If you know me, you know that I love Alabama. It’s a beautiful state with mountains in the North and the best beaches in the country in the south. We’re the ones who built the rockets to send man into space, and we’ve perfected football. We have the best tea, best clothes, best BBQ ribs, pork, chicken, and brisket. We’ve got steel and forests. We are the best.
Yet, we carry scars in our state of a systematic oppression of a whole class of people simply because of melanin concentrations. (I’m purposely switching the vocabulary, not to virtue-signal, but hopefully to illuminate racism’s ludicrousness.) If you drive south through the South on Interstate 65, you will pass several Confederate tributes. South of Nashville, for example, is a statue dedicated to Nathan Bedford Forrest, a cavalry commander from the Civil War who is perhaps one of the most famous members of the First Klan. Drive some two hours more and you’ll pass through Cullman, an old “sun-down town.” Keep going about two more hours and you’ll pass a massive Confederate flag near Clanton. The list can go on. These symbols stand in as a memory of what once was in the mind of the locals. The mention that you’d like to see these things disappear agitates Southerners.
There is a common trope that tends to get thrown around whenever sympathetic Southerners wave the Confederate battle flag: “Heritage not hate.” The events in Charlottesville should remind us all that there are many who would love to see the Old South rise again. So, there is, I believe, a historical and patriotic imperative for Americans to resist this racist rhetoric and, when necessary remove, Confederate statues from certain public spaces.
First, Americans should resist and remove because “blood and soil” rhetoric is actually an assault on American identity. This sort of blood-and-soil nationalism denies the fundamental tenants of our American confession. The American union is predicated on credonationalism.
What makes someone an American? Have you ever considered this question? It’s quite simple: voluntarily submit yourself to the laws and creeds of the nation. There is no national language. (Really, there is not. English is simply lingua franca.) There is no national religion. There is no national culture. This is one of the truly beautiful features that the American experiment has contributed to the human community. Until the modern period, you had to be born to English parents to be English; you had to be born French to be French. But to be an American, you have always just wanted to be an American. This is how historic enemies (the Irish and English; the French and Germans) could become fellow citizens upon taking the oath of citizenship. This is a bit reductionistic, of course, nuances can’t fit into a few thousand-word blogpost. Yet, the principle holds: American identity has never been primarily attached to cultural markers (such as folk dress, cuisine, or religion), but instead, it’s been connected with and proved through certain confessions: law, liberty, life, and justice. The white supremacists’ insistence on blood and soil rhetoric is deadly to the American ideal because it attaches very un-American sentiments to American identity.
The symbols of the Confederacy have been co-opted by these white supremacists because of the myth of Southern history—that whites fought the greedy, industrial North for freedom and honor (code for status quo); or noble, states’ rights—persists well into the 21st century. I had a high school history teacher in my sophomore year try to convince the class that the Civil War was not fought over slavery. Perhaps that’s accurate, but it is not precise: the War for Southern Independence (as he called it) was to protect the states’ right to own slaves. It is inaccurate to argue otherwise. So, the war was indeed fought over slavery. Stated most clearly, Southern states declared war on the Union. Confederates placed themselves outside of the Republic and, then, went to war with it. They were enemies of our Republic. Defeated and brought back in line, the bruised Southern man conjured a parallel conception of history: one in which Southerners were noble, honorable, and brave in their lost cause.
Historians have long worked to erase the false notions of the Lost Cause, yet, those notions persist in racist rhetoric. In Southern conscience, the Civil War quickly became mythologized—the War, in Southern minds, was honorable, even in defeat because they had fought for their idealized home and hearthstone. Reconstruction caused a vitriol backlash in the South. Under Hayes, you saw the resurgence of Confederate ideals under the guise of “sympathetic” white patronage, which was really highly racist Jim Crow legislation. All of this led to an ugly renaissance of Confederate identity from then on that escalated during the Klan’s revival around the ’20s. Consider this now familiar chart from the SPLC:
(The reader should note that this is one of a handful of times that I have ever agreed with the SPLC. After all, they label my confessional orthodoxy as hate-speech.)
