Saturday, July 4, 2015

Striking the colors

YEARS AGO at a new job as an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, I met a colleague, a man proud of his Southern heritage, an otherwise centered, rational man of panoramic thinking.

Unless you crossed him on the reasons for the Civil War.

In one of my first days there, he volunteered his opinion, unprovoked and unsolicited, about the cause of the Civil War, pressing his point — with a certain congenial menace, if memory serves — that the conflict was solely a matter of a spirited regional resistance to tariffs and other economic meddling by the federal government, an attempt to prevent usurpation of states’ rights in matters of commerce, the region’s prevailing agriculture and its chosen means of ... acquiring menial labor.

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He apparently didn’t know who Alexander Stephens was, and at that moment he wouldn’t have cared. If he’d bothered to look into the history of the conflict, he’d have found the seeds of that conflict in the words of Stephens, the vice president of the Confederate States of America, in the Cornerstone Address of March 21, 1861, spoken in Savannah, Ga., a few weeks before Fort Sumter:

“Our new Government is founded ... 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 normal condition.”

That disconnect — between the Confederate cause of my colleague’s extravagant imagination and the Confederacy in fact — has been much in evidence lately. Its predominant visual symbol is closer now to being rightly relegated to history than at any other time in the last 150 years.

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YOU CAN ALMOST envision what’s happening now if it was written as one of those excited vertical headlines in newspapers common to that era:

In a cascade of events, we’ve come to and passed a tipping point about what to do with the Confederate flag:

The National Park Service is withdrawing merchandise bearing the Confederate flag, including materials in the gift shop at Fort Sumter, where it all began in April 1861. “We strive to tell the complete story of America,” National Park Director Jonathan Jarvis said in a statement, as reported in The Daily Beast “All sales items in parks are evaluated based on educational value and their connection to the park. Any stand-alone depictions of Confederate flags have no place in park stores.”

On Wednesday morning, June 24, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley ordered a Confederate flag be removed from the state capitol grounds. Immediately. “Two workers came out of the Capitol building about 8:20 a.m. and with no fanfare quickly and quietly took the flag down,” The Birmingham News reports. “Moments later, Gov. Bentley emerged from the Capitol on his way to an appearance in Hackleburg. Asked if he had ordered the flag taken down, the governor said, ‘Yes I did.’”

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On Sunday, June 21, Apple CEO Tim Cook weighed in on the issue, saying that people could effectively honor the nine black people murdered on June 17 at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston by “eradicating racism & removing the symbols and words that feed it” — a direct shot at the Confederate flag.

Good as Cook’s word, Apple yanked Civil War-themed video games, including Ultimate General: Gettysburg and HexWar Games, from its popular App Store because of that flag’s appearance in their products.

The Clarion-Ledger reported that Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn said that the Confederate part of his state’s flag “needs to be removed.” “We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us,” Gunn said June 22. "As a Christian, I believe our state's flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed. We need to begin having conversations about changing Mississippi's flag." A petition to remove the Confederate part of the Mississippi flag has racked up more than 4,500 signatures.

And CNN has reported that Wal-Mart, retailing’s holy of holies, will end sales of Confederate-themed merchandise — including T-shirts, belt buckles and the flag itself — throughout its 11,495 stores. “We never want to offend anyone with the products that we offer,” said Walmart spokesman Brian Nick. “We have taken steps to remove all items promoting the Confederate flag from our assortment — whether in our stores or on our website.”

Better late than never.

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THE POWER of Southern identity is not an incidental thing. It runs through the art, food, literature, music and motion pictures of this nation like the Mississippi River runs through America itself. Indelible, undying, the American South is a wellspring of inspiration and has been for generations.

But insofar as any part of modern Southern identity has been forged in the fire of resentment a century and a half old, what’s just happened in Charleston, and the national reaction to it, will be some of that identity’s undoing. The South has long grappled with deciding whether to be a part of America or apart from America.

Without the unifying coordinating foundation of resentment, the states that formed the Confederacy have to find a new foundation — for want of a better phrase, a new business model for the future. An existential business model informed by naked contempt for the federal government and thinly-veiled historical rage at its black citizenry just isn’t working anymore. Fact is, it never worked.

Dylann Storm Roof, the young white supremacist who confessed to killing the nine Charleston worshippers, may have done more to undermine the fading defiance of the Confederate mindset than anything done by the civil rights movement or the federal government. His actions in the hopes of creating a race war have probably gone a long way to help preventing one.

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The phrase “business model” isn’t out of place. Historically, over at least the last 50 years, the Southern states comprising the Confederacy have consistently lagged behind the national average in a number of important categories, including education, college graduation rates, health care, broadband Internet access and other factors.

Some of the reasons for that regional distinction are purely political. Leaders of several southern states have consistently refused to accept federal funds intended to enhance health care access. A recent report by the White House Council of Advisers, "Missed Opportunities: The Consequences of State Decisions Not to Expand Medicaid," bears this out.

In Alabama, for example, Gov. Bentley rejected federal funds for Medicaid expansion; the White House study found that doing so would save hundreds of lives and boost federal spending in the state by $1.2 billion. And in Florida, Republican Gov. Rick Scott has done much the same, rejecting health care that could save the lives of hundreds of the Sunshine State’s poorest residents.

Whatever the reasoning for the actions in each of these states, it reflects a foundationally antagonistic relationship between the states and the federal government, a relationship with an historical antecedent, a deeply emotional basis in pride and a repudiation of any authority outside the region — persistence of a strain of the same stubborn regionalism whose metastasis made the Civil War necessary in the first place.

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THOSE WHO’VE pledged allegiance to the flag of the Confederate States of America and to the horrible antiquity for which it now stands (and has stood for 150 years) are at a crossroads now, a point from which it decide to move forward into the national future — to truly and fully end this war between the states of mind.

President Obama said it in Charleston on June 26: “For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation. We see that now.

“Removing the flag from this state’s capitol would not be an act of political correctness; it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought — the cause of slavery — was wrong, the imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong.

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“It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history; a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds. It would be an expression of the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country for the better, because of the work of so many people of goodwill, people of all races striving to form a more perfect union. By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace.”

President Obama said that in Charleston on June 26. On Wednesday, on a street in Nashville, Tenn., one man had the idiot’s temerity to stand on the road shoulder facing the presidential motorcade, and the president’s limousine, holding a Confederate flag and the flag of the United States Marine Corps together, as if they were somehow equals.

That disconnect — the past failing to give way to the present or the future — reflects the problem of rallying around a flag that divides us ... instead of the one that, today of all days, is supposed to bring US together.

Image credits: Stephens: Public domain. Apple logo: © 2015 Apple Inc. Walmart logo: © 2015 Wal-Mart. Roof: Charleston County Sheriff's Office or Charleston Police Department. Flag carrier: via

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