Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Northerners, Heritage, and Confederate Sympathies

by Neil H. Buchanan

The day after a Klan sympathizer drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, killing one person and injuring nineteen others, I received an email from a friend:
"The driver who killed the counter protester in Charlottesville is from Maumee (Ohio). I think there's something extra awful about northerners defending the confederate cause."
This was personal, because I grew up in Maumee, which is a suburb of Toledo, near the northern border with Michigan and only about an hour from Detroit.

I responded that I knew of one guy from my high school class who had joined the KKK, and I thus assumed that there have always been white supremacist groups in that area.  Indeed, there are right-wing extremist groups all over the country, from New York State to Michigan to Montana and beyond.  In a way, therefore, there was no reason to be surprised that my home town -- any home town -- could have produced this kind of monster.

As it turned out, the murderer in this case was not really from Maumee.  After some quick checking online, I learned that he had grown up in Kentucky and had only moved to Ohio a year ago after his mother took a job there.  For no good reason, I exhaled and felt some sense of relief.

Mirroring the second sentence of my friend's email, I also found myself thinking, "Well, Kentucky, I see.  That makes more sense."  But does it?  Kentucky was not in the confederacy, either, and there are certainly areas of other non-secessionist states (Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania) that were sympathetic to the South.  My current home state of Maryland, of course, has its own complicated story.

So my question is whether my friend's strong visceral reaction to northerners who defend the confederate cause -- a negative reaction that I fully share -- makes sense.  In order to answer that question, it is necessary to understand where our gut-level reaction comes from.

The most obvious reason to expect that people in northern states would feel differently about the Civil War than those in southern states is that kids in Ohio and similar states grow up being told that "we" were on the winning side.  And not only did we win, but we were fighting for the best cause of all: ending our country's original sin.  Finding out that Ohioans -- my people -- had helped end slavery felt good.

Of course, this can be complicated by state-to-state migration, and many families move among states that fought on different sides of the Civil War.  Even so, a kid who grows up in the area that won a war will inevitably absorb some sense of group pride.  And to repeat, it was not just winning, but winning for the most moral of causes.

I can only imagine what it is like to grow up, even in the late 20th or early 21st century, in a formerly confederate state.  Whereas I grew up down the street from an elementary school called Union School, which had a statue of a union soldier on the front lawn, kids in southern states attended any of a number of Stonewall Jackson High Schools and learned about the greatness of Robert E. Lee.  (That Lee's supposed greatness is a myth is beside the current point.)

The awfulness of northerners taking pro-confederate positions is thus to a large extent a matter of lacking even the most basic non-ideological excuse: "Well, I grew up here."  Without that excuse, it is difficult not to conclude that a guy in upstate New York holding a confederate battle flag out the window as he drives down the highway is a white supremacist.

I suppose that there could be confederate sympathizers in northern states who have come across the bogus argument that the war was not really about slavery, but even then, why should that lead to veneration of the confederacy?  It might be possible for some people to conclude, on a purely intellectual basis, that the federal-state power balance is askew, but there is no reason at all why that would force a person to take the confederate side in a war that was fought in the mid-nineteenth century.

The next question is more difficult and important, however.  Even if we admit that northerners who express sympathies for the confederacy are inexplicable, why do we accept the statement that "the kid simply grew up in the south" not just as an explanation but as an excuse?

This question becomes even more difficult to answer when we look at Germany, not just because Germans have so completely rejected Nazi sympathizing (to which I will return momentarily) but because their trauma is much more recent.

All of the Americans who talk about their "southern heritage" being tied up in the need to honor their forebears -- men who, we are repeatedly told, fought bravely on the side that they thought at the time was the right side -- are talking about great-great-great-grandfathers.  Germans are talking about fathers and grandfathers.  That should, one might think, give the Germans more of an emotional stake in defending people whom they actually knew and loved.

But the real question is why "what they thought at the time" is the all-purpose excuse.  Again, Germans, with the exception of truly fringe groups -- as opposed to the U.S. politicians from a major political party who to this day defend having the stars-and-bars flag fly over southern state capitals -- do not say, "I refuse to repudiate what my parents did, because they were brave and thought they were doing the right thing."

One of the reasons that these questions are so difficult to think through is that pride and shame are such personal experiences.  These issues are made even more fraught by people's sense of how they are supposed to honor their ancestors.

