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Historians to the Rescue!

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Leave it to historians to solve problems!

It was still early on March 30 when historian Amy Kohout began scrolling through her Instagram feed. An image caught her eye: an ad by Nike promoting its new line of Trail Running gear, which launched this month. It had a throwback feel: a vivid image of a lone runner on a dirt path, bolting along a green bluff above an ocean with inspirational text beneath, urging potential buyers to abandon all of their wayfinding technologies and become reacquainted with “the feeling of being lost.”

These were nice sentiments. But what gave Kohout pause was the slogan in large font underneath the photograph: “The Lost Cause.” And then there was the final sentence: “Because the lost cause will always be a cause worth supporting.”

For historians of the American South and the Civil War, these words are alarming. The Lost Cause was a story that white southerners told themselves after the Civil War to justify their embrace of slavery (it was a benign institution!), secession (a legitimate course of action!) and their defeat in the Civil War (a noble cause in defense of a “way of life”!).

After the war, historian Karen Cox explains, former Confederates used this narrative in a variety of ways to assert white supremacy across the South. This story “was ingrained in people for over a century,” says Cox, the author of “Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture.” “It keeps getting repeated over and over again, and embedded in people’s minds through popular culture.” The film “Gone with the Wind,” released in 1939, is the narrative’s apotheosis.

The Lost Cause endured due to its compelling fictions and its memorable phrasing, and it fueled the construction of memorials to the Confederacy in the late 1890s. In August 2017, after white supremacists rallied in defense of two Confederate monuments in Charlottesville and one of them killed anti-racism protester Heather Heyer when he drove into a crowd, it became clear that the Lost Cause remains alive and well in modern America. Historians went to work, writing articles and giving interviews about the power of this narrative as expressed through Confederate memorials. Many towns and cities across the South began removing them from public places.

Given all this, it was shocking to see the Lost Cause espoused in such a direct way in the Nike Trail ad. After reading the text of the ad and doing some research to make sure it was not an April Fool’s joke (the new Trail Running line launched on April 1), Kohout took a image of “The Lost Cause” ad and posted it to Twitter.

By mid afternoon on March 30, just six hours after the first historians began tweeting, the barrage of tweets offering historical context and sarcastic takes on “The Lost Cause” had an effect. Nike Trail had deleted the ad from its Instagram and Twitter accounts. Many of the shoe stores, running organizations and athletes who had originally promoted their “support for The Lost Cause” had deleted their posts as well. Nike Trail Running’s new line of shoes and clothes debuted last week without any accompanying marketing materials.

Twitterstorians’ protests appear to have been so efficient, in fact, that if you were not on Twitter on Saturday, you likely missed the whole thing. Nike Trail did not issue any kind of apology, and no major news outlet picked up the story.

In conclusion, it’s time to eliminate History from higher education entirely and turn our colleges and universities into vo-tech schools that never, ever challenge our corporations.

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