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I belong to the History Channel Club. I get their magazine, I have a keychain and a bookmark, and a few other geegaws. I also occasionally get unsolicited mailings associated with my membership, and the most recent one of those disturbed me. Seriously disturbed me. The kept me awake researching on the internet kind of concerned me.
This mailing was an envelope filled with postcard advertisements, which I could mail out if I was interested in the offered product. Most of the postcards were innocuous--toy soldiers, metal detectors for your vacation, get a correspondence degree, that sort of thing. There was a discount card for The Wilson Quarterly, which I may use, and Smithsonian. There was a card to order the children's history magazine, Cobblestones, but my son is still a little young for that, so I threw it away. But there was also this little gem:
At first glance, this mailing shocked me. I showed it to my wife and to my father. Then, I gave it more than a cursory glance. I read it carefully. And I grew increasingly disturbed by it. I felt I had to find out more about this organization, to determine whether it was merely an organization of ignorant romantics fond of a flag and the concept of resistance, or a more sinister organization hoping to use such ignorant romanticism to pump its numbers. I began to investigate.
Certainly this mailing was meant for me. My great-grandfathers on both sides fought on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War. One of them, from the hill country of Arkansas, had no slaves of his own, and was probably concerned primarily with holding his land, not with the system of slavery or the repercussions of any specific politics. I cannot say that about the Texas confederates in my family. They did own slaves and their primary concern was holding them and perpetuating the "culture", by which they understood both a style of manners and an economic system founded upon and requiring slavery. As the descendant of such men, then, I am invited to the party, and as the man I am, I can only refuse.
The advertisement is in itself rather sophisticated. It plays upon our present national discourse with its bold "Was your great-grandfather a terrorist or patriot?" Certainly no one wants to build a parallel between their own great-grandfather and the violent criminals of today's international tensions, and implying that such a parallel has been made makes one's distant relatives in need of present defense. Clever marketing, but the parallel has not been made. Accusations of terrorism in defining specific acts and specific soldiers on both sides of the battle lines have been made, and appropriately so. There has not yet been a war fought that has not had its share of atrocities. It is, however regrettable, the nature of the beast. The term 'terrorist' in the Old South really attaches to the actions of various citizens, with the support of resident elites, acting to control a newly enfranchised and free population of former slaves during Reconstruction. The first Klan enclaves were involved in this, but so were less heavily costumed and more ephemeral coalitions of citizens. Violence and terror were effective means by which southern whites sought to establish control and stabilize in a system comfortable for themselves the disorder and dislocation associated with the end of the war and with the end of slavery as an official system of policing, labor control and social design. My Texan great-grandfathers were in on this too, and, yes, they were terrorists.
The paragraph that follows this bold question mimics reason, but is not. Facts can be so deployed that they become lies, and that is what is done here. The South was invaded, but it was no innocent party in this war and it also invaded. The romance of war rhetoric is heavy-handed: 'out-gunned, and out-supplied--but never out-fought'. This is the Gone with the Wind war, of charging grey cavalrymen in their doomed ride into the maws of death. This is not the Civil War of Andersonville or Fort Pillow. This is not about war or the soldiers who fought it at all, but about a vision of what the South should really be, about what the South essentially is, couched in the comforting indignation of 'heritage' and 'patriotism'.
In the middle of the paragraph, the author takes a turn, from the glorious South to the present. The transition writes the Civil War South as an action contributing to the continuing tradition of being American, i.e. the tradition of the Union, in order to support the retention of Confederate symbols. Confederate symbols are taken out of their political and social context, shorn of all content apart from the virtues of service, sacrifice, and bravery on the battlefield, and presented as worthy objects of official veneration. As a male descendant of a Confederate soldier, I am invited to participate in their defense. No thank you.
