Confederate Battle Flags, Nazi Salutes, and Causes

Are we stuck with the hatred unleashed by Donald Trump’s success? Are we seeing something that has always been there, but repressed, bubbling to the surface?

I don’t think it’s quite so simple. Or as necessarily permanent as it now may seem.

Let me say this at the outset: All four of my great-great-grandfathers on my mother’s side fought for the Confederacy. One was invalided out just months after entering the army, carrying a bullet in his head for the rest of his life. Another was captured during the Union breakthrough at Petersburg, spending the final weeks of the war in a POW camp in Maryland. Another was a cavalry private who probably fought at Gettysburg. I have less information on the fourth: Other than the fact that he entered the army in the middle of 1862, I know little about him. I wish I knew more.

Yet I want nothing to do with the Confederate battle flag. I suspect many of the millions of other descendants feel exactly the same.

Use of the flag today has little to do with a war 150 years past but comes from anger today and a need to strike out, at least symbolically, against perceived oppressors. Similarly, few of those supposed Adolph Hitler fans in America today have much knowledge of him. They don’t care to. Their point has little to do with Nazi Germany but a great deal to do with annoying people they believe are holding them back.

These adopted symbols are used with little concern for history; they are chosen for impact, not meaning. Yes, there’s something infantile in their use, wanting to stir things up for the satisfaction of seeing one’s antagonists agonize. But there’s little real understanding.

Though my father’s family were also Appalachian, they were mostly on the state of Ohio side of that river. Like the West Virginians directly across, they stayed with the Union, my great-grandfather fighting in West Virginia and then in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. None of my other direct ancestors on that side was of an age to fight though, after the war, my great-grandfather and his uncle discovered, at a family gathering, that they had been on opposite sides during a skirmish at Gauley Bridge in West Virginia. They may even have shot at each other, for that particular incident involved only some hundred men (or so family lore has it).

Still, I’ve an excellent Confederate pedigree—even with the fact of divided ancestry. It was a divisive war, that Civil War. Many families had sons, fathers and husbands fighting—and many had some of them on the other side. But families, after the war, made their peace—even if many of the problems that caused the war had only been transformed . During the First World War, both of my grandfathers, one from a fully Confederate family and the other true to the Union, fought willingly for the United States.

In the mid-1920s, my northern grandfather spoke out strongly against the KKK as it tried to organize in Ohio. In 1968, my southern grandfather stated than no one in his family would vote for George Wallace. Yet both of them had grown up in strongly racist and anti-Semitic cultures and both had reflected the attitudes of their time.

But both of them showed that people and cultures can change. Eating with my southern grandfather in a North Carolina café in the furniture-mill town he had lived in for half a century, I watched him recognize the family name on the server’s lapel then ask her if she were related to so-and-so. Young and African-American, she was cold to this elderly white man in a three-piece suit. He was hurt, though he tried to hide it, for he was sure he knew her family. He didn’t understand the extent of the divide the situation represented. Race, age and class (though he had grown up in the rural part of one of the poorest counties in the country at that time, he had prospered) were so entrenched in their relative positions that there was no way a bridge could have been created by simple banter.

Though he was well aware of race and carried racist attitudes to his grave, my grandfather never hated black people and had learned to accept a changing role for African-Americans in the society of the United States. A large part of his prosperity came from treating them honestly as an insurance agent. Actually, he treated all of his customers honestly, making no differentiation based on race. Claims were scrupulously and honestly filled, bringing him more and more clients. He learned about the lives of all of them as he worked out the best policies to sell them. The changes of the Civil Rights era, in that respect, did not bother him. Everyone should be equal before the law and treated equally in business.

Though my copy of Gone with the Wind comes from my grandparents’ library, neither of them carried forward the fake sentimentality of antebellum nostalgia. My grandmother’s father, who had been born just months after the end of the war, grew up in a family devastated by it. The impact descended upon her, too. Theirs was a Piedmont family, much more a part of the destroyed Southern culture than my grandfather’s family back in the hollers. My grandmother had no illusions about what had happened and never pined for a return, though she loved the idea of ancestors of ‘worth.’

The Confederate battle flag was never part of their home.

What we are seeing today, the resurgent racism shown in much of the flying of that battle flag and the anti-Semitism of the spray-painted swastikas appearing with greater and greater frequency, is not simply a natural outgrowth of ancient racial and ethnic hatreds. Those have faded; they still have strength, but it is not the strength shown today. After all, much of today’s racism has grown from people raised far from the traditions of the Mountains or the South but who had donned them to cloak their personal angers and senses of failure. Much contemporary anti-Semitism comes from people who have had no contact with Jews, but imagine Jewish success (seen from afar) as causing their own struggles. This isn’t simply a tradition of anger, but new angers looking to ‘tradition’ for justification.

