Sunday, August 20, 2006

Once and For All: Are You an American or a Confederate?

Seeing a picture of the disgusting George Allen singing in a Civil War reenactment got me thinking about something that's bothered me for a long time: the persistence of Confederate nostalgia in this country. My wife and I had occasion to visit South Carolina a few years ago to see our oldest daughter, who was working down there at the time. The number of Confederate flag symbols everywhere was appalling. I was particularly--EXTREMELY--incensed when I saw, in a barbecue restaurant, a photo of the Marines raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima. It showed them raising the CONFEDERATE flag, not the American one. Now, to me, that was blasphemy. So I got to thinking: when are these Confederate lovers going to decide that they're Americans? When are they going to stop being nostalgic for treason, slavery, and the most nearly successful attempt to destroy our country in its history?

Being a true blue northerner and a resident of Illinois, I've always looked up to Abraham Lincoln, the greatest American in our history, in my humble opinion. Yes, Lincoln had profound flaws, as Frederick Douglass pointed out, but he came to understand, during the course of his Presidency, something vitally important: that a Union victory in the American Civil War was essential not only to the preservation of the United States but also to the well-being of the world itself. By the time of the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln had realized the moral necessity of reaffirming the promise of the Declaration of Independence, specifically its assertion of human equality. Lincoln was clearly moving beyond his initial commitment to save the Union, and only to save the Union. He was clearly coming to see the defeat of slavery as a moral imperative, something which would finally give meaning to the Declaration's basic political philosophy, and expunge the fundamental hypocrisy that underlay our nation's founding ideals.

By the time of his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln had come to see the Civil War as God's judgment on the American people for slavery (a view I do not share, in that I don't see the intervention of God in human affairs being so clearly discernible). He knew that there would have to be reconciliation between the North and South, that all of us were going to have to again see ourselves as Americans, members of one country. Only Lincoln, in my view, had the vision, wisdom, strength, and stature to oversee this gargantuan task. It's what makes his assassination the greatest political tragedy in American history.

Millions of southerners would never embrace Lincoln's hope for a truly reunited country. In their bitterness and defiance they continued to be loyal to the Confederate cause, albeit in a somewhat more subdued manner. But that loyalty, passed down through Southern churches, remained strong over the generations. And it enabled the white South to win the peace in the decades following the war. Confederate loyalty gave white southerners the emotional determination to repress African-Americans and inflict upon them every injustice, every indignity, every insult, and every legal disability short of outright slavery itself. It gave them a myth to which they could cling, the myth of the poor, oppressed South, the myth of the Lost Cause, a myth that gave millions of southerners a fierce, almost tribal like sense of unity and self-identity. It is this myth that persists, perhaps in less virulent form than a hundred years ago, to this very day.

Kevin Phillips pointed out in the book American Theocracy that Christian fundamentalism is rooted in the belief that the wrong side won the Civil War. There are, literally, tens of millions of people in our country who still believe that the Northern victory was an injustice and that the word "American" is in one sense a symbol of this injustice. Phillips also cited evidence about the pervasiveness of the adjective "Southern" in preference to "American" in the names of businesses centered in the former Confederate states. For example, a company that might be called "American Hardware Suppliers" in the north is typically called "Southern Hardware Suppliers" in a state like Mississippi. The Confederate battle flag still flies on public ground in many parts of the South. (I don't know if it still does, but for many years Alabama's capitol building flew the Southern banner instead of the American flag.) In short, there continues to be a sort of divided loyalty in millions of our people, expressed in flags, bumper stickers, and billboards throughout the South: Long Live the Confederacy!

This has to end, and it has to be challenged. We need the courage to confront Confederate sympathizers once and for all by laying out the undeniable and irrefutable facts:

--A Confederate victory would have destroyed the unity of our country, certainly for decades, perhaps forever. There may never have been a reunification of the American states.

--A Confederate victory would have been a victory for every enemy of popular government on this planet, living confirmation of the assertion that republics are doomed to fail.

--A Confederate victory would have preserved human slavery, perhaps even beyond the 1888 abolition of Brazilian slavery.

--A Confederate victory would have encouraged every northern racist to crush the liberties of northern blacks.

In short, it would have been a catastrophe of the first magnitude, and one which would have had potentially disastrous effects on world history and the progress of human rights on this planet.

It does not matter that many Confederate soldiers fought heroically. The cause for which they were fighting, as U.S. Grant remarked, was as wrong as any cause for which humans have ever fought. We can respect and honor the valor of Confederate soldiers without endorsing their cause, just as we can recognize the heroism of German and Japanese soldiers from the Second World War. We also need to assert some things pretty loudly and clearly, however many people might find them objectionable:

--The name of the conflict is The American Civil War. It is not "The War Between the States" and it is emphatically not "The War of Northern Aggression" or the "War for Southern Independence". The names by which we know historical events are important.

--Nathan Bedford Forrest was a war criminal, and so was every Confederate like him who brutally murdered black troops simply on principle. Forrest later started the Ku Klux Klan as well.

--The myth of the north oppressing the south in the Reconstruction period is a despicable lie, one which was used for decades to stir up racial hatred in the South.

--The leaders of the Confederacy, like Jefferson Davis, were traitors, not heroes.

--The Confederate flag is the banner of treason, and it has never been anything else.

Those nostalgic for the Confederacy (or more properly, for the myth of the Confederacy) have to face some tough choices, namely: Are you ready to fully embrace being an American citizen? Are you ready to remove the flag of treason from your public buildings, vehicles, and billboards? Are you ready to set aside "Southern" identity and identify yourselves whole-heartedly with the United States of America? Did the southerners who sacrificed themselves so heroically in the world wars, Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East die for the Confederacy or for America? Are you ready to acknowledge that there is only one American flag, and it's the Stars and Stripes? And ultimately, these people have to be confronted with the ultimate question:

Once and for all: Are you an American or a Confederate?

Because by God, you can't be both.



Tiny Tony said...

I wouldn't waste my time or energy on them, my friend. They're backing a cause that was lost a century and a half ago and need to get with the program. Blog on!

Joseph said...

I would agree normally, but this Confederate nonsense still has a strong hold on many people. If progressives are to succeed in the South, this myth has to be broken.

Anonymous said...

I like what you have to say here, but I must disagree with you on one of your historical assumptions: I think it would be less likely for Northerners to oppress blacks had the South won the Civil War. It certainly would have emboldened a few, but the masses would be more likely to try to distance themselves from Southern racism as much as possible. Everything associated with the Confederate Flag (including slavery and racism in general) would be seen in a highly negative light, and Northerners would clearly want to use this as a way to feel superior to their brothers to the South. It's sort of the opposite effect of what happened in the South, but still the same idea of enhancing ideological tradition.