I didn’t surrender, but they took my horse and made him surrender. They have him pulling a wagon up in Kansas I bet.
Chief Dan George, as Lone Watie in The Outlaw Josie Wales
In the winter of ’65
We were hungry, just barely alive
By May the 10th, Richmond had fell
It’s a time I remember, oh so well,
The night they drove old Dixie down.
Robbie Robertson and The Band
The Band, from The Last Waltz
I do not profess to be an expert on the subject, and being a outsider, I do not presume to preach. Nor am I a civil war tragic like some of our politicians here in Australia – they can tell you precisely who said what at what o’clock on such and such a location on this battlefield or that.
Mind you, a civil war that claimed more than seven hundred thousand American lives, tore a young nation apart, and the echoes of which reverberate still one hundred and fifty years later, is bound to exert a degree of fascination on an inquiring mind.
Recently, the dead hand of the American Civil War reached out and touched the hearts of Americans and their friends throughout the world in the wake of yet another mass shooting. This time, a young man gunned down worshippers at prayer. That the victims were folk of colour, and the shooter, a young white extremist, reopened wounds that have never really healed.
What made this massacre different from all the other massacres was the prominence of the Confederate flag in the iconography of the fresh-faced killer. The battle flag of Dixie has never gone away. It flies inThe Dukes of Hazzard, True Blood, and even The Walking Dead, and is a favoured accessory above government buildings and at right wing rallies in The South, those former secessionists states that lay south of the Mason-Dixon line
But what also makes this slaughter different from all those other slaughters is that something is actually being done about it.
Not, however a tightening of gun laws. The Second Amendment is safe and still well kept. The President mourns with the grieving relatives and congregation and breaks into song. POTUS’ rendering of Amazing Grace goes viral on You Tube. But as ever, nothing can be done. No God or mortal can stymy the U.S’ long-time love affair with the gun, nor challenge the NRA choke-hold on the American polity – particularly with the next presidential race in the starting blocks.
No, not the right to bear arms. But the rather, the right to flaunt the Stars and Bars, an enduring symbol of the lost Confederate cause, and a rallying point for those who still believe the rebel cause to be just, those who take solace from an heroic defeat, and those who believed that “the South will rise again”, and indeed those who KNOW that the South has indeed risen again. For have not the white, right wing, God fearing, Clinton-baiting, and Obama-hating ‘Red’ states of the South conquered and colonized the American political system?
Flags can unite nations. And also divide them. And none more so, it seems, than this one. Professor Colin Tatz once said People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel. This flag is potent symbol that spans both sides of the great divide. It is seen by many a a symbol of racism, and in the wake of the killings, there has been a loud call to remove it from public places and events. Others see it as part of their identity, of who they and their families are. They refuse to surrender it and to trade it in for Old Glory. The call has been met with with, well, dare I say it, defiance and rebellion. If you’ve got one, flaunt it – on houses, on cars, on roadsides, on Facebook posts, blogs and websites.
I do not want to editorialize here. Rather, I would like to share the following piece in the Washington Post. It is symptomatic of the intellectual and cultural reaction to tragic events. If your cannot do something positive and practical about a problem. Advocate something symbolic, politically correct, a placebo even. Like banning the film Gone with the Wind.
The past is another country. They thought things differently there: The iconic film opened with “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…”
So, as students of history, do we call for the suppression of an artistic rendering of the past because we feel uncomfortable with the ideas, opinions and sentiments expressed therein? If this sprawling Southern soap opera, this pseudo Shakespearean tale of love lost and found and lost again, against a backdrop of great events, is to be consigned to the oublier of history, why cease there? Why not Lawrence of Arabia? The Outlaw Josie Wales? The Searchers? Showboat?
Let’s not go there. The South will always be with us, in our thoughts, in our historical memory, in our art and literature, our books and films. It is forever on the border of our consciousness. Even when listening to our favourite music.
Take the Flag, but leave the songs alone.
Alison Krauss and Union Station
Paul Robeson, from Show Boat