Sunday, July 5, 2015

Stillbirth of a Nation

Years ago, sometime after I had moved to Finland, I ran across a small pamphlet that Finnair had produced for their customers traveling to the United States.

The booklet offered practical guidance on such matters as how much to tip in restaurants or how the hell to identify a dime as a ten-cent piece, despite the fact that “10” or “ten” are nowhere to be seen anywhere on the coin. Another one of those little American oddities to perplex foreign visitors.

Among other useful information was a page dealing with US public holidays, listing about half a dozen of the most significant ones, including the quintessential American holidays of Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Labor Day. What struck me as odd, in fact extremely odd, was the inclusion of a day I did not recognize as any holiday – Jefferson Davis’ birthday. 

Though I was born and raised in the South, I can’t recall anyone ever talking about the birthday of the Confederacy’s one-and-only president, let alone celebrating it. As far as I was concerned Jefferson Davis had long been thankfully forgotten, certainly not a figure to be commemorated.

I’ve since learned that his birthdate is indeed an official holiday in Florida and Alabama. Of course. No doubt, it’s also celebrated unofficially by certain segments of the population in other southern states, and by that I mean folks who, 150 years after the fact, can’t come to grips with the thought that the South waged a misguided and treasonous war against the United States, and lost. Lost badly.

Obviously, the creators of the Finnair booklet must have sourced some bad information if they thought that Davis’ birthday merited a mention as any kind of national holiday. To me, it would be as absurd as celebrating Benedict Arnold Day. I trust no one does that.

When I was growing up in the South in the 60s, the Civil War was a very faint backdrop to the modern world, but not much more than that. No one took it too seriously where I lived, though we definitely identified ourselves as Southerners.

We jokingly called a neighboring family who lived along our dirt road “Yankees” because they had moved there from Ohio. That’s about the extent of the Civil War intruding on my childhood as I can recall. I remember hearing only one Civil War-era story handed down from the older generation of my family. 

Years later, when a co-worker from Boston asked me to demonstrate a “rebel yell”, I had to disappoint him. It was not something we ever did growing up in my part of Georgia. I’d be able to do an authentic rebel yell as likely as an authentic Swiss yodel.

Back then, if we were preoccupied with any events outside our own daily lives, it was with a different and still-on-going civil war, one in Indo-China, and a lower grade of political unrest in the US, the overall turbulence of the 1960s. The Civil War wasn’t much of a topic of conversation. No one felt strongly about what had happened 100 years in the past. No one harbored simmering resentments over it.

I should perhaps pause to explain that mine was not the South of “Gone with the Wind”, by any means. The Georgia haunted by the ghost of Scarlet O’Harra was actually a bit foreign to me, so my experience may not have been typical for what used to be called the Cracker State. ("Cracker" is a slang term for poor, white Southerners.) 

I grew up in the mountains of North Georgia, in a country of small upland farms and forested wilderness. This mountainous area was surely not as dependent as the rest of the state on the slave-based economy that sustained the genteel cotton-growing elites, the aristocratic plantation owners. In 1860, only about 150 slaves lived in Gilmer County, where I was born, according to one source I have found. Gilmer was mostly a county of “small-fisted” farmers.

The two delegates sent from Gilmer to the Georgia Secession Convention in the spring of 1861 voted against leaving the Union. When the war came, a decent number of local boys fought on the side of the North, including at least one of my ancestors. There were no battles fought near the county and no Civil War memorials erected there. Reminders of the war did not really exist there.

That's why it shouldn’t be too surprising that I don’t recall as a child hearing anyone expressing the view that the Confederate States should have won the war. In my predominately Republican county, probably no one strongly felt that that President Abraham Lincoln, the icon of the GOP, was wrong to fight in order to keep the Union together. (Obviously, this was long before Fox News arrived on the scene.)

As I write this now, it seems the Civil War should be even less of an issue than fifty years ago. It should all be ancient, and settled, history, with no real relevance to today.

Oh, how I wish that were true.

In recent years, I’ve spent enough time browsing the history sections of American bookstores to know there is a lucrative enough market for revisionist history books recasting the past from a right-wing worldview.

My impression is that the drive to rewrite (or to be more charitable, to “reinterpret”) history got a boost after the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s, when the country took a noticeable turn to the right. And now, with the murkiness of the internet, where everything and nothing is true, rewriting history has never been easier.

