By removing the present from the ethical and intellectual restraints of context, we insulate ourselves from the requirement of understanding it. And by disguising self-constructed ignorance as patriotic nationalism, we avoid the moral requirement to identify, address and correct the very sins we act as beneficiaries to. Because of this, questions of how we should address institutional inequity become questions of why we should if citizens feel they've done nothing unequal today. Questions of how we can help the impoverished become indictments of lazy thieves who simply take advantage of the government help supplied by your hard earned tax dollars. Questions of educational differences are changed into questions of capability instead of assessments of how resource/access disparities influence results. In this self-constructed reality, our collective successes and failures are not the sum of historical consequences. We become conveniently absolved from not just taking responsibility for the sins we benefit from: we're absolved from acknowledging them.
America's expressions of exceptionalism rest on that dissonance. Our perceived innocence is wholly premised on not only forgetting our guilt, but on never knowing what we're guilty of. The myth of the rugged individualist, strapping himself by his bootstraps to succeed exclusively on his own hard earned merits is one that can only come from that typically American framing. As is the myth that cultural and societal disadvantages are chosen by those who suffer from them, and are absolved/fixed whenever the most paltry fig leafs are presented in their direction. To accept that fiction, you'd have to accept that a classist and racially biased society is neither. To accept that fiction, you'd have to think that societal progression is solely determined by individual capacity. To be a True American, you must simultaneously deny what America is while never questioning what made it so.
Memorial Day has, historically, been a testament to that founding contradiction. Its genesis as something initiated by newly freed slaves - who honored union soldiers by giving individual burials to a those corpses thrown into a mass graveyard - has been successfully paved over by those who simply want another thoughtless celebration of America's righteousness. Its significance to the Lost Cause as a rallying point to engage in the collective fantasy that the War Between The States was about something other than the militarized enforcement of white supremacy has similarly been erased from our minds. Noted historian David W. Blight (who did this marvelous lecture on the Civil War) reminds us of both points:
I had no idea about any of this until this weekend, and I can assure that this is the case for most Americans. For as long as I can remember, Memorial Day has been a paint-by-numbers long weekend where we cook out with family members to an uncontroversial background of veteran-worship. And while its shift from a memorial to the Civil War to a catch-all celebration of our wars and our dead has little to do with paving over that history, its function has only served to help us ignore one the most fundamentally defining cultural/domestic events in American history.
At the end of the Civil War, Americans faced a formidable challenge: how to memorialize 625,000 dead soldiers, Northern and Southern. As Walt Whitman mused, it was “the dead, the dead, the dead — our dead — or South or North, ours all” that preoccupied the country. After all, if the same number of Americans per capita had died in Vietnam as died in the Civil War, four million names would be on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, instead of 58,000.
Officially, in the North, Memorial Day emerged in 1868 when the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans’ organization, called on communities to conduct grave-decorating ceremonies. On May 30, funereal events attracted thousands of people at hundreds of cemeteries in countless towns, cities and mere crossroads. By the 1870s, one could not live in an American town, North or South, and be unaware of the spring ritual.
But the practice of decorating graves — which gave rise to an alternative name, Decoration Day — didn’t start with the 1868 events, nor was it an exclusively Northern practice. In 1866 the Ladies’ Memorial Association of Columbus, Ga., chose April 26, the anniversary of Gen. Joseph Johnston’s final surrender to Gen. William T. Sherman, to commemorate fallen Confederate soldiers. Later, both May 10, the anniversary of Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s death, and June 3, the birthday of Jefferson Davis, were designated Confederate Memorial Day in different states.
Memorial Days were initially occasions of sacred bereavement, and from the war’s end to the early 20th century they helped forge national reconciliation around soldierly sacrifice, regardless of cause. In North and South, orators and participants frequently called Memorial Day an “American All Saints Day,” likening it to the European Catholic tradition of whole towns marching to churchyards to honor dead loved ones.
But the ritual quickly became the tool of partisan memory as well, at least through the violent Reconstruction years. In the South, Memorial Day was a means of confronting the Confederacy’s defeat but without repudiating its cause. Some Southern orators stressed Christian notions of noble sacrifice. Others, however, used the ritual for Confederate vindication and renewed assertions of white supremacy. Blacks had a place in this Confederate narrative, but only as time-warped loyal slaves who were supposed to remain frozen in the past.
The Lost Cause tradition thrived in Confederate Memorial Day rhetoric; the Southern dead were honored as the true “patriots,” defenders of their homeland, sovereign rights, a natural racial order and a “cause” that had been overwhelmed by “numbers and resources” but never defeated on battlefields.
Yankee Memorial Day orations often righteously claimed the high ground of blood sacrifice to save the Union and destroy slavery. It was not uncommon for a speaker to honor the fallen of both sides, but still lay the war guilt on the “rebel dead.” Many a lonely widow or mother at these observances painfully endured expressions of joyous death on the altars of national survival.
