‘The Lost Cause’ is back

By Charles M. Blow

If this phony “debate” over the obscure concept of critical race theory caught you off guard and unaware, you are not alone. But it is apparently part of a Republican political strategy to make race — or more precisely, the denial of American racism — a central (and winning) political issue for Republicans.

As David Siders reported Wednesday in Politico, the mantra “America is not a racist country” is emerging as “an early plank of the 2024 GOP contest.”

As Siders put it:

Top Democrats, including President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, have said publicly they don’t believe America is a racist country. But Republicans are hoping to portray the party as out of step with the thinking of mainstream America. And by attempting to harness lightning-rod issues such as critical race theory and “defund the police,” the GOP is signaling race will again be at the center of the 2024 campaign.

We could go through how Republicans are using a faux campaign against critical race theory to prevent the accurate teaching of history, or how it is unmistakable that America is a racist country and that doesn’t require most individual Americans to be consciously racist, and how “defund the police” is a completely logical proposal that, in most cases, is not about abolition of the police force but the reallocation of funds from the police to social services. But there is no use or need.

This is not a debate about facts, this is a debate about narratives. This is a “Lost Cause” redux. When the South lost the Civil War, revisionists there invented the propaganda narrative of the “Lost Cause,” positing that the fight had been honorable and righteous and not about maintaining slavery but maintaining a superior way of life. In this narrative, slavery had been good and the enslaved treated relatively well, with many of the enslaved happy workers.

As Ty Seidule, professor emeritus of history at West Point, wrote in “Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause,” “The Lost Cause created a flawed memory of the Civil War, a lie that formed the ideological foundation for white supremacy and Jim Crow laws, which used violent terror and de jure segregation to enforce racial control.”

We are in the midst of another Lost Cause moment. Conservatives in this country lost a battle in the racial war after the publication of The 1619 Project by The Times and after the historic protests that engulfed the country and the world in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

I’m not sure that I would call it a racial reckoning, but it was definitely a racial rousing.

America seemed willing to at least adjust the narrative about the country, how it was born and how it grew, who belongs and to whom a debt is due. But to many, this was the greatest of threats.

The ability and authority to create narrative — or to challenge or change it — is an awesome power. Some may call it a soft power, but I say soft like the cloud that unleashes the tornado.

Stories have the power to profoundly move people, to create societal frameworks and the pretext for war and peace. The world’s greatest religions follow books that are essentially collections of stories.

It is the story and the ideal that create the American story and the American identity. The brave pilgrims who crossed the ocean and established thriving settlements, against all odds in a hostile new world. The noble and independent cowboy who pushes west. Lewis and Clark, Paul Bunyan, Daniel Boone and Johnny Appleseed.

It is the industrial revolutionists, the Wright brothers and Henry Ford. It is “The Waltons,” Andy Griffith, “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Dukes of Hazzard.” It is the race to the moon, nuclear power and the invention of the internet.

The American narrative that we have built is mostly about the valor, brilliance and determination of white people. Largely absent from it is all of the pain, oppression and death that are woven into that story.

Absent is the enslavement, the massacres and lynchings. Absent are the broken treaties, the internment camps and racial exclusion laws. Absent are the Black Codes, Jim Crow and mass incarceration.

But many Americans like the sanitized version of their history — color-corrected and Photoshopped — and always have.

Altering that narrative, correcting it, filling it out with the uncomfortable bits, with the truth, is an affront to the very idea of America as they have come to conceive it. In their view, including America’s horrors defiles America’s heroes.

So Republicans are on a political crusade to protect lore and lies. They know that many Americans, many of them their voters, will take a lie over guilt and atonement, every day of the week. Many are lost causes in the morass of political tribalism, which makes them all the more open to Lost Cause propaganda.

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