The most intriguing point of this post for me was its claim to be a 'non-political heritage organization'. Is this true? If it is, then I may be comforted by its nature as a convention of war-romantics, drinking bourbon and talking about their great-grandfathers. This may be silly, but it is not dangerous. If it is not, then this SCV is a completely different beast, and it is dangerous. It was in seeking an answer to this question that I hit the internet, using their sites and resources, but supplementing that with information from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a highly respected and highly respectable organization involved in tracking hate groups and their affiliates. The SCV and those who support them will, of course, deny anything coming out of the SPLC, but those without affiliations to such a group may receive information from the SPLC with some degree of confidence as to its validity.
First, I went to the SCV. They have put quite a bit of money into designing their website. A chubby fellow in a Confederate uniform pops onto your screen to talk with you and welcome you. It all seems rather silly, in the way sentimental patriotism and a love for wars long finished often seems rather silly, but not dangerous. Then, you scroll down and read the Cause to which all SCV are committed, or claim to be committed, a Cause that dates to April 25, 1906, when the torch of revanchism was passed from one generation, the United Confederate Veterans, to their sons by Lt. Gen. Stephen Dill Lee in New Orleans, Louisiana:
To you, Sons of Confederate Veterans, we will commit the vindication of the cause for which we fought. To your strength will be given the defense of the Confederate soldier's good name, the guardianship of his history, the emulation of his virtues, the perpetuation of those principles which he loved and which you love also, and those ideals which made him glorious and which you also cherish. Remember: It is your duty to see that the true history of the South is presented to future generations.
Let us look at this Cause seriously, as the SCV takes it seriously. What does it mean? It could be a simple command to honor the dead, but this seems unlikely. These dead are to be honored by a present policy, by present action, by the 'vindication of their cause'. Vindicating a cause is far more than honoring the dead, for we can honor the dead in war, honor their individual virtues and their service on the field, while still maintaining that the cause for which they died was a mistaken one, even an evil one. We can shift the blame for the war away from the soldiers who fought in it and on to the politicians who engineered it. That is, after all, largely how we as a country address the dead of Vietnam and of World War I. This is, then, something else.
An important role in vindicating the cause of the dead is given to education, to the presentation of a 'true history of the South'. We shall see later in this article the deformations of fact that this 'true history' presents to the reader. History is often contentious, and it changes over time, is revised and rewritten in light of new information and new emphases. I am not fond of histories of the Civil War which paint Abraham Lincoln as a saint of equality and racial integration, which he was not. It is a fact that as President he committed more breaches of the Constitution than any other president. Let it also be given him, however, that no other President led this nation in a war against itself, against a coalition of rebellious states whose aim was to force recognition of their independence from the federal union of states. I am also, however, not fond of histories which make of Gen. Robert E. Lee the gray, god-fearing cavalier, a doomed virtuous man leading a doomed but virtuous army. Neither version of the Civil War honors the complexities of those men, or the complexities of that war. Neither version prepares for what came after. The SCV history of the South is no more true, and a bit more false, than the hagiographies of the North.
All right, so I had looked at the pleas of the SCV for my attention, and I read their Cause. But who were they? I read their officers list and it consisted of no one I recognized. Ah, but I have the internet and so do not have to remain ignorant of such matters for long. I looked a few of them up, and along the way read some of their internal messages and newsletters for further information. I took notes on what I found important in these and moved on to the SPLC to see if the SCV was on their hate-groups watchlist. Surprise, surprise--there it was, with several articles on internal dissension within the SCV, power moves by more overtly racist organizations and individuals within the SCV and ties through individual members in powerful positions to more overtly racist organizations outside the SCV.
Let me share with you what I found.
