Several recent letters from readers outside the South have contained clippings and firsthand reports about the progress of Our Nation’s cause. I hope my correspondents don’t mind, but I’ve come to think of them as a sort of intelligence service, even sometimes as a Fifth Column.
One expatriate, for instance, sent along a brochure for a Boston bank. Its cover shows a yuppie couple on their boat, sipping wine against a backdrop of the Boston skyline, enjoying the good life that their savings or low-interest loan has made possible. On the bow of the boat, so inconspicuous that it presumably escaped the bank’s notice, is a rebel flag decal. My spy labeled the photograph: “The Confederate Navy in Boston Harbor.”
Keep those cards and letters coming, folks.
A couple of less cheering reports have come in from the Ivy League—one each, as it happens, from Yale and Harvard.
At Yale, as you may know, there is a residential college named for John C. Calhoun, class of 1804. I’ve never visited Calhoun College, but it sounds like a sort of oasis in the poststructuralist wasteland of New Haven. In a devil-may-care display of speciesism, for instance, its oak-paneled dining hall is adorned with Old South hunting pictures.
“Above the great fireplace at the end of the room,” my correspondent reports, “hangs a portrait of the Great Nullificator with his long white hair brushed defiantly back. His countenance is stern, almost frowning at the rascality of Yankee capitalists.” The Fellows’ Common Room boasts a framed copy of the Charleston Mercury’s announcement of secession, and the college’s dean carries the senator’s walking stick at commencement, instead of the customary mace. (By the way, where is Preston Brooks’s cane when we need it?)
Anyway, Yale produced nine Confederate generals and a secretary of state, so it’s only fitting that this aspect of its heritage should be honored, right?
Wrong. Pamphlets appeared last spring, suggesting by selective quotation not only that Calhoun championed slavery (which he did, of course), but that he championed nothing else. They also pointed out that the sum of his monetary contributions to Yale was one hundred dollars in 1824. (Does this mean that if he’d come across in a bigger way his politics could be overlooked?)
The point of these pamphlets is that Yale should change the college’s name. Change it to what, the pamphlet-writer saieth not, but since all of the Yale colleges are named for dead white men, presumably heterosexual—well, I fear the worst.
Damn it, it’s time for the loyal remnant at Calhoun College to think about secession. Take the college’s emoluments, take its hunting prints and Charleston Mercury clipping, take the old man’s walking stick, and head south. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to honor Yale with your presence in the first place.
You know, this is the kind of thing that makes otherwise mild-mannered Southern white boys in New England colleges want to chew tobacco, crank up Hank Williams Jr. on the stereo, and run up the rebel flag. Black folks won’t believe this, but that last impulse has absolutely nothing to do with them.
Which leads me to the Harvard story.
A clipping from the Boston Globe tells of the travails last spring of Miss Brigit Kerrigan, a Harvard pre-law student who had the temerity to hang a Confederate battle flag from her dormitory window. The Globe‘s reporter called Miss Kerrigan “aggressively Southern,” apparently because she wears floral prints and pink sweaters and addresses journalists as “ma’am.” In fact, she comes from the Virginia suburbs of D.C., but, as she rightly pointed out, “You can be born in Alaska and still be Southern. It’s a state of mind.” Besides, her daddy runs a chewing tobacco trade association.
Anyway, soon after Miss Kerrigan’s display of Southern pride, the sensitivity police moved in. Her faculty housemasters wrote in an open letter that they “empathize with those for whom public display of the Confederate flag is a source of pain,” and rebuked Miss Kerrigan for being “unwilling to join this community spirit by removing her flag.” She found herself being Kitty Kellied in a Harvard Crimson biographical sketch, and the president of the university himself called her action (guess what) “insensitive.” (He also said it was “unwise,” an argument that doesn’t impress Southerners, who, after all, started a war without having any munitions factories.)
You know, if the president had really wanted to persuade Miss Kerrigan, he wouldn’t have called her “insensitive,” he’d have criticized her manners. For a well-raised Southerner, that’s the killer argument. And, actually, her manners did leave something to be desired. It’s true that her flag offended the people she wanted to offend (who could use some offending, unless they’ve changed since I left Cambridge in 1964). But it also annoyed some bystanders, including some of her fellow Southerners, black ones in particular.
Jacinda Townsend, of Bowling Green, Kentucky, for instance, responded to Miss Kerrigan’s flag by flying one of her own—with a swastika on it. Miss Townsend (who, by the way, spoke to the Globe movingly and eloquently of her own love for the South) said that her intent was to get all flags banned, by flying one that she assumed would offend everybody.
