Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Jim Webb and Neo-Confederate Ideology

As some readers may recall, I've denounced neo-confederate hate commenters at this blog on a couple of occassions (sample comments are here).

I'll note, though, it's a tricky subject dealing with affinity for the values of the Old South. If one respects Southern tradition, does that automatically make them bigoted? I don't think so, although some organizations - like the
League of the South - have a history of supporting racist oppression, so it does matter where one positions themselves along the spectrum.

My blog buddy Stogie's family background dates back to the Confederacy, but you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who
speaks out so consisently and eloquently against racism and anti-Semitism. Values of duty, honor, and pride of heritage are respectable sentiments, but in our age of extreme racial sensitivity, it must be difficult showing historical affinity for the patrician conservativism of the former plantation states.

I note all of this because Senator Jim Webb, who's name's being thrown around as a possible Barack Obama V.P., is apparently a philo-Confederate,
as reported by the Politico:

Barack Obama’s vice presidential vetting team will undoubtedly run across some quirky and potentially troublesome issues as it goes about the business of scouring the backgrounds of possible running mates. But it’s unlikely they’ll find one so curious as Virginia Democratic Sen. Jim Webb’s affinity for the cause of the Confederacy.

Webb is no mere student of the Civil War era. He’s an author, too, and he’s left a trail of writings and statements about one of the rawest and most sensitive topics in American history.

He has suggested many times that while the Confederacy is a symbol to many of the racist legacy of slavery and segregation, for others it simply reflects Southern pride. In a June 1990 speech in front of the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, posted
on his personal website, he lauded the rebels’ “gallantry,” which he said “is still misunderstood by most Americans.”

Webb, a descendant of Confederate officers, also voiced sympathy for the notion of state sovereignty as it was understood in the early 1860s, and seemed to suggest that states were justified in trying to secede.

“Most Southern soldiers viewed the driving issue to be sovereignty rather than slavery,” he said. “Love of the Union was palpably stronger in the South than in the North before the war — just as overt patriotism is today — but it was tempered by a strong belief that state sovereignty existed prior to the Constitution and that it had never been surrendered....”

There’s nothing scandalous in the paper trail, nothing that on its face would disqualify Webb from consideration for national office. Yet it veers into perilous waters since the slightest sign of support or statement of understanding of the Confederate cause has the potential to alienate African-Americans who are acutely sensitive to the topic.
Ron Walters, director of the African American Leadership Center at the University of Maryland and a professor of political science there, said Webb’s past writings and comments on the Confederacy could dampen enthusiasm for the Democratic ticket, should he appear on it.
“Unless he is able to explain it, it would raise some questions,” Walters said.

Edward H. Sebesta, co-author of the forthcoming “Neo-Confederacy: A Critical Introduction” (
University of Texas Press), said Webb’s views express an unhealthy regard for a political system that propped up and defended slavery.

His book, in fact, will cite Webb as an example of the mainstreaming of neo-Confederacy ideas into politics, said Sebesta, a widely cited independent historical researcher and author of the
Anti-Neo-Confederate blog.
Read the whole thing.

What's difficult is for Southern politicians to separate themselves from caricatures of ideological reaction. Webb himself argued previously that woman should not serve in the military in combat positions, so perhaps he's got some work to do in political correctness.

Note that Webb won his seat to the Senate by defeating George Allen for the Virginia Senate Seat in 2006. Allen himself got in hot water for his
alleged racial insensitivity, so the issue looks to be a third-rail dilemma for anyone running below the Mason-Dixon line - and it's an especially interesting question for Democrats, who are supposed to be the paragons of racial sensitivity, but are in fact just the opposite, mired as they are in some of the most embarassing race-baiting imaginable.

Comments are welcome, but keep them clean. I denounce racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry.

UPDATE: Outside the Beltway has also posted on the Politico story, and this paragraph adds some context:

Slavery was the key issue absent which the Civil War wouldn’t have been fought and the resurgence of the Confederate battle flag in the 1960s was mostly about segregationist defiance. It’s easy to understand, therefore, why expressing pro-Confederate sympathies is politically problematic. But Webb’s admiration for the against-all-odds fighting spirit of his ancestors, most of whom fought for reasons having nothing to do with slavery or, frankly, political considerations of any sort, is understandable, too. In a complex world, one can simultaneously admire Robert E. Lee’s character, J.E.B. Stuart’s generalship, and the courage of those who charged up Little Round Top while damning the institution of slavery.
That sounds like a pretty fair way to place reverence for Southern tradition and military grandeur in perspective.