Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Short Hitch

[no one's ever going to read this all. But what the hell.]

I so often agree with Christopher Hitchens -- moreso perhaps than any other modern commentator -- that I overlook our occasional differences. I've been aware all along that we have a major one over the role of Confederate symbols in America, and Hitchens recently revisited his passions on the topic in this column criticizing Huckabee for allegedly rallying around the wrong flag.

Some people asked me privately what I thought about that. I told them, whether Huckabee is pandering or not is a question I can't answer. But what he's addressing is a real and complicated issue for a lot of people. He was trying to tap into the vague resentment of more than a few people among the native white population of the South, that they have been short-shrifted and disrespected by the rest of America.

And I have come to agree with them over time, though I'm of the class that typically shortens the shrift.

And frankly I understand how, after seeing themselves so often blamed for every other wrong turn in American history, so many of the old Scots-Irish stock in the South have come to embrace the label of "rebels" and to revel in their orneriness, and to cling the more fiercely to symbols the more other people try to wrench them out of their hands.

Hitchens is seeing America as an Englishman. The regional differences among us don't matter so much to him. That allows him to see certain unpleasant qualities in the American DNA as mere quirks or malignant moles that can be isolated and purged.

He also writes as a convert to Americanism, and a fairly recent one. And may the gods bless him as a fearless defender of America in dens where it has few friends. But that, combined with his Englishness, makes him committed to the America of the present. And modern America, structurally and fundamentally, is a product of the North's victory in the Civil War.

The Confederates strove mightily against it and tried to break up the Union rather than see it become what it has. Thus I suspect Hitchens is inclined to lump them in with the rest of the modern-day anti-Americans and dismiss them as mere traitors. In the words of his column, they are "those who attempted to destroy the Union by force, and those who solicited the help of foreign powers in order to do so."

[In a way, he's right: The Southern critique of Northern mercantile capitalism anticipates every basic charge of the modern anti-globalization movement, and was written with more verve and skill than anything of the kind today.]

But to those of us born and raised and rooted here in the U.S., the past matters. We have to live in the mansion, with the ghosts and the mortgage as well as the silverware and the pride.

We know what America is today, and has been in the last century. And we can look at what America was in the generation of the founders, and we can read their vision for it. And we can see the wrenching turn in the nation's destiny that stands between us and them.

Before the seats vacated in 1861 by the Southern congressmen were cold, the economic order of the United States had been turned on its head: the tariff had taken off on an upward trajectory that would leave even industrialists breathless. The nation's resources were thrown open to private profit; and the whole banking and monetary system was revamped to suit investors and creditors. A tax scheme was created that weighed against the small consumers, the North's factories (and even its army) were thrown open to immigrant contract labor, and the federal government was using the U.S. military to put down labor strikes. Congress and the President gave another 100 million acres to various railroads, free of charge.

After the war, Reconstruction had far more to do with reordering the South as a section and reducing it to the status of a financial-industrial colony than with black people. Fear, vengeance, love of union, and interest in civil rights may have played a part in Reconstruction, but it seems clear, especially after the 1876 election, that what the South suffered had much more to do with the establishment of permanent Republican party control, tariff protection, and rigging the nation's financial arrangements to suit bankers, creditors, and New England industrialists.

Midwestern farmers, the same men who swelled Sherman's army that broke the South, bore the brunt of the new order and soon found themselves being herded into the same colonial status the South had resisted, in vain. By the time William Jennings Bryan and others rose up to defend them, in rhetoric reminiscent of John C. Calhoun, it was too late. The country had been turned over to foreclosing banks and greedy railroads so thoroughly that Missourians were ready by 1880 to make a hero of a murderous ex-Confederate named Jesse James.

After the war, state legislatures trying to protect their people against predatory trusts and capitalists were thwarted by the Supreme Court, which swept away state laws to regulate corporations (230 in 1886 alone), using the argument that corporations were "persons," and thus protected by the due process clause of the 14th amendment. Between 1890 and 1910, of all the 14th amendment cases brought before the Supreme Court, 19 dealt with black people, and 228 with corporations.

