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The Governor of Virginia recently proclaimed April “Confederate History Month.” A few political scientists quickly derided the gesture as symbolic politics, pandering to a conservative base. Why would celebrating (and that’s what it is – not simply recognizing) the confederate past score political points? Is there some part of the Virginian conservative base that subscribes to, or is sympathetic to, the principles of the confederacy?
The true meaning of this proclamation can be read between the lines of the proclamation itself. Here is the opening paragraph:
WHEREAS, April is the month in which the people of Virginia joined the Confederate States of America in a four year war between the states for independence that concluded at Appomattox Courthouse; and…
The ‘war between the states’ is not described as the rebellion or insurrection, but described nobly as a ‘war for independence.’ Covert language can be found throughout the proclamation – language that seems to have one meaning, but can be easily understood by one segment of the citizenry to embody a different meaning. Consider the third paragraph:
… 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; and…
To ‘understand the sacrifices’? Consider the word ‘sacrifice.’ It connotes more than simply the loss of life. The dictionary defines ‘sacrifice’ as follows:
1.the offering of animal, plant, or human life or of some material possession to a deity, as in propitiation or homage.
3. the surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim.
The surrender or destruction of something for the sake of something considered as having a ‘higher’ claim. To ‘understand the sacrifice’ implies more than simply creating awareness of the loss of life. To understand ‘sacrifice’ also means awareness of that ‘higher claim.’
What was that higher claim? Even John McCain, in a C-SPAN speech, acknowledged that the Civil War was fought over slavery, beyond a revisionist history whose claim was that the issue was just simply about ‘states rights.’
It is nothing short of shocking that in 2010 a Southern politician would be so bold. I suppose we are only a generation and a half away from George Wallace’s “Segregation Forever” speech, but what’s so insidious about contemporary symbolic politics – particularly those with a racial subtext – is that it disguises and conceals itself, as Drew Westin so brilliantly reveals in his book The Political Brain.
The outcry at the proclamation misses the point entirely. Without question, the omission of slavery was egregious, particularly if we read the proclamation on its face, that it is about ‘understanding’ the history of the Civil War. And, Governor McDonnell was right to hastily include reference to slavery, and its great evil.
But what the critics have failed to point out thus far, and what is so desperately needed, is how this proclamation actually conveys its symbolic and coded meanings. After all, when read in its entirety, the proclamation would seem to emphasize an understanding and awareness of history, not a celebration of the confederacy. Many Virginian’s ancestors – particularly those that were enslaved – did not sacrifice for the Confederacy. Wouldn’t it make more sense for the Governor to Proclaim April “Civil War History Month” rather than “Confederate History Month?”
Not if you understand the real meaning of this proclamation.
Author: Stephen Menendian (14 Articles)
Stephen Menendian is the senior legal research associate at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University. Stephen directs and supervises the Institute’s legal advocacy, analysis and research, and manages many of the Institute’s most important projects. His principal areas of advocacy and scholarship include education, civil rights and human rights, Constitutional law, the racialization of opportunity structures, talking about race, systems thinking and implicit bias.