South Carolina’s decision last week to strike its rebel colors, 150 years (plus three months) after the Civil War ended, reminds a historically forgetful nation of the deep truth in what Southern novelist William Faulkner said:
“The past is never dead — it’s not even past.”
No doubt the long-delayed surrender to some hard cultural truths in the birthplace of secession — this final lowering of the Confederate battle flag that has long flown on South Carolina’s statehouse grounds — is altogether fitting and proper, coming as it does in response to last month’s heart-sickening mass murder by a racist lunatic apparently possessed by the worst demons of his heritage.
But the broader light the flag debate shines, not just on the past’s persistent power, but on the elusiveness of final or total truths about our various pasts, could prove helpful to Americans perplexed by their country’s present, or by the world’s.
I approach this divisive issue with a somewhat divided mind, as something of an American half-breed. I’m the son of a Southern father who came north for winter maneuvers as a World War II G.I. and fell for a Minnesota girl before shipping overseas.
He served in combat from the beaches of Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge, alongside thousands of other sons of Dixie who fought and bled for America as unquestioningly as their grandfathers (and even a few fathers) had fought to break up the union barely one lifetime before.
Dad’s journey (like that of so many ordinary Southern patriots) embodies America’s successful reconciliation after one of human history’s most gruesome civil wars. While imperfect, this healing has been among the nation’s most impressive historical accomplishments.
But among the painful truths of our past is the fact that binding up the nation’s wounds required (or so our forebears judged) morally tragic patience when it came to bringing racial justice to the South (or to the North, for that matter). And there is much work yet to do.
Even so, it’s possible that the whitewashed myth of the South’s “lost cause” — for which the “stars and bars” often has been a symbol — has on balance been a healthful bit of humbug. The historically silly “lost cause” notion that the Confederate rebellion was a generic break for independence and freedom in which perpetuating slavery played little role has allowed many Southerners to take pride in their ancestors’ courage while repudiating their racism.
Yes, latter-day Klan-inspired racists’ claim to the Confederate pennant as, in reality, a battle flag for white supremacy is more candid history. So the time has long since come to let the bigots keep their ensign.
But let’s hope we needn’t surrender to those who treasure only the worst in Southern history the whole of that history, or insist on shattering every soft-focus memory of antebellum culture.
Modernist, secular, individualistic, urban American culture may be different — and we’ll see how well that experiment endures. But nearly everywhere else, the need to respect, if not revere, one’s ancestors — to take pride in where one comes from, even if it means partly overlooking the past’s dark side — runs deep in human nature and always has. It certainly seems to in the American South.
As America fumbles and flounders around the world today, it is often the longevity of the past that seems to confound us.
Elsewhere on this page today, commentator Steve Young worries thoughtfully about the many signs of increasing tribalism in today’s world.
The undead past explains how sectarian and tribal loyalties 1,000 or more years old still powerfully shape and shake the Middle East. It explains how secessionist passions in Scotland still rock British politics. It explains how Vladimir Putin can still stir Russian nationalism with memories of Napoleon’s aggression and Russia’s losses in the 1850s Crimean War — never mind living recollections of Russia’s suffering in the 20th century’s world wars.
Those wars also produced the modern world’s two most poignant examples of nations haunted by an inconceivably guilty past.
Germany’s truly fierce commitment to internationalism and the troubled unification of Europe almost seems a kind of substitute — a sort of political methadone — for a people whose horrid history has convinced them that nationalism is not a drug they can handle.
Speaking this past May 8, the 70th anniversary of V-E Day, the speaker of the German parliament declared the abject surrender of his nation in 1945 “a day of liberation” and paid heartfelt tribute to Germany’s Allied conquerors and “millions of victims.”
Japan, never as forthright about acknowledging its wartime crimes, has seemed to some even more eager to emerge from the shadow of its past as tensions with China have grown.
Eras and cultures differ, and so does the depth of their evils. But in the end, maybe we should judge — and forgive — people of the past (who, after all, really are dead) just enough to keep ourselves humble and cautious.
For of course we moderns are sure that all our most popular moral assumptions are flawless.
So were they.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.