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Southern shame, Southern ghosts
By Franklin Raff
The University of Mississippi has terminated its mascot, "Colonel Reb." The mascot, an archetypal Southern gentleman with a hat, cane, and a little bow-tie, is of course racist.
Affable, bearded and jaunty, with a bright costume that cleverly foiled his dark history on the plantation, Col. Reb, when he was alive, looked rather like that other infamous slave-driver, Col. Sanders, whose inscrutable and permanent smile these days (in markets where he still shows his face) offers only a faint clue as to the fortunes he's made in his long, post-war masquerade as a peddler of fried chicken.
"We just want it to be over," said one Mississippi student on the subject of Col. Reb's execution.
Watch your back, Sanders.
There is of course nothing sacred about a football mascot or a corporate brand, and nothing particularly sad about the disappearance of either one, except for the fact that now there is nothing left of Southern symbolism to erase. Some time ago, you see, most Southerners started believing that fried chicken, football games, NASCAR and maybe a handmade basket or two were among the only cultural 'treasures' they could, or should, be proud of.
And now we learn that what legions of Americans consider to be a transcendent symbol of extraordinary military leadership and valor, states' rights, indefatigable heroism, enduring pride and strength in the face of terrible odds and calamitous defeat – the Confederate battle flag – is now officially deemed a symbol of hate by the U.S. armed forces. Prospective members of all branches of the armed forces who happen to have a "Confederate flag" tattoo are automatically rejected.
Red crescents, Ankhs and the like are a "go" as are satanic pentagrams with bleeding goat-heads, inverted crosses, Vishnus and Virgin Mothers doing just about anything anywhere you can imagine, but not a star- studded blue cross (or saltire) over a red field. That image is un-American, hateful and now officially equivalent to the swastika.
Americans who sport the Confederate battle flag – many whose ancestors fell under the flag, who are buried with honor on American soil beneath the flag, whose fathers and great-grandfathers flew this flag with patriotic pride over homes, and seats of government, and even U.S. Navy ships at war – and who want to serve our country under arms, are no longer deemed compatible with our armed forces.
The Confederate battle flag has been appropriated by hate groups of one kind or another for racist reasons, but it is also, indisputably, the reigning symbol of Southern history and pride. Why would Southerners ever surrender this treasure? Why would they have it erased from a state flag, as Georgia did in 2001? Why would they allow America's "best and brightest" to ban it as a universal "symbol of hate" without even putting up a fight?
Historians disagree about whether the war would have happened "with or without slavery." Slavery was a national evil, the great mainstay of the agrarian South and a catalyst for polarized politics and violent action on both sides. But even Southerners have now forgotten about the enormous and complex roster of constitutionally based complaints regarding tariffs, direct and indirect taxation, the extraordinarily significant issue of nullification, innumerable federal impositions and more, and more, which led the Confederate states to draft their declarations of secession. These short, concise documents are not only fascinating, they are of obviously incalculable value to any free citizen whose aim is to know the history of his state, his country and his constitution. Do you know of even one young Southerner who has studied any of these documents in school?
It is commonly held even among schoolchildren in the South that the war was fought in the wake of a glorious national Emancipation Proclamation, when of course Lincoln's proclamation very belatedly only freed Southern slaves. Northern slaves were freed even later (the last in New Jersey at the very end of the war), as the cause of emancipation became a public-relations boon for Lincoln, for conscription and for the North internationally. To be sure, there were more slaves in the South than in the North, and the Emancipation Proclamation was a very important and effective document, but "The Great Emancipator" plainly admitted he would free all, or none, of the slaves if it would save the Union. Why must these truths be ignored?
All Americans understand that scores of Union soldiers fought proudly and honorably "to free the slaves," but now Southerners seem to have started to believe, en masse, that their Confederate ancestors raised their battle flag "to defend the institution of slavery." In fact only a miniscule percentage – I have seen estimates lower than 2 percent – of Confederate soldiers were members of slave-owning families, lived or worked on plantations, or were otherwise part of the "antebellum" life painted by Hollywood. Anyone who knows their history knows exactly what most Confederate officers would have told you in the field: "We have no desire for conquest and, as clearly stated by our political leaders, every wish for national reconciliation. The Confederate battle flag represents the fighting spirit of the citizens of these states who are proudly and patriotically rebelling against a central government which has become tyrannical."
