Wrong Song of the South

The dangerous fallacies of Confederate multiculturalism


During the last decade, the League of the South and other "southern heritage" groups have fought to preserve the state flags of Georgia and Mississippi. Some members of the League have demanded that universities hire Southern-born professors. Others have promoted antebellum style dances. Nearly all are quick to champion their "heroes," including Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, against any slights.

The jargon of group rights and identity politics, normally the domain of the politically correct, permeates their pronouncements. In Georgia, a member of the League boasts that "our Southern heritage celebrates true diversity…and true multiculturalism." Another from Virginia asks "in an age of political correctness, teaching tolerance of others and multiculturalism…when will the people of the south be permitted to honor their heritage?" Similarly, the national president of the League declares that if "Southerners were any other people in the world, the campaign to rob them of their symbols, their history, and their cultural identity would be termed cultural genocide." The League stresses the Celtic background of many Southerners as a defining feature of this "cultural identity."

A few years ago an incident brought home to one of the authors some striking parallels between Confederate multiculturalists of this type and leftwing multiculturalists. During a long conversation about race and culture, a white professor at the University of Alabama, lamented that so few blacks were observing Kwanzaa.

This professor was a member of the Coalition for Diversity and Inclusiveness, a group that "celebrates" such "multicultural" crusades as mandatory diversity training and reparations. Her zeal was not dampened by the argument that local blacks, like whites, were Christians of a traditional sort and that Kwanzaa was foreign to their outlook. Though she acknowledged that the holiday was the brainchild of an American college professor of dubious character, she still held out the hope that African American students might take it seriously.

Her brief for Kwanzaa illustrates the hollowness and artificiality of much of what passes today for multiculturalism. This professor's agenda of promoting "cultural awareness," and thus differences between blacks and whites, had become so all encompassing that she did not hesitate to impose it from the top down. Much the same can be said for the Confederate multiculturalists who work so hard to immortalize state flags that are usually no older than the 1950s. Like her, they desperately want to create and "celebrate" cultural distinctions and then deploy them for political purposes. They also view the world through the lens of group, rather than individual, rights.

Of course, the key defining trait of the Confederate multiculturalists is their interpretation of the Civil War. They usually have a stock set of answers for any critics. In response to the obvious link between slavery and the Confederacy, their favorite retort is that the "war wasn't about slavery." If an informed critic can refute this claim, their usual fallback is to declare that "the Yankees" had dirty hands too (as if that excused any Southern sin). Instead, they stress the roles of states rights, self-determination, and the tariff.

This overall analysis of the relationship between slavery and secession, while often well meaning, is just plain wrong. The primary documents of the period make crystal clear that the Confederacy and slavery went together like hand and glove. The declarations of "immediate causes" of secession of South Carolina and Mississippi say nary a word about the tariff or, for that matter, states rights; but they say quite a bit about the urgent need to protect slavery. Of course, any stress on states rights would have been out of character. During the 1850s, many of the authors of these documents had defended federal supremacy against Northern states that had enacted liberal laws to protect runaways.

Instead, these declarations for secession stress a compact theory that indicted the federal government for failing to live up to its end of the Constitutional bargain by not enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act and by blocking the expansion of slavery into the territories. During the war itself, the Confederacy often trampled on both state and individual rights through the nationalization of industry, inflation, and conscription.

All of this does not excuse any evils committed by the "Yankees." A strong, but highly nuanced and conditional, case can be made that President Abraham Lincoln was wrong to violently prevent secession much as Russia is wrong to do so now against illiberal Chechnya. Historian Jeffrey Rogers Hummel persuasively contends that had Lincoln let South Carolina and its allies leave prior to the firing on Fort Sumter, the Upper South would have stayed in the Union. Limited to a weak rump of Gulf coast states and South Carolina, the new nation would have faced a grim future of isolation, slave revolts, runaways, and eventual collapse.

An even more powerful moral case for self-determination can be made, though Confederate multiculturalists will never do it, in defense of the insurgents at Harpers Ferry led by John Brown. If any individual during the civil war period deserves the accolade of hero, it is not Lincoln or Davis but Brown's ally, Lysander Spooner. Spooner's antislavery interpretation of the Constitution had inspired Frederick Douglass during the 1850s. Later, Spooner opposed the war but, all the while, he was consistent in his support for the inalienable rights of all individuals.

If the Confederate multiculturalists believe in liberty, as many of them assert, they will stop waving the Confederate Battle Flag, abandon the cause of a nation state that championed an unforgivable violation of inalienable rights, and embrace the rich American heritage of individualism.