Forgetting the Old South

Our nation has come a long way in the last hundred years in regard to practicing an equal view of its citizens instead of just preaching one. We've seen the death of Jim Crow, the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and a vast improvement in the condition of women. The United States has even gone so far as to back programs such as affirmative action that make an effort to begin repaying our debt to history. Unfortunately, even in light of all of these positive developments, some people apparently still want to turn back the clock.

Right now in Shelbyville, Tenn., a man named Michael Guthrie is negotiating the purchase of land to house a new military academy known as the Southern Military Institute. The catch? This academy is for Southern gentlemen. Only gentlemen. Furthermore, what's even worse than the blatant and unapologetic sexual discrimination involved in this situation is the driving theme behind the Institute: A return to the Old South.

The Southern Military Institute's Web site states, "Southern traditions that have been tarnished and almost lost will live again at SMI (www.south-mil-inst.org/index.html)." It goes on to note, "The concept of an officer and a Southern gentleman will be the standard, not the exception. Honesty, integrity, courtesy, and respect for all men and women regardless of race, position, or economic standing will be taught and required."

Whoa now, wait a second here. Forgive me, but in recalling Confederate history, "respect for all men and women regardless of race" is not really the definition of a "Southern gentleman" that comes to mind. Actually, when you think about it, it seems that so far, the Institute is doing a pretty good job of replicating the Old South. By establishing an institution devoted to the romanticized memory of a culture that made possible and perpetuated the systematic repression of an entire race of people, it shows no sensitivity whatsoever toward contemporary African Americans, nor toward the people who historically suffered at the hands of these "Southern gentlemen." In addition, the patronizing demand for "respect" toward women coupled with their simultaneous exclusion from the school seems sufficiently ignorant and offensive to be historically accurate. Insensitivity? Check. Sexism? Check. Short-sightedness? Check. We're ready to go kids -- all the way back to 1864! Whoo-hoo!

Alright, joking aside, we need to get something straight: The Old South may have had its niceties, but its "culture" was made possible by the enforced subordination of blacks and women alike. We can all humor ourselves with "Gone With the Wind" images of "our family, black and white," myths and romantic daydreams about southern propriety and "respect" for women, but the truth is this: African Americans were dragged from their native lands at the point of a gun and made to endure horrible voyages to America in sub-human conditions. Once here, they were forced to work. Hard. For free. In return, they were beaten, they were raped, they were killed. Even the constitution of the Confederacy itself establishes the black man as property (Section IX.4). Equally charming, women were treated as children and robbed of any personal agency or mobility under the (retrospectively) weak claim that they "needed male protection."

Now, it is true that the Old South was not all racism and patriarchy. Moreover, Southern people should not be robbed of their culture merely because it is inextricably tied with some of the worst atrocities our nation has ever performed. Nevertheless, it is possible to appreciate the positive aspects of the Old South without trying to bring it back into existence through formal structures like colleges. Study of the period and (historically accurate) museums can and should serve to adequately preserve the memory of this portion of American history. Patriarchy and racism are still both massive problems in this country; establishing an institute like SMI at once reinforces misconceptions about women's ability to function in the military and trivializes the wrongs done in the Old South. In this day and age, when Americans seem to be at least approaching the idea that it is wrong to discriminate against someone based on his or her race or sex, the last thing we need is private investors trying to gloss over historical facts and pull us backward.

It is true that this would be a private institution and thus should -- with its own money -- be allowed to make any rules and follow any policies that it wishes. However, one would hope that individuals in this country who seem to be behind the "enlightenment" curve would wake up and stop spending their money trying to preserve an antiquated world that the majority of the United States has been trying for the last 150 years to forget.

(Laura Parcells' column appears Fridays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at lparcells@cavalierdaily.com.)

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