The Myth Of The Lost Case: A Case Study In The Tension Between Criticism And Advocacy

There are many pitfalls that a historian can fall into that can greatly harm the quality of their work as scholars, and frequently scholars appear greatly ignorant of these pitfalls.  On the one hand, one can be so wrapped up in advocacy for a worldview or a cause that one’s analysis is distorted by that advocacy and one ends up simply writing propaganda for a given cause rather than an analytical and insightful discussion of something.  Similarly, a reflexive hostility to a particular perspective that one is researching can also make it impossible for one to pass on legitimate insight because one’s hostility blinds one to the insights that can only be possible when relating to other human beings as human beings.  Whether we passionately love a cause and wish to see it win, or whether we hate a cause and wish to see it obliterated from memory, neither approach is conducive to providing worthwhile and lasting insight on a topic.  If we write about what we love or what we hate, we are blinded by our emotional resonance to the need to combine criticism as well as provide some sort of judgment as to quality of what we are dealing with.

In few cases is this tendency as polarizing and as glaringly obvious as the historical war that rages over the myth of the lost cause.  For various reasons, not least of which being a deep interest in the Civil War, a hostility to leftist identity politics, and a personal history of having been both an outcast in the South and in being judged because of having grown up in the South, my own view towards the Lost Cause is complicated and ambivalent.  I know a fair amount of people, some of whom I am related to, for whom the myth of the Lost Cause has at some points in their lives provided a strong sense of identity and a motivation to rise up in defense of a threatened and marginalized group of people, namely Southern whites.  Similarly, having grown up as a Yankee in the American South, my own pro-Union perspective has demonstrated the darker side of the myth of the Lost Cause in the way that it refuses to deal with the truth of history, including the dishonorable reasons for which the Civil War was fought and the way that hostility to the elevation of the black into equality with the white has led to a great deal of suffering and violence to the present day.  While disagreeing with the perspective of the Lost Cause, I see how it has a vitally important role in allowing people to avoid feeling condemned by the verdict of history and allow them to respect their ancestors and even respect themselves to a certain degree, without a conscious desire to exploit or dishonor others, but with a prickly sense of pride and dignity that refuses to accept slights or dishonors.  To a large extent I share at least some personal understanding of the culture of honor in being unwilling to accept slights personally, so I can relate [1].

There is a deep degree of asymmetry when it comes to the myth of the lost cause.  Those who mention the myth by name are uniformly and extremely hostile to it.  To name it is to blame it and generally to hate and condemn it and everyone who is involved in the creation of the myth or its perpetuation.  Similarly, those who present the myth of the lost cause usually tend not to mention at all but simply to embody it by equivocating about the causes of the Civil War and the state of slavery in the antebellum United States, as well as in the Christ-like portrayal of Robert E. Lee as being a saintly martyr, and other related qualities.  Without having any degree of support for the cause of the South, I nonetheless cannot see Southerners of the past or of the present as being anything less than human beings who like all human beings struggle with the longing to be respected and viewed with dignity.  It is a great shame that one cannot give dignity to such people without being viewed as denying the dignity and respect of other people.  All too often in history when we are faced with atrocities and horrors we struggle to properly apportion blame.  It is hard to know who to blame more and how to accept some degree of responsibility while not accepting the unjust accusations that others make about this sort of thing, and what other people consider to be obvious truths are damnable lies to those who suffer the sting of libel and defamation.

It should be noted as well that it is hard to view the past or the present with anything approaching a sense of justice.  We all have our perspectives and experiences and backgrounds and loyalties that skew and slant our view of the world.  One of the reasons why our social and political discourse is such a mess right now is because we are all in an unspoken mutual pact to point out the specks in the eyes of everyone else and deny to kingdom come the beams that are in our own eyes lest we mourn over the sins of our fathers and the sins of our children and the sins of our own hands and turn to God and repent for our pride and wickedness alike.  The Lost Cause is one of those things that crystallizes our view of the past and its relevance to the present day in such a way that it forces us to recognize that we are not just, that the past is full of horrors, and that many people seek to use the past as a crutch to avoid taking necessary personal responsibility for their deeds and in improving their lives.

I would wish that everyone could thrive, and that we could live without finding it necessary to look down on anyone for their background and to see the past clearly and honestly and to own up to it and to forgive and to not use it as a club to beat others over the head with who are not responsible for what happened and can do nothing about it.  I can look at the antebellum period and see how it became impossible for there to be peace because it was not possible to recognize the evil truths of Southern slavery for some, or to recognize the common fallen and flawed humanity shared by all the parties involved by others.  Self-righteous and hypocritical reformers and stubborn reactionaries bring hell on themselves and others, and that was as true in the period before the Civil War as it is today.  And we appear to have learned nothing from the experience about the common darkness and injustice that lies in the heart of men and women of every color and background and any other quality that people may possess.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, History, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s