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Confederacy of Dunces: College Presidents, Lost Causes and the Abuse of History

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The College of Charleston is a thriving intellectual community. Its more than 10,000 intellectually curious undergraduates represent an international community of scholars. The faculty is on the cutting edge of research in every field, from marine biology to astrophysics to literary criticism and political science.

So why does this, the scholarly family of which I am a proud member, now have a Confederate re-enactor as its President, a politician that heaps praise on the corpse of a slaveholder's republic? How did this happen over the vociferous protests of faculty, students, the Black Student Union, and the local NAACP? Moreover, why did the same state legislature who installed the Board of Trustees who appointed Glenn McConnell cut $52,000 from the college's budget for making Alison Bechdel's multiple-award winning graphic novel Fun Home non-required reading for entering freshmen?

Actually, the reasons are fairly transparent even if the process, occurring in various metaphorical smoke-filled rooms, remains opaque. The full controversy over McConnell has been explored here and here. Rep. Garry Smith, who led the fight against Fun Home, describes himself in a recent fund-raising letter as "the target of the far left, militant homosexual community," stands for re-election this year in a district that's political structure is utterly enmeshed with the religious right. Smith, incidentally, recently found himself bested in a Twitter debate with one of our students who has learned the skills of critical thinking and reasoned analysis that elude Rep. Smith.

Most of those in the rest of the nation who learn of this controversy probably will roll their eyes and say something along the lines of "Well, it is South Carolina." But the culture war skirmishes at the College of Charleston represent something more than Dixie-fried corruption and anti-intellectualism. They reflect the misuses of history that have long been a powerful political tool in the hands of white, conservative elites.

Almost 150 years ago, the armies of the United States (armies that included close to 200,000 African-American soldiers) not only settled the question of secession by force of arms, they destroyed a premodern ruling class in an industrially backward region of the country. The American South had no real middle class, no real urban working class. All of the region's wealth and political influence, in individual states and in the nation, resided in a powerful slavocracy whose lavish beau monde rested on the backs of 4 million enslaved African Americans.

Defenders of the old regime appeared quickly in the defeated and impoverished region, eager to tell of the glories of the past and spin sentimental elegies of the allegedly happy plantation days before emancipation came.

White elites used the celebration of the Confederacy to legitimize white supremacy, an utterly segregated public life. It also helped them build a new class system in which white tenant farmers and textile workers found themselves lead astray by racist rhetoric and sometimes defeated with economic political and even military pressure, when they pressed for their rights (as they did in one of the largest general strikes in American history, "The Uprising of '34").

The Confederate flag that appeared atop the dome of the State House in 1962 symbolized a political and economic structure, defiance not only against the civil rights movement but against the whole range of social dissent emerging in that decade. A full history of the flag and the controversy surrounded it can be found in the excellent documentary Confederacy Theory.

Eager to attract outside investment, South Carolina political leaders portrayed themselves as moderates in the civil rights era that could be trusted to keep "the race problem" from creating an unfriendly corporate environment. Meanwhile, they offered northern and foreign investors massive corporate welfare subsidies, state laws that restricted the growth of labor unions, low taxes and the opportunity to pay a pliable work force low wages. The Confederate flag flew over a new era that allowed for token integration while allowing for a deeply structural racism and a rigid class system.

As South Carolina assimilated some of the changes brought by the African-American freedom struggle, the flag and related Confederate symbolisms became a point of conflict for a part of electorate that had found its voice. Glenn McConnell's own fight for the Confederate flag seemed in the 1990s to represent the emergence of a new kind of conservatism, virulently revanchist, a grassroots American fascism whose celebration of the South's martial past resembles some of the most frightening shadows of the twentieth century, Blut und Boden with a southern twang.

But he surrendered and lowered his flag a lot more quickly that might have been expected. When the state's business leaders and the Republican elite decided that flying the symbol of slavery atop the state house dome was bad for business, it came down in a compromise that placed a memorial to African-American history on the statehouse grounds but also placed a new Confederate flag at the Confederate soldier's monument on the very same grounds. McConnell, describing his decision to support the compromise, compared himself to General Lee surrendering to General Grant in an April 13, 2000 interview with the New York Times.

But the Lost Cause still serves its purpose and still has powerful links to a sweeping political and cultural conservatism. The College of Charleston must fight back. Cronyism breeds even more corruption. Politicians with no conscience threaten democracy and, indeed, the safety of gay and lesbian people in a state where religious fundamentalism and violence have often gone hand in hand.

Those of us who care about these things must also contemplate the larger questions -- the way in which this is a skirmish in a war over the effort to make history the handmaiden of deep social inequities. Perhaps McConnell and his pals are the death rattle of whatever is left of the Lost Cause. But the symbols they dearly love -- Confederate flags and uniforms of gray -- represent something far more insidious.

In 2011, Lieutenant Governor McConnell took part in an "Old South Ball" attended both by Charleston nabobs and hard-core neo-Confederates. So tied to Lost Cause ideology was this commemorative event that the local NAACP staged a protest. In this context he had a now infamous picture taken with two African-Americans in which he portrays a tableau of the Confederate colonel surrounded by faithful slaves. Not only did he not apologize for this, he accused his critics of an effort to "sanitize history."

Recently, Jim Demint, South Carolina's Tea Party senator, made a bizarre and convoluted argument that essentially denied that the Federal government had much to do with the end of slavery. Instead, he described it as brought about by a sort of spiritual conversion of the American people and the religious scruples of the irreligious Abraham Lincoln. His argument for small government dovetails with the Tea Party's' desire to create a useable past for themselves, including the idea that the Founders are above criticism -- even in their defenses of slavery and the creation of a Constitution that embedded slavery in the American experience.

This is part of a larger strategy among the extreme right to rewrite history. The Texas textbook wars offer another example, as does the wide-ranging influence of David Barton, a "historian" who holds no earned advanced degree in history and whose work on behalf of Tea Party candidates has given his poorly researched works a significant audience.

It's a crucial moment in the history of my academic community. It's also a crucial moment in the history of how the United States understands its own history. At the end of the day, Glenn McConnell is a sort of pre-Raphaelite antiquarian who uses the Confederacy to escape the harsh brutalities of history. Rep. Smith is a moral idiot who needs to stir his base for an election year. But they both represent a much more dire threat, the one embodied in Orwell's famous quote that "He who controls the past controls the future."

The rest of that quote is often left out; "And he who controls the present controls the past." This is why our struggle here at the College of Charleston, and throughout the nation, is about more than warring symbolisms and whether politicians should go about in Confederate drag. It's about whether history will be used to legitimize the racial and class inequities that scar, not only the South, but also the entire nation.

A wonderful piece by Ethan J. Kytle on History News Network suggested that McConnell might consider "heading over to Maybank Hall [our department of History is housed there] to take a history course or two" next fall. As Associate Chair of the Department of History, I hope he does. He will find the door to my office and my classroom always open. He will also discover the thoroughly unsanitized version of the American experience, that he claims to seek. A version that America desperately needs in order to understand our growing social inequalities that someone, somewhere, is working right now to explain away with a version of our history that keeps power in the hands of those who already have too much.