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The ‘Lost Cause’ Is Fake History

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The ‘Lost Cause’ Is Fake History

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Lost Cause

If your precious “Southern heritage” includes Swastikas, you may as well quit reading right here. But odds are astronomically high that it doesn’t. The vast majority of Southerners are as repelled by those goons as everybody else.

Rebel flags, in comparison, strike me as merely adolescent. Yee haw!

Well, it’s time to grow up.

If that annoys you, answer me this: Since when is Southern history strictly white history anyway?

Most of these Confederate monuments commemorate not so much the South’s glorious history of slavery and rebellion, but the bloody advent of Jim Crow laws between 1895 and 1925 or thereabouts. A time of “race riots”—i.e. black citizens massacred by white mobs across the region from Atlanta (1906) to Elaine, Arkansas (1919) to Tulsa (1921)—and of widespread lynching.

A time when the Klan-glorifying epic Birth of a Nation (1915) was screened at the White House for President Woodrow Wilson.

Ironically, rebel soldier statues were a Yankee industry. A factory in Connecticut manufactured the fool things by the hundreds and shipped them south to stand guard facing north on courthouse squares. A pointed reminder of exactly who was in charge. Specifically, the Ku Klux Klan.

There was nothing subtle about it. Photographs of Charlottesville’s equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee being dedicated in 1924 show that many in attendance wore KKK regalia. Contrary to the art critic in the White House, the statue’s not being destroyed. Plans are to relocate the monument to a park on the outskirts of town—just as Confederate statues taken down at the University of Texas will be placed in a museum, where they belong.

Latter day Confederate sympathizers who feel the need to genuflect to Fake History can visit them there. (Fake horsemanship too. I have a friend indignant about the bronze Gen. Lee’s cruelly over-cranking the bridle, something the real Lee—an excellent rider—would surely never have done.)

But make no mistake: Fake History it is. The treasured myth of the “Lost Cause” of freedom-loving patriots fighting bravely for self-determination and “states’ rights” can’t survive even a cursory reading of secessionist documents.

Here’s Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, arguing that its “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Nobody talks that way anymore except guys with Swastikas. It’s no exaggeration to say that the virulent racism they preach was invented precisely to rationalize the evil of slavery. Nevertheless, that’s what the Civil War, the bloodiest tragedy in American history, was all about. Protecting and defending chattel slavery, a grotesque remnant of human history. There’s nothing to be gained by pretending otherwise.

That said, I think there’s also no point in a struggle to tear down every half-forgotten Confederate memorial across the South. The war’s over and Jim Crow is gone; millions of Americans now living in the region have little interest in this aged feud. Besides, people have a right to their illusions.

As somebody who had no ancestors living in the United States at the time of the Civil War, maybe that’s easy for me to say. However, as an Irish-American who has always thought St. Patrick’s Day was nonsense (especially the vomiting in the gutters part), I’ve no sympathy with tribalized politics of any kind. Certain aspects of everybody’s past, their historical “identity” if you will, are best forgotten. Fighting over symbols gets you nowhere.

Writing in The Guardian, Lincoln biographer Sidney Blumenthal has a good idea. Instead of tearing monuments down, why not build new ones up?

“States and localities,” he suggests, “should establish commissions to build new monuments, statues and memorials, particularly across the South, to commemorate the heroes of the anti-slavery struggle, the unionists during the civil war, advocates for Reconstruction, foes of Jim Crow and champions of the civil rights movement.”

An example of what he means can be found in Arkansas, where I live. Yes, the State Capitol grounds feature the traditional monument to Johnny Reb. But also a striking monument to the Little Rock Nine, a group sculpture depicting the brave African-American students who defied a segregationist mob to enter Little Rock Central High School under the protection of the 101st Airborne in September 1957—Arkansas’ most historically significant event of the 20th century.

People visit the memorial from far and near. To my knowledge nobody finds it controversial.

Cemeteries too are appropriate places to memorialize the Union and Confederate dead. Meanwhile, if it’s history and heritage you want, visit Gettysburg, Vicksburg Memorial National Park, or Appomattox Courthouse among many others. Carefully-preserved Civil War battlefields are scattered across the South: real history, and solemn remembrance.

