My coworker at the Golden Goose asked me my opinion on the whole "Confederate-flag thing." This is with reference to whether South Carolina should take down the Confederate flag (a.k.a., The Stainless Banner, among other names) in the aftermath of the recent shooting by racist nut Dylann Storm Roof (apparently pronounced "rofe") at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina (Wiki writeup here). Before I talk about the flag, though, let's back up and deal with some prior issues.
As I told my buddy Tom regarding the fate of Mr. Roof: "I say fry him. I don't give a shit that he may have been off his meds." What do you do when a bear wanders into town and kills nine of your people? Do you negotiate with it while thinking, "After all, it's just a bear; it's only following its instincts"? Not at all: you shoot the bastard—you bring it down, and that's how you stop more killings from happening. (This is, by the way, the best and only necessary argument for the death penalty. Screw the notion that capital punishment deters other people: it deters the only person who matters, i.e., the killer himself.) As I've noted before in writing about suicide and depression, these mental conditions may constrain our human freedom, but they don't eliminate that freedom. Even the most depressed person in the world is ultimately responsible for his or her actions. Freedom is always constrained in some manner; like water, it inevitably follows certain channels as it runs its course.
I told my coworker, regarding Roof, that the good folks at Emanuel—many of whom openly forgave the killer—were much more noble than I would have been in their place. Dylann Roof would have received justice from my bare hands had he killed either or both of my little brothers. I simply don't have it in me to forgive certain things, and in Roof's case, I would gladly pull the hangman's lever, or the rifleman's trigger—or would twist his head until I heard and felt his neck bones pop—and sleep soundly that very night.
Getting back, though, to the "Confederate-flag thing": as I also told my coworker, I'm technically a Southerner, having been born and raised in Virginia. That said, I've never felt particularly Southern. Other Virginians will note, jokingly, that this is because of my long-time proximity to Washington, DC: northern Virginia has never been "real" Virginia by most Virginians' reckoning—this despite the fact that I lived in Mount Vernon, on what used to be the property of George Washington himself—and who, if not President Washington, is the ultimate Virginian? So because I've never felt all that Southern, I can't say that I feel any twinge of regret or despair, or even nostalgia, at the thought that South Carolina might, by forever lowering the Stainless Banner, finally put aside an odious part of its past and move forward into this modern century.
I recognize that others feel differently, and part of the reason for this has to do with the power of symbols. Symbols operate on agreements (see my post on the supposedly pagan symbolism of the Christmas tree), and they also accumulate history. Think about the swastika: it may rotate differently depending on whether it's a Nazi swastika or a swastika coming out of ancient Indian culture, but the symbol has a powerful resonance in both the West and the East—all thanks to agreements as to how to view the symbol, and to the accumulated history of tradition that naturally accretes around the symbol. So I, along with many Northerners and most black folks, view the Confederate flag as a symbol that still echoes with the racism and oppression of the past. Other Southerners ignore this dimension and focus solely on how the flag represents "Southern culture," a notion with which I have little sympathy.
This brings me to an article by William Cawthon that I saw via Malcolm Pollack's fine blog. Malcolm's post is brief, but the article itself is dauntingly long. I spent an hour slogging through it during my lunch break yesterday, but I still failed to finish it. Not that finishing it was necessary: the author, a Southerner himself, repeatedly utters the same self-pitying refrain—the South's defeat turned everything upside-down; the North swept in and began systematically replacing Southern cultural notions and values with Northern notions and values; the South is steadily disintegrating. Alas for the poor, dying South. In that vein, Malcolm seems to be arguing, the taking-down of the Confederate flag is part and parcel with the continued dismantling of Southern history and culture.
Two things impressed me—negatively—about Cawthon's article: (1) he complains about the steady loss of Southern culture but provides almost no examples of what elements of that culture are worth saving, and (2) his article makes only the barest mention of slavery, which makes everything he does say in the article utterly beside the point. He claims, for example, that the South was economically more robust than the North before the Civil War. I almost laughed: the South's economy was largely founded on a booming cotton industry that was driven by slave labor! (Read more here. This is telling: "By 1850, 1.8 million of the 2.5 million enslaved Africans employed in agriculture in the United States were working on cotton plantations.") Is Cawthon really that blind to the irony of what he's saying? While lamenting the demise of his culture, the author offers us no reason to believe it worth saving. And out of 5,824 words, the author uses some form of the word "slave" (enslavement, slavery, slaves, etc.) only six times. Slavery is an issue that he actively avoids.
