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The Civil War and Southern Attitudes Today



     John Gehl lives in an Atlanta suburb close to Kennesaw Mountain, where General Sherman won the battle which led to the capture of Atlanta and his "march to the sea." At my suggestion, John asked his wife Carolyn, a Southerner, how Georgians feel about all this troubled history. She comments:
     The South is disappearing. In the past it was true to say that although the South had many voices and faces---Virginians were as different from Cajuns, as Alabamans were from Tar Heels, and so on---nevertheless the region had a shared consciousness based on historical memory. That is no longer true, so when you ask how "real" Southerners feel about the Civil War, the most accurate thing you can say today is that they feel very little at all. Especially the young people, Generation X, Y and so on. My "silent" generation and the baby boomers will be the last to have any "feeling" about it. My emotions about the Civil War (shaped by my teachers during the patriotic days of World War II and the Cold War) were that, although Yankees were overbearing and obnoxious, it was a good thing they had won the war, ended slavery and kept the union together. What I do resent is that some non-southerners act as though they believed the movie versions of the South, from Gone with the Wind to Deliverance.
     Clearly the behavior of the South toward blacks has been motivated for most of its history by fear. The white population both during the period of slavery and during the period of segregation felt like the boy on the back of the tiger, unable to get off for fear of the consequences. The feelings toward blacks that I picked up on as a child from the adult whites were a mixture of fear, noblesse oblige, and shame. (How could you not fear the wrath of a people who had been treated as they were?) The miracle has been that the African-American people were so forgiving, and so much the children of America!
     The current Gen Xers and Y’s don’t have the same appreciation of just how awful segregation was, how humiliating and shameful for us all, black and white. They have grown up in an integrated civil society. The downside is that the white younger generation have no guilt --- but maybe that’s for the better, as forgetting on both sides may be the best foundation for progress.
     From the standpoint of popular culture the Old South is just so "over" it’s not even on the radar screen. There are a few sad little ‘re-enactments." [I suppose Carolyn is referring to the re-enactment of Civil War battles. At some places like Gettysburg they still are staged, but probably to attract tourists.] The only vestiges of tradition that cherish the Confederate flag are a few fraternity houses, who see the flag as a symbol of loyalty and duty, in the way of Robert E. Lee. Unfortunately, they are too young to understand just how horrible the associations that flag has for blacks. But the controversy over the flag will fade away, because the "cause" has no constituency. The older folks are dying, the young have a national culture, and the past is not pleasant to remember.
     You referred to resentment of the north’s victory as a "cause of killing blacks." The kind of southerners who kill blacks are simply sociopaths. In another environment they might blow up federal buildings or send bombs to university professors, so although the reason for the target may be racial, the cause is really criminal pathology. I doubt that statistics would show this kind of pathology is greater in the South than in the rest of the country.
     We were living in Georgia when Jimmy Carter ran for Governor. He waged a traditional campaign, full of code words designed to win white reactionary votes, and he did. He was elected governor, and Lester Maddox was elected lieutenant governor. (Lester had already served a term as governor.) We were involved with fair housing activists at the time and we greeted Carter’s election with alarm. Much to everyone’s surprise (including the poor reactionaries who voted for him) Carter did an about-face and became a champion of civil rights!


     My comment: The last point was not brought out in the C-Span series, which cannot therefore be regarded as balanced. In general, these programs have patriotically embellished the portrait of the presidents, painting out the warts. Some WAISers who clearly hate Carter have sent me messages which point out only his warts. I have no evidence to say whether he had these warts or whether they were added by the painter.
     Carolyn does not even mention Sherman and his march. This brings up the complicated question of defeat. (See the posting on Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and the defeat of Japan). Atlanta is a bustling, international city. Probably feelings vary according to location and age.
     The psychology of defeat is a complex, little studied phenomenon. Old Austrians lamented the loss of the empire, but younger ones scarcely think about it. Germans have not yet forgotten the destruction and humiliation of defeat in World War II, but most of them are glad to be rid of Hitler.
     The defeat of Spain in 1898 was a terrible blow, but the bruise has disappeared. However, Spain is still trying to maintain leadership of the Iberian world through the new organization announced at the Havana meeting. Brazil had changed Portugal's dislike of Spain into disdain for Spanish America. Spain has just announced that, thanks to its efforts, Brazil has agreed to make the study of Spanish obligatory in schools. Philip II, who dreamed of an Iberian empire in America, must feel vindicated.

Ronald Hilton - 12/7/99


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