A few days ago, country music star Brad Paisley teamed up with rapper LL Cool J to release a twangy inter-disciplinary apologia for the wearing of the Stars and Bars.
In the oddly entitled “Accidental Racist,” Paisley whines a litany of white supremacist excuses. LL joins him for the last verse, according Paisley’s self-servingly revisionist account of history credibility. Like the hilarious Portlandia sketch that mocks the ridiculous hipster craze of “putting a bird on it,” many whites similarly believe that if they “get a black person to say it,” then it can’t be “racist.”
This is not the first time Paisley has proclaimed Confederate version of Southern pride. For the last few months, his hit “Southern Comfort Zone” has been paying electric homage to the Confederate anthem “Dixie” on radio stations across the country. After celebrating what Paisley believes to be distinctively Southern cultural traits like trucks, sweet-tea, and fireflies, Paisley brings the song to its emotional climax by looping in the Confederate anthem “Dixie” as otherworldly elegy. Sung by a gospel choir whose voices swell spectrally, Paisley evokes sweet nostalgia for the angelic ghosts of the Confederacy.
Against this, I deploy a Thomistic corrective to neo-confederate moral methodology and unveil the neo-confederate historical imagination as selective and self-serving.
Deconstructing Neo-Confederate Logic
Paisley’s fascination with confederate iconography is strange given that he was born and raised in West Virginia, a state that came into existence as an act of geographic protest against eastern Virginian secession. This inconsistency notwithstanding, at the beginning of “Accidental Racist,” Paisley sings that he “hopes [the black man] that waited on me at Starbucks…understands [that] when I put on that t-shirt, the only thing I mean is I’m a Skynyrd fan.” Paisley seems to have arranged his life in such a way that the only black person he encounters in the course of his daily life is one who receives wages to serve him. Of course, Paisley neither notices the predominately white character of his social life nor considers himself responsible for it.
Like many whites, Paisley displays a hyper-subjective theory of intention. The Confederate flag t-shirt means only what Paisley says it means. He holds himself accountable neither to history nor to the communal nature of human language. It also does not matter that the Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd’s most popular hit, “Sweet Home Alabama” was written in part to spit in the eye of Civil Rights supporters like Neil Young. Actions are whatever the agent says they are.
But symbols, like language, just do not work this way. As Aquinas recognized, intention cannot be severed from impact. Although intention matters, (think of the difference between life-saving amputation and gruesome mutilation) it is not the only thing that matters. Impact also unveils intention. In portraying his wearing of a Confederate flag t-shirt as racially harmless, Paisley resembles a man who brings a bull into a china shop and then insists he did not mean for all those dishes to get busted. Just as we cannot walk up to a stranger and say “fuck you!” and then act aggrieved when she bashes us in the face, so whites cannot expect black people to feel anything other than offended in the presence of confederate flag apparel.
In fact, neo-confederate whites would not feel so attached to the “red flag” if it meant nothing in itself. If it really only meant “Southern pride,” then why would nostalgic whites insist so fervently on the endurance of this particular symbol? If they truly wished to express “Southern pride” rather than “Confederate pride,” then they would happily switch to a symbol that communicated this more effectively. Confederate apologists cloak Southern pride in the Confederate flag not because they have to but because they want to.
Southern black musicians also show us that Southern pride can be displayed without reference to the Confederate flag. The legendary hip hop duo Outkast celebrates the South incessantly. As they say on the track “West Savannah,” “You might call us country/But we’s only Southern.” Their music even sounds like the South. The critically-acclaimed group “Arrested Development” sings the South on “Tennessee;” Nappy Roots proclaim their love for Kentucky in “Po’ Folks;” Petey Pablo reps North Carolina in “Raise Up;” and Ludacris raps an ode to his hometown in the whimsical hit, “Welcome to Atlanta.”
If black people can express Southern pride without the “red flag,” then why can’t whites?
