Lost and Found Causes

As a racial reckoning convulses the United States and other nations, the idealized “Lost Cause” of the southern US has come in for renewed scrutiny. For a long time, white Americans in the former Confederacy remembered their surrender in the Civil War of 1861-1865 as a noble martyrdom that saw a supposedly idyllic rural aristocracy ground under the cold dominance of the Union forces. Always a romantic fiction perpetuated by flags, statues, and representations like Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, the Lost Cause is lately being dismantled to expose it as a convenient gloss on the underlying fact of a slavery-based social order, a wilful forgetting by its exponents of what the Confederacy really stood for. A recent cover story in the Atlantic magazine chided those who still can’t admit the moral squalor of the southern slave system: “But so many Americans simply don’t want to hear this, and if they do hear it, they refuse to accept it.”

Yet there is another Lost Cause that has persisted and even flourished for decades, and that is the one which extols not the tragic heroism of bygone white southerners but the equally mythologized suffering of women, gay people, and non-white populations everywhere. It is the Lost Cause not of slavery’s allies but its enemies. Some of the rhetoric of feminism, the civil rights movement, and other socio-political campaigns have invoked the same if-only sensibilities that characterize Civil War re-enactments and monuments to Robert E. Lee: How different things might have been had we never been dominated by others; our way of life was once happy and enduring; left alone, we would have succeeded; see what was taken away from us.

Obviously, slavery was evil whether or not its enabling governance capitulated in battle. And justice and equality are fundamental principles of human good, whether or not they prevail in practice. But the subjugation of women by men, of homosexuals by heterosexuals, and of Africans, Asians, and Native Americans by Europeans – in countless ways, across many hundreds of years – nevertheless came out of historic defeats as decisive as anything inflicted on the Rebels by the Yankees. Many of the defeated have gotten over those outcomes. Others never have, and their grudges are nurtured to this day.

The laments of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Edward Said’s Orientalism, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and numerous other published and spoken manifestoes, are those of peoples humiliated by time, and by reality. Their emphasis is on the exploitation and indifference to which they have been subject; they do not much confront how the exploitation and indifference could have happened in the first place. The authors and the millions they influence seek to reclaim a political or cultural power long denied them; they do not examine too closely how the power was originally relinquished. We know about the damage wrought by colonialism, the patriarchy, and white supremacy; we seldom dwell on why the colonialists, patriarchs, and supremacists got away with it. Yet surely the conditions that led to such imbalances – not the mechanics of oppression, which should be familiar to everyone, but the prerequisites of it – need to be considered if we are to have a realistic understanding of contemporary divides. Highlighting or sentimentalizing the effects on the victims is not enough. As objectively as we can, we should also try to grasp the assumptions of the victors.

Again, none of this is to say that the long, painful quest for basic freedoms of many groups is no more defensible than the institution of chattel slavery that obtained in America to 1865. One is a product of Enlightenment; the other is a negation of it. Advocates and apologists for either, though, have each leaned on a legend of a prelapsarian past that’s unsupported by verified fact. Defenders of the Confederacy, then and now, misrepresent a society fundamentally built on cruelty and misery. Opponents of racism, sexism, and homophobia, at their most simplistic, want to rebuild a society that has fundamentally never existed.

There are two ways forward. The Lost Causers who cling to a false glorification of the antebellum South must face the brutal truth of how that world was sustained, and that the soldiers they revere fought to keep sustaining it. The Lost Causers who cling to a permanent grievance against racial or sexual discrimination must face the banal truth of the pluralistic world they live in, and that the equality they fight for may not be withheld from them by others so much as by history, and by themselves.

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