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Public Shaming, Borrowed Moral Capital and Kicking the CBF to the Curb

From William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust

“Some things you must always be unable to bear. Some things you must never stop refusing to bear. Injustice and outrage and dishonor and shame. No matter how young you are or how old you have got. Not for kudos and not for cash: your picture in the paper nor money in the bank either. Just refuse to bear them.”

After the CBF (thus I have dubbed the Confederate Battle Flag since social media played such a part in shaming it off of the soldiers monument but don’t confuse my CBF with other CBF’s out there, so use at your own discretion) was brought down by the South Carolina Highway Patrol (that same group that brought down black protestors at the Orangeburg Massacre back in 1968 under orders of another excitable Governor) and kicked to the curb to the chants of a very clichéd rock music anthem, I reflected upon the meaning of the well publicized attacks on Confederate monuments across the country. The attacks reek heavily of opportunistic politicians rather than the unwashed masses.

Let’s be real. Twenty first century Americans spraying illiterate non-sequiturs on Confederate monuments and digging up 150 year old remains of Confederate soldiers may offer a certain liberation flair for the news cameras but hardly fall into the category of toppling Saddam Hussein. The moral imperative of mass protest just isn’t there. The CBF flew unguarded beside the soldiers monument, day and night, for fifteen years. Why wasn’t it ripped down every night?

Maybe Americans just don’t know how to be properly liberated. Which makes sense since we have never been subjugated. Well, except for when the North invaded the South just to free and only to free the slaves (as our current history books insist), but that doesn’t count since we subjugated ourselves and liberated ourselves at the same time – a somewhat fratricidal schizophrenia.

We should look to the French. They know how to be liberated. They even have Bastille Day to celebrate putting the heads of aristocrats in the guillotine. We merely have Independence Day to celebrate putting ideas about liberty to paper.

Since our first Revolution, we have carefully avoided having another one even though Jefferson thought it a good national catharsis on occasion with his “blood of patriots and tyrants watering the tree of liberty” ideas. Not surprising since bleeding and leeches were part of standard medical care in those days.

Instead of bloody coup d’états, we have presidential elections every four years. We get to witness our most egotistical, sanctimonious, arrogant, ignorant and sometimes-brilliant politicians who think they can be president fight each other for 24 months. After winning one of our nastiest elections, Andrew Jackson and supporters came to his inauguration muddy but at least they weren’t bloody.

Blood would come thirty years later when another president, elected with less than 40% of the popular vote, decided that national fratricide was better than negotiation. After instigating a war to subjugate and liberate ourselves – at a cost of 620,000 lives – the North botched it.

As the late C. Vann Woodward, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale, once wrote in his essay Equality: The Deferred Commitment, “The Union fought the Civil War on borrowed moral capital. With their noble belief in their purpose and their extravagant faith in the future, the radicals ran up a staggering war debt, a moral debt that was soon found to be beyond the country’s capacity to pay, given the undeveloped state of its moral resources at the time. After making a few token payments during Reconstruction, the United States defaulted on the debt and unilaterally declared a moratorium that lasted for more than eight decades.”

Woodward, who could never be mistaken for a Southern apologist, recognized that the entire United States had deliberately and systematically denied equality to black citizens since the signing of the Constitution. The moral debt was not owed by the South alone. He wrote these words in 1960 during the civil rights struggle and just before the country observed the centennial of the War Between the States. He would later author The Strange Career of Jim Crow, a book that Martin Luther King called the “historical bible of the civil rights movement.”

South Carolina’s new crop of political leaders – basking in their fifteen minutes of virtuous glow after banishing the CBF with purposeful dishonor – decided that Woodward was wrong or maybe they just don’t understand history.

More than likely they have no idea what he is talking about. South Carolinians used to could depend on their leaders to have some sense of history and ancestral honor, regardless of political party. All we have now are shameless ones grasping for national attention behind a glittering one-sided mea culpa.