Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell decided to stir up some controversy when he declared April “Confederate History Month,” reviving a state tradition that his Democratic predecessors had ignored for the past eight years. Generally, I think our society has become too politically correct, and I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with having a Confederate History Month. (Indeed, there’s nothing wrong with having an x History Month for any x worthy of historical study.)
McDonnell claims, then, that his goal by signing this proclamation is simply to promote the scholarly study of the Confederacy and the Civil War. He told reporters, “Simply as a point of history–to study the history of the Confederacy–[is] something that should be done.” Tough to argue with that.
But to anyone who reads McDonnell’s declaration, it’s clear that his actual goal in holding Confederate History Month is to commemorate the Confederacy, not to promote the study of history. The declaration reads, in part, “Whereas it is important for all Virginians to reflect upon our Commonwealth’s shared history, to understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War, and to recognize how our history has led to our present…” Read the rest of the declaration yourself, but the other clauses all have a similar tone.
I’d like to digress briefly to share one of my favorite dialogues from The Simpsons. Indian-born Apu is in the middle of the oral component of his American citizenship exam:
Proctor: All right, here’s your last question. What was the cause of the Civil War?
Apu: Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter–
Proctor: Wait, wait… just say slavery.
Apu: Slavery it is, sir.
The Simpsons: insightful as usual!
Of course, it’s an oversimplification to say that slavery caused the Civil War. (With few exceptions, no war has one single, clear cause.) The Civil War, and thus the Confederacy, arose because of economic and social differences between the North and South, sectional debates about the regional balance of power, and disagreements over the supremacy of the federal government. But virtually all these skirmishes stemmed from a fundamental disagreement over slavery, and anyone who argues that the Civil War was about states’ rights, not slavery, ignores that in the Antebellum, these were one and the same.
Any truly historical retelling of the Confederacy–even one contained in a short proclamation of Confederate History Month–must include real acknowledgment of these unpleasant fact. McDonnell’s declaration is just another example of a southerner recalling the Confederacy with a seriously selective memory. For McDonnell to turn around and say that he’s doing it purely for the history is hypocritical.
As a tangential and partially silly side note, the mere fact that April is labeled “Confederate History Month,” as opposed to “Civil War History Month” or “Confederate History Awareness Month,” is a pretty good indicator that it’s intended to be a commemoration of the Confederacy, not a study of its history. Here is a list of other declaration-designated days/weeks/months.
Generally, things that are being praised take the form x Day/Week/Month and things that are being brought to our attention or condemned take the form x Awareness Day/Week/Month. For example, June is Fireworks Safety Month; April is Sports Eye Safety Month; September is Whole Grains Month; and in February we celebrate National Condom Day. Notice how fireworks safety, sports eye safety, whole grains, and condoms are pretty obviously good things that we want to commemorate.
On the other hand, November is Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease Awareness Month; March is National Gambling Problem Awareness Week; and May is Alcohol- and Other Drug-Related Birth Defects Awareness Week. Gastroesophageal reflux disease, gambling problems, and drug-related birth defects are unambiguously bad things and thus take the words “awareness” in their designated months.
There are, of course, exceptions to this pattern, but based on my theory, the fact that Gov. McDonnell chose the phrase “Confederate History Month” is a decent indication that, on the whole, he thinks the Confederacy was a good thing. It’s a semi-ridiculous theory that, in this case, probably reaches the correct conclusion.
Photo Credit: Flickr stream of Scooter Flix