The Story of Steve Scalise is the Story of White America

How should we interpret a politician going up and speaking in front of a group? They do it all the time, both to large groups in public and small groups in private. They raise money for their campaigns by selling tickets and plates of often infamously questionable food to supporters, which generally come with a speech attached. Mitt Romney got in some hot water a few years back when one of the servers at such an event recorded what he really thought of the American people. But going on the television or having a fundraiser usually comes at the politician’s initiative. Politicians also make appearances by invitation of others. This often includes private groups.

When a politician accepts one of those invitations it must mean at least one of two things. The politician may seek the group’s support or the group has received the politician’s endorsement. Usually both situations apply to some degree. Groups simply don’t invite speakers antithetical to their own beliefs. It would be perverse, and hazardous to one’s career, for a politician to speak to a group diametrically opposed to his or her ideals as well. The obvious contradiction calls into question just what policies the politician actually prefers, just the same way as catching a vegan tucking into a steak would.

Steve Scalise, presently the third man in the Republican Party’s House leadership, spoke to a conference of white supremacists back in 2002. David Duke, the 1992 GOP candidate for governor of Louisiana, ran the group that organized the event. Had the white Louisianans had it to themselves to decide who won the race, they would have had Duke for a governor. His previous adventures included serving as Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. It beggars belief to imagine that Scalise, himself a Louisiana politician, did not know his name. Likewise Scalise could hardly have missed the message in the name of Duke’s group: European-American Unity and Rights Organization. They made no secret of such things:

The Iowa Cubs, a minor league baseball team, also told the Gambit Weekly that they were concerned about housing their players, which included several African Americans, at that hotel while traveling to Louisiana.

“I’m glad we’re staying away from it,” Pat Listach, then a Cubs coach, said in an interview earlier that month. “I wouldn’t have been comfortable staying there.”

The Duke group drew additional headlines nationally in the weeks before the Louisiana meeting. In mid-May 2002, USA Today reported that the organization was active in South Carolina and had “picketed” there to support the Confederate flag flying on state Capitol grounds.

Scalise pleads incompetence due to having only a single staffer at the time. This seems unlikely when even a baseball team from Iowa, hardly people with their finger on the pulse of Louisiana politics, caught on. If they could read USA Today, so could Scalise. But even if incompetence explains the speech itself, that still leaves us with the problem that between 2002 and now it seems he never revisited events and offered any kind of explanation. Only when caught by outsiders did he come forward and decide that EURO contradicted his deeply-held beliefs. Wouldn’t a person who genuinely felt that way have come forward sooner?

Scalise may simply not have cared one way or the other about the group. He insists that he would speak to anybody who invited him back in the day, whatever their beliefs. That sounds very open-minded of him, at least on the surface. The indifference, however, speaks volumes. If getting in bed with the Klan could get him what he wanted, Scalise would do so. He told us as much. How then does he differ from a rank and file Klansman? The distinction between a willingness to embrace white supremacy for political gain and harboring it in your heart seems rather academic. The votes fall the same way regardless. Scalise chose to go, eyes open, and take the money and court the endorsement of a convention of white supremacists.

We do not do ourselves favors by pretending such distinctions excuse politicians, past or present. Electing a black president didn’t make white supremacy go away. Neither did abolition, letting black athletes play professional sports, or civil rights laws. We tell ourselves stories about how bad things happened long ago and we do better now. They did and sometimes we do. Sometimes we don’t and sometimes we continue. Ulrich Bonnell Phillips declared white supremacy the central theme of Southern history, but he didn’t need the last adjective. White supremacy stands among our most ancient and important values, whether we like to admit it or not. I submit we should stop declaring victory and start doing something about it.

Maybe Scalise can help. He could resign his seat. He could resign his leadership position. He could use this chance to take a real look at himself and resolve to do better. He might even do those on his own, without anyone putting the screws to him quietly behind closed doors. I wouldn’t bet on any of that. One does not get far in politics and then easily quit the business. But he could do it.

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

So could his fellow white Americans. We don’t have a habit of rushing to do that either. Nor do we, despite what we tell ourselves, contain white supremacy in a tidy little box as a retrograde idea. We assume it. We take it for granted and let it guide our behavior. We see pathologies that afflict black Americans and explain them away as innate to blackness rather than imposed upon black Americans by white Americans. Why didn’t the slave work hard? Rascality. Dysaesthesia Aethopica. Why did they run away? Drapetomania. Nothing but madness could explain their behavior. Certainly nothing whites did could.

