Should Pop Culture Determine Our Understanding of History? Example: The Confederacy

I’ve long been a Starr Parker fan.  I even donated very modestly to her Center for Urban Renewal and Education (CURE) once upon a time.  She has a poignant story: in her early youth, a black single mother with a horrendous drug problem… and then later but still at a wonderfully young age (by this old man’s standards), an outspoken advocate of self-help and principled rejection of paternalistic government handouts.  I have also, only very lately, become a Marina Medvin booster.  An immigrant from the former Soviet Union, Marina remembers—though she was a mere child at the time—long lines to buy a loaf of bread and shelves where no bread appeared regardless of waiting lines.  She is a defense attorney in the DC area now who publishes blog posts daily on behalf of constitutional, limited government.

These two highly astute and estimable women have something in common that I much regret: a loathing of the Confederate flag and all things Confederate.  I’m gathering up my notes to write a piece on the first half of a stunning century-old publication titled The Confederate Cause and Conduct in the War Between the States; but it has occurred to me that I should preface that labor with a few words about why I’m undertaking it.  These two women are the reason, and others like them: people of intelligence, character, energy, education… and inadequate information.  How can a product of Los Angeles public schools and a Russian immigrant begin to understand the depth of propagandistic whitewash in which Mr. Lincoln and his architects of invasion have been immersed when I myself—a Southerner and professional man of letters—am coming to these truths only after my sixth decade on earth?  You may feel that the dust has settled on all the relevant issues far too long ago for a clean-up to do anything but irritate the eyes, with North Korea and cyber-terrorism and other worries looming much larger.  I entertained that feeling myself, to start with.

I could write here, “But the truth is always worth knowing,” and not be distorting my Kantian worldview very much… but I also sympathize with Conrad’s Marlow when he abstains from telling Kurtz’s fiancée that the great philanthropist ended life a thorough hypocrite and a homicidal megalomaniac.  Granting that certain truths can never be known in this life, I am also unsure that the knowable ones are really worth getting straight in every case.  Perhaps Starr Parker would say, “Even if 95 percent of Confederate soldiers owned no slaves, their cause has become identified with racist objectives in the minds of their descendants and should be deplored for its currently accepted interpretation.”  Marina Medvin might add, “Yes, and here in Virginia I have seen twisted men actually waving around the Stars and Bars to promote racial hatred and segregation.”

If a symbol loses its original meaning in the hands of a dull posterity, should we not consider it in the light (the dim light) of its present value?  If I told you that the swastika were in fact an ancient Hindu meditative posture and that its Sanskrit meaning pertained to mastering self-knowledge, should we therefore surround ourselves with swastikas to enhance a mood of peace and composure?  I wouldn’t recommend it!

On the other hand, letting the degraded meaning go forth unchallenged would be disturbingly similar to letting all those “fascist” and “Nazi” tags lavished upon any critic of the Far Left settle in.  I’ve heard commentators—self-styled conservative commentators—label Germany’s Alternativ fur Deutschland (AfD) party a Nazi organization, simply because they accept what they read in European news sources.  If AfD and Golden Dawn are just warmed-over Nazism, then are the Republican Party and ICE and the Christian church the same thing?  If we demand that devoted public servants and worshipers of the Cross be cleansed of this slander, then is the Southern Confederacy to be left on the list of infamy only because its adherents and would-be apologists have long been dead?

As a matter of fact, it seems to me that one of the best ways to oppose ignorant men who wrap their crusade against dark skin in the Confederate flag would be to cry, “That wasn’t the position of Jefferson and General Lee, blockheads!  Virginia didn’t even join the secession until Lincoln attempted to levy troops there for his invasion of the Carolinas.  If you investigate that president’s plans for resettling freedmen in Panama, you’ll find someone much closer to your bigotry!”

When, instead, we allow unexamined popular stereotypes to stand, we create a banner under which fools may collect.  Look at the number of Che tee-shirts being sported on college campuses.  If we were to teach the truth—that Guevara was a sadistic mass-murderer and a genuinely racist coward—wouldn’t we induce a more careful level of thought about communism generally?  Do not many reprehensible mass movements, indeed, begin when crude notions are allowed to cluster around simplistic fabrications?  Logo’s are great for uniting supporters of sports teams.  Shouldn’t a healthy democratic republic, though, resist their pollution of political life with all its available resources?
There are two kinds of history, I have found: history that removes the filters of culture and environment so that we may view our ancestors as people like ourselves living in different conditions… and history that reduces our ancestors to temporal/cultural furniture, so that their only purpose is to describe one step of the staircase leading to our highly evolved present.  The latter sort is what’s now taught in our universities: wrap, label, and file away.  It eliminates the complexities of human nature, and it feeds our insatiable contemporary appetite for evidence that we are the best that’s ever been—the highest Darwinian rung.

I wish thoughtful people like Parker and Medvin could see their way to protesting, “You dumbkins can wave that rebel flag around all you like—but those who designed it resented being called rebels, and you don’t know squat about their motives.”  How can we cry foul at our children’s ignorance of National Socialism when we ourselves are content to traffic in caricatures of the Confederacy?  Could it be that we, too, need someone than whom we will always be better—that the Confederate bad boy would have to be created if he didn’t exist?

And doesn’t our surrender to such slovenliness—intellectual but especially moral slovenliness—corrupt our spiritual vision in some small way?  Aren’t we just that much more like those we deplore who read history and literature only for evidence of the proletariat’s struggle or of the male’s villainy to females?  Are we not willingly cutting ourselves off from the humanity of those who preceded us—are we not, in effect, banning them from our restaurants and tweeting death threats against their children and shouting obscenities at their residences, these speechless ghosts who cannot shout back?  Is that the conduct of a superior character?

Marlow didn’t clue in Kurtz’s fiancée because she had already concocted a man who never existed—and to remember this two-dimensional artifice in death would, after all, be the logical consequence of loving it in life.  She had chosen and embraced her illusions of preference.  Like Marlow, I wouldn’t bother wasting words on zealots who publicly assault those of a different persuasion.  They inhabit a black hole, and anything that passes close to it can only be torn beyond recognition and sucked in.  I refuse to believe, however, that people like Starr Parker and Marina Medvin are of this ilk.  That’s why I would like to say a few words on behalf of hundreds of thousands of ghosts who lost limb and youth and life a century and a half ago… and not to preserve the odious institution of slavery.

Author: nilnoviblog

I hold a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature (Latin/Greek) but have not navigated academe very successfully for the past thirty years. This is owed partly to my non-PC place of origin (Texas), but probably more to my conviction--along with the ancients--that human nature is immutable, and my further conviction--along with Stoics and true Christians-- that we have a natural calling to surmount our nature. Or maybe I just don't play office politics well. I'm much looking forward to impending retirement, when I can tend to my orchards and perhaps market the secrets of Dead Ball hitting that I've excavated. No, there's nothing new (nil novi) under the sun... but what a huge amount has been forgotten, in baseball and elsewhere!

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