From The New Yorker
Thanks to Janie
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA
In some future footnote or parenthetical aside, it may be observed that although General Robert E. Lee surrendered in 1865, the Confederacy’s final retreat did not occur until a century and a half later. The rearguard movement of Republicans in the aftermath of the slaughter in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church marked the relinquishing of the Confederacy’s best-fortified positions: the cultural ones. We have for decades willfully coexisted with a translucent lie about the bloodiest conflict in American history and the moral questions at its center. Amid the calls last week to lower the Confederate battle flag at the state capitol, the defenders of the flag averred that it represents “heritage, not hate.” The great sleight of hand is the notion that these things were mutually exclusive.
Americans, both in the South and beyond, attach a particular brand of exceptionalism to the region. This is the reason that there is a Southern Historical Association but not a Northern one; a genre known as Southern literature but no Northern corollary; and a concept of Southern politics as something distinct from the national variety. The notion of the Confederate flag as a benign tribute to that exceptionalism rests upon another premise that illustrated, long before our present concerns with climate change and vaccination did, the political usefulness of denial: the idea that the Civil War was not fought over slavery—a claim that would have bewildered those who served in it—allowed Southerners to memorialize the leaders of an armed insurrection without the sticky moral baggage of bondage attached.
That interpretation held that the war was sparked by a conflict over tariffs that penalized Southern agriculture to the benefit of Northern industry. Or, more vaguely, that the war was fought over “states’ rights.” This evasion proved amazingly effective. Monuments to the valor of the Confederate ideal dot the South like matériel left on a battlefield. But none of these arguments bear scrutiny. Were the Southerners who erected those monuments concerned primarily about the valor of men, there would be many more dedicated to the former slaves who fought for the Union and risked death or, arguably worse, reënslavement. Were the war mainly about tariffs, we would be left to think that these fugitives fled farms and plantations to join the Union Army because of their abiding belief in trade protectionism. Or that the nearly forty thousand of them who died did so defending their views on Federalism. The Confederates themselves did not believe this. Here is the South Carolina convention in 1860, explaining the rationale for secession:
A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.
This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.
The South is exceptional not primarily because of its literature or its food or its politics but because, as historians have pointed out, it is the only region of the United States that has lived for the majority of its history with the experience of military defeat. Four decades after the U.S. withdrawal from Saigon, Vietnam remains a spectral presence in American foreign policy and military strategy. But when the Vietnam War began the South had already been familiar with that kind of recrimination and self-doubt for a hundred years. It not only fought tenaciously for the right to own human beings; it did so unsuccessfully. Neither of these facts can be easily accepted, but only one of them can be easily denied. So detached from slavery is the conception of the war that the controversial Memorial Day tradition of sending a Presidential wreath to the Confederate Memorial, in Arlington National Cemetery, which began with Woodrow Wilson, continued into the present. (President Obama amended the tradition by also sending a wreath to the African American Civil War Memorial, in Washington, D.C.)
Such denialism has governed an important portion of our national affairs and distorted our self-image, but it collapsed in the hail of fire in the sanctuary of Emanuel A.M.E. Church. As is often the case, tragedy was the burden we shouldered for a moment of square introspection. This is probably why the eulogy that Barack Obama delivered for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney on Friday was sober and self-reflective in a way that we seldom hear. “The flag,” the President said, “has always represented more than just ancestral pride. For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation. We see that now. Removing the flag from this state’s capitol would not be an act of political correctness.” He added, in reference to the Confederate soldiers, that “it would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong.”
It may seem odd, decades after the civil-rights movement, to note that for a sitting President to say that the Confederacy fought for the institution of slavery—and that doing so was a moral wrong—is a radical statement. Yet it is, and shortly after making it the President fell silent. It appeared that perhaps he had lost his way, but then, in a remarkable moment, he began to sing “Amazing Grace,” a hymn that is at once a lament, a prayer, and a hope—written by John Newton, a onetime slave trader who became an abolitionist. Immediately after the speech, people began debating whether the song had been part of the prepared text or whether the President sang it out of an impromptu spiritual imperative. In either case, he was likely hoping to see in the national culture precisely the transformation that Newton had experienced in himself, one that facilitated his first truthful accounting of the evil of slavery.