The Lost Cause refers to a revisionist, and ultimately historically delusional, account of the US Civil War from a pro-Confederate perspective. The Lost Cause is an attempt to argue that the US Civil War was not about slavery but rather about taxation disputes, states’ rights, and a Southern “way of life” or culture.
The Lost Cause ideology began in earnest at the end of the 19th century as the last of the Confederate veterans began dying. It went through a second wave of revival during the 1950s as part of the larger campaign of Jim Crow and the attempt to block the movement towards civil rights. It arguably went through a third wave from the 1980s until today and is at the heart of a number of controversial hot button issues like critical race theory, white privilege/white fragility, statue removals, and threats of secession (or at least Neo-nullification) from southern US states, with the US cultural war (quelle surprise!) appearing more and more like another series of skirmishes in the ongoing North vs. South battle lines that have been so bloody throughout US history.
While The Lost Cause as a historical narrative has been debunked many times over—there’s a whole YouTube channel dedicated to it and historians giving reflections on the rebuttals—one angle of The Lost Cause ideology that has not often been explored is in relationship to social traumatology. Social traumatology is the application of trauma theory to larger, collective human groupings, e.g. in this case, the antebellum US white southerners, particularly the slave holding plantation class.
I’ve introduced social traumatology through specific examples like the Men’s Rights and #metoo movements. I’ve also written about reparations theory along the same lines, directly in the context of African-Americans.
Here I want to explore The Lost Cause ideology as a form of cultural defence against the facing of social trauma. As mentioned, core to the argument of The Lost Cause is the idea that slavery was minimal or even incidental to the eruption of the US Civil War. According to the delusion of The Lost Cause the US Civil War was about a fight for states’ rights, Southern “ways of life”, and Southern economic rights vis a vis the Northern federal government (aka “War of Northern Aggression”).
These arguments are, in essence, a limited hangout: partial half-truths decontextualized, spun and twisted to hide a core taboo truth. In this case, the rights of the states that the Confederates states were fighting for of course was their perceived right to enslave other human beings. The economic regime that The Lost Cause references as core to the Southern way of life was undeniably an economy built off the backs of slave labor. And the so-called Southern culture or Southern way of life was one of racial supremacy. There’s no way to get around slavery being core to Confederate identity.
The Lost Cause dominated much US scholarship during the first half of the 20th century and shaped film adaptations of the antebellum South for a long period with its depictions of supposedly noble and chivalrous Southern warrior culture doomed against the mechanical cold blooded North: e.g. Gone With the Wind, North vs. South, etc. It was only recently with films like 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained that more realistic (and consequently horrific) depictions of life in antebellum South have helped to change public view. Unsurprisingly those films received a great deal of negative blow back for their depictions of the South.
Refuting The Lost Cause intellectually is a fairly simple exercise because it directly contradicts the clearly stated words of the Confederate leaders themselves.
Consider the words of Alexander Stephens, the Vice-President of The Confederacy in his infamous Cornerstone Speech. Stephens refers to the “old constitution” by which he means the US Constitution, still in effect today. In his description of the old constitution he describes the issue of slavery as one that the Founding Fathers saw as morally corrupt but did not have a simple solution to it. Thomas Jefferson is the classic example of this tendency writing that slavery was abhorrent and yet owned slaves and had children with his love Sally Hemings but also didn’t free her—as correctly noted by Frederick Douglass in their epic rap battle.
By contrast Stephens argues:
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
That’s again from the Vice-President of the Confederacy not some woke liberal studies professor from Cal Berkeley.
For Stephens, with his proto-eugenicist worldview, white supremacy was a moral truth, a scientific truth even! The words could not be more plain—slavery, for Stephens, is the natural state of black peoples and moreover the very cornerstone of The Confederate States is built upon slavery. Leonardo DiCaprio’s villainous plantation owner in Django Unchained argues that slavery is valid due to phrenology, the pseudoscience that claimed different shaped skulls bespoke “higher” and “lower” races, much in the same vein as Stephens’ racist ideology.
So much for The Lost Cause as historical analysis. Deconstructing the false historical narrative of The Lost Cause is critical work but by itself does not really give a great insight as to how it properly functions, why it holds such sway.