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Gene Lyons

Gene Lyons is a political columnist and author. Lyons writes a column for the Arkansas Times that is nationally syndicated by United Media. He was previously a general editor at Newsweek as wells an associate editor at Texas Monthly where he won a National Magazine Award in 1980. He contributes to Salon.com and has written for such magazines as Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, Entertainment Weekly, Washington Monthly, The Nation, Esquire, and Slate. A graduate of Rutgers University with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia, Lyons taught at the Universities of Massachusetts, Arkansas and Texas before becoming a full-time writer in 1976. A native of New Jersey, Lyons has lived in Arkansas with his wife Diane since 1972. The Lyons live on a cattle farm near Houston, Ark., with a half-dozen dogs, several cats, three horses, and a growing herd of Fleckvieh Simmental cows. Lyons has written several books including The Higher Illiteracy (University of Arkansas, 1988), Widow's Web (Simon & Schuster, 1993), Fools for Scandal (Franklin Square, 1996) as well as The Hunting Of The President: The 10 Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton, which he co-authored with National Memo Editor-in-Chief Joe Conason.

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14 Comments

  1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth August 23, 2017

    This national/regional fascination with living in the past has nothing wholesome and helpful about it. This obsession with past history is infantile.

    Of what benefit is it to all of humanity the world over, for a tiny segment of the human family to dance passionately in a Festus-like chitlin-eating manner in homage to dead men sitting astride bronze horses, as degenerate and depraved reminders of a past steeped in man’s inhumanity to man?

    Centuries of building up endorphin-releasing happy feelings about everything Confederate is a sign of a diseased sub-population in America.

    Reply
    1. dbtheonly August 23, 2017

      Getting close to personal with that infantile call. Though that lets me ask, “past history”? There’s another type?

      Preservation and teaching are the goals. I have friends who reenact Confederates. I have other friends who reenact the US Colored Troops. If you want guys lost in the shuffle, look at the USCT.

      But Lyon has hit the key point, these statues are not of the war, but perhaps a blowback against Reconstruction. Or maybe the price of rejoining the Union emotionally?

      Wish I knew more of the time.

      Reply
      1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth August 23, 2017

        I see nothing of interest in re-enacting a battle—-any battle—that commemorates the loss of so much life in such a fanciful manner. Are there any other cultures that commemorate battles by dressing up and going out on a field?

        Maybe it’s time for humans to concentrate their time and energy using artistic expressions that uplift fellow humans, rather than constantly remind us of our savagery, wouldn’t you agree?

        Life is too short, the problems too grave, to fantasize on a make believe battle field, when people’s lives are being lost daily, disease and war raging across the world, to take up hobbies which remind us of the tragedies exacting a heavy toll on people across the planet.

        Reply
        1. idamag August 23, 2017

          I do agree.

          Reply
      2. Aaron_of_Portsmouth August 23, 2017

        The reason I have little patience with recreation which remind us of “glorious battles”, by re-enactments, is due to my thoughts of refugees of war in Syria, the plight of children washing up on distant shores, dead; people desperate to escape war and famine thrown overboard by smugglers in the middle of the ocean and drowning, so the smugglers won’t be charged with illegal smuggling.

        The Baha’is in Iran are facing dire assaults of their rights, simply for being Baha’is; the Baha’i children are denied the chance to get an education simply for being Baha’is; Yemen’s children are suffering death daily from starvation and cholera.

        Does anyone feel the need to entertain themselves by dressing up to commemorate battles fought over a century ago, when events like these are being played out for real? Surely, there must be better ways to spend one’s leisure time. And memories which should be forced to fade into the mist of history, shouldn’t be wistfully remembered and enraptured by, while we should instead engage in replacing old habits and ways of resolving problems with entirely new perspectives.

        Reply
        1. idamag August 23, 2017

          My great grandfather was a Union Soldier who was wounded at For Donelson. A bullet went through his ear and exited his eye. This is glamorous? The flag draped coffins, that offended the delicate, from the Iraq War, they were glamorous? Ask the mothers, fathers, wives, siblings and children of those who filled the coffins. Ask the soldiers, and their families, who were left without limbs and PTSD. This is glamorous? They hire mercenaries all over the world. Those armchair cowardly racists should show how brave the are. Instead of reenactments, let them to to the front lines somewhere.

