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Loving the South

It's a complicated affair. Yankees wouldn't understand.

Ross Douthat wrote a post titled “For the South, Against the Confederacy” that speaks to and for me. He says that the South really is “backwards” by American standards of progress — and that is precisely why so many cultural conservatives (like Ross) esteem it. Excerpt:

Which leads to the temptation, to which many southerners and not a few cultural conservatives have succumbed, to regard the Confederate States of America as the political and historical champion of all these attractive Southern distinctives, the road not taken down which they might have flourished more fully, and to invent narratives in which Robert E. Lee’s soldiers fought and died for God, chivalry, states rights, Mardi Gras and Low Country cuisine and the philosophy and poetry of Allen Tate. Again, the progressive mind understandably finds this temptation bizarre and mysterious, but the conservative mind does not: Even a secession-hating Yankee like myself has felt, at certain moments, the pull of that idea, the lure of that fantasy …

… which is precisely why it’s so important for conservatives to keep their eyes fixed on the actual realities of the Southern cause, in which certain things worth loving were subsumed, leagues-deep, by the explicit, unstinting defense of ideas and practices and institutions that deserved to die a thousand deaths and be buried without honor. Fixing our eyes thus leads to uncomfortable conclusions about conservatism in American history: It requires acknowledging that the most culturally conservative region in our country, the place that most manifests certain of tradition’s virtues, does so against a historical backdrop of cruelty and corruption that modeled nothing except the machinery of hell. But only with that acknowledgment can you get to a place where the virtues of Southern exceptionalism can be appreciated honestly (rather than with constant elisions and omissions); where the case for some forms of “backwardness” can be made with a clean conscience; and where a future true to the fullness of the Southern past can be mapped out.

Read the whole thing. 

From the time I was old enough to realize what slavery and the ideology of white supremacy that sustained it, and that remained after slavery died, I have had a troubled conscience about the South. I found it so difficult to reconcile the place and the culture into which I was born, and which I loved, and do love, with the hideous facts of our history. I have never bought the moonlight-and-magnolias fantasy about the Old South; in fact, it sets my teeth on edge. This lie that so many white Southerners tell themselves to avoid facing the full moral horror of what our ancestors did, and what was perpetuated here well within living memory, is hard to tolerate.

At the same time, the moral preening and hypocrisy of many Northerners is extremely hard to take. Just about every white Southerner who has lived outside of the South for any time has had to deal with it. It’s as if there were nothing to know or to be said about the South except slavery and segregation. Many of us Southerners who agree that the violent, racist legacy of our region is an indelible stain on our history, and who agree that we whites have not fully dealt with that legacy, either in public or in our hearts, can easily get our backs up when some fat-mouthing Yankee scold presumes to lecture us on our wicked, wicked ways, without knowing the first thing about us.

Think of it this way. You’re a Catholic, and you think the Church behaved shamefully in the sex abuse scandal. You also believe that both clerics and lay Catholics have not fully dealt with the implications of that gross moral failure. But when you encounter non-Catholics, the only thing anybody seems to want to know or to say about Catholicism is the scandal. The entire culture of Catholicism, reduced to priests raping children and bishops and laypeople looking the other way. How does that make you feel?

What does it do to you to have the priests who were so kind to you, and the parish where you grew up loved by all, and the Lenten fish fries and feast days, and midnight mass at Christmas, and everything that was good and dear to you about being a Catholic, shat on by know-it-alls who wish to negate all of that by pointing to the horrors of the abuse scandal, and saying, “This is who you really are”?

How does that make you feel? What does that make you want to say?

Or think of it this way. Let’s say you are an African-American, and you know well how screwed up black America is in many ways (e.g., educational achievement, out-of-wedlock births, crime rates). You know the statistics, and maybe you’re even living those statistics in your community, and it grieves you. But then you go on conservative websites (ahem) and the only picture you see of black America is one of chronic dysfunction. You see the breadth of the black experience in America — the courage, the resilience, the music, the art, the spiritual grandeur — seemingly suppressed, pushed to the side. All the people you grew up knowing and loving, both the saints who never make the newspapers, and the sinners who were messed up in all the ways the critics say — all made invisible by these outsiders, who point to the miseries (often self-inflicted) of the ghettoes and say, “This is who you really are.”

