Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Lost Cause Winning Again

Welp. Now that South Carolina has brought the Rebel Flag down, our "national conversation" on race and American history is ready to be turned back over to modern day believers in the Lost Cause. The full power of our larger, 150 year fairy tale history is rearing its ugly head in defense of our plague of Ozymandian monuments to Santa Claus the Easter Bunny the Tooth Fairy assorted mythological personalities created in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Not to say everyone contributing to this handover is a believer in the so-called Confederacy. Far from it, in fact. Most of the folks ready to man the battlements in the defense of imaginary Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and the rest are simply holding on to the sentimentality of growing up in a region that cared more about heroic bedtime stories than it did with primary documents and evidence.

Others will appeal to the "history" - some to that of the South itself as if we are defined by 4 years of rebellion and 150 years of trying to cover up the real reasons for that rebellion, others as if the mere existence of a statue for a certain period of time should mean the thing itself is inviolate. Some defenders of the status quo are actually individuals who despise the so-called Confederacy and Lost Cause, but they dismiss any discussion of monuments and street names as "not focusing on the real problems," as if our larger social complexity is incapable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. As if so many of the larger social problems they'd rather we be talking about don't have their cultural roots in the fairy tale of the Lost Cause.

Meanwhile, the Lost Cause doesn't  care if its defenders actually agree with it or not, semantically. It just keeps plodding along as it has since 1865, waiting for its opponents to argue with each other or change the subject before it quietly slips over to the desk and writes its own history when no one is looking or doing any fact checking. Before you know it, Bobby Lee is building schools for the children of his previously enslaved-Americans, and would have seen them all become productive voting citizens if those pesky carpetbaggers and scalawags hadn't come in and forced the South to turn to Jim Crow laws. Or something. I haven't checked the comments sections in the past hour, so I'm not fully up to date on all the new magical things Lee and Davis and the gang did to selflessly fix the country they tried so hard to break after they tried to break it.

The most successful defenders of the Lost Cause are currently getting everyone caught up talking about statues and place names for George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson. We've even gone off the rails so far in New Orleans that there's a "serious" discussion over the meaning of the fleur de lis and whether the city should abandon the symbol.

How does it help the so-called Confederacy to talk about bad parts of slave-owners? Well, despite their complex and often troubling places in American history, Washington, Jefferson, & Jackson were all Presidents of the UNITED States of America. There is definitely a need to further scrutinize their mythological histories with their historical realities, but not when the topic of conversation is focused on the so-called CONFEDERATE States of America and the cultural legacy of the Lost Cause in the South. Suddenly, you're rhetorically defending men who tried to destroy the United States through rebellion by referencing men who all used their office to put down rebellions or respond to threats against the United States.

Furthermore, consensus history already includes a lot about George, Tom, & Andy's slave owning, Native American fighting, and general hypocrisies. New Orleans already took names of theirs off local public schools. Most of us learn that the story of George Washington & the Cherry Tree is apocryphal - it is one of our first lessons in the difference between what we tell children at bedtime and what is the real story.

The Lost Cause, on the other hand, is a bunch of people holding onto the so-called Confederate States equivalent of that cherry tree story, holding their hands over their ears and yelling LA LA LA when someone wants to tell them their Christmas presents aren't actually delivered down the chimney by a Coca-Cola marketing campaign. The first rule of the Lost Cause is you do not criticize the Lost Cause.

As far as the fleur is concerned, history is full of appropriations and assimilations of symbols one way or another. I'm fairly confident, based on my limited experience in New Orleans, that the fleur de lis symbol long ago ceased to be one associated with French colonial black codes, and became far more inclusive among a very diverse population associated with living and participating in the culture of this city. As with all things, there is good reason to explore the history behind the symbol. But we can accept, in many cases, that history is not static and things can change, over time, in a culture.

Just like the United States flag flew over centuries of enslavement and Jim Crow and terrible things done to many ethnic minorities, as a symbol it has grown through the years to be more inclusive as the reality and aspirations of the nation became more inclusive. There is a reason it was carried at the front of the column as the marchers entered Selma, there is a reason it was waving on the steps of the Supreme Court as same sex marriage was legalized, and there is a reason it was seen on the steps of the South Carolina capitol as the Rebel Flag came down on Friday. If you weren't watching the live feed, you may have missed the audio of the crowd chanting "USA, USA, USA!"

It was easy to feel, in that moment, that things were changing. How gloriously & naively hopeful. While we're watching that flag come down, the Lost Cause has snuck in the back and started deleting paragraphs in the story we're writing right now. Listen close and you can hear which words they're typing in place: First the Rebel Flag, next the US Flag! First the Washington NFL logo, next the Saints' fleur!  First Robert E. Lee's statue, next the Statue of Liberty! What about the black on black crime in Chicago? Which city will "they" burn to the ground next? The second rule of the Lost Cause is you do not criticize the Lost Cause.

Because that's what all this symbolism, the flags and the monuments, come down to. If Lee and Davis and the gang had spent as much real time on reconciliation as their mythology states, they might be worthy of the monuments and street names. They could have thrown themselves and their full clout into the project of Reconstruction, civil rights, and been remembered for building a better South and a better country after all, and it would have been in truth instead of in fantasy. Instead, they became the very symbols standing in the way of progress and reconciliation. The Rebel Flag was flown by rioting whites, the symbol of police dogs and firehoses, bombed churches and burning crosses, terrorism and night riders. Because of this, we've been going over the same old ground for 150 years, and the proof was in the pudding. Jim Crow won. The Lost Cause won. And we do not have the South the bedtime stories promised. We have nothing close, despite generations of work. So strong is the current we're working against.

That still doesn't stop the bedtime story from winning the day. The Lost Cause is upstairs putting the kids to sleep with it, while the other adults are still downstairs at the dinner table, arguing amongst themselves.