So the post-AME church shooting aftermath continues on relentlessly. I wonder if Dylan Roof would have committed his atrocities, should he have had any inkling of what would have followed in its wake. If there's one awesome thing to be taken in from this tragedy, it's the outpouring of support for those affected and a revival of virulent hatred for any hint of racism. Which is laudable.
Some interesting side effects of this have occurred, however, which gives me pause.
Let me preface this by saying I don't come from an area that had any dog in the fight in the Civil War, which started some time in the 1800s and is still raging in one form or another in the United States. It probably will continue to do so throughout my lifetime. I could just pull myself completely out of this fight and say "cool story, bro" and watch Foghorn Leghorn and Peter Griffin continue to bash each other over the head with brickbats.
When I moved to Georgia from the messenger bag and organic gourmet coffee of the awesome weirdness that is the West Coast, some people in my entourage wondered why in hell anyone would move away from the ocean, from good sushi, and the kind of laid back, "you have a headache? No worries, you can take weed for that" environment I was choosing to leave.
My intro to the Dirty South was a quaint, dated retro show about two ex-moonshiner good ol' boys with an orange 1969 Dodge Charger, prone to jumping it over rivers and whatnot. Guitars were plucked, welded-shut doors were entered through the windows, and Boss Hogg never won the day because of them Duke Boys. I have to admit within a short while of coming here I ditched the gas-is-$4-a-gallon-better-get-an-eco-friendly-tiny-car for the closest thing to a 70s muscle car Detroit still makes, and I do like to open it up within legal reason on a back road with Skynyrd blasting out of the speakers. I still eat sushi, but I've discovered red velvet cake, barbecue, deep fried pickles and that "bless your heart" is old-lady Southern English for "go fuck yourself".
Sure, I saw Roots, and Django Unchained, and the news is disturbingly full of casual reminders that cops still gun down people of color with impunity. I've been in parts of Atlanta where I can clearly see a divide, and a deep and bitter one. I'm not stupid in that regard.
But the tragedy has reignited some serious, serious angst over in the next state over, South Carolina. To people in my new adopted home Georgia, SC is kind of like Mississippi, a state we point to and say "hey, that negative stereotype of the South? It's over there, not over here." Seems to me South Carolina likes nothing better than to adopt a very unpopular position, just because, and run rebelliously with it to the bitter end. At first glance, South Carolina is deliberately acting like a prick - it didn't half-mast the Confederate flag that flies, not on the grounds, but close enough to the grounds of the Capitol that it irritates people by its presence, even as the body of one of the victims of the AME shooting in Charleston lay in state in the Capitol building.
And it reignited calls to get rid of the damn thing for good, as people have been demanding for decades.
And to be honest, the Confederate flag is Central Casting 101 if you want a cookie cutter villain in a TV show or movie. Put one in the background of two white guys saying they goan go after (some black hero character) or on the side of a pickup and hey presto, you need no backstory to have a racist villain.
But intriguingly, it was also on the roof of the 69 Charger the Duke boys rolled around Hazzard County in. They called the car the General Lee, to boot. But I don't recall, unless they pulled it in the same general purge which got rid of the violence in Warner Brothers cartoons, of that "lost episode" in which Roscoe P. Coltrane and Boss Hogg realize that the Duke Boys they bin lookin fer were also at the same crossburning Klan rally, only those robes hid their identities so well. They did reference this in the movie based on the show however, in which the two boys (played by Johnny Knoxville and Stiffler) drive through Atlanta and get heckled by the more cosmopolitan residents of that great city because of the flag on the top of their car.
At first, to me, it's a fucking no-brainer. You'd be an idiot to deny that slavery had anything to do with the Civil War, that the Southern side fought it to preserve that institution, and that the flag hasn'e since been used by the Klan and other racists as a calling card. It's truly chilling to go to the Martin Luther King museum and watch historical footage of people casually denigrating "niggers" on live news footage, and waving that flag screaming "SEGREGATION FOREVER" while setting dogs on black protestors.
I say at first.
It then occurred to me that South Carolina was in a bit of a bind. It had planted its foot firmly in the ground repeatedly asserting that the presence of that flag near the Capitol, regardless of any other connotations, was in no way a celebration of racism, slavery or white power. For them to remove it, or even half-mast it because protestors demand it taken down out of respect for the fact that the shooter was a white power asshole and wore that flag - would be to suggest that yes, it was about white power all along, and the protestors are right.
