Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Southern Tempest

I am both bemused and fascinated by the latest racial “tempest in a teapot”, i.e. the mock outrage expressed in some quarters regarding Virginia’s Confederate History Month. Megalopolitan extraordinaire Michael Gerson called Gov. Bob McDonnell’s failure to mention slavery in his proclamation “a sin of omission”, and President Obama deemed it “unacceptable”. Predictably, McDonnell repeatedly apologized profusely for his heinous crime.

Then Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour defended McDonnell, saying that there was no need for an apology, that everyone with any common sense already knows slavery was bad, and that the whole controversy did not amount to “diddly”. Barbour also noted that Mississippi has had its own Confederate Memorial Day for many years and that no one has attacked the Democrat-controlled Mississippi legislature. Thereafter, the DNC attacked Barbour for his insensitivity.

Well, it turns out that according to Wikipedia twelve states have legal provisions to celebrate Confederate Memorial Day (the thirteen Confederate states less Missouri, plus Pennsylvania, which is a well-known hotbed of racist rednecks, according to deceased Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha). Louisiana, for example, is particularly pathetic: she has two days set aside on which the Governor may decree that the Lost Cause be remembered, but only one per year: either Robert E. Lee’s Birthday, January 19, or Confederate Memorial Day, June 3 (which was Jefferson Davis’ birthday). Thus, each year Louisiana can officially honor the General or everybody else, but not both; or the Governor can designate other possible holidays and honor none of them, which as far as I know is what has happened for many years and which is likely to continue.

By the way, I checked the overly lengthy Louisiana statute which creates holidays, and there does not appear to be any mention of the evils of slavery in it. I strongly suspect that the other states’ statutes also reflect the same “unacceptable” “sin of omission”. On the other hand, Louisiana provides for a state holiday for Martin Luther King every year.

But I digress...

What bemuses me about the criticism of McDonnell is the logic at work in the brains of those who claim that every time a public official celebrates Southern history or the Confederacy, one must also mention slavery. That logic leads to absurd consequences. For example, let’s put the shoe on the other hand, as it were:

Every time we mention Lincoln, do we have to note that he wanted to send the freed slaves back to Africa?

Every time we mention the Rev. Martin Luther King, do we have to talk about his adultery and ties to communists?

Every time we mention the obvious evils of slavery, do we also need to remember that slavery is what brought the slaves to America in the first place?

Every time we mention England or Great Britain, do we need also to recount the crimes and injustices committed in the name of the Crown against the Irish, Scottish, Catholics, American Indians, Africans, Asian Indians, Chinese, Autralian Aborigines, Maoris, Jamaicans, etc., etc.?

Every time we mention St. Patrick, do we need to mention his wanton cruelty committed against the snakes of Ireland?

And finally, more generally, every time Obama goes abroad, does he really have to apologize for all of the alleged sins of the United States?

The answer to these questions, for those lacking functional synapses, is “No”.

More importantly, what fascinates me about Virginia’s Confederate History Month is, first, the fact that it is taking place at all; and why now? It seems clear that the Democrats think they can deride McDonnell and Barbour with the usual racial smears as part of their larger strategy of attempting to portray the Republicans and the Tea Party movement as a bunch of ignorant white racists. But why would Republican governors bring all this up now?

The most probable answer is simply inattention to detail, or not thinking things through. The Republicans stepped in it and gave the Democrats ammunition (or at least something the Democrats are lamely trying to use as ammunition). But another possible explanation is that when a large percentage of Americans think that the country is going to hell in a hand basket, the Republicans threw their right wing a bone and differentiated themselves from the Democrats. This is essentially the red cape theory: that Republicans knew that the Democrats would charge like an angry bull and that the Republicans would come out ahead with their conservative Southern base. The problem with the theory is that Republicans already have the support of most Southerners, and I can’t think of anyone who would switch to vote Republican based on this hubbub. Furthermore, nothing puts the fear of God into a mainstream Republican like a claim that he is being “divisive”, or insensitive, much less racist. I am sticking with just plain not thinking things through.

The other thing that I find fascinating is what the implications of the little tempest are for the American ethnic identity. As chronicled by Samuel Huntington, the white American ethnicity has essentially been deconstructed over the last fifty or so years, most effectively by mass non-white immigration and by forced integration, particularly in the South. To have a State—or really twelve States, for that matter—publicly and officially honor the Lost Cause is to throw a monkey wrench into the deconstruction of the white American ethnicity. In other words, rather surprisingly, white Southerners apparently still view themselves as white Southerners; by extension, white Americans still view themselves as white Americans. That ethnic consciousness is something that proponents of the Proposition Nation like Obama and Gerson (and his former boss, Pres. Bush 43) simply can not tolerate. Therefore, Gov. McDonnell and Virginia’s Confederate History Month must be criticized. More importantly, the month honoring essentially white Southern history must be altered to acknowledge the obvious evil of slavery, so that such a distinctively white memorial can not be viewed as a positive and must be seen in a negative light; and the apologies must be profuse.

Nevertheless, Megalopolitans, take comfort, your victory is nearly complete: in my view, there will be no resurgence of Southern (or American) identity. From what I can tell, the younger generation of Southerners has no knowledge of Southern history except what they have been taught in school, which is simply that the Confederates were evil slaveholders. They can’t sing “Dixie” because (a) they don’t know the words and (b) they have been indoctrinated with the belief that the song and the Confederate Battle Flag are racist symbols. Virginia’s Confederate History Month does not represent a turning point; it is just an eddy in the torrent toward Western oblivion.

W. Reed Smith

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