Why don’t black Americans today do as well as white Americans? Certainly we whites can’t share any of the blame. We could never have rigged the entire system to take from them the success they could manage just as well as we can and pocket it ourselves. Who would do that, except a bunch of white supremacists?

How about a bunch of white supremacists who pretend otherwise? Henry VIII, he of many divorces, annulments, and beheaded wives, confiscated England’s monasteries and promptly sold most of their lands off to wealthy men. This created a party eager to defend his religious settlement, as an England reconciled to Rome might have to restore that property to its previous owners. They bought in, literally.

Across the ocean, we do things the same way. The white hands that type these posts did not personally take anything from anybody, but received stolen goods all the same. White supremacy requires bad actors. It requires violence. It cannot thrive without one or the other. But it also requires people to buy in. Few of us want to do that in as many words, but we do it often enough all the same. It doesn’t require all of us to proceed with conscious malice; we have built a far more subtle machine than that. It lives on in the things we take for granted. Black people don’t do as well as whites. Things just work out that way. Black people have to fear the police in a way whites do not. So it goes. These things just all happen, or so we tell ourselves. That doing so requires us to assume black people simply deserve bad things in a way whites do not doesn’t come to mind, or at the very least that we have no power to do anything about it even when we have so much power to accomplish other things. We assume white supremacy, carefully hiding it from ourselves even as we do.

That concealment has shaped the politics of the decades since open racial hatred went out of fashion. Lee Atwater said it best in describing Republican strategy back in the 1980s, when the party adopted the banner of white power that the Democrats had reluctantly abandoned:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

As a byproduct, blacks get hurt worse than whites. Things just happen; no reason. People behave randomly, without thought. We’ve abstracted away the motives, removed reality from the equation, and made it easier to buy in. We have carefully colorblinded ourselves and so proclaim that we have white supremacy problem.

That’s mighty white of us.

I would like to resign my whiteness. I did not create it; I did not run for the office of white man. But people give it to me and I don’t know that I can stop it on my own. The privileges transferred out of black lives and into mine move through other minds that I cannot control. Personally rejecting the benefits of whiteness will not stop me from enjoying them because they come in how others treat me better and still others worse. It took a society to create whiteness. It will take another to uncreate it.

We have that power. Griping of the more embittered and consciously malicious of us aside, we still control the levers of power, both political and social. We may have to share sometimes, but I don’t see our black neighbors waging a desperate battle to stop us. It would take more than a day. It would take a fight. We cannot, contra Paine, create the world anew. But no law of nature demands we continue as we have, unchanged and unchanging. We could do better every day and every year and, for once in our history, not leave the job unfinished.

That would not be very white of us; that would be resigning our whiteness in favor of human decency.

On Torture

Gentle Readers, yesterday I had a particularly horrific nightmare. I can still see parts of it. It woke me up and I needed to lay in bed reading for a few hours before I could get back to sleep. The dream involved torture, but I will spare you the details. Only my night’s sleep suffered for them.

I woke up to the nightmare come true, at least in the broad strokes. My sleeping mind did not conjure up anal rape as a means of extracting information. Now I know that people employed by my government had more fertile imaginations than my own. I expected bad, and when you spend enough time around the kind of primary sources I do, your ability to imagine horrors increases. The CIA, and it’s civilian contractors who earned $80 million for their trouble, proved still more capable. We know this after the CIA got through redacting the report and destroying at least some of the evidence. Unlike the events of my dream, these things happened. Real people, at least thirty-nine of them, suffered through it. At least one person died under the agency’s tender ministrations.

I have given some thought, both in reference to the nation’s latest adventures in torture and the prosecution of slavery, to just what torture really does. It can force compliance, just as a gun to the head does. While advocates point to this as the reason to do it, they miss the point. If you want information that you suspect someone has, then it must matter to you that you get accurate information from the person. Lies are worse than no information at all because they will lead at best to no progress and more likely to wasted effort chasing down phantoms.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Slaveholders had the same problem. They, unlike the CIA, could count the bales of cotton to see how effectively they tortured. While they clearly got results, if at horrific cost, the planters had an additional problem. Would their human property really make a good faith effort at doing their best? They knew very well that no such thing would happen. They thus convinced themselves of the natural laziness and duplicitous nature that came with dark skin. All of that tool breaking, slow work, and the like just could not be helped. Samuel Cartwright even invented a pair of mental illnesses to explain slave resistance. You needed torture to get anything out of them.

