When HBO announced the new series Confederate about what our modern world would like if the American South had won the Civil War, it was met by some pretty resounding jeers from the media, both social and professional. The argument against such a show is that is poses a “what if?” scenario, that ignores a fairly simple fact—America has not moved past the war far enough to hypothesize on such “what ifs” because the effects of the war, and of its losing side’s fundamentalism, are still very much part of the modern American landscape. The confederate flag still flies in many parts of the American South today [and from the porches of some homes in the North] and arguments surrounding the idea of taking down statues of Confederate heroes and issuing reparations for African Americans are still very much a part of America’s relationship with its deplorable past.
The question to ask then may not be “what if the South had won the Civil War,” but “why does their loss continue to endure in the minds of so many Americans?”
Endurance seems to be a central theme behind the “Lost Cause” group of Confederate pride that still exists in America today. This idea of glamorizing the South’s defeat is not new—many would argue that Gone with the Wind does that very thing as it captures Southern civilization in decline. But does that make the film villainous or unnecessary in today’s modern world?
Gone with the Wind is a film concerned with defeat and survival. After all, in any civil war, regardless of country, a victory is not the only important goal. It is what happens after the victory, particularly in regards to the losing side now living side-by-side with the winning one, where the real damage can be done. What is fascinating about the film’s portrayal of the white elite of the South today is how it captures the fanaticism and cult-like devotion to a “Cause” that arises when a society is faced with utter defeat.
The fact that the perspective of the film is that of Scarlett O’Hara—an entitled rich white woman who doesn’t have a hard-line political perspective—allows us to witness how the death of the American South led to the birth of the Lost Cause, an essentially fundamentalist fanatic cult that glorifies the South as though it were a lost deity while denying the ‘icky’ parts of that religion’s reality, such as the racism, human trafficking, and genocide that economized the honorable Southern life they held on to so dearly for hundreds of years.
The Confederacy, as shown in the film, is a religious system. It has its iconography in the form of currency and flags, and it has its saints in the form of generals and war heroes. It also has two things going for it that add fuel to the fanatic fire: a sense of entitled righteousness and the compromise of eternal martyrdom, important for any religious reich.
Through Scarlett O’Hara’s eyes, caught between two Souths, we see how young men devoted to the Cause march off to lose their lives in a war of delusion—everyone seems to know that the Cause is already lost, but they become martyrs to it, marching blindly forward with the forced perspective that what they are doing is right and will preserve their way of life. To die for the Cause is a good thing—anything less is cowardly.
At its heart, it does not seem so different from the fundamentalist belief systems of terrorists.
And when the war is finally over and the Cause is finally Lost, it is Scarlett who is left to bear witness to a defeated people who cannot admit true defeat. To admit that the Confederacy—the South’s entire belief system and church for their antebellum way of life—is wrong is to be forced into an uncomfortable confrontation with identity. For an entire society to confront such nasty truths about itself is an arduous task that leads to abhorrent denial.
And so the racism exhibited in the maintenance of the antebellum South is glossed over, genocide is denied, and an economic system based on the trafficking and forced slavery of an entire people is transformed into a utopia based on the superiority of Southern culture and the valor of the men who died protecting it. Flag worship continues even today, and when a governor decrees that a statue of General Lee is taken down from a public square, a few staunch believers in this religion of the Lost feel just a bit more left behind in the “unmentionables” category of American history.
One of the things Gone with the Wind illustrates for a modern audience is how a homegrown form of fanaticism can take root and spread like wildfire. It is a psychologically arresting portrayal of what happens when the fear of destruction leads to a dogma, and when a morally deplorable social structure comes up against the tides of a [slightly more] progressive history. It has a lot to show us about the fanaticism we still see today in our own political parties, when the truth is subverted in desire to keep the Cause pure and real for its devotees.
The unfortunate side effect of fanaticism—whether it be a person’s belief in a deity or a political godhead—is blindness. This is when the truth changes and reality becomes interpretative. The film may gloss over the effects of slavery and the racism inherited by those who benefitted from a slave economy, but the American South glossed over it as well. In order for a religion to survive, editing must take place.
And so the Civil War becomes a war not fought over slavery by the defenders of the Lost Cause, but fought to merely preserve a way of life. History is revised—speeches by Confederate leaders are edited and redacted. The evil racism of the Confederacy is altered—they become more Christian and godly than the heathen North. It is not that they believe in white superiority—they believe that their people were simply more noble. The fact that they all happened to be white is just a wonderful coincidence.
Turning the South’s loss into religious belief is essential to survival both before and after defeat for the Southerners. Ashley Wilkes, the dream lover of Scarlett O’Hara, is the very image of that old antebellum Southern charm—dashing, chivalrous, and perfectly willing to fight and die for his land. Rhett Butler is what comes after civilization has crumbled—bitter realism searching for peace through opportunity. Scarlett wants to believe in the South of Ashley, but seems more in line with the South of Rhett, even though she attempts to deny this “bad” aspect of her personality. Like Rhett’s willingness to go off to war even when he knows it is lost and that taking a bullet for the Cause is pointless, Scarlett recognizes the hypocrisy of subscription to the Old South’s ideals while still being a willing participant in its dogmatic existence.
When Scarlett declares that she will never go hungry again, she is becoming that embittered and compromised survivor—a symbol of the New South and its way forward. But like those relics clinging to the Lost Cause, she cannot shake her nostalgia for Ashley Wilkes and the way things were. Even when she declares that “tomorrow is another day,” it seems to be a hope that clings to nostalgia for antebellum life.
Rhett seems somewhat more understanding of the effects of post-war life, especially when he tells Scarlett that “you think that by saying ‘I’m sorry,’ all the past can be corrected.” He is not directly speaking about the loss of the Old South and the cult of the Lost Cause that rises from its ashes as the North attempts a cultural reunification with the South—but he could be.
This is the unfortunate conclusion for countries that find themselves in repair mode after a civil war: the winners and the losers have to now move on and live together, like a pair of divorcees that don’t want to give up sharing their posh New York apartment.
For Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, two realists who seek opportunities to move on after the war, survival is all that matters. The Ashleys of the Old South, leisurely and chivalrous, have died off—the Scarletts and Rhetts of the New South have to dig their heels into the dirt and figure out how to move on after their war has defeated them.
Defeat is not the end of the war for either Scarlett or the rest of the country. The controversy surrounding the question of what our country would look like if the South had won seems irrelevant when you consider the aftershocks of the war still affecting us today. Voting restrictions, racist vigilantism, and Jim Crow laws are not so much a thing of the past as a result of a civil war that continues to affect American society at every level—from education to gentrification to basic perceptions of political correctness.
But where Gone with the Wind is revelatory is not in its depiction of the repercussions of slavery, but of the psychology at play when a society confronts collapse. The problem with fanaticism—whether it is for a lost cause or an American president—is that it is a faith born out of the muck of fear that comes with the prospect of annihilation. Fighting a dogma proves useless, but digging one’s heels down into the dirt and confronting mistakes to fix them instead of revisioning the past may allow a country still reeling from civil war to reconcile its dual identities and sow seeds that reap less bitter fruit in the future.