Chris Hedges has a good column about neo-Confederacy in Memphis entitled Chris Hedges: White Power to the Rescue. Apparently there is a battle over whether a city park should be named after KKK founder and Confederate traitor in defense of slavery, Nathan Bedford Forrest or after black journalist, Ida Wells.
Like Tony Horwitz before him, I think Hedges is noting that the Civil War remains unfinished. Hedges draws parallels with Yugoslavia in the 90s. In Yugoslavia, ethnic groups discarded history in favor of myths of a glorious past that never existed. Consequently, those groups couldn’t talk to each other any more.
The embrace by nationalist groups of a nonreality-based belief system made communication with other ethnic groups impossible. They no longer spoke the same cultural language. There was no common historical narrative built around verifiable truth.
In this episode, set in the modern Confederate States of America, Nathan Bedford Forrest is no longer a man who grew wealthy in the slave trade, committed treason to defend that gravy train, and then, having lost, created a terrorist group devoted to bigotry. No, no!:
Forrest “promoted progress for black people in this country after the war.” Boyd argued that the KKK was “more of a social club” at its inception and didn’t begin carrying out “bad and horrific things” until it reconstituted itself with the rise of the modern civil rights movement.
I see another parallel. Good white Southerners who are not particularly racist and do not have any special antipathy toward nonwhites are likely nevertheless annoyed at the prospect of downgrading the status of the heroic white traitors they grew up admiring; such as Forrest, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and the rest in favor of, say, civil rights leaders, journalists, and abolitionists. David Wong, writing for Cracked.com (yes, I am a consumer of fine literature) gives us “5 Ways You’re Accidentally Making Everyone Hate You.” These all revolve around unspoken power struggles. Number 1 is “You Assumed That Because You Were OK With a Situation, Everybody Was.”
“Why do they have to rock the boat just when things were going good?”
“Why complain now, when we’ve always done it this way?”
He points out that one of the main advantages of power is not having to think about it. You might not think about money when you’re eating at a restaurant; but you sure think about it when you’re starving. (Wong cites this article from the Slacktivist with similar thoughts about Christianity and tribalism.) So, the powerful groups can just put up monuments to icons who are hateful to non-powerful groups and just go about their business without paying much attention; and then start squealing like a stuck pig when the less powerful groups start trying to change things.
At the end of the day, a society’s monuments tell the tale of where the heart of the majority lies. We don’t put up monuments to Cornwallis and King George to pay homage to their solid effort or to celebrate our heritage. When Southerners name their parks after guys like Forrest and put up monuments to him, it tells you that they’re still conflicted about whether or not they’re committed to the Union.