Europe in 1989, America in 2020, and the Death of the Lost Cause

tags: Communism, Confederacy, public history, Lost Cause

David W. Blight is the Sterling Professor of History at Yale University and the author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.

In November, 1989, when the Berlin Wall suddenly began to crumble and then fall, much of the world watched in awe. Could it be true that Communism was about to collapse? For seventy years, it had been a system, an ideology, that ordered large swaths of the globe. Now a whole vision of history—a vision meant to maximize freedom, but which had turned, over time, into tyranny—seemed to be leaving the stage.

Many people still possess, as I do, little pieces of concrete from the Berlin Wall. And many of us feel some awe in seeing, during these past few weeks, Confederate monuments in America likewise reduced to pieces, relics of the collapse, after a hundred and fifty-five years, of the public vestiges of the Lost Cause tradition. The summer of 2020, like the autumn of 1989, could mark the death of a specific vision of history. If so, it has taken a long, long night—to borrow from Robbie Robertson and the Band—to drive old Dixie down.

We should not celebrate too much as monuments topple and old slave-auction blocks are removed. History did not end when the Soviet Union dissolved, and it will not end now, even if a vibrant movement sweeps a new age of civil rights into America. Most of all, we must remember what the Lost Cause is and was before we try to call it past. As so many now understand—whether they have read William Faulkner or Toni Morrison or the thousands of scholars who have reshaped American history in the past three generations—slavery, the Civil WarReconstruction, and segregation are never purely historical. They still haunt the air we breathe, or cannot breathe. They are what W. E. B. Du Bois once called, in 1901, our “present-past.” They are a history never to be erased, even if and when the bronze Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee can be carried out of the U.S. Capitol and left at the Smithsonian Castle, for a decision on their final resting place.

The Lost Cause is one of the most deeply ingrained mythologies in American history. Loss on an epic scale is often the source of great literature, stories that take us to the dark hearts of the human condition. But when loss breeds twisted versions of history to salve its pain, when it encourages the revitalization of vast systems of oppression, and when loss is allowed to freely commemorate itself in stone and in sentimentalism across the cultural landscape, it can poison a civil society and transform itself into a ruling regime. Some myths are benign as cultural markers. Others are rooted in lies so beguiling, so powerful as engines of resentment and political mobilization, that they can fill parade grounds in Nuremberg, or streets in Charlottesville, or rallies across the country.

The Lost Cause ideology emerged first as a mood of traumatized defeat, but grew into an array of arguments, organizations, and rituals in search of a story that could regain power. After the Civil War, from the late eighteen-sixties to the late eighteen-eighties, diehards, especially though not exclusively in Virginia, and led by former high-ranking Confederate officers, shaped the memory of the war through regular publications and memoirs. They turned Robert E. Lee into a godlike Christian leader and a genius tactician, one who could be defeated only by overwhelming odds. Their revolution, as the story went, was a noble one crushed by industrial might, but emboldened, in the eighteen-seventies, by righteous resistance to radical Reconstruction, to black suffrage, and to the three Constitutional amendments that transformed America.

Read entire article at The New Yorker

comments powered by Disqus