The US has reached a tipping point

Larry Beinhart

Larry Beinhart

Changing the names of army bases named after Confederate generals is a revolution in American thought.

It seems like a small thing. Even trivial. It is not. 

The cliche is that history is written by the victors. 

The peculiarity of the US Civil War was that the North won the war, but the South wrote the myths. 

The story of the Civil War on which all Americans were raised was of a heroic South. 

Sure, the Civil War ended slavery and Lincoln freed the slaves, and those were good things to be celebrated. 

Somehow the necessary corollaries – that the South was fighting to keep slavery – that slavery was a terrible thing – and therefore fighting to keep it was a terrible thing – disappeared. 

Confederate soldiers were depicted as idealists. They were patriots of their states and their region, fighting for their way of life. Their generals quadruply so. 

The three most famous were Robert E Lee, JEB Stuart and Stonewall Jackson.

Smithsonian Magazine, quoting a biography by Roy Blount, described Lee as a “paragon of manliness” and “one of the greatest military commanders in history”.

According to History.com (the prose face of the History Channel), Stuart was a “dashing figure known for his flamboyant style of dress and bold tactics” with a magnetic personality and tireless energy”.

For Jackson, Wikipedia says “military historians regard Jackson as one of the most gifted tactical commanders in US history“. Italic and bold added to emphasise the irony of the idolatry.

All three were graduates of West Point. They were all educated, given careers and raised to prominence by the United States. They all served in the US army. Then they left the US to lead a war against it and form a new one in its place that would keep slavery. Yet they were not regarded as later day Benedict Arnolds, traitors to their country. They were regarded as heroes. American heroes.

The idea of white southerners as “rebels” was turned into a positive and it became pervasive in popular culture.

Gone With The Wind described itself as depicting “a land of Cavaliers and Cotton fields … where Gallantry took its last bow”. It showed slaves happy with their lot and devoted to their “owners”. It has been watched with adoration – it is #6 in the American Film Institute’s top 100 movies – and enthusiasm – it is the highest-grossing film of all time (adjusted for inflation) – and emulation for 80 years.

Birth of a Nation celebrated the rise of the KKK as necessary, depicting the members of the violent racist organisation as heroes fighting back against brutish Black rapists. The 147 episodes over six years of The Dukes of Hazard, had good’ol Southern boys – rebels! – outrunning the sheriff in their car, affectionately named after that hero of the Confederacy, General Lee. 

These myths are important because they go to the core of the dysfunctions of American democracy – brought to a new and garish crisis point by Donald Trump. They are the foundation of the contemporary Republican Party – both its politicians and the voters who adamantly want them to be that way.

These myths were born because the fight to maintain slavery needed to wear masks. It came up with many: States Rights vs Federal Big Government; Freedom vs Federal Coercion (though the coercion was to give freedom to slaves and rights to workers); Yeoman Farmers (non-slaveholding, small land-owning family farmers) vs Industrialism; Christianity vs Secularists and other not quite Christians; Rural vs Urban; Faith vs Materialism (science); Tradition vs Modernity and so on. 

The masks were sold fervently. They were formed by the best emotional and logical arguments their stakeholders could come up with. Absolute cynicism – consciously pushing these issues without believing them, so as to maintain slavery without admitting it – was probably fairly rare. More often than not, the people who made the masks and the people who wore them, believed that the masks truly represented the real issues.

They have lasted 200 years. Their words are echoed so consistently and with such insistence by virtually every Republican senator and congressperson, it is as if those ancient false faces have been mounted on their heads with nuts and bolts and super-glue so that they cannot remove them even if they might want to.

Until now. Those that we were taught to be heroes – not just in the South, in West Point, in our high schools – are now recognised as traitors. It is as shocking as it is true. It has suddenly become not only undeniable, but also unevadable, that they fought for slavery. 

We have reached a tipping point. It is partly because Trump has taken the worst of our political nature to the point of absurdity. It is partly because COVID-19 has exploded the myth that we do not need government and shown us that inept governance kills people. It is partly because everyone has cameras and they have exposed the police state. That third is, of course, the one that comes most directly from the legacy of slavery and the racism needed to live with it.

But it is the toppling of the statues, the renaming of the bases, and saying out loud that the “heroes” of the South were actually traitors fighting to keep people enslaved, that shows how deep and profound this change is. 

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