Joe Wilson Comes From a Long Line of Crazies

Ever since South Carolina’s Rep. Joe Wilson insulted the president and his office during Wednesday’s Health Care speech, the newspapers can’t get enough of his connection with the Sons of Confederate Veterans as well as his outspoken support for the public display of the Confederate flag and “Confederate honor.”  Today’s NYT’s column by Maureen Dowd takes this news thread to drive home an essentially reductionist connection between Wilson’s nutty little outburst, his personal past, and the broader history of his home state of South Carolina:

The congressman, we learned, belonged to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, led a 2000 campaign to keep the Confederate flag waving above South Carolina’s state Capitol and denounced as a “smear” the true claim of a black woman that she was the daughter of Strom Thurmond, the ’48 segregationist candidate for president. [Therefore] Wilson clearly did not like being lectured and even rebuked by the brainy black president presiding over the majestic chamber.

Others have tried to situate Wilson into a broader historical narrative that includes the likes of John Calhoun, Preston Brooks, and South Carolina’s own place in the story of secession, Civil War, and Massive Resistance.  These narrative memes are so predictable, but ultimately tell us next to nothing about what motivated Joe Wilson’s outburst.  Oh…I get it.  Because Calhoun, Brooks, and Thurmond are so easily lumped together in some vague reactionary category we might as well throw good old Wilson in there.  Dowd and others draw much too close of a connection between between Wilson’s past and the broader history of the state that he represents.  It’s almost silly that it even has to be pointed out.  SCV members are not necessarily card carrying racists; in fact, I read plenty of news reports of members who voted for Obama back in November.  It also doesn’t follow that those who identify with the Confederate past by flying a flag on private property are engaged in racial commentary or attempting to role back the clock to the Jim Crow Era.  How much do you think Dowd and others know about the SCV to be able to imply such a connection?  Please don’t get me wrong, this is not meant in any way as a public statement of support for the SCV or a signal that a Confederate flag is going up on my front porch.  I’ve made my position clear on both the SCV and the flag on this blog.

I get the sense that the many reports that have implied such connections present Americans with another opportunity to play with our Civil War memory.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

29 comments… add one
  • Craig Sep 17, 2009 @ 1:16

    Tom, the analogy that I was drawing was not to the “bloody shirt” syntax used in the Budiansky book. Rather directly to a single incident that took place in the U.S. House of Representatives.

  • Tom Thompson Sep 16, 2009 @ 17:08

    I did a Google search on Ben Butler “bloody shirt”. It took me to an excerpt from: The bloody shirt: terror after Appomattox By Stephen Budiansky. Page 7 of the book’s prologue will give you a precise view of the South Carolina mindset that drives the likes of Joe Wilson.

  • Richard Sep 16, 2009 @ 16:45

    Disrespecting any president in that environment is unexceptable. The man should be taken out on the capital steps and flogged. I would say the same for a liberal who acts in the same manner. It disrespects the country. Barack Obama is the President of the United States and it does not matter if you agree with him or not. Liberals and Conservatives who continually bring up his race cheapen and disrespect his position. He is the leader of our Nation.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 15, 2009 @ 0:39

    This is a test comment in response to Don.

  • donshaffer Sep 14, 2009 @ 21:50

    Some folks might be interested in a commentary putting Joe Wilson's behavior in broader historical context. It appears on and is written by Princeton's Julian Zelizer. It can be found at:….

  • donshaffer Sep 14, 2009 @ 16:50

    Some folks might be interested in a commentary putting Joe Wilson's behavior in broader historical context. It appears on and is written by Princeton's Julian Zelizer. It can be found at:….

  • Sherree Sep 14, 2009 @ 13:14

    Wilson is who he is. His public statements and actions do reveal that he falls within a tradition of southern history and politics that is racist. He worked for Strom Thurmond. Strom Thurmond was a segregationist. That is enough information right there. Wilson is most likely still a racist. His expression in the still photo when he yelled “You lie!” was uncomfortably reminiscent of the expressions of men and women who beat black men and women in the 1960s. Wilson does not represent all white southerners, however, anymore than Strom Thurmond did.

    Maureen Dowd is not a racist–at least not publicly. Her motives are questionable, though. Her attitude toward the President is condescending in its “piercing” understanding of his suffering. It my guess that Barack Obama does not need Maureen Dowd to tell him about the suffering of black men and women. He most likely knows all about that. In this sense, our collective, impaired memory of the Civil War is involved in this incident, and the relationship of white men and women to black men and women has not changed since the era of the Civil War. White southerners like Wilson are still spouting their hatred, and white northerners like Dowd are still appropriating a history that does not belong to them. This time the man who is the recipient of this treatment just happens to be the President of the United States. That is the difference–and maybe the hope, too.

