21 December 2010

Do we have to keep bringing up old stuff? Apparently, yes.

Let me be upfront with my gentle readers. I cannot rightly be considered a Southerner, though I have some fairly deep Southern roots on my father’s side. My grandfather Franklin, and my great-grandfather Oscar, and my great-great grandfather Thomas, and so on all the way back to the War of American Independence – that entire side of my family were poor tenant farmers in South Carolina. I had an ancestor, Joseph Delan Cooper, who was apparently a veteran on the Confederate side of the Civil War. But – here I understate vastly – I hold no love for the Old South. Indeed, I consider the entire socioeconomic system under which my ancestors lived, underpinned entirely by chattel slavery, to have been a brutal, exploitative, vicious, hollow mockery of the communitarian ideals I hold dear. It is, in my opinion, certainly no cause for celebration. So why was there a Secession Ball being held in the state where my great-great-great grandfather, one of the many who were imposed upon to fight after said secession, lies buried? (I actually learned of this through Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore, who have a brilliant take on the entire affair – I highly encourage people to watch.)

Apparently, the organisers of this gala considered it to be about ‘self-government’ and ‘independence’. But these are cheap buzzwords meant to give the Southern cause a liberal ideological veneer, which even the slightest effort at critical thinking would question thus: whose ‘independence’ was being fought for? Whose ‘self-government’? One simply cannot escape the fact that the people who signed this document were unapologetic beneficiaries of chattel slavery, whose primary concern – explicitly stated in the secession documents! – was the ‘independence’ to own people, to have the unquestioned, absolute power of life and death over people, and to reap the entire benefit of their labour. Secession served the interests of owners of the large factory-farms (which to this day receive the entirely too-romantic moniker of ‘plantations’), who felt no obligations to respect the lives and dignities of the people exploited on such farms, and justified themselves in their rejection of such obligations by regarding blacks as less than human. That then they cloaked their capitalistic avarice and pride in the language and trappings of chivalry was and remains a mortal offence to the ideals of chivalry (which entailed self-sacrificial moral obligations to the weak and to the poor); that now they cloak their envy in the language and trappings of liberty and independence ought to be a mortal offence to those ideals. Particularly in light of the fact that, had the South succeeded in her bid for secession, my great-great-great grandfather would still have been a pauper without any proper voice in his ‘self-government’: a slave in all but legal status.

That the Confederacy fought to defend the institution of slavery is a matter of historical record; claims which seek to deny or downplay this fact are easily debunked. I think James Loewen has it right that the question of why the myth of the ‘Lost Cause’ lives even to this day has little to nothing to do with historical record and much more to do with contemporary attitudes. Thanks to the way our national discourse has developed, there are now a number of competing narratives and counter-narratives which work not on the basis of objective historical fact, but on the basis of ressentiment. It is an intriguing exercise to read, for example, the Guardian’s coverage of the secession ball, then to read the article by Emily Badger on Miller-McCune, and finally to read some of the comments posted to both articles (which actually go a significant way toward proving this point). I believe it demonstrates significantly the insecurities and spiritual deficiencies of a certain segment of the American white middle class, that so much Confederate imagery and ideology is being adopted by the neoliberal right.

Perhaps our country does need a history lesson from James Loewen. But perhaps we need more than that. Dr Loewen has an undisputed mastery of fact, this I will not deny; that we could use more of him is beyond question. He can continue, in the noblest tradition of his profession, leading us to that sea of knowledge, and attempting to get us to swim. For my own part, though, I fear that simple information will not be enough. Dr Loewen will not, and I fear cannot, convince through rational argument the devotees of the ‘Lost Cause’ that they are wrong (which I agree with him they most certainly are). The more burning question, as Dr David Blight (sourced in Ms Badger’s excellent article) puts it, is ‘what purpose does [your interpretation of the history] serve in your lives now?’

With regard to the deeper questions of political philosophy and theology, I doubt anyone would deny that ‘self-government’ and ‘independence’ are in themselves bad things. Freedom, like security, is a good – a source of potential, and there is nothing wrong with wanting it. But is it possible for freedom to be an end in itself? Is not the deeper question to be probed here, given ‘self-government’ and ‘independence’, what would you do with it? And what are we doing with it?

Yes, we need a history lesson. But still more direly, I feel we need a theology lesson.

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