That's what America bought with four years of hell and 10 years of civil enslavement of the South. Even in New York City in the 1850s a respectable fortune was a few hundred thousand dollars. In the next generation, of "Robber Barons," of big fortunes and big depressions, men like Rockefeller and Carnegie were able to amass countless millions. The culture that gave birth to Washington and Jefferson was branded as backwards and immoral. The sectional balance cherished in the vision of Madison and Hamilton was swept away in the name of greed.

Having written books about the Civil War, I've spent a fair amount of time debating the question of Confederate symbolism in modern America (usually from the minority bench). Hitchens in his column goes even further than most American battle-flag-opponents when he asserts the Battle Flag -- the Southern soldiers' flag -- is somehow more racist and offensive than the political flag of the CSA ("Stars and Bars," also known as the "First National") in a Civil War context. The slaveholders were the political leaders of the South; three-fourths of the Southern army never owned a slave (and there were a handful of blacks who actually fought in it). Most people who consider the thing historically, even those hostile to modern use of the Battle Flag, would reverse his judgement.

This matter of scraps of colored cloth and the soldiers who carried them and died with them is almost too complex to be understood by anyone who wasn't there. I write that as someone who has spent a great deal of time trying to understand it.

Consider the corporal who was color-bearer for a Pennsylvania regiment preparing to charge toward the Peach Orchard at Gettysburg on the second day. His brigadier, on horseback, wanted to take that flag to lead the charge, to hold it up as a necessary rallying point for the thousand men ranked behind him in the smoke and brush.

The corporal would not let go. He knew this was his commanding officer. He knew it was a direct order. But his mind had vowed he would hold that staff or die in the attempt. They actually argued about it for a while as the shells fell and the bullets pinged, and in the end the general did carry the flag -- but the corporal clung to his pants leg the whole way. Both somehow survived. So did the horse, I think.

I remember reading about a veteran's encounter, long after the war, with an old chap who had once commanded a brigade in the Union's 2nd Corps -- Hancock's Corps. The old general pulled out a red flannel trefoil, the kind the 2nd Corps soldiers had worn on their caps, and said, "When I feel homesick and downhearted, I take this out and look at it, and it cheers me up."

Walt Whitman, who got to watch the war from close range, was a strong partisan for the North's cause. He as much as any man helped elevate Lincoln to sainthood in the national memory. And, like anyone who stood close enough to the war to really see it, he knew that "The grand soldiers are not comprised in those of one side any more than the other."

At the War Department a few days ago I witnessed a presentation of captured flags to the Secretary. Among others, a soldier named Gant, of the 104th Ohio Volunteers, presented a Rebel battle flag, which one of the officers stated to me was borne to the mouth of our cannon and planted there by a boy but seventeen years of age, who actually endeavored to stop the muzzle of the gun with fence rails. He was killed in the effort, and the flagstaff was severed by a shot from one of our men ....

To the men who fought under it, or against it, the Confederate battle flag wasn't a symbol of some abstract idea -- slavery or racism (a word not even invented in the 19th century) or some fine point of constitutional law. That was not their flag. Their flag was a square of real cotton, stained in real colors, that stood for nothing more than what this group of young men meant to one another. It was a square of cloth perforated by the same bullets that had punched through the bodies of their friends. That's the soldier's flag. It doesn't belong to the senator or the race baiter or the armchair historian or the war profiteer.

I suspect the Northern soldiers, if any were alive to tell us, would vehemently agree that honor should be shown to the rebel fighting men. And that the flag that the Southern soldiers, living, upheld in battle should not be surrendered to ignorant, hateful, selfish people.

