Published on January 12th, 2016 | by TLV News6
“In Defense of Confederate Symbols” by Peter Wirth
For months there has sat on my desk an appeal form the Southern Poverty Law Center, asking for money to further its “action plan to erase symbols of hate.” The memo explains what this means:
“It’s well past time that symbols of the Confederacy are [sic] removed from public places.” No further argument. The equation between Confederate symbols and symbols of hate is supposed to be too obvious to need any.
Without question the Confederate battle flag has been used as a symbol of hate, particularly by sometimes murderous white racists during the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. It still is. But we should face the facts. Any symbol can be used for almost any emotion and almost any purpose. The United States flag and the cross have both been used at times as symbols of hate. And they have been hated by people – not only enemies but mere victims – who have been oppressed or enslaved or hurt or maimed by those acting under the Stars and Stripes or under the cross. No flag is innocent. No symbol is perfect.
“There was much to admire about the Confederacy,” as Shelby Foote has said. Foote has also observed that, at the time of the civil rights movement, the good white citizens of the South should have warned the racists who went out to beat and kill: “Don’t use that banner, that’s not what it stands for.” They should have, but they didn’t. And the Confederate flag was degraded as a consequence.
Degraded? Someone will say. Didn’t it always stand for slavery? How could it get any worse? The best answer to these questions would be a serious study of the American Civil War from all points of view, Northern and Southern and international, white and black, abolitionist and Republican and Democrat and fire-eater. One thing that such a study would show is that the industrial North profited from cotton and slavery as much as the plantation South. (And the yeoman South, the South of small independent farmers, profited relatively little.) It would also show that white racism has never been a monopoly of the white South. Racism is an American problem, not a Southern problem. In fact, it’s a world problem.
Eugene D. Genovese, author of The World the Slaveholders Made and of Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, wrote in 1994 in our local publication Crossroads: A Journal of Southern Culture, “The dangerous situation that confronts white southerners arise[s] from a massive campaign to deny them their identity – a campaign that, if successful, can only end tragically in race war. The white people of the South have a great deal to atone fro, and the history of slavery, segregations, and racism can neither be explained away nor ignored. But atonement – the exorcising of the grim side of a complex legacy – cannot be effected by breast-beating guilt trips that end in self-hatred. To the contrary, Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s dream of the reconciliation of the descendants of slaves and slaveholders can only be realized through mutual respect for the admirable features of their respective traditions.” Genovese immediately adds, “The Old South did stand for slavery, and the Confederacy was a slaveholder’s republic…” But Southerners, “…black as well as white,” have over time created a tradition that values “’honor,’ ‘duty,’ and ‘community’ -concepts… that remain essential to a life worth living,” and that has stood “in opposition to the atomization and alienation of man from self and society.”
I myself was not a Southerner by birth, upbringing, or ancestry. I was born in New York City, grew up in Connecticut, and went to school in Massachusetts. None of my ancestors came to the United States before the 1880’s; my father came here in 1940. But I have lived in the South, first in Virginia and then Mississippi, for thirty-eight years now. There are things about the South that I love. Those things have a real connection to the Old South.
What’s more, I’m an American. It is foolish to believe that the people of the United States can just put the Civil War behind us. The Civil War, as Ken Burns said to the honors convocation a few weeks ago, had a lot to do with making us what we are. “History belongs in history books,” said the president of the College Democrats during the drive to take down the state flag at the University. But you can’t confine history to books; it’s part of the fabric of our lives. To confine it to books is a way of forgetting it. In the 1970’s I heard the radical journalist I. F. Stone speak at Tufts University in Massachusetts. He quoted Thomas Jefferson on freedom. A hostile audience member asked how he could possibly quote a slaveholder. “History isn’t melodrama,” Stone said. “History is tragedy.”
This fall I defended the present Mississippi flag at City Hall in Oxford, and at Barnard Observatory on the University campus. I voted for the old flag back in 2001, like nearly two thirds of the people of this state. The slogan that impressed me then was “Keep the flag. Change the heart.” If the people of Mississippi vote to change the state flag, so be it. The Magnolia flag has a good claim, and a history of its own. But the people should be allowed to vote. If the people in a democracy can’t be trusted to vote on their own state flag, what can they be trusted to vote on? In the meantime, I think both the city of Oxford and the University of Mississippi have made a mistake in taking down the state flag.
It might be different if the attack on Confederate symbols were part of an energetic movement for social and economic justice, for a fairer and less militarized foreign policy, for preservation of the natural world in whose trashing we are all implicated, for the restoration of voting rights and democracy, against police brutality and mass incarceration. But as far as I can see that isn’t the case. The push to “erase” the Confederate symbols is at best a rather feeble gesture of good will, and an excuse for ignoring more substantive issues. It won’t rejuvenate Mississippi or the South economically. It will feed into a terrible self-righteousness which goes by the name of “American exceptionalism.” Once, the story will go, the honor of the United States was sullied because we respected those Confederate bad guys. But we’ve repudiated them at last. Now we’re all good guys. Now we’re perfect.
Peter Wirth is a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at Ole Miss.