Good evening, cruel world. I was thinking recently of a friend from the 80s in western Rhode Island, where I come from originally, who jumped onto his drum riser and plastered a big ass rebel flag on the wall behind his brand new set of black Tamas. Seeing the crossed bars and stars I was immediately put in the mind of Bo and Luke Duke, the Dukes of Hazard County and their quarrels with Boss Hogg and his ridiculous deputies. Daisy Duke, of course, took must of my attention since I was a burgeoning youth finding the pleasures of self manipulation in the shameful addicts manner (Space 1999‘s Sandra really did for me!) of sticky hot and itchy summers and wads of tissue needing to be collected before Mom discovered so many of them. The popular association of the confederate flag, back then, was a quaint and tired reminder of some kind of roguish outlawism. Something about bucking authority, but for the correct reasons. Bo and Luke Duke were never pushing heroin or running guns to gangs, in fact I can’t remember much of what they were doing except driving the silly car around and firing off arrows with dynamite taped to them. Just the same that day, when Jerry, my new drummer, grinned wickedly at his confederate flag antics ready to be challenged—we didn’t challenge him—the only thing I thought was, huh, he likes Dukes of Hazard. He was a new friend, and a couple of years older than myself, and I wasn’t about to grill him about the meaning of said musty old flag. It looked good there, it brightened up the room a bit. It was promptly forgotten. I have no idea what became of it. It never made it on-stage with us. I’m not sure if I’d have thought much about it if it had.
In reading about post-WW2 bikers I was taken a bit by surprise to find that many of those old vets who adopted a renegade lifestyle on their various road machines were sometimes party to wearing a swastika or two. As a youth it was popular in school to make graphite tattoos of them and lick your hand or arm, and plaster them to yourself. One day my maternal grandfather, who had mapped bombing routes during the war (and driven a taxi for money) asked me what I thought an old timer would do if he saw me wearing such. My sixth grade brain was obsessed with war, and the only thing that came to mind was shooting. I figured an old veteran would shoot me. My ever polite grandfather dismissed me, had no more to say on the subject, but I could tell I’d disappointed him and I ceased making further swastikas which for some reason were the easiest and most obvious symbol a twelve year old boy would make in those days. Maybe it was all the World At War television I’d been steeped in.
About the old vets I’d been shocked to stupefaction to hear one, who haunted the shop I worked at in the late eighties, spout such energetic anti-semitism (Hitler was right about one thing, he’d said, kill the Jews!) that I wondered what he fought that war for. But it’s obvious, we just would rather not see it that way. In retrospect, I realize that so many of those old vets were kids, children really, as Kurt Vonnegut pointed out in Slaughter-house Five, and really were only fighting because they were told to. They were right because they were American (team America), and that was that. Only later would they mature, and possibly get some idea of what the story was and what the world was built around, and that Roosevelt couldn’t walk at the end, and maybe getting off the farm, or out of the docks was the greatest adventure they’d ever had, but only would they understand the immense sacrifice when they were mature enough to do so. Go back in time and maturity becomes rarer. People died younger, had families younger, but their chances for self-examination and criticism were likely as rare as bags of money on the street. Hitler had that one thing right, the old vet wanted me to know. Me, a fella he barely knew, but could see by my youth that when he was my age he’d been in Europe (possibly in lands he couldn’t find on a map) fighting and struggling with people who “talked funny”. And the reason was probably more along the lines of them dirty Japs attacked us.
My friends want to go even further back, tossing the world wars aside, the second and then the first, the so-called Great War. Lurching even further back, across the turn of the century, scrambling over the Spanish-American spats and the Native American wars and back to a time when our nation alone fought over slavery. There are no veterans left of this ridiculously old mess. They were all ancient geezers by the time film equipment became common. However, it has been shown that this period of our history still reverberates and historians far and wide point out deftly that America probably can’t really be understood without a firm grasp of the politics leading up to and becoming that immense fuck-up known as the Civil War.
