Boy, one wanders around the West for a few days, turning a corner and finding oneself 15 feet from a grizzly bear who mercifully was far more interested in eating berries than eating you, and the whole world has changed.
My blog colleagues and many around the internet have said much of what I would say about Trump’s official approval of NeoNazis and NeoConfederates. It’s a truly horror show, yet one that completely fits Trump’s base, which is one reason why McConnell and the like won’t call Trump out by name, even if a few Republicans who can see their political futures ending at the next election (Cory Gardner) have. But let me state a few things here as I get back into my routine of real work now that vacation has ended and I am setting up in Oregon for the next few months.
I have been pushing the idea of the Confederacy as “Treason in Defense of Slavery” for the last decade. I didn’t invent the term. I stole it from Lemieux and Noon and I believe it originates with a long-time friend of LGMers (a southerner it should be stated). I am glad to see it start to become a useful public term for discussing secession for the right to buy, sell, rape, and kill black people. To see an overwhelming rejection on the left of any interpretation of the Civil War that does not center slavery is highly rewarding to me, even if it’s not worth the hell that has created the situation.
As of last weekend, there can never be a reconciliation on the left with treason in defense of slavery again. Unfortunately, and we’ve even seen it in comments here over the years, there developed an equivalency on the left between the Civil War and anti-capitalist politics. This was particularly salient in the 1960s, where, despite the beginnings of real historical studies of the horrors of slavery, the popular conception on the left was, while not directly racist, a sympathy for southern planters fighting against a northern captialism seeking to crush everything in its path. Thus you have first Gram Parsons and then Lynard Skynard using the Confederate flag as a backdrop to their concerts, The Band having a huge hit with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and endless writings and other cultural productions on the left talking about how the Civil War was a capitalist war on the South, even if it happened to free the slaves.
This now defunct left interpretation of the Civil War is, of course, ridiculous. Historians such as Ed Baptist and Sven Beckert have demonstrated the deep integration of the plantation economy into not only a national but a global capitalism. Two generations of African-American history scholars have brought out the stories of slaves and freedom, exploring how slaves fought for their own goals and had their own demands both during and after the Civil War. Sure, capitalism was central to the Civil War, but the U.S. economy in the 1850s was a regionally integrated capitalist economy that was based more on the ownership of black bodies than any other commodity. Battles between northern and southern whites might have revolved around the future of that regionally integrated capitalism, but there was nothing anti-capitalist at all about the plantation South.
What this leaves is a far more correct interpretation of the Confederacy as a white supremacist state that hoped to become a world power based around slavery. There is nothing to romanticize, unless you want to romanticize white power. That’s what happened at Charlottesville and that’s what Herr Trump supports. That leaves no room for middle ground on this issue. There no longer can be any legitimate argument that Confederate memorials are “HISTORY” that need to be left alone. Scholars have pointed out the explicitly Jim Crow white nationalist origin of these monuments, as well as the inclusion of the Confederate flag on southern state flags in the 1950s and 1960s, the changing of which is another battle coming soon. Supporting these monuments is supporting the white nationalist origins of them that have been reclaimed by today’s racists.
Finally, the past is always politics. There is nothing about the study of history that is not political. How we understand the past is how we understand the present. Allowing the white South and their sympathizers to write the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction for a century explicitly reinforced white supremacy. The change in the study of the era in the last 40 years has challenged this and, not surprisingly, has fed into charges that higher education is “indoctrinating” our good young people. As per always, conservatives are projecting here because indoctrination is exactly what they want to do, especially with our history. Whatever happens with this nation, whether democracy is saved or a new century of white supremacy wins out beginning with Trump, supported by the Supreme Court, and doubled down upon by states restricting the suffrage, the battle over the past will be an important front in the war. And no event in our history is more central to that battle that the meaning of the Civil War.
This is why all of us on the left we need to fight for taking down all Confederate statues and ban the flying of the Confederate flag in public spaces. This is not about the past. It’s about the future.