That combination of ideal democracy with real chivalry was a particular blend for which the world was immeasurably the better; and for the loss of which it is immeasurably the worse. It may never be recovered; but it will certainly be missed. – G. K. Chesterton, On America, Come To Think Of It, 1930
Today after the brutal attack on a church in Charleston, South Carolina, where 9 church members were killed, all black, by a white man, America is still fighting an old battle. It’s not a battle about slavery or civil rights or even about waving a flag; it’s about refusing to honor a loss together or even to know something precious has been lost by both sides.
The discussion of whether to ban the Confederate flag, also known as the Stars and Bars (or known more affectionately by those who fought under it as the “Bonnie Blue Flag”) has been stirred up (or picked open like a wound that never heals) as the media storms (or manipulates) us with an artillery of articles across each news platform with calls for taking sides once again. Never a lesson. Never a healing.
The New York Times opined in its headline today: Outrage vs. Tradition, wrapped in a Confederate Flag , posting its own subliminal call to do the right – liberal – thing and take down the flag from a courthouse on their position that its inherent nature incites violence. In this case, violence against black citizens, and most specifically, the church members who were gunned down. The sense from the tone of the piece is that any reasonable person who cares about humanity (and those 9 church members) will come to the same conclusion: it must be the flag that made him (Dylann Roof) do it. If you are hearing “the devil made him do it” in the back of your mind at this point, I guess its pretty clear that was their point – the “devil” in this case being the Confederate flag. That said, in its commendable attempt at even reporting, toward the bottom of the piece, it cites Dan Coleman, spokesman for the Georgia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans with a quote that actually gets to the problem of how we. as a still divided nation, see the Civil War, what we think it was fought over, and what the Confederate flag actually means to people. And it isn’t the same thing on any of those issues. Which is something we’re going to have to come to terms with if we are to understand how to mourn and heal together:
“Other supporters of the flag said they view the two issues — the mass shooting and the flag — as unrelated. Dan Coleman, a spokesman for the Georgia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the attack had more to do with “one very troubled young man” than the flag.”
Precisely. One troubled young man. A troubled young man, just like a lot of other troubled young men these days, of many colors, who do bad things to unsuspecting people. It wasn’t the Confederate flag or what he may have thought it represented that made him do anything. He did what he did because Dylann chose to do it, sadly. So what does the Confederate flag really stand for that many of us are missing in wanting to find a scapegoat to make the pain of the current tragedy go away? For some its about slavery and for some its about States’ Rights. And what each side doesn’t seem to grasp (or want to come to healing and agreement on) is that they are fighting and believing and hurting about the same thing: freedom. As one commenter on a friend’s social media post observed:
“I have mixed feelings….I lost family in that war…and always wonder what the children and families would have been like. We were read and studied the Lincoln Douglas debates so long ago it seems as if we were children…We were taught that the war was not about slavery…that was decided already by law …and laws in progress…but the war was about State versus Federal rights…about if a State could secede from the Union. So let me say… Slavery is wrong…always was The States rights are subordinate to Federal…constitution No one state has the right to secede…though we condone it elsewhere it seems (another subject…another day) So why mixed feelings…well as I say my family and indeed the whole county (now 3 separate) was mixed…as many fought for one as the other my family had soldiers on both sides…and lost members to both wars…when I go to the little community cemetery and clean around my grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins graves…I also do around both Confederate and Union stones where my ancestors lie….they died not for beliefs so much as a sense of duty to what they considered their government…even if misguided as were the governments.” – Gene Presley, 2015
That Confederate flag represents our brothers (and sisters) in this country who fought and died for what they believed in, a “Cause”, and we should honor them as we would their adversaries (or condemn them both for their foolishness). It is a period of time that defines this country no less than the American Revolution. It is a period of time that represents something that was lost, a gallantry, that this country now so desperately needs. That gallantry was fragmented and mixed with an intolerable stand for an open enslavement of a people and thus it died along with that open institution because we did not then have the wisdom to see we still needed that gallantry as part of our national character. And so what remained (and remains still without them), what existed then on the other side where Northern factories made the cannons and armaments that defeated the Confederacy, was a not so open slavery of its own, an insidious, greedy, pervasive slavery of power over others which continues to this day…without the gallantry. It is the same thing that happens over and over in history when a people divide or divorce over an issue – each side loses something that they need from the other to be the “better angel of their nature.” (Abraham Lincoln) And we do need to remember that. We have lost something precious and beautiful in amidst something terrible? What is it that we have lost from this ancient war that defines us still?
Aside from the lives of the future generations of those men who were killed, affecting forever the destinies of untold thousands in this country, we have lost three things: gallantry, honor, and chivalry. We now have hard thinking, relentless marketing, and common aggressiveness. Gallantry, honor,and chivalry. These words have little meaning today, but they were the idealist bedrock of a lost society, a society who was willing to bank it all on a card game, an endeavor, a piece of land, a cause and walk away, chin high, even laughing in their defeat, accepting it honorably. But at the same time, was willing to defend these things with honor because of the ideal. As Mitchell wrote in her preface, quoting a poem from which her book took its title, Gone With the Wind, that way of living life has floated away from us. Some of us gained a kind of freedom, but at the loss of what was best about our society. G. K. Chesterton, while not defending slavery on any level, recognized with the defeat of the South, the loss of these ideals as well for America as to its national character. In 1930 he wrote of his observations in a piece called “On America” from Come To Think Of It.
“In other words, what is most lacking in modern psychology is the sentiment of Honour; the sentiment to which personal independence is vital and to which wealth is entirely incommensurate. I know very well that Honour had all sorts of fantasies and follies in the days of its excess. But that does not affect the danger of its deficiency, or rather its disappearance. The world will need, and need desperately, the particular spirit of the landowner who will not sell his land, of the shopkeeper who will not sell his shop, of the private man who will not be bullied or bribed into being part of a public combination; of what our fathers meant by the free man. And we need the Southern gentleman more than the English or French or Spanish gentleman. For the aristocrat of Old Dixie, with all his faults and inconsistencies, did understand what the gentle man of Old Europe generally did not. He did understand the Republican ideal, the notion of the Citizen as it was understood among the noblest of the pagans. That combination of ideal democracy with real chivalry was a particular blend for which the world was immeasurably the better; and for the loss of which it is immeasurably the worse. It may never be recovered; but it will certainly be missed.”
When we don’t respect the others’ losses as honorable adversaries, we all lose.
Read the essay: On America
Image source: A dead Confederate Soldier on the battlefield of Ewell’s Attack, May 19, 1864. Near Spotsylvannia Court House. Wikimedia Commons.