Confederate Ghosts

Quite aside from the horrific and unquestionably deep racism at the root of the old “Confederate” cause (extremely well-documented for easy reading and reference by the Atlantic here: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/what-this-cruel-war-was-over/396482/ ), I have always thought that the Confederate flag flying over U.S. government buildings was foolish. If the “stars and bars” symbolized anything in a pure and vibrant way, it was, first and foremost, a flag of treason and violent, illegal rebellion. After the total defeat of the South in our Civil War, part of the terms each Southern state accepted as a precondition to returning to the Union was forever disavowing the concept of that rebellion. Representing an attempt to destroy the United States is about as “un-American” as it gets, after all. As a practical issue, it doesn’t matter how southerners emotionally felt about the reasons for their rebellion or why they began it: loyal state government buildings have no business flying a rebel flag.

Although I wish more people would augment their case to get rid of rebel flags with that kind of thinking, I’ll bet it would run into the same wall. “This is a matter of Southern heritage,” goes the familiar reply. “It has nothing to do with racism, being un-American, hate, or anything like that.”

Why would otherwise sensible people embrace that kind of blatant falsehood?

I think it’s got a lot to do with our need for heroes, especially those that look and sound like we do. For thousands of years, we have appreciated the “hero” in a very particular way: taking a stand against enormous odds, fearlessly exposing themselves to risk, defeating enemies with skill and strategy, grasping life with a sense of fierce adventure, and leading others by example. When Achilles finally gets off his ass on the Trojan beach, when Beowulf lies in wait for Grendel and goes to fight the Dragon in his old age, when Hannibal crosses the Alps with his elephants, when the Vikings set sail: we cheer. Ask the average person who the “most badass” Roman was, and he’ll probably say Julius Caesar. Never mind that Caesar was a serial liar, a faithless traitor, a shameless adulterer, a mass murderer, and a vastly overrated military mind. Caesar brought the Roman world to its knees with a series of brave, dashing thrusts for which he was prepared to pay the ultimate price. Achilles was too self-centered to help his dying friends because he wanted (another) woman to own. Beowulf left his kingdom in shambles because he never fought for more than his own glory. The Vikings were the most frightening murderers, rapists, and arsonists (all done for ‘fun’) of their age. We often forgive our heroes their human limitations and the unfortunately barbarous aspects of their times and culture.

As a history major and humanities graduate student, I was taught to do this very early. When we look at history and historical cultures, we do our best to avoid anachronism: imposing our values on the past and judging history accordingly. If you asked just about any prominent (and even most minor) figures in history for their views on race, property, freedom, government, and gender roles, you’d get a joltingly offensive answer, by modern standards. Do we then just throw out all of our cultural history for being authored by hopelessly racist, sexist etc. people? George Washington himself owned slaves. I certainly hope we wouldn’t do such a thing (whatever arrogant fools like Chinua Achebe might say about it). Future generations will look back with distaste, I think, on plenty of things about our culture quite aside from civil rights. Our idiotic wars with no clear objective, our relentless rape of the earth’s resources, our shallow materialism, built on the backs of wage slaves in other countries. We take for granted quite a few disgusting things about America. Give us a break, we say. We can’t solve everything at once, nor do we understand even where to begin half the time.

I agree!

We forgive our heroes the things we don’t like about them (most of all the cultures in which they lived), because bravery, dash, cleverness, grace under pressure, a sense of adventure, and leadership are qualities all of us can appreciate, and in a very real way, they transcend the cultural junk around them. We don’t have to love their cultural surroundings to love things about them. In our desperate push of the last couple of generations to only honor the “right” things, we’ve gotten this wrong in multiple ways. In our cultural guilt (justifiably felt) over the extermination of the American Indian way of life, we’ve almost come to gloss over things about them (like the fact that indiscriminate murder, rape, and destruction were hallmarks of most Plains tribe raids) in a way that gives a distorted idea of their history. I wonder if the South has met the same fate in reverse.

It can be tough to think of a recognizable hero that is distinctly Southern, after all. Washington, Jefferson, and Madison were all Virginians, but we tend to associate them with genteel Enlightenment, so much so that many people are surprised to learn that they were all slave-owners. Frontier heroes like Crockett, Bowie, and Boone began as Southerners, but very quickly became associated with the “Wild West,” where I presume their natural savagery had a context that made it easier to swallow. Look around Southern history, and some of the only people who loom large for heroic exploits are wearing Confederate uniforms.