Here the social traumatological lens offers some important insights—both in terms of why The Lost Cause continues to have such a hold when it clearly is racist ideology but also how best to deal with it (beyond simple critique and refutation however necessary that certainly is). As The Lost Cause is ultimately an emotional attachment more mental arguments against it do not meet its emotional core.
In trauma studies, a defence mechanism—aka a coping strategy—exists to prevent the painful experience of trauma from having to be faced or ideally re-experienced. There are many such coping strategies: e.g. any and all kinds of addictions. An addiction to alcohol or a narcotic can keep a person in a numbed out haze so they do not have to face the painful experiences that lead them to abuse substances in the first place. A workaholic by contrast may work a frenetic amount, always keeping busy, so as to never have time to have to face the internal gnawing, aching void.
Another coping strategy is spiritual bypassing which is the misuse of spiritual teachings and practice as a way to avoid traumatic (or altogether very human) experience. Spiritual bypassing might take the form of excessive meditation and/or psychedelia experience as an escape from mundane reality. Spiritual bypassing could conversely the take the form of an extremely rigid, puritanical exterior moral code that ones adheres to religiously
These coping strategies do not have to be mutually exclusive. One could be addicted to spiritual experience as a way to bypass trauma for instance.
Previously I’ve discussed the work of social traumatologist Anngwyn St. Just. St. Just argues for the difference between genuine material circumstances of being victimized versus the taking on of an identity built around victimization. She argues that those who take on the victimization identity typically in turn become victimizers of others.
For St. Just when victim and victimizer do not heal and transform they are locked into a soul-level entanglement.
Perhaps strangest of all is when victimizers take on the defensive posture of victimization. That inverted dynamic is precisely the function of The Lost Cause. The Confederate elites were the victimizers as they, of course, were the ones hold slaves.
Martin Luther King Jr. said the long arc of the universe bends towards justice. Throughout the 1820-1840s countries like The United Kingdom and France abolished slavery. The creation of The Republican Party in the United States—Lincoln’s party—was explicitly to prevent the expansion of slavery into the new territories, later to become states, within the United States.
The Confederate elites and their adherence to King Cotton had them out of step with the developmental arc of their time. The US South became, as Robert Kagan argued, a rogue nation. Slavery apologists knew slavery needed ongoing expansion in order to survive. That expansion could have been further west into the United States or south into Mexico, The Caribbean, and South America,
As many of The US Founding Fathers knew, the American Constitution, was built out of compromise on the very issue of slavery (see The Constitutional 3/5 Compromise and later the The Missouri Compromise and Compromise of 1850). Abraham Lincoln, for example, did not run for president on a platform of ending slavery but rather preventing its expansion into the newly created states out West (e.g. California). Though again, as many Southerners knew, blocking the expansion of slavery was a first step in a process that would inevitably lead to the extermination of slavery—hence the vociferous wrangling in the Congress over the matter as well as calls to annex Cuba (among other places) from Southerners in the lead-up to the US Civil War.
That compromise, that devil’s bargain, that lesion that existed at the core of the US federal republic, from its inception, eventually had to be excised and faced. Particularly as it became clear that all similar type constitutional governments could not keep us the self-contradiction of claiming to be constitutional states and have the practice of slavery within their borders.
The US South had built its economy, its racial hierarchy, and in the Confederacy its very political structure, on the backs of slaves. That foundation was fundamentally corrupt, immoral, and at odds with the underlying principles of a constitutional order. There was then (and still is today) plenty of racism in the US North but it was not built off the same agrarian plantation slave-based fiefdoms as was the US South.
Once the war ratcheted up in its bloody ferocity, as the dead piled up, it became an all out or total war. The US Civil War, in that sense, is the horrifying preview of what was to come in Europe in the First and Second World Wars.
The Confederates were the victimizers as slaveholders. They were eventually crushed by a war of total carnage—as their political and economic systems were destroyed by Sherman’s March to the Sea, the Naval Blockades, and full invasion and occupation by the Union Army.
That traumatic humiliation only hardened the South, leading to the removal of the Union troops at the end of Reconstruction, the rise of The Ku Klux Klan and its terror campaigns of lynching, and the creation of Jim Crow segregation. In other words slavery—in the form of debt peonage and the beginnings of the prison-industrial complex—was “slavery by another name.”
