Thursday, March 4, 2010

In which conversations about oppression get turned into conversations about censorship, and everyone loses.

It's a little upsetting, in one of the most awesome videos in the world, to see the Southern Cross just hangin' out there behind Johnny Cash. It's like, I could've handled this from Merle Haggard, or David Allan Coe, or even Waylon Jennings, but Johnny Cash?

Country music's got a pretty troubling history in terms of its flirtation with racism, sexism, and homophobia. I think it has something to do with how easily "cowboy" slides into "outlaw," which slides into "rebel," which slides into "Rebel." And those -- the last one in particular -- shouldn't be so easy.

The thing is, I think the Confederacy plays an important role in Southern whiteness. And I don't think it's okay, or that it's something we should be compromising with, but I think it's something we should be trying to understand, especially in light of the racist and homophobic rebellion going on at the University of California.

The thing is, I think when a lot of Southern white people talk about the War of Northern Aggression, and talk about how it wasn't really about slavery, they mean it. And it's also true that there's a lot more that was going on in North-South relations at the time than slavery -- issues about uneven industrialization and arguments about taxation, for example -- and that those issues still color the way Southern white people think about the Civil War.

And when Southern white people lament the loss of the Civil War, it's true that a lot of what they're lamenting is a lifestyle that's based on brutal subjugation and exploitation. And that's fucked up. And there's no denying or excusing that it's fucked up. But to put the issue in fuller context, for many Southern white people, they've gone from being at or near the privileged end of an economic system based on brutal subjugation and exploitation, to near the oppressed end of another economic system based on brutal subjugation and exploitation. (Of course, even poor Southern white folks only come out near the bottom when you ignore the non-American world -- but since I'm trying to explore their narrative, I hope you'll excuse the oversight.)

Southerners really feel -- I can only assume they're being honest about this -- that the Confederate flag isn't and shouldn't be about racism. And there's an extent to which this feeling is understandable -- more slaves were lived and died under the Stars and Stripes than the Stars and Bars, and the vilification of the Confederate flag can definitely come off as a cheap way for Northern whites to avoid addressing our own racism by portraying racism as something exclusively Southern.

It's in this context, I think, that Southern identification with the Confederacy makes sense. They really do see it as being (at least partly) about the centralization of governmental control in the hands of a Yankee elite, and identify with the Confederacy as fighting that transition, and about rejecting Northern white hypocrisy about race.

The problem is, whatever the Confederacy means to Southern white people -- and it means a lot of complicated things -- and whatever it meant to Southern white people at the time -- which I have no doubt was just as complicated -- the people who are most offended by it, who feel most threatened and intimidated by it, are not New York bankers and Hollywood limousine liberals, or even Northern big-government advocates like Bernie Sanders. It threatens and intimidates poor black Southerners, who weren't guilty of the things Southern whites hate about the Civil War.

Part of what I'm worried about is the extent to which, through the use of slanders like "politically correct," being racially insensitive can be seen as sexy and rebellious instead of disgusting and brutal. The narrative that's being told about the Confederate flag is that Southern white people who just want to fight the Man and respect their ancestors' decision to fight the Man are being attacked by the Man for racism, as a way of sidelining that rebellion and also relieving the Man's own guilt about racism.

And I can see the same thing happening at the University of California. I also see it happening around the case of three kids I knew in high school getting arrested for a hate crime. I can see it happening any time racists, sexists, homophobes and transphobes start talking about "freedom of speech."

What should be happening is a conversation about intimidation and silencing of black people and gay people through hate-speech, some of which is overtly violent and some of which is just hateful. Instead, people manage to portray the anti-racist forces as the silencing and intimidating ones.

This is one of the big things I worry about regarding legislation surrounding hate speech and hate crimes (the other big thing I worry about is the entire fucking criminal justice system). By enlisting coercive mechanisms to prevent hate crimes, we create a situation where the visible tension is between authority figures and white individuals/groups, rather than between white racists and POC objectors. It fucks with people's perceptions of who the underdog is, and therefore who they should be rooting for.

I couldn't help noticing how Sociological Images talks about how "the vocal resistance to the overt prejudice and hateful stereotyping created a counter-resistance" -- but the only mention of actual anti-racist protest in their post is this: "A diverse group of students, with the support of many faculty, protested the administration’s slow response to the event."

When we focus our resistance on enlisting UCSD's fucked-up administration to act, we allow racists to claim that this is a battle between advocates of free speech and censors, rather than a battle between racists and POC. Racists should never be able to -- even for a minute -- seem to be the underdog.

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