The events in Charlottesville evoke for me the desolation that marred the American landscape in the late Sixties. Cities burned. Riots obliterated property, took lives, attempted by sheer physical exertion to assert a condition of identity too unformed and inarticulate in aggregate to mollify the majority of Americans. It burned itself out, exhausted, and with the end of the Vietnam War some years later and the appearance of normalization in relations between the races, it seemed the “long national nightmare” was over.
The complacency which followed has brought us to a condition of absurd desperation. Once more it is all too vast and amorphous to address as a whole, but I wish here to talk about one aspect that has fueled the present explosion of what too many of us believed smothered in our national psyché.
White Supremacy. Nazism.
The ignorant and frustrated attempting to turn back the ocean of maturity that has threatened their self-defining illusions have come out to protest the removal of a statue honoring Robert E. Lee, hero of the Confederacy. Heritage is used as an excuse, tradition as justification for the continued veneration of symbols which have little to recommend them other than the growing pains of a national moral conscience. The condemnation and dissolution of slavery in the United States was at the time long overdue and the defense of the institution on economic, biblical, even “scientific” grounds was a stain on the very founding principles of the country. How anyone could feel righteous defending on the one hand the liberty assumed by the words “all men are created equal” and then on the other chattel bondage enforced by the cruelest methods imaginable is testament to the unreliability of human intelligence poisoned by greed and fear. To look at it on its face, clearly the slaveholders of that time were the most dedicated Me Generation in modern history.
The attempts by latterday apologists to try to rewrite history to say that the South did what it did for other reasons than slavery is precisely the same as Holocaust Deniers attempting to mitigate the appalling behavior the the Nazi regime. To say that “It wasn’t so bad” is not much different than believing “those people had it coming.” To then go on and say they “had it coming” and then mitigate that by saying it wasn’t actually about that anyway is the sign of a mind in moral crisis that has given up on facing truth and reality.
To be clear: the South seceded in order to preserve slavery. Period. There were four formal declarations of secession outlining causes and each one of them privileges the right to maintain slavery as justification for leaving the Union. (Jefferson Davis, in a speech before congress in 1856, made it clear that he saw the preservation of “African slavery” as little less than a moral absolute.) Other articles of secession refer to these and give support and affirmation. But some of the language might be a bit complex for the obdurate revisionist to parse, so let’s look at something a bit sharper and to the point.
Vice President of the Confederacy Alexander Stephens gave what is known as The Cornerstone Speech in Savannah, Georgia, on March 21, 1861. In it he laid out the principles of the new government. He said:
Our new government is founded upon exactly [this] idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
It seems strange to read “slavery subordination” in the same paragraph with “moral truth.” But there it is. It cannot be swept away in a bit of philosophical or political legerdemain. Those people did what they did so they could hold millions of human beings in bondage. They wanted to keep slaves, to force human beings to give up or never have lives of their own.
More? He was laying out the foundation of the Confederacy and its political and philosophical bases. To whit:
The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away… Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it—when the “storm came and the wind blew, it fell.”
Stephens was a full-throated, hoary racist to his core. He was terrified of black people, of what they represented, what they might do, and the threat they posed to the white civilization he thought so highly of.
You can try if will to get around that, but it’s absolutely clear. It is as clear as Hitler’s statements about Jews. It is the product of a culturally-molded view that has been repudiated time and again and here we see, in our midst, these very views driving people to actions that border on the actions of the Secessionists, which were then and remain treasonous.
It might be argued that the context within which these men did what they did differed from ours and that would be fair. Lee refused Lincoln’s offer of overall command of the Union army because he did not see the United States as his country but Virginia. That was how he spoke of it, that is how many people of the day saw it. Which is why much of the nonslaveholding population of the South, even those who had some problems with slavery in principle, fought against the North, because they saw it as an invasion.
We don’t have that excuse. We have not thought of our individual states as separate countries since the Civil War ended, not in any concrete way. We know it’s not like that. (It wasn’t legally like that then, but disingenuousness goes hand in hand with self-justifications.)
So these rioting, frothing-at-the-mouth haters clamoring for the preservation of some safe space wherein they can maintain the small-minded, deformed illusions of a master race that will profit them by rewarding their inability to cope with reality or comprehend moral reasoning want us all to accept the revised view of a Lost Cause narrative that never existed. Something that will overlook their intrinsic inferiority as rational beings and privilege the things they never had to earn as qualifications to rule. “I’m white, I should be better than you!”
