Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Barbour is right! In the End the Flap Over Confederate History Month Does Not Amount to "Diddly"

In these prickly times in which sensitivities are all on steroids, one--especially a white southerner--hesitates to say anything  about the Civil War and the Confederacy lest it offend somebody. Nevertheless, in fear and trepidation I assert that the Governor of Mississippi Haley Barbour has a point in asserting that the furor over  Virginia Gov. McConnell's call for the observance of Confederate History Month in the final analysis does not add up to "diddly."

Actually, the Virginia Proclamation as amended is not so bad. See:
Numerous other southern states have had similar proclamations and observances over the years, including my native state of Georgia. As a child I marched down the streets of Griffin in observance of Confederate Memorial Day for reasons I neither understood nor thought much about.

There are so many facts, facets, aspects, dimensions, complexities, paradoxes, contradictions, ambiguities, and the like regarding the Civil War era that it is probably impossible for anyone to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about the matter. Conversely, most any reasonable statement is likely to contain at least a partial truth. So here goes.

In the Washington Post  Eugene Robinson--a journalist I deeply admire and usually wholeheartedly agree with--wants a "reason to 'honor' soldiers who fought to perpetuate a system that could never have functioned without constant, deliberate, unflinching cruelty."

One of my Great, Great Grandfathers and two Great Grandfathers were Confederate soldiers. One --Cash Clay--died in an Illinois prison of smallpox. They owned no slaves, but like many other poor white southerners were recruited to fight a war for an institution they had no personal stake in. I don't know what their views on slavery were. Nor do I know what their attitudes were about women voting. I am pretty certain that my moral, political, and religious views would be in  deep conflict with many of their own. Were  all Union soldiers paragons of virtue and void of abhorrent views on race, women, and slavery? All understanding of history must begin with the proposition that "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God," although certainly some have sinned more grievously and some sins are far worse than others.

What attitude would Robinson have me take toward my ancestors? While condemning slavery, would it be inappropriate for me to honor  or at least remember their bravery, their sacrifice -- which is what most Proclamations I have read call for? They also call for understanding the past, seeking reconciliation, and the like.  One can certainly deal with slavery during Confederate History Month. Here is McConnell's statement in this year's Proclamation:
WHEREAS, it is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery led to this war and was an evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights and all Virginians are thankful for its permanent eradication from our borders, and the study of this time period should reflect upon and learn from this painful part of our history;
OK, that was added after an uproar about its omission, but did anyone suspect he was shaky on the subject?

It just seems to me that a special burden is put on southerners to disavow slavery every time they mention the Confederacy, as if there might be some doubt. If I speak of Jefferson and Washington (whose birthdays the nation celebrates), am I obligated to say that they owned slaves, and I think slavery is really evil. If I speak of Colonial Massachusetts, must I disavow the stoning and hanging of alleged witches or think it was wrong that Roger Williams was driven out. Granted the Confederacy had slavery at its center and that is an important distinction, but which of us is still suspect on the slavery question?

If you asked my ancestor soldiers what they were fighting for, I have no idea what they would say. They might agree with the Confederate Shelby Foote quoted who responded to a Yankee's  similar question by answering, "Because you are down here," i. e., you are in my territory with guns trying to kill me.

My forebears--like we all often are--were caught up in a maelstrom of events profoundly tragic over which they had little or no control and about which they doubtless had a limited understanding.  The speeches of Abraham Lincoln probably come as close as is humanly possible to a  comprehensive and profound understanding of the meaning of it all.

Slavery may be America's "Original Sin," as Robinson claims, but the atrocious  treatment of Native Americans is right up there as a mighty contender for the dishonor and began about as early.

I was born in rural Georgia in 1930. I have never heard  anyone I knew as a child or now or indeed in all America in  my generation offer a defense of slavery or greet it with approbation. How many times must we say that it was horrible, cruel, evil, and despicable? Apparently every time the Confederacy is mentioned.

I don't care for Confederate History Month. Much of the rhetoric I hear from its most ardent supporters is distasteful to me. But is there no place in our discussion for relativity, proportion, and even a little tolerance for what we don't like?

The immediate situation needs to be put in a larger historical context to gain a deeper understanding. The 20th century saw the development of American exceptionalism. In this vision, the South is the "other America," those people "down there" who are different (read: inferior) to us. The North is the primary location of a distinct sense of being innocent, free, successful, democratic, and devoted to high principles -- not like those older countries from which we came and the rest of the world.  The South has been the regional exception to this exceptionalism. Indeed, the South, unlike the North (the real America)  has known poverty, defeat, and shame over slavery and has sought for some way to find solace in the alleged values of an agricultural society with its devotion to tradition, religion, virtue, and honor. The North in a long-enduring southern counter-myth, by contrast, was  materialistic, greedy, and ruled by a frenetic capitalism that left the laboring classes at the mercy of the rich, the powerful, and the destructive forces of the impersonal market. Vietnam and now Iraq have taken some steam out of the most ambitious versions of the  American exceptionalist myth, but it is still around, even if in a weakened and chastened form.

So perhaps what we see in the current devotion to Confederate History Month is a way for the South to seek some meaning in the "Lost Cause" in the bravery, sacrifice, and honor of their soldiers and leaders. When northern liberals denounce the whole business with shouts of racism, we see remnants of the old American notion of exceptionalism and its feeling of superiority to that "other America" -- the exception to the real America while forgetting the racial and other sins of its own, including its participation the destruction of Native Americans and the appropriation of their land.

So  a little humility on both sides would help as we come to understand that neither region is yet free from the stained heritage and myths of the past. North and South still have stuff to work out in their own psyches. Whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives, northerners and southerners perchance need to come to a deep internal recognition that those realities--the Confederacy, slavery, the Civil War--lie 150 years or more in the past and have decreasing efficacy in the stream of real life today, except as magnified by imagination and unresolved feelings. Perhaps we might then turn our attention to the real threats, destructive forces, and constructive opportunities of the moment.

Meanwhile, until we all are more fully redeemed, let the Confederates have their history month . I assure you no one  will defend slavery or segregation and no politician will advocate racial discrimination. In the larger scheme of things April will soon pass and, the whole thing will not amount to "diddly."

PS The literature on these topics is vast. I will suggest only one book:
The Burden of Southern History
C. Vann Woodward, 3rd ed.(Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2008).
For an interesting review see:

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