Thursday, July 2, 2015

Same-sex marriage and Southern heritage


Most people seeing the title of this piece likely already have an idea as to what it's going to be about. And maybe they're right, maybe they're not. I guess they'll know soon enough, if they read on.

But before diving in to the deep end of this particular double-wide pool however, I want to make a couple of things clear, crystal clear:

1) I fully support the idea of gay marriage, insofar as I think people should get to choose how to live their lives, with whom they wish to live them, based on how they understand themselves and their desires. I think the government should get out of the marriage business, by and large. It shouldn't be up to the government--or anyone else--to decide whose marriage is valid and whose is not (apart from when such things involve breaking other laws like, say, statutory rape). If two people want to live together, share their lives and resources, raise a family or not, and refer to their relationship as a marriage, what do I care? It doesn't matter a whit to me if they are a man and a woman, two men, or two women. I'll see them the way they want to be seen, I'll accept their relationship in the way that they define it. That's just common courtesy.

2) I know, without a shadow of a doubt, why the Southern States seceded and started the U.S. Civil War. It was to preserve that most heinous of American institutions, race-based slavery. And in that regard, I fully recognize that all symbols used by Confederate forces during the period cannot help but carry that linkage to some extent. Glorifying a Confederate symbol means--on some level--glorifying the Confederacy. Thus, it is just and proper for States to remove such symbols from flags and other devices of state.

Are we clear? I said, ARE WE CLEAR? Good...

Now, two recent articles have appeared at WaPo that really frost my ass, pardon my language. The first is Why do people believe myths about the Confederacy? by James W. Loewen. The second is Why you should stop waving the rainbow flag on Facebook by Peter Moskowitz. Obviously, the subject matter of each is drastically different. Still, there is an element of sameness within both, at least in the way I read them and with regard to why they both anger me.

The first, by James W. Loewen, is about how the Civil War is--supposedly--understood in our current era, i.e. how it is wrongly understood as being about states' rights when it was only ever about slavery. To this end, the author--who is apparently some sort of top-drawer sociologist (which should be a big warning sign right there)--cites the number of Confederate monuments in Southern States and some snippets from textbooks. He infers that these things represent some sort of nefarious attempt to rewrite history:
As soon as Confederates laid down their arms, some picked up their pens and began to distort what they had done, and why. Their resulting mythology went national a generation later and persists — which is why a presidential candidate can suggest that slavery was somehow pro-family, and the public believes that the war was mainly fought over states’ rights.

The Confederates won with the pen (and the noose) what they could not win on the battlefield: the cause of white supremacy and the dominant understanding of what the war was all about. We are still digging ourselves out from under the misinformation that they spread, which has manifested in both our history books and our public monuments.
This is what David Hackett Fischer would refer to as "furtive history." It assumes a conspiracy as the cause of an outcome, as a matter of course. In this case, the proliferation of monuments and other propaganda are presented as a part of a master plan to misrepresent the Civil War, a plan that allowed the rise of a Southern culture which appropriated elements of the Confederacy without having to admit to the fundamental reason for the Civil War (slavery).

And it's all hogwash.

Loewen completely ignores the actual course of the War, the consequences for Southern communities in particular and the nation in general. He ignores what went on during Reconstruction and what the South endured because of its failed rebellion (and to be clear, I'm not suggesting all this was unfair). Look, for instance, at his portrayal of Kentucky:
Take Kentucky. Kentucky’s legislature voted not to secede, and early in the war, Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston ventured through the western part of the state and found “no enthusiasm as we imagined and hoped but hostility … in Kentucky.” Eventually, 90,000 Kentuckians would fight for the United States, while 35,000 fought for the Confederate States. Nevertheless, according to historian Thomas Clark, the state now has 72 Confederate monuments and only two Union ones.
Loewen's idea here is that this nefarious plan of rewriting history by Southern apologists is the cause. But Kentucky, a border State and a slave State, experienced a number of battles, and was put under martial law by President Lincoln in 1864, despite having never seceded from the Union. The Union general in charge of Kentucky--Burbridge--was fairly ruthless, ordering the execution and imprisonment of numerous people for, at best, questionable reasons. Moreover, since Kentucky was never in open rebellion, the Emancipation Proclamation was never enforced in the State. In fact. Kentucky was one of the few States to actually reject the 13th Amendment, as there were still more than 50,000 people living in slavery in Kentucky after the Civil War had ended.

