Sunday, August 10, 2008

Confederates in the Attic

Confederates in the Attic

Tony Horwitz's Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War came out in 1998--and won the Pulitzer Prize. At the recommendation of some good friends, my wife and I just finished reading it. Ordinarily I wouldn't mention the demographics of the couple that recommended it--but it has some relevance, in a weird way, because of the subject matter of the book. They are a right-wing, gun nut, Jewish/American Indian couple--members of a remarkably small group, like left-handed lesbian Albanian-American midgets.

I can see why Horwitz's book won the Pulitzer Prize. It is both serious and funny, both journalist as observer and journalist as participant--and while Horwitz drops a few hints that give you the idea that he's a liberal, he is not afraid to tell you all sorts of uncomfortable, Politically Incorrect details along the way.

In part, it's a book about how some Southerners--to hear Horwitz tell it, actually a pretty large fraction--have still not worked their way past the Civil War. Horwitz came to the subject after a number of years abroad, covering foreign wars. He compared America's general
amnesia about its past [with] lands where memories were elephantine: Bosnia, Iraq, Northern Ireland, Aboriginal Australia. Serbs spoke bitterly of their defeat by Muslim armies at Kosovo as though the battle had occurred yesterday, not in 1389. Protestants referred fondly to "King Billy" as if he were a family friend rather than the English monarch who led Orangemen to victory in 1690. [pp. 5-6]
Confederates in the Attic, however, follows Horwitz as hangs out with Southern Civil War reenactors for whom this is, shall we say, a bit more than an interesting hobby--people who are "hardcore" in their obsession with getting everything right:
Between gulps of coffee--which the men insisted on drinking from their own tin cups rather than our ceramic mugs--Cool and his comrades explained the dinstiction. Hardcores didn't just dress up and shoot blanks. They sought absolute fidelity to the 1860s: its homespun clothing, antique speech patterns, sparse diet and simple utensils. Adhered to properly, this fundamentalism proudced a time-travel high, or what hardcores called a "period rush."

"Look at these buttons," one solder said, fingering his gray wool jacket. "I soaked them overnight in a saucer filled with urine." Chemicals in the urine oxidized the brass, giving it the patina of buttons from the 1860s....

In the field, hardcores ate only foods that Civil War soldiers consumed, such as hardtack and salt pork. And they limited their speech to mid-nineteenth-century dialect and topics. "You don't talk about Monday Night football," Tim explained. "You curse Abe Lincoln or say thinks like, 'I wonder how Becky's getting on back at the farm.'"

One hardcore took this Method acting to a bizarre extreme. His name was Robert Lee Hodge and the soldiers pointed him out as he ambled toward us. Hodge looked as though he'd stepped from a Civil War tintype: tall, rail-thin, with a long pointed beard and butternut uniform so frayed and filthy that it clung to his lank frame like rags to a scarecrow.

As he drew near, Troy Cool called out, "Rob, do the bloat!" Hodge clutched his stomach and crumpled to the ground. His belly swelled grotesquely, his hands curled, his cheeks puffed out, his mout contorted in a rictus of pain and astonishment. It was a flawless counterfeit of the bloated corpses photographed at Antietam and Gettysburg that I'd so often stared at as a child.

Hodge leaped to his feet and smiled. "It's an ice-breaker at parties," he said. [pp. 7-8]
I've known a few Civil War reenactors in my day. Some took the authencity quite seriously; no coolers full of beer in their tents. But none of them were "hardcore" like this. Horwitz has some fun with the "hardcore" crowd's focus on losing weight (to look more authentic), sewing their own uniforms, and the like:
Eavesdropping on the chat--about grooming, sewing, hip size, honed biceps--I could help wondering if I'd stumbled on a curious gay subculture in the Piedmont of Virginia.

"I've got a killer recipe for ratatouille. Hardly any oil. Got drop another five pounds before posing for that painter again. He loves small waists on Confederates."

"Do you think we should recruit that newbie who came to the picket post? He looks real good, tall and slim."

