In a time of contentious debate over Confederate monuments, Nicole Maurantonio (Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Communication studies and American Studies at the University of Richmond) provides an intriguing look into how revisionist ideas of the Confederacy have seeped into mainstream culture. Based in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, she is well-positioned to comment on the neo-Confederate groups in the South and around the country. Their goal, she recognizes, is to separate the legacy of slavery and racism that is so deeply intertwined with Confederate symbols and isolate an idyllic portrayal of “the South.” These groups proudly wave Confederate battle flags, put up monuments to Confederate generals, and even sell Confederate cookbooks. Together, these attempts to embrace and revise the history of the Confederacy create Confederate Exceptionalism.
Maurantonio’s interdisciplinary book treats the state of Virginia as a confederate museum to be analyzed. The book combines carefully selected language and wide-ranging case studies of Confederate Exceptionalism including the infamous Monument Avenue in Richmond, songs and anthems, cookbooks, the exhibit of Stonewall Jackson’s stuffed horse, the myth of Black confederate soldiers, and the manipulation of social media to trivialize counter-protesters in the #Tarpwars after Charlottesville. The podcast allows Maurantonio to connect the thesis to protesters toppling the statue of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy on Monument Row in June 2020 -- and offer a fascinating analysis of the decision not to clean graffiti and how this empowers members of the community to use the monuments to oppose white supremacy,
Maurantonio defines Confederate Exceptionalism as a mix of Lost Cause ideology and American Exceptionalism, two ideas with deep roots in the South and the broader United States. The former constitutes the attempts of Southerners to twist the narrative of the Civil War, painting the Confederates as noble heroes, fighting for the protection of states’ rights and their way of life. This line of thinking also blames the North and abolitionists for sectional tensions before the war, and perhaps most dangerously, perpetuates the “loyal slave” cliché, representing enslaved people as willing participants in their own bondage. American exceptionalism, present at the founding of the United States, presents the United States as superior to any other nation or civilization. Gaining steam as the U.S. became a global superpower in the early 20th century, the concept ignores the negative aspects of the nation, pointing to liberalism, diversity, and freedom, as well as military might, to illustrate greatness. When the two concepts are merged by neo-Confederate groups, the amalgamation of Southern superiority and rewritten history undergird Confederate Exceptionalism.
Confederate Exceptionalism: Civil War Myth and Memory in the Twenty-First Century (University Press of Kansas, 2019) explores the impacts and motivations of its namesake through conversations with neo-Confederates and investigations into the institutions that allow Confederate exceptionalism to exist and prosper in a world where its roots are so widely denounced.
Benjamin Warren assisted with this podcast.
Susan Liebell is associate professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She is the author of Democracy, Intelligent Design, and Evolution: Science for Citizenship (Routledge, 2013) and, most recently, “Retreat from the Rule of Law: Locke and the Perils of Stand Your Ground” in the Journal of Politics (August 2020).
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