I think Whitman would agree, too:

I am very warmly disposed toward the South; I must admit that my instinct of friendship towards the South is almost more than I like to confess. I have very dear friends there -- sacred, precious memories; the people there should be considered, even deferred to, instead of browbeaten. I feel sore, I feel some pain, almost indignation, when I think that yesterday keeps the old brutal idea of subjugation on top.

I would be the last to confuse moral values -- to imagine the South impeccable. I don't condone the South, where it has gone wrong -- its Negro slavery, I don't condone that -- far from it -- I hate it. I have always said so, South and North; but there is another spirit dormant there which it must be the purpose of our civilization to bring forth; it cannot, it must not, be killed.

People who support the validity of the Confederate battle flag as a regional icon, and who are capable of articulating their reasons, often do so because the flag stands legitimately for the soldiers and common folk of the CSA, who were by anyone's measure a valiant and determined people embodying much of the best of America, North or South.

They may also see it as representing many of the qualities that the Southern soldiers fought for (as historians have determined them from contemporary writings), such as resistance to tyranny, regional distinctiveness, honor, and republican virtues. This approach sees the flag as a historic symbol, rooted in the Civil War experience of Southern people.

The Battle Flag was run up by the segregationist and proudly racist "Dixiecrats" at their convention in Birmingham in 1948. But the Battle Flag's use as a modern symbol of defiance to the federal government goes back no further than that. For the previous 80-some years, it had been the veterans' flag, used almost exclusively at CSA commemorations. Frankly, the Dixiecrats got the wrong flag. The First National would have better suited their purpose. But they at least recognized what Johnston and Beauregard saw in the Battle Flag: it was a colorful and stirring cloth to rally around.

The Dixiecrat convention did not invent a symbol; they took one that had existed for decades, and gave it their purpose. Just like the Klan did when it marched under the Stars and Stripes. A whole lot of trouble could have been avoided if, in 1948 or 1956, the many Southern white people who felt a strong sense of regional heritage and historical pride had objected to this hijacking of their flag. If it had been kept as the soldiers' flag, and not the politicians', the case for keeping it today would be obvious. But the mistake was made; partly, I think, because the Dixiecrat pitch to the voters was put in terms of defending the state from Northern hegemony, rather than as pure race-baiting.

[If I would agree on banning the Battle Flag at any level, it would be on the bumpers and windows of Northern idiots who take it, again, and twist it to suit their personal psychodrama. Whenever I see it up here, I just think, "bad attitude." It's an insult to the flag for wanna-be Rebels with not an ounce of Southern blood, and not a scrap of dignity about anything, to be wrapping it around their license plates.]

If you want to see real integration in America, go to Southern cities. If you want to see meaningful integration, leave the North and go to states where the black population is 40 or 50 percent, not 4 or 5 percent. American diversity is down there, and it's a legacy of the civil rights movement, which, in the South at least, ultimately realized that you can't just push all the "crackers" into a hole somewhere and put the lid on them. They're part of the landscape, too.

And they get blamed for too much. I have seen many non-Southerners who gloss right over the fact that slavery, racism, and segregation were national experiences. To them, nothing done outside the South really counts as racism since, well, it wasn't the South. A lot of them live in comfortable suburban neighborhood up North where there's not a black face for 10 miles in any direction.

Too many people shift the blame for America's modern race mess, and its violent past, onto that one-third of the nation that lies below the Mason-Dixon Line. This psychological shell game absolves the whole by cheating a part. Scapegoating the South trains the mind to think the race problem is one that happens somewhere else, in someone else's town. Particularly, it encourages those of us outside the South to overlook our own communities. It ignores the oft-told truth -- told by Frederick Douglass and Alexis de Tocqueville and Martin Luther King Jr. -- that racism in the Northern cities has always been far more virulent than that in the Southern countryside.

Trash-talking the South also incidentally sanctifies a New England-based political and moral culture that is the root of much that is wrong in modern America. The North was a great deal more than just abolitionists and Freedom Riders, just as the South was more than the slave auction block and the lynch mob. Manichaean history does no justice to America's complexity.

