While I was out jogging this morning, I passed a neighbor’s house that I have passed every day for almost three years. Usually I stroll right on by without giving it a second thought. Today, though… today was different. I stopped in my tracks and blankly stared until a car honked at me to move out of the way.
This house flies a Confederate flag.
I don’t live in South Carolina or even Maryland. I live in a small town in Central Pennsylvania, 50 miles north of Gettysburg – the site of the most famous victory of the Civil War. Yet even here, a few hundred feet from my front door flies the unambiguous symbol of hatred, racism, and treason.
Normally this would elicit some fleeting contempt and I would go about my day. But with the murders in Charleston very much on my mind, I found myself getting angry… very angry. Angry at this person, this “neighbor” of mine. Angry at the culture that permits such blatant hatred. Angry at the media who provide cover for the ignorant. Angry at the teachers who perpetuate historical falsehoods. Angry at myself for not being angry before.
You see, I study traditional culture. More specifically, I study the ways in which today’s culture manufactures and reinforces traditions through mass media. Folklorists have a unique disciplinary perspective for this sort of analysis because there was this period of time when the field was mired in “romantic nationalism.” The “true character” of a people was said to be rooted in the culture of the volk and was glorified and incorporated into more modern political movements. Like Nazism. So folklorists have a keen interest in serving as the sort-of keepers of cultural authenticity, if you will. If anyone should be highlighting the ways in which “traditions” are being manufactured, distorted, and consumed, it is us… me.
In America today, the most prominent, prevalent, and pernicious of these revisionist movements is the Lost Cause narrative: the idea that the Civil War was a romantic struggle for freedom against an oppressive government trying to enforce cultural change. There are scores of books on this topic, and you should check those out at your local library. But probably the most famous popular culture Lost Cause text is Gone With The Wind (both bookand movie).
I hate Gone With the Wind. I hate everything about it. I hate its portrayal of the Civil War. I hate its portrayal of Southern aristocrats. I hate its popularity. I hate that it’s become an iconic movie. I hate that it was ever made in the first place. Gone With the Wind is Birth of a Nation with less horses. The movie, and its position among the American cinematic pantheon, has done more to further the ahistoric Lost Cause bullshit than any other single production. Because that’s the fundamental problem with the Lost Cause narrative: it’s not true.
Let’s go one-by-one through some typical Lost Cause-tinged revisionist talking points:
The Civil War was about economics, not slavery!
- Yes, the Civil War was about the economics of slavery.
The Civil War was about states’ rights, not slavery!
- Yes, the Civil War was about the states’ right to maintain slavery.
That’s not the Confederate flag!
- True, it’s the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, which actually makes your usage even worse. It’s the banner under which men fought and died to enact secession.
Heritage not hate!
- Funny story: the heritage is hate. This is my favorite talking point because it sets up a false dichotomy and then tries to pretend “heritage” is a signifier for some romantic, noble culture just waiting to be recaptured. When Lindsay Graham says things like, “The flag represents to some people a civil war, and that was the symbol of one side. To others it’s a racist symbol, and it’s been used by people, it’s been used in a racist way,” he makes a mockery of the history. Yes, Senator, it does represent one side of the Civil War: the side that advocated slavery and secession. It’s the flag of treason.
The savagery of slavery is offensive enough to justify any level of outrage. The disgusting post-war history of the Ku Klux Klan is offensive enough to justify any level of outrage. But what might be the most absurd part of this neo-Confederate “heritage” romanticism is that its advocates are simply glorifying treason.
Remember that time South Carolina attacked Fort Sumter? That’s the literaldefinition of treason. And I quote Article III, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” Not exactly abstract legalese that requires a ton of parsing.
The states that seceded to become the Confederacy were actively engaged in open war against the United States government. A war they started because of the election of a man they deemed “hostile to slavery.” A war they fought to maintain the “heaven ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.” A war they lost.
But it was a war based on a fundamental social conflict that is still not resolved and simmers under the zeitgeist, rearing its ugly head every so often to remind us it hasn’t gone anywhere. It was not resolved in 1865, not in 1965, and sadly, not in 2015.
The “heritage” of the Confederacy, the enduring belief in Lost Cause romanticism, the invention and adoption of revisionist “traditions” and culture, has become society’s Old Faithful: a cultural geyser that periodically lets off steam; a spectacle at which we ogle and wax poetic about the fragility of our condition. But one day it’ll explode and it’ll be a catastrophe from which we might not recover.
The tragedy of America is that this is all self-inflicted. This trajectory to self-destruction doesn’t have to be the outcome. As Jon Stewart so eloquentlypointed out, “al Qaeda… ISIS… they’re not shit on the damage we can apparently do to ourselves on a regular basis.”
The troglodyte that murdered those people in South Carolina wanted to fire the opening shots in a new race war. He is a Confederate in every sense of the word: he is a white supremacist; he is a mass murderer; he is a terrorist; he is a traitor.
The worst part is that he is not some aberration. Oh, we want to comfort and assure ourselves that he is, that he has some mental issue, or that he’s evil, or some other easy excuse that absolves us all of responsibility.
His actions were heinous, but he is the product of a media and culture that protects the ignorant and glorifies division. This is the “heritage” celebrated by those who fly the Confederate flag. By those like my neighbor.
And what about my neighbor? In a perfect world, I would ring his doorbell and have a reasonable discussion with him about how what he’s doing is offensive and ahistoric and I’d love to correct his understanding of the entire mess. But the sad fact is, he’s not alone, either.
In my time here I’ve seen scores of Confederate bumper stickers, license plates, and even other flags. Neo-Confederate revisionism is everywhere. It’s not confined to “dumb rednecks” or red-state voters or Nascar fans or any other easy stereotype we use to deceive ourselves and dismiss painful realities. It’s not even confined to older generations. The murderer in South Carolina is 21. He’s a Millennial. He’s one of us.
And every day that we don’t react to that information, every day we don’t internalize this conflict, every day we tell ourselves nothing is wrong, every day we claim we can’t be racist because we have black friends, every day we share some viral cat video instead of watch the news… is another day nothing will change.