Old times there are forgotten more often than you’d think

Glenn LaFantasie is taking on the SCV’s effort to create Kentucky license plates bearing a picture of Jefferson Davis and the Confederate battle flag.  His editorial condemns those who would try to divorce the flag from its historical contexts—both its nineteenth-century context as a symbol of a slaveholders’ republic and its twentieth-century context as a symbol of segregation.  He argues that the desire to return to some mythical “Old South” is misplaced.  So far so good; I’m with him on these points.

But there is one matter in LaFantasie’s piece with which I would take issue, and it’s something that tends to pop up quite frequently in discussions of the “ongoing Civil War” type.  It’s the notion that all the attitudes we generally associate with Lost Cause-ism are somehow shared by white southerners as a whole, and that the idea of the Old South is a universal touchstone for modern southerners:

The same can be said of the South and the SCV, which is hell-bent on making sure that the Confederate flag, which it claims is a symbol of “heritage, not hate,” is always visible, if not on flag staffs, then at the very least on license plates. Of course, the national debate over the Confederate battle flag is nothing new, but white Southerners — who prefer their “history” to adhere to the melancholic tenets of the Lost Cause (on the insidious nature of the “Lost Cause,” see the recent Salon essay by historian Joan Waugh) — seem determined to argue falsely that the flag only honors the courage of the Southern soldiers who fought for the Confederacy; in the South, most whites still erroneously believe, no matter what historians say, that the Cause stood for states’ rights alone and not slavery.

I simply don’t think this kind of over-generalization is warranted.  The mindset of the SCV or various fringe neo-Confederate groups simply isn’t that of most white southerners.  For one thing, I think it’s safe to say that most of my fellow white southerners nowadays are pretty well aware of the connection between slavery and the war.  But even more important than what we do or don’t think about the war Down Here is the fact that most of us don’t really think about it at all.

In fact, I think LaFantasie has actually let the SCV and similar groups get the better of him.  These groups claim to speak for the South and her heritage, and he seems to have taken them at their word.  But their claiming to speak for all of us doesn’t make it so.

This is one of the problems I had with Confederates in the Attic.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book as a piece of travel reportage, and it’s one of those volumes that I find myself dipping into often to re-visit certain passages.  It’s a wonderful quick fix when I’d like to be on the road hitting historic sites myself, since Horwitz has a remarkable gift for setting a scene and evoking the feeling of a place.  But like many travel writers, Horwitz went looking for the distinctive, the odd, and the notable—and he found it in spades.  Confederates in the Attic is a fine read, but it doesn’t reflect the totality of the southern mind.

Most white southerners just don’t cling longingly to the memories of what was or mourn for what might have been.  We’re too busy worrying about the same things northerners, westerners, and easterners worry about—going to the office, the price of gas, the kids’ soccer practice, the light bill, Brad and Angelina.  The concerns of the average working- or middle-class American are, by and large, also the concerns of the average southerner in the same socioeconomic position.

All this is even more true of young southerners.  I look at my students, the overwhelming majority of whom are from rural southern areas, and I don’t see much to distinguish them from their peers in other parts of the country.  They wear the same clothes, listen to the same music, watch the same movies, use the same slang, and buy the same gadgets as the college-aged people from New York and L.A. that you see on TV.  If it weren’t for their accents, you wouldn’t have any indication that they were from a particular place.  (And even those accents aren’t as distinguishable as they used to be; it’s amazing how diluted they’ve become in only a generation or two.)  Global, Americanized, modern pop culture is as ubiquitous here in Dixie as it is everywhere else.  The symbol that towers over the landscape isn’t the crossed bars of the rebel flag; it’s the golden arches.

LaFantasie indicates that many of his neighbors don’t share his political proclivities. Perhaps they don’t.  There are indeed such things as regional voting and religious patterns, but I think President Obama’s unpopularity in Kentucky is due to other factors besides a war that ended almost 150 years ago.  (His vocal opposition to the coal industry, for example.)