We are not obliged as a nation to help you maintain your delusions. We are not obliged as a people to stand by while you try to stand apart in order to throw stones at the things you don’t like. We as moral beings owe nothing to a past that aggrandized inhumanity in the name of tradition or heritage or states’ rights or—
Or White Superiority.
Which, we are beginning to learn, was never a real thing.
The South worked overtime to cover its existence in a patina of false chivalry as antidote to the poison in its own belly. The lie at the heart of every movie or book that romanticized Dixie is that gentility was ever its raîson detré. The captivity in which it held its slaves was echoed in the straitjacket in which it dressed its “society” with its balls and belles and rituals of modern-day cavaliers. And later the stranglehold it maintained on the working class, with sharecropping the most visible form, in an attempt to revive the aristocratic presumptions of the plantation system, so that some mock nobility could exist on the backs of people with no viable way out of their bondage was no more than the refusal of former slaveholders and sons of slaveholders to hold on to the shards of an imagined life of leisure and grace that only ever existed by virtue of the spilled blood and broken bones of human beings who never had any say in their lives.
Robert E. Lee in the end was granted pardon by the expedient wisdom of victors who sought only to end the bloodshed and knew if they dealt with him and the others as they deserved under the law there would have been years more of senseless fighting. The man owned human beings. You may try to dress that up any way you wish, but that is a horrible thing. He and the others who fomented rebellion in order to maintain a system steeped in a depravity that required the worst aspects of human brutality to persist.
And the excuse they used was the argument of Negro Inferiority.
Now today we see people who have been raised with a painfully redacted version of the Lost Cause and are also incapable of dealing with those who do not look like them taking to the streets and the voting booth to try to force their intolerance on the rest of us. They themselves lack the integrity, the intellectual weight, and the moral substance to be equal to the challenges of their own shortcomings and deal with the world around them with any constructive resolve. They perceive opportunities being handed to people they cannot accept as equals and rather than look at themselves and try to come to terms with what they do not possess, they seek advantage by intimidation, by violence, by brute assertions of privilege mistaken as rights. They have raised the specter of Naziism in our midst because they sense if not recognize their obsolescence. If this is all the support that will come to defense of a statue, then it is perhaps right that the statue be removed.
But this deserves no defense. Yes, they have a right to express their opinion, but that right does not extend to forcing the rest of us to tolerate their demands on how that opinion is expressed.
Human beings must not be held in bondage. This is a truth.
The South committed treason when those states seceded and took up arms against the Union. That is also a truth.
They did so not out of some rarefied position on states’ rights and misunderstanding over the nature of the union they had all agreed to join and ratified in the constitution. They did so to maintain their labor pool and property values, no matter how hideous the conditions or immoral the institution. That deserves no respect on any level.
There is no valid argument for any present-day defense of those times, that philosophy, or the so-called traditions descended from them. The mob that showed up to protest the removal of a statue glorifying an era of horrific pain and suffering based on the indignity of human subjugation may know something of that history. Or they may not. In either case, that history is knowable.
The foundations of Southern thinking were then desperately elitist, terrified of losing the throne of superiority not only to those they considered their racial inferiors but to any and all that did not meet their standards. This quote from the Muscogee Herald, an Alabama newspaper, in 1856:
Free Society! we sicken at the name. What is it but a conglomeration of greasy mechanics, filthy operatives, small-fisted farmers, and moon-struck theorists? All the Northern men and especially the New England States are devoid of society fitted for well-bred gentlemen. The prevailing class one meet with is that of mechanics struggling to be genteel, and small farmers who do their own drudgery, and yet are hardly fit for association with a Southern gentleman’s body servant. This is your free society which Northern hordes are trying to extend into Kansas.
There is in the stunted soul of a Nazi and inability to cope with equality of any sort. The Nazis of Germany in the 1930s till the end of the war were, to their core, thieves, moral cowards, and perpetually incapable of recognizing the humanity in anything. They erected a state based on pillage and called it great. They sought a conformism of mind impossible to achieve not only because they lacked any grasp of human nature but because their standards were paper-thin, devoid of substance, and necessitated the virtual lobotimization of imagination.
We must confront and reject this intractable belief that anyone is intrinsically better than anyone else that lies at the center of the White Supremacist movement. At the end of the day, no one can be allowed freedom in the face of the amalgamated mediocrity of a mind that demands an inferiority in others in order to feel that it is safe to get out of bed in the morning and face a day everyone has the same right to enjoy. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that a civilization cannot survive the successful expression of the politics that inevitably emerge from such unadmitted terror as that harbored by those who ascribe to such movements and accept as “natural” such inhuman beliefs.