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Let's make the South stop lying: The right's war on our history -- and truth -- must be defeated now

Conservatives have fought a near-treasonous propaganda war in the media and schools for decades. We must fight back


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Bill Curry
July 15, 2015 2:00AM (UTC)

Last Friday, in a muted, five-minute ceremony, an honor guard of gray-clad troopers removed the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s state Capitol lawn. The flag’s long-running second act--taken down in 1865, hoisted back up in 1961-- holds many lessons. One is that political correctness cuts both ways. The flag’s defenders say it stands for "states’ rights"or "Southern heritage," the latter a harmless mix of hospitality, soldierly valor and regional cuisine. For 54 years even some liberals pretended to swallow this lie out of deference to the feelings of those spreading it. We can stop pretending now.  It’s a big win, to be sure, but it took long enough.

The final vote in the state House was a lopsided 94-20, but flag apologists didn’t go quietly. Debate lasted 13 hours before exhausting itself around 1 a.m. Thursday. The leader of the dead-enders was Republican state Rep. Michael Pitts, a 60-year-old white male, Baptist, retired cop and NRA devotee heretofore best known for backing South Carolina’s “Second Amendment Weekend” (in which the state waives sales taxes on rifles and handguns) and a loopy plan to replace U.S. paper currency with silver and gold coins minted by the state.

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Pitt insists Confederate soldiers only knew “what they heard in the general store, that Northern States were attacking Southern States.” He said he learned as a child to call the Civil War the "War of Northern Aggression." He didn’t say if he calls it something else now, but he did accuse foes of “scrubbing history.” It was a favorite theme of flag defenders. Rep. Eric Bedingfield said he’d “bathed this thing in prayer” and “called my pastor to pray for me,” from which he learned “you can’t erase history.” Rep. J. Gary Simrill accused the removers of “almost a cultural genocide.” For sheer oddball color, no one beat Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, who summed things up in these lovely words: "To remove the flag… and thinking it would change history would be like removing a tattoo from the corpse of a loved one and thinking it would change a loved one’s obituary."

For 150 years, folks like Pitts, Bedingfield, Simrill and Peeler rewrote the history of the South. When South Carolina declared war on the Union, 57 percent of its citizens were African-American slaves; all scrubbed from every tale of "Southern heritage." Even the most pious ancestor worshipper knows the Confederate flag is the flag of racism, slavery and sedition. It took years of arduous scrubbing and lies of satanic ingenuity to get anyone to think otherwise. The truth won’t be restored overnight.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the Emanuel AME church there are efforts across the South to remove Confederate monuments. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu wants to take down four. Three honor Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and P.G. T. Beauregard. The fourth honors a post-Civil War revolt against Louisiana’s reconstruction government by a band of ex-soldiers called the White League. My money is on Landrieu, but the mere fact that such a monument still stands suggests how hard it’ll be getting the South to face up to its past. It won’t be easy anywhere.

On the day South Carolina voted to lower the flag, the even loonier Republicans in the U.S. House pushed to display it on Confederate Memorial Day -- a holiday in nine states -- and sell it in souvenir shops on federal lands. A fearful John Boehner shut them down, but in the months and years ahead, as the memory of Charleston fades and fewer mayors, governors and House speakers see a need to spend political capital, the fight may get harder. And this is just the fight to keep the state from spreading lies. The harder fight will be to get not just the South but the whole country to commit to telling the truth, and not just about the Civil War.

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For years, the right has waged a war on history every bit as relentless as and even more effective than its war on science.  George Orwell famously observed that “who controls the past controls the future.” In America few outside the political right took his point. It has carried the fight to colleges, media, government and especially public schools. An ineluctable lesson of Charleston is that the left must finally fight back.

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As far back as the early`80s the religious right sought to elect its people to school boards, often instructing them to conceal their views until after they were elected. Sex education was their top priority, but they also dove into history and other social studies. In her book "As Texas Goes: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda," New York Times columnist Gail Collins tells the story of the Texas School Board. Only she could make this chilling tale amusing. Texas is America’s second biggest purchaser of textbooks and the state controls the purchasing so publishers have long bowed to its dictates on content.

The board was always conservative but when real fanatics took it over they began furiously rewriting curricula, substituting ideological cant for scholarship wherever possible. 2010 was a banner year for them. They bumped Thomas Jefferson from a list of "influential thinkers"—they felt him misguided in the mater of the separation of church and state—but promoted Phyllis Schlafly to take his place. They also encouraged study of George Wallace, the NRA, the Moral Majority, Jefferson Davis’ inaugural address and the Heritage Foundation and told schools to tell kids Joe McCarthy was right about communists infiltrating government.

The right does its most insidious work in classrooms but it wages war on history almost everywhere. You may recall that in the mid-'90s the Smithsonian planned an exhibit on the Enola Gay, the B29 aircraft that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The American Legion was instantly up in arms and the rest of the right soon followed. Perhaps they feared word of the bombing would get out or that Trotskyites at the Air and Space Museum would use the incident for propaganda purposes. The exhibit was killed. After 89 brave members of Congress called for his head, the museum’s director was forced to resign.