I shouldn’t have been too surprised, therefore, to hear Andrew Napolitano, some kind of Fox News “personality”, railing on-air last year against Abraham Lincoln – Abraham Lincoln! – for his unnecessarily launching a “murderous war” against the South. What the hell?

I don’t greatly admire that many American presidents, but the more I read about Lincoln, the better I understand what an extraordinary politician and leader he was. I found it shocking that someone on “mainstream” TV would lambaste the president for struggling to hold the United States together. I might as well have been watching Russia Today.

I know that some contemporaries of Lincoln similarly railed again him as a “tyrant”, but those folks were on the side of the Confederates, dead set against any restrictions on the rights of the good people of the South to own other human beings. That was presumably a more acceptable form of tyranny, one based on race.

Following the terrorist killing of nine African Americans in Charleston last month, the issue of the Civil War is rising again, with a twist.

The white-supremacist murderer posted photos on social media of himself with the Confederate Battle Flag, provoking a groundswell of anti-rebel-flag sentiment that was inspired in part by Ta-Nehisi Coates in an article in the Atlantic Monthly. In reaction to the shooting, Coates set his sights on the rebel flag still flying on the grounds of the South Carolina capitol in Columbia, insisting that it was time to “take it down”.

Let’s be honest, compared to the bigger problems of racism and political violence, the matter of one flag is small beer. Still, for a native southerner, like myself, who has come to see that flag as a disgraceful throwback to disgraceful times, it was a welcome development.

Perhaps because the Charleston shooter also posted photos of himself burning an American flag even some conservatives in the South have felt justified, or chastened enough by the public outcry, to come out in favor of taking the flag in South Carolina down. But, it also seems they’ve often missed the point.

The rationale I’ve seen repeated here and there is thus:  although the flag is in reality nothing more than a benevolent symbol of Southern heritage, it had sadly been appropriated as a symbol of white supremacy by hate groups, such as the Klu Klux Klan. (“Appropriation” is a particularly popular buzzword nowadays.)

Using this argument, it has finally become socially acceptable now in 2015 for even true sons and daughters of Dixie to support taking the flag in Columbia down. Progress, of a sort.

This conservative argument seems reasonable, up to a point, so perhaps it’s best not to quibble. It is true the flag has for years been used as a banner by reactionary groups opposed to civil rights. But what the new-found opponents to the flag conveniently ignore (assuming they even know) is that this “appropriation” is nothing new and the reactionary groups using the flag this way have also included state governments.

The familiar Confederate symbol of rebellion was incorporated into the state flag of Georgia, but not until 1956, at the dawn of the civil rights movement. It’s doubtful that pride in Southern heritage, on an official state level, had been dormant all the years prior to that.

Of course, it was clear to everyone at the time that the change was made as an act of defiance against a tide of racial integration. Georgia was thumbing its nose at folks, especially in the federal government, who thought that the “separate but equal” principle of segregation was a cruel joke.

Georgia removed the rebel symbol from its flag only in 2001, and only after an acrimonious debate. Mississippi, whose flag also features the old battle flag, is now discussing doing the same in the wake of the Charleston shooting.

Not everyone, though, is jumping on board the anti-flag bandwagon. Not far from my home county, a parade of pickup trucks and jeeps flying the battle flag whizzed through the streets of Fort Oglethorpe, protesting the removal of the flag from a gift shop at the nearby national military park. A couple of the trucks in the speeding procession rear-ended each other, showing that enthusiasm for a white-supremacist Lost Cause doesn’t necessarily breed safe-driving habits!

And while moderate southern conservatives are now seemingly willing to concede that the “optics” of the battle flag are a liability in today’s world (due to hateful appropriation!), I have come to understand that many of them are still in deep denial over the fundamental truths of the war that spawned the flag. Even today.

I recently had an internet debate (always a bad idea) about the Civil War with some folks from Georgia and elsewhere, some of whom I would have thought were thoroughly modern and well-educated people. While they seemed to agree the time had come to abandon the battle flag, they dug in their heels at any suggestion that the Civil War itself was fought for anything as unrighteous as slavery.

It was dismaying to see people of my general age and background, four or five generations removed from Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, insisting that a war that resulted in some 750,000 deaths on both sides was fought over "tariffs". Or the "banking system". Or the always-useful excuse of “states’ rights”. Anything, anything but slavery. At first, I thought they were joking or being ironic. They weren’t.