Slavery had become fused with the Southern elite identity—hence the notion that the Confederate flag is a sign of “culture”. Culture yes. A culture based on victimization turned victimizer in the form of domination and violence. I say elite Southern identity because Southern elites ran a decades long psyop by convincing poor whites that their protectors were the rich landowning white elites and their enemies were the slaves. When both slaves and the lower poor classes were both economically oppressed by the Southern feudal landlords.
The US Southern elites feared two scenarios:
A widespread slave revolt (see Nat Turner)
A solidarity movement across racial lines to overthrow the Southern feudal system (see John Brown and later Mississippi Burning)
The third, which of course come to pass, was invasion from the North.
The Lost Cause is the mental gymnastics necessary to deflect attention away from that core traumatic taboo. When in traumatic response, the lower functions of the brain hijack the neocortex. The result of that hijacking is the mind exists to retroactively buttress what is, at core, an emotional response.
The Lost Cause is the mind hijacked to the premises of a traumatic emotional core. Consequently cognitively deconstructing Confederate ideology, while necessary, is at best a first step only. At worst it simply leaves in tact the emotional traumatic core.
The Lost Cause is a victimization mentality, a victimization mentality taken on to support past and ongoing victimizing of others. The tactic of one in a superior position claiming to be inferior and using that claim of inferiority to seek to garner sympathy or hide the intentions of domination is one characteristic of many forms of narcissism.
A narcissistic personality disorder is one in which, contrary to popular misconception, there is not a strong enough ego. A narcissistic is not someone with an overinflated sense of self. They are someone pretending to be pompous or large when in reality they have an insufficiently strong ego structure. That explains why whenever a person entangled with a narcissist sets fair and appropriate boundaries, the narcissist does one or both of two things.
Savagely attacks the other person
Plays the victimization card
The ego structure of a narcissist is so weak that it is threatened by any potential slights, criticisms, or proper boundaries of others. Imagine a couple where one person has the upper hand in terms of financial power, that power-holder being a narcissist. The narcissist will use their position to suppress the partner while simultaneously playing the victim if ever the partner decides to stand up for their own interests.
The narcissist will also gaslight: i.e. using psychological operations tactics to confuse the mental terrain of the other rather than have to face the truth of their own inadequacy and destructive behavior.
The Lost Cause is the gaslighting of Confederate narcissism. The collective ego structure of The Confederate egregore (or is it an archon?) is so weak and vulnerable it can only attack and/or play the victimization card.
The romantic mythology of the noble chivalrous South and the secular canonization of figures like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis are the cover for the traumatic memories of unprocessed grief and remorse.
The remorse here being a collective ownership of the horrors of the plantation slavery system. The SJW/woke crowd shifts the energetic from one of acknowledging and grieving over the horrors of slavery to personal shame for whiteness as such. As I’ve written about previously this is yet another example of how victimization mentality—even when rooted in legitimate social history of oppression as is most definitely the case in this context—becomes another form of victimizing. Remember St. Just’s point that unless healed, the victim and victimizer stay locked in a terrible, ongoing co-destructive dance, with both sides typically switching back and forth between the roles of victim and victimizer.
Such a negative shame-based tactic from the leftist crowds only serves to reinforce the defended nature of race-based trauma. By saying that I’m not claiming that both sides have suffered equal trauma. They most certainly have not. But rather now both sides have traumatic energies (even if asymmetrical in nature). Self-righteous and self-impressed liberal critiques of white fragility prevents the painful work of actually understanding where the pain that leads (in a twisted way) to the Lost Cause ideology comes from in the first place.
Consider in that light the bizarre ritual re-enactments of US Civil War battles, a process brilliantly spoofed by Key and Peale (who does the black guy play in the Civil War re-enactment?).
All such attempts, particularly among Southerners, is meant to honor their ancestors. The Lost Cause prevents the honest reckoning with the brutal and ultimately cancerous nature upon which that culture/lineage was built. White fragility type critiques prevent the actual burial of those energies.
A proper eulogy requires telling truth with love, acknowledging the strengths and failures of the dead. The same applies collectively to a cultural group identity. The more draconian and puritanical the woke-ists become, the more concentrated in their delusion will be the Lost Cause advocates of our day. And versa vice.