Don’t Take the Bait

Engaging in Arguments About the Confederacy Distracts from the Issues

Entering the fray on Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s Confederate History Month proclamation takes attention away from important issues, writes Sam Fulwood.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell declared April to be Confederate History Month in Virginia without even any mention of slavery, and now Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is defending him. (AP/Steve Helber)
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell declared April to be Confederate History Month in Virginia without even any mention of slavery, and now Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is defending him. (AP/Steve Helber)

It was awful enough that Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell commemorated April as Confederate History Month—without mentioning slavery.

Sure, that move was historically inaccurate as well as an inflammatory insult. And sure enough, he apologized after the resulting outcry made life miserable for him in the commonwealth and across the nation.

But what are we to make of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour? He appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday and volunteered an opinion well after Gov. McDonnell apologized: “To me, it’s a sort of feeling that it’s a nit, that it is not significant, that it’s not a—it’s trying to make a big deal out of something (that) doesn’t amount to diddly.”

Why, in the name of Jefferson Davis, did a second Republican governor step into the same racially sensitive mess?

Well, I’m glad you asked me that question. There’s only one plausible answer I can find: It’s a conservative trick bag. The idea is to set a diversionary trap for progressives by getting us sidetracked into a dead-end debate over an established and verifiable history.

The Confederate Army engaged in treason and sedition against the United States of America in support of the southern way of life that had the enslavement of black people at its foundation. Any historically accurate observance of the Confederacy must make this clear.

Like waving the Dixie flag, the Confederate Month proclamation (sans any mention of slavery) plays like a dog whistle only heard by the small and dying breed of backward-looking mossbacks. Its thin, but loud, following longs for the South to rise again and the current unpleasantness of 21st century America to evaporate like morning dew in sunshine.

Gov. McDonnell tried appeasing them, but got burned because Virginia is a southern state that is creeping out from under the heavy rock of the Confederacy. His blunder drew fire from influential conservative thought leaders and found critics from within the GOP ranks.

Not so much for Gov. Barbour and Mississippi, where racial insensitivity can be politically empowering. That’s why Gov. Barbour, who dreams of becoming the next president of the United States, felt neither the shame, nor political damage, for his grossly insensitive comments. There’s nothing like invoking the honor of the fallen Confederates to rally political support for lost causes among some Southerners. He knows what he’s doing. And he’s damn proud to do it.

Thinking people understand how historically misguided it is to use the Confederacy to divide Americans. We’ve all watched that movie before, and the ending never changes: The rebels lose and national unity is preserved. Newspaper editorialists, bloggers, and activists have made this crystal clear when Gov. McDonnell offered the gambit in Virginia.

Gov. Barbour is getting the same business with his ignorant comments. This whole episode is going to collapse on Gov. Barbour just as it did on Gov. McDonnell.

So there’s no need for progressives to go into full-battle mode on this one. Don’t rise to the bait. Be cool. Let this melodrama over the meaning and history of the Civil War play out among the crackpots of the Confederacy without engaging in hyperbolic outrage.

Any emotional overreactions provide energy for the knuckle draggers among the far-right wing in their desperate attempt to seek attention. We do better by denying them the satisfaction.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow