Flags of Our Fathers

The day after the shooting in Charleston, one of the British tabloids led with the headline “America’s Shame”.  Reading that headline, it struck me that describing the actions of a lone, hate-filled shooter as bringing shame upon a nation of 300 million people is, in one sense, really quite extraordinary.

And yet in the context of the US’s history of slavery and racism, the headline didn’t seem that outrageous.  Indeed, it is shameful that in America today a young man would shoot nine “nice people” in a Bible study purely because of the colour of their skin.  I can’t escape the fact that I am implicated in the shameful actions of my fellow countrymen, particularly as a de facto representative of the US in a foreign country (as I was reminded when my cab driver at midnight last night asked me to explain why the US is “such a violent country”).

Harvard ethicist Michael Sandel argues (in his excellent book, Justice) that shame in such contexts only makes sense if we take seriously the moral claims made on us as a result of factors outside our control, and particularly those moral claims which are made on us by the narratives into which we are born.  I didn’t choose to be an American or a Southerner, yet that lack of choice doesn’t absolve me from actions which bring my country or my heritage into disrepute, or from the duties I have as a member of those groups.  While a US green card-holder doesn’t have a duty to serve on a jury or in the armed forces, I, as a citizen, do — even though my citizenship was an accident of birth.  It would be wrong for me to shirk those duties, not because I chose them, but because of who I am and where I come from.

Which brings me to the complex relationship between the South and the Confederacy.  I have ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War (on my dad’s side there was apparently a Unitarian chaplain who was a crack shot in his Union regiment), but growing up in North Carolina I definitely feel closer to my great-great-grandfathers who fought for the Confederacy.  “Great-great” may seem quite far removed, but I knew my great-grandmother, and her father was the only one of three brothers to return from the Civil War.  I know the house where she grew up, a house that her father inherited from his older brother who never made it back.  I know where my great-great-grandfather is buried, and the church which has a photograph of him hanging on the back wall.

Without having chosen it, the Confederacy and the experiences of my ancestors are a salient part of my own identity, and so I can appreciate the tensions that identity can produce.  You want to be proud of your heritage, and of the real sacrifices which your ancestors made.  Yet how is that possible when those sacrifices were made in the furtherance of evils like slavery and racism?

It’s no good to say that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery; that it was a principled stand for states’ rights under the Constitution.  As many commentators have pointed out, while states’ rights may have been the legal basis for secession there is simply no getting around the fact that the South seceded because it wanted to preserve slavery.

Yet on an individual level the situation feels more complex.  The leaders of the Southern states may have waged war to preserve an evil way of life, and no doubt many of the foot soldiers did as well (or at least didn’t disagree with the basic premise).  I don’t know what my great-great-grandfather thought about slavery (he was probably supportive or indifferent, not having any slaves himself), and he surely must have viewed slaves as inferiors.  Yet in my family, even before the days of political correctness, the emphasis was always on the fact that he and his brothers fought because it was their duty.  We were told how the eldest brother enlisted in the Confederate Army so that the war would be over quickly and his younger brothers wouldn’t have to fight.  Time and again we were told how North Carolina was the last state to secede but lost more of its sons in the Civil War (my great-great-great-uncles included) than any other.  And my great-grandmother took great delight in saying that her father “never shirked his duty” (unlike, we later learned, her father-in-law, who went AWOL just before the Battle of Gettysburg).

For me growing up, the narrative of the Confederacy was a bittersweet story of duty and sacrifice, albeit in an unjust cause.  Those who served in the Confederate Army — Lee, Johnson, Jackson, my great-great-grandfathers — were “American heroes” who acted out of their sense of duty, often in spite of other reservations (interestingly, such hagiography did not extend to Davis and the other Confederate politicians).  And although I think it is past time we rejected the whitewashed view of the “War of Northern Aggression” (and the flags and memorials that go with it), it is hard not to find something admirable in the sacrifice of a man who hopes to spare his younger brothers the horror of battle or a foot soldier who holds the line against enemy troops; or even a general (Lee) who hated secession but would not take up arms against his fellow Virginians.

I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising: evil is, after all, the perversion of the good.  The Confederate cause twisted Southerners’ senses of duty and loyalty to their States (good things) to the defence of an institution which dehumanised and enslaved their fellow brothers and sisters.

Is it possible to find any good in such a great evil?  Can there be honour in the service of a bad cause?  Maybe not.  Then what does it mean to be a white Southerner once we acknowledge the true legacy of the Confederacy?  These are questions which the South is, in many ways, only now starting to really come to grips with, 150 years after the end of slavery.

The South is, of course, not the only country to have to deal with a toxic legacy.  What does it mean to be German after the Second World War?  How does a German today view their grandfather’s service in the Third Reich, or their great-uncle’s death in Stalingrad?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but to dismiss them out of hand is to ignore the real moral force of our inherited moral duties.  It is that moral force which, in some way, imputes Dylann Roof’s evil actions to me, and which makes it impossible for me to disown my inheritance, even if I wanted to.  It is also that moral force which charges me with a responsibility to help repair the damage done by the Confederacy and its apologists.

I love the South.  In some sense it will always be my home, and I will always be a Southerner.  I expect to remain conflicted.

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