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Stranger in the South

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What have we reaped? Just for starters, I give you Jefferson Beauregard Sessions. Consider the train of events that made his ascension to the position of chief law enforcement officer of the land possible. It's been a multi-generational campaign that keeps bearing fruit. The Civil War set in motion a whole massive resistance movement as a response to unwanted regimentation, thus effectively stifling social progress that might otherwise have occurred. The war created a vast gulf that to a certain extent has been self-reinforcing. The solidarity called for in the South, to resist the overbearing North, became a sufficient impediment to needed social change.

We need to dispose of the notion that the Civil War was a good war. Rather, it foisted a pathology upon our land that is still reverberating. The spasm of lynchings in the South was a reaction to Reconstruction. It was the vengeance of the disempowered, the losers in war and in the subsequent imposed peace, unleashed upon the defenseless. This scourge restored the most reactionary elements to power in the South. Slavery was replaced by virtual slavery for another four generations. The embers of hostility against the North were still smoldering in hot spots a full century after the war.

By now these reactionary forces have metastasized throughout the land and poisoned the politics of the whole nation. We are in the grip of an orchestrated, fear-driven campaign of mutual intolerance. This has empowered White supremacists everywhere, catalyzed reactionary impulses of various stripes, and lubricated the descent into factionalism that has corrupted our electoral system and paralyzed our governmental institutions.

The Civil Rights movement did not flourish until it became an indigenous movement in the South, eventually forcing the tentative and uncertain hands of a fundamentally sympathetic Southern President, Lyndon Johnson. The movement was centered in the black Church, which provided both the moral fervor, the compelling sense of justice denied, and the organizational underpinnings. At the time, the Southern Area of Student YMCAs was one of the few integrated organizations. The organization was partially funded by a Jewish philanthropist who wished to remain anonymous. We had to hold our meetings at black colleges, where white visitors were rare. We got stared at in the cafeteria at Morehouse College in Atlanta just as I had been in the black men's room back in Richmond. In our midst were some of the leaders of the sit-in movement that was just then taking shape.

So here we are once again, hectoring Southern States to dismantle the statues to their wartime heroes. It is not only General Kelly who believes this to be unwise. It is also President Carter. It is one thing for the State of South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag from its Capitol, and for the City of New Orleans to take down offensive statues at their own initiative. It is quite another for Californians to hector Southerners to dismantle their Civil War statues. Can we talk about the virtual slavery of Latino agricultural workers, and about black incarceration before we tell Southerners what to do about their statues? Did the images out of Ferguson not persuade us that manifest racism has been kept out of sight in all of our communities? The State of Ohio ranks third in the country in terms of hate crimes. And how about the culture of virtual sex slavery that was tolerated in Hollywood? Currently one-third of US college students would be willing to force a woman to have sex if they could be assured they would not suffer consequences.

We are told that General Robert E. Lee was known to have beaten his slaves personally. But this was a time when husbands still felt authorized to beat their wives (with only the 'rule of thumb' placing limits on their savagery--in England). Chances are that most of us could not name the date and the circumstances when that became illegal. Meanwhile, the beating of children has never stopped. I was beaten with a bullwhip at the age of ten by my school principal in Germany. Every welt across my back and legs was bleeding. The only thing missing was the tincture of brine drizzled over the wounds. This was part of the culture of the time, so there was no one to complain to. The principal was the most revered man in town, right up there with the mayor. Years later, this abhorrent practice came to be labeled the "black pedagogy."

Mahatma Gandhi uttered incredibly racist sentiments when he was still in South Africa. Albert Schweizer was the most well-meaning of missionaries, but his paternalistic benevolence would now be considered racist. Albert Einstein treated his wife as a virtual servant. None of these people were heroes in their own minds. None of them strategized or maneuvered to be our heroes. They were all men of principle, but they were also men of their time. We made them into heroes because we felt the need for them. And if the South still needs its heroes, it is not ours to deny them---first, because that will not get us anywhere. We've trod that path, and it did not work. Second, we have our own housekeeping to attend to. Does any of the above come close to Harvey Weinstein telling Salma Hayek: "I will kill you; don't think I can't [get away with it]?" Forced sex is if anything worse than involuntary servitude, if fine distinctions are to be made, because of the invasion of the person. The predatory culture Weinstein symbolizes is our present-day problem. At the same time, Weinstein remains a hero to Salma Hayek for his manifest gifts. A man is not reducible to the worst thing he has ever done.

So, in the course of finding my bearings in my adopted land, Robert E. Lee became my hero along with the Founding Fathers, at an age when having heroes was important. So did Martin Luther, for his famous stance: "Here I stand; I can do no other." And so did Martin Luther King. All acted in fealty to an insistent conscience, and all acted with uncommon courage. None were perfect, as we later came to know. All were indispensable for me to understand the place and the time in which I was growing up.

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Siegfried Othmer is a physicist who over the last 33 years has been engaged with neurofeedback as a technique for the rehabilitation and enhancement of brain function. He is Chief Scientist at the EEG Institute in Los Angeles. Coming to (more...)

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