Friday, November 27, 2015

What If They Threw A Race War and Nobody Showed Up?

I went to a neoconfederate rally expecting a whites-against-blacks donnybrook. Instead, I walked away with conclusive proof that in the Deep South, globalization has indeed triumphed over regionalism. 

By: Jimbo X

Although I've spent my entire life in the metro Atlanta area, I didn't visit Stone Mountain, Georgia, until a few days ago.

Stone Mountain is exactly what the name implies - a gigantic rock, encircled by a sprawling state park that's one part Yellowstone (hiking trails, lakes, plenty of sightseeing spots) and one part Six Flags (rickety rides, overpriced tchotchkes and an overabundance of kitsch.) Alas, a lot of folks aren't too happy that the park -- long purported to be the birthplace of the modern incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan -- still displays some confederate imagery, most notably in the form of three "iconic" C.S.A. leaders chiseled on the side of the eponymous Stone Mountain itself. 

Following the horrific Charleston, South Carolina church shooting last summer, a proposal floated up to erect a monument to Atlantan Martin Luther King, Jr., at the top of the formation - you know, to balance out the equation and all. This proposal really didn't sit well with some neoconfederate types, who were so miffed over the idea of an MLK tribute crowning the park that they decided to protest on Nov. 14

An earlier demonstration against removing the Confederate flag from the park drew a pretty big crowd last summer. The Southern Poverty Law Center quickly sent out a press release stating that members of the KKK planned on meeting at the park in mid-November and representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said they were going to show up en masse to counter protest, pending the Klan decided to rear their sheet-covered heads.

So when the date rolled around, of course I showed up. Angry white folks, angry black folks, and arguably the most contentious topic in all of American politics, coming to a boil atop a 800-foot-tall granite slab? How could I not be around to Periscope that?

Unfortunately, even though I paid my $15 entry fee for Civil Slam 2015, nothing too tumultuous transpired. In fact, despite looking high and low for ANY signs of KKK members or Neo-Nazis or Black Panthers, the best I could muster was ONE unoccupied pick-up truck with two "rebel flags" hanging off the back of it. Oh, and a Toyota with mini "Stars and Bars" on both rear side mirrors circled the lot once, and left. 

Granted, there was a protest that evening - a gaggle of Confederate flag fans actually marched up the mountain and posed for a few photos, but nothing really happened (this, even though the demonstrators were escorted by a gaggle of assault rifle-toting militia members.) The Klan never showed up as advertised, and neither did the counter-protesters. 

In hindsight, the symbolism is so blunt, it's almost farcical. In a sea of happy, cheery visitors - of all walks of life, of every race, color and creed you can think of - I was direly in search of the last vestiges of white nationalism. Despite looking under every rock, checking in every trashcan and poking the bushes just to make sure, the ghastly, unrepentant, racist "rednecks" never emerged. 

If there was ever an indication that modernity had conquered southern regionalism, the fact that one can learn about Reconstruction in Japanese is probably it.

So for two hours, I just milled about the Stone Mountain hinterlands, pacing back and forth between the seasonal Santa's village (complete with the tackiest garland displays you've ever seen and literally TONS of artificial snow melting in the nigh 70-degree weather) and the gift shop, which was connected to one of those cable car sky trolleys that looks about as safe as a suspension bridge made out of popsicle sticks and bubblegum. 

Now, the term "multicultural" gets tossed around a lot these days, but this place was multicultural. There were African-Americans and Asians and those of Middle Eastern descent. There were Hispanics and people speaking in Slavic tongues. The only English-speaking white people I saw were suburban types - your bicyclists and your hippie-dippy naturists - who looked more at home at Whole Foods than a Klan rally. I can't imagine that many of the park visitors that afternoon even knew a neoconfederate protest was going on at all; and even if they were, they were just too busy standing in queues and jabbing their credit cards into pay terminals and trying to hush up their kids, endlessly clamoring for overpriced souvenirs and six dollar bottles of Coca Cola, to care.

