The problem today is not that the South focuses too much attention on its heroes, such as Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. Steven Taylor argued recently that we don’t focus enough on what they stood for, a Confederate nativism and patriotism that first fought for slavery, then to defend a system of apartheid known as Jim Crowism, and, later, de facto segregation, the retrograde vestiges of which still persist stubbornly in the South, manifesting themselves in lousy public schools, lack of access to affordable health care, and poor public services for the region’s poor. In my new home state, income and property taxes are low, but an outrageous and regressive 10 percent sales tax punishes the poor.
I arrived from California two years ago and have been observing the South from the heart of the old cotton belt, from Montgomery, Alabama whose convoluted city seal brags that it is both the “cradle of the confederacy” and the “birthplace of the civil rights movement.” In most respects, this is a radically transformed place from the 1960s. Martin Luther King would be astonished and, I think, proud of the advances in race relations in Montgomery that brings Whites and Blacks together to cheer for their beloved Crimson Tide and Tigers. A walk into any mall, YMCA, public space, or restaurants will yield African and White Americans getting cheerfully along, as if their sordid racial history never existed.
There is, moreover, a growing cadre of middle class Blacks, Latinos and Asians in greater Montgomery thanks to the housing boom, foreign direct investment in the automobile industry, and military retirees who stick around or return after doing a tour or schooling at Maxwell Air Force Base. Still, as Steven Taylor notes, this is a state where Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee survive, where economic disparities and poor public services disproportionally harm the poor, where a hideous large Confederate flag wafts menacingly next to the interstate artery that connects Montgomery and Birmingham, and where Blacks and Whites by and large attend their own churches and schools.
I agree with Steven’s thesis, that we do not speak enough around here about what Davis and Lee stood for, but wish to stress the obverse of his argument. I have observed that liberal Yankee elites are part of the problem. They do not pay earnest attention to Davis, Lee, and many other important generals of the Southern racist cause and are too dismissive of their Southerner brethren, their heroes, and their way of life down here, so much so that they treat them like an estranged brother that they are ashamed of and don’t want at Christmas dinner.
In short, they treat the South with, bigotry, scorn and condescension, hating the sinner and the sin. They compare Davis and Lee to Hitler and a Nazi general and deny they had any virtue worth studying and learning about. These were after all extraordinary Americans who, deplorably, put there immense talents to use in order to preserve a society and way of life that was rotten at its core. The same can be said of many others, including Andrew Jackson, John Calhoun, and Richard Russell. Thumbing their nose at Yankees, Southerners continue to quietly celebrate Robert E. Lee with Martin Luther King Day and maintain Jefferson Davis and Confederate Memorial Days.
The problem is that too much of America does not in any way esteem Southern history and culture. (Americans don’t know a whole lot about history in general but that is another conversation). Liberal elites spend too much time sneering at their own heritage and its people, a culture that gave us Faulkner, Foote, (Harper) Lee, Capote, and many others – titans whose literary exploits continue to inspire the world. The Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez often referred to Faulkner as “my master.” Liberals embrace Southern literary masters, of course, but reject the society that shaped and inspired them.
Elite Yankee bigotry swells Southern pride. They cannot swallow that the South is part of America and that its history, both the sordid and the glorious, is our history. Ironically, Yankee elites are much nicer to newer members of the American family such as Mexican-Americans than they are their old siblings, whom they reject. They smugly and moronically liken the old South to Nazi Germany, which of course it was not. Slavery, apartheid, and segregation are horrible and deplorable enough and need no hyperbole. As a nation, in addition to our towering contributions towards peace and prosperity since World War II, we have many sins to answer for in our history, including the forced internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the Mexican-American War which was, strictly speaking, a war of conquest as Lincoln argued at the time from his congressional perch, the despoilment of Native Americans, the nasty Central American wars of the 1980s where US aided governments sponsored death squads and repression, and support for murderous right wing regimes elsewhere in Latin America during the Cold War, and much else.
Yankee liberals, incredibly, believe that it is the patriotic duty of Southerners to reject their own history, heroes, and way of life. This simply will not do and helps keeps the ghosts of Davis and Lee, not to mention their holidays, alive in Alabama. I have spent the last two years living in the South, attempting to learn about my new home, its culture, history, literature, and people. The liberal Yankee straw man described above is molded from statements and reactions — the soft bigotry — of many highly educated liberal Yankee friends in conversations about my decision to move to Alabama and the life I proposed to try and build here.
The South is evolving fast as a consequence of immigration from around the United States, Mexico, Asia and Latin America as well as inbound investment from other parts of America and the globe. Industry is spreading and other minorities are finding their way here, so much so that in thirty years, when I retire, the Old South will be mostly gone. I carefully observe construction crews and manual laborers and notice a growing number of Mexican and Central Americans working together with Whites and Blacks. Sadly, though, Alabama will continue to be poor because of the dominance of a political class that clings to a perverted dogma about the role of the state, taxation and public goods. The South will compete not with the high productivity parts of America, Europe and Asia. Instead, because it stubbornly refuses to tax adequately and invest in public goods, it will compete with Brazil as a producer of manufactures and raw materials.
Political culture is a stubborn thing, so mulish that one wonders if it is wired into the genetic code down here. I wonder if globalization and technological change will finally put the ghosts of Lee and Davis to rest or whether they will remain troglodytic zombies haunting this lovely part of America. What I do know is that liberal Yankees are too ignorant to see that they continue to fuel neo-segregationist flames, giving advantage to racists who masquerade as Southern patriots as well as politicians who stir class and, obliquely, racial conflict to remain in power. Fortunately, the proportion of racists is diminishing among the kindly people of Alabama who are judged much too harshly for their conservative politics that reflect the deficiencies of our political institutions, the dominance of rural interests, and devotion to a flawed model of the state much more than they do to some neo-Confederate world view.