Absolution? Guilt, Heritage, and History

One outspoken southerner recently offered the following declaration:

In my opinion, the federal government’s involvement in, and sponsorship of, the CIA’s Project MK Ultra and similar horrors (the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments, for example) completely absolves the Confederacy of whatever “sins” it may have incurred from slavery.

I find this an absolutely bizarre statement, but I also find it a revealing one.  After all, I’ve also come across declarations from fans of the Confederacy about the policy of the United States government towards Native Americans as offering what these folks think is some absolution of white southerners for slavery.

First, two wrongs don’t make the first one “right.”  To claim that they do offers insight into one’s deeply flawed moral compass.

Second, we might recall that in many instance the federal government in question included (and sometimes was headed by) white southerners, including white southern slaveholders.  Case in point: who was the guiding force of federal policy toward Native Americans in the early nineteenth century?  Why, Andrew Jackson, of course.  (I never see white southerners celebrate John Marshall’s efforts to block the encroachment of white governments upon Native American tribes, but then Marshall isn’t your typical southern hero.)  Indeed, those quick to judge when it comes to Native American policy should beware of the skeletons in their own closet.

Third, most people understand that racism is not unique to the South, and that slavery was an American institution that became more of a southern institution during the first half-century of the new American republic.  Those interested in allocating guilt or determining responsibility for sin have a complex task before them.

So why did that blogger offer such a bizarre observation?  Part of it is predictable:

In any case, Confederate heritage advocates know the Union did not have the moral authority to make brutal war upon the South in the 1860s, and it has steadily degenerated into further evil since then. The whole purpose of evilizing the South is so “good Americans” won’t have to face up to their country’s ongoing malevolence.

Oddly enough, this sounds like Hugh G. Lawson, a retired history professor trained at Tulane and who taught at Murray State University.  You can still come across Professor Lawson, now retired (and prematurely so) if you want to visit usenet’s alt.war.civil.usa, where for years he offered as original with him the notion of “the South as Other” until it was revealed that he was engaged in presenting a rather well-known argument advanced by others as his own.  This has not stopped him, although he was forced to admit his attempt at deception (guess what else we call this practice?  Hint: it begins with a “p”).

Beneath all this, however, rests a feeling of guilt and a need for absolution … sometimes by pointing out that someone else does it, too.  That’s not really history, but identity (which, as I’ve suggested before, is at the core of the “heritage” enterprise … it’s who we need people in the past to be for our own purposes, not who they really were).   All too often one comes across these declarations of “you, too,” as if that not only ends the discussion, but absolves the person making the claim of any responsibility for what happened.  The problem with that is simple: white southerners today aren’t responsible for slavery.  Nor are white Americans.  They are responsible when they try to justify it, deny it, excuse it, say it was forced upon them, or tell us that it wasn’t all bad (for starters).

Take this statement:

An incomplete and unrealistically negative picture of slavery is pervasive in the culture of this country; it is deliberately perpetrated in order to create the perception of slaveowners as inhuman and total evil — and, by association, the entire Confederacy, thus making the South “deserving” of the destruction by the righteous army of the north. To point out that this picture is agenda driven and incomplete, and thus not true, is not “arguing for slavery.”

Oh goodness.

Sometimes it isn’t about us: it’s about them.  But sometimes it isn’t about them: it’s about us.

I find this especially interesting when I see some white folks whine that blacks should just get over slavery.  After all, these folks say, they have black friends; they might even know a black person who shares their perspective on the past.  Next they’ll be telling Jews to get over the Holocaust.  Yet some of these same people are quick to point fingers themselves and use the same tactics that they deplore in others.  Perhaps it’s those white southerners who point fingers who need to get over themselves, recognize the disconnect between their need to celebrate a “heritage” and the actual historical record, and to think a little more carefully about what they are saying.  After all, in the opinion of one critic:

“When you hear whites say: ‘get over it,’ ‘slavery was a long time ago,’ ‘my family didn’t own slaves, ‘the Jews owned the slave ships,’ ‘your own kind sold you into slavery,’ and other sentiments like these, know these are the most common excuses these devils will use in attempts to not accept responsibility for and make restitution for their kind’s generational race crimes. Know today that these are unacceptable racist statements reparations offenders use in support of their kind’s historical racial terrorism. Whites who make statements like these are just as racially terroristic as the whites who dehumanized and terrorized our ancestors during the slave trade and even in this – the post Trans Atlantic slave trade era. Most often, these are the kinds of whites you will have to defend yourself against in a reparations protest.”

And the game goes on … because two can play at that game, and one can see how nonsense generates nonsense.

One is responsible for one’s understanding of history and for one’s use or misuse of that understanding.  When one resorts to distorting that understanding of the past in order to seek absolution for sins, real or alleged, then we know where the problem lies.