The South’s Place in America

The South is a considerable percentage of the U.S. population, and growing, yet when it comes to recent issues like the Confederate flag and Civil War monuments, old Dixie has hardly a friend in the world. At least, that’s the impression one gets from the national media. In a country that claims to value popular representation, how can this be?

The culture war between the former Union and Confederacy was refreshed in the 1960s when the Southern elite fell on the wrong side of the civil rights movement and tried to drag their respective communities down with them. That era, as it is still remembered by many, has since left the South awkwardly disabled from raising its voice on matters of civic conscience today, specifically damaging “states’ rights” arguments for everyone, even while the federal government grows and grows beyond reason.

This is a reality which most of my fellow Yankees are complacent, like history’s winners tend to be. The response to events of late reminds me of the prevailing attitudes in my grade school days when my chums and I would gang up to mercilessly tease our classmate of proud Southern ancestry whenever the right topic arose. At that delicate age, we couldn’t comprehend that the past two centuries were a bit more complex than one might be tempted to think.

As far as we cared, Southern society stepped into our country from an ignorant and depraved alternate dimension, and we, the good and productive North, just happened to be stuck with them, to our embarrassment. That sort of mindset alone would explain why so much of the South seems to visitors like a third-world country; I just didn’t think that it would infect so many politicians, pundits, and regular adults. As always, the truth eludes simplicity.

None of this is meant to defend the actions of the Confederacy in going to war in 1861 to support slavery. Confronting federal power to protect freedom for the states is one thing; doing so in order to completely remove freedom from the individual, however, is another. The South’s lack of priority, all while claiming to recapture the spirit of the American Revolution, contradicted the republican principles of 1776.

But the South doesn’t have a monopoly on hypocrisy. During the aforementioned grade school days, I learned that Illinois (my home state) changed the orientation of the motto on the state flag shortly following the Civil War. The words “State Sovereignty” were originally placed above the words “National Union,” to represent their supposedly greater importance. But since 1868, the two terms have been swapped — with the word “Sovereignty,” in addition, placed upside-down. That a northern state felt compelled to visually shuffle its founding priorities out of contempt for its southern neighbors is very revealing. Ironic, when it comes to promoting “national union.”

Admittedly, there are more glaring examples. For one, let’s not forget that after the Union had completed its “just cause” against the Confederacy, it immediately turned its forces westward to conduct a decades-long war of annihilation against the American Indians. In fact, the Sand Creek Massacre occurred on November 29, 1864, during the Civil War itself. There is no way for the North, in all its allegedly superior collective intellect, to explain away this hideous double standard.

That the Civil War could have been rightfully avoided is not merely a “conservative” reaction either; the late Howard Zinn held the same view. The question can be raised as to whether dealing directly with the South on several occasions did more harm than good — considering the bloody consequences in both the short and long terms — for the same reason that American intervention into other restless areas of the world has generally met with poor results.

In fact, history proves that radical and inorganic change, particularly by a government, tends to entrench the very attitudes that it is meant to correct. Further, it enables the other side (legitimately or not) to cry oppression, muddying the issue even more. The well-acknowledged failures of postwar Reconstruction undoubtedly sparked Southern animosity towards both the U.S. government and the stranded former slaves.

Add economic destitution and a confined social structure, and one can imagine such a situation prevailing — even worsening — for generations upon generations. Barring this, there would be far fewer exasperated Americans complaining that some of their countrymen think the Civil War is still going on. Perhaps no one would even need to be told that “black lives matter.”

But instead, when we’re not busy being angry at the South, we mock them for problems that we helped create. And that doesn’t help anyone. So as the Rebel flags descend and the statues get tagged, instead of kicking the South while it’s down, ordinary Americans ought to concede some of these points. Further, we should not fear to be called “sympathizers” or, even less tangibly, “racists” because of it.

There is more to a culture than its faults, as any American can agree, and there is always room for discussion. John Wilkes Booth ironically killed the man whose plans best ensured that the South would “rise again.” Abraham Lincoln, at once the great conqueror and the great pardoner of the Confederacy, would reaffirm to us today one thing for sure: it is time for Americans to come together once more.

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