dead guys

I love my friend Brian Beutler. But I didn’t like his piece calling for a holiday celebrating the confederacy’s defeat or its followup.

Brian is an excellent writer and he makes his argument well. But this kind of Acela Corridor confrontationalism is inherently cartoonish, and it relies on a cartoonish understanding of one’s countrymen. Like this, where the cultural identity of a large chunk of the country is reduced to nothing more than a devotion to white supremacy:

[W]e probably wouldn’t call the region “The South” if its political identity weren’t still interwoven with a glossy conception of the Confederacy.

This is even harsher than usual: ordinarily Southerners are at least granted a nod toward fried food and congregationalist religion before being called racists.

Jokes aside, I can’t help reacting to the existence of these pieces personally. I was born in Virginia. My last name is Lee. The line of my ancestry goes through Robert E. Lee’s father and up to a bunch of other dead guys, all of whom, I’m quite sure, held odious views and did odious things. To a first approximation absolutely everyone in history was an asshole, but it is certainly true that some managed to do more harm than others. My blood contains echoes of a few who were in a position to hurt lots of people, and did.

Brian wants a fresh verdict about the moral obscenity of the Confederacy, commemorated with a holiday and the destruction of monuments venerating Confederate figures. I don’t think anyone should object to the underlying judgment; I agree that the idea of flying a Confederate flag is disgusting. But it’s sometimes hard not to feel that my fellow liberals’ modern desire to relitigate an old war — to emphatically celebrate a victory no one living remembers — is driven more by moral vanity than a considered approach to ending racism in contemporary society.

If those highways were quietly renamed and statues wordlessly removed, I wouldn’t care. A few others might, but I wouldn’t care about that, either. But I do resent the idea that this is *my* problem by virtue of where I was born or who my ancestors were — that it is my responsibility to account for it. People seem to think it is. Brian’s pieces are addressed to everyone in the South, not to Neoconfederates specifically. There’s a reason that he IMed me the link to his article after he hit publish. There’s a reason my high school girlfriend told me not to mention my last name when I met her mom. There’s a reason people sometimes make jokes about owning slaves when they meet me (really). They are demanding that I repudiate a tribe they’ve imagined for me, and that I glorify one that they have implicitly excluded me from. I wonder what their manners are like when they meet someone from Germany or Japan.

Fuck all that. My grandmother came down from Vermont and married a Lee, who grew up a missionary’s son in China and spent his declining years writing furiously anti-apartheid letters to the editors of the Washington Post. I remember finding my dad’s old slot car set in their attic, the slower, always-losing racecar labeled “BIGOT” — a household moral axiom clumsily translated into child’s handwriting. I won’t tolerate being told those people bore some kind of hereditary moral contamination, or smile at the idea of assigning original sin on the basis of birthplace. The merits of the long-dead have nothing to say about my grandparents’ failings or virtues. Nor our own.

So yes, no more veneration of the Confederates. But also no more unprompted denigration. No more thirst for confrontation. Just silence. Stop talking about them. Allow their names to fade into meaningless strings of syllables that signify nothing more than where one span of asphalt ends and another begins. Or better: nothing at all.

I’d be a fool to claim that historical grievances have no bearing on today’s injustices. But insisting on self-abasement by the children of wrongdoers has less power to heal than the descendants of the righteous flatter themselves to think. There is more pressing work we could all be doing.

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