Confronting Centuries of Genocide in America, Advocate, 23/08/2015

Vandalism as an act of justice.
Early last week, I tweeted angrily, as a person tends to do on Twitter. It was this image of a defaced Confederate war memorial, Silent Sam. It’s a memorial to 321 alumni of University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, who died fighting for the Confederacy in the American Civil War. It was erected in 1913, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy was a major funder.

On it, graffiti is written “Who is Sandra Bland?”

On July 4 of this year, the same statue was apparently vandalized with “KKK” and “Murderer.”

I’m rather happy about that. 

But my friendly antagonist offered a rejoinder, that my disgust for the Confederacy needed some better justification. I at least should make a more detailed argument for my disgust than the expression of disgust. As well, some of my comments did run together the slave economy with Jim Crow, two materially different social regimes

In DM a while later, Steve and I discussed the genuine complexity of Southern heritage. Our colleague Jim Collier is the descendant of a Confederate general, Tex Rosser. And there was an entire culture of anti-racism in the South as well, particularly expressed in its experimental literature of the twentieth century – Mississippi’s William Faulkner, Georgia’s Flannery O’Connor, Kentucky’s Robert Penn Warren, Tennessee’s John Crowe Ransom.

The biggest such critical Southern literary voice in the news recently was, of course, Harper Lee of Alabama. Americans, and Mockingbird fans generally, felt a strange sense of shock and sometimes even betrayal on learning that she had always conceived the beloved Atticus Finch as a much more complicated character than the simple first story depicted. Both Go Set a Watchman and its cultural reception made a pointed critique of how Americans understand or ignore the racist elements of their culture and history.

So my visceral disgust at Confederate war memorials appeared to have ignored this long tradition of critique. Southern culture is about more than racism. But the question, for me, remains: What precisely in Southern culture does a Confederate war memorial like Silent Sam express?

You don't mess with Harriet Tubman.
The statue's primary funders were a group of propagandists for the Lost Cause, the idealized, whitewashed vision of the Confederacy as a beautiful society that was crushed under Unionist military invasion and cultural oppression. The United Daughters of the Confederacy were slavery apologists.

Because you can't deny how horrifying slavery was. Millions were worked to death in gruelling conditions, or died of disease in trans-Atlantic travel. Families were routinely broken up, slaves were denied the right to practice their religion and culture. Blacks were dehumanized and treated as property as an essential element of the culture for centuries.

And no matter how much groups like United Daughters of the Confederacy tried to say it was about other causes, the secession of the South and the resulting Civil War was their attempt to preserve the slave economy. Yes, it did have to do with state's rights, particularly their right to maintain a slave economy.

So what about my contention that there's continuity between (white settlement-1865) this slow-moving economy of monetized genocide called slave agriculture, (1865-1960s) the brutal, lynching-enforced caste system of Jim Crow, and (present) the culture of underground white supremacists and habitual police violence against blacks?

I don’t deny the obvious differences. I can’t. But there is one important commonality: the concept of race, particularly a conception of the white and black races as divided by essential caste. That would be white supremacy.

It's a philosophical matter, a common presumption underlying the motives of human behaviour in individuals from Christopher Columbus to Jefferson Davis to Dylann Roof. It’s the presumption that another group of people can be set apart from your own by some obvious characteristic and for that reason treated as less worthy of human rights than you.

To answer the graffiti artist's question, this is
Sandra Bland.
So I’ll continue to be disgusted by monuments to Silent Sam or Robert E. Lee because they romanticize and erase a stain on American history as torrid as the Nazi period in Germany, or the many genocides against indigenous peoples in Canada.

I’d much prefer to see more monuments across the United States to genuine heroes in its history who fought against slavery, white supremacy, and racism. There should be more monuments to revolutionaries like the abolitionist John Brown, or Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman. Frederick Douglass should be given honour throughout America's education systems as one of the country’s great heroes.

And I’ll always be happy to see that someone has defaced a memorial whose purpose is to romanticize white supremacy and dilute its terror. Especially when it’s in the name of a contemporary victim of that terror.


  1. My first response is that defacing Confederate memorials makes as much as sense as the Charlie Hebdo cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammed. Yes, one has the right to skewer another’s sacred cow, but who is supposed to be persuaded by such an action? Certainly not your intended targets. If anything, they’ll come back fighting in an attempt to reinstate their position. So, is your intention to unleash a war of attrition?

    But at a more substantive level, do you really think that anything like your characterisation of slavery was in the forefront of those who risked – and often lost – their lives for the Confederacy in the US Civil War? Yes, they believed in slavery, but the overriding principle was “states’ rights”, or as Lincoln’s great debating opponent, Stephen Douglas, dubbed it “popular sovereignty”.

    Even if most Southerners believed that Blacks deserved slavery as the best fate for their inferior status, the Northerners who did not necessarily believe that Blacks were the equals of Whites. (Some did, of course. They were the Abolitionists, mostly concentrated in New England and radical Christians.) All that the Northerners believed was that slavery was an economic burden on the union. They were guided by the sort of ‘liberalism’ that in another context you’d be the first one to oppose. (Indeed, the ‘Black ghetto’ is a Northern invention, an unintended consequence of ‘emancipation’.) Northerners basically saw slavery as a ‘welfare burden’, in which they were being forced to subsidize both Whites and Blacks in economically outmoded social arrangements. Without this legal protection, labour markets would be freed up, etc.

    When Marx reported on the Civil War, he sided with the North, not because of their attitude towards Blacks, but because it had a clear sense of where history was going – and the South was the final vestige of feudalism in the USA. The Blacks were just a pawn in this larger narrative. However, I think that after the Civil War, the Blacks came to be increasingly scapegoated by White Southerners because they were relative beneficiaries of the Reconstruction policies.