(In the interest of fairness and full disclosure, I should note that, having lived out in the sticks and having known country folk, I can think of a list of reasons to preserve certain aspects of Southern culture—perhaps a subject for another post. Most of the folks I knew while living in Front Royal were good, kind, and hard-working. It is, perhaps, condescending to say this, but the people I knew would have been horrified by the notion of owning a chattel slave. That said, there are also, even now, rotten undercurrents to that culture which, in an ideal world, would be rooted out and eliminated. Conservative churches in Front Royal, for example, aren't all that friendly to, say, gay couples looking to become members.)
There are Southerners who still maintain that the Civil War wasn't fundamentally about slavery: it was about states' rights. That may indeed have been an issue, and I don't think Cawthon is wrong to mention that issue in his article when he complains about Northern steamrollering of Southern ideas and values. But for Cawthon to elide the role and importance of slavery is a dirty move on his part, and I refuse to accept it.
My Golden Goose coworker, during an idle moment in the office, pointed out the so-called "cornerstone speech" given by the vice-president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, on March 21, 1861. Stephens lays out the South's convictions, and its motivating principles, with grim and appalling clarity:
The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away... Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it—when the "storm came and the wind blew, it fell."
Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.
Stephens, speaking with the implied authority of Jefferson Davis, says above that slavery is indeed a central issue—if not the central issue—in the coming conflict, and that the black man is most assuredly inferior to the white man. Southerners who shy away from this are shying away from their then-leaders' own words. Stephens also makes abundantly clear that he sees slavery as right, just, and an integral part of what makes the South the South. Is it any wonder, then, that black people nowadays—and non-black Northerners, too—might see the Confederate flag as a symbol of hatred and oppression?
So I can't get all that exercised about the taking-down of the Stainless Banner. I'm happy to see it go. And it's about damn time.
As for whether the South is really withering away, Wikipedia has this to say:
In more modern times, however, the South has become the most integrated region of the country. Since the late 1960s black people have held and currently hold many high offices, such as mayor and police chief, in many cities such as Atlanta and New Orleans.
Historically, the South relied heavily on agriculture, and was highly rural until after 1945. It has since become more industrialized and urban and has attracted national and international migrants. The American South is now among the fastest-growing areas in the United States.
The arrival of millions of Northerners (especially in major metropolitan areas and coastal areas) and millions of Hispanics means the introduction of cultural values and social norms not rooted in Southern traditions. Observers conclude that collective identity and Southern distinctiveness are thus declining, particularly when defined against "an earlier South that was somehow more authentic, real, more unified and distinct". The process has worked both ways, however, with aspects of Southern culture spreading throughout a greater portion of the rest of the United States in a process termed "Southernization".
Upshot: Mr. Cawthon's piteous whingeing notwithstanding, the South's going to be around for a very long time yet. It's not going anywhere, and by some measures, it seems actually to be thriving. If anything, southern red-state economies are proving, with Texas as a prime example, to be more robust than blue-state economies like California—a state that's managing itself into the ground thanks to over-regulation and a business-unfriendly climate. Perhaps like Germany, the South will reach a point where it repudiates its ugly past and begins to share only its good, positive, constructive aspects with the larger land.*
One last note: I see that Republican Senator Mitch McConnell has come out in favor of removing a prominent statue of Confederacy President Jefferson Davis and placing it in a history museum. I think this is a good thought, and it evokes the compromise that I personally envision: the removal of hateful icons and symbols doesn't mean their total erasure: erasing the past is never a good thing. We have to remember our mistakes if we're to have any hope of not repeating them. This is why Auschwitz and Buchenwald still exist; it's why Washington, DC, hosts the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Any Jew can tell you about the vital importance of memory. Put the past aside, forgive if you must, but never forget.
And that applies to a certain flag as well.
*Some readers might scoff at the idea that Germany nowadays is sharing only its positive qualities with Europe, especially given its own problems with race relations and immigration. From the perspective of someone in Korea who shares Koreans' frustrations with Japan's repeated attempts to change or erase its past culpability for countless depredations, I'd say that Germany has been remarkably forthright in its acknowledgment of and contrition for its past deeds. Germany now stands as one of two or three economic powerhouses in western Europe and is doing what it can to keep the Eurozone afloat, with little help from indolent Mediterranean sun-belt siesta cultures like Greece, Spain, and—obliquely—Portugal, all of which probably should be jettisoned from the common currency before the entire ship sinks.