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Thursday, 08 April 2010 05:47

Confederate Resurgence Shows That, in America, History is (Re)Written by the Losers

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by Meg White

Conventional wisdom from sources ancient to modern asserts that history is written by the winners. I guess when a second round of editing is deemed necessary, we must call in the losers.

Or at least that's the impression you'd get if you were following the news in American historic revisionism. It seems it's only a matter of time before children's history books change all references of the Civil War to the "Great War of Yankee Aggression."

Yes, it turns out that rewriting history isn't just for religious fanatics in Texas anymore. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell issued a statement this week recognizing April as Confederate History Month, omitting any mention of slavery.

After a huge uproar he promised to revise the statement, but his apology was so rote as to be nearly unremarkable. Except that one little part where McDonnell said slavery "has left a stain on the soul of this state and nation," which made him seem more upset about the bad rep slavery had imparted on his state than anything else.

After all, the governor was just trying to bring a few tourists into town, reminding reporters of "the fact that this is going to be a very important event next year that will promote tourism and economic development in Virginia."

I wonder; does this mean the state's office of tourism will be changing their slogan to "Virginia is for haters"?

Of course, McDonnell is in good company. In January of this year, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue signed into law a legislative directive permanently making April Confederate History Month in that state. The proclamation does not explicitly or implicitly mention African Americans or slavery.

As Think Progress notes, Georgia and Virginia join Mississippi in declaring the month to be for Confederate history (minus all of those embarrassing parts). And all three states have one driving force in common: the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), which claims the states' proclamations as victories.

The group is behind a multi-state effort to make April Confederate History Month, including the effort in Virginia, and the chair of the SCV's Confederate History and Heritage Month Committee said he supports the omission of slavery from the recognition.

The SCV was once more of the Civil War reenactment, history-buff type of group. But in the past few years they've been infiltrated and purged of moderates by the likes of Kirk Lyons, founder of the Southern Legal Resource Center (SLRC).

Perhaps you remember Lyons as the guy urging Southerners to participate in a Census write-in campaign this year to mark their race as "Confederate Southern American." This effort is but one in a long-ranging legal campaign to outlaw what Lyons and others see as discrimination against those who use the Confederate flag to identify themselves. 

Lyons has worked and spoken for with several different White supremacist, American militia and neo-Nazi groups in the past, and his attempts to purge the SCV were documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks hate groups around the country:

...Lyons told the audience of racist activists that the SCV needed to get rid of its "grannies" and "bed-wetters" and get serious about the political struggle. "The civil rights movement I am trying to form seeks a revolution," Lyons told his colleagues. "We seek nothing more than a return to a godly, stable, tradition-based society with no ‘Northernisms' attached, a hierarchical society, a majority European-derived country."

Association with such groups could hurt a politician's image. People For the American Way President Michael Keegan pulled no punches when he accused McDonnell of "appeasing his supporters in the radical Right" in a statement this week:

Issuing a declaration honoring the confederacy is disturbing enough; failing to acknowledge slavery while doing it is inexcusable... We cannot allow our elected officials to practice this kind of dangerous revisionism.

Not all remembrances of the Civil War and Confederate history need be revisionist. Alabama's proclamation explicitly condemns slavery, as did former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore's revision of his predecessor's incendiary remarks on the marking of the month.

Texas' resolution for Confederate History Month makes the characteristically bold move of mentioning slavery as a reason for the season, emphasizing the opportunity to teach schoolchildren that slavery was indeed not what the war was all about. A portion of the 1999 resolution reads (emphasis mine):

In years since the war, the morally abhorrent practice of slavery has in the minds of many Texans become the prime motivation of Southern soldiers, despite the fact that 98 percent of Texas Confederate soldiers never owned a slave and never fought to defend slavery; and WHEREAS, Politically correct revisionists would have Texas children believe that their Confederate ancestors fought for slavery when in fact most Texans joined the Confederate armed forces to defend their homes, their families, and their proud heritage as Texans...

To be clear, the civil war was about more than just slavery. There were important economic issues at stake, as well as ideological divisions over notions of states' rights and the limits of federal power. But when people mention these mitigating factors, they often neglect to acknowledge the fact that the South's economy was inextricably tied to slave labor, and that part of their quarrel with federal power was over the government's attempts to limit slavery in new states.

So in some ways the "Civil War wasn't about slavery" argument is a red herring. The Civil War was not one fought entirely over slavery, but the enslavement of human beings was at the root of many of the issues behind secession.

Furthermore, it's important to keep in mind that the fighting itself was about seceding from the Union. With all the recent news of home-grown terrorism and militia groups waging war against the federal government, it's important for political leaders to keep issues of states' rights in their proper, nonviolent context.

Before you northerners dismiss this issue as regional, be aware that it's being discussed on a national level as well. Less than a year ago, there was a fracas over whether or not President Obama should continue the tradition of sending a wreath to a Confederate memorial site that was associated with White Supremacists.

Historians petitioned the president to end the practice, arguing that "monument should not be elevated in prestige above other monuments by a presidential wreath" and that the monument asserts "that the humanity of Africans and African Americans is of no significance." I agreed with their premise, but my calculation at the time was this:

These are not American values, and Obama does not personify them. But if the only thing these wackos want is a wreath, I have to say that frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.

That's right; give the intolerant bastards their silly wreath. OK, can I have my universal healthcare now?

Well, we all know how that worked out, don't we? 

What I didn't realize was that at the same time that Obama was honoring seditious soldiers of the South, the leadership of Arlington National Cemetery had been systematically neglecting an area of the burial grounds known as Section 27 for decades, apparently because its occupants are predominantly African American. A Salon.com investigation uncovered the depth of the disservice, which resulted in hundreds of unmarked or mislabeled graves.

"The only reason that we know of why they did not take the proper responsibility towards that section was because these were black people," former congressman and African-American history buff Louis Stokes told Salon.

Finally, there's no doubt tea partiers and the Republican lawmakers latching onto them are using the Civil War secession story to stir up passions against the president's agenda. As I noted last month:

...the tea party movement is steeped in a colorful re-imagining of our founding fathers as God-fearing men who hated Obamacare. The many references to the Revolutionary War -- from "Don't Tread on Me" to lovingly misreading the Constitution to the ill-fated naming of the movement in the first place -- are clear attempts to align themselves simultaneously with patriotism and revolt. Without such a willingness to blend history with fantasy, they'd have to admit they're the losers advocating for slavery in their bizarre Civil War reenactment, or that they have more in common with British loyalists than Paul Revere...

At a tea party rally against healthcare reform this past Sunday, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) suggested teabaggers are the "best" stock with which to make a new nation, if it, uh, should come to that.

Aside from making the country look racially intolerant, the policy of rewriting our own history for political gain makes us look weak and downright silly. If we can't confront the ghosts of the Civil War with honesty, what chance do we have of solving the big issues of our day?

The irony of all this is that -- all things equal -- you'd think that conservatives would be more concerned with a fidelity to true historic fact, if for no other reason than their ideological tendency to look backward for guidance as to how to move forward.

Unfortunately, instead of insisting upon our country learning from its past mistakes, conservatives seem intent upon having Americans make mistakes in what they learn. And in this frighteningly divided political climate over which the first black president presides, knowing ones history may be important if only so that we don't let ourselves repeat it.