PERSPECTIVE OF AN AMERICAN ABROAD
It is hard, at this distance, to understand how much fuss is being kicked up about the South Carolina government deciding to take down the Confederate battle flags from their government buildings. I could see how the Southerners would be out of whack if it was outsiders (especially from the North) ordering them to do this, but they are deciding this all by themselves and not being forced by anybody. In the end this is getting more conservative non-Southerners' knickers in a knot than I'd expected. I mean people from Indiana, Ohio, Texas, Missouri, Kansas. What the hell? On the positive side, this is forcing a lot of people to re-think racism. It is about racism. As W.E.B. DuBois remarked 112 years ago, “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”
America is racist.
Few White people in America can see it any more than fish can understand the water they are immersed in. Or us, air.
But racism in America is not the same as racism elsewhere. Racism and xenophobia are pretty nearly everywhere. But they are not the same everywhere. In the USA I have heard many times that I, as a white man, cannot understand racism. I have not been subjected to the aftermath of slavery and forced to live as a despised or feared minority.
What is indisputably true is that I cannot fully understand American racism from a Black-American's point of view. I am only partially able to perceive, with a lot of help, how I am a beneficiary of advantages from my birth as a white, male, Christian, American. Statistics show that as a White American I will live longer, be less likely to be accused of having broken the law, have access to better public education, be given preference in job searches, and more likely to find housing and secure financing. Now, as an American in Thailand I have benefitted simply by speaking English, and have turned that into a profession. I get an easier ride in a lot of ways.
What is missing from this discussion is recognition of other forms of racism and privilege. Like Jon Snow (“Game of Thrones”) who “knew nothing” of the “wildlings” living north of the wall, I know little about what it means to be Black living south of the Mason-Dixon line. But I know more than I used to about racism outside the USA. I live as a representative of two minorities here in Chiang Mai. I am a Caucasian, called a "farang" meaning a white foreigner. It is not an entirely derogatory term. It is more benign than “foreign dogs” which the Chinese used to call Caucasians. Those were fighting words. "Farang" is less hateful than that, but still loaded with negative implications and expectations about how I will never be able to do this or to understand that or to appreciate something else. I will always be an outsider. I will be an "other" and that's that. Nothing I can ever do will overcome that. And I am an identifiable, open and defiant gay-bisexual (well on the gay side of the column). That is minority status #2. So I reject the charge that I am simply too well off and too stupid to know what it means to be discriminated against, deprived of opportunities others have without question, and suspected of weaknesses or agendas I do not have.
As a result of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and Charleston, South Carolina I have been trying to learn more about what empowers the levels of anger and violence we have seen and how it is connected to the Confederate battle flag. To an extent it is an American phenomenon going back to the Civil War which began when 13 states declared independence from the USA and formed a Confederacy, intending to be a separate country (although the roots go back farther and involve the culture of violence that Europeans brought to North America (go ahead and remember the Aztecs if you insist their culture was the same as the Celts and Spanish)).
The Confederacy was a rebellion against the Federal government, but that rebellion was about race. The war of 1861-65 was about eliminating slavery which was a great blow to the way the Southern elite made and kept wealth, agricultural wealth being the great preponderance of it. Then the aftermath of the war was mishandled by the incompetent governments of Andrew Johnson and U.S. Grant. Soon the white South generated a new understanding about a grand southern heritage that was re-emerging from the ashes. This evolved into a whole narrative about the indomitable Southern character, and that was portrayed romantically in "Gone with the Wind" which cast it in celluloid stone in the American mind.
In the South a narrative was perpetuated which described the Confederate defeat as the inevitable outcome of gallant, moral and chivalrous Southern military forces being overwhelmed by ruthless Northern armies who committed savage atrocities to win, aided by industrial capacity the South did not have. The war was called a “Lost Cause” because of the abandonment of humanitarian principles by Grant and other generals such as Sherman whose “march to the sea” left starvation and impoverishment in its wake. The war had been a legitimate attempt to preserve the right of states to decide issues without Federal overrule. The war had been totally misrepresented in the North as about preserving slavery. Still, the Lost Cause was not entirely lost, because the dignity of the Southern people and their way of life were finally vindicated. In these latter days that noble heritage must sometimes be defended, lest the “Cause” be truly lost.
