Friday, July 28, 2017

The Lost Cause: Old, New, and What To Do About It

I am not a Southerner, but I am something of a guest of the South. Although an Arizona native, I went to school in Texas (twice), married a gal from Mississippi, and settled in Virginia. Like many Americans, recent controversies surrounding Confederate monuments have spurred along my ongoing efforts to understand Southern heritage.

I appreciated Gregory S. Bucher's "Romanticism of the 'Lost Cause,'" published in First Things, for one particular insight it brought me: just because one racist raises a monument to another racist, that does not necessarily mean that racism was the motive for raising the monument. Without disputing that the Civil War was fundamentally about slavery - the declarations of secession were pretty explicit about that - one can recognize that the 19th century worldview was considerably different from most contemporary worldviews. Lost causes - not just The Lost Cause, but all of them - had a particular appeal to many, both within and outside the South, quite irrespective of the content of the cause. Seemingly fruitless suffering, most in need of justification, was conveniently - in the Romantic worldview - most noble.

History sometimes grants us insights into the motivations of actors, but those insights are rare gems. More often we know what was done, but not why. Doubtless, some erectors of Confederate monuments raised them with the explicit intention to further white supremacy and do so by casting a cloak of courage and liberty - and thus respectability - over the Southern rebellion. But I suspect that many monument erectors, whether they were racists or not, firmly believed themselves to be honoring courage, sacrifice, and freedom, even if their actions had the effect of entrenching white supremacy in the South and whitewashing the historical narrative.

History informs how we behave in the present, but it does not dictate our behavior. Discussions of history and present policy, though interrelated, are distinct issues. We may be cautious about passing historical judgements, while still being clear about what contemporary society should do. But even if, with the value of hindsight, we recognize certain monuments as racist and conclude that they must go, we can still be charitable, perhaps even generous, toward many who erected them and still value them today.

* * *

While listening to Gillian Welch - whose music, though beautiful, is consistently depressing - it occurred to me that swaths of contemporary America have embraced a new permutation of the Lost Cause myth, depicted in a variety of musical and other cultural representations. The patchwork of folk and country references which follow many strike some readers as eclectic; perhaps other selections could have been made, but I think these demonstrate the breadth of this general pattern.

The story goes something like this: America, or this corner of it, this was once an agrarian place. It was not prosperous, but homey and traditional: "We all picked the cotton but we never got rich," as Alabama sings. Or, in the words of the Carolina Chocolate Drops:
Runnin' with your cousins from yard to yard
Livin' was easy but the playin' was hard
Didn't have much, nothing comes for free
All you needed was your family.
In time, this agrarian world gave way to aspects of modern industrialization, things like coal mines and railroads. But many of its promises were unfulfilled and, after having broken the health of so many workers, this industrialization seems to have left them behind. Dan Zanes laments the railroad that never came:
Then up stepped a politician
He stopped her in her tracks
From what I understand
He turned her sent her back
The people down in Guysborough
Still waiting for a train
The dream they had for many years
Proved to be in vain.
Tom Russell describes the closing of a steel mill: "My wife stares out the window with a long and lonely stare / She says 'you kill yourself for 30 years but no one seems to care.'" 

The evils of industrialization are found in the traditional Lost Cause myth as well. Eric Foner explains, “The antebellum South was recalled as a benevolent, orderly society that pitted its noble values against the aggressive greed of northern industrial society.” In both narratives, industrialization is identified with outside forces; it is, at best, fickle, more likely deceptive and exploitative.

Yet for better or worse, industrialization came, and then largely went. So where does that leave us now? There's a strange mix of sorrow in the new Lost Cause at all that is lost and almost a celebration of the ills left behind. Gillian Welch sings:
A river of whiskey flows down in Dixie
Down along the Dixie Line
They pulled up the tracks now
I can't go back now
Can't hardly keep from cryin'.
Indeed, alcohol is a recurring theme, both in sorrow and in celebration. Charlie Daniels boasts:
People say I'm no good and crazy as a loon
'Cause I get stoned in the morning
And get drunk in the afternoon
Kinda like my old blue tick hound
I like to lay around in the shade
And I ain't got no money but I damn sure got it made.
Or, in a more elegiac form, Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss relate a tragic tale:
We watched him drink his pain away a little at a time
But he never could get drunk enough to get her off his mind
Until the night...
He put that bottle to his head and pulled the trigger
And finally drank away her memory
Life is short but this time it was bigger
Than the strength he had to get up off his knees.
Like the traditional Lost Cause, this new narrative admits to failure, but also accepts, even embraces it..

The musical threads of the new Lost Cause tapestry are certainly found in the old Confederate states, the traditional definition of the South. But they are also found across a wider geography, including much of the Rust Belt and Middle America. The areas where this new Lost Cause is found probably align well with parts of the country that voted for Donald Trump. And this should come as little surprise: according to this new mythology, much has indeed been lost, hence the need to make America great again. But amidst this narrative’s drunken post-industrial suffering, there is also a sense that greatness cannot be regained, at least not along the old lines. Thus America did not elect a senator or a general or even a Boy Scout, but, rather, a loud-mouthed, twice-divorced zillionaire with no record of public service. In the ruins of American society, you could say, this is the best we can hope for.

* * *

Southern writers reflect something of the new narrative as well. The characters described by William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, or Walker Percy are hardly winners. They are frequently insane and often vicious. If they have not had a stiff drink lately, they could probably use one. Suffering, these writers admit, is the way of our world.

Their writings share a certain quality of anti-modernism with both Lost Causes, the old and the new. Modern society, they implicitly argue, has not reached the deepest corners of the South or, if it has, it has failed to solve its ills. More likely, modernity has made those ills worse.

One might conclude from this sorry state of affairs that some kind of Southern revivalism is needed: if we reject the modern social, economic, and political arrangements imported from the North, if we go back to the old ways, all will be well. But I do not think this the approach that the likes of Percy and O'Connor would endorse.

Though these Catholic writers had a deep respect for tradition, they recognized that the flaws of the modern era run deep. Our common suffering is ultimately rooted not in modernity, however problematic it may be, but in man's fallen nature. We ought not celebrate our brokenness, but we must at least admit to it. Erecting monuments will not solve our problems. Hiding amidst the babble of modern psychology will ultimately leave us deeply unsatisfied, as Percy repeatedly underscores in Lost in the Cosmos. Rather, we must offer our pathetic situation, the husk of our individual selves and our broken society, to the one who has the power to save, Almighty God. Conversion has the power to accomplish what no amount of nostalgia or memorialization ever could. Lord, have mercy.

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