The peaks in construction corresponding with Confederate renaissance suggests not that the statues are historical in nature only, but instead, they were constructed to tell a particular narrative required at the time of construction. The statues represent the mythologized reconstructions of history by a class which had been previously privileged, subjugated, and then re-privileged. The dates of Confederate renaissance are in the earliest parts of the 20th century and, again, in the Civil Rights Era prove this. That cycle is exactly why the radical right’s backlash has co-oped these symbols in addition to Nazi imagery. (There is deep irony in this, however, as Confederate agrarianism is diametrically opposed to fascism. This I believe reinforces my claim that these symbols have been redefined apart from real history.) Similar to white Southerners after Reconstruction and during integration, the neo-fascists are people who in their own estimation previously enjoyed privilege, feel as if they have had it “taken away”, and are reviving symbols which have always stood in for a mythologized history of whites in American history. This is precisely why it is so important to remove these statues of Confederate history. A valiant Robert E. Lee should not be on statue; Grant should be on the statue, extending a benevolent hand to a defeated Lee to honor the fact that Union wanted to reinstate–not annihilate–the South.
Further, it is important for Americans to realize that most, if not all, of Charlottesville’s marchers have no concrete ties to the Confederacy. Confederate gentry held the majority of antebellum whites in great distain, but entrepreneurial, postbellum whites found an opportunity to capitalize on racial categories that were drawn very clearly during Jim Crow: black bad; white good. Most of today’s white supremacist would not be accepted by the upper class of the South they idolize and would find themselves as equally marginalized. This further demonstrates the symbolic nature of these monuments and flags over and against any heritage claims. Instead of being the heirs to what would have been stately plantations on the Mississippi, many of these marchers have been self-radicalized through the Internet and specific forums such as Stormfront and 4chan, the former being a repository for the Internet’s morally egregious content. The Lost Cause has given them political and historical (albeit mythologized history) rhetoric to support their claims that the American Republic is under threat of siege by immigrants, blacks, and religious minorities. Further, it has given them heroes around which they can organize.
I’m not advocating for a Marxist nor Orwellian hunt to revise history. There is a place for this type of historical marker, and it is in a museum or battlefield memorial—not a city courthouse or park. I further resist attempt from progressives to brand American history as a patriarchal, misogynist, white imperialism project. The impulse behind this I understand, but the overcorrection has led to a hunt to eradicate real, historical people. Will it stop with history? What about literature? Will we lose Huck Finn or Uncle Tom simply because of its racist vocabulary? Should we rename our nation’s capital since it bears the name of a slaveholder? I do not believe so. These are not—as of now—being used as tools for a white supremacist’s agenda.
History, indeed, is an unkind thing, and we all must comment as those who will inevitably face comment. Those of us who look back must be careful to recognize that often perfect moral clarity is not available in any given moment. So, the men may have indeed been men who on some occasions acted in honor, but their lauded actions cast in bronze are not honorable. That is the difference. As a dear friend pointed out, these men were mere men and showed evidence of common grace and indwelling sin. There is a way to critically read history to see figures as real people situated in a real context. Incidentally, this is why it is critical to examine precisely why the statues were cast. As that same friend pointed out, they were not being remembered for their leadership in the Spanish-American War. Instead, they are remembered as Confederates. We can simultaneously critically appreciate their leadership in the Spanish-American War and critically condemn involvement in the Confederacy. Otherwise, we scrub history indiscriminately. As he said, there is room for historical condemnation and celebration: let’s just make sure history remembers the distinction between the two.
In conclusion, Americans should resist white supremacist rhetoric and when necessary advocate for the removal of statues. The rhetoric and statues celebrate a history that has been whitewashed and an understanding of American identity that is based on ethnonationalism over and against credonationalism. The stubborn façade of Southern mythologized “heritage” stands in for racism and white supremacy. The chants “Blood and soil”—echoing Nuremberg 1933—wave the false flag of invasion on the Republic.
The truth is, however, that the American Republic is under invasion—but not in Queens, NY or San Antonio, TX. Instead, she is under siege in forums across the internet and parks across the country. This is not an assault from protestors, but an assault on the very meaning of American identity. Exchanging the common creed of our great Republic—law, life, liberty, and justice—for some ethnonational dream will cause a collapse of the center. That creed is the center on which the American Experiment rests; remove it, and the structure cannot hold. The façade of mythologized Southern white “heritage” eats at that center, which is why I tell Mr. President: Tear down this façade and –if you must– tear down a statue or two.
As always, I welcome civil, thoughtful comments.
Special thanks to my good friend Nathan Campbell for his thoughtful reading, contributions, and encouragement.