Have you ever asked a Southern high-schooler or college student what the Confederate battle flag represented to the men who fought for the confederacy? I've done it many times. The answer is usually: Hatred. Slavery.
And who spoke out against slavery? Many on both sides, of course, and probably many more in the North than in the South, but also Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy; his secretary of state, Judah Benjamin; Gov. William Smith of Virginia; Reps. Barksdale and Kenner (once one of the largest slaveholders in the South) as well as the highest-ranking CSA generals Joseph Johnston and none other than General Robert E. Lee. The Confederate battle flag was Lee's flag, the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. On slavery, he said: "There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil."
The dirty, not so-little secret of the war, you see, is that slavery had become morally, politically, and (because of the industrialization of agriculture, labor disputes, etc.) financially untenable in both the North and the South, and it was on its way out. Still, Congress did not consider an abolition amendment until 1864. At that time, the Southern states were long absent from Congress. Even then, shamefully, it did not pass and was not adopted until after the war. The North was obviously as tragically intertwined with the institution of slavery as the South. But what Southern youngster knows it?
And who defended the freedom of the press and information in this terrible time? More than 300 Northern newspapers were suppressed during the war and the Northern press was known to have been heavily censored, while, for instance, even Jefferson Davis endured astonishingly dark personal attacks from even the Southern press, but unlike Lincoln, refused to limit their freedoms. In short, scholars agree that "dissenters" had freedom of speech only in the South.
It would seem important to keep these facts in mind as we review a tiny part of the historical record and ponder the present near-universality of the South's acquiescence to a comically simplistic and largely inaccurate "victor's history" of the war. But perhaps facts no longer matter.
The long, arduous road toward national reconciliation and equal rights need never have included cultural annihilation: historical, symbolic or otherwise. Yet that is what Southerners face today, and it is their own fault.
By failing to educate their children, or by allowing others to mis-educate their children, and as evidenced by their willingness to repeatedly allow the definition of their cultural symbols – from the Confederate battle flag down to a bow-tied, fancified Southern colonel in a funny suit – as symbols of "hate," they are ultimately, finally, characterizing their forebears – soldiers, yes, along with doctors, lawyers, philosophers, scientists, and farmers, free blacks (including slave-owners), businessmen and politicians (many of whom were abolitionists) – universally, as the simple, hateful hicks federal propagandists once made them out to be.
By abandoning these most sacred and most benign symbols of Southern heritage, they admit a deeper commitment to ignore and let others define, their past. Worse perhaps, they turn their backs on the legacies and souls of real American patriots and heroes.
When they once again encounter their ancestors, which I believe they will, how will so many Americans account for their feeble treachery? Maybe, like the Mississippi student, they will say: "We just wanted it to be over."
I wonder what some of those old heroes might say in reply.
And here you are, my spiritually impoverished progeny, 300 years after the first war in which we fought and died that you might be free from a tyrannical central government, and almost 200 years after another great and terrible war, the worst imaginable, in which we fought our brothers and died for the very same cause. You have now willingly disgraced not just this cause – which might have been understandable given the terrible complexity of the time – but you have also disgraced almost every vestige of our memory, corrupting even the flags on our graves. The degree to which you are now indebted to, and dependent on, your federal government is a most bitter reminder of our failure. But you have failed in a deeper sense. You, like many Americans, have in your ignorance abetted in the practical destruction our founders' Constitution. Having surrendered liberty, you are no longer entitled to its blessings. So please do not speak of slavery. You have stripped yourself of your knowledge, pride and heritage. You have shamed and prostrated yourself, and, to no small degree, it is you who are now enslaved.
I shudder to imagine what the ghosts of the past, black and white, will say to us when we join them.
And then again, maybe it won't be so bad. After all, you know what happens to those who do not remember their history.
One way or another, by reverence or ignorance, history is destiny.
Franklin Raff is a Virginian. He lives in Mount Vernon, Va., and Jerusalem, Israel.
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