As I’ve touched on before, labor relations, class, and race are really fucking tangled in the United States. Race-based slavery and the centuries-long corruption of blood needed to maintain it as an institution would not have taken root had the profiteering English dandies who settled the Tidewater South, starting at Jamestown, not been so eager to maintain cheap, easily abused pools of menial labor in the interest of allowing themselves to live lives of (at least relative) ease and comfort. Their goal was getting the work done, but by someone else; oppressing the black man unto the twentieth generation was an afterthought. Indentured servitude might have remained an individual obligation binding solely upon the indentured servant for a set contractual term, and with no particular racial connotations, had the Tidewater gentry not totally freaked the hell out after Bacon’s Rebellion and used the full force of the state to bribe the poor Cracker with a Faustian offer of tyrannical legal supremacy over the Negro.
Our black population today might instead be a combination of the (mostly) mixed-race descendants of early indentured servants and more recent immigrants from the Caribbean, South America, and various parts of Africa, with few Americans assuming any of these people any less assimilable than Italians, who weren’t always white, or Mexicans, who aren’t always. Why should an immigrant from Ethiopia be more foreign than one from China? Victorian and Edwardian sentiment about what was then known as the Chinaman wasn’t nearly as prim and proper as one might expect from watching too much Downton Abbey, but the Chinese-American population seems to have assimilated well enough on the whole, and the sort of reverse-Bund ethnic concessions that Chinese immigrants maintain in cities like New York and San Francisco don’t cause as much trouble with their American neighbors as one might expect given the very real cultural gulf.
Instead, we have race-based corruption of blood running with the barest of interruptions from the time of the Mayflower voyage to the present day. The Puritans weren’t a very warm and charming lot, and New England continues to be home to more than its fair share of sourpusses and undisguised high-hats, but as Muhammad Ali might have said, no supercilious Boston Brahmin in a stupid-ass pilgrim costume ever beat the shit out of me at a whipping post or burned me to death in front of a picnicking crowd of Whiteys. ISIS isn’t worse than slavery or Jim Crow when it burns captives alive, or even meaningfully different; it’s just Arab psychopaths and their foreign understudies doing it in the name of Islam in wartime instead of soi-disant Christian Anglos doing it in the name of Dixie and white Christian womanhood in times of nominal peace. At the very far end of living memory Americans took part in public executions every bit as gruesome as the most vicious martyrdoms in the entire canon of Christian hagiography. We choose instead to remember debutante balls and gentlemanly horse races and afternoons on the veranda of some neoclassical plantation mansion because, why, I do declare, Miss Paula, this is a delicious mint julep!
There’s a fairly strong consensus among the reformists that the Confederate battle flag stands for all the ugliness of slavery and Jim Crow that the Dixie traditionalists try so desperately to keep behind the curtain, in the back of the big house. They’re right about the evil of the race and caste regime of the Old South; most of them, in fact, understate their case. They’re off-base, however, about the battle flag, and they end up missing the class and ethnic references hidden in plain sight on the Southern Cross.
First, the Confederate battle flag is not, as many people erroneously call it (mostly the Damn Yankees, I reckon), the Stars and Bars. That’s the Confederate political flag. There’s no mistaking the two: the latter has a circle of white stars on a blue field (like the early US flags or the modern EU flag, but with fewer stars) in the upper left corner, surrounded on the right and bottom by three broad stripes, red, white, and red. There’s not a cross to be found. Other than hardcore Confederacy trainspotters, no one gives a shit about the stars and bars, including Southerners. The flag that gets everyone riled up is the battle flag, the St. Andrew’s Cross with the intersecting lines of white stars surging out of a solid red field. The use of St. Andrew’s Cross, as opposed to St. George’s, as an aesthetic touchstone was no mistake. Jeff Davis, Marse Bob Lee, and the whole crew weren’t looking to rile up the Englishmen, or even the ecumenical British unionist types who wanted all the King’s honkies to live together in trans-ethnic harmony, united by love of crown and country. No. They were fixing to rile up the Scotsmen. That’s why they deployed an updated version of the classic Cracker banner. Instead of God damn the King, it was God damn Lincoln. These were politically astute men. They knew that they had to keep Our Highlanders on their side. As it was, they weren’t able to keep West Virginia, whose citizens could respect Lincoln as a fellow backwoods country boy more than they could respect the Tidewater gentry, like Lee, who wanted them to do their fighting. Honest Abe felt quite the same way: “I would like to have God on my side, but I need Kentucky.”
The Confederate battle flag was never really about the Confederacy. It was about itching for a rough-and-tumble with the soldiers or police of whatever central government could be convincingly portrayed as an imperial tyranny at the moment. This is exactly the battle flag’s purpose to this day. Even in the thick of the Civil War prominent Southerners were disparaging Jefferson Davis and his character in ways that wouldn’t have occurred to most Northerners. The most positive thing that many Southerners could be brought to say about the Confederacy as a polity was that maybe its existence was necessary to present a unified political and military front to the Yankees. The po crackas weren’t fighting so much for their states or their new secessionist nation as they were fighting against whatever and whomever they had been provoked to fight. Sometimes it’s the whiskey revenuers and then George Washington’s expeditionary force, sometimes it’s the posh high-hats of the Confederate Tidewater, sometimes it’s black people, sometimes it’s the federal government, real or imagined, sometimes it’s all government: the point is, Highlanders gonna Highland. The strategic thinking on both sides of the Civil War was that he who had the Cracker bruisers on his side would win the fight.
