History

Ready or not, here comes the Civil War. Again.

Get ready for five years of misery, self-absorption, class warfare, occasional (perhaps even frequent) denials of racism, interminable militaristic posturing, and so much more. The US is about to start commemorating, if that’s the word, the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War. Well, maybe not everyone in the US—just the South, which will wallow endlessly in its victimhood for being on the receiving end of the Northern Occupation–or at least for the next five years. And the media, of course, which already has shown over the past two years that it just can’t get enough of ignorance, bigotry and outright fantasy about the past. Why, it’s as if the 20th century never happened.

This is going to be bad, horrible, even. We’re in for five years of paeans to alleged Southern valor, interminable babble about “State’s Rights,” debates about the flying of the Confederate Flag, odes by Southern politicians to the sanctity of our Christian heritage (from the part of the country that leads the US in violent crimes and executions) and our god-given right to own other human beings—no, wait. That last part won’t be talked about much. In fact, it will be denied vociferously. In fact, we’ll see, as we have for what seems like forever, interminable arguments about how the Civil War wasn’t about slavery at all. Nope. But we know better. The South may have won the memory wars, but facts are facts.

The British media has noticed some of this. Rupert Cornwall, writing for The Independent, gets it right—the US is still divided by the Civil War. Cornwell comments on a party in South Carolina, the state that started it all, where everyone stands around celebrating the first moves towards secession. David Usborne, also of The Independent, actually went—and conveys its surreal atmosphere nicely:

Inside the hall, 200-odd guests, all white and some in period costume, gathered to see a re-enactment of the signing of the secession document. When it was over, they instinctively joined the cast in singing the anthem of the South, “Dixie”, before repairing to an adjoining hall for dinner and dancing.

And if you’re wondering WTF, you‘re not alone. But, you know, the South is different. Well, for lots of reasons, but mainly because it was the South that declared war on the United States. And lost. And have never gotten over it.

Ed Pilkington of The Guardian was there as well. He shares an interesting but highly predictable and representative profile:

Mark Simpson, commander of the South Carolina branch of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which sponsored the ball, said the line that the war was fought over slavery was spin, used by detractors of the south to discredit them. “Slavery was an issue, yes, but only because it was the economic lifeblood of the south.”

He reacted with indignation to claims that the secession ball celebrated slavery. “Are we celebrating slavery? Absolutely not. We are celebrating that we are proud South Carolinians. Americans, yes, but also southerners.” He was not a secessionist but believed there were many parallels between the complaints of the south in the lead-up to the civil war and today’s angry mood among the American electorate. In the 1860s, the gripe of South Carolinians was that their taxes were all being spent in the north. “There’s a lot that goes on today that is not in our benefit. Where do all our taxes go?” Simpson said.

Well, Mr Simpson, if you knew anything at all, you moron, you would know that they come right back to South Carolina, that’s where—South Carolina being a “taker state,” which received $1.35 back from the federal government for every $1 in federal income tax paid (in 2005, anyway). We’ve noted this before—it’s the states of the old Confederacy that do particularly well at the federal trough. This is a part of the country where white people do a lot of complaining about welfare—but not about welfare queen states.

Note Mr. Simpson’s other point—the Civil War was not about slavery, oh no, even though slavery was the “economic lifeblood of the south.” We’ve covered this ground a surprising number of times this past year—Southern politicians conveniently forgetting the issue of Slavery in their references to, and even celebrations of, the Civil War. As Mr. Simpson observed, that slavery talk was “spin” to discredit the South. Note the assumption that the South needs any further discrediting.

So here we have all the problems of modern American politics neatly encapsulated, particularly the astonishing levels of ignorance that now permeates the national debate—and which will doubtless dominate the yelling about the Civil War over the next five years. Slavery didn’t cause the Civil War. We don’t know where our taxes go. The Civil War was caused by Northern aggression. I’m ignorant as hell, but people just use that fact to discredit me. Hey, I’m the victim here, and I’m going to be the victim for the next five years too, because I’m really good at it.

Cornwell, Pilkington and Usborne have it right—this is the war that has never ended. Of course, they’re British, and can point this out without any embarrassment. But few in the US will talk openly about this, although it’s become more of a topic for discussion over the past two years as the hysteria in parts of the country about having a black president has deranged an even higher number of the civic polity than is normally the case. Credit to McClatchy, as usual, for raising many of the same points as The Independent and The Guardian, although the Times weighs in too, in its usual infuriatingly balanced way. It’s become all the more important to claim the god-given right to fly the Confederate flag—especially over State houses. We have noted in the past year or so the increasing insistence among Southern politicians of their god-given right to secede, if they want to, although they really don’t, sort of, or something. The incessant bleating about States’ rights will just accelerate. We’ve been treated to the spectacle of Tea Party marchers carrying signs of the President of the United States with clear racial denigrations–what next? Whatever we can imagine, if history teaches us anything, it’s that what we’ll get will be worse than what we expect.

So expect to see a whole lot of Confederate flags. And extensive and intellectually challenged rationalizations regarding whether it should be flown or not (see here, including—in fact, especially—the comments, for a fairly representative discussion). And expect the secession thing to keep coming back, like the Terminator. It just won’t stay dead. The whole thing is going to be insufferable.

