Update: Over at SHPG, Susan Hathaway responds to this post, which she refers to as an “irresponsible hit piece on the Flaggers. . . full of holes and untruths.” Okay.
Looks like the Virginia Flaggers are doubling down in their efforts to pick a fight with the leadership of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. You may recall that, back in March, they intentionally violated directives from the UDC not to come onto UDC property — a warning given in person, a few days previous, to Susan Hathaway, the leader of the Flaggers — and then portrayed themselves as the oppressed victim when the local police were called. Of course, the Flaggers initially neglected to mention the whole you were-warned-in-advance part, and only later acknowledged that after the President-General of the UDC, Martha Rogers Van Schaick, released a detailed statement and timeline of her organization’s interactions with the Flaggers, going back to late last year. Hathaway subsequently acknowledged that “the account in the the statement today by Mrs. Van Schaick, with a few minor exceptions, is accurate, and in fact, is almost exactly as has been previously reported.” Well, no, it wasn’t “as has been previously reported,” at least by the Flaggers themselves. They put out a self-serving, incomplete account of events, and it was President-General Van Schaick who called bullshit on them.
This eagerness to pick an entirely unnecessary fight with a group like the UDC, simply because they refuse to play along with the Flagger’s particular brand of activisim (i.e., “restoring the honor”) is just nuts. It’s short-sighted, self-gratifying idiocy. Yes, the UDC is a low-key group and probably pretty set in its ways. Yes, the UDC doesn’t seem interested in making dramatic headlines. The UDC is certainly not beyond criticism, but they’re entirely within their right to decide what issues they want to make a public stand on, just as they’re free to decide who is and who is not welcome on their property. The only thing the UDC is guilty of is choosing not to play host to the Flaggers’ protest of of the VMFA, the UDC’s own next-door neighbor; everything else is just bombast and angry chest-thumping on the part of the Flaggers.
I read an observation the other day on a completely unrelated subject, to the effect that true believers “always require someone insufficiently pure enough to set themselves against, and they’ll manufacture them out of allies just as soon as they run out of enemies.” There’s a world of truth in that, and it strikes me as a fair assessment of the state of the Confederate Heritage™ movement generally, and the Virginia Flaggers in particular. For all their bluff and bluster, they haven’t got many victories to claim. They did succeed in getting Confederate flags restored to grave sites at a rural cemetery in Georgia, but in their primary protests they’ve been spectacularly unsuccessful. Their first big effort, to prevent passage of a city ordinance in Lexington, Virginia that would bar non-governmental flags from city light poles, was a flop. (No doubt local support for the measure, which was widespread, was in no small part due to the ludicrous spectacle that the out-of-towners brought with them.) There are no Confederate flags displayed at the Pelham Chapel in Richmond. After telling local media to expect “about 1,000 marchers” for the much-heralded Confederate Heritage Rally 2012 in Richmond in February, the actual turnout was about a third of that. No Confederate flag flies outside the Museum of the Confederacy at Appomattox. Mimi Elrod is still mayor in Lexington.
Waite Rawls is still gainfully employed.
With a track record like that, it’s easy to see why folks like Hathaway would decide to create melodramatic stories and faux confrontations. Thus a completely civil sidewalk encounter gets depicted as “Black woman attacked for carrying Confederate Flag.” A Flagger — does he always go around wired for sound? — actually catches on audiotape the egregious abuse of power in which a security guard says, “because I said so.” It’s played up for yucks when, outside the Museum of the Confederacy at Appomattox, the horse of a reenactor portraying General Grant gets spooked by a CBF carried by — you guessed it, a Flagger. They “restore the honor” by flashing a CBF, hastily pulled out of a back pocket, near the Lincoln Memorial. Something tells me the sixteenth president would be highly amused by that sophomoric foolishness, like one of Tad’s infamous White House pranks. “Lucifer’s Temple,” seriously?
Did y’all remember to write “Abe is a doo-doo-head” in the Park Service restroom stall while you were at it?
