“Chris” notes that Civil War monuments are much more common in the South than the North.
Throughout much of the South, it is impossible to escape The War.
It may be objected at this point, by those of you who have spent time in cities and especially small towns in Northern states, that there are many Civil War monuments outside of the South as well. This is true: statues of Union soldiers in kepis and greatcoats are not uncommon in the North.
This contrasts starkly, however, with the sorts of monuments one sees in the South, which are much more numerous.
Chris’s observations inspired extensive further discussion at Ordinary Times, including further evidence in support, as well as some speculation about this difference between North and South. Under Chris’s post and elsewhere at OT – in commentary all written, of course, in the wake of the racist-terrorist atrocity in Charleston – proposals not just to “take down” the Confederate flag, but to destroy all Civil War monuments, even on both sides, were offered. No one, however, took up my argument or meta-argument, which I stated as follows:
I am skeptical of the notion that we can successfully and usefully discuss these matters in a forum like this one. We would have to be prepared to give, enforce, and rigorously respect and support a license to say, or be seen to say, or to risk being seen to say, many things that most of us have been taught from an early age to reject presumptively, and for good reasons. If word “got out” that we were having a truly open discussion of “identity” and the meaning of the Civil War and its symbols, we might find ourselves joined by unwelcome voices, and, in time, the kind of clashes and conflicts observable on the site in the last few days might seem but a mild foretaste…
I cannot say I mind remaining mostly unheard on this topic at this time, in such a context, as I do not expect that the license to which I refer would in fact be granted, enforced, respected, and supported, while the matter of those unwanted voices and associations would remain a problem. Perhaps sensing the same danger, or just not wanting to get caught in the fraught and froth, friend of the blog Will Truman also kept his own more reserved or middle-groundish comments on the topic on his own site.
Briefly on the question of the North and its relative lack of interest in the Civil War, we could say that the nation such as it is, in its entirety and also in all of its ceremonies, as in another sense the world in which we live, is itself the not always very well-kept monument to the victory. Purely from the perspective of war and its monuments understood more conventionally, the Union has other wars to commemorate and other sacrifices to honor. What is for the South as such “The War” is only “a war among others” for the Union, if clearly a singularly important one.
In yet another sense, and this one may be very difficult for those more Unionist than the Union to accept, if “Union” is an all-encompassing concept, then the Southern dead were “our” dead, too. They just did not know it, or did not truly become our dead until the Confederate cause was vanquished and, same thing, the cause of Union triumphed.
This mode of thought, a union of union and disunion, will be as it always has been difficult or impossible for anyone to master. It has many facets. Most of them appear in the realm of symbolic truth, which we occupy and which at the same time pre-occupies us for the most part unconsciously. Yet we all or most of us know that the tale of valor moves us even when we have no connection at all to the acts described, and even when they are completely fictional.
I feel I should also note that I have hardly ever been to the South, and that I have no roots in the South except very remotely. I do not offer these observations on behalf of Southerners. I have never felt great personal interest in the Confederate flag – or the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia – or seen great reason to identify with its cause or perhaps the different causes confederated but not united under it. Yet, to be more precise, I have recognized an inner response to it – perhaps as a (so we say) “white” man who has never felt fully included (anywhere), or as someone of a sometimes “rebellious” temperament, or as someone constantly exposed to statements attacking or critical of “whites,” especially “white” “men,” especially “white” “Christian” “men,” in a manner that is not, for all of the very best reasons, allowed for any other group in current conversation. (Is there any other ethnically defined group that can be spoken of as “trash” in polite company?)
To grasp a phenomenon of the type Chris describes requires, I believe, going well beyond the questions of the moment, and to consider the nature of Southern culture beyond the matter of slavery or our retrospective judgments of the “Lost Cause.”
Simple denunciation of the Confederacy serves present political purposes and deeper social-political constitutional purposes of various types. It is by now a commonplace, even among “supporters of the flag,” to “confess” that the Civil War or the Confederacy really was about slavery. Yet to be “about slavery” must also be to be “about mastery.” All of those monuments are, or are also, monuments to valor itself, to “mastery” of self or “dignity.” The classic or ancient underlying moral justification for slavery – or for mastery – is that a man of honor, or a man worthy of respect, would rather die than be a slave or another man’s slave. A man who would accept being a slave, by contrast, deserves to be one, and is a “lesser man,” and it will be in the “natural order of things” for men unworthy of mastery to be mastered by those who refuse to be enslaved.
This view or attitude is or was hardly unique to the American South. To the liberal-democratist modern, or petit-bourgeois citizen, the premise suggests fascism, but merely to denounce something as fascist is not to explain why it deserves to be denounced and why we judge denunciation of it compulsory. Fascism as it developed included a re-emergence of the ancient ethos, or an unlikely or desperate attempt to grasp it again within modern mass society, but in other contexts it remains a revolutionary ethos, one to which we even in the good old bourgeois democracy pay highest tribute, as in “Give me liberty, or give me death!”
