(The Return of) Ignatz, by Sam Heldman

Tuesday, December 31, 2002

The Confederate flag, Dolly Parton, and William James

Several years ago I spent some days trying a case in a county courthouse in Tennessee. In front of the courthouse, where one often finds a statute of a Confederate soldier (e.g., here, here, here), was a statute of a young Dolly Parton. (How 'bout that world wide web, huh?).

Therein lies the key to something.

A few weeks ago, rummaging around on Joseph Duemer's site, I came across a link to an essay by William James that I hadn't read in many years. It was one of James's "Talks to Students on Some of Life's Ideals": this talk was "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.". It begins like this:
Our judgments concerning the worth of things, big or little, depend on the feelings the things arouse in us. Where we judge a thing to be precious in consequence of the idea we frame of it, this is only because the idea is itself associated already with a feeling. If we were radically feelingless, and if ideas were the only things our mind could entertain, we should lose all our likes and dislikes at a stroke, and be unable to point to any one situation or experience in life more valuable or significant than any other.

Now the blindness in human beings, of which this discourse will treat, is the blindness with which we all are afflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves.

We are practical beings, each of us with limited functions and duties to perform. Each is bound to feel intensely the importance of his own duties and the significance of the situations that call these forth. But this feeling is in each of us a vital secret, for sympathy with which we vainly look to others. The others are too much absorbed in their own vital secrets to take an interest in ours. Hence the stupidity and injustice of our opinions, so far as they deal with the significance of alien lives. Hence the falsity of our judgments, so far as they presume to decide in an absolute way on the value of other persons' conditions or ideals.

So now think of the Confederate "heritage" movement – the flag, the statute of the soldiers, the kids defiantly wearing rebel flag t-shirts to school. Some of the people who support this sort of thing are vicious white-supremacists. Others, I believe, are not. So why would they engage in this behavior?

The answer, I think, has to do with feelings. Everyone, everywhere, yearns for a sense of being part of something important. In most people, this is wrapped up in geography – and in many people is wrapped up in ancestry as well. What the Confederate nostalgia does, for some people, is to provide that feeling of being rooted in something worth celebrating. You will make no headway if your program is to convince white Southerners that their ancestors were bad, and that there is nothing worth celebrating in their past. You will gain no ground if you tell those whose ancestors were poor, that those ancestors were gullible and were duped by the elites into fighting a war to protect the evil institution of slavery. Nobody wants to feel that he or she came from bad or stupid folks who aren't worth celebrating; everybody wants to feel good.

Unfortunately, in order to obtain that good feeling, the non-white-supremacist romanticizers of the Civil War and Reconstruction-era South have latched upon things that also provoke feelings in others – and like all of us, as William James reminded us, the romanticizers are (surprising at it may seem, because our own feelings seem obvious to ourselves) oblivious to the depth of very bad feelings that these symbols and practices evoke in others.

The best way out, if there is one, is for white southern romanticizers to find those same feelings of pride and belonging in other symbols and things, ones that don't evoke such bad feelings in us non-romanticizers. And this is where Dolly comes in. White Southerners do in fact have some things to be proud of. And Dolly – as the folks in Sevierville know – represents many of them. If every county courthouse in the South had a statute of some local person or people who represented some of those things that the locals could claim as a particular source of regional pride, rather than the divisive Confederate soldier, that would be a great step forward. Maybe Bill Gates can come forward with a grant for this purpose.

posted by sam 12:44 PM 0 comments


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