I didn't see any rebel flags once I got inside the park. In fact, I didn't really see a whole lot of references to the Civil War or the Confederate States of America at all. Sure, there is a golf course on the premises dedicated to Stonewall Jackson, but even when directly touching upon Southern history, the park does so through this modernist, careful-not-to-offend lens. It's obvious that, if they could, the operators of the park would just get rid of all of the historical hullaballoo altogether and turn it into Dollywood Lite, with log flumes and teenagers ambling around in furry mascot costumes. 

I struggled to find any real historical information inside the park. Sure, there were a few plaques here and there, but if you wanted info on who the dudes engraved on the side of the mountain actually were, you were out of luck. There is indeed something onsite called "The Confederate Hall Historical & Environmental Education Center," but most of the floor space is dedicated to the geology of Stone Mountain and not its role in the Civil War. There was an audio kiosk next to the museum, though, and wouldn't you know it, it came equipped with no less than five different language options. If there was ever an indication that modernity had conquered southern regionalism, the fact that one can learn about Reconstruction in Japanese is probably it.

It's a strong term, to be sure, but I think it is hard to deny that the operators of the park haven't whitewashed Confederate history from the grounds. Granted, it's hard to cover up that gigantic engraving of Jefferson Davis (which some folks do indeed want sandblasted off the quartz monzonite dome), but the park is clearly going out of its way to distance itself from the bad old days of Dixie ... and with it, a good chunk of contemporary rural culture.

The South gets a bad rap for its contentious race relations, but the fact of the matter is that the South is - and has been for the better part of 100 years - the only part of the country where blacks and whites ACTUALLY co-exist as equals. Yeah, yeah, we all recall Selma and the Montgomery boycotts and Emmett Till (most notable to today's generation, I reckon, because of a Lil' Wayne song), but frankly, it's not like race relations were that much better in the liberal, industrialized north (in fact, Malcolm X himself said the blacks in the South during the civil rights era had it much better off than those living above and beside the Mason-Dixon line.) The South has far and away the highest rates of interracial marriage in the nation and southern metropolises like Atlanta and Memphis are pretty much the only major cities in the nation with an all-black political power structure. The eleven states with the highest per capita black populations are all in former Confederate territory (whereas the absolute whitest states are all in the hyper-progressive New England region.) Even going back to late 1800s, blacks in the south had risen to middle-class - and some might even say elitist - socioeconomic status. Contrary to popular belief, Martin Luther King, Jr. came from a family that, even by today's standards, would have to be considered fairly affluent, if not outright "privileged," in terms of sheer financial qualifiers. Nor does anyone even MULL the possibility that all that racial tension in the south from Reconstruction on has less to do with whites just being racist, heartless devils then it does northern interlopers taking over the decimated countryside and foisting industrialization upon an agrarian culture and forcing white and black labor to compete against each other for jobs and housing. Nothing can justify the Klan and their horrid terroristic activity, but at the the same time, it's downright irresponsible to simply gloss over the federal government's hand in promoting racial tensions in the region, be it in the form of subsidies that benefited former slaves but not the Caucasian refugees of the Civil War to the wide-scale social engineering programs of the F.D.R. years that literally jambanja'd poor subsistence farmers from their property to make way for urbanization initiatives. (So TL;DR - racism in the south is a lot more complex than what you've been told and it's certainly no worse a problem than it is anywhere else in the country.) 

If this doesn't offend you, it's 100 percent proven by science that you are a racist. 

Stone Mountain may technically be a tribute to the Confederacy, but really, it's a monument to the South's former cultural isolation. It was, until recently, considered something of a sacred, unsullied ground for the blue-collar, beer-sipping, CAT-hat set - the calloused factory worker and mechanic that viewed the morally lawless Burt Reynolds as something of a redneck John Galt. (And before you write off his oeuvre as a catalog of white power odes, you might actually want to go back and watch stuff like Gator and White Lightning, in which the great 'stached one fights corrupt - and by golly, racist - police officers in Confederate flag country.) The appeal of Stone Mountain - for years and years, home to an Independence Day laser show that's basically the Deep South equivalent of Rockettes performance in the Big Apple - is that it gives the pre-globalized Southern soul a taste of what life was like before the region became a pell-mell consumerism uber alles corporate fiefdom like everywhere else in the America. 