Yet we certainly do need to look to history to understand what we are seeing today, even though that history is not the history of the Civil War or even Jim Crow—and it is not the history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Though causes are notoriously difficult to pinpoint, it’s economics and ill-explained social policies that are at least as much to blame. We can look to the history of the failure (in part) of the Civil Rights Movement, to its inability to express and promote its impact in terms of white attitudes as well as black progress. We need to look there (among other places) if we wish to understand today’s rising hatred.

Another place is the history of the powerful establishment associated with the Northeast vilifying (or seeming to, in the eyes of the “victims”) a proud and struggling part of America, saying “We think you got yours on the backs of blacks, so now we’re going to take some of it away.” Like the Civil Rights Movement in the fifties, things like Affirmative Action were never sold successfully as advantages for all Americans. Many whites saw them as deprivation in favor of others, a zero-sum game and not ‘a rising tide that raises all boats.’ The East Coast supporters of these initiatives shrugged and said, “Too bad. It’s the fault of your own racism.”

That was a mistake, true as it might be. For the truth behind it (or lack thereof) doesn’t even matter, nor does the history. Fact is, this is what many white people came to believe: America was no longer fair. While they struggled, the blacks lazed and the Jews got rich. That’s what many American whites thought by the 1970s—still do.

But it’s not what whites of my grandparents’ generation believed. It’s not what the displaced Okies believed and its not what the poor Appalachians thought, the ones who migrated to the factories of Ohio and Michigan during and after WWII. It’s not an unbroken tradition.

Yes, racism and racial horrors still existed even in the 1930s, as did fervent anti-Semitism, but it was not the same as it had been before (the ground was being set for a realistic civil rights revolution)—nor was it the same as that which has arisen since. We’re dealing with hatred of much more recent pedigree, even though it certainly bows to that of generations previous and can be made to look the same.

Starting only a few years after the successes of the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-1960s, a divide started growing in the United States between what we now call the 1% and everyone else. While some got richer and, indeed, richer and richer, many American whites stagnated or began to fall back.

Recognition of this, of course, is not something new: We’ve talked about it, nationally, almost since it began.

What we have never really addressed, at least not successfully, is the impact this has had on ethnic and racial attitudes.

The real start of the revival of racial hatred came, at least in part, alongside the forced integration of schools. Rather than trying to set up ways of helping neighborhoods integrate, the country tried to solve its racial problems by busing kids around until the schools had what was deemed (by powers generally far away from the schools themselves) an appropriate racial mix. This may have improved the schools black children attended, but it seemed to do nothing for whites—except in the minds of those who saw classroom integration as the spark for racial solutions. Whites, especially in the South, began to flee the public schools. New private academies and home schooling and the current mania for charters schools all resulted, leaving the public schools today as underfunded institutions for housing African-American (and Hispanic, and immigrant) children. Fundamentalist churches seized on this opportunity, too, expanding their own schools and founding colleges—and attacking the obligation to pay for public education.

What was meant as a vehicle for improving the racial climate of America—busing—ended up only making that climate worse. Interaction between the races became rarer than it had been, not more common. Add to that the need to blame someone for the failures in one’s own life—something becoming more and more common as the divide between the elite and the rest grew to levels not since the Gilded Age—and one begins to see the seeds of the development of this new kind of racism and even anti-Semitism.

If we who disdain racial, religious and ethnic animosities want to change American society, we are going to have to recognize that, though waving the stars-and-bars and goose-stepping have been taken on as accouterments, the genealogy of today’s hatred is not primarily connected to Fort Sumter and Buchenwald.

Lack of understanding of this is perhaps why, so often, today’s pundits and even scholars missed the build-up that resulted in the election of Donald Trump, a racist and anti-Semitic (for all of Trump’s own family Judaism) triumph built by using resentment as a spur to voting. The pundits and scholars were looking for continuities, and assumed they must be there when they saw the flags and salutes. The reality is much more complicated and—as we are seeing in the Trump ascendancy—more pernicious.