I am one of the people who is fortunate enough not to be a part of a family, state, or nation that was on the losing side of the big, defining wars and moral conflicts in human history.  (On the other hand, I certainly am aware that "my people" were very much on the wrong side of the extermination of native peoples.)  I am fortunate not to feel a general sense of "group shame," and I do not know what it is like to worry about what a great-uncle did and how that reflects on me.

A friend (not the same friend who wrote the email above) once told me about his feelings when he read a packet of letters that his father had written to his grandfather, shortly after his father had gotten married and moved to a rural town in the Southwest.  The letters were mostly mundane, covering everyday matters about family developments and his father's new job.  But one letter caught my friend by surprise.

There, his father had asked his grandfather to be careful about sending money, because "the post office workers here are all Mexicans."  He went on to explain that he was therefore worried about the money being stolen.  My friend was shocked, because this was so completely inconsistent with what he knew about his father, who had centrist political views and who had never spoken a bigoted word in his life, as far as my friend knew.

My friend was willing to put his father's words in the context of the time when the letters were written (the late 1940's), but he also believes that his father really did think at the time that Mexicans were inherently more likely to steal.  That is a difficult idea to swallow about someone that one loves and honors, but in this case it is also probably true.

What to do next?  My friend could have decided that his father was right and that it was important to honor his father's memory by joining groups of people that also believe that Mexicans are dishonest.  Instead, he said, "My dad was wrong.  I can't change that."

There was, of course, not already a group of people surrounding my friend talking about the heritage within which his father's casual bigotry could be reconstituted as part of a grand cause.  Rejecting his father in that limited context did not risk his place in society or undermine his sense of self.  He was, for lack of a better term, not worried about peer pressure.

Even so, there are plenty of people who grew up in the American south who have been willing and able to say that their forebears were wrong.  When they see bumper stickers with the confederate flag and the words, "Heritage, not Hate," they say, "No, that flag represents a heritage of hate."  They are not willing to say, "Well, the state in which I was born fought for the south, so I'll go to my grave rationalizing something that cannot be excused."

Those people are more courageous than I have ever needed to be.  I do not find myself at dinners with friends or at political fundraisers in which I can expect that some people in the room think that the Civil War is properly called "The War of Northern Aggression."  The point, however, is that it is no excuse simply to say, "Well, I'm from here."

As a matter of how one feels upon seeing northerners and southerners who defiantly fly confederate flags (and especially those who take violent action because of confederate sympathies), the difference in revulsion probably should not be as great as it has always been for people like me.  There is so much information available, and the moral imperatives are so clear, that the degree of revulsion should be the same no matter who the purveyor of the hatred is, or where he grew up.


Asher Steinberg said...

I think the strength of the "what they thought at the time" excuse varies depending on how common the thoughts that "they" thought at the time were. So, for example, several contributors to this blog are vegetarians, for sophisticated ethical reasons. A very substantial majority of Americans and humans generally still believe that it's ethical to eat animals, even given the conditions in which animals are raised. It may well be that people who feel that way are countenancing a horrible evil, very much on par with this or that historical treatment of certain human races or ethnicities as subhuman. And it may also be that future generations will come to largely or even universally view our treatment of animals in that way. Nevertheless, the moral blindness of the vast majority of people on this matter is so pervasive that I think we could hardly say, in a future world where we generally come to see the current treatment of animals as a profound atrocity, that everyone who today is involved in factory farming or eats factory-farmed meat and poultry was an evil person or someone who we shouldn't honor, no matter what else they did, because of their consumption of or involvement in factory-farmed meat. It seems much more apt to say that factory-farmed-meateaters aren't evil, that some are even tremendously virtuous people, but that they suffer from an endemic moral blindness on the subject of animals which is a function of their time and very understandably self-serving notions of human primacy. (I don't mean to take any position on whether the underlying premise of this discussion is correct, just to say that even if how we treat animals is an horrendous evil, you can still have this view of people who participate in it.)