Those who make the mistake of treating modern American racism as some perverse peculiarity of Southern white culture often make the same mistake about slavery. Slavery originally existed in all the colonies (as well as European, Middle Eastern, and African nations). In the United States, it took root in one region and not the other; an accident of climate and geographical economics having nothing to do with inherent moral qualities. Slavery was profitable, and its profits enriched all sections of late 18th and early 19th century America. The South was stripped and plundered and impoverished after 1865, but Northern communities and institutions still enjoy the legacy of their wealth.

Consider the usual story of desegregation in America. May 17, 1954, is supposed to be the day everything changed in the South. That's when Earl Warren delivered the unanimous opinion in Oliver Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, and destroyed all the legal foundations of segregation.

In fact, it changed nothing. The court took its time in writing the decree of implementation, which did not come until May 31, 1955. And that decree set no deadlines for compliance, was sympathetic to local issues, placed responsibility on local school authorities, and put federal district courts in charge of assuring "good faith implementation."

Segregationists rejoiced, because those district court judges were in many cases home-grown men who might easily decide a "reasonable time" for desegregation was 200 years.

But they didn't. By January 1956, in 19 decisions, the lower courts upheld the end of segregation and stressed the need for a "prompt and reasonable" beginning to the process. In Louisiana, for example, J. Skelly Wright, New Orleans born and bred, shot down the state legislature's plan to circumvent Brown and save segregation. And the work of desegregation began in ernest in school districts in many place.

That's when the mass segregationist backlash began: After the white Southern courts and white Southern school boards began to work (without a National Guardsman in sight and Ike all but publicly saying he wouldn't use them), not after the Brown decision itself. All that's left out, along with the fact that more than 1,000 black students were admitted to formerly all-white colleges and universities in the South without a hint of violence before the University of Alabama riot of Feb. 6, 1956.

Yet as the story is told now, the entire white South was dragged into the Civil Rights movement by the Freedom Riders, the Supreme Court, the NAACP, and federal bayonets.

A while ago I had the honor to work with the family of one of the central, if relatively unsung, heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. Frances Freeborn Pauley, whose lifework was mostly done in Georgia, happened to die up here, where her daughter lives. I helped them put together the obituary notice for the local newspaper. I confess, I had not heard of her before.

Her daughter gave me a copy of Pauley's autobiography, and it's delightful reading: direct, positive, determined. Pauley grew up in segregated Georgia and became a champion of civil rights. Friend of Martin Luther King Jr., consummate political organizer and activist. She had already been at it for more than a decade by the time Julian Bond, former NAACP head, got to know her. Bond was the source of the quip that became the title of her autobiography: "Everybody's Grandmother & Nobody's Fool."

Among the things that impressed me about Pauley: after desegregation was achieved, she didn't go to work dragging down Confederate symbols wherever she found them; she devoted the last decades of her life to battling poverty, AIDS, and the other real scourges of the families of poor Southerners.

I picked a passage from her book, literally at random, to show you the Civil Rights movement through her eyes. It is in the chapter where the struggle to integrate schools has moved from Georgia to Mississippi.

I always used to say they had three Mississippis. They had one Mississippi in the Delta, and they had another Mississippi on the coast, and another Mississippi around Jackson. You can't summarize something as being typically Mississippi, and I had cases throughout the state. There were various kinds of superintendents and various kinds of school boards.

The coast was always the easiest place. They were the most tolerant of each other, and you'd find real desegregation. You'd find some places where blacks and whites would really be living on the same street. It seemed to me that the southern part of the state was much less rigid and much less prejudiced than the Delta. The Jackson area was a lot more like Georgia; it was pretty much the same as integration in Georgia -- some powerfully mean segregationists, and also some other people that were trying really hard to have the situation smooth and that weren't really prejudiced.