  • Craig Sep 14, 2009 @ 11:31

    Yes, the Wilson outburst is another example of the lack of decorum in our public discourse today. But perhaps no worse or less than the behavior from a professional athlete and a entertainer these last few days. But taken in context, you are right Kevin, the Dowd piece plays on generalizations. Reading it I was looking for the “bloody shirt” to be presented as Exhibit A at some point. Egad! I’ve just connected Maurene Dowd with Ben Butler!

  • Victor Sep 14, 2009 @ 6:48

    Point taken. I like your point about anyone from South Carolina getting painted as some radical hate-monger. A lot of the old stereotypes from the Civil War are still alive and well, as utilized by both parties. What’s sad to me, is that no one in the media (even their ‘experts’) have any concept of true history. On both sides they continue to push some ridiculous simplification of the past, and despite my politics the misuse of history to push an agenda draws my ire.

    As I mentioned, I do consider myself a Republican (though a fairly moderate or liberal one, even), but nothing irritates me more than the “America has never done anything wrong” crowd, except maybe the crowd that believes “America has never done anything right.” I wish there was a way to set all these nimrods right before they brainwash the general populace any more than they already have.

  • Mike Sep 14, 2009 @ 6:40

    Dowd is doing nothing more than selling newspapers. Wilson may be right but it was not the time or place to have such an outbust. IMO it was very disrespectful to the Office of the President regardless of your personal views of the Man.

    As for Preston Brooks; He is a Southern Hero. His opponet let his mouth overload his rearend.

  • Sherree Tannen Sep 14, 2009 @ 3:30


    Point well taken.


  • Sherree Tannen Sep 14, 2009 @ 1:53


    Dowd’s piece is as predictable as Wilson’s outburst, and it is not at all helpful. It sells papers, though.

    I, like Don, and many others, am worried. The rhetoric is getting dangerous. What–who–is driving this rhetoric, and why? Rupert Murdoch? Why?

    The left wing of the Democratic party needs to slow it down, and give President Obama room to breathe. It is my true belief that President Obama understands this nation like no other person alive today. He understands all of our history, not just a part of it.

    The issues surrounding Van Jones offer the best examples of left wing rhetoric helping to drive right wing rhetoric (which needs no help. They have been at it for decades) Jones’ idea of combining environmental issues with providing manufacturing jobs for working class men and women is truly brilliant, and would lead to the building of broad based coalitions that lead to real change. Now, that may not get anywhere because the right picked up an issue of verifiable excess on the left and ran with it. I have started reading the STORM manifesto for myself. It is online. What does this manifesto mean? In the meantime, Jones threw issues that indigenous men and women have been working on for decades into the mix, and now those issues may not be addressed, either. Already one issue has not been addressed (although this cannot be attributed to the Van Jones controversy)–ie, the request, via a petition, that the US government issue an apology for indigenous boarding schools, as Canada did. The importance of an apology is public recognition that the history alluded to, did, in fact occur, not to punish or assign guilt.

    When I was at the university over thirty years ago, a man who could have been termed by detractors as a “left leaning liberal commie professor” taught a class on Stalin. In the class, we read The Gulag Archipelago. The book is a truly powerful book, and was especially powerful for me at the time, because the professor was of Polish ancestry, and I had friends who had just defected from Hungary and Russia. Now Gulag Archipelago is required reading in Russia. Maybe it should be required reading in the US.

    What role does Marxism play today in the thinking of the political community? Why was a man as brilliant as Van Jones in an organization that used the most ridiculous language and archaic, out dated ideas? Also, why was President Obama’s remark to students that he greatly admired Mahatma Gandhi not more widely quoted? Gandhi influenced both Dr. King and Barack Obama.
    I guess that wouldn’t sell papers, though.

    Hopefully one day Americans will demand that the far right and the far left quit running the country. We better hurry up.

    Thanks, Kevin.

    PS. Wilson has the strangest southern accent I have ever heard.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 14, 2009 @ 2:21

      Sherree (and everyone else)

      I appreciate the comments and I understand that these are heated issues, but I am not interested in getting into a general discussion about political rhetoric at this point. The post is about the way we use our Civil War memory within today’s political realm. I know it’s difficult, but let’s try to stick to that.


  • Kevin Levin Sep 14, 2009 @ 0:56


    It’s never a good idea to generalize about a movement so, of course, I agree with your point. Regarding your last point about FDR I highly recommend going back and reading the speeches of Father Charles Coughlin, Frances Townshend, and Huey Long, all of whom believed that Roosevelt was not going far enough in terms of reforms. On the right, conservatives accused him of turning the country toward socialism, communism and “regimentation.” Like I said, there is a history here.

