Published on February 10th, 2016 | by TLV News1
A Rejoinder to James M. Thomas, by Peter Wirth
James Thomas calls my essay “trash.” Well, that’s his opinion. He asserts that its “basic gist” is that “Southern culture=white culture; don’t tread on whiteness.” An outrageous twisting of my meaning. I believe, however, that Southern culture includes white culture as well as black. As for “treading on whiteness”—does Mr. Thomas consider that a brave and noble thing to do? The abstract categories “whiteness” and “blackness” don’t interest me much. But white people and black people do interest me. Treading on whiteness does not seem to me morally superior to treading on blackness. Nor does it seem like a good way to promote “inclusion” or diversity or racial reconciliation or justice. To repress all symbols of the Old South, and all sympathy for it, will not get rid of racism. It will only drive racism underground and make it more vicious.
Yes, some controversialists defend Confederate symbols by “not-so-subtle homages to the ‘Old South,’ or ‘heritage’” because they wish to sweep the legacy of slavery under the rug or to advance racism. That is not my position. Half of my article related to the terrible legacy of slavery to racism. It was not enough for Mr. Thomas. He accuses me of “willful ignorance” and of being “ahistorical.”
Of course I might know more American history than I do. But there is a bad—and ahistorical—form of ignorance more fashionable than my own today. It starts from the valid premise that slavery and racism are evil. Equipped with this premise, is assumes that it already knows all about the Confederacy, its leaders, the Civil War, and the meaning of Southern history. There is no need to learn any more. Anyone who actually tries to understand what happened between 1861 and 1865, and why it happened, is suspect. For Mr. Thomas, that apparently includes the great historians Eugene Genovese and Shelby Foote (one a Northerner, the other a Southerner).
Old films like The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind give a grossly distorted picture of the South. What about Django Unchained, though, or even 12 Years a Slave? People who get their image of the South from movies like these are hardly well-informed, In all four cases, whatever the other merits of the films, we have crude melodrama with exaggeratedly drawn heroes, heroines, victims, and villains.
Mr. Thomas says “that Confederate iconography derives its shared meaning through collective use.” Exactly. And the collective use of Confederate iconography, like that of United States iconography or Christian iconography, has been complex and ambiguous. And there is also the question of individual use. Mr. Thomas quotes the white-supremacist rant of two designers of Confederate flags. But patriotic rant is not the same as reality. What William Porcher Miles and William Tappan Thompson had to say about white supremacy doesn’t tell us enough about what millions of Southern white men and women thought, felt, did, and suffered in those years. It doesn’t tell us why Robert E. Lee, who stood on record against slavery and secession, chose to command the Army of Northern Virginia rather than lead an invasion of his beloved home state. All the patriotic rant on both sides is not worth Stonewall Jackson’s grim warning: “People who are anxious to bring on war don’t know what they are bargaining for; they don’t see all the horrors that must accompany such an event.”
White supremacy is an ugly delusion. Unfortunately it was taken for granted by many—if not most—white people in the nineteenth century. (Abolitionists, too. John Brown was one of the few exceptions.)
Abraham Lincoln eventually learned to see beyond it to a deeper justice. His Second Inaugural remains the best statement on the war. One reason for this is that he saw history not as melodrama but as tragedy. Mr. Thomas prefers melodrama.
I also stand accused of “two egregious errors”: conflating “what is just with what is popular” and conflating majority rule with democracy. The second point first. Majority rule has a great deal to do with democracy. How can you have democracy without it? It’s true that, even in a democracy, some things should be forbidden, even to a majority. That’s why we have the Bill of Rights and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. But why shouldn’t the majority be allowed to choose a flag?
On the first point, what is just and what is popular are not at all the same. (My own position is not popular with those around me.) On the popularity of the Nazis, Mr. Thomas is misleading. They never won a majority in voting. They did gain support from 1919 to 1933, because of the humiliation and economic ruin imposed on Germany at Versailles. But they rose to power, and held power for twelve years by intimidating, beating, torturing, and murdering those who opposed them. Totalitarianism has ways of creating popularity or faking it.
Anyway, I don’t claim that the Confederacy was “a just and holy cause,” though it was genuinely popular while it lasted. I do claim that it had its admirable features, that many people served it with honor, and that it is one of the central facts of American history. “History has to live with what was here.” (Robert Lowell) It’s one thing for Mississippians to change their state flag. It’s another to repress or “erase” all symbols of the past that one happens to dislike. This is especially problematic when the whole historical identity of the South—its agrarian tradition, culture, manners, and values—is dismissed with contempt.
Mr. Thomas thinks he is radical because he is against white supremacy. Last fall in the Daily Mississippian he called it the most dangerous force in America. White supremacy is vicious enough, but as an ideology it now appeals chiefly to resentful losers with nothing else to fall back on. There are other dangerous forces as work in America today: what Dwight D. Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex; a predatory capitalism which continues to widen the gap between the one percent and the rest of us; an imperial mindset which assumes the right to tell other countries what to do and to bomb them at will; the increasing destruction of the earth. But fighting these forces is difficult. They have great power. There are no cheap victories ready to hand. This flag controversy will only distract us from much harder and more important struggles.
Peter Wirth is a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at Ole Miss.
Previous entries in this debate:
“In Defense of Confederate Symbols,” by Peter Wirth
“A Response to ‘In Defense of Confederate Symbols’ by James Thomas”