I used to teach week-long courses on the Civil War for a college program aimed at retired adults. A lady in one of these classes asked me if I’d read Confederates in the Attic.  When I told her that I had, she asked me, a little hesitantly, whether “people down here are really like that.”  I assured her that many of the characters in the book would seem as outlandish to other southerners (and history buffs) as they did to her, and she seemed almost physically relieved to hear it.

She needn’t have worried.  Those dedicated Confederates who live in the South are visible and vocal, but they’re a decided minority.  The notion of the “war that’s still going on” is no more true for most of us than it is for those living north of the Mason-Dixon line.  You guys should really get down here more often.

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7 Comments

Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

7 responses to “Old times there are forgotten more often than you’d think

  1. Ron

    I see LaFantasie is back at it. As with his other recent controversial post on Civil War re-enactors, LaFantasie over-generalizes and wears his left-leaning politics on his sleeve. In doing so, he detracts from a very compelling argument about the meaning of the Confederate flag. But I am sure many Salon.com readers love it.

    Although not a Southerner, I see where you are coming from. Today, in the United States, we have a heck of a lot more in common than LaFantaise and others would like to admit. Most Americans would rather talk about “American Idol” than Antietam. We watch the same sports. We feel compassion for one another, whether after 9-11 or in the wake of the recent Mississippi River flooding. We work hard to make ends meet and provide for our kids. The Civil War is over, and most Americans realize that. LaFantasie is so caught up in his disdain for the minority that still is fighting for the Lost Cause, and projects his dislike for those people onto an entire region of the United States. White Southerners do not have a monopoly on racism in America, nor are all white Southerners racist. LaFantasie would have us believe otherwise, and I find that overly simplistic and offensive.

  2. Michael Lynch

    Yeah, I think he made the same mistake in his piece on reenactors that he made in this new piece; his criticisms are valid, but they apply to a part of the group he’s discussing rather than the whole.

    –ML

  3. Steve Pecl

    Understand uyour reluctance to be painted with a broad brush however polling done by a group here in the Tar Heel state shows we still have a problem across the South:
    http://projects.newsobserver.com/under_the_dome/were_glad_the_north_won_sort_of#storylink=misearch

  4. Michael Lynch

    “Wishing” the South had won is not the same as actively working to re-shape the memory of the war, as heritage groups do. How many of the people who gave that answer will take the time to attend an SCV meeting, buy a Confederate flag, etc.? I still maintain that disputes over the memory of the war play a very small role in the day-to-day lives of most southerners.

    –ML

  5. Jim Harned

    Mr. LaFantasie is obviously living in a LaFantasie world. He needs to contact the Director of the Jefferson Davis Monument State Park in Fairview KY. This gentleman (who is also a black man) has an ancestor who was an officer in the Confederate Military. This gentleman (unlike LaFantasie) wants to honor his ancestor and wants history to remain truthful. He is an ex-Marine & an expert on the War Between The States. Curiously enough, he says that the War was fought over a number of items–with states’ rights & economics being at the top of the list.

  6. Michael Lynch

    “This gentleman (who is also a black man) has an ancestor who was an officer in the Confederate Military. ”

    Ron Sydnor is the park’s manager, I believe. This is the first time I’ve ever heard that he claims descent from a black Confederate officer. Does he have any sort of contemporary documentation on this ancestor? I only ask that because these claims about black Confederate soldiers have a way of falling apart under close scrutiny.

    “Curiously enough, he says that the War was fought over a number of items–with states’ rights & economics being at the top of the list.”

    That’s odd, because the architects of secession seemed to think it was mostly about slavery. Maybe they didn’t get the memo.

    –ML

  7. kristopher_merchant@yahoo.com

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. This insistence on the part of the SCV and other Lost Cause partisans on trivializing the role that slavery played in secession is an excellent example of a thing called WISHFUL THINKING. But then again, they keep insisting that the Confederates were the good guys in the Civil War. But if they were to admit that the Confederate government formed primarily to maintain a system of human bondage along with a racial and economic caste system, and then in the same breath, call the Confederates the good guys, people would quite rightfully laugh. They keep saying that secession was caused by everything except slavery for a simple and understandable reason: There is no moral defense for slavery, especially today.

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