On the other hand, it strikes me that Nazism was so unique within the context of mid-20th-century Europe, or even recent German history, and sufficiently far from being universally accepted even in 1930s-40s Germany, that it's much harder to say that thinking Nazism was alright was just what people thought at the time. I am, even as a Jewish person, fairly forgiving of anti-Semitism on the part of people from that era, but it does seem that to accept the degree of anti-Semitism that Nazism offered, one did have to take a serious wrong moral turn by the lights of 1930s-40s morality. On the other hand, I don't think it takes much away from any given Roman emperor's legacy that he dealt with Jewish people in a quasi-genocidal and xenophobic way. The propriety of that sort of thing at that time and in that society was just (I believe) far too universally accepted to evaluate any individual person who did it in too harsh a light because of it, and I'm quite comfortable with children learning that the more able Roman emperors were basically great men, which isn't to say that they shouldn't learn about Roman slavery, classism, treatment of foreign peoples, treatment of women, etc.

I would have to know much more than I do about moral attitudes about slavery in the American South in 1861-65 to say quite what I think about this sort of relativist excuse as to Confederates. My guess is that it falls somewhere on the spectrum between the weakness of relativist excuses for supporting Nazism in 1930s Germany, and the strength, as I see it, of relativist excuses for eating meat today. Obviously a great many people understood at the time that the South's position was wrong, but I'm not sure how overwhelming opinion was the other way in the South, and how much localism should play into relativism.

David Ricardo said...

It is very difficult to ascribe southern or northern sentiments to a specific states outside the deep south. Maryland as Mr. Buchanan has mentioned had very pro-southern areas. Kentucky while staying in the union had its rebel denizens; Mrs. Lincoln’s brothers fought for the South. Southern Illinois was and is very pro-southern; read Lincoln’s debate with Douglas .

Lincoln: "I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."

Western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee had a large number of unionists; Lincoln’s second VP was a Senator from eastern Tennessee. Race riots and the murder of many African Americans took place in New York city, not Alabama. Archie Bunker lived in Queens, and no one seemed to think he was out of place there. And of course western Virginia seceded from Virginia and formed its own state.

As for people with parents who had prejudicial views that was all too common. We have to recognize that we are living in the middle of the war against racism and prejudice, not the end of it. It will take a few more centuries before American society can regard the Civil War as a historical event and not a contemporary one.

Shag from Brookline said...

Here's a link to a book review in the LATimes:


The primary focus of the book is on the poor whites in antebellum days but the review extends this to post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow and present day. Neil's post inquires as to the North in light of Charlottesville.

Growing up in the Boston area during the 1930, '40s, '50s (graduating from law school in 1954), I learned of the term WASP. I satisfied the "W" but not the rest, though I was christened as an infant. The WASP declined as Irish and Italian Catholics and intermarriages changed this in MA. The American Colonies and post-Revolution America are considered by many to be founded and based upon white Christian Supremacy. Originally, Catholics, though white, were considered part of the "other" thought finally accepted over the years. Today, white supremacy relies upon America as founded as a white Christian nation. Its followers need not be geographic. Rather, it resents the "other," which includes whites who are not Christian.

What Neil describes is the treatment of the "other," which is not limited to America but appears all over the world. Many of us thought America was different what with its progression, what I thought when in my last year of law school Brown v. Bd. of Educ. was decided. But here we are today with the evidence of Charlottesville, challenging such progress. America has never had its reconciliation race.

I would raise the question of contributions to this white Christian supremacy within the legal community since Brown and the civil rights movement, particularly with the originalism and Federalist Society movements; these look back to the 1787 Constitution and its meaning as a matter of faith. To what extent have these movements been fostering the white Christian supremacy of today as witnessed by Charlottesville?

There may always be the "other" here in America and the rest of the world. History offers lessons that should be heeded.

Michael A Livingston said...

I think there's a difference because a Southerner, at least in theory, might be using the flag as a regional symbol. It's hard to see a Northerner using it for any reason except the obvious. It is somewhat sad to me, on this front, to see the "rebel" flag reduced to a status roughly equivalent to the swastika. I don't blame this, for once, on the liberal elite but on the people who've used the flag as a racist symbol . . . effectively they;ve made it impossible to use it as anything else. If Lee or Jackson were alive today they'd probably have these folks arrested, or worse.

Shag from Brookline said...

Thomas B. Edsall's NYTimes column today (8/24/17) "Donald Trump’s Identity Politics" provides a lot of information relevant to this post.

Regarding the reference to " ... the 'rebel' flag reduced to a status roughly equivalent to the swastika" perhaps we should consider the impact of the "rebel" flag on African-Americans to compare to the impact of the swastika on Jews for perspective.