The More Things Change...
BY WILLIAM P. KREML
The Confederate flag and the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday are not topics I repair to comfortably, but contemporary analysis is so incomplete that I find it difficult to remain silent.
Let me begin with the proposition that the American Civil War was a long way from being exclusively between the North and the South. In very significant ways, our Civil War was a battle between Whigs and Tories, not unlike the vigorous battles that had gone on in advanced European nation-states.
The 1832 British Reform Bill controversy, the French July Movement in 1830, even the German confrontations of 1848 all tested whether citizens who believed in the value of merit over the value of lineage could successfully challenge power arrangements based on privilege.
For reasons that were overwhelmingly the result of climate and economics, the southern part of the United States was an 18th century polity in the mid-19th century. An entrenched if small aristocracy dominated the governance of this part of the world, the franchise in South Carolina not even being extended to unpropertied white males as late as 1860.
This arrangement was challenged, of course. There was at least a modicum of political competition, Whigs fighting with Democrats over internal improvements and, more importantly, a diversification of the economy beyond the cotton plantation. As upland Calvinists and other non-Anglicans prospered, they built institutions such as Wofford, Furman, Newberry and Erskine colleges. This too foretold political change.
Technology threatened to link the upland with places like Philadelphia and destroy the economic and political dependence of non-plantation-bound South Carolinians to the coast.
And finally, immigration brought Irish, German and Polish residents into places like Charleston, terrifying the lowland planters. Their need to meet these internal challenges led to a search for an external enemy.
To the present: I suggest that the flag and MLK Day debates are a crazy quilt of what Robert’s Rules of Order would classify as Old and New Business. It is Old Business because Dwight D. Eisenhower was dull-witted enough to think that America needed to commemorate the Civil War. It is also Old Business because the national government permitted a pretension of sovereignty to fly over South Carolina’s state capitol for nearly 40 years.
It is New Business because even as South Carolina enters the 21st century, the struggle between aristocracy and democracy refuses to go away.
How to think about it? It is easy, but wrong, to define the flag debate as one between an exclusively active and an exclusively passive side.
What really happened is potentially more dangerous for South Carolina, because the pro-flag people not only have an agenda but one that has a lot less to do with the flag than it appears and a lot more to do with the old schism, the struggle between democracy and aristocracy.
In the final analysis, which is more important anyway — the symbol or the reality?
To understand what the pro-flag people want, one must look at why they are troubled about the world they live in. Southerners are troubled by the loss of a regional uniqueness. The South is falling victim to homogeneity. Whether it’s McDonald’s or strip malls, the New York Yankees on cable, or the yankees moving in all over, there is a sense of loss of that special differentiation that any anthropologist will tell you must, in each society’s context, be a part of the culture. I have a good deal of sympathy with that position.
I am not sympathetic about what the remainder of neo-Tory legislators have been saying — not just verbalizing, but saying in their legislative histories. Apart from the beauty of Southern culture, and the heroic qualities of Southern fighting men and the steadfastness of Southern women, the part of Southern culture that the pro-flag people also wish to ratify, and reify, is a modern form of aristocracy that they think they would be comfortable with, even if earlier forms of social and political aristocracy have done nothing but cripple the South.
How do I pretend to know this? Perspective, not brilliance. Look at South Carolina today, nearly 30 years after I first started to teach at the University of South Carolina, and 41 years after I used to slip across the Fifth Street Bridge in Augusta, Ga., because you could drink beer in South Carolina at 18.
During my first 15 years here, the combination of the civil rights movement, a new economic prosperity, and the political activities of people such as Dick Riley, Alex Sanders, Jean Toal, Isadore Lourie, I. DeQuincy Newman, and the like were bringing South Carolina into the 20th century. These citizens and their allies were building a middle-class, racially tolerant, urbane polity that boded well for both political equity and stability in South Carolina’s future. And then something happened. Civil rights momentum slowed, the young stars of South Carolina’s politics went into other things, and the new prosperity, when you looked at it closely, was increasingly distributed in substantially less than equitable ways.
Of course, some of what happened here was happening elsewhere. There are growing inequities throughout America, and throughout the world’s new global economy. But the servant buses that ran between Williamsburg County and the beach did not stop running in the 1970s in South Carolina. No, they kept on trucking, as yankees found South Carolina to be exactly what they wanted: a beautiful place with low taxes and, most of all, cheap labor.