It also proved handy in discovering slave revolt conspiracies that may or may not have existed, which in turn produced more torture when slaves confessed, which then also fed on itself much as the panic over Nat Turner’s real revolt led to the deaths of far more people than his brief uprising did.

The real difficulty for slaveholders came in the fact, known intimately but rarely acknowledged, that slaves do not care for slavery. Likewise the tortured do not care for torture, let alone for their torturers. Why would they tell the truth and nothing but the truth to such people? The victim and torturer don’t become friends. They don’t go out for drinks afterwards. What torture produces then will, in the main, constitute falsehoods. This has often been the chief purpose. A confession both justifies what the torturer did and provides new victims.

I thus conclude that torture, as a practical matter, has little to do with anything extracted from the victims save for their agonies. The torturer may begin with the idea that his methods work toward a goal, but the brute facts will soon prove otherwise. The Inquisitor, witch hunter, planter, overseer, and all the rest reap their real harvest in screams. People do it because they want to. Through the control of another person they feel empowered. They free themselves from the ordinary constraints of life. They take revenge on whomever they declare a miscreant. They set an example to keep others in line.

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

All of us have wanted those things at one time or another, even if we would not torture to get them. If only this person did not stand in the way of our ambitions, if only we could set aside our normal standards of behavior just this once, then wouldn’t it all work out better? You break a few eggs, but that’s just how it goes. If you don’t get what you want, it becomes easier to continue all the same. You still get the pleasure of power, just not quite as imagined. And why not continue? You’ve already done it, so you’re comfortable enough. I have no doubt that most, probably all, of the torturers, then and now, slept well every night.

Why not? We ultimately torture for fun and because we can. If we break a few bodies and destroy a few lives, or a few million, along the way, when has that ever stopped us?

We should prosecute the guilty, or hand them over to a competent international tribunal to do the same, but I expect they’ll die at home in their own beds. Few countries do a good job of policing the misconduct of those on the national payroll, least of all those involved in the broad umbrella of “national defense”. We have, at almost every turn, done as little as we possibly could in the service of human rights. If we get very lucky, we might punish a few people very low down on the totem pole.

We could do better; we might even do right. No laws of physics prevent it. Many people who had to know what went on, as well as those who themselves participated, likely still draw paychecks from the Treasury Department. They have not vanished into the ether. But far more likely we will let them all go and find some feeble pretense to declare ourselves absolved of all they did in our name, if we do not simply decide that they did right to start with.

I know from overhearing the television news that some of us have already decided in favor of the last course. Doing that, and repeating all of this again, remains an option for a future administration:

President Obama signed Executive Order 13491 in January 2009 to prohibit the CIA from holding detainees other than on a “short-term, transitory basis” and to limit interrogation techniques to those included in the Army Field Manual. However, these limitations are not part of U.S. law and could be overturned by a future president with the stroke of a pen.

The committee recommends giving that executive order the force of law through proper legislation. I anticipate the introduction of a well-intentioned bill that goes nowhere.

Juneteenth Comes Again

I forgot Juneteenth again this year. Again, Andy Hall reminded me. This is a small reworking of what I wrote last year on the subject.

What’s Juneteenth? Today in 1865, the Union general who had just taken charge of Galveston and assumed the military governorship of Texas, issued an order that “in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” This surprised no one, since the arrival of the Union army had meant freedom in fact since fairly early on the war and in law since the Emancipation Proclamation. But it mattered in that as of that date not a single slave remained in the United States.

If national holidays express something about national values, or at least what the nation wants its values to seem like, why have we not made Juneteenth one of them? I always hear about how the United States is a free country. Americans love their freedom. Doesn’t the literal end of slavery in America count as freedom?

I never heard of the holiday until the internet told me about it a few years back. One would think that a nation so obsessed with freedom would treat it, or maybe the day of the Emancipation Proclamation, as a second Fourth of July. I’m not a patriotic person; most of the flag waving celebrations leave me cold. But even I know when it’s the Fourth. My state recognizes Juneteenth, as do forty-one others, but we can probably all see how much that has done to raise its profile.