I thought such willful twisting of historical reality was only found on the fridges of society, bringing to mind marginalized loners hunkered down in some tumbledown house trolling the darker reaches of the internet, not people who function in the open sunshine of the modern life.

This kind of slavery-denial is difficult to understand, especially since all it takes to dispel such illusions is to read the Georgia Declaration of Secession*, basically the equivalent of the US Declaration of Independence.

A long-winded document by any definition – three times the length of the American Declaration (and even longer than this post!) – it leaves no doubt about what moved the pompous blowhards who wrote it to take the drastic action of revolution.

By my rough analysis, some 78% of the text is devoted to slavery. Only 15% deals with other grievances southerners had with the North, namely tariffs and “internal improvements” (infrastructure spending), where they felt they were being victimized by the Yankees. The Declaration reeks of victimhood.

Yet, despite the Declaration being readily available on-line and crystal clear in its meaning, some people contrive to find that slavery wasn’t the South’s motivation for secession, and therefore, racism wasn’t behind it. That, after all, wouldn’t be “honorable”.

Seriously, I can’t understand the point of trying to whitewash the past by denying that Southerners, even if they might have been our own ancestors, went to war over slavery. Why do folks today feel the need to make excuses for people long dead and gone? And why do I now seem to be encountering more of this denial than years ago?

I suspect that some of the people I was arguing with recently grew up in middle or south Georgia, or some other part of the state seeped in Civil War lore, dotted with war memorials and statues of Confederate generals. (Don't get me started on Stone Mountain, the "Mount Rushmore" of the Confederacy.) Perhaps most other Georgians learned such archaic attitudes at their mama’s knee. At least, I didn't.

Or perhaps the traditional, pro-American, narrative of the Civil War has now been successfully hijacked by neo-Confederate apologists, like Andrew Napolitano and other right-wing revisionists. I would see that as brainwashing. 

Anyway, I would hope the stark contrast of the Charleston shooter burning the American flag, while flaunting the rebel one, brings home to modern-day fans of the Confederacy a contradiction that has always seemed obvious to me: how can you claim to be a loyal patriot of the United States – as southern conservatives certainly do – and also feel pride at the sight of a symbol of an enemy “nation”?

In any case, on the Fourth of July this past weekend I was happy to commemorate the founding of the United States  and not the stillbirth of a different nation, one that did not deserve to be born despite what some folks in the South might still prefer to believe, even today. 

Words of President Barack Obama, in his eulogy for the nine slain parishioners of
the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

* Correction: This should perhaps be referred to as the "Declaration of Causes of Secession". While the "Ordinance of Secession", adopted Jan. 22, 1861, was more properly Georgia's "declaration of independence",  it was followed a week later by the Declaration of Causes.

1 comment:

  1. Your home county (and the one my family briefly adopted in the 1970s) was notorious for having stayed firmly committed to the Union cause during the Civil War. This was the case in many of the high country regions of several southern states. Mountain farmers had no stake in slavery and were committed Republicans, thus championing the causes of their leader, Abraham Lincoln.

    Ironically, the people of Appalachia stayed Republican as that Party moved from that of liberal Lincoln to that of racist Strom Thurmond. Indeed, Gilmer County became a hotbed of racist activity where racist terrorist and murderer of children J.B. Stoner (Bethel Baptist Church Bombing, Birmingham Alabama) found a safe and welcoming haven. I was always horrified at the free movement of racist activists actually within the Gilmer County School system. I recall sitting in class to hear Dr. Andrews give talks on the evil of Jewish conspiracies. And Christian revivals held in the gymnasium and required attendance for all students during class hours.

    I do remember seeing some Civil War monuments on the square in Ellijay, but never paid any attention as to whether they were Confederate or Union (or maybe both). Having lived for most of my life in the solidly Confederate-sympathizing areas of Brunswick, Macon, and Atlanta, I had long before grown absolutely sick of the imagery. To this day, the pro-Confederate iconography in Atlanta is overwhelming, reaching a pinnacle of obscenity in the vast bas-relief on Stone Mountain, a state-owned property.

    I would dearly love to see all of that ridiculous Confederate crap (including statues and such monuments) removed forever from public spaces. Let the idiot racists plant that poisonous crap in their yards so that we'll all know where the assholes live.