I am a charter member of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) Camp. After many years of membership I have seen this organization evolve into something I don’t like. I joined the organization naively thinking it was meant to honor the bravery of my Confederate ancestor (who was drafted in 1862 and fought in a South Carolina infantry regiment until his capture in early 1865) and the more than one million men who served in the Confederate States Army during the War Between the States.
Of course, the SCV does a great deal of honoring our Southern ancestors. But, now it has become almost a quasi-political organization greatly influenced by the ridiculous League of the South. Several key members nationally in the SCV came from the secessionist-minded League of the South.
My reading for my bio-blog on Nietzsche took me through his brilliant essay on history a few months back. It was the second time I had read that “meditation.” The SCV has always been an “antiquarian” historical entity. Nietzsche is critical of this approach to history.
“It understands merely how to preserve life, not how to create life; hence it always undervalues becoming because it lacks the divining instinct for it – the instinct which exemplary history, for instance possesses. Hence antiquarian history impedes the powerful resolve for the new; hence it paralyzes men of action who, precisely because they are men of action, always will, and always must, offend against some piety or other. The fact that a thing has acquired age now creates demand that it should last forever.” History as an intimate possession, to be forever possessed, laced with a dark side. “The moment antiquarian history is no longer inspired and quickened by the vigorous life of the present, it degenerates.”
For Nietzsche anything that interferes with “the new” or “becoming” is an inferior form of history. And I agree. By contrast, “exemplary” (Nietzsche also calls this “monumental”) history inspires the new and participates in Becoming. “That the great moments in the struggle of individuals form a chain; that in them a great mountain ridge of mankind takes shape through the millennia; that the peaks of such long-lost moments might still be alive, still luminous, still great, for me – that is the crucial idea in the belief in humanity which the demand for exemplary history expresses.” Exemplary history is heroic history, visionaries, great humans that made things happen, made change while always focusing on the present or the future. The past as inspiration.
(The essay also speaks of “critical” history as the third kind of history but that doesn’t apply to the context of this post.)
When I joined the SCV there were several additional “funds” to which members could contribute. The largest one was the Heritage Foundation. It was a fund to basically promote the public display of the Confederate battle flag. I never gave to this fund because for me promoting the flag had little to do with me honoring the military service of my ancestor. I still fly a Confederate flag from my home for several months out of the year. That was my public “contribution” to the Heritage.
Almost ten years ago the Heritage Foundation was renamed the Heritage Defense Fund. This was meant to step things up a notch and actually attempt freedom of speech protection for the Confederate battle flag in the public sphere. It has been shunned by society, labeled racist. Some legal actions were filed, mostly on high school boys wearing the battle flag on t-shirts to public schools. The results were mixed. Sometime the battle flag won out. Sometimes it didn’t.
That means the battle flag is no longer sacred. What General Stephen Dill Lee charged the SCV with – in carrying forward the work of the United Confederate Veterans – is jeopardized by the passage of time. New standards threaten the old ones, which were threatened to begin with – thus the War. So, the SCV becomes more militant. A typical Southern response, really.
“All we’ve got is cotton and slaves and arrogance.” – Rhett Butler
I do not believe the Confederate battle flag is a racist symbol. For me, it is a ruin of a prideful, agrarian Feudalist society who resisted the inevitable tide of mass manufacturing and modernity. It was a rebellion against where the Now was headed. The Now won the war. Perception is as good as fact and the symbolic elements of the flag have all been stolen by its original victims, who now get to define the flag in its entirety as far as the world is concerned.
Southerners are a distinct minority in defining the meaning of their own flag. So, now the Heritage Defense Fund is called the Heritage Offense Fund. And the plans to take an “in your face” attitude toward America with the flag and other Southernisms are just too “in your face” for me.
The Confederacy is not going to return. It is an antiquated ideal. This constant “reenactment” of it is the kind of history I find neurotic. I appreciate it for what it was. Parts of it are in my Now, but they are the romantic and idyllic cultural aspirations so very much out of fashion today. I appreciate many other objects and periods of history like the Mongol Empire or Arctic exploration. But, unlike most of my historical interests, the Confederacy is in my direct family history. The question is whether or not that is a privileged position. Does that allow me to hold on to the way I intimately view the flag? Must I be a racist?
By way of example, it is, of course, an absolute fact that Disney’s wonderful Song of the South film cannot be released to mass distribution in the US anymore. It is too racist. But, I would say it isn’t racist at all. It is a joyous film in the spirit of the old South. Everyone else says screw that, though. Perception is reality. A great film from my childhood is literally burned by a thefty, political perspective.
I called Stanley, the local camp commander, to tell him personally I wouldn’t be renewing my membership. I didn’t feel like I could let something like this go in silence. I have personally known the commander for years. He is bright and has many libertarian views. He doesn’t like the political turn of the SCV, but, as he said on the phone, “I don’t know what I can do about it.”
“We’ve lost members over the years because of this political stuff,” he said. “Most years we get a few more new applications than resignations. But, these last few years we’ve dropped.” Membership in the camp is actually about 25% less than it was four years ago. Some of that might be based on the economy though. Dues are a bit over $50/year.
Stanley takes life in stride, just as is father did. His dad was well known in the community as a gardener and an arborist (as well as a respected educator, among other things). He was esteemed as “an intelligent, Christian man.” Jennifer knew Stanley’s dad for many years. They were master-gardeners together. He had at least a dozen hip replacements late in life. Each time, after rehabilitation, he went regularly to square dances. Way over 80 and still dancing up to a year or so before his death. That’s the spirit, right?
I mentioned my idea about the evolution of the “heritage” funds names through the years. He laughed and said he hadn’t thought of that.
“Well, don’t beat yourself up too much over this,” Stanley said with a genuine chuckle.
“I just wanted to do this personally. I didn’t want to just throw the renewal notice in the trash.”
“Well, I appreciate that. I hope we can change things at the national level,” Stanley said, meaning the national SCV influence by the League of the South.
“I hope so too.”
“There’s a chance at next year’s national convention there could be some shift back toward where we were.”
“Well, I certainly remain interested in what goes on inside the organization. It’s just gotten far too political for me. We need to get back to honoring our ancestors and not trying to keep the world the way they saw it.”
“Listen, you take care of yourself, Keith.”
“Nice to catch up with you Stanley. Bye.”