Stereotyping the Old South
April 1st, 2011
The older I get the more I despise racism. Not the Left’s cartoon version, in which it is assumed that every conceivable human thought or action must contain some sort of prejudicial racial motive, but the genuine article in which knuckle dragging morons try to dehumanize their fellow man based on nothing more than the color of their skin. Life is too short for such needless hatred. Life is too special to diminish it to mere biology.
This is not to say that acknowledging race, discussing racial issues, or even holding certain attitudes about race is necessarily wrong. In fact, it’s unavoidable.
But there’s a world of difference between being merely politically incorrect and being racist. The greatest mistake made by hardcore racists and anti-racists alike is that both tend to believe that race must mean absolutely everything or it must mean absolutely nothing. Both positions are as extreme as they are absurd. Race unquestionably matters; it’s just not all that matters and rarely what matters most.
This is particularly worth noting when discussing the Civil War. My entire adult life I have defended the Old South and the Southern cause in America’s bloodiest war. Not because I support slavery or racism, but despite it. The positive parallels between what the Confederacy was fighting for in 1861 and what the American colonists fought for in 1776 are many and obvious—republican democracy, political and economic freedom, national independence, defense of one’s homeland. But these causes are never obvious to critics who can only see the other parallel—that both the Old South and the thirteen colonies were dependent upon, and protective of, the institution of slavery.
In the United States today, the very concepts of states’ rights, nullification, secession and other examples of Jeffersonian democracy are routinely dismissed as racist double speak, even in their modern forms. When a number of states declared in recent months that they might attempt to nullify Obamacare, critics immediately put more emphasis on the fact that there seemed to be a high degree of hostility toward America’s first black president. Of course, this was coupled with the establishment’s permanent narrative that allowing states to make their own decisions is what the Old South was all about, thus eternally making America two steps away from segregation if not slavery.
This is not an exaggeration. When Virginia’s Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli appeared on Hardball with Chris Matthews in December to explain that state’s proposal to possibly repeal unconstitutional federal laws (as Jefferson and James Madison once explicitly encouraged Virginia and Kentucky to do in 1798), the reliable establishment spokesman Matthews chortled: “You know who’s going to like this? The old Johnny Rebs are going to love it. This is antebellum.” Matthews’ contention that the “old Johnny Rebs” would love a return to states’ rights is no doubt correct, but the liberal host’s obvious purpose was to attach the very concept to the issues of race and slavery.
Such tunnel vision concerning the Old South hasn’t always been the norm. While reasonable people have always agreed that race and slavery cannot be separated from the Civil War, there was a time in this country when it was also acceptable to consider the Old South from other perspectives. Robert E. Lee was once considered as venerable as the Founders. T.S. Eliot once praised the Old South as a last bastion of European-style, old world civilization. Popular culture even celebrated the Confederacy as late as the 1980’s, when the main star of the popular Dukes of Hazzard television show was a 1969 orange Dodge Charger emblazoned with the Confederate flag. No one at the time accused CBS television executives of attempting to bring back slavery.
This is not to dismiss slavery, only to say that its existence is no excuse to dismiss everything else. As Marxist historian Eugene Genovese once told the New York Times: “’We went from history that celebrated the South, if in a defensive way, to the South as the citadel of the Devil, a place you couldn’t say anything positive about it without being denounced as a racist.”
And this is undoubtedly where we stand today. Some of my fellow Southerners, who honor their Confederate ancestors and the cause for which they fought, do their heritage a disservice when they pretend that that cause had nothing to do with slavery. Likewise, those who try to reduce the entire history of the South to race and race alone are not being honest or accurate. Any discussion of the Civil War must invariably include slavery, but this is not all that mattered and the degree to which modern folks try to make this the case reveals an intellectual laziness in which 19th century Southerners are routinely dehumanized in a manner similar to the typical stereotypes of minorities offered by bonafide racists.
There is a difference between being politically incorrect and being racist. But there is no difference between whitewashing Southern history and refusing to tell the region’s entire history—which requires deviating from the politically correct parameters of black and white.