By lex, on April 18th, 2010
I grew up in Virginia, as some of you may know, and only really had my first exposure to New Yorkers in situ as a member of the Naval Academy fencing team. New York City was and probably still is the center of the US fencing, with top notch universities such as NYU and Columbia contributing talent to such elite schools as the New York Fencing Club and New York Athletic Club. I hadn’t formed much of an opinion about New Yorkers until I first traveled up there and saw first-hand the press and scrum of teeming millions.
I learned that they had already formed an opinion of me.
Where are you from, a national champion asked me as we were cooling down over beer and pizza at a local tavern, and when I told him he continued, “Are you a bigot?”
There’s a lot of that sort of unexamined thinking going on, as well as some perhaps unintentional psychological insights in Frank Rich’s latest screed in the New York Times: “Welcome to Confederate History Month.”*
In “Race and Reunion,” the definitive study of Civil War revisionism, the historian David W. Blight documents the long trajectory of the insidious campaign to erase slavery from the war’s history and reconfigure the lost Southern cause as a noble battle for states’ rights against an oppressive federal government. In its very first editorial upon resuming publication in postwar 1865, The Richmond Dispatch characterized the Civil War as a struggle for the South’s “sense of rights under the Constitution.” The editorial contained not “a single mention of slavery or black freedom,” Blight writes. That evasion would be a critical fixture of the myth-making to follow ever since.
Slavery was indeed a national birth stain, and the effort to erase it cost hundreds of thousands of valiant lives on both side of the Mason-Dixon line. But just like the hardscrabble abolitionists of yore, modern northerners presume a sort of actionable moral and cultural superiority over their southern cousins. They do so while maintaining a deliberately blind eye to the kind of historical abuses of labor in northern factory towns and city ghettos that would have made an overseer blush for shame. They do so while eliding the crosses burnt in Boston**, or the cracked skulls in Queens***. It makes them feel good about themselves, even as they extend the smothering hand of well-intentioned government over the lives of individual people.
In the post-civil rights era, modern liberals tended to think of southerners – when they bothered to think of them at all – as crackers and hicks, and most of all as racists. This is a useful exercise for the northern liberal: When you’ve presumed ill will on the part of an opponent, you are free to do whatever is necessary to complete his destruction, and do so with a clear conscience. Liberals prefer to sort southerners into one of two classes, victims and oppressors, the first to be made into dependents and the second to be demonized.
And they say that southerners lack nuance.
Ronald Reagan changed the American political landscape fundamentally back in the 80s, as an admirer with a fundamentally different vision of what the US should be admits. He did so partly with a “Southern Strategy” that turned Yellow Dog Democrats into Republican voters. Rich, and many of his fellow travelers, continue to despise southern yokels who “vote against their self interest” by declining to graciously accept their government hand-outs and shut the hell up, leaving their betters to decide precisely how much of the bread wrung from the sweat of their brows they may be allowed to keep.
Thus, in line with the whole thrust of human history – at least until we began our national experiment in personal liberty – does one tyranny exchange itself for another.
To deny that slavery played a part in our Civil War would be to engage in denial for its own sake. But the slave owning class was never more than about 10% of a population disadvantaged region that sent at least a million of their 9 million citizens to war in order to preserve pre-negotiated rights. Some 15% of these died in battle or through disease, another 30,000 died as federal prisoners and their survivors left no more than 150,000 on the field to surrender after Appomattox.
There was always much more to the south than slavery – or racism, for that matter – and there is much more still, no matter the dyspepsia it might cause people like Frank Rich to see it in action. There is faith. There was and is a deep and abiding affection for the land, a sentiment that must puzzle those living in rent controlled apartments. There are traditions of gentility and manners that mystify city dwellers who don’t want to see****. Well-bred teenagers still say “ma’am” to an octogenarian waitresses. There is also a fierce independence that hearkens back to an earlier rebellion, and a tradition of martial valor that remains to this day. One of my favorite bumper stickers as a young man was the one which said, “We Don’t Care How You Do It Up North.” And we didn’t. You go your way, leave us to go ours.
And go in peace.
Faulkner wrote of the south that “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even the past.” The northerners I fenced against used to chide me that we in the south had never given up fighting the Civil War.
Neither, it turns out, have they.
*NYT 4-18-2010 –Ed
**Wilmington Star-News July 4, 1981 “Cross Burning Shocks Suburb Of Boston” –Ed
***NYT 6-30-2005 “White Men Attacked 3 Black Men in Howard Beach Hate Crime, the Police Say” by Michelle O’Donnell and William K. Rashbaum –Ed
**** Wikipedia.org, “The Murder of Kitty Genovese “ — Ed