During the Reconstruction era, events in Kentucky were tumultuous, to say the least. Since it was never in open rebellion, Kentucky was not subject to the Reconstruction Acts. But nonetheless, the Federal Government involved itself in Kentucky by imposing a Freedmen's Bureau there and stepping in with armed forces when it felt such was necessary (including trying to stamp out the Klan). All this heavy involvement in local affairs by the Federal government soured much of the populace against the same. Supposedly, Kentucky governor Happy Chandler said that Kentucky was "the only state to join the Confederacy after the Civil War was over." And looking at some actual realities, it's not hard to understand why he would say this.

The point is, Loewen's analysis of Kentucky is superficial and largely meaningless. The number of Confederate monuments in Kentucky isn't evidence of some sort of concerted effort on the part of white supremacists to rewrite history. The monuments are reflective of a changing mood in the State that has a number of causes, not the least of which is the conduct of Union forces during the Civil War and the Federal government after the Civil War. True enough, there remains some racist overtones in much of this and the proliferation of such monuments cannot be divorced from this reality, but their existence just doesn't mean what Loewen is claiming.

In my opinion, Loewen's position is entirely grounded in self-righteousness. He sacrifices truth and scholarship for polemical pseudo-analysis in order to justify his perceived superiority to any who would disagree with his thesis. It's an ugly circle to be sure and, beyond anything else, such an approach represents the death of understanding.

Now on to article number two, the one by Peter Moskowitz. In essence, it's an extended complaint about people who added a rainbow flag overlay to their Facebook profile as a means of showing support for the recent Supreme Court ruling that essentially legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Is Moskowitz upset because he thinks homosexuality is the work of Lucifer? No. Is he upset because he thinks the Supreme Court ruling was wrong? No. He's upset because he's gay and supports the ruling, but all these flags make him "uncomfortable." Seriously. From the article:
I’ve earned the right to claim pride through years of internal strife over my sexuality. Others have died in the name of gay pride. More still have been jailed, have been disowned by their families, and have sued their state governments for it. Gay pride is not something you can claim by waving a flag. The rainbow symbol is easy to co-opt, but the experience it represents is not.

That’s why it wasn’t comforting to see hundreds of my Facebook friends’ profile pictures draped in rainbows. It didn’t feel like they were understanding my struggle; it felt like they were cheapening it, celebrating a victory they had no part in winning.
Now look, there's a valid point in this cesspool of narcissism: people do co-opt symbols and causes for self-congratulatory purposes (for instance, see the uproar over the Confederate flag), particularly political people. And later in the piece, Moskowitz fairly notes how Hillary Clinton was not in favor of same-sex marriage just a few years ago, but now is waving the rainbow flag like there's no tomorrow. But here's the thing, aside from such concrete examples--which are few--Moskowitz doesn't know dick about the people who have adopted the rainbow flag on their Facebook page, who are out waving it in public, or wearing it on a shirt.

What Moskowitz does is assume not only his own right to a symbol but also the authority to judge others who are employing it, sans any actual evidence as to why they are doing so. He claims he has "earned" the right (and apparently the accompanying authority) because of his experiences, but in fact knows next to nothing about anyone else's experiences (full disclosure: I have not used the rainbow overlay on my Facebook profile). And even worse than this, he assumes only a particular kind of experience is valid, when it comes to this right.

While the Supreme Court decision is certainly a watershed event for same-sex couples in the United States, it can also be viewed in general as yet another moment wherein the idea of equality was expanded in both this country and the world at large. Why should other peoples who have suffered discrimination or oppression for various reasons not celebrate the moment, not find some measure of solidarity with the gay community in the United States, proper? And why should anyone who is related to or is friends with such people not do the same? Moskowitz's standard here is ridiculous and counter-productive, to say the least. His conclusion:
Allies are important to the LGBT community. They’re necessary for progress. But holding up a victory flag without acquiring the battle scars is an empty gesture at best.
Moskowitz isn't speaking from a position of knowledge, but only from his own limited experiences. And supposing those experiences are sufficient justification for his far-reaching conclusion is both arrogant and logically flawed. So why does he go there? Just as is the case for Loewen's flawed historical narrative above, the answer is clear: self-righteousness.

Both Loewen and Moskowitz want the ability to look down their noses at others, to assume their positions carry the weight of historical and/or moral authority. Both feel secure that their fundamental positions are on the "right side of history" (and look, they probably are), then use that security as a basis for claiming the authority judge the motives of everyone else.

One can be right, yet still be very, very wrong.