Confederacy Mythmaking, Consumerism, and Cultural Politics

two people ponder myths or facts

I have southern lineage on both sides of my family so contending with a long, revisionist history about the Confederacy is nothing new to me. I have vivid memories of spending summers in the South and seeing people proudly waving Confederate battle flags from the backs of their vehicles. Confederacy enthusiasts would frequently tout tradition and an ode to history as a reason for upholding the legacy of the defeated army in the American Civil War. My family and many Black Americans view upholding this relic of a time gone by as racist passive-aggressive behavior operationalized.

The historical revisionism of the Confederacy continued in 20th-century popular culture. The Dukes of Hazzard (set in Hazzard County, Georgia) was a popular television comedy with a seven-season run from 1979 to 1985. One of the show’s central “characters” was an orange 1969 Dodge Charger with a Confederate battle flag painted on the roof with the words “GENERAL LEE” emblazoned over each door. A Confederate flag and a checkered racing flag in a crisscross pattern could be seen behind the rear window. The vehicle’s horn played “Dixie,” a song symbolic of the South’s racist practices toward Black people. Among the many ironic factoids about this show is that it outlasted the actual Confederacy (1861–1865).

Fast forward to the 21st century and it feels we are circular punching on the matter of the Confederacy in the US. While HBO and various higher education institutions walked back programmatic plans and practices involving the Confederacy, some American states doubled down on upholding Confederate Memorial Day. Yet, other states that were never a part of the Confederacy, such as Ohio, continue to host active debates about open Confederate battle flag displays and sales. This debate is odd given that the Confederate battle flag was never the official flag of the Confederacy.

Some scholars openly challenge the historical arguments for the Confederacy. Col. Ty Seidule (Ret.), former head of the history department at the United States Military Academy and professor emeritus of history at West Point, released a video in 2015 outlining the slavery rationale for the Confederacy, which went viral. Atlantic staff writer Clint Smith (Ph.D. in education from Harvard University) recently wrote a remarkable piece on the persistence of the Confederacy myth. It is this persistence of mythmaking that matters now.

While there is no concrete evidence that the Confederacy’s heroic mythmaking has led to other lies, including the recent “Big Lie” of the last presidential election that currently dogs American democracy, it begs an important question: does mythmaking have a scaffolding effect? The literature on consumer research and memory (paywalled) makes connections between consumerism, cultural politics (preview only available), and a sense of belonging. These assertions are compelling, especially if we consider the “Big Lie” history as a propaganda tool (paywalled). 

Given this incredible moment in time, we need more scholars teaching and dialoguing about all forms of historical propaganda in various venues. Pivoting perspectives about Confederacy mythmaking (and other myths) through the lens of consumerism and cultural politics is where higher education can play a more active role in educating students and the general public. This educational shift may or may not change hearts wedded to the Confederacy myth, but I believe discussing these points adds a new dimension to the critical discourse on cultural politics that has yet to be fully explored. 

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.

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