Some events even stressed the Union dead as the source of a new egalitarian America, and a civic rather than a racial or ethnic definition of citizenship. In Wilmington, Del., in 1869, Memorial Day included a procession of Methodists, Baptists, Unitarians and Catholics; white Grand Army of the Republic posts in parade with a black post; and the “Mount Vernon Cornet Band (colored)” keeping step with the “Irish Nationalists with the harp and the sunburst flag of Erin.”
But for the earliest and most remarkable Memorial Day, we must return to where the war began. By the spring of 1865, after a long siege and prolonged bombardment, the beautiful port city of Charleston, S.C., lay in ruin and occupied by Union troops. Among the first soldiers to enter and march up Meeting Street singing liberation songs was the 21st United States Colored Infantry; their commander accepted the city’s official surrender.
Whites had largely abandoned the city, but thousands of blacks, mostly former slaves, had remained, and they conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war.
The largest of these events, forgotten until I had some extraordinary luck in an archive at Harvard, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into an outdoor prison. Union captives were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.
After the Confederate evacuation of Charleston black workmen went to the site, reburied the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”
We see its traces when - in 2010 - the governor of Virginia rejoined several other states and declared a Confederate History Month to "understand and remember" that its leaders "fought for their homes and communities and Commonwealth". We notice its taint when the Confederate Battle Flag and the Confederate National Flag have been unapologetically incorporated into the state flags of many southern states. We see remnants of its effects when, in 2011, Nathan Bedford Forrest was considered in Mississippi as someone who should be specially incorporated into licenses. We hear its echos when the "states rights" refrain - the legal justification for post-Civil War responses to freed slaves like Jim Crow and segregation - is repeated by modern and prominent politicians. We suffer under the unsettled nature of its history when the Southern Strategy can not only be adopted, but be almost uncontroversially successful in the context of political dialogue and strategy. We adopt its legacy when - in 2011 - we let states like Alabama reenact the inauguration of Confederate president Jefferson Davis without challenge. To understand the severity of this, to understand what we as Americans are and what we tolerate, this is what the Confederacy was about according to the Vice President of the CSA:
The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the "storm came and the wind blew."
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone 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 normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.
This is the declaration of secession in Virginia:
The people of Virginia in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under said Constitition were derived from the people of the United States and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression, and the Federal Government having perverted said powers not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern slave-holding States.This is the declaration of secession for Texas:
This is the declaration of secession for Mississippi:...in this free government *all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights* [emphasis in the original]; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states....
....Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin...And on and on and on. This is what significant elements of our country continue to lionize and celebrate. This is the treasured but never discussed history our politicians play to with dog whistles. This - and the institution the Confederates fought for - is the source of the innumerable disparities that American society has had to (and continues to have to) address. This is the one conflict that inspires the widening gulf in our political differences. This is the context that undergirds American sociological and political understanding. This is what we intentionally forget when we pretend that American culture started with a declaration of liberty for all and upheld it. This is what we ignore when we praise figures who declared that "all men are created equal" while owning slaves. This is what we ethically evade when we comment on the unique wonder of a constitution that contained a clause which argued that its black, enslaved millions only counted as 3/5's of a white man.
Slavery is the gaping hole in this country's history. And the fact that it was never filled is the source of many of its most recent disasters. The Civil War wasn't merely the expression of disagreement between two kinds of states. It was the most direct culmination of a century of compromise for a country of racists and a region which culturally and economically profited from racism. Everyone from our "Founding Fathers" to Lincoln himself pined for a circumstance where the issue could languish unaddressed. The South refused to let that happen when Lincoln was elected. Then it rebelled when he became the haunting specter of a movement that dared to raise objections to chattel slavery and dared to reflect a potentially damning political consensus against their economic well-being. American history and American modernity is determined by many essential truths, but none so essential as this: we did not win the Civil War. We simply stopped fighting it openly.
This is the electoral map for 2000:
This is the electoral map for 2004:
This is the electoral map for 2008:
This is the electoral map for 1860:
This is not the face of a country that can listlessly indulge the fantasy that the past is past. This is not the face of a country that's gotten over or beyond the repugnance of what half of it fought for. Our refusal to address the evils of our forefathers and correct the cascading series of wrongs those evils have produced is the lingering stain we collectively assume we're too good to have and too detached to remove. And our desire to pretend that being beneficiaries of that legacy isn't in the same realm of evil as contributing to it has corroded our capacity to discuss this in the proper terms. A denial of these facts is a denial of American wrong. And the flagrant cultural legitimization of the Confederacy - particularly in the south - is a monument to our cultural failures. The Lost Cause and the politically weaselly overlooking of past and continuing malfeasance has made modern leaders complicit in the continuation of our worst legacies. And the ease with which we ignore that truth has made that complicity bereft of consequences.
