Get ready for five years of misery, self-absorption, class warfare, occasional (perhaps even frequent) denials of racism, interminable militaristic posturing, and so much more. The US is about to start commemorating, if that’s the word, the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War. Well, maybe not everyone in the US—just the South, which will wallow endlessly in its victimhood for being on the receiving end of the Northern Occupation–or at least for the next five years. And the media, of course, which already has shown over the past two years that it just can’t get enough of ignorance, bigotry and outright fantasy about the past. Why, it’s as if the 20th century never happened.
This is going to be bad, horrible, even. We’re in for five years of paeans to alleged Southern valor, interminable babble about “State’s Rights,” debates about the flying of the Confederate Flag, odes by Southern politicians to the sanctity of our Christian heritage (from the part of the country that leads the US in violent crimes and executions) and our god-given right to own other human beings—no, wait. That last part won’t be talked about much. In fact, it will be denied vociferously. In fact, we’ll see, as we have for what seems like forever, interminable arguments about how the Civil War wasn’t about slavery at all. Nope. But we know better. The South may have won the memory wars, but facts are facts.
The British media has noticed some of this. Rupert Cornwall, writing for The Independent, gets it right—the US is still divided by the Civil War. Cornwell comments on a party in South Carolina, the state that started it all, where everyone stands around celebrating the first moves towards secession. David Usborne, also of The Independent, actually went—and conveys its surreal atmosphere nicely:
Inside the hall, 200-odd guests, all white and some in period costume, gathered to see a re-enactment of the signing of the secession document. When it was over, they instinctively joined the cast in singing the anthem of the South, “Dixie”, before repairing to an adjoining hall for dinner and dancing.
And if you’re wondering WTF, you‘re not alone. But, you know, the South is different. Well, for lots of reasons, but mainly because it was the South that declared war on the United States. And lost. And have never gotten over it.
Ed Pilkington of The Guardian was there as well. He shares an interesting but highly predictable and representative profile:
Mark Simpson, commander of the South Carolina branch of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which sponsored the ball, said the line that the war was fought over slavery was spin, used by detractors of the south to discredit them. “Slavery was an issue, yes, but only because it was the economic lifeblood of the south.”
He reacted with indignation to claims that the secession ball celebrated slavery. “Are we celebrating slavery? Absolutely not. We are celebrating that we are proud South Carolinians. Americans, yes, but also southerners.” He was not a secessionist but believed there were many parallels between the complaints of the south in the lead-up to the civil war and today’s angry mood among the American electorate. In the 1860s, the gripe of South Carolinians was that their taxes were all being spent in the north. “There’s a lot that goes on today that is not in our benefit. Where do all our taxes go?” Simpson said.
Well, Mr Simpson, if you knew anything at all, you moron, you would know that they come right back to South Carolina, that’s where—South Carolina being a “taker state,” which received $1.35 back from the federal government for every $1 in federal income tax paid (in 2005, anyway). We’ve noted this before—it’s the states of the old Confederacy that do particularly well at the federal trough. This is a part of the country where white people do a lot of complaining about welfare—but not about welfare queen states.
Note Mr. Simpson’s other point—the Civil War was not about slavery, oh no, even though slavery was the “economic lifeblood of the south.” We’ve covered this ground a surprising number of times this past year—Southern politicians conveniently forgetting the issue of Slavery in their references to, and even celebrations of, the Civil War. As Mr. Simpson observed, that slavery talk was “spin” to discredit the South. Note the assumption that the South needs any further discrediting.
So here we have all the problems of modern American politics neatly encapsulated, particularly the astonishing levels of ignorance that now permeates the national debate—and which will doubtless dominate the yelling about the Civil War over the next five years. Slavery didn’t cause the Civil War. We don’t know where our taxes go. The Civil War was caused by Northern aggression. I’m ignorant as hell, but people just use that fact to discredit me. Hey, I’m the victim here, and I’m going to be the victim for the next five years too, because I’m really good at it.
Cornwell, Pilkington and Usborne have it right—this is the war that has never ended. Of course, they’re British, and can point this out without any embarrassment. But few in the US will talk openly about this, although it’s become more of a topic for discussion over the past two years as the hysteria in parts of the country about having a black president has deranged an even higher number of the civic polity than is normally the case. Credit to McClatchy, as usual, for raising many of the same points as The Independent and The Guardian, although the Times weighs in too, in its usual infuriatingly balanced way. It’s become all the more important to claim the god-given right to fly the Confederate flag—especially over State houses. We have noted in the past year or so the increasing insistence among Southern politicians of their god-given right to secede, if they want to, although they really don’t, sort of, or something. The incessant bleating about States’ rights will just accelerate. We’ve been treated to the spectacle of Tea Party marchers carrying signs of the President of the United States with clear racial denigrations–what next? Whatever we can imagine, if history teaches us anything, it’s that what we’ll get will be worse than what we expect.
So expect to see a whole lot of Confederate flags. And extensive and intellectually challenged rationalizations regarding whether it should be flown or not (see here, including—in fact, especially—the comments, for a fairly representative discussion). And expect the secession thing to keep coming back, like the Terminator. It just won’t stay dead. The whole thing is going to be insufferable.
One of my fonder memories of Basic Training (at good old Fort Jackson, in South Carolina) was some Drill Sergeant staring at me, a New York boy, and saying “God, I hate Yankees.” I don’t imagine the past four decades have changed his mind much. The past is a foreign country, yes it is. Even better—as Faulkner, who lived in the South and should know, said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” How right he was. We’ll be seeing that quote a lot the next five years too. And every time we see it, we can remind ourselves how the part of the country that still has citizens that consider the US government to be an occupying power has come to dominate American political discourse and, indeed, its political institutions. Good luck to us all.
The above stamp was issued in 1961 to commemorate the beginning of the Civil War, which started 100 years earlier when cadets in the Confederate Army fired on Fort Sumter. That’s right. The South started it. Who knew? So why do they insist on calling it The War of Northern Aggression?