One of my fonder memories of Basic Training (at good old Fort Jackson, in South Carolina) was some Drill Sergeant staring at me, a New York boy, and saying “God, I hate Yankees.” I don’t imagine the past four decades have changed his mind much. The past is a foreign country, yes it is. Even better—as Faulkner, who lived in the South and should know, said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” How right he was. We’ll be seeing that quote a lot the next five years too. And every time we see it, we can remind ourselves how the part of the country that still has citizens that consider the US government to be an occupying power has come to dominate American political discourse and, indeed, its political institutions. Good luck to us all.

The above stamp was issued in 1961 to commemorate the beginning of the Civil War, which started 100 years earlier when cadets in the Confederate Army fired on Fort Sumter. That’s right. The South started it. Who knew? So why do they insist on calling it The War of Northern Aggression?

23 replies »

  1. Southerners are proud. We are loath to admit the war between the states ever happened. You’re from New York. Imagine if you were handed historical guilt for being from the Boss Tweed state.

    That being said, Southern pride, like the many other forms of nationalism, is based on ignorance. No one who has black friends argues about what the Confederate flag represents. It represents white power. The white power people get tattoos of it next to their swastikas.

    White power is a racist movement. Racism is also a symptom of ignorance. No one who is open to the evidence of their senses and the conclusions of scientific research can remain racist.

    Your fears of a new nationalist movement growing in the United States may be well founded. God knows, we’re ignorant enough. But the Civil War (cringe) must be remembered, discussed, and contemplated, regardless, because those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

    Perhaps this is an opportunity to set the tone for the retelling.

  2. I see it ALL the time, working the battlefields in Virginia like I do: The war isn’t over for many Southerners. For Northerners, it’s mostly a curiosity or even a gee-whiz kinda thing. But you’d also be surprised at the vast majority of people who don’t give a shit about history–even the Civil War–one way or the other. Our historical illiteracy, not to mention our historical ambivalence, is astounding.

    Having said all that, the issue of the war is way too intricate and nuanced for most people to really have a clue. LIke everything else, people want a quick soundbite answer: “The war was about slavery” or “The war was about States Rights” or whatever. As James McPherson once said, “The war had many causes, and all of them were slavery.” But to understand what that really means requires a willingness to dive into the historical context, which most people don’t want to bother with. Soundbites are better.

    The Confederate flag is a great example. It means so many things to so many people now that it’s real meaning has become completely lost. It’s not even the official Confederate flag; it’s the Confederate battle flag. I didn’t stand for anything besides “We’re Confederate troops” so that soldiers knew where they were on the midst of the confusion on a battlefield.

    And therein lies one of the other great problems: We look back at history and judge THEN based on values of TODAY. No wonder people get annoyed and pissed off; no wonder they jump to incorrect/incomplete conclusions (not suggesting you did either, Wuf). But we have no hope of understanding any of it unless we really look at the context of THEN with a sincere desire to actually understand. That’s why I actually have hope–foolish though it might be–that the commemoration might actually spark some useful discussion.

    • And therein lies one of the other great problems: We look back at history and judge THEN based on values of TODAY.

      I have made the same argument any number of times about how we revise history. The problem is that issue we’re talking about isn’t how to evaluate THEN. It seems pretty clear to me that Wuf is critiquing people’s beliefs and behaviors NOW.

      Seems only appropriate that we judge people in 2010 according to the values of 2010. I can’t really see where your last paragraph above serves to do much other than encourage us to be more understanding of complete morons.

      By the way, I can say that. I grew up very, very Southern. Trust me, it IS about racism.

  3. Chris, I would like to think you’re right about some serious discussion, but if we haven’t had it for 150 years at this point, why would we start now? Same response to Josh–if we haven’t been able to set a different tone by now, just when will we be able to do that? Given the level of the rhetoric flying around the past two years, I’m not optimistic.

  4. To be honest, I’m not optimistic about it, either, simply because we can’t seem to have a reasonable discussion about ANY complex issue in this country. If it’s not in made-for-TV soundsbites, it’s not worth talking about.

    But one can still hope….

  5. Plus there’s the issue of whom, exactly, would you have a conversation with. The people who think (just to pick the most recent batshit insane rightwing meme going around) that Obama wants to give New York back to Native Americans? Honestly, what kind of conversation could you have with someone who doesn’t think the Civil War had anything to do with slavery?

  6. I wonder how it would go over if Northerners spent the next five years celebrating the ass whopping they gave the South? If the South can celebrate secession, why can’t the North celebrate Sherman’s swath of total destruction across Georgia?

    You’re all lucky i’m not the President, because i’d have just the April Fools gag for the South. How about an executive order commemorating the Civil War by booting the Confederate States out of the Union?

  7. From a friend of mine who works at one of the battlefields: “I think many people who are arguing the point today see this as an attack on their ancestors, and thus will defend them. If I had a dime for every time I heard in the bookstore: ‘well my great grandfather fought for the Confederacy and he didn’t own any slaves!’ And as far as that goes, it may very well be true. But I think that many people North and South confuse the two. How the war came about and why the soldiers fought are two different issues.

