Wednesday, December 22, 2021

The "Lost Cause" Redux

As we speak, Republicans are engaging in a massive attempt to "cancel culture." They are trying to re-write the history of this country by banning both books and words. For example, this is what is happening in Texas:

Matt Krause, a Republican in the Texas House of Representatives, has gone hunting in public-school libraries for any books that might generate “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of [a student’s] race or sex.” In October, he distributed a watch list of 850 books...What we’re witnessing is plainly a shakedown. And this week, a San Antonio school district pulled 414 books from its libraries in response to the ongoing pressure from Texas lawmakers and a vocal segment of angry parents to limit what children can choose to read.

On a party-line vote, Republicans in Wisconsin voted to ban a long list of words from use in classrooms.

In testimony before an Assembly committee last month, Wichgers said the bill would ban the teaching of concepts including “Social Emotional Learning,” “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion,” culturally responsive teaching, anti-racism, conscious and unconscious bias, culturally responsive practices, diversity training, equity, microaggressions, multiculturalism, patriarchy, restorative justice, social justice, systemic racism, white privilege, white supremacy and “woke,” among others.

That's just a sampling of what is happening all over the country where Republicans are in control of state governments. 

In case you're wondering where this is all headed, Helen Andrews gave us some indication with a piece published in The American Conservative titled, "Reconstruction Revisionism." 

The wholesale reinterpretation of history around a left-wing narrative about race, which the 1619 Project is trying to accomplish for the rest of the American story, was first trialed on the history of Reconstruction. For most of the 20th century, Reconstruction was seen as a squalid and shameful coda to the Civil War when Northern Radicals and carpetbaggers enacted their wildest fantasies of humiliation and spoliation on a prostrate South. Starting in the 1960s, a group of revisionist historians began arguing that Reconstruction had actually been a noble experiment in interracial democracy, too quickly abandoned.

The point of Andrews' piece is that we should return to the view of Reconstruction that prevailed for most of the 20th century when the era was "seen as a squalid and shameful coda to the Civil War." She particularly goes after W.E.B. Du Bois for revising that view with his publication of "Black Reconstruction" in 1935. 

There is no point beating around the bush: The version of Reconstruction history that Du Bois presents is based on motivated reasoning and tendentious distortions of the evidence.

Shortly before his death, Rev. Martin Luther King spoke at an event honoring Du Bois. Here's how he described the book:

To understand why his study of the Reconstruction was a monumental achievement it is necessary to see it in context. White historians had for a century crudely distorted the Negro’s role in the Reconstruction years. It was a conscious and deliberate manipulation of history and the stakes were high. The Reconstruction was a period in which black men had a small measure of freedom of action. If, as white historians tell it, Negroes wallowed in corruption, opportunism, displayed spectacular stupidity, were wanton, evil, and ignorant, their case was made. They would have proved that freedom was dangerous in the hands of inferior beings. One generation after another of Americans were assiduously taught these falsehoods and the collective mind of America became poisoned with racism and stunted with myths.

Dr Du Bois confronted this powerful structure of historical distortion and dismantled it. He virtually, before anyone else and more than anyone else, demolished the lies about Negroes in their most important and creative period of history. The truths he revealed are not yet the property of all Americans but they have been recorded and arm us for our contemporary battles.

Andrews is clearly advocating for a return to the propaganda that was spread by Confederates to end Reconstruction. Here is how Black legislators that were elected during Reconstruction were portrayed in the film, "The Birth of a Nation" in order to make the point that "freedom was dangerous in the hands of inferior beings:"


It is a bit hard to believe that we are revisiting battles that most of us thought were won decades ago. But as Charles Blow wrote, "The Lost Cause Is Back."

This is not a debate about facts, this is a debate about narratives. This is a “Lost Cause” redux. When the South lost the Civil War, revisionists there invented the propaganda narrative of the “Lost Cause,” positing that the fight had been honorable and righteous and not about maintaining slavery but maintaining a superior way of life. In this narrative, slavery had been good and the enslaved treated relatively well, with many of the enslaved happy workers.

As Ty Seidule, a professor emeritus of history at West Point and the Chamberlain fellow and a professor of history at Hamilton College, wrote in “Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause,” “The Lost Cause created a flawed memory of the Civil War, a lie that formed the ideological foundation for white supremacy and Jim Crow laws, which used violent terror and de jure segregation to enforce racial control.”

The whole Lost Cause movement was a way for Confederates to deal with the fact that they lost the Civil War. But it was also part of a huge backlash to the gains made by African Americans in the South during Reconstruction. In noting that the Lost Cause built Jim Crow, Henry Louis Gates documented what made Southern Democrats so nervous.

In our post-Great Migration America, it’s easy to forget that 90 percent of all African-American people lived in the South as late as 1910, and their presence represented a formidable threat to the former Confederates. This was especially so in South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana, which had majority-black populations, as well as in nearby Florida, Alabama and Georgia...Overall, more than 2,000 black officeholders would be elected during Reconstruction throughout the South, including, by 1901, a total of 20 black congressmen and two United States senators, both from Mississippi.

Via terror campaigns and threats, that era came to a halt after 1901.

The year 1901 denoted a mournful milestone in black history. By that year, Southern efforts to disenfranchise black men had been brutally effective, and no African-American would represent a Southern state in Congress again for more than 70 years.

Blow's point is that "we are in the midst of another Lost Cause moment." As our history suggests, it comes as a backlash to African American empowerment. The two most important moments that highlight the current threat to white supremacy are the election of this country's first African American President and the events that followed the murder of George Floyd. No one captured the impact of the former better than Johnathan Chait in his review of the film "12 Years a Slave" (emphasis mine)

Notably, the most horrific torture depicted in 12 Years a Slave is set in motion when the protagonist, Solomon Northup, offers up to his master engineering knowledge he acquired as a free man, thereby showing up his enraged white overseer. It was precisely Northup’s calm, dignified competence in the scene that so enraged his oppressor. The social system embedded within slavery as depicted in the film is one that survived long past the Emancipation Proclamation – the one that resulted in the murder of Emmett Till a century after Northup published his autobiography. It’s a system in which the most unforgivable crime was for an African-American to presume himself an equal to — or, heaven forbid, better than — a white person.

We all watched as Obama's "calm, dignified competence" sent white supremacists into fits of rage. 

The murder of George Floyd came on the heels of outrage over police killing unarmed Black men and boys without even a modicum of accountability. Captured on video tape for the whole world to witness, it sparked protests all over the country - and spread across the globe. Right wing revisionist history paints all of those protests as violent. They want us to forget that 93% of them were this one in Washington, D.C.

The protests were so powerful that even a cynic like Ta-Nehisi Coates talked about being hopeful. Perhaps that should have been a clue that a backlash was coming. By early September, Chris Rufo made an appearance on Tucker Carlson's show to light everyone's hair on fire about Critical Race Theory - something most of us had never heard of before. The former president joined the bandwagon with an executive order banning CRT from use by federal contractors and soon we were off to the races with a re-writing of American history that is basically a resurgence of the Lost Cause.

As we witnessed with the end of Reconstruction, there is power in the ability to write the story of history. In the summer of 2020, a lot of Americans seemed willing to, as Blow writes, "adjust the narrative about the country. But to many, that was the greatest of threats."

We are now engaged in a battle over who gets to write the history of both our past and present. The stakes couldn't be higher.

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