It is currently argued that “Lost Cause” believers are wrong on two significant points. First, the war was about the right of states and then of the Confederacy to retain slaves. As historian William C Davies pointed out, before separation the argument was couched in terms of states’ rights, that the US Federal government did not have the right to prevent states from holding slaves, but as soon as the Confederacy came into being Confederate constitutional lawyers were insisting that the states in the Confederacy had no power to interfere with the federal government of the Confederacy’s protection of slavery. So the issue was not about states’ rights after all, except when it was convenient. At the time that flags for the Confederacy were being designed, William Thompson, the creator of the very flag that is the subject of controversy in South Carolina, explained the meaning of the flag this way:
As a people, we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause…. Such a flag…would soon take rank among the proudest ensigns of the nations, and be hailed by the civilized world as the white mans flag.]… As a national emblem, it is significant of our higher cause, the cause of a superior race, and a higher civilization contending against ignorance, infidelity, and barbarism. Another merit in the new flag is, that it bears no resemblance to the now infamous banner of the Yankee vandals.
Second, the status of slaves was being grossly misrepresented by Lost Cause advocates who portrayed them as passive beneficiaries of a well ordered and benign patronage on stately southern plantations where the slaves were happy and loyal to their white families. Furthermore, when slavery ended, the circumstances of these emancipated slaves deteriorated and many chose to remain right where they had been rather than live in poverty and anarchy.
Meanwhile, a new narrative also grew about the Black threat to all this grand Southern character portrayed by the “Lost Cause” myth. A second Southern army was envisioned to protect Southern heritage and especially the character of Southern ladies and girls. This vigilante force was organized in several forms, the most famous and violent being the KKK. It did not stay in the South, of course. The idea migrated North along with the exodus of Black laborers into Northern industrial centers. As industry expanded beyond New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Cincinnati and developed in Granite City and East St. Louis, in Peoria and Dubuque and Milwaukee, and as Black laborers and families moved in, a myth of threat filled in the blank spaces between industrial centers. Slowly the idea developed that this was all part of the same thing; somehow what the white supremacists were trying to protect and preserve in the south needed protecting and preserving elsewhere like Chenoa, Flannagan and Fairbury (central Illinois farm towns outside industrialized centers). So Confederate ideology moved into the North where it lacked the glow of a fictionalized romantic heritage but retained the notion that people of color were dangerous and apt to revert to savagery unless they were terrorized and ghettoized.
Of course, that is why this decision by South Carolina to retire flags associated with what is actually racism is viewed with such anger and fear in places far away. It is seen as an undermining of white status as the median color of Americans grows darker. That's really what this is all about. The rest is smoke and mirrors to create the illusion of threats to basic freedoms of expression and the right to "bear arms" and so forth.
Led by the courageous governor of South Carolina, Her Excellency Nimrata Nikki Randhawa Haley, the state legislature decided to remove flags referring to the Confederacy and signifying white supremacy from state buildings. This was followed by a discussion about moving other monuments as well. Descendants of Southern soldiers killed in the Civil War have objected that this dishonors their sacrifice to a noble cause (Southern independence and the Southern way of life). Proponents of the idea of moving the monuments away from civic centers into cemeteries or parks make the point that there are ways of honoring one’s ancestors without exalting ideologies that are despicable.