    My guess is that the vehement racism associated with segregationism, Jim Crow Laws and the Ku Klux Klan is an artefact of this scapegoating mentality. As far as I know, most of the Southern discourse on slavery prior to the Civil War (e.g. Calhoun) regarded Blacks paternalistically – by no means the enemy. Of course, paternalism is far from desirable, but it would not warrant the forms of desecration that you’re advocating, if the Confederate soldiers fought in that frame of mind.

    1. Your comments give me a good standing refine some of my ideas here. So I'll start with the first one, about the point of the graffiti in the first place. If you think the goal of whoever defaced that memorial was to communicate an argument to those who believe in the Confederacy and the social structure of white supremacy, you'd be wrong. The spraypaint is an act of protest, and its audience isn't the pure Confederacy romantics and supremacists. It's talking to their own community, and the wider community that has already shifted its morality beyond the strictures of supremacy.

      You talk about the role of the monument in history, and the real political conditions of the time of the Civil War and Reconstruction. And given those contexts, the monument makes sense. But the modern era has seen a shift in the political culture, so that the monuments no longer make sense. The meaning of a Confederacy monument is now, to a critical mass of people, to remind us of the politics and morality of racialized castes.

      Your reminder that Marx considered the black population merely pawns to move the United States further along the arc of history, to capitalism from feudalism, reminds me of Invisible Man. The Marxist radicals in Ellison's story think the same way, and it's why the narrator breaks with Marxism. He waits underground for his own social revolution, and I think (if you'll let me be poetic) that the current movement in the United States is Ellison's invisible man come out of the sewers and starting the revolution. Not Marx's revolutions of history, but the revolution against racialized caste systems. That's the focus of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the philosophy informs their first major policy proposal at

      My argument isn't about the history of the monument and the United States before and after the Civil War generally. It's about the categorical shift that I see happening, if only through the discourse I absorb through my social media connections and seeing the protests unfold in my own city. Important and growing segments of the population see the history that Confederacy monuments used to express in places of veneration as ideas and images better suited to museums.


    2. Slavery was a cultural genocide. As much as you can talk about the paternalistic attitudes of whites for their black property, it was still a system of cultural genocide. Slaves were worked to death. Their families were broken up by basic policy. They were dehumanized in practice by being treated as property to be bought and sold with no more care than I'd sell an old computer. I'm Canadian – my country was built on a cultural genocide against its indigenous peoples. Several eras of genocide, depending on how you draw the historical lines. And it's a genocide that does continue, through the cultural destruction of the reserve system that locks indigenous people in frozen hovels far from anywhere they can find work and the means to a dignified living.

      Slavery (and the morality of racial casts / white supremacy that does continue today, if articulated through different social structures and institutions) is a cultural genocide, and the images of its heroes and martyrs shouldn't be given pride of place in public squares. They should be in museums.

      Yad Vashem is a good model for them.

  2. You don’t seem to realize that when people venerate the Confederacy, they are not simply – and in some cases, not even primarily – venerating racism. Everything that many Americans continue to dislike about ‘big government’ and the ‘Washington elite’ has resonances in the Confederate cause in the American Civil War. Here it’s worth recalling that that slaveholder Thomas Jefferson was a Confederate icon. Jefferson never liked the US Constitution and insisted on a Bill of Rights as a kind of counterweight.

    It’s a pretty straightforward matter to take down the Confederate flag from Southern state houses because the Confederacy has no legal standing. Removing monuments to people who fought for the Confederacy is a trickier matter. I am struck by your repetition of the phrase ‘cultural genocide’. It’s hard to see how you expect to impose your will on the Southerners who still wish to venerate the Confederacy without yourself committing ‘cultural genocide’ on them by banning the expression of their memories of the struggle. All of your rhetoric seems to be directed to amassing followers that overpower the remaining Confederate sympathisers without ever having to go through the trouble of persuading the sympathisers themselves.

    To be honest, I think this latest attempt to purge the US of its Confederate memories is just displacement behaviour on the part of well-intentioned leftists who have difficulty understanding how Blacks can still be treated as badly as they are in the US. This is indeed a difficult problem and it does relate to racism, and is probably traceable to the resentment caused by the handling of the Reconstruction. However, removing Confederate monuments is, to say the least, a very roundabout way of addressing what in the end is a very contemporary problem.

    1. Well, let me put it like this. I don't think the United States should delete all memory of the Confederacy or its slavery history altogether (same with Canada and its history of crimes against indigenous people). I think it belongs in a museum dedicated to remembering terrible crimes. That's why I referred to Yad Vashem.

      It isn't cultural genocide when we recognize the evil of an old political regime. There are still plenty of people who romanticize the colonial period of Canada in my own country, and the period of early Confederation when Métis suffered ethnic cleansing in the Prairies at the direction of the MacDonald government. My current PM is one of those people. Recognizing that, and forcing people through various methods to recognize that, isn't cultural genocide, but cultural change.

      Cultural genocide is the use of coercive power (whether through the state or military, or through more grassroots organizations like lynch mobs and everyday prejudice) to wipe away their way of life. The slave economy was one of those political regimes. It wouldn't destroy German, Japanese, or British culture to recognize their own history as perpetrators of terror like the Holocaust, the slave economies of Occupation and massacres in China, or the sustained centuries of cruelty and massacre to maintain the British Empire. For the same reason, it wouldn't destroy Southern American culture to recognize the cruelty of slavery and the cultural tendencies of white supremacism that still exist in the United States. It wouldn't destroy Canadian culture to recognize fully the sustained terror of the reserve system. It would be a massive cultural change, because it would shift these histories from being points of pride to causes for regret and reparation.