Monday, August 21, 2017

The Lost Cause, Trumped

Joseph Fishkin

I can think of only one positive thing to say about the coming out party for white nationalists that all of us are now witnessing, and it is this: in their own uniquely nasty way, these people do seem to be inadvertently helping many Americans gain a clearer-eyed understanding of what the Civil War was about.

Growing up in Texas—even in liberal Austin, in the 1980s and 90s—I had more than a few conversations with people who argued one or another of the constellation of revisionist positions that hold that the Civil War itself, and the confederate iconography that lingers today, are about something other than a struggle to defend slavery and white supremacy. These arguments were wrong, but they were not necessarily disingenuous. Most people came by them honestly. Sometimes they learned them in school.  Sometimes they picked them up from the many conservative politicians in this part of the country for whom such propositions have been articles of faith. In 2010, when the Texas board of education, which wields notoriously outsized influence over the entire nation’s textbook market, adopted new social studies standards, one board member explained that slavery was a “side issue to the Civil War” (which was actually, of course he said, about “states’ rights”).  The standards the board adopted that year did not mention the Ku Klux Klan or Jim Crow. It is not terribly surprising that many students got through school without gaining any particular understanding of why exactly we have confederate monuments across the South, and in particular, why so many of them were built in the early twentieth century at Jim Crow’s birth and the Klan’s zenith.

And so, quite frankly I never expected that the confederate statues that line the main mall in the center of the university where I teach (UT Austin) would come down. But a few years ago, the ground underneath them began to shift.  It was, in significant part, members of the white nationalist fringe who inadvertently caused the shift. After the church massacre in Charleston in 2015, the president of UT Austin ordered the removal of the statute of Jefferson Davis that occupied an important perch in front of the iconic UT Tower. Many at the time, including a commission he had set up to study the question, had urged him to go further and also order the removal of the other four confederate statutes that framed the mall.  He didn’t.  But this week, in the wake of the white nationalist horror show in Charlottesville, he did.  This morning the statutes were gone.  (I write about these statutes, and an extremely problematic inscription on a fountain that now also seems to be gone, at the end of this essay.)

With every horrific yet implausible chant of “blood and soil” (implausible because it is such an obvious European import, like these marchers’ ancestors—do these people really want to return American soil to the people whose ancestors lived on it?), the white nationalist fringe does one useful thing, which is to make it just a little harder to deny the racist core of what the Confederacy was, and is, about.  And so, today I walked through our mall and its now-empty plinths with a mixture of surprise, relief, and joy. 

After the jump: photos!

Here are two of the now-empty plinths on which statutes of confederate leaders stood until this morning.  The inscriptions have been covered over.

A television reporter came up to me as I took these pictures. She asked my view of what had happened.  When I told her, she was disappointed, and said so. “I can’t find anyone to argue the other side!” she said. I gently suggested that perhaps that was her story. I mean, this is a college campus. If you want arguments for keeping the statues, head a few blocks south to the state capitol.

Meanwhile, as literally the last man standing from this strange parade of century-old reconciliation iconography, George Washington now presides over the UT mall alone.

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