Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Ghost of Bobby Lee - National - The Atlantic

The Ghost of Bobby Lee - National - The Atlantic

"This isn't about honoring the past--It's about an inability to cope with the present."

Tell it, Ta-Nahesi.

Here is an example of the kind of thing that drives me crazy: "Tara Estates," in Walton County, a development of houses in the $150,000+ range. Do I need to parse for you all the things that are wrong with that?

Southerners like to say that the war on the Union side was really about money, and not morals. It is absolutely true that sentiment against slavery didn't start to turn until it was no longer profitable for northern shipping companies, and also that northern industrialists didn't fancy having to pay tariffs on cotton like everybody else. However...

Axiom: ALL wars are, at bottom, about money. One way or another. This does not negate the fact that individual people may have other reasons for supporting a given side; many people fought for the Confederacy out of regional loyalty and not because they actually supported slavery. Note I say "fought." I am not letting the Confederate leadership off the hook whatsoever.

Because it was absolutely about money on their part. Not only were slaves the single greatest asset in the US economy, like the article says, the particular people who started the whole mess...the South Carolina secessionists...were very decidedly motivated by money. They were Beaufort plantation owners, who were getting ten times as much per pound for their Sea Island cotton than the price for regular cotton. They were getting absolutely filthy stinking rich, so rich that they would do things like build a mansion in town just to throw parties. Much like the super-rich of today, when they got the idea that the government might interfere in their very lucrative exploitation of other humans, they were horrified and decided they must do something! And had enough power and influence to make it stick. The idea that the Union side was motivated by financial considerations but the Confederacy wasn't is a myth.

But modern people in the South don't believe that just because they're stupid or they don't read history. They believe it because the image of the agrarian, idealized, anti-commercial South was carefully created and promoted and mythologized. And not just here, though plenty of Southern authors participated in the literary version of the myth-making. People in the North ate it up with a spoon. Writers like Joel Chandler Harris (who grew up poor, spent plenty of time as a child around black people, and in my personal opinion knew better) helped create that myth because that's what his readers wanted and would pay for...his mostly Northern readers. We got noble savagized, or noble agrarianized. We are not the only ones who worship our ancestors as they never were. Hell, much of Southern literature in the 20th century could be understood as rebellion against that, or reaction to it. The consequences are still reverberating. As we can see.

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