Southern Dialectics

28 Jun

The Confederacy was for wicked things, as were the Nazis and other wicked people. Would you be willing to fly the Nazi flag? You say you honor the valor of the Confederates, but surely there were valorous and skilled Nazis. Patton respected Rommel, for instance. But flying the Nazi flag to honor Rommel would be unacceptable. Likewise, flying the Confederate flag is unacceptable.”

This reduction comes to light as mistaken when we consider that no sane Southerner would defend putting up a Nazi flag, but they do defend the Confederate flag. That is, there are people who defend the flag that are not racists and have no murderous hatred tucked away in their hearts. If it were the case that the only people who raised the Confederate flag had a murderous hatred of blacks, then of course there would be no argument between sane people over the issue.

Once we have come to this point – agreeing that the Confederate flag stands for something wicked – all reasonable people will assent to this argument. But many people in the South don’t agree to this. (Just as, I am guessing, many Japanese don’t believe their flag stands for their sins from WWII.) And this is where Southern Dialectics comes into view. When we are nailed to racist attitudes, despite our genuine belief that we aren’t racist, we Southerners have a feeling it is not because of racism, because we do not believe that we are racist. We dig deep to find the root cause of the animosity, so as to justify our way of life before indignant accusations we do not believe are honest, or clear-headed. We do this in our best moments. In our lower moments, we thumb our noses at Northern morality. And then, in our bad moments, some of us become racists.

This same process occurred over slavery itself. I think it can be shown that the vast majority of the Southern elite, at the time of the revolutionary war, viewed slavery as a moral evil, and wished for the eventual abolition of it. For a relatively short period after the war, the North and the South were relatively brotherly. But once abolitionists started accusing Southerners of wickedness, things became increasingly worse. I believe a study will show that manumissions fell significantly. Good Southerners thought, “Wait. I thought we agreed that it was evil, and you all should know we are trying our best. We have strong opponents, but give us time and we will overcome them.” Southerners of less fortunate dispositions and more bitter turns of mind – who could not think the problem through – quit trying to separate out their way of life from slavery, because they could not do so in thought. It was easier to justify it. Hence the new-fangled literature defending slavery as a moral good appeared a la Fitzugh’s “A Sociology for the South” and “Cannibals All.” When you tell these weak thinkers, who cannot separate out the thousands upon thousands of times they have said “that is good” from racism – when you have convinced them that their way of life and heritage are in fact racist and little besides – they are going to turn to defending racism. They are not subtle enough to see that there is a more fundamental difference in thought between a Massachusetts man and themselves. And if there weren’t a more fundamental difference, they wouldn’t turn racist because they would be able to separate out their way of life from racism.

That is, the North seems very able to shuck off old habits and old ways of doing things. Northerners, or liberals, seem very able to say “that is bad” about things they had previously affirmed as good, or at least not bad. The South, however, is particularly bad at this. Now I welcome you to simplify the issue: “The people of the North happen to be better people than the people of the South.” This is what we Southerners think you Northerners think. It seems natural to view it this way: “We’ve accepted the change. It is morally right to do so. It is a matter of my moral character that I have been able to do so. They do not accept he change. It is probably a matter of their moral character.” Or, a more intelligent response, “They are ignorant and once educated will see the way we do.” This is the raison d’etre for the ACLU. However, whether you think the South is filled with people who are more wicked than you or just more ignorant, I hope you understand that we beg to differ on both counts.

And this difference of mind is why it was so very easy for the majority of Southern kids of my generation (along with a good many intellectuals of previous generations) to believe the war was about something more fundamental than race or slavery. We see the fruits of a different turn of mind in numerous ways. And I have to say, I am unwilling to switch teams. My turn of mind allows me to not be a racist. I am not compelled, however, to extend toleration to all the things moral Northerners want me to tolerate. I affirm what is good, I can tolerate things that are less than good but not too dangerous, and I see no need to tolerate beliefs that are in fact dangerous. That is, for me and those of like mind, toleration is a matter of prudence, not a moral imperative. Whereas for the Northern mind, it is a moral command, founded in the dignity of every human life. The Southern turn of mind affirms and in some cases tolerates love of one’s own. The Northern turn of mind does not: it is denied this by its moral foundation. It is on this battlefield that the two ways of life have come to blows over numerous issues. The Northern morality has ground out decisive victories in the material sense and intellectual sense, while the Southern has thrown up brilliant protests along the way. The Confederate flag has flown for things the Southern mind needn’t accept today if it is being clear headed. (Skin color is not a substantial foundation for defining one’s own. For instance, I don’t like a lot of people who are white, but do like many individuals graced by nature with different pigments. The best foundation for deciding who is “one’s own” is a shared way of life, or virtue.) But I had hoped, and that hope was expressed in the last post, that the flag might become a symbol for what is fundamental to the Southern mind, and not any one of that mind’s various manifestations.

Pavlos and Matt may be right: “That’s all over now.” Maybe as a result of the recent education session, the flag is now firmly “racist.” And so maybe that flag has been separated from the Southern mind by being calcified into a period of the Southern mind. If that’s the case, which I think it probably is, then oh well. We’ll pick something else to stand beside. But I hope you do not blame those of us who continue to see in the flag the Southern mind. And I wish you would stop doing what you’re doing at some point. What I mean is, if you do happen to uncover some embarrassing detail in the past of a person (or institution), you might do what I think a respectable person ought to do, and simply blush for him. If nobody gains by embarrassing him further, I say let him be.

I realize that this has been a wide-ranging argument. That is, more can be said and more detail added. But this post is already so long… I will obviously keep thinking about it.


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