December 2010

Similar story to tell!  Updates to Commonplace made for November.  I also draw readers’ attention to the very last item in the November Commonplace entries, an excerpt from aNew York Times report on the celebration by certain Southerners in the USA of the sesquicentennial of their states’ secession from the Union. The New York Times, in its infallible wisdom, has severely reduced the length of the article on its website, declaring bleakly that ‘a version of this article appeared in print on November 30th’. The quotation that I reproduce runs as follows:

“We in the South, who have been kicked around for an awfully long time and are accused of being racist, we would just like the truth to be known. [While there were many causes for the war,] our people were only fighting to protect themselves from an invasion and for their independence.”  It was spoken by a Michael Givens, described as commander-in-chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and was part of his explanation of plans to air television commercials celebrating secession.

What a series of weasel-words and selective truth-telling appears in this statement! The claim for the spokesperson to represent accurately a large swath of the country (“we in the South”); the sense of grievance and victimization unreasonably claimed for people such as him (“we have been kicked around”); the facile dismissal of charges of racism (when lynching was commonplace less than 75 years ago); the arrogant claim that the truth has been concealed; the sloppy inclusiveness of the speaker and selective forefathers one hundred and fifty years ago (“our people”); the biased view of history and causes, overlooking the defense of slavery (“fighting to protect themselves”); the phoney and folksy communitarianism (“Sons of Confederate Veterans”); overall, a sickly misplaced sense of righteousness in the guise of ‘heritage’.

Cultural traditions such as these are divisive and pernicious. Kosovo Field, the Battle of The Boyne, the American ‘War Between the States’ – they all provide banners that grant a sense of belonging and grievance to individuals who are not strong enough to think for themselves, or to accept their own identity outside some collective grouping of pseudo-ethnicity. Such mutual admirers cannot even be contented with celebrating their aberrations in private, but need to promote their prejudices to society at large. (December 1, 2010)

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