Monday, June 22, 2015

American Stubbornness and Confederate Pride

I'm not signing any petitions demanding that the Confederate flag be removed from anywhere it currently flies. It needs to go away, but fundamental American resistance to public coercion always supersedes better judgment. Look what the South did when the federal government told them to ditch slavery. They seceded from the Union and opened fire on Fort Sumter. Reproving petitions elevate the flag issue to another Great Cause.

Southerners like to say that the war was about states' rights, but if the issue had been the right to wear green pants and a pink shirt rather than the right to own other human beings we would probably have avoided a bloody chapter in our nation's history. Note that I did not say we would have avoided an ugly chapter. Depends on the green and the pink, I guess. However, the slavery question did mesh with other aspects of the power of a federal government versus that of the states. This nicely obfuscates the basic question of racist slavery for those who wish to dance around it.

Say for argument that the Civil War had been about green pants. Say you had secession, warfare, a region of the country declaring itself a separate nation with its own flag. In due course, the Union wins the war, the South has to vary its wardrobe and the nation tries to reunify. But resentful adherents of green pants want to remember what they stood for, and how valiantly they fought. They incorporate the Green Pants banner into their state flags and keep their memories of the glorious campaign alive. In a weird way, the South was not part of the United States, and yet, having been once and future states, could they really be considered separate even for the time when they tried to break away? So their flag is sewn into our tapestry, like it or not, because to the green pants people of Dixie that was life for several years in their history. Whatever they seceded over, they came back.

Of course it wasn't about green pants. It was about an evil institution. Like most evil institutions, you can find stories from that time that are heartwarming and show kindness. But the system was not designed to warm hearts and foster kindness. It was designed to exploit a race deemed inferior, bought and sold like animals. Regardless of whether the southern states were on their way to doing away with slavery on their own, when pushed they chose to declare war rather than hurry their own emancipation bills through their various legislatures. That call to arms is quintessentially American. Don't tell me what to do or I'll tell you where to go. And I'll back it up with hot lead. People will dig in when they think someone is trying to force their hand, even if it's in a direction they were already thinking about going. And of course they weren't all thinking about going that way.

One of the hardest things to do in this day and age is wait for enough people to evolve to the point where we might all agree to do what's needed to live together peaceably on a healthy planet. But waiting and advising is all that will work. Even if you exterminated everyone who looks like trouble, if you left two people at the end there would be an argument over something, sooner than later.

Proud displays of the Confederate flag should go away, but the Confederacy can't be forgotten. The Civil War was a national tragedy that more or less ended the most obvious aspects of a national disgrace. But the official end of slavery left us with way more than four score and seven years more of racism and strife. It's been seven score and ten, so far. Remember that many abolitionists did not believe that African Americans were equal, only that they should not be owned. Once freed, the grateful darkies were supposed to nip off back to Africa to take up where they left off. They weren't supposed to assimilate into society, become educated and improve their lot. If they couldn't go away, they should at least have the decency to be well behaved. And that was the mild point of view. Where the enmity ran deeper, the hostility was virulent. While that hostility is not quite as overt and widespread now as it was a mere 60 years ago, a little is still too much, and there's way more than a little.

It will be many more years -- if ever -- before there's a national consensus on what the Confederacy was about. So many versions of any story spin up over time that it becomes impossible to untangle all the myths and legends, no matter what the subject. Its flag is a visually striking banner, brightly colored and boldly designed. Then there's the rebel yell. There's a lot to attract the merely high-spirited, not just the mean-spirited. And in a way, by taking the south back into the union, we tacitly agreed to take their heroes in the great and bloody war, who began as Americans and -- if they survived the conflict -- ended that way as well, whether they liked it or not. But you can't spend too much time reliving the details of the actual war, because that was a horrific waste of lives made necessary by stubbornness and pride. You can't go into it without acknowledging that someone was right and someone was wrong. If you tell yourself that the wrong side won, what stops you from saying we should fight again? If you admit that southern surrender was for the best, how can the war not be a complete bloody waste of lives?

The thing that seems to give humans the most trouble is figuring out when to stand up for what they believe and when to question those beliefs and abandon them. When is a fight the good fight and when is it wrong-headed and cruel? Those are decisions people have to make for themselves. You might force them to comply with your view, but if they don't agree it simply goes on the score card for later reckoning.


greatpumpkin said...

Recently I read the speech made at the time by Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, in which he explicitly stated that the reason for seceding and forming the Confederacy was to preserve slavery. So much for the "it was about state's rights, not slavery" argument.

cafiend said...

Ever since an evangelical Christian told me "thou shalt not kill" was actually a mistranslation and that killing the right people for the right reasons was okay I've known that the clearest truths are subject to debate.