The South is an especially pious region, characterized by the old Roman virtue of pietas
. Filial piety is the virtue of proper respect for one’s parents and, by extension, for one’s ancestors, one’s country, and (ultimately) one’s Creator. It is piety, and not racism, that motivates so many sons and daughters of the South to defend the monuments of Confederate generals and soldiers, despite a nearly universal acknowledgement that the slave system of the antebellum South was profoundly unjust. African Americans, especially those who live in the South, by and large understand this. It has been white progressives and not local black leaders who have led the attack on these monuments.
Race relations are in fact better in the South than in the North, and these better relations are the result of the very piety that motivates the monuments’ defenders. Since the mid-1990’s, there has been a large net migration of blacks from the North to the South, a fact hard to explain if the legacy of Confederate monuments were really the linchpin of racial oppression. Among blacks leaving the Northeast from 1995-2005, 85 percent went to the South (compared with just 62 percent of white emigrants). Eight of the top ten destinations from blacks since 1995 are Southern states. Seven of the ten top cities for black entrepreneurs (according to Black Enterprise magazine) are below the Mason-Dixon line.
Seventy percent of all black elected officials in the country serve in Southern states. The South is today far less segregated by race than is the North. Nine of the top ten most segregated cities are in the North, and 17 of the top 25. Seven of the ten least segregated cities are in the South (according to the US2010 Project). Why is the South so attractive to African Americans today? A large part of the attraction is the peity for the past that is a shared characteristic of Southern whites and blacks.
Piety is respect, not idolatry. In our fallen world, all of our ancestors are morally flawed, and so piety must always co-exist with an acknowledgement of those flaws. Do we Southerners wish to honor Lee and the others because of their rebellion and defense of slavery, or despite it? We wish to honor the Confederate soldiers for their selfless devotion to the defense of their countries (the Southern states), despite the injustice of the chattel slavery that those states sheltered. This piety sustains civil society across the generations, and by sustaining society, piety also preserves our collective guilt for slavery and for the suppression of civil rights during the Jim Crow era. It is precisely in honoring the Confederate dead that we of the living South acknowledge our inescapable bond to them, and with that bond our shared responsibility for the injustices they committed.
But weren’t the Confederate soldiers traitors? To the contrary: they believed that they were fighting for the defense of their countries (Virginia, Texas, and the rest) against a foreign invader. Were they wrong in this? Not obviously. Let’s grant, just for the sake of argument, that the framers and ratifiers of the 1789 Constitution intended to create a unitary, indissoluble nation. In the debates, in Philadelphia that summer, the states rights delegates won most of the tricks. The Southerners in 1861 drew what seemed to them the logical conclusion. This includes people, like Robert E. Lee, who strongly opposed secession. Until it happened.
You can argue that a people has a natural right to secede, so long as they think of themselves as a nation and so long as their population is large enough to provide for the essential functions of a sovereign nation. This is a corollary of the natural law principle of subsidiarity, as principle enunciated by thinkers from Aristotle to Pope Pius XI and implicit in the American Revolution. So, even if the United States was a single nation in 1788, the various States became after secession the native countries of their inhabitants, and it was not treason to defend those countries against the Union. This remains true, even if part of the motivation to secede was to preserve slavery. A natural right remains a right even if it is abused.
Instead of the vandalism of the Left, we should seek to construct new statues and monuments, honoring the contributions of black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian Americans to our common life. The movement to destroy merely distracts us from the real problems of African Americans in today’s world: the lack of educational choice that traps so many black children in failed schools, the lack of adequate community policing to protect blacks from street gangs and drug dealers, and the untrammeled competition from globalized trade and open borders.
Rob Koons is a professor of philosophy specializing in logic, metaphysics, philosophical theology, and political thought. He is the author and editor of six books, including "The Atlas of Reality: A Comprehensive Guide to Metaphysics" (with Tim Pickavance, Wiley-Blackwell, 2017). He has been active in conservative circles, both nationally and in Texas, including the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the National Association of Scholars, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Philadelphia Society, and the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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