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.