So the Southron Heritage™ movement is now, increasingly, turning its rhetorical weaponry on its own members. It’s not an entirely new phenomenon, of course; there have been grumblings about insufficiently-activist SCV camps that “meet, eat, and retreat” for years. Mark Vogl, who was reportedly pushed out of his senior role in the Texas Division of the SCV because that group didn’t want to get dragged into the culture wars battles he was waging, continues to complain about the “grannies” who now lead that group. But the gray-on-gray sniping does seem to have taken on a sharper edge of late, and the Flaggers are in the front rank. The vitriol now directed against fellow heritage advocates is remarkable, with an unprecedented level of nastiness. Conservative Republican governors of a Southern state are derided as “scalawags” and “traitors” for failing to embrace Confederate symbols. A well-known SCV color guard is targeted with epithets of “stink faces (above)” for refusing to renege on a prior agreement to participate in ceremonies at the new Appomattox facility. And now the leadership of the UDC, by declining to participate in shenanigans like this, is guilty of “sell[ing] off their birthright!!!“
It’s important to understand that folks like the Flaggers and their supporters, regardless of how much time they spend
fluffing reassuring each other that they’re the true Defenders of Southron Heritage, are a small-but-noisy group of folks who aren’t aren’t very representative of Southerners, or even of the descendants of Confederate veterans. They certainly don’t represent the SCV or UDC members I’ve known over the years. The name-calling, sneering mockery and over-the-top rhetoric isn’t the sign of strong, self-confident movement; it’s emblematic of deep and abiding insecurity, a realization that it’s they who are badly out of step with society as a whole, and consequently are desperate to make a name for themselves, even if they have to pick utterly unnecessary fights to do it. The UDC, I’m sure, will survive this just fine, as will the Museum of the Confederacy and the City of Lexington. The Flaggers, not so much, because every contrived outrage distances themselves a little more from the people with whom they should be making common cause.
I used to be pretty ambivalent about the Flaggers; while I thought they were often injecting themselves, as outsiders, in matters that were fundamentally local in nature (e.g., the Lexington ordinance), I also have sympathy, even admiration for acts of smart, clever protest. But after months of watching them their supporters, through their own YouTube clips, blogging, and elsewhere, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s not a lot of there, there. There’s much angry vitriol and puffery about this or that party not “honoring” the Confederacy, which really seems to begin and end with prominent display of the Confederate Battle Flag. It’s protesting for the sake of protesting, to establish — mainly to each other — that they’re more Southron than all the rest.
So they go off on their own would-be allies, who (in their view) are insufficiently patriotic about the Confederacy. It’s fratricide, it’s unnecessary, and it’s ugly. The Flaggers and their partners will come out on the short end of this one, and it will be of their own doing.
Have at it, y’all. Knock yourselves out.
There’s a hoary anecdote among museum staffers – invariably told as one personally witnessed by the speaker – about a tired parent, dragging an even-more-tired kid through the galleries. At one point the parents stops, turns, and snaps at the child, “how are we going to see the whole museum if you keep stopping to look at things?”
I thought about that anecdote recently watching the reaction to the brief installation (now removed) at the Museum of the Confederacy’s new annex at Appomattox of an image of the cross-dressing entertainer RuPaul in a sequined dress patterned after the Confederate Battle Flag. Over at Simpson’s Crossroads blog, Jackie Haddock was in full pearl-clutching mode, demanding to know “what were small children to make of this?” When I replied that it was extremely doubtful that many small children would even recognize RuPaul, much less know enough about him to find the image confusing/offensive/troubling, Haddock replied, “for the record in order to learn whom Ru Paul was I had to do a google search.“
Nothing puts the faux in faux outrage like having to go digging around the Internet to sort out why you’re supposed to be outraged in the first place. I’m furious about this, and if you’ll just give me a minute I’ll be able to tell you why! What a joke.
There are a couple of points worth making here. The first is that nothing the MoC does, short of full-out hagiography of the Confederacy and its heroes, would ever satisfy the small-but-loud group of critics who’ve been carping about the institution for years. If it weren’t RuPaul, it would be something else. They would be unhappy to discover a mention that Lee owned slaves, or that there’s a section devoted to Lincoln’s visit to Richmond a few days before his death. If the flag display out front that’s caused so much heartburn, was to feature (say) Union and Confederate national flags of April 1865 flying side-by-side, they’d be bitching about the presence of the “Yankee rag.” Outrage is what these folks do. Fish gotta swim.
