comment, hit “like” or “share” or “retweet,” and we’ve indicated where we stand on something, as if that in itself is enough. Want to make a more robust statement? Take some pictures … because digital technology has revolutionized photography for the common person. Don’t worry … you don’t have just 12, 24, or 36 precious exposures per roll any more … you can click away hundreds of times and then post the images to your social media outlet. Any Virginia Flagger event will suffice as an example, especially when Judy Smith is present. How many times do you have to see Susan Hathaway rally the troops (or hear her sing)? Or see Barry Isenhour look stern while thinking of his next hot dog? When it comes to graphic design, we have Connie Chastain churning out book jacket after book jacket for books she’ll never actually write (“fake literature,” anyone? … because “fake fiction” is too funny).

Let me kindly suggest that the digital revolution and the advent of social media has been key to the dissemination of the ideas of the Confederate heritage apologist movement … and that it will also be the death of it. For it appears to be true that the more time you spend on social media, the less time (and interest) you have to be a real activist and achieve real change.

You see, just like many other pseudo-activists, many Confederate heritage apologists think that reposting, sharing, liking, and retweeting is a sufficient expression of their activism, because people see it. Attaboy, folks, seems to be the prevailing attitude. It’s not unlike the Virginia Flaggers’ own Facebook page, which once painstakingly celebrated how many people “liked” it (Donald Trump does the same thing when it comes to his Twitter account). Yet the only significant achievement the Virginia Flaggers have to claim for years of “activity” is the erection of a number of Confederate flag-bearing flagpoles throughout Virginia. That’s it. Even that activity has been as productive of mocking humor as it has been of celebrating some ill-defined “cause.” Sure, we have a flood of Judy Smith photographs of “determined” Flaggers … but the photographs and videos shot by Smith and others have provided evidence of some of the people with whom the Flaggers associate (racists, bigots, and the like) and have been used to humiliate Flaggers or make them look foolish (hello, Tripp Lewis!). The blog Restoring the Honor makes its living off capturing Confederate heritage social media as well as using the internet to uncover interesting connections.

The result reminds us that the Virginia Flaggers and other like-minded Confederate heritage apologist groups are what we’ve said they are.

In short, even as social media can be used to mobilize on some minimal level of engagement a number of wannabe activists, the proof is in who shows up to do the real work. How many times have organizers of Confederate heritage events later complained that the turnout wasn’t anywhere near what organizers expected given all those positive responses on Facebook? Memes are cute and easy to produce (even Chastain can meet that low threshhold), but do they accomplish much (and, in certain cases, haven’t they provided ammunition for critics)?

Have the proponents of Confederate heritage done anything more that preventing some defeats and then proclaiming that victory? We see fighting withdrawals, retreats, routs, and the occasional stalemate or preservation of the status quo, but have “the colors” ever actually advanced? The entire struggle for Confederate heritage likes to invoke the spirit of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart, Wade Hampton, and Nathan Bedford Forrest, but in reality the icons of the Confederate heritage movement should be Pierre G. T. Beauregard, Joseph Johnston, and Braxton Bragg. Beauregard always offered plans that could never be implemented; Johnston was good at retreating and procrastinating while claiming that someday he would strike back; Bragg’s quarrelsome nature reminds me of a lot of the ranting within the ranks of Confederate heritage apologists (rainbow Confederates, anyone? Unhappiness with the SCV?).

All this, I suggest, is also the product of social media, which promotes pseudo-activism as a substitute for the real thing. Confederate heritage activities have failed in their efforts to mobilize a movement when someone can simply click a button or type a response as their entire effort to preserve and protect their “heritage.”

Mind you, the very reaction to this post in some corners will demonstrate the truth of the arguments it presents. But the fact of the matter is that offering dozens of photographs of a half dozen protesters outside the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (and doing so repeatedly) in order to garner likes and supportive comments is testimony to the bankruptcy of Confederate heritage activism … because that’s all it is. Raise another flag, post about it, and then do it again, in part because nothing has really changed (each flag raising has become a sign of the futility of the endeavor, because, outside of a few more photographs, a few more posts, and a few more “likes,” nothing happens) … while the setbacks and defeats keep mounting up.

It truly is the best of times and the worst of times.