It was admirable of South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag from its State House grounds. The act represented the will of the majority and was carried out with all due ceremony. Even the spokesman for the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans promised to accept the removal “graciously.”
But it’s touched off a process Ian Tuttle calls “disappearing the Confederacy.” Used as a transitive verb, “disappear” is an arch way of saying “kill and dispose of in secret for political purposes.” Tuttle means it as a metaphor for “erase from collective memory.” Between TV Land’s cancellation of Dukes of Hazzard reruns, the discontinuation of Confederate-themed merchandise by Sears, Wal-Mart and other retailers, and the campaigns to remove statues and busts of various Confederate leaders, that does appear to be the general idea.
Truly disappearing the Confederacy is impossible, or at least impractical. Those antebellum mansions on Charleston’s Battery and in New Orleans’ Garden District (among many other places) bring in too many tourist dollars. What public opinion can try to do, however, is twist the arms of white Southerners, morally speaking, until they agree with a yelp that their past was all bad and only bad.
In The National Review, of all places, Jason Lee Steorts stops just short of telling them they come from bad seed. “Valor and skill deployed in the service of evil do not deserve honor,” he writes. “If your ancestors fought for the Confederacy, I do not respect their ‘service’ or their ‘sacrifice’.” Steorts does allow, “some of them may not have grasped the enormity of the Confederate project, and so are not to be blamed personally,” but concludes, “neither should they be celebrated.”
Happily for Jason Lee Steorts, nobody is forcing him to celebrate anything. But begrudging white Southerners any positive notion of their ancestors or interpretation of their history does too much violence to human nature. It’s only fair to complain about Southern-fried identity politics – Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Lee Atwater’s dastardliness, Mike Huckabee’s God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy. But Steorts, along with others, like Slate’s Aleia Brown, who would deny the Confederate flag space in a museum, is happy to annihilate any sense of Southern identity.
In this, they don’t seem to be alone. Two weeks ago in Politico, Michael Lind blamed the South essentially for holding the rest of the country back — that is, for skewing its statistics on income equality and social mobility relative to the rest of the English-speaking world. “Minus the South,” Lind writes, “the rest of the U.S. probably would be more like Canada or Australia or Britain or New Zealand—more secular, more socially liberal, more moderate in the tone of its politics and somewhat more generous in social policy.”
Surgery, recall, proceeds from the outside in. The one Southern triumph Lind will acknowledge is the enfranchisement of African Americans – thanks to federal military intervention. Taken all in all, the approach favored by the national mood toward the South seems positively colonial.
Among right-thinking people, this hasn’t always been the only attitude worth taking. In Confederates in the Attic, Tony Horwitz quotes an African American Charlestonian as saying it was fine with her if white people remembered the Civil War, so long as they remembered they lost. But, as I’ve observed before, the latest trend among pundits and activists is not to abandon or soften the concept of collective guilt, but to thrust the shoe on unfamiliar feet with evident satisfaction, and, unfortunately, no sense of charity or humor.
Fortunately for everyone, it looks as though the Yankee’s burden will be lighter than anyone had reckoned on – at least in the short run. Most of the calls to pull down statues and busts of Confederate leaders are coming from local elected officials whose constituents can vote them out over it – if they give a dam’.
In the long run, who knows? Writing in the 1990s, Florence King counted three or four “New Souths” that rose to succeed one another during her lifetime. Each differed from the one it replaced, but less than outside observers would have liked. And all of them differed from the North. If the South survived Sherman, it can crawl out from this cultural dog-pile mostly intact. As Jefferson Davis said, the past is dead. That means it’s not going anywhere on its own and is pretty hard to move without making an awful stink.
I should add I’m not one of those damnfool Yankee reactionaries who nurses a sentimental fondness for Dixie. Southern manners and charm — which are everything they’re cracked up to be — once caught me out like a split-finger fastball. In a historic Charleston tavern, a young local woman of very new acquaintance asked me whether I had a place to stay. When I lied and answered no, she recommended a nearby bed and breakfast. Her eyes, I swear, said: SUCKER.
I wrote it off as revenge for the siege of Richmond.