The slave mentality, which the fascist or Nietzschean crypto-fascist, but also the revolutionary and the anarchist, will associate with the bourgeoisie and their “lackeys,” if (very much) not with the bourgeois revolutionaries in their heroic moment, is “Whatever it takes, let me hold on to life a little longer.” The latter is a common and instinctive sentiment, but not a “born rebel”‘s sentiment and not a warrior’s sentiment. Furthermore, to state what ought to be obvious but may not be so to a progressive pacifist or a progressive in peacetime, a soldier cannot operate on that basis (though an “office desk killer” or a “keyboard commando” may, at least up to a point). As long as a nation needs or perceives that it needs soldiers – warriors willing to kill and be killed for the sake of a solemnly asserted higher and necessary purpose – then it will need that sentiment or ethos, meaning that nation will need to teach, cultivate, and honor that ethos, and commemorate those who exemplify it.
The disproportionate representation – which at first seems so contradictory – of Southerners in the military of the victorious Union, Confederate battle flag next to Old Glory, up to the present day, tends to suggest that we have made use of the South or Southern culture in this way – as a repository or reserve for our “manly,” military virtues. Very widely recognized political-cultural tendencies distinguishing the South from the rest of the country, in election after election and not only in elections, further support this hypothesis.
It serves all of the very best purposes to describe all of those monuments as monuments to slavery or to an “evil” system or, as is commonly asserted, to “hatred” – but, as belief in slavery is connected to a belief in mastery, the presence of hatred implies a love violated or endangered, or perceived to be violated or endangered. Such love may comprehend love of kith and kin, love of place, and the “greater love” affirmed in John 15:13. These may all be or seem interconnected to the lover.
It may be difficult or unwise to consider or admit too much of the above too openly within the cultural mainstream, at least for anyone with any aspirations to remain within or ever to enter it. Even more dangerous may be to admit, at least until all of the services are over and the internet is focusing on some new topic, and perhaps even then, to state that even the atrocity in Charleston was, for a weak and twisted and very young mind, a gesture of love, or a gesture in honor of a love denied, forbidden, and unrequited. By that dialectical logic of love and hate, attacking the crime as a “hate crime” or a crime of “bigotry” necessarily acknowledges this fact, if quietly.
“Bigotry” as we use the term also implies an unconditional love of one’s own, a love unconditioned by reflection, or without second thoughts. The impulse toward love of one’s own is, as even natural science has come to accept, virtually universal. Though mitigable, the preference for those resembling oneself is said to be biological, or authentically sociobiological. The related impulses seem to take as many different forms as human identity takes different forms, from love of one’s parent or child or sibling or cousin over the stranger, to love of teammates or fellow fans. Human beings do not merely want, but apparently need or are driven to “belong,” and not just because belonging serves immediate practical purposes – helps them get ahead, get better jobs, get by – but because they perceive that it involves them in a form of triumph over death, while connecting them to a life worth living at all, if any life is worth living.
The death on the battlefield, as the words of that greatest of Civil War monuments, a verbal monument, insists, can “consecrate” or “hallow” a ground and its cause. We know that our love for (identification with) child, or parent, or sibling, or community, or nation is more important and more real than our love for a sports team because, as others have sacrificed (“given the last full measure of devotion”) for such love, so would we. For that matter, we readily acknowledge that a victory in sports or other realms of life won at cost of some sacrifice, if not an immediate sacrifice of life, is meaningful in that way, and may not be really meaningful except in that way.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends…” The Civil War monuments and the Confederate flag are, I believe, in some major part (for those who appreciate them perhaps the major part) kept or raised to honor such love and, in so honoring it, to participate in it and to preserve and widen its embrace. The flag in particular is seized upon or has been seized upon by members of a particular ethnically or even racially defined group denied, for all of the best reasons, a particular form of self-expression or expression of pride, and who are instead urged to identify with an established order morally defined by denial of that self-expression, in other words defined by their conceptual annihilation. The result almost suggests a bizarre scientific experiment meant to test the sociobiological theory mentioned above, with the further intention of driving a certain segment of society completely out of its mind, denying it a recourse for meaningful expression of identity except as identification with its proscription.
You can go to any number of web sites – all by definition outside the mainstream – to find those forbidden expressions. I won’t repeat or summarize them here. I do not like them or support them, but I will note that, in my observation, they are rarely or never confronted on their own terms by those who attack them, since by definition such views are not just outside but beneath the level of the mainstream, for all of those same best reasons: They are not discussed nor are they to be discussed. The refusal to discuss them, or to treat them as discussable, is fundamental for us. If they are brought up at all – perhaps on the fringes of popular culture – it will be to witness them being rejected all over again, at every appearance, since that is part of what defines our social and political order morally – this union or Union of “reconciliation and inclusion” defined by the refusal to reconcile with or include one type or group and its symbols.
Perhaps we can do without the martial virtues, if they are or ever were “virtues.” Maybe we will instead find some other place to locate them or some other way to draw upon them. Or maybe they will not re-emerge sooner or later in something like their traditional form – only more so – and demand their due. Maybe suppressing the Confederate Battle Flag and denouncing those who raised it on whatever grounds, or who tattooed it on their arms, or who placed it on their album covers, or who decaled their computers with it, or who sold t-shirts and bikini tops and so on in honor of the once more fashionable rebel, will help persuade a certain type of “Southern Man” to surrender to, and come to identify with, a social and political system defined by its rejection of him.
Image by France1978