Monday, May 27, 2013

A Personal Reflection on Neo-Confederate Clownery

A brief personal footnote about the neo-Confederate nonsense of the folks Frank Cocozzelli is studying (and I'm very glad Frank is keeping the spotlight on these folks): I was, of course, raised with much of that very same nonsense. With the exception of my one Irish great-grandmother, all of my great-grandparents were descendants of colonial Southern families that owned slaves at various points in their history, though some branches of these families also courageously pulled against slavery at some points in their history, due to religious reasons.

I grew up being taught in school that the history books we used in our classrooms were biased, written by Yankees who simply didn't understand the "other side" of the slave system: they didn't understand how we had taken such good care of our slaves, because slaves were valuable property not to be abused, how happy well-treated slaves were, how unsettling emancipation was for them when they had no land and no work. And on and on, the blather that people who have enjoyed unmerited privilege which depended on the misery and subjugation of others tell themselves to justify their exploitation . . . .

I was in school in Little Rock when the Central High crisis occurred in 1957. All around me, I heard adults continuing the blather about states' rights: "If they'd only stop trying to cram integration down our throats, we'd handle the situation properly." "We'll solve this problem in our own way and our own time-frame." I hear the very same blather today about Obamacare and gay marriage--a testimony to the effectiveness of the American right in building on the racial prejudice of broad swathes of the American public to keep discontent with the federal government alive in a period in which the nation's first African-American president has made baby steps towards a better healthcare system and baby steps towards civil rights for gay citizens.

I remember the brouhaha when the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, defied the federal government and resisted the integration of Central High, and when the president, Eisenhower, brought in federal troops to protect the black students seeking to integrate the school. To their credit, my parents thought Faubus was a fool, though my grandparents, all born to parents who were themselves borne before the Civil War, were more inclined to view Faubus favorably. My mother and father and their friends laughed at Faubus's  clownery, shaking their heads about the image he was creating for our state in the eyes of the world.

Which is to say, they and many other Southern folks with a modicum of education understood full well that all of the blather about states' rights was stuff and nonsense, that it was theater signifying sound and fury. They knew that no state that wants to compete economically and have a role in the mainstream can set itself against the democratic principles of the mainstream and against valid moral norms held by the culture at large.

And I'm fully convinced that Thomas E. Woods, Fr. John McCloskey, San Brownback, and others know the same, and are engaging in cynical theater with their talk of nullification and secession. They are playing to the anger of the masses (a tactic Thomas Frank has exposed brilliantly in his book What's the Matter with Kansas?) who are miserable due to their economic exploitation, but who are unable to recognize that this exploitation is the real cause of their misery, and that people of color, liberals, and gays are not inflicting misery on them. 

And I say all this as a direct descendant of the uncle of the Southern firebrand John C. Calhoun. My great-grandfather several generations back, Ezekiel Calhoun, was John C. Calhoun's uncle, and also the grandfather of John C. Calhoun's wife (and cousin) Floride Bonneau Colhoun, so that I have multiple family ties to the firebrand. (Though, as Veronique Greenwood has recently noted, who's not related to everyone in the world, and what European is not descended from Charlemagne?)

Clownery is clownery, no matter how high-toned it purports to be, or from whose eloquent mouth clowning words pour forth.

The graphic: a clown with a slapstick from the Victoria and Albert Museum, by an unknown artist.

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