BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And Bob Garfield. What did we see in Wednesday's rampage? We saw grievous indignation. We saw seething, vengeful people who believe that something was stolen from them. And again and again, we saw the Confederate battle flag.
NEWS REPORT The stain of the Confederate flag inside the Capitol building. That image projected across the world. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT In the Capitol building, never got there back in the eighteen hundreds. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT The hangman's noose on the western front of the Capitol, a hangman's noose. [END CLIP}
AMY GOODMAN President Donald Trump has embarked on a lost cause, akin to that embraced by Southerners after the Confederacy was crushed. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD That was Democracy Now's Amy Goodman on her podcast, drawing a parallel that has also been seized upon by The New York Times, Washington Post, Rolling Stone and others. That we have been here before. In the narrative of the former Confederacy that successfully reframed a war for slavery into a noble defense of sovereignty and the southern way of life. Caroline Janney is a historian of the Civil War at the University of Virginia. She's tracked the evolution of lost cause -- a mythology, a process, she says, that began with the beatification of dead rebels.
CAROLINE JANNEY Cemeteries were the place that we first see the utterances of what came to be known as the lost cause. And in some ways, this makes perfect sense. Of course, these people were grieving for their husbands and fathers and sons, and yet they used those opportunities to have speeches that condemned reconstruction, that condemned emancipation, that talked about the horrible things that were going to follow in the wake of emancipation and union victory, and they began casting these things into stone.
BOB GARFIELD By what process did the funereal hagiography morph into the full blown lost cause mythology that persists to this day?
CAROLINE JANNEY By the time we get to the 1880s, 1890s, these monuments are going up. We also have the memoirs, the the diaries that are being published by former Confederates, explaining and justifying the slaveholding south, harkening back to, in their minds, a golden era of race relations under slavery. They spout the myth that African-Americans were content and happy in slavery. We also see this in children's textbooks. The United Daughters of the Confederacy in particular, wage a war in the classrooms to make sure that children are learning that the war was not about slavery, that it was about states rights. All of those things about the so-called faithful slave, the heroes such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. That happens in classrooms as much as it happens in monumentation. And so several generations of young schoolchildren come of age hearing these stories. It's no wonder that we end up with the likes of people like Strom Thurmond. They're raised on the stories of the lost cause.
BOB GARFIELD And thence into conventional wisdom and even popular culture like Hollywood?
CAROLINE JANNEY Absolutely. So we see this certainly in Birth of a Nation which premiered in 1915, the movie itself was a cinematic masterpiece in terms of the technology, but the story that it told was one of white northerners and white southerners coming together to defeat the so-called black beast rapist and all those horrible things that had been unleashed by reconstruction and by union policies of emancipation and giving African-American men the right to vote. So we see that take to the silver screen. But equally as powerful, in 1939, we have gone with the Wind, which is absolutely an embodiment of the lost cause.
SCARLETT As God is my witness, they're not going to lick me. I'm going to live through this. And when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again. [END CLIP]
CAROLINE JANNEY All of those images that we have of fair Southern Belles and the faithful slave Mammy encapsulates that image of loyal, faithful African-Americans who knew their place, who didn't challenge the strictures of segregation.
MAMMY Oh, now Scarlett, you come on and be good and eat just a little.
SCARLETT No! [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD They weren't chattel, they were members of the family.
CAROLINE JANNEY Absolutely, and what's really important to remember is that this is something that is imbibed by the entire nation. And so we start seeing white northerners who, a generation before had very much rejected the lost cause. By the time we get to Margaret Mitchell's version of the Confederacy, we see white Americans as a whole, drinking this in and the lost cause becomes national. In response, in many ways to the civil rights movement, we start to see that Confederate banner being used in more popular ways. We see it waved at football games at a University of Mississippi and Alabama. We see the University of Mississippi having Colonel Reb as its mascot. People will cast it off as just a symbol, but it's an incredibly powerful symbol that is pulled out for these specific social, cultural and political reasons of resisting desegregation, of resisting enfranchisement.