I may have missed a few meetings, or not been invited to them because of my own heritage, and I've heard some politically incorrect nonsense down here but I've never heard anyone seriously argue for white power, or for the return of slavery. In fact, the only reference to it I've seen was a T-shirt that said "Bring back slavery" on the front and had a line drawing of a black man cracking a whip over two white men. I have seen a lot of people use it for regional pride, or for states' rights, and shake their head sadly when you suggest that what they really mean is slavery.
Southerners do have a tendency to say what they mean, and mean what they say. There's something refreshing about being around relatively unrefined people who will tell you to your face to go fuck yourself. I can see why they bristle at the suggestiion they "really mean" something other than what they say. The contentious flag is all over the South, it flies over Civil War graveyards, to honor those who fought in the war for nothing other than having fought and having died.
At the end of a brutally crippling war, the Union side did not hang General Lee for treason. Nor did they insist that the war dead be buried in unmarked graves in dishonor or under Union or US colors, but with the uniforms in which they died. The Confederate flags that dot the graveyards were there pretty much with the blessing of the winning side.
It sounds odd to modern ears, but prior to the Civil War there was significant tension between strong federalists and people who wanted the states to have their own fundamental rights. Even before the Civil War secession was discussed - how it would happen and whether it was legal. Many believed that states, having signed into a union, were within their rights to leave it. It wasn't as if the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were some kind of permanently binding holy writ, they were documents of principle, and included these words:
"That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."
The likes of Bill Maher go on about how the Confederates were traitors, but an argument could be made (if you absent slavery from the mix) that they were operating truer to the original intent of the Constitution, and that the strong federalist Lincoln's side had lost its way.
In fact, if you take the whole slavery thing out of the equation (bear with me for a second) the Civil War becomes far darker.
Supposing that the Confederates had seceded over something like urban renewal or land reform - would we be so quick as to dismiss that one side opted out of a voluntary agreement they signed to, and was invaded, broken by force, and is still to this day technically occupied territory, whose inhabitants were dispossessed of their property and their rights simply for being on the wrong side of a Constitutional argument?
I'm reasonably sure that if Canada was to invade Washington State with a view to establishing "Cascadia" all the way down to Los Angeles because of their belief in gay marriage, no exceptions - burning and looting in its wake I probably would go back and defend my family's home against invaders, even though I strongly agree with gay marriage.
One of the reasons why the Civil War keeps raging on is that people keep trying to reduce it to simple, easy-to-take-a-side motivations but history's far greyer than that.
"The South was racist during the Civil War!" Um, EVERYONE was racist in the 1800s, white supremacy was established scientific fact. "The South had slaves!" Uh, so did the North. "Yes, but we got rid of our slaves earlier." The last state to ratify the amendment ending slavery was New Jersey, why aren't we burning their state flag, then? "We went down there to free the slaves". No you didn't - you went down there because in patriotic fervor after the shelling of Fort Sumter you were spoiling for a fight to kick some rebel ass and sought to preserve the union, rich cash flows from the cotton fields included. No different than various countries "liberating" countries with a lot of oil these days. I'm not supporting or condoning the Confederate States of America, but for God's sake, learn some goddamn history. It's not as cut and dried or as black and white (sorry, that's not intentional) as people would like it to be.
From personal experience, the people saying "heritage not hate" and so forth genuinely seem to mean it. When they're talking about states' rights, they're not using it as a code word for slavery, they're talking about fucking states' rights. They're seeing in increasing federal over-reach a disturbing slippery slope - with unelected "czar"s making laws, the PATRIOT act sticking a bug in every cellphone, and "who cares what Congress says, I can just say fuck you and write an executive order". And they're right. One of the side-effects of the Civil War is significant power heading the Federal side, which resulted in Social Security but also in the almost certain bankruptcy of this country within 20 years. All it took was an inch here, an inch there, next thing you know Federal bankers are telling us our taxes are going up because they lost trillions and if they don't get all their money back they'll kill our country.
But don't look at that. It's about slavery, look over here at the highly emotive show Roots again. That horrible torture scene. Look at it. That's... no, don't look at anything else, just look here.
I've talked about identity politics before and one of the things that's scaring me and scaring me a LOT about our modern world is our increasing inability to see nuance. To hold that something can have a foot in column A and column B. That a show featuring a car with a flag on the top isn't the trojan horse of white power, it's a goofy show about two NASCAR drivers crashing a muscle car.