In a lot of ways, I think the neoconfederate/Southern nationalist movement is nothing more than an anti-globalism offshoot with a harder to understand accent. I am sure there are plenty of members of the Confederate flag fan club who are unrepentant bigots and race-baiters, but to say that these lower-to-working-class schlubs have any sort of legitimate social power anymore is absurd. Strangely similar to the Black Lives Matter crowd, they represent an aggrieved social order (which is ultimately tied more to location-based socioeconomic similarities than a common skin color) which feels marginalized, misunderstood and perpetually maligned. Having lost their jobs to NAFTA and the WTO and their regional identity thanks to an influx of neo-carpetbaggers (who have made Georgia the "best" state in the nation to do business, despite posting the nation's highest percentage of unemployed workers), these people literally do not have a future. This is not hyperbole: the lower-class, non-college-educated Caucasian American workforce is LITERALLY in the process of going extinct, as confirmed by a goddamn Nobel Prize-winning economist.

The reality here? Despite having a shitty past, Blacks, Hispanics and especially Asians have a bright future ahead of them in these United States. Meanwhile, for MOST regional white folks, the future is indelibly going to be a potpourri of misery and woe. Facing an economic cataclysm that more or less amounts to financial genocide, all these people have to hold on to is their past - their own distinct culture, their own distinct rituals, their own distinct language. And now, the entire planet is ganging up on them, telling them that their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers were all pathetic racists and despicable hate crime perpetrators, and they ought to be ashamed of anything that happened in their native lands prior to 1998. 

A symbol can mean anything, but in the eyes of MOST Confederate flag flyers, I'd surmise that the emblem actually does represent not hate, but love. It's a love of their own patois, their own folk tales, their own fusion of Celtic-Anglican tradition, tempered with quite a bit of French, Mexican and Native American influences. It's a love of growing their own gardens and hunting in the woods and listening to Hank Williams, Jr. and watching NASCAR and hugging granny on Christmas and going to pro 'rasslin shows and being at church every Sunday morning even though you spent the Saturday night before chugging moonshine - absolutely none of which revolve around burning crosses or blowing up Black Protestant houses of worship. But more than anything, it's a pseudo-jihadist love of their OWN culture, unmolested by the far-reaching hands of both federal government and international business. 

There may have been a couple of guys with scraggly bears and half-rotten molars waving Confederate flags and lugging AR-15s up Stone Mountain, but so what? All you have to do is journey five minutes outside of Stone Mountain and you'll run smack dab into Buford Highway, a long stretch of commercial real estate where one can literally drive for miles without seeing a single sign in English. From the clogged roadways of Gwinnett County, Stone Mountain is but just a pebble on the horizon. You might be able to make it out on a clear day, while you are patronizing the Global Mall (yes, that's actually what it's called) and buying up Halel meat, overpriced Indian rugs, greasy Vietnamese cuisine and consulting an abogado immigracion. Even hurdling down Interstate 85 just outside of the park, one is bombarded not by regional iconography - mom and pop shops and independent BBQ chains and the like - but towering skyscrapers for multinationals and billboards hawking everything from apple-flavored Budweiser to German luxury town-cars that were actually assembled in Mexico.

That's the new Southland, my friends. Criticize the ghosts of the past all you want, the old regional cotton belt way of life isn't just on life support, it may already be in the early stages of rigor mortis. There's a handful of reactionaries causing a stir, but whatever actions they take is akin to tossing a brick into the ocean. 

Globalization and multiculturalism won, Southern identitarianism and monoculturalism lost. 

And now? The only thing left to do is spend the rest of our lives arguing whether that's the best - or worst - thing that's ever happened to Dixie. 


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