And the schools? They languished. But that rather patent fact was useful in hiding the equally significant truth that the principle state university, my school, was quietly privatized during my employment. Today, USC’s tuition is second only to the University of Virginia, (barely a public school) in the Southeast among non-private institutions.
And so it goes. An atrocious bus system drops Columbia’s maids and janitors close to where they want to go, after a long wait and a circuitous ride, while the Columbia City Council considers a regressive sales tax increase to improve the system. The Charlotte banks buy up South Carolina banks, sucking millions out of our state with their increased spreads, fees, and balance minimums, without a peep from South Carolina office holders, much less those in bed with those who both facilitated and profited from the coup.
The pattern is clear. South Carolina is continuing its history in much the same way it has always traveled: the path of aristocracy. And it is no less of an aristocracy, I should add, if some African-Americans, and even wealthy Northerners, are now cut in on the deal.
As you have gathered, I am not from here. I am from Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln lived. Three of his four ancestral lineages were from the South. But the main thing my parents taught me about Lincoln concerned his politics. Abraham Lincoln was a Whig. Abe’s father left Kentucky because he felt held down there.
The younger Lincoln saw the South, and the politics that dominated it in the 1830s, ’40s, and ‘50s, as essentially aristocratic. He was not anti-Southern, even during the Civil War. What he opposed was the Southern social and political order.
I have avoided thus far any discussion of the Confederacy, and I am loathe to say much about it here. What is clear, however, is that the Confederacy still bedevils this region of the country, as witnessed by its invariable intrusions upon the legislative discussions over the MLK holiday and the flag.
What I do suggest is that in the turning over of generations, intelligent and sensitive white Southerners engage in nothing more than sound scholarship regarding the Confederacy. Ask who created the Confederacy. Then ask why they created it. Ask what would have happened if the Confederacy had triumphed in the War. And ask where various groupings of individuals, including African-Americans, women, the modern successors to the yeoman, middle class, and others, would be today in that separate nation. Finally, ask how well that separate nation would be faring in the 21st century global economy.
For me, what is important to understand about the Confederacy is that this brief interlude in Southern history meant many things beyond slavery then and still means more than the current tensions between blacks and whites today. The Confederacy meant an attempt by a few to retain an entire social, economic, and political order based on lineage, not merit. What neo-Confederacy means now, unfortunately, is that some wish to maintain a subtle but very real, 21st century aristocracy in South Carolina.
The Republicans’ deplorable record concerning charter schools without racial consideration, the funding of juvenile justice facilities, the right of workers to unionize, and the funding of a variety of health, housing, and human affairs needs is not at all dissimilar to the political record of the soon-to-be Confederate leaders who opposed homestead legislation, public land-grant colleges, and the Southern Whig proposals for internal improvements and economic diversification.
To put it simply, a flag at the corner of Gervais and Main, a guaranteed retention of a host of Confederate memorials throughout the state, and a legislated Confederate Memorial Day, are imbued with far more than a guarantee of remembrance for the noble Confederate veteran, an ideal I have never quarreled with. (I visit my great grandfather Parker’s grave at Rose Hill Cemetery in Chicago.) But these Confederate symbols are imbued with a perspective on the place and position of South Carolina citizens that would extend the notion of aristocracy into what will surely be our nation’s, and our world’s, most competitive century.
The continued and unquestioned enshrinement of the Confederacy in the minds of so many white South Carolinians, not the recognition of the noble Confederate ancestor, should be seen for just what it is. It is part of an all too comfortable feeling on the part of some white South Carolinians, particularly the non-Lincoln Republicans, that a hierarchical, privileged order of society still has a place in this state. This is a position, I submit, that is not only inequitable, but is destructive in depriving South Carolina of its best future leadership.
It is my hope that the great majority of white South Carolinians are already figuring out a way to simultaneously honor their brave ancestors and examine, as many Confederate soldiers did, whether the Confederacy really stood for what was truly best for the South or, rather, for what many of them called "a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight."
William P. Kreml is a semi-retired political scientist at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. He ran in the 2nd Congressional District in the recent presidential primary in South Carolina, and received 7 percent of the vote.