Review- Parsons, “Ku-Klux”

Elaine Frantz Parsons, “Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction” (2015) – This is a very strong, subtle, and frightening work of cultural history. “Ku-Klux” is a history of an organization that has been defined in no small part by the specters and myths it generates. Parsons manages a very intricate task in reading the very real, material violence the Klan afflicted (and it’s material consequences) in relation to the Klan as an idea, a set of narratives and images deployed by a number of different actors to various ends (note- Parsons uses “Ku-Klux” instead of “Klan,” in keeping with practice during the nineteenth century- I’m using “Klan” out of convenience).

It’s important to note that Parsons is writing specifically about the Reconstruction-era Klan, or the “First Klan” as it’s sometimes called. Much of our imagery of the Klan comes from the “Second” (1920s) or “Third” (civil rights era) Klans. The early klan was much more loosely organized, and did not have a standardized appearance- the uniform white sheets and hoods. Instead, local klan groups self-organized, and dressed in a bewildering variety of costumes, from pretty basic hoods to what were basically clown costumes to full-on drag. Basically, Halloween- like those creepy old Halloween pictures.

And that might be the central point Parsons gets across- the early Klan very cleverly manipulated the line between serious and playful and between truth and myth. The bizarre costuming and other ritual aspects of the early Klan served a number of purposes, and weren’t as good at anonymizing their members as you may think. What they did do was create a space where the normal rules, not just of law and morality but of reality in general, didn’t apply. The message was clear- any attempt to challenge white dominance would not only lead to violence, but to a nightmarish overturning of order in general. It wasn’t enough to beat, maim, rape, and kill- the Klan also forced its victims into sadistic fantasy tableaux of white dominance.

Parsons also makes clear the ways in which politicians and publics in the north helped constitute the Klan as a concept- and in a way that helped make the Klan’s efforts successful. From the start, the Klan borrowed from northern commercial culture, most notably taking elements of gothic fiction and minstrel shows to structure their statements and rituals. Northern politicians and newspapers eagerly followed stories of Klan atrocities, especially when they could use them to argue for increased Republican power over the South. But as time wore on, several elements of the Klan’s cultural operations began to warp the story in directions favorable to them. Democrats and rival Republican factions began casting doubt on Klan stories- and one of the ways in which their outlandish ritual character helped the Klan was in sowing that seed of doubt.

Worst of all, Republican politicians waving the bloody shirt insisted on the image of pitiful black victims, and often literally shushed black survivors who attempted to tell their stories of resistance, even just to the point of refusing to play along with the Klan’s ritual grotesquerie. Along with amplifying the Klan’s cultural power by making resistance seem impossible, it eventually created a picture of the South where blacks were, always and inevitably, simple victims of the violence that’s just generated, like maggots from old meat, by white revanchism- and that there’s nothing anyone, certainly not northern politicians, could do to help. This dovetailed nicely with the declining Republican interest in the Reconstruction project, and helped make itself a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Historical analogy is a tricky game in any event. It’s made worse by the blindness to the many-fold axes of comparison that our language (and, one suspects, popular culture) encourages. So, the very first thing anyone goes to to dismiss an analogy that makes them uncomfortable are differences in size and scale- thing A can’t be like thing B because B effected more people, lasted longer, etc. And there’s often good reason to do this- think about the reductio ad hitlerum arguments that fly all over the place… though now that it’s the right that cries genocide much of the time, I guess we might rename it reductio ad stalinum (or maoum).

But… especially for a book published and 2015, and presumably conceived and written years before, there’s a lot here that illuminates dynamics in the contemporary far right. I know that will be enough of a stretch for some people, but if I really wanted to stretch, I’d say something like: the Klan is a notch in the belt of a specifically Anglo-Protestant modality of irregular war, attuned to the lifeways of the people pursuing it in the same way the Mongols’ way of war was essentially their way of surviving on the steppe, militarized.

But we’ll stick with the shorter stretch for now. The most obvious is the Klan’s use of performance, irony, and the prevailing pop culture narratives of the day, and the way that finds echoes in the contemporary altright. This practice creates multiple faces for different audiences, making it hard to get a grip on the phenomenon as a whole, and more than that works to confuse people and lead them to believe the rules aren’t working anymore- witness the altright belief in “meme magic.” And in a sense, it does work- not for their maximalist goals, which are absurd, but for making the society that much more violent and paranoid and making it harder to make any real social progress.

A related unfortunate parallel is the way portions of the commentariat who really should know better can’t seem to get their heads around the fact that people can be silly and ironic and also deadly earnest and violent. I wonder where that comes from. Did they not go to high school? Hell, I didn’t go to real high school and even I know that!

On a somewhat more positive note, there were people with power at the time who took the Klan seriously. Parsons tells the story of a Major Lewis Merrill, a Union army intelligence man who did the obvious things in his area of operations in South Carolina. He formed relationships with and gained the trust of the part of the community that he could work with (i.e., the black people), created a network of informants, arrested the Klan leaders they accurately fingered (it’s a myth that people didn’t know who was leading these things- these are small communities), and supported efforts to build a political base for a non-white-supremacist system. Remarkable how these things work with a clear head, some solid working partnerships, and a little elbow grease. *****

Review- Parsons, “Ku-Klux”

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