    Glad to have you on board as a reader.

  • Victor Sep 13, 2009 @ 17:53

    You’re absolutely right about the “Birthers” having racial undertones. But I just don’t get the others. I have not personally seen many pictures from the rallies, just thumbnails and such from stories on CNN and Drudge, but I didn’t see anything racially charged. But I’m not a big fan of activists or protesters anyway, so I’m not surprised if there are stupid signs out there.

    I shouldn’t have implied that it’s a fact he’s more radical, though. With history there’s always room for debate, but I really feel we’re see the largest fundamental shift since Reagan came into office in the ’80s, and for a lot of people that’s most of their politically-aware lives. And that can be scary to people. Especially considering our current batch of politicians is among the most inept we’ve ever had here in the States.

    Even Obama fans have admitted that he has not done a very good job of instilling confidence in the public. I’d say a lot of the anti-Obama crowd has an issue with that more than his race. He’s trying to made fundamental changes while not conveying an image of competence or control. A lot of his teams’ tactics are very public and people are merely growing more cynical as a result.

    A lot of people were vocal and loud about FDR’s reforms, but those weren’t racially charged. I just don’t like how everyone jumps on the racist bandwagon, mostly to build up an idea that this President is beyond criticism.

    On a side note, I look forward to following your blog!

  • Kevin Levin Sep 13, 2009 @ 17:03


    Always nice to hear from a first time commenter. First, whether Obama’s economic policies represent a fundamental turn can be disputed. Given what I understand of the history of much of the twentieth century I would have to say no, but let’s not get into that because it is not the point of the post and we will get nowhere with it.

    As far as the overtones of race in the anti-Obama rhetoric is concerned, while I do not in any way want to generalize it is clearly present. Just look at some of the posters carried by marchers in yesterday’s D.C. rally. I also believe that much of this citizenship nonsense was indeed about race and Obama’s legitimacy as president.

    No doubt, there is a “disconnect” on all sides. Isn’t that usually the case? Thanks again.

  • Victor Sep 13, 2009 @ 16:55

    I’ve got to wonder at some of the commentary in the mainstream media. I know there are racists out there, and I know they don’t like Obama being president. Yet I keep hearing comments about how calling Obama a socialist is code for derogatory slang words (yes, the “n” word) and that these people who oppose him are just uneasy because he’s black.

    I fail to see the connection. He certainly supports radical policies, I don’t see how this is disputable. You can like his policies, but they ARE radical compared to what has been done before. They may be better, but they go beyond much of what liberals have attained over the decades. So I think it’s safe to say they are radical.

    That being said, what does race have to do with it? Can’t people be so vehemently against him because he is pursuing policies that go beyond what we’re used to as a nation? Obama keeps referring to how he wants to transform America and push us to be better. Well, when you push people, they get nervous, especially when you’re a massively powerful government.

    I know that the media has simply because party newspapers and newschannels. This is clear, there is no independent news (on any side anymore), so I can understand why they push this idea that opposing him makes you somehow a racist. But really? Like Kevin said in his article, aren’t people simply reading too much into it?

    I’m a fairly liberal Republican, but I strongly oppose Obama on policy grounds. Where are the racial undertones in opposing increased FCC regulation and control, the erosion of independent media, the expansion of government, the reckless spending of trillions of dollars and the general attitude of disgust for fellow Americans shown by our leaders in Washington?

    Certainly there ARE racists out there. And certainly they pretend to be normal when they attack Obama, but that doesn’t mean that all (or even a majority, or a large number at all) who oppose Obama have some sort of phobia of a black President.

    I guess I just don’t understand this bizarre disconnect from reality much of society is going through these days–on all sides, to be fair.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 13, 2009 @ 16:32


    I understand what you are saying and at first blush I am tempted to jump on the bandwagon. Perhaps below the surface I already have. I have a few problems here. One is that I don’t think most of the news articles are written by people who have the background that you have to judge the historical and cultural roots of an individual’s actions. And while the narrative may provide context it still doesn’t necessarily explain what happened and why.

    This is not to say that I do not agree that much of the anti-Obama rhetoric has to do with race, but that there is a danger of falling too easily into these little narrative threads that may or may not explain.

    No doubt a Kunstler painting would help calm him down.

