The Imp of the Perverse: Summation

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 11, 2001

The heritage of the Confederacy (and its battle banner) is not so pristine as so many would like to imagine today. Whatever else the flag represented 140 years ago, it also represented white supremacy. Whatever else it may mean to its 21st century champions, its racist pedigree is historical fact. But no matter how soiled by inconvenient historical reality, I’m sure some will nevertheless assert that it is still &uot;our&uot; heritage. And, &uot;our heritage, right or wrong,&uot; right? But who would this &uot;our&uot; represent? Why the majority, of course.

The majority today, and the majority in 1861. Well, I would bet, admittedly without proof, that a majority of contemporary Mississippians (white as well as non-white) cannot in any way document a family connection to a soldier of, or even a supporter of the Confederacy, whether using genealogical records or even the myth-history of family lore. But even more to the point of &uot;whose heritage,&uot; I can state categorically that the majority of Mississippians in the years 1861-1865 DID NOT support secession, or the Confederacy. Not even tepidly.

Because, you see, the state’s majority at the time of the Civil War were black slaves. Over 55 percent to be precise (William Scarborough, &uot;Heartland of the Cotton Kingdom,&uot; in History of Mississippi, pp. 326-27 — Scarborough is a professor at USM). And, remembering the words of the Mississippi Secession Convention of 1861, and of the Confederate Constitution, and of Confederate Vice President Stephens, and the editor of the Mississippi Baptist, I think it is beyond obvious now that these oppressed men, women and children — I’ll say again, the MAJORITY of Mississippians at the time of the Civil War — would feel no great pride in the &uot;heritage&uot; of the battle banner now enthroned in the upper left hand quadrant of the Mississippi state flag, the one (whether we like it or not) figuratively inscribed &uot;Superiority and Supremacy of the White Race.&uot;

It seems though, that for many, to acknowledge any of the shortcomings of the South and the Confederacy is to consign our ancestors to the pits of hell. But, whatever sins can be laid at their doorsteps, we also have to acknowledge that Southerners had not invented evil, and they had not invented slavery — though it was in modern times, in the Western Hemisphere that a system based on people of one race exclusively enslaving people of another race originated, and it was in the US that the racism growing from such a system took on its most virulent form. Nevertheless, slavery in its various forms is older than civilization, and has been found in most, if not all, regions of the world, and still exists in parts of that world today.

The ancestors of the African-Americans enslaved in the US in 1860 had probably been sold into that bondage by their fellow Africans. Confederates were not the first, or the last, to fight in favor of the institution. And, as we’ve seen, those who fought against it in the US often did so for less than exemplary motives.

Life is funny sometimes. Good men can do wrong, do so in fact quite commonly, and still be essentially good. Intelligent men can be in error, again, all too frequently so, and yet still be intelligent. And if the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then I’ll insist that the road to heaven can be paved with bad intentions. Good can grow from less than pure motives.

This does of course make for a complex moral amalgam of cause and effect, a world that doesn’t easily divide into &uot;good guys&uot; who always do good, and &uot;bad guys&uot; who sprinkle a heaping helping of wickedness on their corn flakes every morning — as in the juvenile world of professional wrestling, that merely sweatier version of &uot;God’s country&uot; versus &uot;the evil empire.&uot;

For all of its profound moral import, I think it’s clear that the Civil War was not a dispute reducible to one between &uot;Yankee Saints and Southern Sinners,&uot; to borrow Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s intentionally ironic phrase. Would that the world were so simple. In fact, the demise of slavery in the US was hastened by the actions of northern racists. At the same time, in the South, otherwise good and moral men, courageous men, defended it and its horror. Yes, life is funny sometimes, outright absurd about as often. In the words of the immortal philosopher, &uot;time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana.&uot; Assuredly so, Groucho, assuredly so.

Also, consistent with this inconsistency, without question there were some who fought for the Confederacy, and so, for slavery and white supremacy, who cared very little about white supremacy and slavery. Whatever the large themes of the war might have been, the masses of individual men who fought in the Civil War did so for a myriad of reasons, many purely personal, only some ideological. Many a boy enlisted simply &uot;cause everybody else did,&uot; or maybe just to impress pretty Becky Sue from up the road apiece.

Trite motivation, yes, but neither noble nor evil. Many fought for the Confederacy simply to repel an invasion of their turf by outsiders — an elemental territoriality in other words, no more, no less. Some southerners opposed the secession touted by their leaders, but nevertheless found themselves in combat with Yankees, doing so finally out of sense of loyalty to family and community rather than any commitment to &uot;the cause.&uot; Nothing more complex than tribalism. It can legitimately be said that many a southern man fought, in other words, for his homestead, and for its soil, for his wife and children.

Noble sentiments, no doubt. Those men are to be remembered for their bravery and sacrifice. Rather than the Confederacy as a political entity, it is these individual soldiers who are honored by the statues in courthouse squares across the South. This is as it should be.

