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.

Think Before You (Lamp) Post

New Orleans has seen its share of debates over Civil War statues and monuments lately (although it interests me that the monument to the Battle of Liberty Place, a Reconstruction event that was clearly linked to the restoration of white supremacy, is sometimes classified as a “Civil War” monument). It looks as if three clearly Confederate monuments may be relocated, although I’ll believe it when I see it (note that this blog has not taken a position on removing such monuments, believing that it’s up to the community to decide …  a point lost on some readers, particularly those who want to erect straw men to go with their whine).

Now comes a project that I find amusing, to say the least. New Orleans has recently opened a new streetcar line along North Rampart Street, which is northeast of historic Jackson Square.

Green NOLA
Courtesy WGNO.

In keeping with a restoration theme, the city decided to place brightly-painted green streetlamps along the route. They are based upon the original lamp posts, nearly ninety years old in design. The lamp posts carry inscriptions on the four sides as a nod to local history:

One reads, “Spanish Domination 1769-1803.”  Another one marks the period France ruled.  Yet another side reads, “American Domination 1803-1861 1865 To Date.”

You’ll never guess what the fourth side reads.

The fourth side on the base of the new light posts reads, “Confederate Domination 1861-1865.”

CDNOLA.JPG
Courtesy WGNO.

To be sure, there are some problems with this designation. The Confederacy did not “dominate” New Orleans during the entire American Civil War. Just ask David G. Farragut, who seized it in April 1862, or Benjamin Butler, who  soon dominated the city (and perhaps its spoons) during a controversial stint as occupation commander. So the sign needs modification.

Also recall who owned New Orleans just before the US acquired it in 1803. Hint: Spain did not sell Louisiana to the United States. It was French again, although for less than a month.

The designations seem as pointless as they are misinformed, and what does “domination” actually mean?

The first picture clearly suggests that these designations are rather easy to remove (and may already have been subject to vandalism). Yet, as soon as a local television station reported this story … Confederate heritage apologists went crazy.

Note how quickly race entered the discussion in various social media sites, as well as politics and that hobby horse of the mindless, “political correctness” (which continues to be the best way to denigrate without discussing something).

All we now need is the Virginia Flaggers to declare that the lamp posts aren’t coming down to make sure that they do. Otherwise, much ado about nothing. What silliness.

 

On Civil War Monuments: The Controversy Continues

This weekend the American Civil War Center in Richmond, Virginia, held an all-day symposium entitled “Lightning Rods of Controversy: Civil War Monuments Past, Present, and Future.” Co-sponsored by the John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History at the University of Virginia and The Library of Virginia, the symposium reviewed the issues associated with Civil War monuments in a city well known for them. Christy Coleman of the ACWC offered opening remarks in a presentation entitled “Monuments, Markers, Museums, and the Landscape of Civil War Memory.”

You can find the presentation here.

It is not altogether true that the only controversies about Civil War monuments involve Confederate monuments. Some people were very unhappy with this monument, for example:

Others opposed placing a monument to Union soldiers who fought at Olustee, Florida, as you may recall (you may also recall that many of the US soldiers who fought there were African American). You can refresh your memory here, here, and here.

But you won’t find anything about that in various Confederate heritage apologist advocates’ blogs, especially the ones that rant about fake news and political correctness. What you will hear, however, is how a local community that erected these monuments can’t decide to remove them, lest they “erase history”–when the only history their removal might “erase” is why people chose to put up those monuments when and where they did.

That’s one reason why I think those monuments should stay up–to remind people of their past, sometimes in ways that might not make them comfortable. But I remain amused at people who think that the members of a community should make their own decisions, who protest against meddlesome outsiders and “moral reformers,” who nevertheless have no problem telling other people how to live and what to honor. Get over yourselves or embrace your hypocrisy.

