Thursday, June 12, 2008

Webb's People

"When misunderstanding serves others as an advantage, one is helpless to make oneself understood." -Lionel Trilling

Jim Webb is willing to speak up for the CSA insofar as it stands as a symbol of a certain regional pride, and for the valor of the individual Southern soldier?

Well, good for him. And some in the Democratic camp fret that this makes him poisonous to their politics? Well, too bad for them.

Many Americans see the South, past and present, only as a failed society, poisoned by slavery and racism, peopled by evil masters and wretched rednecks -- Simon Legrees and "Deliverance" extras. Any respect for anything Southern, to these people, is just a transparent mask for racism.

I have seen 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. Behind this scapegoating, perhaps, is frustration at a race problem that won't go away. We've given up on dialogue and understanding, and now we just hope to placate the demon with sacrifices.

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.

The CSA was a bid to form an independent nation out of a region that had a common enemy and some collective regional identity. But the CSA comprised many sub-cultures (a few of them didn't want to be there), and it had a leadership that sometimes confused self-interest with public policy. It had its fair share of charlatans and profiteers and criminal opportunists. It had some brilliant generals and a great many men in uniform who would be the pride of any army in human history. It was committed to 18th century republican values that were incompatible with fighting a modern war, and it had internal social conflicts that the war aggravated.

In nearly all of this it was entirely like the American Revolutionaries. "The alienated elements of the American population during the Revolution were probably larger than in the South during the Civil War," James McPherson wrote. The colonists in 1776: one-third for independence, one-third against, one-third uncommitted. That must be the standard for legitimacy, or else our United States lacks it. The CSA fought a much larger enemy than George III, mostly on its own soil, without a Dutch loan or a French fleet to aid it, and the majority, in spite of internal divisions, put up a herculean effort, won spectacular victories, made shift with what little it had, and held out till the place was literally gutted and blood-drained by its foe.

The Confederacy mobilized between 750,000 and 850,000 men, which translates into an amazing 75 to 85 percent of its available draft-age white military population (The presence of slaves, to keep the economy moving, allowed this, but so did the work of women on the yeoman farmsteads). The losses the South took would translate into, say, six million U.S. battle casualties in World War II (instead of 961,977, the actual figure); nearly a million in Vietnam, instead of 201,000.

Write them all out of the American story, if you wish. Burn the past's dead as the cost of a racial reconciliation you hope for in the future. We all hope for that. But reconciliation of what? With what? Don't the people Webb speaks for have to be part of that peace?