I suppose it gets ignored for the same reason we ignore Emancipation Day. To make a national fuss over it would require us to grapple with slavery and own up to freedom as a kind of national project, not a crystallized perfection handed down from men in powdered wigs.

The Missing Post from Friday

Gentle Readers, I screwed up.

There should have been a post Friday. I wrote it Thursday afternoon, scheduled it, and then noticed almost immediately that it posted at once instead of Friday. So I deleted the public post and rescheduled it. Not a big deal. It was up for maybe five minutes.

You might have noticed there was no Friday post, which I found out about half an hour ago. I seem to have completely lost the thing. I’ve reached out to a few friends who I think get the posts via email and should have it. If so, it’ll go up as soon as I have a copy. If not, I’ll see what I can do to reconstruct it for tomorrow.

We are not history’s heroes

George Washington as a Greek God

George Washington, ordinary person

Thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates for inspiring this post.

I write about horrible things here, mostly revolving around slavery. I read about many others. A friend has told me that he doesn’t understand how I can take this stuff and not collapse into despair or give up the whole project in disgust. I suppose it’s a morbid hobby, but the structures and nuances of historical horrors fascinate me. They naturally magnify the normal inclinations of ordinary people to such a degree that you can really get into their heads and see how they saw the world and how each step naturally led to the next. My interests generally incline toward people we would call villains too; I’ve read more about slavery’s defenders than I have about its foes.

But dividing history up into heroes and villains has its problems. We can forget that people back then, like people now, did not see themselves as evil. They didn’t even see themselves as necessarily complicit in the misdeeds of others. The past, like the present, overflows with ordinary people doing and believing ordinary things given their time and situation. I write all of this because when we imagine ourselves, most of us probably don’t imagine an ordinary person. We may know on some level that even those of us who buck various trends in some ways still have that core of ordinariness within us.

Then we go and try to imagine ourselves in the past. Naturally we want to avoid the sorts that we loathe. After Kennedy caught a bullet in Dallas, people who voted for Nixon back in 1960 evaporated despite the close election. Who would admit to that? Likewise few people eagerly leaped up to confess their part in Nixon’s landslide victory in 1972 after Watergate and the resignation. Those events remain in living memory, though I’ve noted over my own lifetime how Kennedy’s halo has dulled. Time and distance help with objectivity.

But the Kennedy assassination kindly sits at a single point in time. It happened and finished fairly neatly, conspiracy theorists aside, long ago and ultimately cost only two lives. While nobody rushes to cast themselves as the next Lee Harvey Oswald or Jack Ruby, nor do we exert much effort casting ourselves as their opposites. When the subject shifts to slavery, suddenly everybody sees himself or herself as Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, or even Nat Turner. Make slaves of us and we will rise up. Slavery in our country? Not on our watch! I’ve done it myself.

The vast majority of us, of course, would do just the opposite. If you grow up in that world, then you grow up with its injustices. You breathe them in the air. You hear all of power’s customary justifications for itself. Ordinary people do not, by and large, rise up and stand against the tide of their culture. We may not love it. We may find small ways to preserve our pride and dignity if we find ourselves slaves. But taking up a revolutionary course means taking on risk. We could imperil our property, our prospects for employment, our safety, even our lives. We could do the same with the lives of our loved ones.

In 1860, most of the white people among us would not care much about slavery unless we lived in the South. Those of us there would generally prefer it. Most who did dislike slavery would mostly care about how it threatened our fortunes than about how it impacted the slaves. And most slaves would not run away. It risked too much. You could get killed. You could end up sold away from your family and home. In a world with the roles reversed, most of the white people among us would pick the cotton. That makes us neither heroes nor villains. Rather our lives and actions come not from some mysterious black box but largely out of the societies and events that shape us.

I don’t know how to tell what role the Freedmen’s Patrol of 1854 who have been any more than I can tell what it would be in 2054. I can make guesses based on my personal background. I can point to what I see as the great moral issues of the day and declare myself of the party of angels. But so can the other people who live on the other side. The experiences and circumstances that shaped us this way might have shaped us another way in the past or been replaced by other experiences and circumstances that did much the same. We can call ourselves latter-day abolitionists, or Lincoln men. We could do the same the other way, but that’s harder and doesn’t let us trumpet the easy virtue of siding with the victorious past instead of the uncertain present or unknown future.