How does that make you feel? What does that make you want to say?

In both cases, you would likely feel a strong instinct to defend your own against the ignorant people who put them down. Even though your people may have thought and behaved wrongly in a particular instance, you may try to explain the context in which the sin was committed, and to point out the complexity of the situation — not to excuse it, necessarily, but to shed light on the broken humanity of the phenomenon — the righteous mob will nevertheless insist that you are defending the indefensible. Like here, for instance. In which case you might just dig in, realizing that these outsiders are not going to be satisfied until and unless you hate yourself and your own.

And these critics will say, “See?”

This is where the bad actors in your tribe get you. You know, the ones who really ought to be thinking critically about themselves and your shared history and culture, but who refuse it because they believe that doing so is to collaborate with the enemy. That’s where they too say, “See? We told you so. They hate us. We can’t give in to them. We can’t give them the satisfaction of thinking that they’ve gotten to us.” And if you aren’t careful, that call for solidarity will blind you, and make you yield to groupthink. You believe the lie of your own group’s innocence, and maybe even your personal innocence, because it is necessary to maintain group solidarity and a sense of moral superiority.

This is how cultural conflict turns into trench warfare, and sin — yes, sin — does not get confronted, and repented of. It’s a dead end.

I’ll be honest with you. It chaps my a** to read the smug comments of some of you Northerners, so certain of your rectitude. But it also breaks my heart to read the smug comments of some of you Southerners, so certain that this is only a matter of fighting back the forces of political correctness, because no American could possibly take genuine offense at a symbol second only to a burning cross in standing for white supremacy and racial terror.

I am glad to see the Confederate flag go. Yes, there are about a billion more important things on the racial front than the fate of this flag. The disappearance of the Confederate flag from public places will not educate one more black child in a failing school, or help a single black child growing up without a father in the home, or do a damn thing for black families trapped in their homes after dark because of gun violence. That’s all true. You can re-name a city thoroughfare after Dr. King, but that won’t keep it from being, as it is in too many places, one of the worst streets in town.  Same deal with the flag.

But taking it down is still the right thing to do. There is no getting around the fact that the armies that went to battle under that flag fought for a nation and a political and social order built on enslaving Africans. And there is no getting around the fact that the same flag was resurrected in the 1950s by Klansmen and other white supremacists, and wielded as a symbol of resistance to equality for black Americans.

The Confederate flag is largely invisible to me, in a way that it is not invisible to black Americans. I can, and do, ignore it as an example of badly dated nostalgia, but Dylann Roof made it very, very clear that for some white people, the flag remains a potent expression of racial hatred. He forced many of us whites who aren’t particularly fond of the Confederate flag, but who don’t think about it much, to pay attention to that symbol, and to see it through the eyes of black Americans.

And so did the amazing grace of the people of Mother Emanuel AME church.

Americans who are bound and determined to hate the South are going to do so no matter what. Let them. Who cares? They don’t have the opportunity to live here. More than one non-Southerner who came to this year’s Walker Percy Weekend told me how much they loved being in the South. A priest from out West, peeling crawfish under the live oaks, said to me, “Do you know what you have here?” He meant, count your blessings. It is a blessing to live here, but it is a mixed blessing, and not just because of our stained history. The same courthouse where Walker Percy Weekend attendees heard lectures was also the site of this shameful scene in 1963.  (Read that, my fellow white Southerners, and tell me that you really want to die on the hill of defending the Confederate flag.)

As Douthat avers, it is impossible to separate what makes the South great from what makes it a hot mess. You’ve got to take the whole thing. You can’t have the gorgeous plantation homes without the slave labor that built them and supported them. You can’t have William Faulkner and Walker Percy without also having the White Citizens Councils. You can’t have the blues and gospel music without having the suffering that gave rise to them. Louis Armstrong, one of the greatest artists this nation every produced, was not born into bourgeois comfort in Manhattan, but was a juvenile delinquent and son of a New Orleans whore. Everybody wants to party in New Orleans, but the same culture that makes it carefree also makes it very hard to govern. Don’t like it? Move to Minneapolis. Nobody sings, “Do you know what it means to miss New Haven?”

