A good friend of mine, Audie, is back home in Trump Country for the holidays. In this case, Trump Country is in southern Kentucky, about an hour from Nashville. He reports that all his buddies back home think that the Flynn Affair is all just Fake News. Audie used to be a tea partyer. In fact, that’s how I met him. We began with an argument on Twitter, but, instead of the usual name-calling and talking past each other, we had a real discussion within the limits of the old 140 character maximum. From that, when I moved to the US the following year, 2012, I got the idea to do a research project examining the far right of the US political spectrum and its view of US history, most notably the Revolution and Civil War. I was living just outside of Boston at the time and I was struck by how different the tea party’s view of the Revolution was from mine, as a professor of American history.
In the process of the research, which I did via social media (primarily Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit), I got to meet some truly fascinating people. This includes birthers, un-Reconstructed Southerners, conspiracy theorists, libertarians who felt all tax was theft. I met a doctor-cum-businessman in Texas who claimed to understand both the Scriptures in Aramaic and Hebrew, as well as the Qu’ran in the original Arabic. He used this deep understanding to argue that all Muslims meant to kill all infidels. He had never knowingly met a Muslim, mind you. He was a buffoon, but he was the exception. Most of these people were just your average people, men and women. They were angry, to be sure. But so, too, were a lot of my liberal friends. The people I met virtually despised Obama. They thought his policies were un-American and despotic. One couple, in St. Louis, truly believed that Obama was going to come for their guns. I think they believed this literally. They weren’t exceptional. I was told over and over that Obama and the Democrats were going to seize all their guns. One guy, deep in Georgia, told me he dared Obama to come, he’d be met by a barrage of ammo. He said he owned over 300 firearms, of all calibers, plus a variety of ordnance and other tools of war. But most of the people I met weren’t cartoon characters, they weren’t bad people. They had some bizarre beliefs, but they were generally good-hearted. They knew I didn’t share their beliefs, they knew I was an immigrant (two things they professed to hate), but they were polite and friendly.
In the end, I had to abandon the project as I got closer to being able to publish something. The far right of US politics became too close to the mainstream. And while some people reminded me that was the time to publish, I didn’t think another academic article in an obscure historical journal was actually going to do anything. No one would read it beyond my friends, or some of them at least. So I shelved it. And then I moved to the South for two years. First, Alabama, and then, Tennessee.
Living in the South was an experience. Northerners, especially in New England, tend to think in terms of stereotypes in terms of the South (as Southerners think of Northerners, especially New Englanders). This is wrong. The South is a dynamic, fascinating place. In many ways, the South looks like the North, just with a twang. Even politically, I found many parts of the South to be remarkably liberal, most notably the cities (Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga, Atlanta). Pockets of the South were opposed to the Civil War, some even voted to separate from the Confederacy. And this memory of the war carries on today, creating liberal pockets. In January, I was one of around 17,000 others at the Women’s March in Nashville. Large rallies were also held in Atlanta, Charlotte, New Orleans, Birmingham, Louisville, Asheville (NC), Memphis, Dallas, and Houston. Many Northerners would be surprised to learn that Birmingham, Nashville, St. Petersburg (FL), Atlanta, and New Orleans are sanctuary cities. This speaks nothing to the counties in the South that have declared themselves sanctuaries.
But the South, particularly Alabama, has its reputation for a reason. People vote for the likes of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, he of the affiliation with white supremacy. And they vote for the likes of Roy Moore who, until a few weeks ago, was simply known for thinking the 10 Commandments trumped the US Constitution. Now, of course, it’s much worse, as he’s accused of trolling teenagers and underage girls, including a sexual assault on a 14-year old. And yet, he’s running neck-and-neck with the Democrat, Doug Jones, in the polls.