The SCV has been radicalized. It was to a large extent moribund, a convention of men talking about the glorious service of their grandfathers in that glorious, long-ended war, until revitalized by the battle over civil rights under the leadership of William McCain, also president of Southern Mississippi State University. When he took over in 1953, the SCV had 30 camps, 1,000 members, and a fund of $1,053. He restarted its newsletter, the Confederate Veteran, increased membership to over 18,000, and purchased a national headquarters in Columbia, Tennessee. McCain was a firm segregationist, a supporter of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission which used the Red Scare to combat civil rights workers and activists, and active in blocking entrance by blacks into his University. There was another lull in SCV history once the civil rights battles were lost.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, a changed political climate in the United States made attacks on particular civil rights legislation as anti-white and unjust possible, and activism increased in the SCV. This tendency increased, as did activism of a more radical nature outside the SCV. In 1994, the League of the South, a theocratic racist organization advocating separation of the South as an 'Anglo-Celtic' culture block, formed, with several SCV members among its founders and first members. Although the SCV initially resisted efforts to become a communication node through which League ideas could be transmitted to a wider audience, it eventually fell into line, and in 1998 included the League's web address in its newsletter. Officially, the SCV retained its 'apolitical' stance, but it did not object to SCV members participating and promoting political (racist and separatist) politics and organizations away from SCV meetings and official SCV events. It was a convenient apoliticism through which the well-meaning lovers of historical re-enactment and genealogical pedantry could be retained, while the activists attempting to re-create the racism and evils of the old South could also be embraced.
The single SCV issue that has received the most public attention, both in its support and in opposition, has been the continuing controversy over the presence of the Confederate battle flag at Southern government houses and courts. Many white southerners like the battle flag. It has become, separate from the slavery and racism of the Old and Reconstructed South, a sign of pride and rebelliousness, of sticking to your guns and holding by the right even when the numbers are against you. It has come to symbolize among Southern whites a lot that has nothing to do with slavery, racism, or historical wrongs.
I grew up with young men who adored the battle flag and who were not racist. I understand that loving the flag and loving slavery are different things, and yet, now that I am older and wiser, I have come to doubt that it is possible to hold on to the flag and to racial equality at one and the same time. Attempting to do so involves one in too many anomalies and points of conflict. White southerners may love the flag, but they can do so only by ignoring, or belittling, what that same flag means outside of the white community. So from youthful indifference to the battle flag I have progressed to opposition, not to dishonor my grandfathers, but to honor my neighbors and their grandfathers. My great-grandfathers, insofar as they were worthy men, can be honored within my family for their human qualities, not for the social order they fought for which is also contained in that flag, mixed in with the airy concepts of pride and honor.
SCV activism in favor of retaining the battle flag as a symbol of Confederate (Southern) culture put it in bed with some despicable men, including one Kirk Lyons, one-time ally of David Duke. Kirk Lyons established the SLRC, Southern Legal Resource Center, to concentrate on this single issue, and the SCV referred many cases to the SLRC regarding the battle flag. At the same time that this issue was in the forefront of their public efforts, an increasing number of members within the organization were publishing 'histories' and publicly speaking in an attempt to revise the orthodox view on slavery in the South. Slavery was written of again, as it was in the early twentieth century, as a system that benefitted black men, women, and children.
Slavery provided enviable job stability to the Southern black population according to the published views of Commander-in-Chief of the SCV, Peter Ortebeke, in 1996. He told the Dallas Morning News that there was no race relations problem in the South until Reconstruction, and to some extent this is true, if one ignores the fear of slave revolts and poisonings that formed a paranoid sub-text to many legal provisions of Southern life during the period of slavery. Slavery did control the black population in the South and it did provide firm limits to the actions of blacks and whites. In the Old South, slavery was the race problem.
Other SCV members and officers offered similar visions of the kindness and benefits of slavery. Its chaplain-in-chief in 1999 was the pro-slavery pastor John Weaver. Walter 'Donnie' Kennedy, a member of the SCV executive council who resigned when seccession was banned as a discussion topic for the organizations mailing list in the midst of the old guards fight against the new radicals in 1996, co-authored The South Was Right, which presented slaves as happy in their condition. (The radicals won, by the way). The present Lieutenant Commander in Chief, Charles Kelly Barrow of Georgia, wrote a misleading book on black soldiers in the Civil War, Black Confederates, that claims without substantiation that 50,000 to 60,000 blacks voluntarily served in the front lines for the Confederacy. Black labor was important to the southern war effort, and there were some black soldiers, especially towards the end of the war. Southern whites of means tended to take their slaves to war with them as valets and attendants. However, this does not mean that the South widely armed slaves. To do so would have been stupidly suicidal, and would have been prevented by the great fear southerners had of slave risings. Barrow also belongs, (or belonged, I have not been able to confirm his present membership) to the League of the South. His scholarship is sub-standard, but he did not write his book as a scholar, but as an advocate of the resurrection of segregation and other old southern virtues. If you are interested, you can do your own research and discover more writings and statements in lines with those above issued by SCV members. I have read enough.
