The Post and Courier this week reports on the latest Winthrop Poll, which finds that South Carolinians “remain divided” over what Civil War monuments and Confederate symbols “even mean.”
“Even” as though knowing what they “mean” is a simple matter. That point is mentioned in the lede, but the story doesn’t get back to it until the last graf:
While half of all respondents said they view the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of Southern pride, a sharp racial divide still exists. The Winthrop poll found 55 percent of whites view it as Southern pride but 64 percent of African Americans view it as a symbol of racial conflict….
Well, I’ve got news for you: Everybody’s right. It is a symbol of “Southern pride.” It is also a symbol of racial conflict. The two things are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are inextricably linked. As I wrote in 2015, just before the flag came down from the State House grounds:
And what did the flag mean? We know. Oh, news reports will affect that priggish, pedantic neutrality peculiar to the trade: “Some people see the flag as meaning this; some see it as meaning that.” But we know, don’t we? It is a way white South Carolinians — some of us, anyway — have had of saying that, despite Appomattox and the civil rights movement: We can do this. We don’t care about you or how you feel about it.
It was a way of telling the world whose state this is…
There you have it: both pride and racial conflict.
Oh, and was I saying there was no such thing as a different sort of pride, that in the martial manliness of one’s ancestors? No. That’s all mixed up in there, too. Not that that makes it innocent. Pride is, with good reason, listed as first and most serious of the Seven Deadly Sins. So, you know, not necessarily something to puff your chest out about.
The fact that people do feel so proud of or validated by their ancestors puzzles me. I don’t feel better or worse about myself because I’m descended from Charlemagne (as is, statistically, every person of European ancestry on the planet). I do get a kick out of tracing how I’m descended from him (several ways, in fact, which is also unremarkable), generation by generation. It’s a puzzle, and fun to solve. But am I a better person for being directly descended from him, or from Henry II, or William the Conqueror? Of course not. In fact, while I may not be quite as hostile to monarchy as Mark Twain, I believe there is at least some historical basis for Huck Finn’s assertion that “all kings is mostly rapscallions, as fur as I can make out.”
Queens, too, as I was reminded when I went to see “The Favourite” at the Nickelodeon over the weekend. (Or at least, it was true of those around the queen.) As Huck explained, “Take them all around, they’re a mighty ornery lot. It’s the way they’re raised.” Or perhaps more relevantly, as Hank Morgan said, “Yes, Guenever was beautiful, it is true, but take her all around she was pretty slack.” (One of my favorite Twain lines ever, a perfect example of his way of dragging down romantic pretension with modern matter-of-factness.)
Nor, of course, do I feel bad about myself to be distantly related to such people. I don’t feel responsible for who they were or what they did in the slightest.
Anyway, back to the Confederacy and how we remember it…
That these symbols are about black and white, in the skin color sense, is undeniable. But it’s an error to view them as black or white in the sense of being all this or all that. The world is a more complicated place.
And yet, even smart people are pulled toward trying to make everything all one way or the other.
General Stan McChrystal seems to think so. He thinks you’ve got to go all one way or all the other, as he wrote in The Washington Post recently. His column started this way:
From my earliest days, Robert E. Lee felt close at hand. I attended Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va., and began my soldier’s life at Lee’s alma mater, the U.S. Military Academy. Today, if Lee still lived in his childhood home in Alexandria, Va., we would be neighbors. So it felt appropriate, when I was a young Army lieutenant, that my wife bought me an inexpensive painting of the famed Southern warrior. And from the wall of the many quarters we occupied over 34 years, Lee’s portrait was literally watching over me. Through the lens of military history and our seemingly parallel lives, he was my hero — brilliant, valiant and loyal….
And then, two grafs later, he says:
In the summer of 2017, my wife, Annie, urged me to take down the picture. Disgusted by the images of hate and white supremacy that had descended on Charlottesville in the form of angry, torch-bearing men, she felt that Lee’s picture risked offending guests to our home by sending an unintended message of agreement with the protesters who had sought to preserve a statue of the Marble Man. Initially, I argued that Lee was an example of apolitical loyalty and stoic adherence to duty. But as days passed, I reflected on the way that Lee’s legacy looked to people who hadn’t grown up with my perspective or my privilege. So, on an otherwise unremarkable Sunday morning, I took the painting off the wall and sent it on its way to a local landfill for its final burial. Hardly a hero’s end….