One night, while teaching in Alabama, I walked into class, where my students were already engaged in a robust discussion about Hillary Clinton, who was the then-presumptive Democratic nominee for president. A few of the more outspoken students were upset about the email revelations, leading one, an Afghan War veteran, to loudly declare, “If I had done what she did, I’d be in jail.” This led to a wider discussion about the government and President Obama. One of my students muttered that he was an immigrant. Putting aside my own status, I asked her what she meant. She said, a little louder, that he was born in Kenya and wasn’t even a US citizen. I asked her how she knew that, and she would go no further and just said, with a smug smile on her face, “He just is.” To be fair, most of the rest of the class had rolled their eyes at the email comment and with the Birtherism, they just looked shocked. One student muttered something about this woman’s intelligence under his breath. But the thing is, she was an excellent student. She wasn’t dumb, as most would want to believe. She was an A student. And she worked hard.
In rural Tennessee, I knew a guy who is a Civil War re-enactor. He plays a Confederate surgeon. He’s generally conservative, but not in all things. He’s married to a Mexican. And he is generally in favour of immigration. I’ve never heard of him making a racist comment, not even in the off-hand manner I heard so often in the South (before Northerners get too smug, Boston remains the most racist place I’ve ever been in my life). But, he had some interesting views. One of these was that Abraham Lincoln was a traitor to the US and that the Confederacy did not start the war by attacking Fort Sumter. His logic here was difficult to follow, but he seemed to be claiming that because the Union Army was in Fort Sumter in the first place, the Union started the war. He called the Civil War an unholy war led by Lincoln against the South. He claimed he had ‘facts’ to prove this and that what I, or anyone else knew as a US historian, just made us ‘zombies.’
In his beliefs about the Civil War, this guy is an extremist. I talked to a fair number of Confederate Civil War re-enactors at county fairs around south-central Tennessee in the summer and fall of 2016. I asked them why they did it, what attracted them to the Confederacy and the war. I tried to get them to talk about the war itself. Their answers were generally pretty mundane, but they were also largely in keeping with what I learned and saw during my research of the far right back in 2012-14.
To paraphrase, their arguments went like this: They were honouring their ancestors, who fought to defend their lands and their family and their homes from an invasion by the Union. Their ancestors were not slave owners. I thought of one of my former grad students in Alabama, who wrote her MA thesis on the Confederate Army and morale from the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862 and the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864. Her primary source was a series of soldiers’ diaries she had found in the archives. What struck me about these diaries was the disaffected voices of the soldiers. These were young men, 18 years old or so, and they knew the fix was in. They did not own slaves, they had never even seen black people for the most part. And they were well aware they were being used as canon fodder for the slave owners, who made up all of around 33% of the white population of the South. These are the ancestors of the Civil War re-enactors I talked to in south-central Tennessee.
Talking about race with them was a non-starter. It wasn’t that this was because they were racists. In fact, some of them were quite progressive, we got to talking about Black Lives Matter and one group of these re-enactors were discussing the need for such a movement, shaking their head at the rise of racism in these days. Of course, this isn’t all of them. And I’d be shocked if any of these guys voted for Clinton last year. But, race and the civil war was a non-starter for them. These men simply could not admit the war was about slavery.
Rather, they talked about honour and defending one’s home. And the honour of the Lost Cause. They flew the Confederate Battle Flag on their trucks. They had bumper stickers. They wore ball caps and wore t-shirts. During a discussion with these re-enactors at one fair, one of their wives swung by and said that she heard all that she heard in the media about racism and the flag, but she didn’t understand that. She was wearing a tank top with the stars and bars on it. She said that she had no hatred in her heart for anyone. Nor did anyone she knew. In fact, she was a disciple of Jesus and she loved everyone. And I believed her. And I believed these men who were trying to honour their ancestors.
I have been mulling over all of this for a long time now, from when I started the now-defunct research project. All of these people believe in something there is no historical or factual basis for. But they have constructed their entire worldviews around these untruths or alternative facts. They truly believe that what Hillary Clinton did with her emails was illegal (nevermind that the Trump family has done the exact same thing), that Obama is an undocumented immigrant, and that the Civil War had nothing to do with race, amongst other things.