I don’t know how to fix that. We all want to think well of ourselves. It hampers our understanding of the past, reducing real lives to cheap morality plays and so robbing it of the ability to teach us what it can about how people convince themselves to embrace cruel injustices. Without that lesson, we find it much easier to do so ourselves. I try to imagine the ways in which future generations will condemn me for things I do every day and I think that helps…but then I would say so. By thinking of ways that I could do better, I also think of ways that I am, in some fractional way, better for thinking of ways I can improve than I otherwise would be. Step right up! Look at all the virtue I display right here, so much better and more exalted than mere lesser bloggers with their heads stuck up their navels only to halfway. FP goes for the whole skull!

Just like everyone else does.  I don’t know if this post has a real message to it or not, but the whole backwards self-congratulatory self-flagellation sometimes helps me keep an eye on my biases when discussing historical actors. This, of course, makes me better in my own mind at understanding them. Or it elaborately disguises and smuggles those biases right back into the world, but lets me absolve myself from them. I really don’t know. I try for the former, but we all excel at fooling ourselves. We know just what we want to hear. Ordinary people, after all, hardly deserve marble statues.

Competing Cultures and Competing Futures

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Sam Houston (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) and John Bell (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) had their say. So did Stephen Douglas (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) and Salmon P. Chase (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). The Senate voted in the early morning of Saturday, March 4, after listening to Douglas’ final five and a half hour speech. Houston and Bell joined Chase, Seward, Sumner, and a divided North against a virtually unified South that carried the bill 37-14. I’ve touched on why the bill evoked such passions before, but it warrants a bit more unpacking.

In a functioning political system, people divide themselves and vote based on different value structures and priorities. Over time these tend to cohere into ideologies. To some degree certain values entail, or at least combine naturally with, other values. Others do not naturally match, but as one grows accustomed to sharing a side the combination appears more natural through habit. As social animals, we must accept that this will happen. The longer differences endure and the more hard-fought they become, the stronger partisan identity becomes.

Americans had lived together in a nation half free and half slave for decades. Even back in the colonial era, the colonies that practiced slavery on a larger scale developed differently from those which did not. The line dividing them came largely as a result of historical accidents. Englishmen who came to the Chesapeake more often arrived with dreams of getting rich quick and sailing for home than did Englishmen who settled New England. The latter wanted to go away from England and stay away from England so they could achieve a high degree of religious freedom for their religions and hitherto undreamed degrees of religious persecution for everyone else. Those generalizations don’t tell us everything, but they did impact the development of the colonies and up into the revolutionary era, the colonies remained substantially separated from one another so cultural cross-pollination took place on only a limited scale. Most had stronger ties with the mother country than with other parts of British North America.

New England, as every American child learns in history class, did not have great land suited to intensive cultivation. Nor did its climate suite the big cash crops of the colonial era, most famously tobacco. The geography and climate dictated smaller-scale farming for subsistence. While the Puritans would not have minded striking it rich in the slightest, they came over to found communities of like-minded men and women. To some degree, that naturally inclined them to form towns with fields around. It would be hard to police the religious conformity of a widely scattered populace, after all.

Down South, something very different went on. While they did have towns, from Jamestown onward, early Virginia in particular suffered from every man thinking himself a natural lord and none a natural subordinate. They had better land and better climate for cash crops, but ran short of people on the ground willing to work it for them. Even the most motivated single person or small family can only work so much farmland before hitting the limits of their energy and ability. They had all this land and not enough people. To solve the problem, they imported their fellow English subjects as indentured servants. While economic bad times ruled back in England, plenty signed on. When the economy turned around, indentures sounded like a terrible idea and fewer people took the bait. Into the gap, the Chesapeake brought stolen Africans.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

One could call the rest history and stop there, but it went deeper than that. In New England, decisions often happened at the town meeting. Most everyone of the right religion and sex had a vote and thus the community decided, invested in that decision, and saw it enacted. A natural idea of themselves as a body politic, a commonwealth or res publica (from which we get republic) developed. This did not happen to the same degree down on the Chesapeake tidewater. There, town did not run into town, but rather plantation into plantation. Virginians even called their towns “plantations”.

