Friday, April 9, 2010

The Theft of Southern Symbolism

Well, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell stepped in it with both feet. Another in a recent string of GOP miscues. Plenty of people around to blast him for having the audacity to proclaim Confederate History Month without mentioning slavery.

"Confederate" and "slavery" are synonymous, you know. But, I've posted on this misguided contention before. Blacks are hurt by the attempt to commemorate southern honor, thus
the present debate. The democrat's politics of inclusion is often as misguided and distorted as the republican's politics of fear.

I voted for President Obama. I do not consider myself racist. Last weekend, in anticipation of the "
Fort Sumter Day", I placed my Confederate flag on display from my front porch. This would be my freedom of speech, if nothing else. It will remain there until July 4th to be replaced then by the Stars & Stripes.

Among the many articles and blogs
assaulting Gov. McDonnell (of whom I am no great fan, he's a neocon after all), a staff editor for The Atlantic (a magazine to which I subscribe and highly admire) made the statement: "Revisionists like to pretend that slavery didn't cause the Civil War..."

On the contrary, the academic "revisionists" of the last three decades have steadily argued that slavery was the primary and, generally speaking, only cause of the Civil War. An equally untrue assertion.

But, more to the point of this controversy, the contention that Confederate History Month
must inherently include slavery, disunion, and the ultimate destruction of the south is symptomatic of the slow, continual theft of southern symbolism. It is, simply put, just another form of prejudice to state that the significant military aspects of the War Between the States, specifically the military accomplishments of, for example, the Army of Northern Virginia cannot be discussed or recognized or honored or appreciated in any way without being linked directly to the evils of slavery. To imply instrinsic worth and value to the Confederacy as a "grand military revolutionary attempt" is "unacceptable."

It should be pointed out that Confederate History Month is overwhelmingly a military recognition. It is meant to highlight the south's military efforts that brought it so close to victory before yielding to the Union's military prowess that eventually lead to southern defeat.

"For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two oclock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is stll time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago...." -
William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust

To suggest that the Confederacy cannot be honored militarily, that, say, Pickett's Charge cannot be remembered without being tied to the enslavement of a people strikes me as myopically absurd. This is particularly absurd when it is well-known among historians that the vast majority of southern soldiers and commanders did not own slaves nor were they primarily motivated to fight by the institution of slavery. The insistance upon linking all things Confederate with slavery is clearly a form of prejudice in itself, as exhibited by President Obama's sense of self-rightoueness. Let us have a dialog on race in this country. But, only when everyone is willing to admit that none are without their prejudices. None.

The mass of humanity is perhaps most equal in their individual prejudices.

The symbols of the Confederacy, for generations following the conflict, were defined by former Confederates as symbols of honor. Southern culture at the time was dominated by a distinctive, perhaps even neurotic,
sense of individual and collective honor. There were more duels fought in the south than in the north, for example. Just as dueling seems incomprehensible to us today, so does the sense of honor that lead to the cultural behavior.

Southerners wishing to recognize that sense of honor and its extensions to the conflict, to the fact that 2% of the southern white male population died in the war, to the fact that around 25% of the surviving male population was wounded in the conflict (
see "Casualties of the War" here), feel completely threatened now by the "revisionist" attitude that all symbols of this culture at this time cannot be interpreted in this light any longer. They must be interpreted as symbols of bigotry and racism. This would not set well with any people or culture. But, especially for southerners who still wish to uphold this rather antiquated sense of honor, being forced to redefine cultural symbols results in a reactionary mentality that is no less powerful today than it was in 1860.

(At the risk of sounding incendiary, perhaps Black History Month should include a dialog on inner-city violence, children out of wedlock, and pervasive blue-collar crime. Let's make all "celebrations" more "truthful". Surely, if you can't separate Confederate history from slavery and disunion, you can't separate Black history from the urban jungle and specific disfunctional family concerns. That's equality isn't it?)

But, that's traditionally not the intent of such activities. Unless you are a southerner, apparently. Southern Pride is inherently evil and shallow compared with Black History Month, Women's History Month, American Indian Hertiage Month, Hispanic Hertiage History Month, Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, Family History Month, etc. ad nauseum...

The great differentiator here is Nietzsche's classic
master and slave morality. These other celebrations are largely in recognition of victims obtaining a measure of dignity (while reserving the right to perpetually define themselves as victims, of course). Whereas, the Confederacy was about a culture striving to maintain its pre-existing identity in the face of national change.

It is inevitable that the honorable basis for Confederate History Month and other such occasions fade with the passage of time. Symbols invariably become just signs in the Jungian sense and eventually lose their original, intended meaning. History is littered with such instances.

At the heart of this controversy, just as in the conflict itself, slavery is a flashpoint, a medium of convenience for reducing the true complexity of the events. The real controversy is the on-going struggle by white southerners to be respectful to their heritage and to place honor above slavery, above the feudal revolt against industrialized society, above romantic agrarian values opposing the materialistic rationalism rising in the more educated north. All of these issues and more caused the original conflict. But today's conflict, the war about the war (as it were), is over who gets to say what remembrance is all about and whether or not the creators of certain symbols are allowed to define what those symbols mean...or do others get to reinterpret all meaning and call it "acceptable."

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