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.