I Get the “Racist” Part…but Why Is It “Creationist”?

We history nerds are a-flutter. Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly got us riled up by stating that General Lee was an “honorable man” and that more “compromise” could have avoided the Civil War. To many of us, such arguments are a cruel attempt to whitewash the deep racism that fueled the war and today’s culture war over Confederate monuments. I’ve been putting in my two cents and following the debate closely. In general, I feel like I understand the various positions involved, but recent comments by one of my favorite pundits have me stumped.

Some of my friends and family generally agree with General Kelly. They don’t see why academic historians are so determined that support for heroes back then implies support for racism now. The common charge is that progressives and historians are trying to “whitewash” history by disrespecting monuments to our shared past.

To academic historians like me, it seems obvious: Most of the General Lee monuments didn’t go up right after the Civil War. They went up much later, in a blatant attempt to assert a heroic history for the slave regime of the Confederacy. They were an attempt by later white-supremacist state governments and organizations to whitewash history, to prove that the Confederates were the good guys, not really traitors after all.

The back and forth can be exhausting, but at least I feel like I (sort of) understand both positions. When Ta-Nehisi Coates offered a recent condemnation of General Kelly’s remarks, though, he flummoxed me. As Coates put it, “Regarding John Kelly’s creationist theorizing on Lee and the Civil War, its worth pointing out a few things.”

ta nahesi coates general kelly creationist tweet

…am I missing something???

As you can imagine, this is the line that stumps me. Why is Kelly’s defense of General Lee “creationist”? I agree that it’s bad history. I agree that at root it supports a white-supremacist-derived vision of American history, even if I understand that many people who agree with Kelly don’t think of themselves as racist.

But why, oh why, did Coates call this “creationist” thinking? As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, I’m fascinated with all things creationist. And I could imagine some reasons why someone would lump together Christian-history activists like David Barton with creationist activists like Ken Ham.

Is that what Coates is doing? Or do people in general just use “creationist” as an all-purpose adjective meaning “wacky” or “incorrect?” I looked over his twitter feed and I couldn’t find any explanation. Can you?

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13 Comments

  1. Agellius

     /  November 3, 2017

    Just trying to understand your position here, not arguing with it: You say that the monuments and the attempt to make Lee et al. into heroes didn’t take place until long after the ward as an attempt to whitewash it. It sounds like you’re saying they knew damn well they were racist sons of bitches but only started pretending they weren’t in the 20th Century. Are you saying that they were not considered heroes in the South before that time? But didn’t the Confederates and most Southerners consider themselves to be in the right from the beginning?

    Reply
    • Before we talk monuments, what is your take on Coates’s use of “creationist?” I’ve been asking everyone I see in the real world, and so far there is universal agreement with Dan’s point: Most people think Coates means to equate “creationist” with “dunderheaded/wacko/extremist.” But no one has heard anyone else use it that way, at least not yet. What do you think?
      As for monuments, I’ll try to make the case, though I know full well it has been made better by better-informed people. In short, though the Lee monuments (and similar ones) might seem like a tribute to military bravery and heroism during the war, they were put up as part of an attempt much later to impose a new version of racial hierarchy in many areas of the former Confederacy. They coincided (not coincidentally) with the burst of lynchings. Both were part of the same social effort to entrench the new white-supremacist regime. The lynchings were the brutal coercive part. The statues were the public memory part. By asserting that General Lee was honored and lionized, such statues made a public statement that the former Confederacy was morally right. And that, of course, included the slave system.
      It’s like the way our money says “In God We Trust.” That fact doesn’t tell us anything about the Founding Fathers and the supposedly Christian nature of the early Republic. Rather, it tells us about Cold-War-era anxieties and the effort to assert a public image of the United States as a fundamentally religious society.
      *BTW since I can add links, here’s one to the Bacevich article Dan mentioned.

      Reply
      • That’s not what I said about Coates. I suggested he may have a more sophisticated sense of the ideological equivalence between Creationism and NeoConfederate mythologies as ideological fictions being foisted on society for traditional totalitarian reasons, using traditional totalitarian methods.

      • What did you mean by this, then?:
        “Coates’ use of “creationist” seems like he’s trying out a new, polemical meaning for the word — as in “made up from whole cloth,” or “complete rubbish.””

      • At a minimum, that may be all he means. He seems like a more sophisticated writer than that, however, and I hope he has a sense of the larger potential of the word as polemic that is also analytically incisive. The US badly needs increasingly public intolerance for and hostility toward ideological garbage perspectives. Creationists and NeoConfederates alike are necessary participants by right in mainstream discourse; in fact their inclusion is suicidal. They need to be driven from the field as a mandate from a majority of citizens. Other countries are far less tolerant of choose-your-own-truth adventures, and this is being recognized as the reason why only the US has gone belly up to a little social media engineering.