As evidenced by Dylann Roof and millions who share his views if not his soul sickness, the right has been most effective and destructive in reweaving the history of the Confederacy. In a piece in the Washington Post this week, James Loewen describes the decades’ long work of Southern "historians’" to turn the Civil War from an insurrection mounted to defend human slavery into a ‘war between the states’ sparked in large part by an imperious federal government bent on robbing the South of its liberty.

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Loewen reminds us of how hard Civil War apologists work to shape our collective memory.  Kentucky is a border state that never joined the confederacy; 90,000 Kentuckians volunteered for the Union army, nearly triple the number that fought for the rebellion. Today Kentucky has 2 Union monuments and 72 Confederate monuments. It may be that conservatives care more about the past or are more susceptible to nostalgia. But erecting all those monuments took effort.  The right is willing to make it because, like Orwell, it sees the point of controlling the past.

Republicans are even fonder of twisting the story of America’s birth. In 1984 Ronald Reagan added the word ‘shining’ to the phrase "city on a hill" from John Winthrop’s famed sermon to Puritans bound for Massachusetts. Winthrop’s message to his flock was to behave, because the whole world was watching: "We shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us."  Reagan’s message was almost the exact opposite; that whatever America did must be good because God chose it to be the envy of all nations, a notion Winthrop would have heard as sinful pride and that helped inspire the reckless self-reverential folderol known as "American Exceptionalism." (John Kennedy was the first modern president to invoke the sermon. In a lustrous speech in Boston days before his inaugural he perfectly echoed Winthrop’s call to rise to the challenge of the hour.) Our founding has so much to teach us but so much of what is taught now is false.

Since Reagan’s death the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, brainchild of noted social-contract shredder Grover Norquist, has labored to name something after Reagan in every county in America. I’d say they’re halfway there. They also want his name on currency, and a federal holiday in his honor. Norquist thinks the more stuff he names after Reagan the more taxes he can cut. I think he’s right. Such is the power of propaganda.

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Of course, the price of propaganda is ignorance. The more we fete Reagan, the harder it is to tell people what a train wreck his fiscal policies were; harder still to make them believe he ever apologized to Gorbachev for calling Russia an evil empire—he did-- or went to Reykjavik boldly hoping to dismantle both the U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals. He did that, too; we just don’t know it.

You’d think a left rife with college professors and other readers of books could fight this battle at least to a draw, but outside academia it barely put up a fight. A few lonely voices—Lewis Lapham and Stacy Schiff spring to mind--urged all who are in any sense progressive-minded to fight those who propagandize history. But up to now it was a tough sell. Among the many horrid lessons of Charleston is a new awareness of the price we pay for our neglect. We know now if we didn’t before just how many stand at the ready to pour hate into the vacuum of ignorance.

The myth of the Confederacy may be the worst lie we tell, but countless others need correcting. There are lots of ways to do it, all with practical impact. If you fear the erosion of the right to privacy or the rule of law, you might think it time to remove J. Edgar Hoover’s name from the FBI headquarters in Washington. (Feel free to consider this essay a Kickstarter for that project.) We are right to celebrate the heritage of millions of Italian Americans who came to our shores. But what of the millions of Americans who got here 10,000 years before them?  Might not Columbus share his weekend with those whom we systematically exterminated? And speaking of heritage, the deal to lower the flag at South Carolina’s capitol included a promise to spend millions on a shrine to it somewhere off premises. Shouldn’t such a shrine await construction of a bigger one to the millions of proud South Carolinians who spent the Civil War years in bondage?

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The right says the left wants only to disparage America. If nothing else, the last few weeks should teach us to question the depth of the right’s oft-proclaimed love of country, just as we’d question the spirituality of the publicly pious. It seems when the right isn’t busy kicking other people out of America, it’s busy threatening to leave. (See the borderline secessionist and outright nullification sentiments voices by so many Republican presidential candidates.) The funny thing is there is so much about this wonderful, diverse nation that, given the chance, liberals could teach conservatives to love. You can’t really love what you don’t really know.

The poet William Blake had a theory that we all move from innocence, a joyous state in which all chimney sweeps seem happy and well, to experience, a sadder one in which we perceive their ill health and general misery. But Blake said there’s a third state we can attain in which we see suffering but still rejoice in life. He called this state, for some reason, organized innocence. We need a patriotism that is the moral equivalent of Blake’s organized innocence, an informed patriotism that lets us see all that we are, the bad and the good; a mature love of country that begins as it should in our love for one another and in our devotion to truth. It is to such patriotism that a true knowledge of history invites us.


Bill Curry

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut. He is at work on a book on President Obama and the politics of populism.

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American History Charleston Civil War Editor's Picks Grover Norquist Race Ronald Reagan The South

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