Others claim they celebrate the Confederacy not for its support of chattel slavery but only for the willingness of its soldiers to fight and die defending Southern freedom. But why then do Southerners not remember Nat Turner, a Virginian, or Denmark Vesey, a South Carolinian? What about Dangerfield Newby, a black Southerner born into slavery who joined John Brown in his raid on Harper’s Ferry? If Southerners wished to celebrate only Southern valor and not chattel slavery, then why not elevate Southerners who fought to abolish it? After all, these men died seeking to free others from slavery; Confederate soldiers died seeking to preserve the right of white men to enslave. As Paisley admits, loving a place does not entail loving all that happened there.
Play-acting powerlessness, Paisley portrays himself as “just a white man” and “just a proud rebel son,” who is “still paying for the mistakes that a bunch of folks made long before we came.” Paisley pouts about “walking on eggshells” so as not to offend. In his mind, racially offensive speech seems to be like hanging out with a temperamental alcoholic suffering from a mind-scaldingly high fever: you just never know what is going to set them off. Paisley displays Confederate-loving Southern whites like himself as victims of a tragic misunderstanding. But rather than seeking to be understood, as to understand as he claims, Paisley wants to be accommodated without having to accommodate.
Further disavowing his responsibility for persistent racial inequality, Paisley believes racial injustice exists only in the past. Thus, since “[his] generation didn’t start this nation” and cannot “re-write history,” we should just “let bygones be bygones.” Paisley’s ignorance of white supremacy’s pervasive persistence does not evidence his moral innocence. As Aquinas reminds us, not all ignorance excuses. When our ignorance arises as a result of our failure to will the truth, it qualifies as culpable. Those who do not see because they keep their eyes shut exhibit not blindness but willful ignorance. In this way, many whites see no evil in order to continue participating in it.
Paisley and LL also remember history overly narrowly. For Paisley, the post-bellum period operated as Reconstruction in name only: although “they called it Reconstruction,” the South is “still siftin’ through the rubble after a hundred-and fifty years.” Repeating popular neo-confederate myths, Paisley depicts Reconstruction as a scheme of destruction from which the South has yet to recover. LL validates neo-confederate fantasy when he laments the time that “Sherman’s March turned the South into firewood.”
The neo-confederate apologist mourns Sherman’s March even though it only destroyed property belonging disproportionately to wealthy whites who had seceded but it does not mention the anti-Reconstruction terror deployed by whites against the bodies of freed women and men. White supremacists “redeemed” the South by shedding the blood of black Southerners. But these neo-confederate apologists do not remember the Klan’s massacre of one-tenth of the black members of post-war constitutional conventions. They decline to commemorate the slaughter of 300 of Mississippi’s black women and men by white men seeking to strip them of the franchise. They fail to mention the massacre of 100 black elected officials and their supporters at the Colfax, Louisiana courthouse.
Nor do they mourn the shots fired at Fort Pillow, where white Confederates motivated by racial spite slaughtered scores of captive black soldiers who had already surrendered.
White privilege renders even treason patriotic. When the insurrectionists have white skin, we view the state’s destruction of their property with suspicion and even rage. When the insurrectionists are brown inhabitants of faraway places like Iraq or Pakistan, we kill even their children with impunity.
In the white supremacist imagination, white people are only victims. And when they have done wrong, they are never really to blame for it. Even when a white person gives foreseeable racial offense, it is only “accidental.” “Caught between Southern pride and Southern blame,” at the end of the song Paisley chooses “the only thing that’s left: Southern pride.”
Operating out of this distorted imagination, Cool J and Paisley profess a succession of false equivalencies. Cool J vows: “If you don’t judge my gold chains/I’ll forget the iron chains.” Cool J obeys a double standard: while whites need never forget their Confederate ancestry, African-Americans routinely receive pressure to let “the bygones” of chattel slavery “be bygones.”
LL pledges, “if you don’t judge my do-rag/I won’t judge your red flag.” A do-rag shares almost nothing in common with the Confederate flag. One facilitates hair care; the other symbolizes a confederation of states that seceded from a country because they did not believe its federal government possessed the legal or moral right to interfere with their ability to traffic in human flesh.
It’s time to put this neo-Confederate nonsense to rest.