Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Flag, A War, and Remembrance

A week ago, a 21-year-old loner who had become involved with White Supremacist groups went to a bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. After an hour, he pulled out a gun and murdered nine people. This kind of racial terror attack on a Black church in some ways evokes the church burnings of 1960s, but there is an encouraging difference: In attacks such as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, witnesses often refused to talk, and perpetrators escaped prosecution for years. In this case, even the murderer's own family assisted law enforcement. There is no longer sympathy or tolerance for racial terror attacks. That's a change, and an important one, which should not be forgotten in the inevitable jockeying for political advantage which follows a shocking national event.

One area in which controversy has flared up is the display of the confederate flag. At the South Carolina state capitol, governor Nikki Haley (herself of Sikh ancestry, and thus a sign of how much this deep Southern state has changed since the 1960s) ordered that the US and South Carolina flags at the capitol be lowered to half mast to acknowledge the tragedy in Charleston. However, a nearby Confederate battle flag at a memorial to Confederate soldiers was not lowered: it can't be, as it is chained to the top of the pole in accordance with the contentious compromise which resulted in its removal from the state capitol building fourteen years ago.

Confederate Battle Flag flying at the Confederate
Memorial near the South Carolina Capitol Building

The connection between the Confederate flag and the killer in Charleston is not tenuous. He posted multiple pictures of himself online holding a Confederate flag, including one in which he poses with both the flag and a handgun. (He also posted a picture of himself burning the American flag.) And while not all people with an attachment to the memory of the Confederacy are attached to its history and to its flag for racial reasons, it's not by chance that some white supremacists also like the Confederate flag. The Confederacy as founded specifically to protect the institution of slavery. Some apologists try hard to soft pedal this, but reading the declarations which the seceding states wrote to justify their actions makes it clear that right from the beginning, in 1861, slavery was the primary reason for Southern secession -- even at a time when the North was not by any means yet radicalized enough by the war to endorse the abolition of slavery.

There have been a number of calls for the Confederate flag to be taken down and Governor Haley has asked the state legislature to repeal the legislation which mandated its display at the memorial. I think this is a good idea. The Confederate flag is rightly seen by Black Americans as symbolizing slavery and racism, and it is, after all, the symbol of a group which rebelled against our government, fired upon our army, and resulted in the bloodiest war in American history.

So I think it would be a good idea if the state of South Carolina did not fly the Confederate flag on the capitol grounds, even at a memorial to Confederate soldiers. However, as with many such topics of discussion, this seems to quickly turn into an opportunity for moral preening and for vindictiveness. Over at the conservative National Review, editor Jason Lee Steorts has a piece arguing in strong terms against any respect ever being given anywhere to the Confederate flag or the memory of the Confederacy.
The Confederacy was a rebellion founded on the incoherent idea that the sovereign authority of the United States might be shucked off at the states’ pleasure, and the Confederacy’s primary reason for being was to preserve racial slavery — that is, to violate natural rights rather than to secure them. That is what Confederate soldiers fought for. Whatever else their battle flag may mean, it has to mean that. It did not become a banner of white supremacy in the mid 20th century when racial segregationists took it up. It was a banner of white supremacy, and of lawlessness, from the beginning.

And that is more than enough to disqualify it from respectability. Valor and skill deployed in the service of evil do not deserve honor. If your ancestors fought for the Confederacy, I do not respect their “service” or their “sacrifice.” I can accept that some of them may not have grasped the enormity of the Confederate project, and so are not to be blamed personally, but neither should they be celebrated. Citizens of the nation they rebelled against should consider it a breach of civic manners to display with sympathy the symbols of their cause. And there simply should not exist memorials specifically to Confederate soldiers. The telling of history does not require them. There should be memorials, rather, of the Civil War, with the American flag flying over them.

Over at the The New Republic (which since its change in ownership is always eager for the latest left-wing hot take) Brian Beutler wrote a piece a couple months ago on the anniversary of Lee's surrender to Grant which has received a lot of linkage over the last week, proposing that the defeat of the Confederacy be made a national holiday, that army bases named after Confederate generals be re-named, that the president no longer lay a wreath on both the Union and Confederate war memorials at Arlington on memorial day, that Confederate memorials be taken off the list of historical landmarks, and even that the grave stones of Confederate soldiers no longer be maintained.

I think this is wrong for two reasons.

First, it's cheap virtue. Identifying long after the fact with the right side of a struggle requires no particular effort or sacrifice, and flogging both the memory of the Confederacy and the modern South can be an easy way for modern Americans to forget about the all too recent and real ways in which our country has oppressed Black Americans.