A plantation did amount to a small community when it got big enough, but a decidedly private one. The planter owned the land and if you lived there, you worked for him. Maybe you rented some of his land to work. Maybe you lived adjacent on a much smaller plot and relied on the local planter to help you market your crop, with an eye towards maybe marrying one of his daughters and moving up in the world. If the roads washed out in a storm or a bridge needed repair, getting it fixed often meant not petitioning the distant government but rather going to the local government equivalent: the planter. Convince him that the problem needed fixing and he would open up his deep pockets and make it so.

That colonial pattern did not hold in all places or at all times, and certainly did not spread unmodified into the west, but it laid down deep cultural roots that successive waves of white Americans carried with them when they moved west. On that, both sections agreed. If one did not like one’s situation back east, one should save up, most west, and set up a farm. They differed on whether that meant moving west to become, or become a client of, a local planter or if it meant setting out to become the first members of something like a new town meeting, but in either case one went west for one’s future. After all, the land back east already had white owners. It also had the kind of social stratification which, in theory, the west would not have as nobody had lived there long enough to entrench their wealth and privilege.

William H. Seward in 1851

William H. Seward (Whig-NY)

Why not go west? A white, male nineteenth century American could have a big house, or just a prosperous farm in his future. There he would have no master save himself and make his own fate. Even if he did not strike it big, he could still strike it better than he could in the east where the old American dream became less attainable by the year.

The sections agreed on going west, but not on what west to go to. Would it be a private west of plantations and planters, with life centered around big houses and their social and economic clients or would it be a west of little commonwealths centered on towns? The nation settled things in 1820 by splitting the west in two, but Texasthe Mexican War, David Wilmot, California, and Stephen Douglas reopened the issue. By 1854 the sections had contended for their share of the American west for six years. It highlighted their differences and animated white America’s passions far more than it had in the past. Each section had the American Way. Why couldn’t the other section see that and adopt it? Or accept its equal share of the American future? Why couldn’t the other section play by the agreed upon rules?

The sections had very different views of America which probably no one could reconcile. The only solution that lasted any length of time required not speaking of those differences. By the middle 1850s, nobody could stay silent any longer. How did one make peace between the Atchisons, Calhouns, Chases, and Sewards of the nation? They wanted opposite things. Someone had to win and someone had to lose.

Where to fly that flag?

Where and when?

Where and when?

I’ve written about the Confederate Battle Flag before but I don’t think I’ve written about when and where one ought to fly it. Brooks Simpson asked that, at least implicitly, in the post I wrote in response to yesterday. That comes to mind especially as I’ve followed the comic saga of the Virginia Flaggers, a group devoted to the strange position that Virginia wants to suppress and deny its Confederate history. One would think people who lived in Virginia knew better. After various defeats, they leased some private land by a freeway south of Richmond where they now fly their flag. Many of the bloggers I’ve read on the subject could not contain their awe at the flagger’s triumph. You can read all about it here. Andy Hall even gave them an apology. He, like probably everybody commenting, assumed they might be effective. I know that I did. Shows us, right?

But yahoos aside, where should one display that flag? To my knowledge, Germany does fairly well at answering the same question of its own troubled banner with “nowhere.” I don’t know all the details, but apparently any kind of Nazi emblem or memorabilia can only be displayed in proper historical context per German law. I don’t endorse importing that law and fining or arresting people for waiving Confederate flags, but the idea behind it seems like a good one for any historical symbols. They ought to go up and remain up where they aid in modern understanding of events, where they existed at the time, and so forth. If a battlefield marks Confederate positions with flags, or they fly from memorials to Confederate units, provided those are the correct flags for the era, that sounds fine to me. Flying it over historical buildings preserved as museums of the time also fits.

Flying the flag over current government buildings involves different issues, as the flag largely departed those buildings in 1865 or earlier. It came back to fight against Civil Rights and Jim Crow’s diehard supporters made that very clear. Continued display in that vein does tell a story about the past and the present, but in a very different way. That flag declares for White Supremacy and proclaims it the policy of the government. That it remains gives the impression to a fair observer that the policy commitment also endures. Sometimes, if not as often as it used to, it really does endure. I’d like to see the lot of those taken down. Put the originals under glass and display them in a museum about the Civil Rights Movement or American racism. They belong there. They do not belong flying over buildings in any government committed to serving all its people, regardless of the color of their skin. Nor do they belong flying ominously outside historically black churches.

