How galling it is that after winning the election through the most dubious of means, George W. Bush has the nerve to put forth not one but two cabinet nominees who support the lost cause of the Civil War. Both Gale Norton and John Ashcroft have given interviews to fringe conservative publications in which they sing the praises of the Confederacy for fighting to protect states’ rights in the face of Federalist bullying. No matter that Honest Abe went to war to save the Union while ridding it of one of the worst episodes of human servitude hitherto known on this godforsaken planet.
America has undergone two reconstructions, a hundred years apart, but judging by The Unfinished Civil War — a smart two-hour documentary produced, written and directed by Glenn Kirschbaum, and premiering next Monday on the History Channel — the cure still hasn’t taken.
We begin on a sweltering summer afternoon in the grassy plains of Gettysburg at a battle re-enactment festival. Yankee snobs will delight in the spectacle of the South’s white male flotsam dressed in the ratty gray of the cash-strapped Confederacy. But for every stereotypical mouth-breather you imagine spitting up a ham hock before spitting on a Negro, there’s an accountant from Chicago who re-enacts for both sides, wanting only the experience of fighting for something more than a mochachino at Starbucks.
Then there’s a piece of work named John Krausse. He looks like a broken-down biker, all shaggy hair and hangdog lean. Yet he exudes commitment, an aching need to believe in past glories when the present finds him working a forklift in Hagerstown, Md. Krausse is a proud son of the South, the Old South. He has no qualms about unfurling the Dixie Stars and Bars on the front porch of the modest bungalow he shares with his likeminded moll. Watching him go through his idiosyncratic ritual of suiting up for a festival, you don’t know what to think. He sets an hourglass next to a Matthew Brady photograph of dead Confederate soldiers; as the sand moves from top to bottom, so does your heart.
The second “star” of the film is former KKK grand wizard David Duke. All gotten up in a city-slicker suit, the Louisianan first gives a distasteful news conference in Richmond, Va., held conspicuously in front of the statue honoring native son Arthur Ashe.
Then Duke and his entourage move on to Columbia, S.C., for a rally protesting the NAACP’s demand that the Confederate flag come down off the statehouse. Here a repugnant man from a conservative organization wails away on the steps, telling his audience that blacks never had it so good as under slavery. Africa was a nightmare and the other slave-holding countries were not much better.
For all his awful politics and glitzy white-trash look, Duke is a fascinating creature, intrepid and proud in his prejudice. He’s an anachronism fighting for his life, caught between the Old South — in which blacks could be lynched or romanticized as “happy niggers” with impunity — and the New South, exemplified in the upscale black suburbs of Atlanta.
Call Duke an extremist, but what are we to make of last year’s shameful primary in South Carolina? While George W. Bush stood on the huge Maoist stage of Bob Jones University preaching compassionate conservatism to a flock of dinosaurs and their issue, John McCain, a Vietnam veteran holding court in a Barcalounger aboard the Straight Talk Express, couldn’t take a stand on the flag issue. Alas, Kirschbaum shot his film in 1999, too early to bring us all the sorry news.
The weakest part of the film is the most liberal. Joseph McGill is a Union re-enactor. He’s an officer in the 4th Massachusetts, the all-black regiment portrayed in the film Glory. Freed slaves fought to stay free, but could only do so under a white leader. McGill lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he heads an African-American heritage museum but hails from Charleston, S.C. Kirschbaum follows him on a journey back home where McGill intends to spend the night in the slave quarters of an old plantation. It all seems quite contrived, although you appreciate the sentiment. As one protester’s sign read at Duke’s press conference in Richmond: “Your heritage is my slavery.”
The Civil War is unfinished precisely because it is unfinishable. Plenty of talking heads, on both sides, offer impassioned pleas for closure, as if invoking a treasured therapeutic cliché will make it so. America is built on a tension between self-interest and civil society, between inclusion and xenophobic nativism. The Civil War was a flashpoint of that tension.
Even if Lincoln had lived to serve out his second term, integration was not on his agenda. Martin Luther King Jr., shortly before he died, soured on integration without fundamental change in American values; he was less optimistic than ever about white America’s ability to change. Five generations from now, the country will be more brown than ever. Yet there will still be millions of men and women whose blood (and that of their ancestors who died in the savagery of a war that split a nation) is pure Dixie.Timothy Dugdale writes about visual culture for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org