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The Tragedy of Southern Cultural Obsession

What is really being honored?

Photo by Jason Lander/creativecommons
Source: Photo by Jason Lander/creativecommons

The Confederate flag has been removed from the South Carolina state capitol, but debate still rages over the symbol throughout the South. If you listen to many flag supporters, they’ll insist that it has nothing to do with racism. “We don’t want to offend nobody,” declared one supporter in a recent New York Times article.

Like many others, this gentleman insisted that the rebel flag is simply a symbol of Southern “heritage.” Indeed, although the Times article leaves no doubt that some flag backers are overtly racist, one takeaway from the piece is that most Confederate flag defenders carry a sentimental attachment to Southern cultural heritage that does not see itself as racist. This self-perception is worth examining, because it provides insight into some of the attitudes that underpin the ongoing divisiveness in American society.

Southern pride if often a looming element, spoken or unspoken, in culture war debates. I've experienced this phenomenon many times, but never more memorably than a few years ago when a Charleston, South Carolina, tour guide—a middle-aged, white woman—insisted without blushing that the Civil War was “not about slavery, but states’ rights.”

One member of our tour group responded: “Yeah, the right to own slaves!”

Our guide was not amused.

Few would argue that racism is limited to the South, but nevertheless there is a dynamic at work in the flag debate that is unique to Dixie. What differentiates white Southerners who defend Confederate symbols from others is their devotion to a heritage that they perceive as being much more noble than it really was. There seems to be a sense that, because ancestors fought with honor for a cause in which they passionately believed, nothing else matters in assessing the historical legitimacy of the Confederate cause.

We shouldn’t expect perfection from our predecessors, of course, and we can honor them despite their moral flaws; but when the obvious moral imperfection of a society's heritage rises to a certain level, the population is usually restrained and careful about glorifying it. This is why most Germans would be very hesitant to exalt the “heritage” of the Nazi era, despite that it was the zenith of German military and political might. No rational German today would suggest flying Nazi flags on government buildings as a way of “honoring heritage.” This doesn’t mean that today’s Germans can’t honor their ancestors who fought in the war—like most ordinary soldiers throughout history, those who fought can be seen as victims of war—but doing so doesn't require glorifying the social and political power structure that drove world to war and spawned the Holocaust.

As we listen to those who defend Confederate sentimentality today, we can understand that one might want to honor the memory of ancestors who fought. Indeed, for the sake of discussion we can even suppose that most ordinary Confederate soldiers saw themselves not as defending slavery but as defending their homeland from a tyrannical federal government.

What’s particularly puzzling today, however, is the means by which defenders of Confederate symbolism insist that remembrance should be made. State governments, and even federal institutions, are expected to utilize the symbols of the Confederate cause, a cause in which slavery and white supremacy were undeniably central tenets. It is no more necessary for Americans to use the rebel flag to honor ancestors who fought for the Confederacy than it is for Germans to use a Nazi flag to honor ancestors who died in the Second World War.

And importantly, even if we abide by the wishes of today’s descendants of the Confederacy by viewing its symbols as honoring benign elements—respect for states’ rights, for example, or the memory of ordinary soldiers—the indisputable reality is that those symbols outlived the Confederacy itself and came to stand for something far from benign. In the century after the war, Confederate symbols became synonymous with a horrendously racist Jim Crow culture.

Indeed, the racism that defined the century following the Civil War was hardly less egregious than that preceding it. Segregation, inequality, and gross injustices—approximately 4000 African Americans were lynched, mostly in the South, in the decades following the Civil War—were social norms, and Confederate symbolism often accompanied these vile practices.

wikipedia/public domain
An unseemly aspect of Southern culture. The lynching of George Meadows in Jefferson County, Alabama, in 1889, one of thousands of lynchings of African Americans in the decades following the Civil War.
Source: wikipedia/public domain

The Southern obsession with its own cultural heritage wouldn't be so problematic if it were just an odd sentimental attachment with no side effects, but in real life it has ongoing repercussions. When Alabama Gov. George Wallace cried "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" in his inaugural address in 1963, he made references to Southern heritage and he stood by a Confederate flag. All the elements that one associates with Southern defiance, from politicians like Wallace to science books that teach creationism to history books that cite Moses as an important figure in the founding of America, are furthered by this cultural exaltation.

This is why removal of the rebel flag from the South Carolina state capitol is much more than a symbolic gesture, and why continuing debates over it in places like Mississippi and elsewhere are important—it strikes at the cultural hegemony that has been imposed, in part through the utilization of Confederate symbolism, by various institutional forces that have never accepted Lee's surrender.

Nevertheless, in a country where free speech is a fundamental right, of course personal use of such symbolism is a matter of individual discretion.

Governmental use of such symbolism, however, is another matter entirely. When a sizable portion of the population reasonably construes a symbol as being hateful, decency dictates that it be removed from the governmental realm. In the meantime, Southerners with a fixation on Confederate symbols might want to take a cue from their German counterparts. There are ways of remembering one’s ancestors and honoring the noble aspects of one’s culture without also exalting the despicable.

Link to photo license at Creative Commons

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