More Chaos for Confederate Heritage Advocates

It’s not been a good two weeks for Confederate heritage advocates. They’ve suffered setbacks at Vanderbilt University, the University of Texas, and with the University of Mississippi marching band. They seem helpless to stop the rising tide of opposition to their position, and the best they can do to gain ground is to promise to fly more flags throughout the South.

But it’s the self-inflicted wounds that are just as likely to leave an enduring mark. There’s still fallout from Tripp Lewis’s attack on Karen Cooper. As detailed on Restoring the Honor, while many advocates of Confederate heritage sided with Cooper and denounced Lewis, others, led by Gary Adams of the Southern Heritage Preservation Group, called on Cooper to silence herself instead of denouncing Lewis.

AdamsCooper.JPG

Why, indeed? Continue reading

More Trouble in Flaggerland: Tripp Lewis Versus Karen Cooper

Over in Virginia Whine Country there’s trouble east of the Shenandoah Valley as well … and it’s not unexpected. After all, it’s been a contentious election year, and the nastiness of the campaign is reflected in the rather coarse contempt people display for each other on social media.

A case in point: a recent Facebook exchange between Virginia Flagger headliners Tripp Lewis and Karen Cooper. Lewis seeks attention far more than does Cooper, although Cooper’s not adverse to sharing her views with the media. We have no record of Cooper being arrested for Flagger-related activities: this is not the case with Lewis. Nor do we have any record that Cooper has been a part of any Flagger activities that have backfired: this is not the case with Lewis. Finally, we have no record of Cooper celebrating white nationalists as “good guys”: this is not the case with Lewis. But, as the following exchange suggests, those are not the only differences … Continue reading

Heritage Correctness: The Significance of What Happened at Vanderbilt

Historian Karen L. Cox has reminded us exactly why the United Daughters of the Confederacy invested in George Peabody College for Teachers (now part of Vanderbilt University) in the first place. Namely, the UDC hoped to train women teachers who would spread the Confederate gospel as the UDC saw it.

In short, one could call it a heritage indoctrination center.

Continue reading

The Virginia Flaggers’ Next Target: Alexandria?

By now we all know that the Virginia Flaggers, perhaps the most notorious Confederate heritage group in existence (and certainly among the most amusing as well as most visible), is dedicated to restoring the honor by returning the flags. However, to date they have not made much of an impact in the Old Dominion in the northern part of the state. At present the northernmost Flagger triumph east of the Blue Ridge Mountains is at Stafford, along I-95 north of Fredericksburg.

Now comes word that the folks in Alexandria, Virginia, are also taking steps to diminish the city’s commemoration of the Confederacy. Already the city’s taken action to cease flying Confederate flags on public property. Now up for debate is a proposal to cease calling US Route 1 “Jefferson Davis Highway.” Left untouched is a statute honoring the service of Confederate veterans that remains an iconic part of the city.

Continue reading

Will the Ku Klux Klan Rise Again?

Basically, that’s the question offered in this article from the Associated Press (a video will eventually play to augment the article).

I was particularly struck by the following claim in the article:

Formed just months after the end of the Civil War by six former Confederate officers, the Klan originally seemed more like a college fraternity with ceremonial robes and odd titles for its officers. But soon, freed blacks were being terrorized, and the Klan was blamed. Hundreds of people were assaulted or killed as whites tried to regain control of the defeated Confederacy. Congress effectively outlawed the Klan in 1871, and the group died.

The curious construction of the second sentence, complete with the double use of the passive voice, is remarkable. Might the Reconstruction KKK have had something to do with conducting a war of terror against freed blacks (and their white allies)?

Maybe. Just maybe.

As for the rest of the muddled narrative, let’s assume that the author has at best a partial understanding of the Ku Klux Act of 1871, how President Grant used the powers it authorized him to use, and the degree to which Grant’s actions destroyed the KKK.

The various reincarnations of the KKK in the 20th century, while inspired by the Reconstruction KKK (or, to be more precise, by the portrayal of that group in the movie Birth of A Nation), are distinct from that organization, even if they have many things in common, including an identification with the Confederacy and the preservation of white (Christian/Protestant) supremacy through terror, intimidation, and violence. But to say that they are the same is to overlook a great deal.