That triggered a thought closer to where we live here in Asia. From time to time Japanese officials, including newly elected Prime Ministers, make pilgrimages to ancestral shrines, including those dedicated to the memories of hundreds of thousands who died in WW 2, including some convicted and executed war criminals. They are all memorialized in the shrine indiscriminately, as tends to happen in cemeteries. These trips to ancestral shrines are accompanied by Shinto rites, Shinto being the Japanese religious form of ancestor veneration; but Shinto was the religion of Japanese nationalism that encouraged and validated expansionism and war. Whenever one of these events happens it is very predictable that Chinese will be enraged and Koreans will protest. Their view is that implicit in this veneration of ancestors is a glossing over of the un-repented crimes of the past, which perpetuates the connection those in the present have with those crimes and ideologies from the past. Until that past is repented and the connection ritually and emotionally severed it is being preserved. Thus the constant insistence that this generation has to confess its guilt for the evil of the past. Japanese prime ministers have tried to avoid doing that. It is insinuated that it would be political suicide to humble the entire nation for the crimes of a few (even if that few was a fairly large number -- it was never the vast majority of the noble Japanese people, and certainly not how Japanese people feel today). Culturally hardly any of the modern generation has any sense of connection with the nationalistic fervor and events beginning a hundred years ago, nor is that era held up for adulation as some golden age. It is considered neither with awe nor shame. It is not considered at all. When outsiders (from China or Korea, primarily) raise the cry for some show of official repentance and remorse the response from across Japan is "we were not the ones who did any of those things." It is all exacerbated when, as occasionally happens, someone comes up with some doubt that the atrocity ever took place or was as widespread as is being claimed. The "Rape of Nanking" was exaggerated. The recruitment of "comfort women" was never enslavement. Such revisions of memory are met with outrage that prolongs the cries for repentance. Once in a while we also hear someone hint that an official acknowledgement would result in demands for huge compensation, even at this late date. That, too, is used as an excuse for hesitating to issue any official acknowledgement of national guilt about the past. So the Japanese tend to try to find a way to appear to repent without actually confessing, and it is never thought to be enough. Maybe it is not enough. Japanese history books downplay mention of atrocities and aggression in discussing 1930 to 1945. History books should tell the unvarnished truth. Denial seems to be going on to scab over the past rather than to bring deep healing.
Meanwhile, other demands are similar. The German government is reticent to acknowledge any connection with the Nazi regime of the past. The American government is ambiguous about the reality of their treatment of Native Americans. The Canadian prime minister was heavily criticized and ridiculed in some quarters not long ago for publicly confessing Canada’s role in suppression and exploitation of indigenous populations. Australia has not really ... New Zealand fails to acknowledge ... Belgium rebels against calling events in the Congo genocide ... Turkey is enraged when their genocide of the Armenians is remembered. And so on.
In the tsunami of controversy about what South Carolina and “liberals” are doing with the “sacred symbols of the proud heritage of the South” (aka, the Lost Cause) it has been mentioned that one never sees Nazi flags in Germany today. Only in America is treason and rebellion considered a noble part of the past, complete though it may have been with lynching, murder, intimidation, burning of churches, vigilante terrorism and much more that continues to this very hour.
Yes, it is clear that neither Germany as a country nor almost any group in Germany (almost nobody, but there are a few) waves the swastika and reveres the Third Reich, nor tries to imply that Germany was really the rightful victor after all. (That, in fact, is how Hitler and the Nazis re-narrated the outcome of World War I, to "restore" Germany's pride). But Germany does not have a culture of ancestor veneration. Holocaust rememberers express disgust and anger at the idea of Nazis still being acknowledged on tombstones in some cemeteries, but deep down everyone realizes these tombstones hardly ever energize real power for resurrecting German anti-Semitism and nationalism. Resurgent neo-Nazi groups remain tiny and are getting nowhere. They can mostly just be ignored. But the lesson from the Weimar Republic is that it is really dangerous to ignore culture-wide denial of past aggression and barbarity when it is combined with a sense of having been grievously treated. The notion that "we were victims but have arisen to reclaim our noble heritage" is fraught with ominous potential.
However, it is not true that the swastika is entirely relegated to museums. They show up quite unexpectedly here and there. Just a few months ago there was outrage here in Thailand over the fact that a teenager was seen using a Nazi trooper helmet with swastika as a motorcycle helmet and a T-shirt dealer was selling shirts with swastikas (the Nazi kind rather than the Hindu kind) at about the same time as some students in a Christian school right here in Chiang Mai were pictured on the Internet creating a poster that seemed to include positive regard for Adolf Hitler. It is very unlikely any of these kids knew about the symbolism of what they were showing, but no less than the Israeli ambassador got in the news demanding that this sort of thing be stopped because it is offensive. It is not unrelated that the leader of present military government has also mentioned Nazi Germany as an example of how a "strong hand" sometimes is effective in restoring national values.
Does all this have any relationship to the Lost Cause ideology being debated today, beginning with South Carolina? I think it does. You be the judge if anything I have said rings a bell.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.