  • Brooks Simpson Sep 13, 2009 @ 15:51

    Having lived in South Carolina for three years and being married to someone who also lived for a good chunk of time in South Carolina, I can’t say that Joe Wilson is representative of all of South Carolina’s white population (one might remember it has a sizable population that is not white). But is he representative of a strain of South Carolina’s white population? Yes, he is. While one might dismiss aspects of Dowd’s piece as the typical sanctimonious Yankee pounces on white southerners tripe, there is something visceral about the opposition to Obama that builds on the intensification of politics during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

    To me there is a historical parallel, however. One might have dismissed Preston Brooks’s assault on Charles Sumner as the act of a violent southerner who silenced an admittedly obnoxious northerner in the heat of the moment (although I would question that). But one could not dismiss so readily the response of many white southerners, including those who decided to send him more canes. What are we to make of the fact that even as Wilson’s opponent raised more money, so has he?

    Let’s put it this way: A listing of Wilson’s previous actions helps to fill out the story in a certain way. I just would not make it the story of a representative southern white … but I would make it the story of Joe Wilson, whose anger and outrage was such that he could not restrain himself.

    Please send him a Kunstler painting.

  • Vicki Betts Sep 13, 2009 @ 8:13

    I haven’t read anything on Williams’ views on “black Confederates.” He is billed here as a conservative economist, and his editorials in the local paper reflect that. While race is certainly still a factor here in many circumstances, politics tends to cleave conservative/liberal largely based on taxes–how much, and where they go. That’s all I was trying to say.

    Vicki Betts

    • Kevin Levin Sep 13, 2009 @ 8:15


      I was just using the opportunity to remind readers about Williams’s foray into history. It wasn’t a response to anything you wrote.

  • Don Shaffer Sep 13, 2009 @ 8:04

    Dear Kevin,

    An excellent point about the danger of falling into pat explanatory paradigms when explaining the exceptional nastiness of the anti-Obama rhetoric. But the racial element really worries me, especially the irresponsibility of certain media companies who give a soapbox to people like Limbaugh, Beck, and the like who help stir up such feelings to a fever pitch. I really never liked the “blundering generation” thesis of U.S. Civil War causation and I’m not suggesting we’re anywhere close to that here, but I think I’m better understanding intellectually and emotionally how dangerous and destructive such over-wraught political rhetoric can be. I suppose if there is any silver-lining here that is it.

  • Vicki Betts Sep 13, 2009 @ 7:46

    The anti-Clinton rhetoric was just as nasty around here a few years back. However, Walter Williams is a favorite syndicated columnist in the local conservative family-owned newspaper, and he will be speaking on my campus this week. Sometimes politics is politics.

    Vicki Betts
    Behind the pine curtain in East Texas

    • Kevin Levin Sep 13, 2009 @ 7:55

      I’m sure he is quite interesting to when it comes to economics since that is his field. Unfortunately, he sounds like a complete idiot when he tries to write history, specifically about so-called black Confederates. Williams has no clue what he is talking about.

      I digress. Let’s stay on topic folks.

  • Don Shaffer Sep 13, 2009 @ 7:32

    Dear Kevin,

    Your point about Maureen Dowd is well taken, but I think looking at the issue in a larger sense (beyond merely Joe Wilson) she is on to something. I don’t think the anti-Obama rhetoric would be quite so nasty if he wasn’t black. There is definitely something of a racial element here.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 13, 2009 @ 7:40


      You make a good point and I agree that there is a racial overtone to much of the anti-Obama rhetoric. Just check out some of the photos from yesterday’s rally in D.C. What I want to warn people of is the ease with which we back up into certain narrative threads. We’re at the point where any nutty outburst or behavior from a South Carolina politician is going to result in roughly the same story. It may be true that Wilson’s outburst is a reflection of racial unease, but nothing in Dowd’s column or the many news items demonstrates that in any way.

  • Don Shaffer Sep 13, 2009 @ 7:15

    Dear Kevin: thanks for blogging on this issue as it was one I was going to ask you about one of these days since you’ve had a lot more contact with the SCV than me. Some media has been suggesting the SCV have been taken over by KKK types in recent years. Your blog suggests at the least the picture is a lot more complicated.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 13, 2009 @ 7:22


      Thanks for the comment. I do not want to pretend that my understanding of the organization is as extensive as you and others might assume. I know from emails that many of my readers are members of various chapters and approach the study of the Civil War from many different angles. I’ve spoken at a few meetings and I have a pretty extensive knowledge of the history of the organization. My point in the post is to reject the the necessary connection between Wilson and his famous outburst and his previous statements re: the Confederate flag as well as his membership in the SCV. Dowd and others are making too much of it. Could it be that Wilson really does believe the president was lying and felt passionate enough about it to cause him to yell out? Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Thanks for the comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *