Monday, June 01, 2015

Awkward Question of the Day

I saw on the Gawker network that today was actually a holiday in Alabama honoring Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Now, this is the Internet, home of extraordinarily ludicrous errors perpetuated by people who only fact check things against other Internet sources that are in turn repeating the things they saw on the Internet in a colossal daisy chain of misinformation, so there's every possibility that this is nothing more than a scurrilous slander to the people of Alabama. But it certainly does illuminate a bizarre psychosocial trend--people who celebrate the Confederacy, fly the Confederate flag, wear clothing adorned with Confederate iconography, and yet claim...with all apparent sincerity in some cases...that this is not a racist act and they are not racists. They are simply, as most say, "displaying Southern pride".

So this question is aimed to those people. Specifically, assuming we actually can set aside the inherent racism in the establishment of the Confederacy (and I want to stress, this is actually ceding way more ground in the debate than I'm actually willing to do, because all the first-hand contemporary sources made it blatantly clear that the Confederacy was founded as an act of racism and an explicit endorsement of the right to own African-American human beings as property)...but setting aside the racism, what exactly are you "proud" of when you fly the Confederate flag to celebrate Southern pride?

Are you celebrating the treason? Because establishing the Confederacy was an act of treason against the United States government, and it certainly does seem like the same people who fly the Confederate flag as an act of "Southern pride" pair it with the American flag as an act of patriotism. Those don't seem particularly compatible.

Or is it the defeat? Because I mean, I hate to be the one to be the bearer of bad news here, but the South lost. The Confederacy was dissolved, the political aims of their movement (which again, let's not put too fine a point on it, was the continued legalization of a brutal and harsh system of slavery) failed, and their army was roundly and decisively defeated. This does not seem, to me, to be something to be proud of.

I guess I might just be a bit confused. To outsiders, the Confederate cause was one of racism, treason and failure. I keep hearing people say that the thing they're proud of isn't the racism. So is it the treason or the defeat that you're celebrating? Please let me know.


Misha said...

I should stress that the answers below do not necessarily reflect my opinion. I can't necessarily answer this directly, since I find the whole use of the Confederate flag to symbolize Southern pride to be head-scratching at the very least. The only real reason it makes sense to use it that way is that it symbolizes the South as a region, and distinct from the North, much more than any other symbol I can think of. And maybe some people really can use it as a symbol that way and disregard its provenance (I can't, but mine isn't the only opinion out there).

I think it's worth taking issue with your characterization of the secessions as treason. In a sense, of course they are. But I think there is a case to be made that, when the Declaration of Independence says that the states "...are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States..." that perhaps a free and independent state that enters into a union should also be permitted to leave it (although one would hope for a better justification that slavery of course). Many say that the question was settled by the Civil War, but a military answer is less satisfying (if more final) than a philosophical/logical one. I'm not saying I support states' rights to this extent, but I think characterizing the secessions as treason is too facile by half.

Again, not necessarily my opinions, just my thoughts on a good question of yours.

John Seavey said...

Well, it's worth remembering that the Declaration of Independence is not a binding legal document, merely a statement of principles, whereas the Constitution is. And the Constitution provides no mechanism whereby a state, having agreed to be bound by the rules set down in the Constitution, can then leave it. It was felt at the time by the North that this was intentional, and although you're right in saying that the issue was not settled by court review, it feels like it really couldn't be settled as a purely judicial matter because anyone with a disposition to secede really wouldn't recognize the court as a legal authority anyway. :)

To suggest that it was "only" settled by force, then, ignores that Lincoln was acting in his duly authorized role as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, and settled it using his authorized and approved Constitutional authority. The Confederacy did not agree, and the Federal government was put in a position of having to use force to back up their legally-recognized authority to act, but that doesn't automatically make the action illegitimate, any more than it does when a bailiff arrests someone for being in contempt of court.

As to whether the Confederacy was a treasonous enterprise, here is the definition of treason as set down in the US Constitution: "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court." It seems pretty clear that once Fort Sumter was attacked, the Confederacy as a group was engaged in an act of treason (levying war against the United States) and anyone who joined them would be as well (giving them Aid and Comfort). Given that treason is the only crime to be spelled out so specifically in the Constitution, it's not a charge that can be refuted easily when brought, unless there's factual evidence that the Confederacy didn't do it.

(Fun fact: Dean Rusk, former Secretary of State, did have to disclose that he had family members who had attempted the overthrow of the United States government, as he had living Civil War veterans in his family. He still got the job. :) )

Mark Cook said...

The treason. Isn't that basically the same as what happens every fourth of July, a commemoration of the founding fathers committing high treason against King George as per the Treason Act 1351? One person's treason is another person's patriotism. The difference there is the Confederacy lost and the founding fathers won.

I'm Canadian; my family on my father's side is United Empire Loyalist, meaning that they were loyal to King and so were forced to leave the thirteen colonies. My ancestors would have seen Washington and the rest as traitors. On a personal level, I don't think that being traitors to the crown makes the founding fathers wrong, and I also think celebrating the Confederacy is pretty gross.

Anonymous said...

When I try to understand this sort of thing, I always remember Edmund Wilson's essay on the South in *The Bit Between my Teeth* (published in 1956 but still relevant today) in which he points out that Southerners think of themselves as an occupied or satellite nation successfully conquered by the United States rather than as a part of the United States itself.

Apparently, in their minds, the flag has only a historical connection to the failed effort at creating an independent country. Instead, in their minds, the flag is today a vital representative of their successful creation of a culture that has endured their century-and-a-half long oppression by dint of military conquest (they see secession as their natural right and the successful effort to prevent secession as an act of military conquest). Therefore, to the mind of those who wave the Confderate flag so happily, their flag reminds them that although their conquerors have denied them political and legal freedom for their pro-slavery laws, their conquerors have failed to destroy their cultural identity and cultural values.