My name is Gunnar Swanson. I’ve lived in Greenville, North Carolina for about six years. In case you don’t know, that doesn’t make me a Southerner. Apparently, I’m not a “Yankee,” either. I grew up in California. A friend of mine said that makes me a Wankee—an amalgam of “western” and “Yankee” but the social reality seems to be more along the lines of the exchange in “Days of Thunder” where Robert Duvall’s character responded to objections to a Yankee driving stock cars by explaining that the Tom Cruise character is from California. The questioner seemed to see the world as a Yankee/Southerner binary but Duvall’s crew chief character assures him “That makes him. . . nothin’.”
But I’m clearly not a Southerner in the sense that some Southerners mean. In California, the Civil War was over for a century when I was in junior high school. The Confederacy lost. The United States remained united. Apparently, some people didn’t hear the news (or they heard it but regret being Americans.) I’m somewhat befuddled by a political climate where people complain if someone fails to wear an American flag pin on his lapel but celebrate waging war against the US. That’s an odd view of patriotism.
Let’s get a few things out of the way: History is sloppy. The past isn’t black and white with good guys and bad guys. Hell, the present is sloppy. But holding historical figures to standards of the present or assuming that their ethical stances would be consistent with present mores doesn’t make sense. We can (and, I believe, should) be inspired by the brilliant, principled thought and heroic action of historical figures, even while recognizing that other of their actions were, at least by our contemporary standards, absolutely reprehensible.
It’s moronic to believe that a backward and uniquely racist South exists in contrast to an enlightened North. For that matter, it’s silly to believe that the North of 150 years ago was united against slavery and racism while Southerners all supported “our peculiar institution.” Nobody should be shy or apologetic for where they were born or what their ancestors did. The “sins of the fathers” stuff is not just wrong, it’s repugnant.
I got over my tendencies toward atavism a long time ago but as a general principle I don’t begrudge others their nostalgia. But there has to be some limit to whitewashing the past for the sake of a party. Several dances were held or are about to be held that seem to celebrate a war to preserve slavery and leave the United States. I try to imagine the political reaction if someone held a celebration of the Symbionese Liberation Army or the Black Panthers.
The charge to the Sons of Confederate Veterans given by Lt. General Stephen Dill Lee, CSA, Commander General, United Confederate Veterans, in 1906: “. . . the vindication of the Cause for which we fought. . . the perpetuation of those principles [the Confederate veteran] loved. . . . Remember it is your duty to see that the true history of the South is presented to future generations.”
Here’s some of that true history about the cause they fought for: Nothing big and complex happens for simple reasons. A lot of factors caused the Civil War. The only “States Right” mentioned in South Carolina’s secession, however, was the right to own slaves.
Chris Matthews’ “Hardball” had a segment on the evening of the ball celebrating 150 years since South Carolina’s secession. Thomas Hiter, a representative of Sons of the Confederate Veterans was asked about the “secession ball.” He said “The SCV certainly supports the right of the people of South Carolina to celebrate secession as our ancestors support their right to seceed. Why would I support it? For the very simple reason that we have freedom to assemble in this country. I believe we still have that.”
I believe in the right of people to celebrate all sorts of stupid and hateful things. I also believe in my responsibility to not pretend like they aren’t stupid and hateful.
Mathews asked if it was an appropriate event and Hiter replied “I don’t think it’s an inappropriate event, if that’s your real question. I assume it’s appropriate. I assume it’s properly planned. I assume it’s well done. Had I been invited, I might well have attended. I see no reason not to celebrate things our ancestors did 150 years ago. But, by the same token, not everybody agrees with that or we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”
No reason not to celebrate? Matthews and his other guest oversimplified the issues leading up to the Civil War and their comments were not particularly incisive. And Hiter did let on that “Slavery was the great moral issue of that century” but he denied that war was about slavery. He said “had I found myself alive in those days, I hope—I pray to God that I would have fought, as my ancestors did—for the South.” And, apparently, gladly killed to be on the wrong side of that century’s great moral issue.
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