I’ve been talking the last couple of times about “Lost Cause Ideology” and the fact that so many 21st Century Americans don’t want to admit the Civil War was fought over slavery. Another aspect of that, which we’ve been seeing for about the last 25 years or so, is the assertion that thousands of black men volunteered to take up arms and fight in defense of the Confederacy – a claim which historians reject and which is easily disproven. Why, then, has it become so popular the last couple of decades? I’ll give you a hint. The “Black Confederate” memes spiked on Twitter during the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014.
Here’s the answer: if black people supported the Confederacy, then the Confederacy (and the war) was not about slavery. If it was not about slavery, it was not about race. If it was not about race, we can believe our country doesn’t really have a race problem – and therefore there is no further need for social change. Remember, conservatives, by definition, want to either conserve the status quo or go back to how things used to be – it is progressives who want social change to move forward.
And if we pass laws preventing teachers from teaching students the complex issues surrounding slavery and race, we can pretend like it never happened (or that it was not that bad a thing), simultaneously making ourselves feel good and preventing the possibility of further social change. All this, despite the fact that historians know the words of the very people who formed the Confederacy and their explicit admission that it was all about slavery and race. In other words, conservatives could construct an alternate reality built on what they want to hear. If it all sounds rather Orwellian, it should. Let’s throw in a couple of George Orwell quotes from the novel “1984”: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” And: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
This has set me to thinking about the insurrection at our capitol on Jan. 6. We all watched it live on television; we know what happened. Most Americans were shocked and outraged, and some were embarrassed because the rioters were on their side politically. Some were already trying to spin it, saying (and there is absolutely no evidence of this) that the violent crowd was made up of antifa members in disguise. On that day, beleaguered GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy vigorously denied this claim to Trump himself on the phone: “It’s MAGA. I know, I was there.” Several Republican leaders condemned the president’s role in stirring up the murderous crowd and in the “Big Lie” that he actually won the election.
But now, five months later, it is a different story. All but a handful of those Republican leaders have backtracked on what they said the day of the insurrection (and the ones who have not are being punished). Conservative commentators are blaming nonexistent antifa spies for all the violence, and saying the MAGA crowd that day was, at best, a little “rambunctious.”
What about Republican voters? A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted just one month ago shows that 53 percent of them believe Trump is the “true president.” 66 percent believe the election was stolen by Democrats. 20 percent believe those crazy QAnon conspiracy theories. Those numbers seem to be growing instead of shrinking.
It is the new Lost Cause Ideology. Conservatives are so desperate to keep things going their way (and avoid charges of treason) that they have made up a bizarre fantasy world and moved into it. Sadly, like with the original, if they keep repeating it long enough, they may get most other people to believe it, too. Will Republican state legislators ban teachers from teaching the truth about that, as well?
This is a real threat to democracy.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.