White Southerners Need To Speak Honestly
In recent years, criticism of identity politics has been a primary feature of social discourse. I myself have been one of those critics, as have many people who are normally my political adversaries. By this, I mean conservatives and right-wingers. Let us look at an example.
In a stinging rebuke of identity politics for The Federalist, Nathanael Blake writes:
Hatred is a persistent presence in the human heart, but the identity politics and intersectional ideology the Left espouses legitimizes and exacerbates hate.
Criticism of identity politics also tends to lead to criticism of multiculturalism. (After all, the two go hand-in-hand.) Many conservatives criticize, for example, the over-acceptance of Islam by the left. Often, they argue that Islamic attitudes toward women do not align well with Western norms of sexual equality. Ann Coulter pugnaciously expressed her views on this in a 2017 interview with Sean Hannity, stating:
Why don’t we believe what these migrants say…what other immigrant group could not stop itself from raping masses of women? They march around, saying, “No, you’re going to live under Sharia law.” They commit terrorist acts. It’s right in front of our eyes.
Even President Trump feels that there is a mismatch between the West and Islam, once observing:
I think Islam hates us…we have to be very vigilant. We have to be very careful. And we can’t allow people coming into this country who have this hatred of the United States.
The extent to which comments like these by the right are sincere or not is not always easy to judge. Sometimes they are based on pure principle. More often, I suspect they are rationalizations made by Bible thumpers and theocrats. Often, the right receives accusations of being racist and Islamophobic. In response, conservatives such as Reverend James V. Schall merely contend that they are criticizing ideas. In a piece titled Speaking Honestly about Islam, Schall writes:
I want to defend the integrity of the “terrorists,” as we insist on calling them. I want to grant them the “dignity” that they deserve. That is, they are not mindless products of poverty, ideology, ignorance, psychological mania, or any other excuse to avoid calling them what they claim to be, namely, loyal and devoted believers in the Qur’an, the real followers of Mohammed. It is senseless to pretend that a jihadist vision is not found in the Qur’an.
Now, I am not here to discuss Islam. Instead, I want to point out that I cannot help but see these arguments circulate within the right and notice how they never seem to apply to a seminal period of American history: The Civil War. The President is proof of this dissonance. Despite his remarks about Islam, he said of movements to remove confederate statues last year, “They’re trying to take away our culture.” To be certain, this is a mistake on Trump’s part, and it is one that I expect will continually be made, given the narrative about the Confederacy that exists in the South. It is imperative, then, that white Southerners do what Schall advocates and speak honestly, so that white New Yorkers (and everyone else) are not further misled.
I am one of these white Southerners. I was born in Georgia and grew up in rural North Carolina. My broader family primarily lives in the Carolinas. Even one of my ancestors — I learned a few years ago — was a Confederate officer. I can truthfully say that I was not pleased to learn this, but it is no surprise, especially since North Carolina had the distinction of contributing more soldiers to the Confederate Army than the other states. In any event, I was displeased because the traditional narrative of the war, here in the South, just never passed the smell test for me.
White Southerners, particularly the conservatives, have had a tendency to romanticize the South’s role in the Civil War. They talk about the soldiers merely fighting for states’ rights. They talk about opposition to tariffs. Even more broadly, they talk about their general desire to defend their homes from the Yankees. When we come to recognizing specific figures, we see the military genius and pious nature of generals such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. If white Southerners do happen to acknowledge the factors of racism and slavery, it is usually an oblique statement of “that’s just the way people were back then.”
Most of this just never seemed true, even from a fairly neutral reading of history in class. Further research only weakens the narrative more. The truth is that slavery and racism were the nucleus of the Southern war effort, even considering its nuances. The moral difference between the North and the South was night and day, and if we are to make any progress on other social issues, we need to understand this.
Let us start with the actual motives. South Carolina, the first state to secede, explicitly mentions slavery. In their declaration of secession, they mention language in the Constitution that requires the return of slaves to their owners and go on to lament:
But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.
Completely absent in this document is any mention of tariffs. This is not trivial, because in 1832 South Carolina became the first state to make a credible threat of secession, due to disputes over the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832. That they failed to mention tariffs at all when they finally did secede is thus a statement all on its own.
Since South Carolina was the first to secede, we also have to acknowledge that it set the tone for the rest of the states who seceded later on. Now, some states, such as Florida, merely passed a paragraph to state their secession and gave no preamble or explanation. Other states, such as Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, and Virginia, all still cite a desire to protect slavery. One such colorful excerpt by Texas reads:
They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.
With such explicit statements about racism and slavery, I feel compelled to parrot Coulter’s question: Why don’t we believe what they say? Why do so many white Southerners look at the directly stated motives of the Confederates and say, “It wasn’t about slavery”? It not only was, but it was to a point that a Civil War without slavery is impossible to imagine ever happening.
