What I learned from taking on the Confederacy

So that happened.

On Monday, the Richmond-Times Dispatch published my opinion piece that called for an end to "Confederate nonsense." I knew I was picking a fight (as I said when I posted the link on Facebook). But I’ve long found Confederate nostalgia to be a perplexing and toxic feature of life in the South, and felt like 2017 -- a year in which racial fault lines are likely to play a big role, for what should be obvious reasons -- was an appropriate time to speak out about it. But while I knew I was poking a hornets' nest, I didn’t know how much buzzing I would end up hearing.

In 125 or so comments (and counting) and almost half as many e-mails, I've been called the following: Yankee scum, American Taliban, uppity Yankee, SOB, sorry POS, liberal puke, Dixiephobic, racist bigot, communist, worthless leftist, dishonest buffoon, Yankee progressive Nazi (whatever that is), and -- my favorite -- a carpetbagger. And believe me, I could make a much longer list.

The comments were breathtaking, and not just in their ugliness. [I haven’t linked to individual comments in this post, but you can find them on the RTD’s website.] Even if we dismiss the commenter who thinks Jesus still wants blacks ("The Canaanites") to be slaves, or the one that noted (I think in praise?) that "the patriots of 1776 were true traitors," or even the correspondent who asked if I knew that the Civil War was "instigated and influenced by Marxists," the overall picture is of an America, and even an American South, that is very different from the one in which I live.

The stereotypes of the Lost Cause defenders are all on display in the RTD comments section: calling the Civil War "The War of Northern Aggression;" the claims that "Dixie will rise again;" the multiple comments and e-mails that signed off with the Confederate motto Deo Vindice ("Under God, our Vindicator"). But it was jarring to see these tropes appear repeatedly in just-written posts and e-mails, signed by real people who live not far from me. (Richmond may have been the capitol of the Confederacy, but it’s also the 3rd most tattooed city in the country.)

It was informative, to say the least. For instance, I was surprised by so much visceral hatred for the Great Emancipator. Routinely ranked among the most admired Presidents in American history, Abraham Lincoln apparently has some unfinished business among Confederate sympathizers, who consider him a "tyrant" who "wiped his arse upon the Bill of Rights." [One commenter, identified as a retired US Fish & Wildlife research scientist (!) called Lincoln the "GREAT YANKEE GOD who rules above all Americans from his marble temple of death in Washington DC." Wow – tell us how you really feel.]

Now that I've had a chance to process this whirlwind of responses, I’ve found that the comments, beyond that ones that simply called me an ignorant buffoon (or worse), fell into three main categories. The first two are just more Confederate nonsense -- yes, I’m doubling down on kicking the nest -- but the third merits a more serious response.

1. The North was really, really bad too.

The Northern Army was likely guilty of war crimes; one commenter demanded that I read about "Sherman, the rape, murder and starvation of women and children." Northern states originally had legal slavery as well, and profited immensely from the slave trade. One commenter thought that discussion of slavery should focus on Syracuse, NY; another reminded me that the 3/5 compromise was actually proposed by Northern states during the Constitutional convention. Finally, the United States government has been guilty of a number of atrocities over its history, including the genocide of Native Americans.

The logical problem with this line of thinking should be obvious. The North, the Union, and the United States are no morally pure victor for sure. But any problems with the country's imperialism, the Union Army's brutality, or Northern ports' hosting of the slave trade have no bearing on the moral standing of the Southern slavocracy - which, again, was a brutal, oppressive, and apartheid regime that deserves to have been utterly destroyed. Pointing out others' atrocities in no way excuses one's own.

2. The Civil War was not about slavery.

More than one comment or e-mail pointed to claims that "taxation" was the real divide between North and South. Others suggested that since Lincoln’s stated goal in war was only to restore the Union, and not end slavery, that means that slavery had nothing to do with the war itself. Many talked about how Confederates raised arms only to defend their homes against the invading Northern army, and that the biggest principle they stood for was "states' rights."

These claims have some historical basis. Sure, there were sectional economic differences that extended beyond the Southern slavocracy. Clearly Lincoln’s original purpose was to preserve the Union, and certainly most Confederate soldiers were not slaveowners. But to suggest that slavery had nothing to do with the divide between North and South is to miss the forest for the trees.

