By now, you've probably heard of the South Carolina Secessionist Party. Maybe, like me, you were tipped off months ago about one of their regular activities — standing in White Point Garden waving their Confederate flags, largely ignored by early spring tourists. Or maybe you heard about them late last year when they announced they'd be raising their flag over the Statehouse this summer ... or when they lost the permit to do that ... or when they got it back again.
Now the group wants to further express its right to fly the flag of a defeated nation of hyper authoritarian slave holders. "Operation Retaliation" is the name of their plan to find locations to plant their flag for all to see (or ignore, perhaps). I imagine they'll be contacting a lot of car dealerships to find out where to buy a flag pole that can handle the obscenely jingoistic gaudiness of a 30' by 50' flag.
This plan, as party founder and chairperson James Bessenger explained to the Post & Courier, is to make up for the past year in which "Southerners saw their heritage maligned and relegated," Bessenger says, "to a small corner of history labeled 'treason and slavery.'"
Sounds horrible, doesn't it? An entire year of brutal, vicious, verbal assaults would be enough motivation to drive any group of people into action, I suppose. It's a good thing for America that slavery and Jim Crow and systemic racism only went on for about 15 minutes one lazy Sunday afternoon between grandma's pot roast and apple pie before we finally elected President Obama and racism ended forever. Sure is a shame that Southern heritage became a casualty because of it.
Except it isn't a casualty at all. Southern heritage is alive and well in America, and any notion that it's being given short shrift is worthy of ridicule and derision. There simply is no dearth of expression of Southern culture in South Carolina, or anywhere else these days. An internet search yields dozens of results for magazines large and small covering, even celebrating "progressive" Southern culture and its influence on food, weddings, architecture, literature, music, film, and more.
Even outside of these vapid, consumer-driven efforts marketing Southern culture to a largely white, middle to upper-middle class audience, there's still the very real and troubling legacy of slavery and racism written in large, block letters on street signs, buildings, and even entire neighborhoods all across the South. There is no erasure of the South or its heritage. Intentional ignorance about that heritage? Well, that's another story.
Consider the oldest of those glossy magazines dedicated to the art of living large in subtropical North America: the venerated Southern Living. If you want to know how Southern Living made its mark so thoroughly in the American grocery store checkout lines — while managing not to get ridiculed for its unhesitating love for the South's "heritage" — look no further than a 2011 interview with Editor Sid Evans.
Mr. Evans, as I'm sure all the genteel readers of the City Paper are aware, was the founding editor of Garden & Gun, at one time just another magazine peddling Southern charm to the world. Speaking on the success of his magazine, Mr. Evans told Folio: the secret to a good Southern magazine, like Southern Living, was to "think about what was going on in 1966, when [it] was launched...it wasn't great. 'But [it] was about a civilized, gracious place.'"
That attitude apparently helps, as Southern Living and G&G are very much fixtures in the South's never ending obsession with itself. After all, the term "Civil War" appears only 251 times on G&G's website, while "barbecue" checks in with 859. "Jim Crow" is mentioned on only 16 pages of the website while "bluegrass" (which isn't even Southern, and yes, I am prepared to make that case) winds up on there 447.
Erasure of the problems of the South sells magazines and a nostalgia for something that never existed: a South where slavery was just that "peculiar institution" and where voting rights and being able to sit at the lunch counter stood in for proper reparations for centuries of unpaid labor. It also normalizes the ideas of people who feel their culture is being erased, even when it clearly isn't. These things are connected and they should be discussed.
In the meantime, the Secessionists will somehow find the money to put up their flags, while too many others will struggle to find money for rent. That's also something that should be discussed. It's just too bad that it will be easier to go on ignoring all of it and reading glossy magazines and clicking our tongues at those awful flags we'll be seeing on the side of the interstate soon. Then again, isn't polite gentility toward everyone the pinnacle of Southern culture?