These days, the Confederate battle flag has been taken up by poseurs who merely imagine that they’d be great fighters for their own liberty against whatever frickin’ government happens to be in their way, say, by providing them with net transfer payments from its treasury. They don’t like authority. Their objections to authority may be legitimate and well thought-out, or they may be completely inchoate, petulant, and stupid. Would they willingly submit to the sovereign authority of the Confederate States of America, whose battle flag they defiantly fly? Of course not. They’d find some other banner, maybe a Gadsden flag, to carry up the state house steps in Montgomery and rudely wave in Jefferson Davis’ face (i.e., to fly over their singlewides while they play first-person shooter video games in which they valiantly assassinate Jeff Davis).
A huge amount of American policy is devoted to ensuring that the Highlanders and their smaller complement of New World playing-fields-of-Eton types are kept loyal to the elites, preferably at minimal cost. This does much to explain why a number of Southern states have continued to officially fly a flag under which the secessionist governments of their states were militarily defeated by Union troops and brought back under the sovereignty of the United States government at gunpoint. It’s like going to Berlin and discovering the corner of Reichkanzler Adolf Hitlerstrasse and Herr Doktor Joseph Mengele Allee. Or, as Jacob Bacharach put it, “Literally, imagine Germany flying the swastika at half mast over the Reichstag to honor victims of the Holocaust.” This level of magnanimity in military victory is quite unusual. No defender of the Union has had the courage and moral rectitude to say, “No, you fuckers lost the war, Grant blew it by not rooting the Klan out of every hollow from the Potomac to the Rio Grande, and by the way, Sherman had the humanity to clear houses before setting them on fire. You really ought to take down that stupid thing because y’all will not be rising again.” The United States suffered four years of armed sedition at the behest of slavers, resulting in bloodshed that shocked Europeans who had been around for Waterloo, and afterwards, the victorious US government gave its blessing to multiple official displays of the Confederate battle flag by recently secessionist states.
No one even barred state flags incorporating the battle flag from display at the US Capitol on the basis that the Congress will not tolerate displays of imagery used to incite armed treason against the United States for any purpose, and that it’s a state’s right to fly that shit at its own statehouse if it must. Meanwhile, an uneasy alliance of Southern bruisers and well-coiffed reactionary shitbirds who look like they don’t really want to directly associate with the Crackers smugly note that the South has always contributed more than its fair share to the national defense, and wouldn’t it be a shame if something happened to this patriotism because the leftists got too uppity–ignoring, of course, the four years when the South turned most of its guns against the Union. So they’re great defenders of the United States of America except for those times when Grant and Sherman have to kick their asses. Fine chaps, yes? The rest of us are supposed to be grateful to these shits for refraining from starting another civil war because the federal government infringed on some local government’s right to terrorize minorities and the poor, or maybe because some asshats in the South got upset about Yankees comparing slavery to the Holocaust.
The tragedy is that this racial mess came about because the South’s upper class was willing to sell its soul for the opportunity to live in a measure of wealth and leisure in a labor-intensive plantation economy and to studiously ignore the evil injustices making this arrangement possible. The Yankees at least tried to keep civilization going through their own hard work. So did yeomen in parts of the interior South. But yeomen are never as entertaining as leisured cavaliers. They’re too dour. They’re too earnest. They don’t have that fine-ass style. They fail as influence peddlers on the national stage. They can’t keep up with Scarlett O’Hara or Dan Bilzerian.
We’re too busy working, if we can find work. I consider it a good week if I can make a net contribution to the national food supply. This week it was about 165 pounds of blueberries. With luck, I’ll pick more like 400 pounds this coming week. It’ll be a miracle if I make minimum wage. It isn’t that our piece rate is unfair; the farm’s owners work like dogs all summer in a low-margin business with high fixed expenses, and the fastest picker on the crew this year is clearing minimum wage by up to sixty cents an hour. Do I have time for the debutante ball? Bitch please. I hardly have time to read or write.
In a good caste society the affluent and wealthy aren’t supposed to get involved in the nitty-gritty. That’s for poor white trash, black people, Hispanics, Somalis, whatever, but in any event, work is for someone else. I don’t mean Anna Beavon Gravely’s idea of work. I mean the kind without which someone ends up starving or going thirsty or sleeping rough or dying. That kind of thing. Someone had to do that kind of work in the Colonial South, too. It’s why we have a race problem here. It’s why we’ll still have a class problem no matter how many black people are assimilated into Southern high society. No one wants to make sure that the working class isn’t living in tarpaper shacks or dying of tuberculosis in prison.
At least I won’t have the spare mental energy to think about these things too deeply in the field tomorrow.