Because of men such as these, and despite my disdain for the Confederate cause, southern boy that I am, I get a lump in my throat and a bit teary eyed when I hear &uot;Dixie&uot; played just so. My brain tells me otherwise, but in my gut I find myself wanting to shoot that bluebelly John Wayne whenever &uot;The Horsesoldiers&uot; plays on TV. Anytime I have visited the old siege lines at Vicksburg, I’ve gone instinctively to the Confederate trenches, rather then those of &uot;those people&uot; (as Robert E. Lee called his Federal foes).

Somehow, that’s where I feel I &uot;belong.&uot; However, I have to grant that in any war the &uot;small&uot; heartfelt sentiments of such communal belonging can sometimes find itself in service to less noble, &uot;grand&uot; goals. Be sure of this, though, no one reading this column loves or respects the South and its heritage more than I do. But I love its WHOLE heritage, not only a misguided four year span almost a century and a half ago. I love the South, warts and all, which is to say I love the real South, the one that isn’t perfect, the one that isn’t a hallucination. The true test of love is to see the object of your affection without illusion, without fantasy, virtues and flaws in full view, and THEN to say &uot;love.&uot; To view our Confederate ancestors within that context is to treat them like the mortal men that they were. THAT, to my mind, is the ultimate complement. What more does anyone, any generation, have a right to ask? If our ancestors were men of integrity (flawed though it may have been), that is what they would want of us — not worship.

The adoration of a mythic South of blameless cavaliers fighting for heaven-sent ideals is one based on an illusion. It is no more to be lauded than is a mawkish weep over a matinee idol’s image on a movie screen. We do the real, flesh-and-blood men of the Confederacy (or our Founding Fathers for that matter) no honor when we mythologize them or their cause. Elevating them to the status of demigods is, in fact, to belittle them, to turn them into cartoons of themselves. To do so is in effect to put them on the ethical &uot;dole,&uot; above the fray of the real world where truth and error rise and fall and amalgamate freely.

Having had to concede their failure on the field of battle, we have required that they be immune to moral failure, a debilitating fate. It has been said that if individual achievement is to mean anything, then the right to fail must be the necessary adjunct of the right to succeed. But even more truly, if men are to be free to choose, then the right to be wrong is the necessary adjunct of the right to be right. For the integrity of their memories, we must let the men in gray be just that, men, morally imperfect men, rather than angels.

Let them be right when right they were. But let them be wrong as well. If our ancestors had virtues, then those virtues were born from and developed against the backdrop of their richly imperfect human natures. The perfect man is not admirable, because, by definition, he is a only a fiction, and judging from the complexity of the characters of &uot;great&uot; novels, a bad fiction at that. True heroes are not heroic because they are flawless, but because of what they achieved in spite of their flaws. To refuse to see their flaws is to deny the greatness of their achievement. I don’t mean to imply that all our Confederate ancestors were great men. They weren’t. The vast majority were like the vast majority in every age, which is to say they were eminently ordinary, with the ordinary virtues and vices of their time.

While we don’t owe our ancestors worship, and while fully cognizant of their imperfections, we still owe them respect. When I was growing up, I was taught to respect my elders, and to do so by listening to them when they spoke to me. Our elders, our Civil War era ancestors, have spoken to us. They have stated why they seceded, formed the Confederacy, and fought that war.

Heeding their words, &uot;we know with some precision&uot; that they did so primarily to defend their system of racial enslavement, a cause that they sincerely, if wrongly, believed was righteous. In light of their plain spoken honesty about their motive, &uot;it would be perverse [for us] to cast doubt on so acceptable a proposition.&uot; It was only many years after the war, even decades, that a concerted campaign began to expunge the real cause from the record of &uot;the Lost Cause&uot; (Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy, pp. 57, 118). If we respect our wartime elders, though, we’ll listen to them. We don’t have to agree with them, but we do owe them that consideration. And, being so limited and imperfect ourselves, we owe it to ourselves to try to learn from their errors.

Our ancestors, most of them every bit as ordinary as you and I, were on the whole good men and women. Based on the moral instruction of their youths, they saw the world clearly in terms of right and wrong, and strove, mostly, to cleave to the right. But on the issue of race and slavery, their otherwise clear vision was blinkered, and had been blinkered by that very same instruction of their youths. The moral blindness that resulted had horrific consequences — for the four million they enslaved, for the additional half million they discriminated against, in fact, for all southern (and American) society, then and now.

I fully well realize that there could be close emotional ties, even affection and friendship, between some masters and some slaves. But we are talking here of the great majority of slaves, who quite simply did not harbor such feelings. After all, the American system of slavery was based on a racist denial of the basic humanity of their race. This denial enabled the otherwise &uot;good&uot; men of the South to see Africans as little more than &uot;plundering&uot; beasts or livestock at times, as beloved &uot;pets&uot; at others, or, at best, as precocious children still in need of &uot;paternal&uot; care and guidance, but almost never to see them as equals. The deep-seated assumptions as to the innate inferiority of blacks, and the superiority of whites, thus gave moral cover for everything from the small daily insults to the great iniquities of slavery.