Secure in their Enlightenment cocoon, the educated elite of the Northeastern United States along with the West Coast have long looked upon the white denizens of the rest of the country with disdain, seeing them as “anti-intellectual,” to use Richard Hofstadter’s powerful term, unsophisticated and uncultured. So strong is the disapproval of a large swathe of Americans that even my mother, who spent half of her life in New York City and was a classical musician, felt it. She kept a book of mountain songs, published the year before she was born, hidden away in her piano bench and never played the tunes—even though they clearly meant a lot to her.

It gets worse: Culturally, the Appalachians and the poorer whites throughout the country (often with roots in the Scots-Irish culture of the Mountains), have seen their own heritage stripped away over past decades. They had never been loved by the East Coast, not even on their arrival from Ulster Plantation in the eighteenth century. Now, however, almost everything they cherished was being assigned to someone else. The genesis of their very music, to take just one example, was assigned to African-Americans, their own contributions described as derivative. Elvis was dismissed as stealing from black artists or, at best, of wanting to be a black man.

“White bread” and “white privilege” became two of the prime descriptors of a large group of Americans, deriding their taste and sneering at their status and the struggles they face. Poke salit greens are laughed at and people who have struggled on the edge of poverty (or within it) for their entire lives have come to feel that others think, in spite of the evidence, that they have something special just for being white. This can be confusing; it can certainly lead to anger—especially when coupled with rising economic pressures.

I’m not part of that struggling culture, though I was born to the Appalachian diaspora of the post-WWII years. But I know it as well as the child of any immigrants knows that of her or his parents. I can see its weaknesses and the follies that it uses to try to strengthen itself.

I still love the bluegrass music that I first encountered in Asheville in 1963 at a Flatt & Scruggs show and I know its meanings in ways my fellow New Yorkers generally miss. My childhood heroes included Oklahomans Woody Guthrie and Will Rogers, not people from cultured New England. I love my ancestral culture but I also understand its failures and its tendency to blame others.

It has a lot to answer for, including that penchant for placing responsibility for its own failures on someone else—on black people, immigrants and Jews, for example. Maybe that’s not so rare in any culture, but it is particularly virulent in what we now call “Red State” culture. The Scots-Irish whose experience set the template for this culture suffered war upon war as English and Scottish kings tussled, making theirs possibly the poorest area of Europe by the seventeenth century. They weren’t wanted in Ulster Plantation where they were shipped during the 1600s (though it was offered to them as a way out of their poverty) nor were they wanted in the coastal American colonies a century later, when about as many of them arrived as did slaves from Africa. They even have a history of exploitation in this country—Daniel Boone and the others often went west to escape debt and abusive government more than for wide-open spaces. They weren’t even themselves slaveholders, for the most part, but were sometimes forced to compete with slaves for the status of being at the bottom of the ladder.

The chip on their shoulder is huge, and it does have an ancient pedigree. Today’s racism and anti-Semitism, however, come from centuries of disenfranchisement and not from slavery and the Civil War or Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. The kindling is much older and the spark much more recent.

For our own good, we of the “Blue State” culture have to stop looking upon those of the “Red States” as bad people, even if they are racist and anti-Semitic—and we have to stop seeing their attitudes and the flags and Nazi salutes as the font of all evil. We have to start our own reconciliation process even though it is we who are the losers this time. They aren’t going to do it; we have to take it upon ourselves understand that, too. It’s not a matter of asking why we should give Trump a chance when they gave none to Obama. Simply speaking, for our own good (as this election has shown us) we have to stop looking down on them and calling them names. No more “hillbilly,” red neck” or “cracker”—let alone “racist.” The hard part is, we can’t even ask the same in return.

My great-grandfather and his uncle could talk of shooting at each other without rancor and my grandfather knew and liked Germans, even sending his son to Germany for a summer in the 1930s and even though he had lost his leg fighting them. Throughout their lives, my grandfathers were both struggling and learning to put aside their racism and their anti-Semitism. This was two generations ago and more. We need to expect people to do that today—but that isn’t going to happen while we taunt them.

That Confederate flag? It’s flown because it bugs us liberals, not particularly out of hatred of blacks. That “sieg heil”? It’s more a poke in the Northeast’s eye than it has anything to do with Jews. Yet these symbols will lead to real racial and religious harm if we are not careful. Blacks and Jews in America are going to die in greater numbers than ever if the country is not careful.

There are already signs of this coming.

Yes, the hatreds are alive and well, but they are not going to be stopped until we understand—and start addressing—their real foci and causes. Until we stop reacting to the provocations and take on the also dangerous (and yet possibly rewarding, which the other can never be) path of reconciliation.

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