What do I think? I think if one entertains frequently, one should not have a portrait of Lee hanging where guests would see it, because while a picture is worth a thousand words, they may be different words to different people, and your intent in displaying the image could be wildly misunderstood. And most of us prefer not to be misunderstood.
But consigning it to the trash seems a bit extreme. And I’m not sure what it accomplished. His guests wouldn’t know he had had a portrait of Lee but had thrown it away — unless he told them, which seems a rather priggish, preening, self-congratulatory thing to do. Otherwise, it’s a personal act, and personal statement. And one would think that the respect for Lee that McChrystal had harbored all his life up to that point would keep him from doing such a thing.
I actually have a similar anecdote to tell. Our editorial board room — at least, that’s what we called it back when there was an editorial board — was decorated with past leaders of The State, all from pre-Knight Ridder days, when it was a family owned paper. One of those gents from bygone days wore a small Confederate Flag pin on his lapel.
Occasionally, I would call guests’ attention to it. I wasn’t too worried about them thinking we were neo-Confederates ourselves, given our unmistakable position regarding that flag. I just appreciated the irony, and invited them to do so as well. Eventually, one of our publishers decided to remove it. And I thought that was fine, too. Whether it was there or not did not affect me or who I was or what I thought. But I’m fairly sure he didn’t throw it in the trash. I think it ended up in an unused office, leaning against a wall among unneeded furniture. I don’t know what happened to it since then.
Anyway, I don’t understand why McChrystal thought it had to be one way or the other: Lee all good or Lee all bad. Seems to me it would be more accurate, and more nourishing to the mind, to regard him as one of the most remarkable and fascinating people in our history.
But there it is, that compulsion to see things as all one way or the other.
Let me drag in one more thing — something of a digression — and then I’ll be done.
The same newspaper ran a different item that touched upon this same phenomenon.
It was headlined (at least, in the iPad version I read — other versions treated it more as a subhed) “The Confederacy was built on slavery. How can so many Southern whites still believe otherwise?”
It was a long-form magazine piece that involved the reporter following a committed neo-Confederate named Frank Earnest (a name that on its own had to make him an irresistible subject to the reporter and his editors) over the course of a year.
This sort of describes the relationship of the writer and his subject during that year:
As we got better acquainted that week, he explained to me why he thought the Civil War happened, beginning with his core belief that slavery wasn’t the main reason for the conflict. Instead, he argued, secession was a constitutionally permissible response to years of unfair tariffs and taxes imposed on the South by a tyrannical federal government.
Frank considers most journalists to be misguided liberals, and he said he wouldn’t be surprised if I harbored anti-Confederate sentiments. I told him, politely, that the narrative he believes in is an ancient load of bull — that it was promoted by the Confederacy’s adult offspring, the architects of Jim Crow, to burnish their fathers’ legacy and help foster the rebirth of legalized white supremacism in late-19th-century Dixie. Frank said nah, that’s not true. So I said I’d let him tell me his side of the story. I said, “You can explain to me why I’m wrong.”…
Frank tried, and of course failed. His problem is that the facts are not on his side. Just a quick glance through South Carolina’s official declaration of the causes for secession will tell anyone with an open mind that. You don’t have to read it all. Just count the number of times “slave” appears in the document. I’ll go ahead and tell you: 18 times. It was kind of, you know, on their minds.
You may find the piece interesting, particularly as it deals with some of our struggles here in SC over the flag.
But speaking of flags, there was one disturbing thing about the piece. The writer repeatedly referred to the “Stars and Bars” when he apparently meant what we commonly call the battle flag or naval jack, the one dominated by the St. Andrew’s Cross.
One of the most maddening things about debating with neo-Confederates is that they suppose we are ignorant about the “War of Northern Aggression.” In their view, we believe it was about slavery because we just don’t know the facts. They’re wrong, of course, but it would be nice if people who presume to write long pieces in major national publications about how wrong the poor benighted Southerners are would get basic facts right.
I thought about writing to the guy to point out his error, but I knew I’d come across as one of those obsessed neo-Confeds myself unless I did a lot of explaining, and I didn’t feel like it, so I didn’t. And I didn’t need to — someone, possibly Frank Earnest himself — set him straight, so the piece is now accompanied with this editor’s note:
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the term Stars and Bars was used to refer to the most commonly acknowledged Confederate flag. In fact, Stars and Bars refers to a different Confederate flag.
Duh. Meanwhile, Frank Earnest is more sure than ever that them libs who run down the Confederacy just don’t know the facts. Sheesh…
The flag commonly known as the “Stars and Bars.”