Second, though, this kind of "good guys and bad guys" approach to history misses the tragic sense of history which is so important in understanding the way that real people have lived in other times and places. Not all Southerners sided with the Confederacy. Obviously, Black Southerners were not fans, and those who could escape in some cases fought for the North. But around 100,000 Southern Whites also went so far as to go north and fight for the Union. However, in general, those who were from the South fought for the South.

Yes, the South absolutely did secede because of slavery, and yet at a human level, people do not fight only or even primarily for ideas, they fight for their region and for their friends and family. There is no easy separation between "fought for slavery" and "fought for Southern independence" because they were both different and the same. People legitimately fought for their homes and for their way of living, and yet even for the large number of Southern soldiers who were not slave owners, home and culture could not be easily separated from the racial subjugation which was the economic and political cause of the war. Those who fought for the South cannot be separated from slavery, and yet they did not fight only for slavery, nor can our modern rejection of slavery allow people to completely separate from their history.

Historical connection is a funny thing. I'm five generations separated from the quarter of my ancestry that came from Ireland, and yet due to cultural connections and a common faith, when I read about the Easter Rising or the Black and Tans or some other example of fighting between the Irish and English, I instantly feel myself emotionally involved on the Irish side. And that's despite the fact that I'm at least three generations separated from any disadvantages stemming from Irish ancestry. Despite the fact that I have never in my live been to Ireland. In the South, people are still living near their history. A huge number of Southern whites fought in a devastating war, many died, and in the end they lost. Their region was occupied for ten years, and it remained economically backward compared to the North for another hundred years and more. Liberals in particular like to point out that Southern states are mostly net receivers of Federal money and top the lists of the percent of population on food stamps, but that's partly to say that in some ways the economic impact of defeat and humiliation are still with the South.

Does that make the Southern cause in the Civil War any better? No. But it does explain why (in the US no less than in parts of the world like the Balkans or the Middle East) we are still living with history. Defeat and humiliation create cultural scars -- and not only in foreign countries or among people who belong to racial minorities -- and one of the responses to those scars is to identify strongly with history and with what one can identify as good in it. The memory of Southern pride and nobility is in part a response to Southern defeat. Liberals can understand this when it's said about people in some far away country, but somehow when it comes to those they don't like in their own country, some seem convinced that if they could just stomp on the defeated a bit more it would go away.

Somehow in the US these discussions always go back to the increasingly mythologized "good war": World War II. I've seen a number of people ask why it is that we haven't banned the Confederate flag, just like the Nazi flag was banned in Germany after WW2. The first answer is: As Americans we have commitments to personal freedom that we don't necessarily extend to defeated peoples. The idea of banning anything (including Nazi symbols) as thoroughly in the US as the has been done in modern Germany runs contrary to our current interpretation of our Bill of Rights.

It is true, however, that we and our allies (you know, those arm and cuddly people like Joseph Stalin) were pretty ruthless in stamping out any attachment to the Nazi regime. I'm not sure why the WW1 peace has the reputation of being so much more punitive. It's in WW2 that we completely crushed and then replaced the German government, ethnically cleansed whole areas of the country and gave them to other nations, and wrote pacifism and rejection of the previous regime into the German constitution. We had good reasons for doing it, but it was a brutal business stamping all pride out of a people, and even so people can't walk away from their history. You don't lose five million men and simply forget about it. Recently I watched a German historical drama mini series, Generation War, which had been billed as a sort of German version of the hit American WW2 series Band of Brothers. It's a moderately good series, and worth watching. Some accused it of whitewashing German participation in the war. That's both true and false. It shows just as honestly as any American WW2 drama the horrific things done by German forces during the war, but at the same time it works very hard to separate its characters into "good Germans" who are swept up in the war but come to realize it's evil and Nazis who are the ones directing all the evil. There are bits of truth to this, but the extent to which it shows ordinary Germans out of sympathy with the Nazis is, quite honestly, a stretch. (The series' bigger area of real unfairness is in its portrayal of Polish characters, particularly the non-communist resistance fighters.) Yet what we see here is a culture's attempt to sort out real suffering and sacrifice from the evils related to it -- even when those evils are of the most extreme kind.

While the German example is perhaps the "good" one of stamping out cultural connection and memory, other attempts to do this relating to World War 2 have gone less well. The extent to which the communist Yugoslav regime tried to modify memories of the war, pretending that the only resistance to the Nazis came from Tito's communist partisans and that any non-communist groups were fascist, resulted in a sort of historical blowback when the communist regime fell in the early '90s. For decades people had resented being told to forget their dead if they had not been communists. As the communist regime fell and nationalism swelled, out came the symbols of the nationalist Balkan movements of the 1940s.