However, some say that those alleged iniquities are greatly exaggerated. Maybe, as I’ve been informed countless times in casual conversation, &uot;slavery wasn’t all that bad.&uot; Space doesn’t allow me to answer such ignorant drivel adequately (&uot;ignorance&uot; from &uot;ignore,&uot; i.e., a lack of knowledge due to willful neglect, not stupidity), but I will mention this: slavery destroyed families. Not to be overly dramatic, but yes, in the &uot;chattel&uot; form of slavery that prevailed in the US, children really could be torn from their mothers’ arms, husbands really could be sold away from their wives. It didn’t happen to all families.

It didn’t happen to most. But, based on the best evidence available from a variety of counties across the South (including records from Adams County and Concordia Parish), it happened to about one in three (two in five here in Adams), more than common enough to leave the rest with &uot;a haunting fear,&uot; and the kind of fear most of us can’t fathom. (John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, Oxford, 1972, pp. 89-92). Other investigators might quibble over the exact percentages, but the essential truth stands unchallenged. American chattel slavery ripped a substantial number of slave unions apart. Nightmarish moonlight. Toxic magnolias.

This too, though, is the &uot;heritage&uot; and &uot;history&uot; enshrined in the upper left of our current state flag. By all means, let’s keep the banner of a system that defended such a system as &uot;our&uot; face to the world. If this seems appropriate, maybe we really should add a tableau of yellow fever victims in the lower right hand corner for some more &uot;historic&uot; balance after all. Now, those of you who say, &uot;slavery wasn’t all that bad,&uot; go and explain this to your spouse, your child, your parent while looking them in the eye. In a state in which there is much self-righteous crowing about &uot;traditional family values,&uot; for us to enshrine such &uot;heritage&uot; on our flag is rank hypocrisy, for which we should be ashamed. But to run such hypocrisy up our flagpoles and to feel no shame, would be the greatest shame of all.

We have heard many laments over the Ku Klux Klan’s &uot;ignoble&uot; usurpation of that &uot;noble&uot; Confederate battle banner. Clearly someone is missing the point. Because on this one point, in the full light of scholarly consensus, the &uot;yahoos&uot; in the Klan have gotten it right. The Confederacy was a society that chose to define itself in various ways, but most crucially in terms of race. For the avowedly racist Klan to adopt Confederate symbols as its own requires no misrepresentation. Likewise, for people to see racism in Mississippi’s current flag, there is no need to distort. Surely there are those who are fond of the &uot;rebelized&uot; banner who sincerely see none of this in its fabric, instead brandishing it as an emblem of other purposes.

Whatever the outcome on April 17th, it will be their individual right to continue to wear it, wave it, use it as the centerpiece for the Confederate Pageant, or blow their nose on it, as they see fit. I, for one, would defend anyone’s right to do any and all of the above. But the question before us in this referendum has nothing to do with rights, with private actions. We will not be deciding anything about how individuals or Garden Clubs can or should express their heritage, but how we as a public community want to express the same.

Out of the vast expanse of our history and culture, what do we as Mississippians choose to best represent &uot;us&uot; to the world, to be our one most visible symbol, our state flag? Is the battle banner of a minority from only a four year span of our diverse, centuries-long history to be our singular communal icon? Is that bit of &uot;heritage,&uot; to the exclusion of all other aspects of our heritage, the best way we can imagine to represent the totality of &uot;what we are,&uot; the best of &uot;us?&uot; Only if our imaginations remain obstinately blinkered and hard of hearing. I say bluntly that the Confederacy did not even represent the best of my ancestors who fought in its defense, much less the best of us today.

There is a story by Edgar Allan Poe which seems relevant here. In &uot;The Imp of the Perverse,&uot; Poe described a troublesome aspect of the human psyche — &uot;a radical, primitive impulse,a paradoxical something, which we may call perverseness.&uot; He noted that, not always, but all too often, &uot;through its promptings we act, for the reason that we should not. In theory, no reason can be more unreasonable; but, in fact, there is none more strong. With certain minds, under certain conditions, it becomes absolutely irresistible. I am not more certain that I breathe, than that the assurance of the wrong or error of any action is often the one unconquerable force which impels us, and alone impels us to its prosecution.&uot;

Poe was a southerner by birth, and an observant one. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was a Mississippian, and one observing our current debate. We could and should know better, but on the role of race and slavery in causing the Civil War, &uot;certain minds under certain conditions&uot; have remained obstinately and proudly &uot;perverse&uot; now for a hundred years and more. And, given the opinions of both the pro and anti flag factions, it appears we will muddle on into the 21st century still dismissing fact as myth, enthroning error as our beau ideal, delighting in our contrariness, mulishly tilling the humus of pure cussedness that runs so wide and deep through our collective memory.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe we’re so perversely contrary that we’ll prove the pollsters wrong this time. Maybe we’ve grown. We’ll see.

Change the damn flag. But change it not out of guilt. Not just to &uot;give in to the blacks.&uot; Not just to avoid controversy and boycotts. Not to be politically correct. Not so we can recruit more corporations. We should change the flag so that we can show the maturity to let go of our adolescent fantasies, so to be &uot;historically correct.&uot; So that, for the first time in a long time, we can &uot;see&uot; and &uot;hear&uot; and be at peace with the entirety of our past. Rather than, as now, bewitched and benumbed by a pickled fairy tale.

James Wiggins is a history instructor at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Natchez.