I’m reminded of a passage Truman Capote penned in 1948, after his first trip to Europe:

In London a young artist said to me, “How wonderful it must be for an American traveling in Europe the first time; you can never be a part of it, so none of the pain is yours, you will never have to endure it — yes, for you there is only the beauty.”

Not understanding what he meant, I resented this; but later, after some months in France and Italy, I saw that he was right: I was not a part of Europe, I never would be. Safe, I could leave when I wanted to, and for me there was only the honeyed, hallowed air of beauty. But it was not so wonderful as the young man had imagined: it was desperate to feel that one could never be a part of moments so moving, that always one would be isolated from this landscape and these people…

I know what Capote meant, and as a Southerner, I see it from the other side, sort of like the London artist. If you live in the South, if you are from the South, and still carry affection for it in your heart, you have to carry the pain as well as the beauty. One does not negate the other. I fear that the Confederate flag removal, which I support, will lead quickly to a push to wholly sanitize our history, to remove our scars wherever they are — statues of Confederate soldiers, street names honoring Confederate heroes — in an effort to remove that pain. This would be a mistake. The pain is part of the beauty. In my town, in front of the courthouse, there is a statue commemorating a Confederate soldier. I think it should stay, because it is part of our history, and because we should carry that with us. But I think there should also be a monument built to the Rev. Joseph Carter, a black pastor who had the courage to go into that courthouse on October 17, 1963, and demand his right to vote as an American citizen. That is part of our history too.

Our history. I never knew Rev. Carter, but he was surely one of the bravest men ever to live in West Feliciana Parish. What he did that day he did for his people, the African Americans, but he also did for all of us, even us whites yet to be born. We would come into a town and a parish far from perfect, but a lot more just than it had been before Rev. Carter braved the racist jeers and taunts from the white mob. If for white people of my generation there is “only the beauty,” it’s because so much of what was hideous and deformed was defeated through acts of courage and witness. It’s still happening; look at what they did the other day at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston.

We Southerners, black and white, are part of this exceptional landscape and these exceptional people. We belong to each other. We have something together that nobody else in America does. It’s ours. If we love it as a shared gift, how can we not love each other, or at least in humility, try? Our backwardness is, in some ways, our glory. But sometimes, we should move forward just a little bit because it’s the right thing to do.

UPDATE: From reader Brooklyn Blue Dog:

I grew up in the North in the 1970s, in an integrated suburb where many of the white people who lived there, like my parents, did so to make a personal statement in support of the civil rights movement, to live their principles. Later, as white flight really took root, the public schools became majority black. The hard progressive core of white families stayed behind.

So, you might imagine, I grew up steeped in stories of the valiant civil rights workers and the evil southerners — to the point that, when I made my first trip to the South, when in college, I was actually a little bit scared about what I was going to find.

And, what I found really surprised me. Namely, that blacks and whites interacted far more, and in a much easier way, in the South than I was used to in the North, where they more or less kept their distance from one another.

These days, my business is primarily conducted in the South, and I am constantly reminded of this fact. Blacks and whites seem to interact more on a daily basis, and in more friendly and familiar ways, in the South than in the North.

Not infrequently, when I am in the North talking about my business in the South, someone here will bring up racism in the South. Always, the implications is a holier-than-thou “they have that there, but we don’t have it here” smugness. For the particular kind of person who wants to whitewash Northern racism so that they can feel morally superior, it is always difficult when I remind them about entrenched Northern racism and the fact that race relations in the South seem to be more natural, at least on a day-to-day basis.

It may be true, as another reader said, that it is the rare Northern liberal who “approves” of Northern racism. Yet there are a lot of Northern liberals who live majority-minority cities like New York who nevertheless live in neighborhoods with barely any blacks, whose children attend practically all-white schools, who socialize in places where hardly any black people ever go, who have no black colleagues at work, and have not a single close black friend.

These same people are completely ignorant of the South, and yet the continue to denigrate its supposedly pervasive racism and hold themselves up as morally superior to Southern whites.



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