That's what makes this whole thing start to go crazy for me. The families and communities of the people gunned down by a guy so racist he wore apartheid flags and wrote manifestos sought to explicitly forgive him for his actions, but in the next breath demanded the censorship and removal of a piece of cloth? Does anybody in 2015 seriously believe that removing the flag from the state capitol of South Carolina not only would prevent future shootings but would also eliminate any of the remaining cancer of racism in this country?
The most bigoted show I've seen recently was Family Guy - you know, made by a New Englander and starring a New Englander? Seth Macfarlane sneers down his nose at Duck Dynasty - but I've seen more objectionable content, about Asians being unable to drive, blacks being uneducated and ghettoised, and straight up rape jokes - in five minutes on that show than I've seen on any Southern television.
Wal-Mart made the brave statement that it was pulling all Confederate merchandise off its shelves, which amazed me, because last time I checked you couldn't find anything remotely Confederate in a Wal-Mart, even though it's pretty much synonymous with "white trash" in many places. They even pulled a barbecue sauce years ago because it was made by a nutcase Grand Wizard type in South Carolina who made a small empire out of smoked pig and a notorious name for himself selling rebel flags and promoting racism - the mere whiff of having had something MADE by someone racist was enough for a permaban, many years before this event.
And let's not forget the even bigger bravery of Warner Brothers, whic pulled all Dukes of Hazzard merchandise and all licenses to do anything with that property, because the General Lee had a flag on the top. I checked my local Hobby Lobby to try and snag a model kit, but whereas they had 20 of them alongside models of the Super Bee and the Addams Family's Dragula, today they had nothing but a stark hole, and everyone knew what was there.
The guy that played Cooter on that show is still selling rebel flags on his site. And in some sense, I don't blame him. In describing the General Lee as white power memorabilia, they've in essence slandered his entire career and called him a racist for having worked on their show. His Facebook post on the subject says the show was never about anything other than family holding together and jokes about corrupt local politics.
And there's hundreds of people doubling down on their prior support for the flag for their own reasons, not because they want to say fuck you to anti-racists or the black community, but because in not doing so, there'd be the strong suggestion that they were "really" about racism all along.
I mean, sure, as mentioned before, the Klan and the segregationalists rallied behind that flag, but they rallied behind the US flag as well. And since when do we let the Klan decide what things mean? I have two friends with swastika tattoos. They're both devout Hindus. Since when did we as a country forget, ignore or lose the ability to understand context?
I'm not suggesting that anyone who was beaten with a rubber hose during the Civil Rights years or found a burning cross on their lawn "get over it". Nor am I going to stand there and defend racism in any way. And sure, I totally get that the flag derives from a horrible government who tried to maintain a horrifying institution. It's not my flag, fundamentally, I don't give a shit about it, and if someone wants to ban it from their premises that's their right.
But to suggest that Lynyrd Skynyrd promotes white power because it uses that flag near constantly, that the Dukes of Hazzard was "really" about racism, or to call hundreds if not thousands of good ol' boys with the flag on their pickup nothing but hateful bigots when they're practically screaming from the rooftops they hate racism as much as you do - they just like mudding, hunting, and fishing... that's clearly factually wrong also taking it a step too far.
A hundred years from now, we might be derided as evil people, and rightfully so - for supporting despots in the Middle East, flying drones into children and committing other atrocities because of our societal addiction to mainlining octane. The Mac notebook I wrote this on was produced with not always perfectly ethically sourced labor, and the shoes I go running in might very well have been stitched by children spanked if not outright beaten for not working fast enough. Much of the goods the entire world gets from China is in part made with slave labor.
And as for Bill Maher ranting the other day about bigots and traitors and so forth and the South being full of racism and nothing more - weren't you the asshole who said that Wayne Brady wasn't really black? You know, because to be "really black" you have to act a certain way, you know, like your buddy Snoop Dogg? It was inspiring to read Brady's response (TL:DR it was a threat to kick his ass). We're not going to get rid of racism in this country by banning a flag, but we sure as hell will if we knock off subscribing to stereotypes which includes allowing white hip liberals to define the black experience.
TL:DR - I laud the fact that we try to do the right thing, and I understand there are assholes out there, but please, let's not lose sight of the big picture. Ain't none of us perfect.