I did not pull that example from thin air. One of the Virginia Flaggers went to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s church to show his flag. Over at CW Memory, Kevin Levin has the picture. When you bring the slavery and Jim Crow banner to display outside a church at the center of the Civil Rights Movement, it makes a statement about Southern heritage that viewers have little trouble understanding. It doesn’t quite reach the level of brandishing James Earl Ray’s gun, which would be hard to get, or wearing his face inside a heart on a t-shirt, but the content differs little. Would a white hood have been too on the nose?

Outside proper historical contexts, I have trouble seeing why one would even want to fly that flag unless they understand themselves as carrying on the politics that brought Confederate flags out of the attics in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Heritage? I would think that includes more than four years of war 150 years ago even if one’s idea of national heritage only includes the former major slave states…a problematic situation in itself.

Should We Honor Confederate Soldiers?

The Confederate Memorial Monument at the Alabama Capitol. Jefferson Davis laid its cornerstone.

The Confederate Memorial Monument at the Alabama Capitol. Jefferson Davis laid its cornerstone.

Gentle Readers, I need a short break from the Congressional Globe transcripts and have meant to write about this since last week. So here goes.

I take my title from Brooks Simpson’s post asking the same question. I don’t think we should, but the question warrants some unpacking. Not honoring Confederate soldiers does not also entail that we should go around smashing up their headstones, installing sewers that empty into their graves, dig them up and throw their remains in the garbage, bulldoze their battlefield memorials, or anything like that. It does not require that we endlessly castigate them. It certainly doesn’t require that we adopt a hostile attitude toward their descendants, who no more chose their ancestors than the rest of us did.

I say that we should not honor these men because the word implies something more than recognition or understanding. It carries with it a kind of endorsement. Honoring someone entails celebrating them and their deeds, paying tribute. Only the great war of rebellion to defend and preserve slavery brings all of those men, and probably some women, together. Whatever their individual motives, whatever sacrifices they endured, however that war traumatized them, they signed on to armies pledged to the cause of slavery. I don’t know how, short of some very selective attention, one separates them from their ultimate cause.

But even if we can, should we? I know that some people have a very strong emotional commitment to the idea of the military as a noble profession, perhaps the noblest. They would probably argue that these men demonstrated great bravery and endured great sacrifices and that warrants our respect. I don’t agree because you can say that about every soldier who goes off to war, whether the soldier joined on to steal Cuba, to break away from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, or to purge Europe of Jews, Communists, Roma, Homosexuals, and other allegedly inferior people. From that one could pivot to saying that the soldiers fought for what they believed in. Probably they did, but what did they believe in, precisely? I can think of a great many ideals, some of which I just listed, that don’t deserve celebration, let alone fighting and killing for.

All of this talking around the fact, however heartfelt, does something that I would think most people insistent on honoring Confederate soldiers would find very problematic indeed. It sidesteps the question of what they did fight for and ignores what individual motives may have impelled them to take up arms. Does one really honor a person by reducing them to a blank icon for veneration? Perhaps so, but it seems very strange to me. They did not make people out of marble in the past, but of flesh and blood just like they do now. I confess that my personal inclinations run very much the opposite direction, but my intense antipathy for the Confederacy’s cause does not demand that I turn every man in gray into a bloodthirsty devil or every Union man into a moral titan.

Ultimately I don’t think that any of the dead deserve honoring. We owe the dead nothing; they’ve had all that they could ever be given and have no use for more. But we owe ourselves the truth about the dead, their times, their virtues and faults. They, like us, had their share of great humanitarians and great villains. Like us, the great and good among them could have horrifying personal failings and the scorned and infamous could have surprising moments of humanity. Their times produced our own, but are not our own. They did not simply rehearse our struggles, but had their own. We should imagine them complexly.

I suppose all of this amounts to saying that we would do better to understand the dead than to honor them. In turn that deeper understanding of the past can deepen our understanding of the present and the long, difficult road from there to here.


Fair warning: this post has little to nothing to do with the Civil War, slavery, or any of that. That content will be back come Monday or, if I get inspired in the heat of the moment, sooner.