    “The war was mainly caused by the issue of slavery. I talk, almost daily, with people who believe the war was over states rights, but not slavery per se. I always say, ‘states rights over what issue?’ Slavery. Then they will say, it was more about economics than slavery, but slavery is an economic institution. No matter how you slice it–and more importantly, in the words of southern leaders of the time–it was about slavery.”

  8. I live in Ohio–born and raised here. We’re NORTH of the Mason-Dixon line. There are a number of houses and farms I can think of–from within site of downtown Cleveland to along Route 71 north of Cincinnati–where people fly Confederate flags. I was riding in a bike tour once in a small Ohio town with a gentleman who was a Sikh (the site of his mandatory bike helmet strapped to the top of his turban is etched into my memory) when I saw, a few blocks away in the direction we were going, some locals in a pickup truck with a big ol’ Confederate flag stuck to a flagpole being supported by some shirtless yahoo yelling “Whooooo” at the top of his lungs. I turned to my fellow-cyclist and said, “You’ll want to avoid them.” He got it immediately.

    This is Ohio. It’s the North. You southerners lost. Not just that, but your whole rebellion was based on treason. Real treason. As defined in the Constitution. Not some wimpy, wanna-be treason–the real thing. Slice it, dice it anyway you want (and I’m sure we’ll here all of it for the next 5 years, you all are right about that).

  9. Hell, i’m just about as far north as you can be and remain in the continental US (discounting a long swim for the border) and there are plenty of people who are enamored with the Confederate battle flag here too. I’ve never figured out if it’s a not-so-subtle emblem of racism, aspiring to the lowest-common denominator or what. But there it is.

  10. And then I say…

    “Well, your great-grandfather was a fool. Or a stooge. In any case, he was just as invested in that economy as any slave owner. Now how about spending all that money, time and energy on doing something useful instead of dressing up and playing with your toys? Celebrating the supreme idiocy of the absolute worst act of humanity while real wars go on all around the world? Yapping about glory and honor while you tuck your well-fed gut into poly-blend trousers and playact at carnage? How about you go home, read a book or two, pay more attention to your kids and reflect a bit on the true price of war?

    Or if you’re determined to spend your time this way (and that is your choice), do the rest of us the favor of shutting the hell up about it. Spare us the tripe about educating and understanding and contextualizing; just polish your fake medals and go buy another authentic reproduction something or other. Better yet, go fly your proud Confederate battle flag in Compton and try to explain all that context to your questioners…”

    Jackasses.

  11. Oh, and by the way, I’ll be happy to chip in to preserve those battlefields. Just as soon as I see some monuments going up to every woman throughout the entirety of human history who’s died in childbirth. You know, creating those humans who grow up into brave, glorious, expendable commodities.

    On second thought, fuck that, too.

  12. Ohio, Michigan, New York. It’s a state of mind. We give people a two year period to move there. We even pay them to go. We’d still save money.

    And I still listen to the Allman Brothers.

  13. Ah, Southern pride.

    As long as we’re not confusing tribal egoism with legitimate, rational pride in the achievements in which one has had a direct hand… go for it.

  14. Yeah, Sam, I agree: Folks in 2010 do need judged by 2010 standards. Unfortunately, some of those standards are a lot less universal than some of us would like to believe, which is why we have so much red state/blue state bullshit (and, as Wuf points out, North/South bullshit). It’s the folks on the extremes who tend to challenge, often loudly, what the big chunk in the middle would identify and relate to as contemporary values, and so too often that’s what controls the discussion. Whoever has the loudest soundbite wins!

    It’s not about tolerating morons. To hell with them. It’s about talking to all those people in the middle who are willing/able/interested in having a discussion. Some people’s mind aren’t ever going to be changed; fuck ’em. But we do a disservice to everyone else if we start throwing around labels and soundbites without helping them understand context. Otherwise, it’s no different than saying “Here’s the truth. Believe it in lockstep. No need to ask questions.” Sounds Roveish to me.

    The Civil War is the single most defining experience in our national history. I study it and write about it precisely because it’s a fantastic opportunity for discussion–like the one we’re having here.

  15. As the descendant of Northern abolitionists of English extraction, here’s how I will commemorate the Civil War. I will celebrate the fact that no institutions ever did more to set men free than the Union Army and the Royal Navy, some of whom were my flesh and blood. Slavery was widespread throughout the world, among essentially all races and religions, until white Anglo-Saxon Protestants abolished it. It is still to be found in pockets of the Muslim world even today, but otherwise it is gone because white men of European ancestry– alone among all the peoples of the world– lent the full weight of their civilization to abolishing it. I will laugh in the face of any leftist scum who thinks I should feel the slightest degree of shame at my so-called white privilege, and kick in the teeth of anyone who dares to try to steal a nickel from me to give as so-called reparations to the descendants of the people my ancestors shed their blood to set free.

    • Since you’re taking all the credit, it seems only fair that you shoulder the blame, too, right? Or does that white ancestry (I’m white, too, btw) only count when it can be attached to something positive?

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