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Remembering the Confederacy

April 12, 2010

(photo courtesy of Andrew Bain)

As you know, the governor of Virginia recently tried to dedicate April to the remembrance of the Confederate States of America. His original proclamation—since amended—made no mention of slavery. Perhaps the idea was ‘separate but equal’: February, being Black History Month, is for the slaves, April for their masters.

Of course, this horribly misrepresents the Civil War. It gives the demonstrably wrong answers to the questions “Was or was not the Confederacy inextricably tied to white supremacy? Can or cannot the history of the Confederacy be contemplated apart from slavery?”

At the same time, though, the real issues are elsewhere. They are less about the Civil war as a body of historical facts than they are about the Civil War as a symbol. They cannot be settled by airing the historical record. We need to rethink what that record means to us.

The Confederacy has come to stand for nothing more than a certain political agenda, namely the defense of white privilege at every turn. Neo-Confederates embrace it because it stands for racial inequality, and the mainstream of America rejects it for the very same reason. History becomes politicized and one-dimensional. This isn’t necessarily unfair to the historical Confederacy, but it is unfortunate. Quite apart from what it says about the state of race relations in this country, it keeps us from coming to any deeper understanding of our history. The subtler questions get drowned out by those shouting “White privilege: yes or no?”

“No”, of course. But there has to be a way grasping the meaning of Confederate treason that is neither sentimental nor reductive. The Confederacy was racist to the core, a bastion of misery and injustice, a stain on our national cloth. But even if this is its most salient aspect, it’s still only one aspect. We need to get a wider view, but certainly not by layering on the gauzy fantasy according to which the antebellum south was the more beautiful, spirited, principled, and individualistic America.

Profiting from slave labor is, I’m sorry to say, a large part of the heritage of a large number of our fellow citizens. It was, for many, the family business, a way in the world. That it was morally corrupt doesn’t change this–this is simply the flipside of slavery as the heritage of black Americans: you can’t recognize the one and not the other. But it does makes it harder to live with. You can accept or reject the politics of your forebears, but your forebears are not themselves a political agenda which you can either accept or reject.

On some level, the other atrocities of recent history—the genocidal campaigns of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, mass murder under Stalin and Mao, the American war in Vietnam—are more episodic and hence easier to criminalize, contain, and repudiate. It is easier to treat them as brutal but aberrant periods of civilizational insanity. American chattel slavery was as bad as anything but far more a part of everyday life for a far longer time. For this reason, it may be far longer before we put it behind us.

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