This brings us to the current SCV, with its current commander-in-chief, Michael Givens. Michael Givens has a background in cinematography, especially commercial cinematography, and certainly he understands the importance of the image. I am also quite certain that he knows that most of us do not take the time, or have the time, to investigate the messages we receive in the mail or the snippets of talk we see on television. I did not see any notations or information that would tie him to radical groups beyond the SCV, and the SCV, while I object to its message and activities, is an organization that teaches racism, not one that bombs in its name. I looked up some speeches by Mr. Givens and looked at an old newsletter he wrote before he was Commander-in-Chief, when he was only Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Mr. Givens is leading a recruitment drive. Power in organizations outside the government is largely determined by the unity of two components: membership numbers and publicity. He, therefore, continues to reach out to consumers like me who might respond to a mailing from his organization through direct media campaigns and to seek other avenues of public contact. For example, he is in favor of participating with the National Civil War Museum, although it is "leaning toward Lincoln and his ideology" in his words, to produce a Jefferson Davis exhibit that will be 'honest' and give the SCV both validation from a respectable source and a place in a historical forum, not directly tied to their own organization, and thereby more 'believable'. Clever boy, but I know that today, as the national face of the SCV, his speech might be edited for public consumption. He is the voice that speaks to the media, and so he must be conscious of what he says. Today, as Commander-in-Chief, he can only go so far, and no more, while remaining effective in his defense of the Anglo-Celtic South.
What was he saying in 2008? I read the Army of Northern Virginia in order to find out. His editorial in that newsletter states that the battle lines between those who would destroy southern culture and the SCV are drawn, and the SCV must be active and forceful in defense of Southern heritage and culture now, before they are destroyed. He analyzed presidential candidates solely in terms of their position on the battle flag. Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee made the cut. Ron Paul was a cut above Huckabee, for he also doubted the legality of the Civil War. Obama was covered with a single sentence, that he said the flag belonged in a history museum. The future of southern culture was at stake in this election, apparently, for Givens writes: "How can we expect or hope for a fair debate on the causes of the War and the effects of both the War and the horrors of Reconstruction?" This question has an interesting design: the war had effects, but horrors are limited to Reconstruction. Warning lights flash in my head. He continues, "We must make certain that the SCV is considered the intellectual authority on all matters pertaining to the War for Southern Independence." No War Between the States here, but a parallel to the Revolutionary War, evoking principles of freedom, liberty, and states' rights. When he writes of the SCVs enemies, he fails to capitalize NAACP and SPLC, delegitimating them through orthography. Of their opposition to the SCV he says they operate "poisoning every other word with strains of human oppression": it is not that slavery was not a historical reality, then, it is that it was an unimportant reality, or, as other SCV members have publicly stated or published, a beneficial one. He ends by stating that "the life of the Confederacy" is at stake. Is it? How odd, given that the Confederacy does not exist at this time in this country.
What as a man born in the South, raised in the South, fond of some elements of Southern culture and disappointed in others, to make of all this? I am more than ever convinced that we cannot innocently defend the Old South. We must shed our romanticism regarding the Southern past, Southern pride, and the Southern way of life. Retaining it empowers organizations such as this in their efforts to turn the clock back, to bring a little more inhumanity into our lives, in the name of 'heritage' and honor. We must commit ourselves to educating ourselves and our children not in the partial history of pride, but in the wider, more devastating history of mankind, white and black, free and unfree, oppressing and oppressed. We must learn to live with the discomforts of a full, tragic, and bloody history in which we are not the cavaliers and slavery, segregation, and lynching were not noble acts.