The ‘CSA’ doesn’t look all that different from the USA

In the 140 years since the Civil War, much has changed – and much has not

by Don M. Burrows

I haven’t seen writer-director Kevin Willmott’s “CSA: Confederate States of America” yet. But I already feel bad for his abused inbox.

I learned a lot through four years of writing a political column in a small Southern city, mostly through hate mail, about how many Southerners think. But nothing compared to the flurry of mail I received one day after my column about a memorial service at the local Confederate cemetery was published.

The event featured a Civil War buff reading an excerpt from a writer listing off complaints about the North’s actions during the Civil War. It also featured the typical “the South will rise again” rhetoric. It was, to say the least, bemusing, and my column on the event bordered on ridicule.

The response was amazing. I received letters mostly from the South and from as far east as Virginia. The comments varied from the intelligent (from a woman with an advanced degree in history) to the hilarious (from a man who threatened me, should I ever approach his wrap-around porch, with “a pants full of buckshot”). But the main gist was the same: I was a Yankee idiot (or rather a turncoat, once my Southern birth was exposed) who didn’t understand the South’s perception of the Civil War.

Having read the press materials for “CSA,” I am surprised some more reactionary Web sites haven’t yet taken it apart, even without seeing it. This is, of course, because of the film’s main premise: In an America where the South won, slavery is alive and well and was even written into the Constitution so that previously abolitionist states must accede to the practice.

This is, to the Southerner (and even some historians), the main canard about the Civil War. Many a letter reminded me that the Civil War was not about slavery, but about states’ rights, about the right of the Confederacy to secede from the country in the same way the colonies seceded from Great Britain. Indeed, Southerners consider the Declaration of Independence to be the most coherent argument in favor of Southern secession.

The clips I’ve seen of “CSA” most likely will boil the blood of many folks born south of the Mason-Dixon Line. They will argue that slavery would have been outlawed in the Confederacy soon enough had Lincoln not pushed the issue. Thus, the film’s depiction of home-shopping networks selling slave families no doubt will offend.

And yet, wasn’t the Civil War about slavery? No, many Southerners will reply; it was about the North telling the South what it could and couldn’t do, about the North pushing its values onto the South when it should have remained up to each state to reflect its own.

Willmott promises that the America depicted in “CSA” will not, in the end, look very different from our own: a divided populace, with two distinct readings on what it should mean to be an American.

And this is, after all, at the heart of the Civil War debate, still raging in many Southern towns torn between those comfortable with waving the Confederate flag and those, who like me, have photos of grandfathers in their Confederate uniforms, who recognize that the Confederacy was a rebel government based on a flawed priority of values.

Those who like to refer to the Civil War as “The War of Northern Aggression” often are the same people who lament that there are judges who circumvent the laws of a given state just because those laws are contradictory to the Bill of Rights. The main divide rests in whether one considers the government of the United States to be concerned primarily with the protection of the individual or whether it should be the vehicle for promoting a set of values.

Those who clamor to place the Ten Commandments on public grounds or want the government to tell women whether they can abort a pregnancy usually are thinking the latter – and often claim that efforts to forestall legislated morality are infringing upon the people’s (i.e., the states’) rights to pass laws.

That’s why Willmott can write a movie about a fictional “Confederate States of America” toiling over an issue that now enjoys (one would hope) a near-consensus, and yet still make it a modern political commentary. No one would suggest today that slavery is constitutional and that states’ rights should trump the federal government’s obligation to protect the individual. But that begs the question: In what other areas are contemporary efforts being made to thwart individual rights via state laws? And have the attitudes that divided the country in war 140 years ago really changed all that much?

– Don M. Burrows welcomes comments at [email protected]