The second thing is that, because they’re always looking for a new excuse to take righteous offense, they’re also easily trolled. This latter point causes me to think that, with this RuPaul thing, MoC Director Waite Rawls may have intentionally yanked the Southrons’ chain.
Sure, it may be exactly as he told Martha Boltz the other day, that it was an idea they’d been kicking around to emphasize the outrageous ways the flag has been used, and then removed it within hours when they received complaints. But it could equally have been Rawls and his staff never intended for it to be up more than a few hours regardless.
I’ve never met Waite Rawls, nor corresponded with him. But it’s clear that he’s not a stupid man, nor one to be intimidated easily. Given the ridiculous vitriol that man’s received — everything from being called “traitor” and “scalawag” to having Southrons urge their comrades to “get in ‘these peoples’ face and spit and spit again” and hint (repeatedly) that he should be lynched — I’d be surprised if Rawls didn’t also have a pretty cynical sense of humor about the fools who carry on like that. He’d have to. Given the unwarranted crap he’s had to put up with in recent years from people who should be working to support that institution, Waite Rawls is entitled to have a little fun at their expense. I’d like to think that’s what happened here, and wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it did. Well played, sir.
I hope to visit the Museum of the Confederacy at Appomattox sometime soon. I kinda wish I’d been there to see the RuPaul picture, too — not for the sake of the picture itself, but to watch visitors’ reactions. It must have been fabulous.
On of my readers, PH, passes along this recent review in the New York Times of the Museum of the Confederacy, and its ongoing effort to chart a new course, away from its founding as a shrine to the Lost Cause, to a more comprehensive, balanced view of the conflict, its origins and its legacy. (Kevin has blogged on it as well.) Edward Rothstein makes a second visit to the MoC, and notes the shifting tenor of the institution’s public exhibitions and programs.
The Museum of the Confederacy embodies the conflict in its very origins; its artifacts were accumulated in the midst of grief. The museum’s first solicitation for donations, in 1892, four years before its opening, is telling: “The glory, the hardships, the heroism of the war were a noble heritage for our children. To keep green such memories and to commemorate such virtues, it is our purpose to gather together and preserve in the Executive Mansion of the Confederacy the sacred relics of those glorious days. We appeal to our sisters throughout the South to help us secure these invaluable mementoes before it’s too late.”
That heritage casts a long shadow over the institution. When I visited in 2008, slavery still seemed an inconsequential part of Southern history. And Southern suffering loomed large.
But changes have been taking place. Several tendentious text panels (in one, Lincoln was portrayed as having manipulated the South into starting the war) have been removed. And gradually, under the presidency of S. Waite Rawls III, the museum, while keeping its name, has been expanding its ambitions, trying to turn its specialization into a strength instead of a burden.
Nonetheless, Rothstein comes away feeling that, while the worst examples of the MoC’s old historical narrative are gone, there’s nothing yet that has taken their place:
The delicacy is strange. There is so much in the exhibition [“The War Comes Home”] that is illuminating about the war. And it isn’t that the Virginia Historical Society is embracing the Lost Cause. Far from it. But the institution is trying to take a path that will least offend those who do. Or is it suggesting with its questions that it would be callous to continue with finger pointing? After all, isn’t one man’s traitor another’s patriot?
The problem, though, is that the Civil War then becomes merely a tragic clash of two sides, each convinced of its virtue and fidelity to national ideals. That is not an embrace of the Lost Cause, but it leaves us a war with no higher cause at all.
Rothstein should be patient, I think. Museums are not shrines; they exist for education and research, and unquestioning hagiography is best left to others. The MoC in particular, with its unsurpassed collection of Civil War artifacts, documents, and images, is far too valuable a resource to give itself over to a fixed story of parochial, navel-gazing victimhood. Like every institution of its type, the Museum of the Confederacy is, and should be, always a work in progress.
Image: “Museum of the Confederacy CEO Waite Rawls announced on Thursday [April 14, 2011] the museum’s plans for interior exhibits. Part of the plan includes bringing the uniform won by Gen. Robert E. Lee, of the Army of Northern Virginia, at the Appomattox surrender in April of 1865 (pictured at left). Also included will be the sword Lee brought to the surrender.” Via Lynchburg, Virginia News & Advance.