          Reply
        2. dbtheonly August 23, 2017

          There is little or nothing we can do about Syria, Yemen, or Iran. I don’t see the equivalencies.

          Instead, we can teach what ida’s g. grandfather experienced. We can show men, formerly slaves, standing with pride, ready to fight for freedom. And yes, even Confederates. As you read their letters, you see that they are not do different than we.

          There are significant mideval reenactors in the U.K. I seem to recall they also reenact their own Civil War; but it’s been too long & memories fade.

          Reply
      3. PrecipitousDrop August 24, 2017

        It is an oddly opaque time as far as history books go. Most of them are dedicated to WWI, or the flu pandemic that killed about a third of the world’s population around 1918. H.G. Wells, Booth Tarkington, Sinclair Lewis, and Zane Grey were newly published fiction writers.
        A fever was deadly; there was no penicillin (1928). Radio was brand new (1922). Movies didn’t talk (1927). Unless you lived in a city, water came from a bucket and flames lit your home at night.

        Reply
        1. dbtheonly August 24, 2017

          Certainly PD, it’s the social history of Reconstruction and its aftermath that’s lost. What lead those Texans to finally cheer the US flag when carried by the 1st Volunteer Cavalry? We know why General Wheeler, CSA and USA both, to yell, “At em boys, we go to the Yankees on the run.” in Cuba. Why was it treated as a joke? What did it take, emotionally, to get the South back into the Union?

          Reply
          1. PrecipitousDrop August 24, 2017

            All I know about it is what I learned as a boy growing up in the 40’s on the Gulf Coast, from my parents (born around WWI) and grandparents (born in the 1880’s) and the other adults who were alive then — both black and white. The sense I got from overhearing their recollections was one of pervasive sadness, bewilderment, and a fierce determination to “live over it,” as they said (without ever articulating what “it” was).
            The times were so different, DB, it’s hard to draw a parallel.

            Reply
  2. Aaron_of_Portsmouth August 23, 2017

    I was musing further on this uniquely bizarre phenomenon which many Americans are so fascinated by—battle re-enactments, and pining about soldiers who died fighting a war over the question of whether to keep humans in bondage.

    Rather than recount the “glories of waging war and killing thousands on a battlefield, defending the “honor of enslaving people”, we should look forward in order to come up with ways of changing our thirst for blood-letting.

    Which led me to think of a quote we in our Baha’i communities across the world sometime run across and read during Baha’i gatherings. The quote is by Abdu’l Baha, who may have been thinking of events during Europe’s bloody wars, or battles fought by Sunnis against Shi’ahs on the plain of Karbila back during the time of the Imam Husayn. (To this day, Muslims in Shi1ah Iran, re-enact the death of Husayn on the battlefield, flaying their backs with whips, until blood runs freely).

    The quote is as follows:

    “…The world is engaged in war and struggle, and mankind is in the utmost conflict and danger. The darkness of unfaithfulness has enshrouded the earth and the illumination of faithfulness has become concealed. All nations and tribes of the world have sharpened their claws and are warring and fighting with each other. The edifice of man is shattered. Thousands of families are wandering disconsolate. Thousands of souls are besmeared with dust and blood in the arena of battle and struggle every year, and the tent of happiness and life is overthrown. The prominent men become commanders and boast of bloodshed, and glory in destruction. One says: “I have severed with my sword the necks of a nation,” and one: “I have levelled a kingdom to the dust”; and another: “I have overthrown the foundation of a government.” This is the pivot around which the pride and glory of mankind are revolving. In all regions friendship and uprightness are denounced and reconciliation and regard for truth are despised. The herald of peace, reformation, love and reconciliation is the Religion of the Blessed Beauty which has pitched its tent on the apex of the world and proclaimed its summons to the people.” (http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/c/BWF/bwf-1.html)

    Reply
  3. idamag August 23, 2017

    Juvenile describes them aptly. Trible is good.

    Reply
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      Reply
  4. johninPCFL August 24, 2017

    After relocating Lee’s statue, also attach a plaque reminding the viewers of the 600,000 American dead personally due to his traitorous behaviour. That he and Davis weren’t tried and hanged for treason is one of the sops fed the South after “the Great War of Northern Aggression”.

    Reply

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