The history of the early United States is a history of two divergent cultures and economies, with two radically different ways of life. A major issue, if not THE issue, facing this new country during its first several decades of existence was the expansion of slavery into new territories. (Remember "Bleeding Kansas?" Slavery minimizers don't.) This issue, which brought with it the larger concern over sectional control of national government (particularly the Southern states' need to preserve slavery), combined with the continued agitation of abolitionists to keep slavery on the top of the national agenda until the war.

Blunt talk hasn’t gotten me very much so far, but I know of no other way to say this: the idea that slavery is somehow a minor little economic problem that should be left out of accounts of the war is preposterously stupid.

This willful ignorance extends to the power of slavery over southern economic and social life; some of the commenters bizarrely claimed that slavery would have eventually "died a natural death," instead of what they saw as Lincoln’s reckless mass emancipation program. I’m sure slaves at the time would have been happy to hear about this supposed gradual move towards freedom while they were kept in bondage, just as freed blacks enjoyed the next century of discrimination and terrorism under Jim Crow.

As for "states' rights": just as I have little patience for Confederate nostalgia, I have even less for defense of this supposed principle. The term "states' rights" is most often used in national politics as coded language for the right of states to be discriminatory. It’s a dog whistle for racism, and you should immediately distrust politicians who say they support it.

3. We should honor the bravery of Confederate soldiers.

One commenter criticized me for "attacking the character and honor of those who served the CSA." He noted that "except for the CSA service personnel, America, north and south, has a tradition of honoring its soldiers whether one believes in the war or not.... My hope is we Americans will forever honor ALL the warriors who were willing to suffer and die to serve their country."

If you are willing to concede the fact that CSA soldiers should, in fact, be considered as fighting for "America" (this may be an ontological question), this becomes a real concern. Do we honor CSA soldiers like we honor soldiers in other controversial conflicts like Vietnam? How should we honor Americans who "fought for what they believed in," including their "way of life," as another commenter wrote, if that includes a way of life built on a brutal, repressive, apartheid regime that kept millions in chains? A hierarchical and discriminatory way of life that, minus the worst parts of actual ownership of humans, continued largely unchecked for a century after the war?

It would be easier to take these arguments seriously if Confederate symbols weren't so often adopted or appropriated in response to progress by blacks. For example, Georgia added the stars-and-bars to its state flag in 1956 at the height of segregation. (The flag has since been redesigned.) [EDIT: a friend wrote to correct me on this. Georgia's 1956 flag included the Confederate battle flag; the "stars-and-bars" refers to the first Confederate national flag. FYI, the redesigned GA flag is based on the "stars and bars," so, not much improvement there.] And it would be easier if more Confederate defenders could take a hard look at what slavery and Jim Crow actually was like for the people living under its yoke. The comments I read suggest otherwise.

I worked very hard in my original op-ed to not do the Godwin's law thing, but some commenters were willing to go there and, yup, bring up the Nazis. One person noted that his relative fought for Germany during WWII, but he saw no reason to celebrate that soldier's sacrifice by parading symbols of the Nazi regime. Maybe this comparison causes more trouble than it's worth, but even so, commenters responded in troubling ways. The astounding thoughtlessness behind the sentence, "At no time in its existence did the Confederate Army take part in the murder of 6 million people because of their race" is, again, breathtaking. Slaves were murdered by the hundreds of thousands, and millions were kept in actual servitude for centuries and then virtual servitude for a century more - not specifically by the CSA Army, of course, but by the regime for which that army was in service. I may not have all the answers, but I can tell you that blindly honoring that regime is not one of them.

I'm not sure what I hoped to accomplish with my original piece, but the results have at least been educational for me. The comments and e-mails I received are a reminder of how longstanding narratives and attitudes get passed down through generations. (Appropriately, the Middle East has been in the news lately.) Some of these attitudes are particularly troubling, and not just on race. One commenter posted a link to a Hoyt Axton recording of an old Civil War song, "I’m a Good ‘Ol Rebel." The song, told from the point of view of a former soldier who "won't be reconstructed," includes the lyric "I hate the Declaration of Independence." For some of these people, America is the same thing as the former Union Army. For them, America is the enemy.

This is why I want the South to let go of the Confederacy. Sure, we can talk about honoring Confederate soldiers. But that does not mean we should honor the Confederacy as a whole. Instead, I think the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow is something we -- here in the South for sure, but also America as a whole -- still needs to own up to. So we need to push back against supporters of the Lost Cause, even when we inspire the vitriol I experienced first-hand this week.

One final quote from a commenter: "We ain't forgetting nothing." I don’t agree. It seems the rest of us need to keep reminding modern-day Confederates of what they have forgotten.