I found Mississippi better than Georgia, by the way. Usually they didn't want conflict; they wanted everything to be smooth. It wasn't that they weren't dedicated to integration or segregation; they just wanted a good school system and they wanted it to move smoothly. In Mississippi I found fewer of what I call the armchair liberals. Very liberal in their talk, but they weren't going to get out of their chair and do anything. In Mississippi it seems to me that more people, if they felt that way, were apt to try to put it into motion. It was easier to work with white people in Mississippi, because you knew what side they were on.

I remember one man who was on a school board who helped us work out a plan for his district. He had sent his children to some kind of integrated summer program with black and white teachers. His son had some words, got into some trouble, and came back. This man took his son back to find out what happened. He found out his son had been rude to a black teacher. He went back home, and he said, "We're teaching our children to lie, and we're not teaching our children the truth. My child is going to apologize to that teacher and my child is going to the integrated school." This man's whole sense of values was good and honest. Lots of people were like that, and some of them were brave enough to stand up, like he did, and work for it. And his community desegregated schools smoothly.

You see, everyone had been brought up under "separate but equal," and that was the law. If you were a law-abiding citizen, you'd been taught that the blacks eat here, and sit there, and drink out of this fountain. You didn't think about it in any moral, or immoral, way. At least I didn't as I came up. You just hunt for the restroom that says, "White Women," just like you hunt for something that says, "Restroom." It doesn't have any moral effect on you until you begin to think about it and work on it. And then you see how crushing it was. The man who was just a good citizen obeying the law, going along, and then all of a sudden he saw, with a flash maybe, that segregation was wrong. A lot of them helped to change it.

Now, this woman is no apologist for anything. She went toe-to-toe with Herman Talmage and the hardest of the hard-core racists, and she didn't flinch. But so much of this book is stories just like those told above. Native-born Southern white woman working with native-born Southerners, black and white, reasoning together with a shared sense of decency to accomplishing the work of desegregation. Not a Freedom Rider in sight. Not a bullhorn or a German shepherd or a firehose water cannon in the chapter.

Where is this side of the story in the textbooks? Where is it told in the museums or the PBS specials? How many times did it happen like that, for every time it exploded in bombs and blood?

This is the same Mississippi, mind you, that was dragged back and forth through the mud a few months ago over its popular vote to keep the Battle Flag element in its state flag.

In the interest of historical truth, I'm for telling Pauley's stories of thousands of decent, average white folks in the South who did they part in the transition from segregation to integration. Just like I'm for telling more about the role of blacks in the Underground Railroad, which has been historically over-weighted on the side of the white folks of the North (including at least one of my ancestors) who took a hand in it.

Bond says this in his introduction to the book: "She will indignantly deny it, but she is the best of Southern Ladyhood -- that combination of sweetness and steel, magnolias and muscle that melts opposition with a smile and reasoned argument -- not a crinolined Scarlett O'Hara facsimile, but an iron-willed amazon in pantsuit and sneakers. If we'd had more Frances Pauleys, who can dream of where we would all be now?"

We love stories that put unity above conflict. No unity, no America. You'll never sell this picture of American history that paints millions of Southern whites as either dupes of scoundrels, or racist pissants. It's an even worse sell than the old patronizing history that left out the blacks (and the Indians, and the women, and the children, and the fruitbats). For one, it's worse-written; for another, it has no heroes; and worst of all, it doesn't just ignore, it demonizes. It might work in the teacher's lounges and in the seminars, but it won't play in Peoria.

If the first synthesis/reconciliation built from Civil War history -- the "Lost Cause" that forged common ground for northern whites and southern whites and excluded blacks -- was wrong and evil, why is the current synthesis/reconciliation -- the "Martyr President/Wicked Rebellion" that aligns northern whites and southern blacks to the exclusion of southern whites -- such a noble, true and helpful idea?

And why the determination to stamp out the mere suggestion of a third synthesis -- the "we're all Southerners on this bus" view that finds southern blacks and southern whites recognizing commonality in their heritage?

Maybe it's because of who gets excluded in that one.

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