The Confederacy was a traitor-regime that fed its existence through forced subservience, murder, torture and rape. It was their legacy and their wishes that were embodied in Jim Crow laws, segregation, the Ku Klux Klan and other forms of terrorism and discrimination. They are our Nazi's. But we speak fondly of them in state capitals as though they're tragic figures and misunderstood, wrongfully maligned parties.
Those pictures are not so much delineations of political differences as they are the stark outline of America's tribal differences. An entire party apparatus has risen up to not only cater to that cultural divide, but to perpetuate it. Harry S. Dent knew what it meant when he created the Southern Strategy. Lee Atwater knew what it meant when he whispered it in Reagan's ear. And Reagan knew what it meant to make a states rights argument in Philadelphia Mississippi - the site of the murder of several civil rights workers. They're playing a tune that's been humming in the background for 140 years. And they're playing a tune that regions of this country have been historically taught to dance to. No attempt to grasp America's political expression can be understood without knowing it. No attempt to comprehend its pervasiveness can be made without hearing what it sounds like:
Atwater: As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry S. Dent, Sr. and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now [the new Southern Strategy of Ronald Reagan] doesn’t have to do that. All you have to do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues he's campaigned on since 1964 and that's fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cut taxes, you know, the whole cluster.Improvement is not negation. But we exist in a country that wants to avoid distinguishing between the two. Just as our pride is contingent on a denial of history, our perceived innocence - and argued moral superiority - is contingent on our ignorance. If we pretend to not know the dynamics at play when Gingrich calls Obama a "Food Stamp President", we can pass off any indifference to that rhetoric as a defect in Gingrich instead of a defect in the country that allows Gingrich to exist. America's political and historical consciousness isn't so much a reflection of willful stupidity as it's a continued and continuing deflection of culpability. By characterizing our past as past, by thinking of racial inequity as an individual defect instead of a societally/institutionally enforced one, we ignore the fluidity of that history and the extent of our contributions to it. But to think this is merely about race is to simplify the complexity of the dynamics involved.
Questioner: But the fact is, isn't it, that Reagan does get to the Wallace voter and to the racist side of the Wallace voter by doing away with legal services, by cutting down on food stamps?
Atwater: You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."
This is about entitlement. This is about a nation of people that feels it can ignore the problems it causes. It's about a country that feels that the capacity to overlook is a right afforded by justifiable circumstance instead of a privilege afforded by self-interested detachment. It's about a country that maintains a permanent underclass and pretends that its culture is exclusively defined by those who aren't apart of it. It's about a country that removes the ability to progress from an entire bloc of people and then mocks and ignores them when - after the potential to compete comes - their success isn't immediate. And none of this happened in a vacuum. It's all informed and inspired by an established institutional and cultural norm that refuses to admit that it benefits from oppression. Just as it's established by a history that - until the 60's - enforced the belief that color marked the level of equality you could appreciate and the level of freedom you could enjoy.
Entitlement is what marks its persistence. And entitlement is what inspires the south to pretend that such a history can be celebrated as though there's a history worth celebration. As with Gingrich, I don't merely fault them, I fault the cultural context that allows them to exist. I fault the history books that mention the Civil War and the Confederacy's evils in passing. I fault the failure to discuss, analyze and criticize the sources and expressions of Dixie Pride. I fault the way our discussion of the south - like our discussion of race - has fallen into the comfortable realm of "it's solved enough, so there's nothing left we can do". I fault a country that erases the diversity of its artistic, cultural, historic and political inspirations in favor of a "safe" history of familiar, uncontroversial and often, primarily white, male faces as though all other demographics were background noise. I fault the budding desire to pretend that unseen and silently processed inequity is proof of its nonexistence.
We've nationally internalized an inability to acknowledge our problems, and we've made that failure the string from which our patriotism dangles. That we've bought into the fiction that unconscious contribution is the same as no contribution has done little more than infect a wound we think we've healed by covering it up. And very little of our most damning qualms can be fixed without addressing these facts. American culture has made an alter to forgetfulness, and in our collective laziness, we've embraced a moral authority we have not earned, and we've cultivated a sense of progression that our institutions fail to reflect. And worse, we've made these problems persist by willfully refusing to notice them.
I daresay America not only has a responsibility to notice them, it has a moral obligation to remove them. And we should start by putting the Confederacy in its place and by putting the continuing pertinence of black oppression as a foundation of our democracy and our history at the forefront. It's an evil we all recognize. It's an evil we constantly hear about. But it's an evil we've failed to contextualize. We see its ghosts in the crevices of our cultural mainstays, but we've made its stain so translucent that we shield ourselves from having to notice them. It's time to not only own the fullness of that history, but to acknowledge our place in marginalizing and indifferently indulging its consequences.
None of that happens without awareness.
Awareness of not only what that history is, but of the little ways that history and its effects are maintained by us. The ongoing delusion of America doesn't have to be embodied by "remembering" the elective deaths of well paid soldiers in politically and morally questionable wars. There are other, deeper things at play that not only warrant our attention, but our exertion. How many of us have the courage to face them?