While it is true that a majority of Confederate soldiers did not own slaves (as a majority of Southerners in general did not), it is also true that those who did own slaves were far more likely to serve. In fact, a tally of the volunteers in 1861 showed that slaveowners were 42% more likely to serve than those who did not own slaves. That is not a minor difference. The political interests behind the Confederate Army are therefore difficult to deny: It was fighting to protect slavery.
We should make no illusions either about how bold the defense of slavery was, even in that time. The Civil War is often remembered, even outside of the South, as a conflict between one half of the country and the other. While this may be true geographically, it is not true demographically. 22 million people lived in the Northern states, while only 9 million lived in the South. 3 million of these Southerners were the slaves. While neither group had monolithic attitudes toward slavery, you did have a rough situation where the abolitionists outnumbered the slavers by about 4 to 1. Ambivalence about slavery was simply not a feature of the American public in 1861. Abolition was less controversial then than gay marriage is today.
The moral stance of the Americas and the West about slavery at this time could have hardly been clearer. The Enlightenment, just two centuries prior, contained several philosophers who had opposed it. Georgia, when founded as a British colony, had initially banned it under these Enlightenment principles. France not only banned it in 1792 but also gave citizenship to the ex-slaves. France did this again in 1848 when it formed the Second Republic. Slavery was rejected in English common law in 1772, wherein a judge described it as “odious,” and a ban across all British territory was passed in 1833. By the 1830s, most Latin American countries had already banned slavery, to include Mexico.
So in 1861, the South was really the odd one out in trying to preserve slavery. This is important to note because the allegedly apolitical or conflicted nature of some of the South’s heroes, such as Robert E. Lee, is not significantly convincing in this climate. It makes it unlikely that figures like Lee were merely reluctant gentlemen serving their homelands.
Much of what could be said of generals like Lee or Jackson could also be said of Nazi commanders such as Rommel or Guderian. An argument could be made that Rommel and Guderian behaved honorably, that they avoided atrocious behavior, and that they were not as sinister as Amon Göth or Reinhard Heydrich. Even going out of our way to interpret history generously for them, we have to recognize that the likes of Rommel and Guderian fought for the wrong side and rather happily so. If statues of them were erected, they would be protested for good reason. If Angela Merkel spoke in defense of such statues, she would become a pariah, both internationally and in her own country, for good reason.
Carl von Clausewitz, whom Rommel and Guderian would have known well, wrote in On War (1832):
War is not merely a political act but a real political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, a carrying out of the same by other means.
In essence, war without politics behind it does not exist. There is no context in which Lee and Jackson consciously fight for the South over the North and simultaneously do not support slavery. They knew the situation. They knew what each side wanted. They chose the side that explicitly wanted slavery. Whatever decency they might have otherwise had, this decision exposed the deepest layers of their character, and this is true of every romanticized warrior of the Confederate cause.
There is a stubborn refusal to acknowledge this among conservatives in the South. They cling to the motto of “heritage, not hate,” but if we are speaking honestly as white Southerners, we have to admit that the heritage is, in fact, hate itself. Furthermore, if these same denialists are happy to listen to Ann Coulter discuss how the culture of Islam is, to whatever degree, incongruent with the Enlightenment and leads to terrorism, then they have to be willing to say the same about incongruities here in the West, and that includes the culture of the South. We still have a Ku Klux Klan, and the murders by white supremacists in Charleston in 2015 and Charlottesvile in 2017 have a direct, doctrinal relationship with the formation and memory of the Confederacy.
Until more white Southerners can own their history for what it is and can criticize their own culture just as sharply as they do others, we are going to see a continued lack of progress on race relations in this country, among other things. We are going to continue to see a hesitance among people of color to trust white people, politically and even privately.
And can we really blame them? Imagine how shocking it is when white Southerners are too nervous to deride slaveowners who died over a century ago. Imagine the confusion that must emerge when people meekly defend a heritage that they were never obligated or compelled to inherit. Heritage is, after all, a mutual exercise between ancestor and descendant. Nobody has to carry on what their fathers gave to them. Flakiness toward this moral verdict should therefore put off anyone who would stand to lose from this obscurantism.
If we speak honestly, we will soon find that Confederate romance has no further place in our modern society. Just as Blake says of identity politics and intersectional identity, it legitimizes and exacerbates hate. If we sincerely value the Enlightenment and its values, then we must admit this for what it is, and we should be glad to do so.
Thus, in closing, I ask: Can my fellow white Southerners accompany me on this task? Can we continue to heal the wounds of racial injustice? Can we finally drop the “heritage” and keep the “not hate”?