WW2 era memories have also been uncovered in some of the Baltic states. For instance, there are celebrations of Latvian Legion Day, and their resistance against invading communist forces. There's just one catch: the Latvian Legion resisted the communists as a Waffen SS unit. And here we come to one of the key dangers of trying to crush out all regional pride and remembrance. After the communist regime insisted for decades that only fascists and Nazis would oppose them and have any positive memory of those who resisted communist invasion, some of those who remained attached to their region, their dead, and their history have taken them at their word and decided that fascism wasn't so bad.

In the end, I think there are several things which, in justice and in humanity, we need to keep in mind:

Symbols matter, and history matters. This means that the symbols of the Confederacy will ever be painful to those citizens of our country who have suffered from slavery and racial oppression. It also means that a partial attachment to the history and the dead of the Confederacy will not go away among their descendants.

I think that people need to think seriously about the message they are sending before they fly a Confederate flag, or wear clothing or use gear emblazoned with the symbols of the Confederacy.  They are symbols with a dark side.

And yet, proposing that memorials and graves be left to oblivion lacks basic humanity. The experiences and sacrifices of those who fought and died for the Confederacy deserve to be remembered and memorialized with dignity because they are human. And people who want to carry vindictiveness beyond the grave, to leave graves unmarked and sacrifices without memorials, need to consider that if you tell someone that they must choose to either despise their history, region, and ancestors or endorse racial resentment -- they may drive some people to pick racial resentment.


Bruce McMenomy said...

A trenchant and humane response on all fronts, both thoughtful and balanced.

I find it interesting that many historical conflicts become more, rather than less, polarized in the mind of popular culture as time goes by. While I think none of those in my father's generation who fought against Germany in World War II thought that Nazism ought to be tolerated or celebrated, there was a recognition when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s that those who had been there on the other side were humans too, and their presence in the midst of these ideologically-charged events may not always have been for reasons of ideology. Michael Frayn captures some of this essentially tragic dichotomy in the character of Werner Heisenberg in his "Copenhagen". I had a German teacher in college who had been conscripted into the German military at the end of the war, at the age of something like sixteen. He was one of the most generous and decent people I've ever known; one of his best friends on campus was a Jewish composer who had escaped from Germany in his youth.

Yes, the ideologies themselves remain important, and it's important to oppose those that are wrong, surely, but it's equally (perhaps even more) important to recognize that humanity is something infinitely more complex, nuanced, and eternally significant than all the ideologies, some of them mistaken, to which individual people adhere. When we reduce people to polarities, we all lose.

Lee himself reputedly opposed secession, but felt obliged to fight for his country — which, on the calculus of pre-Civil War thinking, was Virginia. From here it's easy to pontificate — and I'm not sure I even disagree with the substance of what most are saying — but being there at the time was vastly more difficult and problematic than it seems from here, at a safe distance with the benefit of 150 years of hindsight.

Charity is never out of place in dealing with people — all people, including those with whom we most violently disagree, past and present. I think that's one point that our increasingly secular culture is tending to lose sight of. Charity toward those in the past costs us little, I think: but it does mean that we have to divest ourselves of the cheap piety of ex post facto pontification. It's worth ditching, I think.

Darwin said...

I find it interesting that many historical conflicts become more, rather than less, polarized in the mind of popular culture as time goes by.

It's an odd effect. I suppose there's an instinct over time to turn history into morality tale. A lot of the novels I've read about WW2 which were written from the 1940s through 1960s mostly present a less heroic vision of the actual conduct of the war by the Allies: Sword of Honor Trilogy, the third movement of Dance to the Music of Time, The Caine Mutiny, Once An Eagle, etc.

From the '90s on, you get this "greatest generation" take on the war which seems a lot less shaded.

The contrary example I can think of is the Vietnam War, which seems to have been treated more as a morality tale at the time, but has had some more even-handed novels and movies made about it more recently.

Paul Halsall said...

This is an interesting piece. I was struck by this: "Historical connection is a funny thing. I'm five generations separated from the quarter of my ancestry that came from Ireland, and yet due to cultural connections and a common faith, when I read about the Easter Rising or the Black and Tans or some other example of fighting between the Irish and English, I instantly feel myself emotionally involved on the Irish side. "

I am considerably more recently a quarter Irish than the author. (All four of my maternal grandmother's grandparents were born irish Catholics). I have never felt the slightest sympathy for Irish nationalism. I do think that the Anglo-irish ascendency treated Catholics badly in Ireland, and that Catholics in post-1921 Northern Ireland were unjustly deprived of civil rights. Still, I think I have always been repelled by nationalism and the emotions it works on and I tend to admire cosmopolitan universalist imperialism in culture if not always in state organisation.