      • *NOT necessary participants. 🙂

  2. This isn’t really about the monuments; they are proxies for the legitimacy of one of the major alternative histories of the United States that provides a theopolitical identity for a lot of Americans, in the north and south. (It’s even spread to Russian-East European conflict zones.)

    The military draws heavily on the Myth of Lee; see Andrew Bacevitch’s discussion of the history of this at West Point, which remains a substantial shrine to Lee and other confederate traitors. Coates’ point about career military officers not understanding the nation they defend is apt but also naive; they understand and identify with an alternative America that has lived on from the Civil War to today, and its adherents want you to know they will not be replaced.

    Coates’ use of “creationist” seems like he’s trying out a new, polemical meaning for the word — as in “made up from whole cloth,” or “complete rubbish.” He may also be noting the similarity in rhetorical gambits between the “intelligent design” and generally far-right “wedge strategy” where liberal discourse’s value neutrality (or hospitality) is exploited for its tolerance. Extremists build a numerically, financially, institutionally “legitimate” knowledge regime around American history, religion, science, etc. and then demand to be admitted to the mainstream in order to “represent both sides” with “equal time” and so on.

    I am finding my Canadian college students very concerned about these issues — racism, “fake news,” and lack of social cohesion around shared values and plotlines. Canadian multiculturalism is susceptible to the same divisions, and there are direct historic and active links between the ideologies and activists of the alt-right in the US and Canada. It has been surprising to me to hear support from young people for some kind of state directed enforcement division against purveyors of false facts and fake news. Others are recognizing once things have gone that far there is no state solution; when the social contract is broken, the state deepens its illegitimacy by trying to enforce it, as the core problem is a lack of consensus in the general will.

    Reply
  3. Agellius

     /  November 3, 2017

    Adam:

    I can only guess what Coates meant. Maybe that Kelly’s theorizing is unscientific? It’s not at all clear.

    I’m still confused by your explanation. You say “Both were part of the same social effort to entrench the new white-supremacist regime”. But wasn’t it an old white supremacist regime? When was it not that?

    As far as calling the Confederates traitors, I had the idea that people back then felt as much or more patriotic loyalty to their individual states than to the national government. So that failing to fight for your state would make you a traitor as much as anything. Am I wrong about that?

    If this is too much to explain in a comment thread that’s fine. I’m not trying to get free teaching out of you. : )

    Reply
    • They are traitors because their side lost, and the Union won. “States rights” and regionalist identitarianism that assaults the idea of the Union is treacherous and insurrectionist. You’ve got a general in the White House speaking for an idiocratic racist; they are their circle are amenable to those who want to re-do the Civil War. There was and is no compromise possible. These men are criminals and illegitimate; they belong in prison, at the least.

      Reply
    • Agellius,
      In my understanding, there are two big historical truths that non-specialists don’t know about, and that non-knowledge is not simple ignorance, but rather part of a successful plan to foist neo-Confederate history and memory into our popular sense of the past. I don’t talk lightly about conspiracies, but in this case there was a real plan to replace historical fact with neo-Confederate myth. People like Mildred Rutherford talked openly and frankly about their successful scheme to teach children a history in which Confederates had always bravely and heroically reserved their first loyalty for their states over the nation. And in which white-supremacy had always been the guiding principle of state government.
      Neither of those myths are true. After the war, Reconstruction governments and political movements in the former Confederacy were often biracial. The Republicans worked across racial lines to install anti-Confederate governments. Only after 1877 did “Redeemer” governments impose a new white supremacist regime to replace the old one. They used paramilitary violence to overwhelm the bi-racial Reconstruction governments.
      When it came to loyalty to state over nation, I’ll quote from Rice historian Caleb McDaniel’s recent Atlantic article:
      “slaveholders were powerfully committed to the Union on whose power they depended. As long as the nation worked for them, they worked for the nation.”

      Reply
      • Agellius

         /  November 3, 2017

        Adam:

        Thanks, I appreciate you taking the time to explain.

      • Yes, that’s very good. Additionally, it is important to recognize how influential these narratives have been on other parts of the American right, particularly Evangelicals and certain Libertarian, theonomist, and Calvinist circles. The southern partisan material is sometimes absent and usually diluted, but not always. More often you hear about “federalism” and “states rights” that does not require ideological support for slavery, explicit racism, etc. A common marker of affinity for neoconfederate ideology among other, similarly aligned fellow travelers is the idea that slaves were better off in some spiritual, moral, and material ways than their descendents under “the welfare state” are today. There is also a crossover between certain ideas about biblical patriarchy and models of “male headship” such as Doug Wilson’s “federal husband” where “federal” derives from American anti-anti-federalism. The romantic myth of the south as a Christian neomedieval hierarchical order with everyone in their proper place has a long history, like all these other ideas. The internet and contemporary events have amplified them enormously.

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