We construct our worldviews and our entire beings and identities around them. This is true whether we are religious or not. This is how we make sense of and accommodate ourselves to our worlds. Our worldviews give meaning to how we see everything.
So back to these Civil War re-enactors in Tennessee who cannot process slavery and the Civil War. Why can’t they? Because their entire world view, their identity, is bound up with a version of history that honors their ancestors who fought in the war. And honor matters to them, maybe because this part of Tennessee is deeply impoverished. Class is certainly a component of Civil War fetishism. The wealthy may believe the same things, but they certainly did not display their Confederate Battle Flags and the like. But for these re-enactors, the war and the honor of their ancestors was central to their identity. Whatever the Civil War was over had nothing to do with them. Just like my students’ soldiers in their diaries. Or any soldiers’ diaries I had ever read from the French Revolutionary War to the American Revolution to the War of 1812 to the Civil War to the First World War and so on.
In this re-construction of their reasons for fighting, including if they were conscripts (like nearly all of my student’s soldiers in the Civil War, or, for that matter, my Tennessee neighbors’ ancestors), the actual reasons for the Civil War were alien to the men doing the fighting for the Confederacy. A lot of these men groused about slaves having it better than them, knee deep in mud and blood, scared shitless (amazing how many of them talked about this), with wounds oozing pus as they shot at and were shot at by Union soldiers.
To admit the war was about slavery, that their ancestors were hoodwinked into fighting for something that had nothing to do with them would be to severely challenge these Confederate War re-enactors’ world. Honor also means nothing to a conscripted soldier. I was told this very quickly, and kind of menacingly, by one guy I pushed a bit about the Civil War. In his view, and his friends all nodded in agreement, a conscript was little better than a slave. I did not comment on the irony, judging it unwise when outnumber 8-1.
But this is the point, for these men to process race and slavery and the Civil War would be to destroy their world view, and everything they hold dear. And this brought me back to my students and my abandoned research project. And Audie’s buddies.
Why do they believe Clinton committed treason? That Obama is undocumented? That the Flynn Affair is fake news? Or, as I was once told, that African Americans were happier before the Civil Rights Era?
Simple. Their world views are constructed in such a way that all of this has to be true. Their world view is manufactured for them by FoxNews or InfoWars. They fell for the Russian Facebook sites during the election. All this misinformation is refracted through their social worlds, on-line, in church on Sunday and Wednesday nights. It’s a classic example of confirmation bias, all ‘facts’ and stories are twisted to fit to believe what people already believe, to confirm their beliefs.
And before liberals get that smug look on their face, our world is just as contrived, by our own media and news outlets, by our own social media echo chambers. But, yes, there is a difference. Ours is based on verifiable fact in many (certainly not all) circumstances. Theirs is not.
And, of course, the lies, the made up news, the completely baseless allegations, accusations, and declarations, all of these damage the American Republic. They break down the trust Americans have in their leaders and their media. They break down the relationship and social fabric that holds a nation together. This is, of course, a grave danger. And the more embedded this becomes in the national narrative, the more damaging it will be.
But the correct response is not anger, to blast these conservatives and Southerners for their world views. It is also wrong to conclude they’re stupid. They’re not. True, much of their beliefs and world views are based on lies and conspiracy theories. But liberals fall for these kinds of things all the time too.
In short, what I am arguing for is compassion. We need more compassion in American public life. We don’t need more name-calling and dehumanizing commentary. Responding to a conservative world view with an equal amount of hatred and smug commentary just reinforces all that is wrong, both for the conservative, but for the wider country. Go back to what I wrote four paragraphs above: all the fake news is damaging to the fabric of the American nation. And responding with smug anger only perpetuates that.
Instead, I would ask all liberals, progressives, whatever the fuck you want to call yourself to consider your own worldviews and consider how sacred you hold them. And then think about what would happen if someone challenged those very basics and they were in danger of collapsing. And then maybe think about a way forward.