Had I not moved to Pittsburgh, I probably would not bother to take notice of the Marine Corps Commandant ordering the removal of Confederate symbols.
But in Pittsburgh, while I wouldn’t say these flags are ubiquitous, they certainly aren’t rare. I see them in front of people’s homes, often in tandem with a U.S. flag, betraying—at minimum—an authoritarian populist imagination that the Civil War was about something other than a secession to preserve the “peculiar institution,” that is, slavery, against an insistence on preserving the Union and, afterwards, only afterwards, a contest to determine on what terms the Union should be preserved, a contest that continues to the present. While as artifacts, the flags form one element in the evidence supporting my very strong suspicion of possible white supremacist (paleoconservative) militia activity in this area, I have little doubt that those who fly these flags all support Donald Trump. So yeah, I’m wondering what Trump’s reaction to this order will be.
But also, for further thought, as I retrieve and archive the articles I cite above, and refine my understanding, I am struck by how slavery was as existential for the South as guns seem to gun nuts today. Am I really looking at some kind of a substitution? And to what extent can we draw a line from Confederate soldiers’ “alcoholism, unemployment, mental illness, and suicide” after the war to “deaths of despair” today?
That latter conflation is ugly. But I think in broad terms. And given my longstanding question about why, really, Simon de Beauvoir is right, why people so persistently demonize, discriminate against, and subjugate the other, my thoughts are turning the notion of autonomy, a term ethicists use in preference to “freedom,” and how that may be in play.
As a critical theorist, I ask of so-called “freedom” for whom, to do what, to whom? This effectively interprets “freedom” as power over others, distinguished from power-to (do something) and power-with (to accomplish in coordination with others). My question challenges the term freedom as generally used in neoliberal society, for example, often in economic terms with so-called “free trade.”
But conceptually, I pose autonomy, one’s authority over one self, opposite a condition of being subject to someone else’s authority, often political or economic. Put one way, this is about my freedom to swing my fist ending somewhere before your jaw. But the question is often more nuanced than this, for example, when a manufacturing facility upstream unintentionally but negligently pollutes water needed for drinking downstream. Where, really, does “freedom” lie here?
The view of slaveholders leading into the Civil War seems to lie with no limitation on the swinging of their fists whatsoever on slaves. The view of gun nuts seems to lie with no limitation on their ability to dominate anyone they perceive as a threat. Blacks appear on the receiving end of both of these.
But when that concept of control, that so-called “freedom,” is challenged, whether in even brutal power over others or even the ability to earn a living, we seem to be seeing the behaviors associated with “deaths of despair.”
It may be that Blacks who have dismissed these deaths as a consequence of white privilege are not entirely wrong—my musing today seems to support that connection. But they aren’t entirely right either. Because it also cannot be right that I cannot find a real job.
Jeff Schogol, “Marine commandant banishes Confederate symbols from all Corps installations,” Task and Purpose, February 26, 2020, https://taskandpurpose.com/news/marine-corps-bans-confederate-symbols