Shelby Foote points out that there were a thick bunch of problems involved. Some of those issues had to do with the very same concerns that embitter people today. Can a group of East Coast situated elites really properly govern such a huge nation? Apparently Lincoln won the office with about 40% of the popular vote, and his name didn’t appear on many ballots in various regions of the South. It is in fact rather understandable that so many people thought the nation too big to manage as it was. Hell, I’m wishing I could secede now, watching our current administration bluster and bully and bullshit its way to shaming us all. And maybe secession wasn’t such a bad idea. Who’s to say that it would have been a terrible happenstance, and hell, maybe we should have left the West to Mexico as well, instead of exercising our expansionist whims. But, this is all fantasy, we have the world we made, and digging up the dead, heroes and cowards, traitors and revered statesmen and pretending we can kick some of them in the crotch and give others postmortem executions (a la Cromwell, who’s head – stuck on a pike on the Tower Bridge, and later falling down in a storm, became a polite parlor curiosity). Oooh, some of my friends are saying with rage, if only Robert E. Lee were here now, I’d kick his damned ass. And, of course, the reason why is slavery.
Some years ago I had a short-lived fling with a lovely girl who was born in the south, but most raised in educated in New York. She still remembers being taunted by the school kids about slavery. Make no mistake NYC had not been good to blacks either. It’s not like the North was the land of equality and progressive race relations. It was not, and the fact is we are still struggling with this issue. The Civil War in some version seems to continue.
It continues in the idea that stupid soldier children (and I’ve just read Bertolt Brecht’s War Primer) who march off with their weapons are fighting about our modern concepts of social justice. And this is folly as much as my friendly neighborhood WW2 vet was fighting to free the world from the tyranny of Nazism. He was not. The children we call up and arm and teach to shoot and march are mostly dumb as ax handles. Honorable perhaps, eager, no doubt, but largely equipped only with a gang’s mentality of hating whatever isn’t familiar. Robert E. Lee was offered the command of the Northern Army by Lincoln. Lee refused and ran to Virginia. His home. Because that’s where a boy wants to fight. He wants to fight with his friends against the invasion of the “holy land” that he grew up on. Where his ancestors (possibly) are buried. The children called up and armed for this crusade were the same as all such ignorant young men, and exhuming them and crotch kicking them is about as sane as imagining the Legions following Caesar should have figured out that Roman imperialism was a vicious cycle of oppression and slaughter and they should have voted Julius out of office. He was, in fact, stabbed out of office, but that’s another story, and it didn’t slow the next several centuries of Roman evil on the European continent and elsewhere.
Today the confederate stars and cross seem to be mostly associated with patriotic morons who hate society. They hate learning, they hate science, they hate arts, they hate anyone who doesn’t look exactly like them and behave exactly like them. They seem to be fixated only a few very dull topics. Mostly a cynical and cerebrally lethargic addiction to one of the many forms of Christianity available in their hometowns, and firearms. I say they are lethargic because they mostly aren’t too uninterested in knowing what their old books actually have to say. It’s more a team adherence. It is part of their birth piety, and having very little else going on in their lives the accidents of their birth, the basic cultural items surrounding them become matters of irrational pride. These people will kill you for what they believe to be the rightness of their accidental lives. Let that sink in. Most folks are too permanently juvenile to learn how to be introspective about their lives and beliefs, and instead are more likely to fight you to the death about the rightness of them. Like a deadly sports team fandom the reasoning is entirely missing. I have a friend who raves about one of his favorite children’s books, Little Black Sambo. Simply because he was raised with it, he presumes it to be untouchable and unimpeachable heritage. Religion often comes fully equipped for battle. Questioning a believer about belief, for many, is the same as violent attack. This outlook maintained is pure senselessness. You are not insulted by people trying to understand you. If you are unable to explain yourself, that’s on you. Are they even reachable with reasonable argument?
The crotch-kicking, in my view, is unlikely to convince anyone of your vital argument. It might feel good, but then so do most drugs.
In my view, jumping to the punchline here, paying your taxes is patriotic. Dedicating to a career of service of some sort, construction, teaching, banking, maintenance of infrastructure . . . are all patriotic. So is creating small businesses that serve a public good, even if it’s basically just recreational. Patriots dedicate to adding to the nation, being of use, and contributing to the common good. That’s patriotism. Because a nation isn’t some intangible thing with a flag waving over it, it is, in fact, people. And it’s time for a new national anthem that celebrates that, instead of war and slavery. And it’s time to stop pledging to flags and instead pledge to one another. And it’s probably time to reexamine pride, and perhaps lose some of that august indignant bullshit attitude. We’re just people after all, most of us just trying to get by.