In various parts of the American South, monuments glorifying Southern military leaders are beginning to disappear.
This appears to be a direct result of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the death there of Heather Heyer. The violence, after all, was over the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the leading commander in the Confederate Army, from what is now called Emancipation Park. That was the pretext for hundreds of racists, neo-Nazis, and generic thugs to converge on Charlottesville, intent on the kind of street fighting that had helped Adolf Hitler gain power in Germany.
Events over the weekend — including Donald Trump’s responses, both scripted and honest — have brought out a discouraging fact about our neighbours. Their Civil War, begun in 1861, has never really ended. If war is policy conducted by other means, American domestic policy since 1865 has been war conducted by other means. It has dragged on for 152 wretched years, more stubbornly persistent than any world war.
Yes, the clashes of rival armies ended in 1865 with the surrender of Lee to Ulysses S. Grant. For the next 12 years, when the South was under direct rule from Washington, Reconstruction offered black people an opportunity to rise, and they took it.
Black people represented southern states in the Senate and Congress, when their defeated oppressors were deprived of the vote. Black kids went to school, and a black bourgeoisie of highly educated and entrepreneurial families emerged in Washington, D.C. and northern cities.
But southern whites recovered quickly. Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, spent some time in jail and was then released. No one was tried for treason. The “unreconstructed” ex-rebels began to clamber back into power.
That began when federal troops withdrew from the South in 1877, and whites began to vote again. They strengthened their grip through terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and the black vote was soon effectively suppressed. The white South had lost the war, but it effectively won the peace — by intimidating its black people, making deals with northern Democrats, and smart marketing to the rest of white America.
Part of that marketing involved romanticizing the men who’d met the constitutional definition of treason by waging war against their own country — starting with Robert E. Lee, who had been offered command of the Union armies but turned it down because he couldn’t fight his fellow Virginians. (If he’d been arrested, court-martialled, and shot forthwith, 750,000 Americans might not have died in the Civil War.)
So statues went up in town squares decades after the war, glorifying men who’d killed their black and white fellow-Americans. They formed part of the mythology of noble warriors that replaced the facts of a traumatic war, and justified the renewed suppression of freed Americans.
The romantic Old South
While Jim Crow laws kept blacks out of schools and polling places, Southern appeals to white prejudice exploited the day’s new media to make the Old South a romantic place of high-minded whites and bestial blacks. The Birth of a Nation, which turned movies from an amusement to an art form, glorified the Ku Klux Klan. Gone With the Wind made generations swoon over the lost glory of the slavemasters.
Meanwhile, lynchings were routine and photos of grinning white people around hanged black men were printed on postcards. Northern Democrats continued their Faustian bargain with the South, trading tacit support for racism for votes. It often got them the presidency — Woodrow Wilson, for example, a very well-educated racist, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who needed the Dixiecrats to keep him in power.
Not until Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1965 did the Democrats (the original apologists for Southern slavery) cut their last ties to the South and hand it to the Republicans of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
The Republicans were quick to make their own Faustian bargain with the South. The ascent of a black man to the presidency (for two terms!) was an insult to the South and its diaspora across the country. The Republicans kept moving so far right that they were soon off the spectrum altogether, living in a fantasy world where all would be well if only 1850s-style white supremacy could be restored.
A decades-long guerrilla conflict
Through all these decades, the Civil War continued as a guerrilla conflict: lynchings, race riots in wartime Detroit, school desegregation, bombings of black churches, Selma, assassinations, more race riots, and endless police shootings of black men and boys.
More recently, the war has gradually shifted from civil rights issues to symbolic conflicts, starting with squabbles over the Confederate flag and now moving to the monuments built long after the war to glorify its losers. It’s an ironic contrast with what the U.S. imposed on defeated Germany and Japan: a harsh repudiation of their military mythologies.
And that worked in those countries: just the other day a drunk American made a Nazi salute in a German bar and got slugged for it by the locals. A couple of Chinese tourists were recently fined 500 euros each for doing the same thing in Berlin. Imagine that happening in a Germany with statues of Hitler, Goering, or Rommel in every town square.
If the North had had the political will to impose a more humane culture on the South, the last century and a half would have been very different. Instead its black citizens were thrown back into the hands of their oppressors.
Charlottesville and its aftermath have taught us the wisdom of the southern writer William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” With the advent of Donald Trump, the past threatens to become the future as well.
Trump’s personal lawyer John Down was reported Wednesday to have forwarded an email to conservative journalists and government officials supporting Trump’s response to Charlottesville and claiming “no difference” between George Washington and Robert E. Lee.
As the slavemasters’ statues come down, racism will beat yet another tactical retreat.
But until the Americans find the will to confront the sources of their conflict and to reject their mythologies, the U.S. Civil War will go on. And on.