Friday, July 3, 2015

A few independent thoughts

I am here to declare my independence, on this day before The Day. It seems the right time.

I declare my independence from sentences that begin with "You know, those hotdogs, you don't know what's in 'em."

I declare my independence from other sentences that begin with "You know, there are carcinogens in charcoal."

I declare my independence, this day before The Day, from the flawed notion that if you confer justice on someone, finally and rightly, you're somehow being unjust to someone else. Welcome to America to gay Americans who have too long been told they weren't worthy of all its blessings. And the rest of you, get over it. This isn't an assault on your freedom or your religion or anything else, and it never has been.

I declare my independence from the equally flawed notion that removing lost-in-the-past symbols from official places where they are almost ludicrously inappropriate does not mean you have to go completely insane about it. I mean, really, the Dukes of Hazzard? The Civil War itself?

A flag of rebellion against the American government (and of officially sanctioned oppression of a goodly number of Americans) has no business flying proudly on the grounds of an American governmental entity. And if a corporate entity like NASCAR has decided that flag doesn't square with its values, it and its partner venues have every right to request its patrons cool it with the Stars and Bars.

It's not gonna work, of course, for the excellent reason that when you tell an American he or she can't do something, he or she is going to do it, no matter how addled it is. That's why sales of Confederate flags have gone through the roof. So, good luck, NASCAR, with policing the infield at, oh, Talladega, for instance.

More pointless yet was TVLand's decision to yank the dopey old Dukes from the airwaves, as if they were the lineal descendants of D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" or some such thing. The Dukes have as much to do with slavery and its tragic legacy as "Hogan's Heroes" had to do with the extermination of the Jews at Auschwitz, but by God there was a Confederate flag on that car, so out it went. Mindlessness raised to a high art.

As are the sporadic attempts now to demonize remembrance of the Civil War, as if study of the War itself is somehow shameful. This is especially relevant to me, a Civil War nerd who has always conflated Independence Day with the three days that precede it. Eighty-seven years after the signing, on the slanting, rocky fields south of Gettysburg, Pa., the national crisis came to its tipping point. Either we were going to be a whole nation, or we were going to be two nations that could never have achieved much of anything without each other. And Gettysburg decided that.

One-hundred fifty-two years ago today, at somewhere around 2:00 in the afternoon, all of that came to its final shattering climax. The history books have never gotten Pickett's Charge exactly right -- Pickett, for instance, actually commanded only a third of the 12,000-plus troops engaged in his namesake action -- but it was demonstrably the pivotal moment of the war, and probably of this nation's history. It's why, decades later, in "Intruder in the Dust," William Faulkner penned that immortal passage about 13-year-old Southern boys and how they always hold fast to that moment before the brigades stepped off and whatever they imagined they were fighting for still seemed possible.

Then it all went to pieces in smoke and flame and, yes, valor, because marching across a mile of open ground into a hurricane of shot and shell is nothing if not courageous. To deny it because it was ultimately in service to, as Ulysses.S. Grant put it, "one of the worst (causes) for which a people ever fought" is, again, mindless.

I've stood beneath the trees on Seminary Ridge a dozen times and looked out across that mile of ground, the Copse of Trees that marked Pickett and Co.'s target impossibly tiny in the distance. And every time, I marvel at the sheer brass of it. It's why I have no issue with the extravagant monuments to the North Carolinians or Texans or Mississippians along that stretch of roadway, nor with the tiny Confederate flags that bloom always around them. In that place -- and in that one place, I would hold -- they are entirely appropriate.

That is, of course, a contradiction of sorts. But then, we are a nation of contradictions; they were enshrined in our Constitution by our endlessly bickering founders. The Civil War was fought to resolve those contradictions -- and while it did so, it also spawned contradictions of its own.

I'm not sure that's the kind of thing we celebrate when we celebrate America on Independence Day. But it's part of who we are.

And so, I declare my independence from obsessing about it. Happy Fourth.   

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