If we are being truthful, there is plenty of that transcendent bravery, leadership against great odds, dash, and cleverness on display in some of those Southern officers. Robert E. Lee may very well be the greatest American general who ever lived (not to mention a man who opposed slavery, but served his home state of Virginia out of a sense of duty). Stonewall Jackson repeatedly confounded Union forces two or three times the size of his own. A.P. Hill, with his red calico hunting shirt, always showing up at the right place and time to save the day; John Bell Hood, riding to battle with one arm and one leg, his Texans driving back superior union divisions (in one case just because they were cheated of their first hot breakfast in weeks). There are legendary exploits by the dozen. The Southern armies were vastly outnumbered, outgunned, outsupplied, outtransported, and outfunded from the very beginning, and still managed a large number of decisive victories in the field of battle, thanks precisely to those heroic traits in their officers and men that we so universally admire.

I think this is what a lot of people from the South are talking about when they use the oft-maligned phrase “Heritage, not hate.” While there are many who undoubtedly harbor racist feelings, I’ll bet there are many more who simply admire those living examples of Southern chivalry and bravery, and admire too some of the rural, ‘country-centered’ culture of the historic South, which, like a baby in the middle of so much bathwater, has been tossed aside by American culture on the whole as hopelessly racist and “redneck.” People don’t like it when a dominant culture seeks to erase or destroy their cultural heritage: it’s traumatic. Just ask the small handful of people in this country who still speak their native ‘Indian’ languages from the nineteenth century.

It’s no wonder, maybe, that we see so much rebellion in favor of the Rebellion. It even goes as far as dramatic and totally nonsensical attempts to assert that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. Folks, it was (Once again: see article at the top for the quick version with most of the best quotes). I have a tough time believing that most of the people saying this (especially the young ones) are deliberately attempting to rewrite history in a way that affirms hardcore racism. I see it more as an attempt to be allowed to appreciate Southern history and some of its heroes without being instantly dismissed. Because we do instantly dismiss them most of the time. I don’t think I’m alone in observing that any time something positive about Southern history and culture is socially mentioned, someone (with another example of justifiable cultural guilt) feels obligated to discredit it by awkwardly bringing up slavery. Even is this weren’t dubiously selective (the Northern industrial boom of the nineteenth century benefited greatly from the South’s slave-produced cotton, and race hatred was nearly as prevalent– many people rallied to the anti-slavery cause not because they respected black rights, but because they didn’t want white workers competing with cheap slave labor out West), it still wouldn’t be fair. Jackson’s Valley Campaign was an incredible achievement irrespective of context, and Old Blue Light deserves the credit.

But then, the main issue isn’t Old Blue Light Jackson. It’s the flag. And if Southerners would like to assert a more appreciative view of their regional history, they are choosing a very poor symbol to do so with the Confederate flag. The flag represents unconstitutional treason first, secession as the form of that treason, and the reasons for Southern secession. The greatest (and I would say, only practical) reason for the South going to the trouble of breaking off from the United States was unquestionably the institution of slavery, which had become so intertwined with the southern American way of life by that time, that it was inseparable without altering much about that way of life. The Confederate flag said to the world that slavery was so just and important, it was worth a war of 600,000 deaths and uncountable destroyed lives to maintain and expand. It’s the cultural context of race hatred and discrimination that Jackson and the others served under. Just as we don’t need to venerate the cultural context of rape, murder, and barbarism in which Beowulf and the Vikings operated in order to admire their transcendent individual actions (mythical or otherwise), we don’t need to venerate the cultural context of “war to preserve slavery” to smile at the enterprise of Jackson, Lee, Hood, Hill, and others, or at the finer aspects of the Southern way of life. One can love the hazy heat, magnolia trees, and slow pace of a country summer day and a pulled pork sandwich without needing a slave on hand with lemonade to serve, after all.

So lower those flags without shame, Southern friends. Be proud of who you are and all it has positively contributed to American life. If you like Civil War history, tell (like I do with my history students) the stories of Southern military heroism with relish, and remind your Yankee friends that there is a dark side we have to forgive in many of our historical greats (even the Greatest, like George Washington), but please abandon once and for all the idea that the Confederate banner has any place on public grounds and private trucks. That shit’s racist.

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