I was born on Fort Bragg, adjacent to Fayetteville, North Carolina. My brother, who was born in New York City, would taunt me that his side won the Civil War, and my side lost. So I had a early resentment to a Unionist viewpoint. Then we moved to Connecticut, where my 5th-grade Social Studies teacher made clear that the Union did not engage in warfare with the Confederacy in order to free the slaves; but rather to maintain a strategic advantage in a global competition with the British Empire–which sided with the C.S.A. despite the ostensible abolitionist position of the Brits advocated by Prince Albert. I know that is a lot of obscure history, but now we have the internet so I feel more at liberty to cite some less-known linkages. Perhaps if Albert had not died in 1861, British frigates would not have tried to run the Union blockades to access slave-picked cotton.
But back to the first-person direct experience: I was appalled to hear from Yankees themselves that the Union did not enter the war to free the slaves, which is the shaming-narrative used as a weapon against Southerners. I think that since it was a suburban Connecticut classroom, the teacher assumed this critique was being shared among Northerners who would not question the rightness of the Civil War due to a ret-conned perspective that it was justified, post-facto, because it did end (official) slavery. Meanwhile it left me with the sense that the state I was born in was blasted flat by the Union and forcibly annexed (back?) into the United States. Kind of a double-standard since Vermont had been allowed to secede from both New York and the Continental Confederacy in 1777 (Yeah, more obscure references; but easily verifiable online). The whole ‘but…we ended slavery!’ might hold up as a post-facto justification for this double-standard, but that end-justifies-any-means is a poor way to interpret history.
I did not examine this history closely, partly because so many of the texts on it are toxic. The resentment of the pro-Confederacy “Lost Cause” side, the fascination with minutiae of warfare historians, and the grim triumphalism of the Union perspective are all off-putting. But then Katy Perry came out with a song (California Gurls, 2010) in which she referred to “Daisy Dukes.” These are denim short-shorts worn by the character Daisy Duke in the 1970s-1980s television show that Perry was referencing: the Dukes of Hazzard. I enjoyed the show as a child, but I thought it had been lost to cultural history. Perhaps it would have been, if Perry had not referenced it. In the show, Southern affinity with the C.S.A. and the “Lost Cause” was treated as camp: the frequently-airborne car was the General [Robert E.] Lee, and the corrupt plutocrat of Hazzard County was Jefferson Davis “Boss” Hogg.
Before criticizing the role of the show in 21st-century politics, one thing to consider: yes, The Dukes of Hazzard did not address problems of racism in the South. But when you try to portray a South without African-Americans, what you get is a portrayal of the extreme class-inequality. The erasure of blacks from the whole setting is a form of media violence, yes. But at the end of the 1970s there was also an uncomfortable awareness of widespread violence against black in Northern and Western cities as well. But in the South, racism had been developed and promoted strategically by white elites to justify their property-claims over humans, and to defuse insurrection by poor whites against the elite planter class. Take away the race issues, and the extreme inequality of the planters against poor whites becomes quickly apparent. As Eric Williams pointed out in 1944, the specific form of chattel slavery developed in the Americas after 1600 was shaped by–and gave shape to–capitalism as we know it. It might have started as an acute labor shortage, but coerced labor made cotton and tobacco crops especially at the expense of whites, who might have demanded humane pay and labor conditions. Ensuring that poor whites despised even-poorer blacks was a divide-and-conquer strategy ensured stable profits. If there had been no African slave trade, perhaps the extreme inequalities among whites themselves would have been more apparent and a place like Hazzard County, Georgia is a reasonable piece of speculative fiction.
However in the 21st century, the Lost Cause of the Confederacy has been revived to justify very contemporary racist violence. In this century, Warner Brothers’ campy portrayal of Hazzard County no longer appears corny. It looks like an apologia for a Southern way of life that dodges the most important issue of race. At exactly that moment (1979-1985), Ronald Reagan and his supporters insisted “let’s not talk about race” as if making racism a taboo topic would somehow solve the issue.
And in this 21st century, Adam Serwer of The Atlantic finally clarified an issue where I had been misdirected decades ago. In his dismantling of the myth that Robert E. Lee was a “kindly gentleman,” Serwer points out that all of the Confederate states mentioned the continuation of slavery, at least indirectly, as a justification for leaving the Union. Serwer also points out that the Union did not initially decide to wage war against the C.S.A. to abolish slavery. So both are true. The fact that the C.S.A. was formed to perpetuate slavery did not mean that the U.S.A. invaded and conquered it in order to abolish slavery. Only about 5% of Northerners truly believed in abolition; but it made great propaganda after Gettysburg.
Unfortunately the ‘conquering liberators’ rhetoric also contributed to a global conversation about justified Liberal wars of conquest. King Leopold of Belgium used the protection-of-Africans-from-enslavement as a justification for colonizing the central plateau of Africa. In a propaganda-move comparable with Leif Erikson’s naming of “Greenland,” Leopold named his new personal royal colony “Congo Free State.” Adam Hochschild estimates that about 10 million Congolese died in the efforts of Leopold to enrich himself by extracting ivory and rubber from his colony. The same rhetoric emerged in the justification for invading Iraq in 2003; Americans would ‘spread democracy’ by knocking out a tyrant and hastily setting up a winner-takes-all style of democracy in a country that was 60% Shi’ite and otherwise divided among Sunni Arabs, Sunni Kurds, Turkmen, Chaldean Christians, and Yazidis (yes, more obscure references; but they are not hidden and not secret. A few keystrokes and you can verify).
I have a few specific points I want to draw from this global perambulation through modern history:
- Don’t shame a people you have conquered and annexed into your country as a way to justify warfare. For 150 years, Southerners have weaponized that resentment and now non-Southern white supremacists are embracing the Stars and Bars as a way to threaten African-Americans.
- Don’t walk away with a “Job Well Done!” attitude, leaving African-Americans vulnerable to predation from 1865 onward, and Iraqis subject to extremists from the moment L.Paul Bremer left his role as Viceroy of Iraq. Rumsfeld called the spread of democracy “messy.” I would like him to look a Yazidi in the eye and say that.
- Don’t assume that slavery was actually abolished. The 13th Amendment has a “weasel clause” in it that has never been addressed: convicts can be treated as slaves. This weasel clause is widely abused here in California, where we need to do massive prison reform. In addition, the anti-immigration movement effectively enables widespread human trafficking. So if you actually believe in abolition, we have a lot of work to do, planet-wide, in this 21st century.
- Track and challenge the way your rhetoric might be reinterpreted through time and across the world. ‘Wars of liberation’ have used the Unionist position to justify all sorts of invasions, occupations, and colonizations.
- Keep back-checking history to clarify efforts at actual liberation. I often paraphrase Yoda’s epimethean brother, Da-yo, who says: “always in motion the past is.” Though it is not just passive motion, but rather the active cultural warfare over how to understand our past in order to forge a better future.