I want to preface this week’s piece by mentioning the passing of Donald Holman, who was one of my “opposite numbers” on this opinion page. I did not know him personally, but I know many of his kinfolks, and we had many friends in common, and I know he was a valued and loved part of our community. God bless his family.
I spent the last three weeks talking about Nikki Haley’s slavery comment (or lack thereof) and why we know what the Civil War was actually about. I realize this is on top of a lengthy series I did earlier in the year about the history of slavery, so some of you may be tired of hearing me talk on the subject - I understand. As a historian, I am tired of HAVING to talk on the subject because so many people need reminders about this basic component of American history and the legacy of it. So, this week I am going to wrap that topic up (for now) by explaining why it’s important and what it means today.
It is not a bizarre coincidence that Lost Cause Ideology has taken such a strong hold among many contemporary Republicans (notice I do not say “all Republicans” - and rarely if ever do so). It is less about the history of the past than the politics of the present, as is often the case about so many things. Some Republican governors, in support of the Texas governor’s disagreement with the federal government over whether it’s OK to allow undocumented immigrants to drown or to flat-out kill them, are actually calling back to the Civil War and using former Confederate terms like nullification and even secession. Terms, by the way, which have long been generally considered proven invalid by the Civil War. For them, stating that the Civil War was about states’ rights and government overreach fits in with their modern policy goals. If one could highlight those ideas - without adding or acknowledging the context of slavery - one could also circumvent the conclusion that the war was connected to race or racism, either, and many modern conservatives are heavily invested in denying the existence of institutional or even implicit, unconscious, racism.
This is why it is people under 30 who are most likely to be historically ignorant of the role slavery and racism have played in our nation’s story. It has gotten minimized, misidentified, or outright ignored in public schools the last several years (after a period, from the 1970s to the early 2000s, when it was finally being addressed in classrooms). There is a similarly shocking lack of accurate understanding among young people about the Holocaust. This is often, as is the case in Tennessee, enforced by law in majority conservative states. The ball was really started rolling in this effort by former president Trump in the closing months of his presidency, when he started harping on “critical race theory” and how allegedly un-American it is. All the conservative legislative efforts that have come in the wake of that have been attempts to ride Trump’s coattails with his base and to return U.S. education to the triumphalist narrative that was the norm in schools before the Civil Rights Movement. Same with the book banning. It is ridiculously transparent, no matter how much plausible deniability they try to bake into the wording of the laws.
If the story we tell about ourselves is that nothing bad or negative has ever been true about our country, the implication is there is nothing that needs to be overcome or fixed now (which flies in the face of the Constitution, which was set up to be amended over time). We are then producing a citizenry that is incapable of actually understanding what is going on around them, and why, let alone have the capacity for empathy toward those Americans who are not just exactly like them.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech and serves on the executive committee of the Tennessee Democratic Party. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.
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