"Ask him, 'Have you got a Richmond depot jacket? Do you sew?' A lot of guys look good at first but they don't know a thing about jackets and shoes." [pp. 12-13]
From there, Horwitz explores a darker, more worrisome side of "Confederate" America--people who are still nursing grudges about the Civil War--and making excuses for the Confederacy. If I hadn't met more than a few people like this over the years, I would find myself wondering Horwitz was exaggerating. But I'm afraid that he isn't.

While Horwitz's conversations would suggest that many of these apologists are Republicans, I can say with some certainty that some are not. I've had a few conversations with a guy who would give the standard liberal, "Bush lied! People died! It's all about Halliburton and oil!"--and then insist that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery--it was all about capitalism exploiting the South--and then a few remarks to make it clear that us Northerners had no idea how horrible it was to live around black people.

Now, at this point, you are probably sensing some sort of nasty liberal slam at the South, which has moved increasingly into Republican and evangelical Christian hands over the last several decades--and you would be wrong. Horwitz deftly examines how some of the people he talks to fit that category--and yet many others clearly do not. He recounts how some of these people acknowledge that United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans activities have replaced church involvement (p. 33). Evangelical Christians have been fretting of late about how church attendance is in serious decline in the U.S.--but liberals should probably not be uncorking the champagne, if Horwitz's accounts represent anything but a tiny fraction of Southerners.

Horwitz does a pretty good job of showing that this emerging enthusiasm for a Confederate past that never was, while heavily concentrated among those of the lower economic strata, is by no means limited to those groups. He shows also how many of the methods and arguments of the black civil rights movement have been taken over by Southern nationalists, some of whom are overtly racists, and some of whom, I suspect, are simply tired of being assumed to be racists because they are white and Southern. Horwitz points out that shortly after the "X" hats became very popular among young blacks because of the movie about Malcolm X, T-shirts and bumper stickers appeared with the Confederate battle flag, and the caption, "You wear your X, we'll wear ours."

The parallels between black pride and southern white pride have been obvious to me for many years--and with the same reason. You take pride in your race, ethnicity, culture, or gender because it is the one thing over which you have no control. There are things in which I take some pride: my ability to design and make products; my ability to develop software; my ability to write. But these are personal attributes that are primarily my doing--actions at which I have personally worked. I didn't choose to be white. I didn't choose to be an American. If you have nothing to be proud about that you have done--why, you can be proud of something that is an accident of birth. How silly.

Horwitz also recounts a number of blacks with whom he spoke on his expedition that seemed to have absorbed many of the same worrisome, ahistorical views of the Civil War. A black man in a small town store insisting that the Civil War could not have been even slightly about slavery--because whites would never have done anything to help a black person. It had to be about capitalism and making money. Students in an alternative black school engaging in the same reductionistic, Marxian interpretations of the Emancipation Proclamation that I hear neo-Confederates and "Southern nationalists" make. Oddly enough, this strictly economic interest model--Marxian, because named for Marx--is one that Karl Marx explicitly rejected. He knew what the American Civil War was about: it was about slavery.

Horwitz is very troubled to see how, according to people he talked in many of these communities, much of the self-conscious efforts by whites and blacks to bridge gaps in the 1970s, when public schools were integrated, seems to have collapsed by the mid-1990s. Black and white students he talked to admitted the racial cliques that Horwitz could see in lunchrooms were because both blacks and whites were simply not willing to cross racial lines. Some of the black adults he spoke to seemed to have become more enamored of Louis Farrakhan's anti-Semitism than building bridges across racial lines.

Don't get me wrong. There are some uproariously funny parts--for example, the chapter devoted to Atlanta and the Gone With the Wind industry that has developed around it. It is astonishing how many people apparently travel to Atlanta, expecting to the plantation Tara--only to find out that the whole movie was filmed in the San Fernando Valley, outside of Los Angeles! He also explores the way in which Japanese tourists flock to this--and explores the cultural reasons why Gone With the Wind remains a significant cultural icon in a place about as foreign to Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler as you can imagine. But this is also a serious book a serious concern.

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