Recently, students solicited my thoughts, as an historian, on the Georgia flag, the "Old South," the confederacy and other such topics of interest. As yet another northern carpetbagger who has moved to Dixie for personal gain, I try to maintain a detachment from the issue of the flag. Nonetheless, the South's intractable struggles over its past have fascinated me. For three years, I have tried to be a fair and impartial silent observer--a role I will no doubt continue to relish in the future. Nonetheless, I would like to offer the following perspective.
The Georgia flag is only one small part of a much larger picture. Since moving here, I have witnessed controversies over the playing of "Dixie," Gone With the Wind, hoop skirts, streets named after Confederate generals, white pillars, school songs, Stone Mountain, boys' baseball uniforms and Col. Sanders. I have been struck by the pronounced schism between Atlanta and the rest of Georgia, and between "native southerners" and newcomers. Today, the Southern accent is blatantly discriminated against in the Atlanta talk media. And every year, more and more people flock from the Rust Belt to the Deep South. Atlanta has become an international city. If this were any culture other than our own, historians would call this great migration what it very closely resembles: colonization and imperialism.
So while I would not necessarily defend the Georgia state flag, I have found the blatant attempts to de-southernize the South deeply disturbing. I know that many American "social studies" classes teach Southern school children very little about such favorite Southern figures as Robert E. Lee. And "Dixie" is seldom sung by the young. Many kids today don't even know what it is, or how it goes. It is clearly being excised from the culture. I guess I am only pointing out the obvious when I note that if nobody knows "Dixie" 20 years from now, "Dixie" will no longer be controversial. Apparently some people would equate this with social progress. To me, it seems more like ignorance and historical amnesia. It strikes me as rather Orwellian. And as a musician myself, I hate to see good music tossed down the memory hole.
If Southern culture dies, will we really be the better for it? If the little sleepy towns of south Georgia are swallowed by homogeneous, antiseptic suburbs, will people feel better? If the traditional symbols of the Old South are supplanted by the innocuous images of corporate America, will we be enriched? Is that insipid little Izzy creature really less offensive to people than Scarlett O'Hara? Is some shopping-mall mecca a worthier landmark than Stone Mountain? Will there be less racial tension in the South when everybody down here talks like Dan Rather?
I think not. But those are the stark images confronting contemporary Southerners. Like French Canadians, Scots, Sicilians and scores of other sub-groups who have been consolidated into larger political units, they feel their traditional culture is threatened by modernity, and they're hanging on to whatever they can. It's an entirely human response to wrenching change. I, for one, am not going to make a bunch of glib commentaries about it.
There are many good and decent people in the South, both white and black. It remains one of the friendlier regions of the country, and a place permeated with old-world virtues like duty, reverence, honor and chivalry. But its historic charms cannot, and will not, survive the advent of McWorld. It will be, dare to say, "a civilization gone with the wind." Apparently, some elements of our society are cavalier-even glad-about the South's demise. But I think when it is gone, we will be poorer for it.
David Leinweber is assistant professor of history at Oxford College. A shorter version of this article originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal/Constitution.