It is also unfortunate that many people identify white supremacist terrorist violence during Reconstruction with the KKK alone. That would be incorrect. Violence and suppression against freed blacks started during the summer and fall of 1865: we can see institutional evidence of state-sponsored white supremacy in the passing of the Black Codes and in the shaping of the southern legal sysyem by the state governments founded during presidential Reconstruction (especially during the Johnson presidency). Neither the Memphis nor New Orleans massacres of 1866 were KKK operations. Moreover, the tendency to identify the KKK with Nathan Bedford Forrest tends to obscure the fact that many Confederate veterans, including prominent ones such as John B. Gordon, donned Klan robes and did all they could to counter the emergence of black equality and political power. The KKK was far more pwerful in 1867 and especially 1868, when it battled the advent of black political power and the Republican party, and the organization in various forms persisted into the early 1870s, proving especially important in the Carolinas.

But the so-called destruction of the KKK in the aftermath of the passage of the Ku Klux Act and Grant’s application of the act in South Carolina in September 1871 did not spell the end of white supremacist terrorist violence. Far from it. Such violence took new forms under new names and emplyed new tactics and strategies (see the Mississippi Plan of 1875) as it did much to accomplish what the original KKK failed to achieve. Occasionally even biographers of Grant ignore or stumble over this inconvenient truth, most notably in Geoffrey Perret’s 1997 study, which was virtually silent about Reconstruction in Grant’s second term. By paying far too much attention to the KKK as the expression of such violence, Perret blinded himself to what else was going on … or perhaps he simply didn’t know about it. We must not be so ignorant.

But wait … there’s more.

Like several Confederate heritage groups, the KKK makes for good video, especially with the Confederate flag waving in the background or in places like Stone Mountain, a place favored by, among others, the Virginia Flaggers. Indeed, it’s not hard to draw connections between the KKK, other white supremacists, and Confederate heritage groups, as this news item this past week demonstrates. Note that the KKK leaders portrayed in this report endorse Trump and pledge death to their enemies (although they then claim that they don’t mean what they say–we’ve heard that excuse before from Confederate heritage apologists when white supremacists have advocated violence). And, of course, many of you will recall Mr. Heimbach’s association with a certain Virginia-based Confederate heritage group, one the group’s leadership has never disavowed (recall Virginia Flagger Tripp Lewis’s declaration that Mr. Heimbach was “a good guy”). A review of the social media offerings of several Virginia Flaggers reveals that, like the KKK and their buddy Heimbach, they, too, support Donald J. Trump for president.

Then again, Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was prominent in KKK circles during Reconstruction, did much to play down that association when he appeared before a congressional investigating committee in 1871. The Virginia Flaggers would like to do the same with their association with Heimbach and other white supremacists, including two people who rented them land upon which to fly their flags near Virginia interstates. But how can we forget that the spokesperson of the Virginia Flaggers, Susan Frise Hathaway, openly idolizes Forrest and Wade Hampton, whose Red Shirts used white supremacist terrorist tactics to regain control of South Carolina’s state government? The woman in the red dress loves that man and his Red Shirts.

As Mark Twain once reminded us, although history may not repeat itself, sometime it rhymes.

Confederate Heritage Salutes Veterans

This is how they do it at Sea Raven Press, long known for its support of Confederate heritage correctness scholarship:

SRP 1.JPGOne million armed African American slaves supporting the Confederacy by taking up arms. That shows a certain ability in math as well as history. Where did they hide all these soldiers? General Lee wants to know.

And, by all means, honor the Confederate Battle Flag … like this:

SRP 2Of course, there are too many stars there, and the flag is shredded, but these are mere details.

And finally, we all know that Confederate heritage has nothing to do with present politics, right? Sure …

SRP 3

This is the sort of political correctness I’m sure some people who whine about it can get behind. Just ask Matthew Heimbach.