We are all descended from losers.
Take me, for instance. My family came from El Salvador, a charter member of the Third-World Nation Hall of Fame that is best known for crippling poverty, psychotic gangs, bloody civil wars, murdered priests, and raped nuns.
I'm also part Italian, which lends itself to stereotypes of Mafia hit men and the original unwashed horde of immigrants. In addition, Italy is currently on its 982nd post-WWII government (not exactly a source of pride).
And I'm a touch Irish as well. So here comes the drunken, brawling Irishman, everybody.
No, I'm not self-loathing. In truth, I'm grateful for my mélange of ancestry. I regularly sing the praises of Latino culture, and it's not bad having a connection (however distant) to Da Vinci and James Joyce.
However, everyone's culture has black spots, and our efforts to honor our ancestors should not extend to overt denial and large-scale myopia. But they regularly do.
No society is great at recognizing its historical mistakes and sources of shame.
For example, many Russians still think Stalin was a great guy, a lot of Japanese believe that whole Nanjing thing was overblown, and the Turks won't acknowledge they were a little, teensy-weensy bit mean to the Armenians.
As for America, it is only in recent decades that we have even begun to acknowledge what happened to Native Americans, and we still don't know how to address slavery.
This brings us, of course, to the Confederate battle flag.
A recent survey said that most Americans (57%) believe that the flag is a symbol of Southern pride, more than it is an emblem of racism. Well, of course many Americans think the flag isn't racist. They've been told that for generations. And for generations, they have been wrong.
But still, let's look at the reasons why the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia is regarded as an icon of Southern pride.
As far as I can tell, the Confederate Army's legacy consists of three things:
- Being led by racist slaveholders
- Waging the bloodiest, most violent act of treason in American history
- Getting its ass kicked by the Union Army
I'm looking over that list, and I don't see a whole lot to be proud about.
Perhaps it is too painful to admit that the Confederates weren't fine gentlemen who were fighting for the honor of their states. They were assholes.
The sad thing is that Southerners have much they can celebrate. We're talking about the land of Faulkner, and the birthplace of blues and jazz, and some of the best cuisine in the country. And while we're at it, go ahead and play up Southern hospitality, which in my personal experience, is a very real thing.
But none of those things have the visceral impact of that blue X on a red background. None of those concepts conjure up the tortured self-righteousness of the Lost Cause and the romanticism of mint juleps and content Negros singing spirituals.
It is too difficult for Southerners to admit that their ancestors weren't gallant or valiant. Lee, Jackson, Davis, et al were way past the wrong side of history, to the point where to honor them as respectable is Orwellian. No doubt, many of them were brave and fought hard for their cause, but that can be said about any army, including all the really bad guys.
No other industrialized nation celebrates the legacy of a failed rebellion against its government
And as many have pointed out, no other industrialized nation celebrates the legacy of a failed rebellion against its government. No other country says, “Yes, I know they killed millions of their countrymen for a horrific and shameful cause, but let's put up monuments to them anyway.”
Understand that I don't mean to pick on the South or assert that my background is so superior. As I stated, my roots are in El Salvador, so I know how difficult it can be to admit that a lot of your predecessors were reprehensible (and yes, US interventions and neo-colonialism are big factors in the dark history of Central America, but that doesn't let Salvadorans off the hook for their homegrown evil).
My point is that the relentless romanticism of heritage – along with misplaced regional or ethnic pride – are not just abstract annoyances. As we've seen, they have very real consequences in American society.
We see it in the ranting of a homicidal gunman. We see it in the denial that racism even exists. We see it in the refusal to look forward and accept a new society, because to do so would somehow dishonor our great-great-great grandmothers. We see it whenever we refuse to work on our personal and cultural flaws, because after all, we must be amazing based on our noble lineage. And we see it whenever we dismiss unvarnished facts in favor of some soothing fairy tale.
Now, it's true that you can't know where you're going until you know where you've been. But adhering to that maxim to the point of hyper-reverence locks us into cultural handcuffs to the past, with all of its mistakes and prejudices and outright brutality.
Perhaps it's time that we take pride not in the opinions of our forbearers, but in being mature enough – as individuals and as a nation – to transcend the antiquated and misbegotten hatreds of people who just happened to be born before us.
So how about all of just say that we're better than our ancestors, and our descendants will be better than us?
Because no matter where you're from, that's pretty much the truth.