BOB GARFIELD And beneath that banner, Jim Crow, the KKK, voter suppression and lynchings.
CAROLINE JANNEY Right, the Klan in particular by the time we get to the 1950s and 1960s, they are using the Confederate battle flag as their emblem.
BOB GARFIELD What are the parallels between the Stop the Steal narrative and the myth of the Confederacy?
CAROLINE JANNEY The cause of voter fraud that it was an illegitimate victory is not unlike what we see former confederates saying when they talk about that they could have never won against insurmountable union forces. We start to see that same language from Trump and his followers.
TRUMP There's never been a time like this where such a thing happened, where they could take it away from all of us. From me, from you, from our country.
CAROLINE JANNEY There was no way we could have won because the odds were stacked against us.
BOB GARFIELD But it's also the sense of victimization and martyrdom. In this case, if we are to believe Trump and his MAGA followers at the hands of mythical radical socialists: the deep state, antifa, anti-Christians and so on. It all rings so familiar.
CAROLINE JANNEY It does. This is much of the same language, or at least the same ways in which former confederates were talking about abolitionists, that they were the ones who were this far radical group that had instigated and they were overturning all of the deeply held values of American society. And so it's the people on the far left that are seen as the real threat to American democracy, who are then demonized by those who have been defeated.
BOB GARFIELD OK, now on this show, journalist and fellow scholar Corey Robin has warned of 'historovox', a tendency to launder journalistic hot takes through history, resulting too often in reductive comparisons and ultimately the misunderstanding of the present. Now, we've been speaking of parallels between the lost cause and Trumpian in mythology, but you, too, have some words of caution.
CAROLINE JANNEY Certainly when I'm talking about this lost cause that Trump is spouting, it's not the same as the Confederates lost cause. No. There are some of the same symbols and there is certainly a lot of the same strategy and some of the same language that's being used, but we do have to be very careful. I think we need to use the past to to help us understand how and why things played out as they do, but it is absolutely not only dangerous, but it's dishonest to try to make them cookie cutter. One of the really important distinctions to point out here is that Confederates knew they lost and they were trying to justify that defeat. They justified it in all sorts of distorted ways that are continuing to have tremendous effects on our our lived experience today, but there's a difference between accepting defeat and not accepting defeat. So that's where this breaks down a great deal.
BOB GARFIELD Fair enough. I should say, though, that in our meetings at On the Media, we sometimes get a little historovox-y. And in this case, we spent a lot of time discussing the notion of uncanny parallels and we considered a different way of framing it, not parallel lines, but perhaps the contemporary extension of the existing lost cause narrative. The same line rooted in white supremacy, grievance and oppression, not lost cause redux, but lost cause made over. Do you buy that?
CAROLINE JANNEY I'm not sure I do, because the lost cause grew out of what white Southerners who supported the Confederacy believed was a legitimate attempt at Confederate nationhood. It grew out of 200 years plus of chattel slavery, a system that's led to real set of ideologies and beliefs. And I'm not so certain that we have that same crystallization in what is going on now with Trump supporters and Trumpism. There is a way in which the past is being reimagined for purposes of political gains and social and cultural gains, but I'm not sure that this is a direct growth out of the Confederate lost cause.
BOB GARFIELD Well, I certainly wouldn't want to trivialize slavery by making glib comparisons, but is not white supremacy itself a, you know, a fully comparable ideology that joins these two periods of history?
CAROLINE JANNEY It is, but white supremacy doesn't just come from the Confederacy. I'm not saying Confederates weren't white supremacists. Please don't get me wrong there. But America as a whole was built on a belief in white supremacy. It's a national phenomena, and I think we need to take a more holistic approach of understanding that this small C conservative defense of whites, often male prerogative, comes from a much larger and deeper well than just the four years that constituted the Confederacy.
BOB GARFIELD Carrie, thank you.
CAROLINE JANNEY Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD Caroline Janney is a professor of history at the University of Virginia.
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