Well, it certainly did that, and she finally took it down when the Black Student Association asked her to, saying that it was making black-Jewish relations more difficult. Miss Townsend said that she hadn’t realized how monstrously and particularly offensive the swastika is to Jewish students.
Having grown up in the small-town South myself, I believe her. But look here. Miss Townsend, I also believe—in fact, I know—that many white Southerners simply don’t realize how threatening you find the Confederate flag. I’m not saying they’d stop displaying it if they did realize that (they might just tell you to get over it), but it’s a fact that most of them don’t mean what you think they mean, any more than you meant what Hillel thought you meant.
More about this business of meaning in a minute, but while I’m giving unsolicited advice, I have some for the rebel lass, Miss Kerrigan, too. It comes in the form of a story.
From time immemorial our local chapter of the Kappa Alpha Order has flown the Confederate flag during the week of its Old South Ball. Starting in the 1960’s that practice every year occasioned rancorous ill-will, until a couple of years ago when some genius decided to fly the Confederate national flag, the Stars and Bars proper, instead of the battle flag. Now an eerie calm has descended. The brothers still honor their traditions, but now with a flag that apparently lacks the offensive connotations of the Southern Cross. Think about that. Miss Kerrigan.
But, of course, one reason nobody objects to the Stars and Bars is that hardly anybody knows what it is. When Yankee Pharisees get going on the unrighteousness of our people and our heritage and you want to stick it in their ear, only the battle flag will do.
Sticking it in their ear is what I take Miss Kerrigan’s real purpose to have been, and I respect her for it. Raising hell is a traditional Southern pastime, and she did a bang-up job of it. As she said to the Globe, “If they talk about diversity, they’re gonna get it. If they talk about tolerance, they better be ready to have it.”
In other words, here’s some “multiculturalism,” sucker—in your face.
And what, after all, does the flag mean? To Miss Kerrigan’s critics and apparently to the Harvard establishment it means hate, and violence, and the Ku Klux Klan. But to her, she says, it means:
All that is noble and young and rebellious and brave. Tenacity in the darkest hour. Respect for truth, integrity, character, and duty. That is the flag of the war for Southern independence.
Who’s to say she’s wrong about that? Not Jane Tompkins of the Duke English department, who says that “reader-response” critics like herself “deny the existence of objective texts and indeed the possibility of objectivity altogether [thus making discourse] responsible for reality and not merely a reflection of it.” Not her colleague Frank Lentricchia, either; what he says of literature—that it “is inherently nothing, or it is inherently a body of rhetorical strategies waiting to be seized”—is surely even more true of colors on a cloth.
So get this: we must establish and maintain a counterhegemonic discourse. Because the flag is a text that each reader (re)constructs for her/ himself, we must foreground its semiotic interrelationship with the historic national liberation struggle of a Third World people, resisting the attempt to privilege the hegemonic reading. (How’m I doing?)
Buried in this steaming pile of trendy Dispatches from the. South b.s. is a valid point, which is that since 1865 rebellious spirits of many nations have seen the Confederate flag as a symbol of freedom. Many have seen the Southern cause as the cause of liberty—tragically flawed by its link to human bondage, sure, but the Confederates paid the price for that.
You don’t believe me? Read the account in Southern Daughter, a new biography of Margaret Mitchell coming out in September, of how Gone With the Wind was received. It was read around campfires on both sides of the Spanish Civil War: each side, believing its cause was just, identified with the Confederates. Later, the book was popular among the anti-Nazi resistance, then within the captive nations of Eastern Europe.
I can attest to that last audience. On my office wall is a news photo from Erfurt, formerly of the German Democratic Republic, shortly after its liberation. It shows Chancellor Kohl speaking to a large crowd in the town square. Many of his listeners wave West German flags. Far in the back, however, one citizen is waving a battle flag of the late C.S.A.
And I can top even that. For a while last year I had a folded Confederate flag on my office desk. (I guess that needs some explaining. It was there because an Israeli friend had written to ask a favor. His eighteen-year-old son, a tank gunner in the Israeli army, had been reading about Nathan Bedford Forrest and wanted a rebel flag to fly from his turret. You’d be surprised how hard it is to find a Confederate flag in Chapel Hill these days, but when I put out a call for help, I got two flags, one from a Kappa Alpha of my acquaintance, the other from a friend who happened to be passing Stuckey’s on the interstate. I sent one on to the Golan Heights—where it flies today: I have a photograph. The other I put on my messy desk.)
Anyway, one day, I had a visitor, a scholar from Tbilisi, Soviet Georgia, on an American tour. He saw the flag on my desk, recognized it, and asked where he could get one. Naturally, I insisted that he take mine.
Now, I don’t know if he really understood what he was saying, but after he thanked me he said (and I swear this is true), “Someday this will fly in a free Georgia.”