Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Garden of History: What if Your Heritage Is Hate?


  
          
The first time my wife and I drove through Virginia we could not help noticing and being a little shocked by all the Confederate paraphernalia for sale in local roadside markets. Confederate flags. Statues and statuettes of all sizes. Bumper stickers.
The sign outside one such emporium established the rationale for all this merchandise to memorialize a failed secessionist rebellion: “Heritage, not Hate.”
You can try to convince yourself this is the case, but it’s just not true.
The Confederacy of the 11 Southern states that sought to secede from the Union and set up their own slave-happy nation was based, by its own account, on the belief in the racial superiority of white people to those of African ancestry; or, for that matter, to any people who did not appear ‘white’ to ‘us.’
True, this was a widespread belief back in 1861, not only in the American South but throughout North America, Europe and other places where Europeans ruled the roost.
It was also a glaring contradiction to the philosophical basis for an independent United States of America, as declared clearly, and for the ages, in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
This was not a factual claim, as it is sometimes misconstrued to be.
It was a philosophical claim; what the study of logic calls a “major premise.” When a proponent claims some point to be “self-evident,” he is not arguing for it, he is drawing conclusions and implications from it.
In terms of political philosophy, the statement “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is, again, not offered as a factual, scientific, or legal claim that is open to dispute.
It is the basis for a social contract.
Why are the English ‘colonies’ of North America entitled to declare their independence from the British crown and the British empire? Because, just like their English cousins, with whom they are ‘created equal,’ they have certain ‘inalienable’ rights — including liberty. ‘Unalienable’ means you can’t take them from us.
We Americans can either choose to surrender our ‘liberty’ to you — the British king — or we can take it back and keep it for ourselves as the basis for a new social contract. Jefferson and the other signatories to the Declaration chose the latter.
This reasoning, of course, creates a glaring contradiction when the status of African Americans held in slavery is considered.
The only way to escape the logic of the Declaration of Independence is to contend that your slaves are not ‘really’ human beings. If they’re not included in the phrase ‘all men’ (‘men’ in the 18th century meaning human beings), they they don’t have a right to their liberty.
However, no one knew better than slave owners themselves how undeniably and fully human their slaves were. If one population can mate successfully with another population, then they’re all the same animal.
Ask Thomas Jefferson for the answer to that question. Ask Sally Hemings.
Ask Barack Obama’s parents.
So when certain slave-owning states declared their independence from the USA, their political theorists declared their own, quite different philosophical basis for creating a social union that was fundamentally different from the one they were leaving.
Confederacy Vice President Alexander Stephens made this point very clear, right at the start in 1861. The United States, he said, had been founded in 1776 on “the false idea that all men are created equal.” The Confederacy, by contrast, “is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
There you have it, from the horse’s mouth. Or, actually, from the guys riding those horses in all the recently disputed monuments.
The inescapable conclusion is that whatever Lee, Jackson and various other Southern “heroes” thought they were fighting for, they were in fact fighting for a bad cause. The preservation of slavery, and (a major argument for secession), its expansion throughout North America and the world. 
Another term for this idea is white supremacy.
That’s the “heritage” of the Confederate States of America, a mistaken (and despicable) idea now widely and accurately called “racism.”
So is that ‘heritage’ in fact significantly different from ‘hate’?
Let’s understand when and why those statues that so may white people who today live in those formerly confederated states (and elsewhere) are so fond of were erected.
It was around the turn of the 20th century (the 1890s and following decades) — the same time the former Confederate states began to enact so-called Jim Crow laws designed to deprive the Constitutionally freed population of former slaves and their descendants of equal rights — that these monuments to the region’s Confederate, slave-owning heritage began to go up in public spaces.
Jim Crow is the name given to the legal codification of segregation — separate white and black facilities. Separate schools, accommodations, bathrooms, water fountains. The formally legalized, institutionally superiority of white people: Blacks go to the back of the bus.
It happened when it did, more than a generation after the Civil War and two decades after the removal of the last US soldiers from the South, marking the end of Reconstruction, because Southern state governments recognized that Northern politicians were no longer interested in protecting the rights of black American citizens. Issues of class and money, unions, monopolies, Progressive legislation versus the oligarchic right to amass huge personal fortunes, now occupied the political parties who dominated the federal government. In the void created by the withdrawal of the federal government from their region, Southern states were given a free hand to segregate African Americans and deny them basic civil rights and political rights such as the right to vote.
A second wave of statues to the ‘heroes of the Confederacy’ went up during the Civil Rights era when state governments in the South were resisting pressures to desegregate schools and public facilities.
To quote the Southern Poverty Law Center, which documents the activities of hate groups and civil rights movements, “The civil rights movement led to a backlash among segregationists.” (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-40966800)
This is putting the case very mildly. The visceral hatred shown by many white people to Civil Rights activists and demonstrators has been pretty well and extensively documented. Anyone unclear about the blunt expression of hatred by whites in the South (and elsewhere) for Civil Rights advocates and integrationists is advised to view any of the many documentaries on the period, including the recent film about Black author James Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro.”
 (see http://prosegarden.blogspot.com/2017/02/ )
If the determination to maintain legal superiority and social and economic power of one group of citizens over another — to maintain the fiction we call “race,” not to mention the persistent belief in the innate superiority of one group over another based on the criterion of skin color — is not a matter of “hate,” what term would you prefer?
What if your ‘heritage’ is hate?
But, ah, those beautiful statues created as monuments to a noble race of traitors. It would be such a shame, the ignoramus in the White House laments, to tear them down. How can we bear to give them up?
Third Reich architecture in Germany was also judged pretty impressive.
And how about all those statues of Lenin and Stalin the Soviets planted all over their conquered domains in Europe and Central Asia? Should we have worried about preserving them as well? And what piece of Iraqi history did we foolishly destroy by toppling the icons of Saddam?
No statues yet to POTUS 45.
I’d settle for consigning the thing itself to the dung heap of history, where he may join the images of his favorite white supremacists.