One of the first adult books I recall buying was a historical atlas. Back in the day, I asked for a globe for Christmas. That was around 1989, so it stopped matching the actual world rather quickly. I asked for another one.  I once bought a world almanac* and went to the country section, made a list of countries I did not know on sight, and looked them all up on a large world map. When I inherited a collection of National Geographic many years ago, I went through and extracted all the maps. A few years ago I got the DVD collection and started randomly paging through. Way back in the 1890s I found a map of the western United States marking things I did not recognize so I started reading the article accompanying it. Penetrating the rather academic nineteenth century prose took a bit, but I eventually realized that the Geographic, as it liked to call itself in those days, had given me a map of the state of land survey in the West.

I smiled and clapped my hands like a little boy (yes, really) because that map told me so much about late nineteenth century America. If the land was not surveyed, it wasn’t generally for sale and certainly was not heavily settled by white people. Across it I found places marked “little known.” Those tiny, and not so tiny, bits of terra incognita existed even in a nation on the verge of declaring its frontier closed. Even knowing how big a country I live in, and how much harder a time one had getting around it in the era before freeways and airplanes, that still amazes me a bit.

So yeah, I love maps. I really love historical maps. Hank Green brought that to mind today:

But I had another fun encounter with historical mapping. Yesterday I went out and picked up the September issue of National Geographic. I’ve somehow never gotten around to subscribing, but I pick up a few each year. I got this one because it promised a poster of the world without any permanent ice, a prospect both horrifying and fascinating. I’ve seen such maps before online, but I really wanted to have a great big one I could put up on my wall. I got home and immediately pulled out the map insert. I opened it and found…very little in the way of blue seas. Instead I had a mostly white world map. Furthermore, the map did not seem up to National Geographic’s modern standards. It was very plain and cramped. I almost put it up, but happened on the legend hiding in the South Pacific. There the map called itself:

The World prepared especially for The National Geographic Magazine, Gilbert Grosvenor, Editor, showing the political divisions, including those established after the World War.

It’s a reprint, because this is National Geographic’s 125th anniversary year. This one dates to 1922 and comes dripping with details about the world the year my grandfather turned eight. Trunk line railroads share space with airplane routes of three kinds (in operation, authorized but not yet in operation, and flown but not yet commercially adopted) and the average limit of icebergs and pack ice.

But overall, the map is about political borders for a very interesting era indeed. The World War has just ended. The great European land empires have gone, torn apart by their indigenous nationalist movements and the victorious Entente, but the European and American overseas empires still stand. In the South Pacific, the Japanese have a League of Nations mandate over the islands they took from the Germans. Their orange color also spreads over Korea, labeled Choson (Korea), An inch or two further over, China is much smaller. Partitioned out from it are Mongolia, which was an imperial possession until not long before, Inner Mongolia (Outer Mongolia is the one we have on our maps.), Tibet, and Sinkiang.

Did most Westerners in 1922 really understand those as separate places from China? I know they generally lived under Imperial remit in a kind of quasi-feudal situation before the Chinese Civil War really kicked into high gear, and that the British had launched independent diplomatic missions into Tibet in the nineteenth century, but I didn’t realize it that they saw it as a separate nation so early on. I thought that came later, in the 1930s or 1940s.

Africa, of course, wears European colors. Only Ethiopia and Liberia can claim native rule, and Liberia’s claim is a bit shaky. American rubber interests really ran the nation.

Over in Europe I find the more familiar time capsule, a map that matches quite closely the one any student of the Second World War knows with its Polish Corridor, but the border of Poland stretches up oddly as territory that Poland seized from Lithuania a few years earlier hasn’t yet been incorporated. Down in Greece, the map captures a brief moment in time: The Entente gave the Greeks large parcels of land on what we would call the Turkish coast. The Turks did not stand for that or other concessions forced on the Ottoman Empire, tossed the Sultan out, and waged a successful war to reverse most of them, leaving Turkey with its modern boundaries. By the end of 1922, they had won that war. The treaty to end it would come in the middle of 1923. A year later, or two years prior, this map would be entirely different.

Maybe you require a little bit of cartographic obsession to appreciate it, but there’s an amazing amount of data in this map. It’s still our world, with all the continents in the right places and almost all of the nations familiar to Americans, but at the same time so profoundly alien despite less than a century between then and now.

*If I have any younger readers, you might not know about these books. I think they still get printed, but the internet ate up a lot of their usefulness. Imagine a giant book full of statistics and facts about science, geography, and so forth updated yearly. Most also had color inserts with maps of the world, broken down by continent, national flags, and things like that.