Brad Paisley and the Politics of Offense and Offense-Taking

What he still doesn't get: Wearing the Confederate flag is far worse than "offensive."


New York's Jody Rosen has an interview up with Brad Paisley that's worth checking out. When Paisley released "Accidental Racist" earlier this year I got into some conversations on Twitter (I used to live there) with some of his fans. They defended him as a singular figure in the country music scene willing to push borders and challenge all manner of convention. You see that guy on display in Rosen's interview. Usually people who end up on the business end of the barrage Paisley endure come out sounding scornful. Paisley sounds more like he's grappling. We should all be so lucky.*

I'd like to focus in on something:

Some Southerners got very mad it me: "I'm done with you. How dare you apologize for the Confederate flag." But the majority of my fans said, "We know you, we love you -- and we don't understand the controversy, we don't get why everyone is so mad." Which tells you all you need to know, right there.

There is a gulf of understanding that I was trying to address. The most surprising and upsetting thing was being thought of by some as a racist. I have no interest in offending anyone -- especially anyone in the African-American community. That song was absolutely, earnestly supposed to be a healing song. One hundred percent.

I don't really doubt that Paisley wasn't trying to be offensive, nor that he really, earnestly was trying to do some good. But I don't think he really gets what bothers black people about the Confederate Flag. It is not simply that the flag is offensive. It is that it is the chosen symbol of slaveholders and those who wanted to live in a republic rooted in slaveholding.

This warrants clarification. In 1836, cotton from the South accounted for59 percent of this country's exports. Effectively, in the run up to the Civil War, our leading export was produced by slave labor. This cotton enriched our country financially and powered us into the modern world. "Whoever says industrial revolution," wrote the historian Eric Hobsbawm, "must say cotton."

The men and women who grew this cotton not only enriched through their labor, but through their very flesh. At the onset of the Civil War enslaved black people were valued at $3 billion, more than all the factories, railroads, and the productive capacity of America combined. This wealth was traded throughout the South regularly, and that trade enriched America even further.

InSoul By Soul, awesome history of the antebellum slave trade, the historian Walter Johnson takes the measure of the system:

As those people passed through the trade, representing something close to half a billion dollars in property, they spread wealth wherever they went. Much of the capital that funded the traders' speculations had been borrowed from banks and had to be repaid with interest, and all of it had to be moved through commission-taking factorage houses and bills of exchange back and forth between the eastern seaboard and the emerging Southwest. 

And the slaves in whose bodies that money congealed as it moved south had to be transported, housed, clothed, fed, and cared for during the one to three months it took to sell them. Some of them were insured in transit, some few others covered by life insurance. Their sales had to be notarized and their sellers taxed. Those hundreds of thousands of people were revenue to the cities and states where they were sold, and profits in the pockets of landlords, provisioners, physicians, and insurance agents long before they were sold. The most recent estimate of the size of this ancillary economy is 13.5 percent of the price per person-tens of millions of dollars over the course of the antebellum period.

Natchez, Mississippi, a major slave-trading hub, was home to more millionaires per capita than any city in the country. But behind the numbers were the wrecked lives of black men and women. A slave stood roughly a 30 percent chance of being sold away. "Of the two thirds of a million interstate sales made by the traders in the decades before the Civil War," writes Johnson, "twenty-five percent involved the destruction of a first marriage and fifty percent destroyed a nuclear family."

I think of Henry "Box" Brown, saying farewell to the family that was sold from him.

The next day, I stationed myself by the side of the road, along which the slaves, amounting to three hundred and fifty, were to pass. The purchaser of my wife was a Methodist minister, who was about starting for North Carolina. Pretty soon five waggon-loads of little children passed, and looking at the foremost one, what should I see but a little child, pointing its tiny hand towards me, exclaiming, "There's my father; I knew he would come and bid me good-bye."

It was Brown's oldest child. Henry Brown never saw his son or his wife again. In antebellum America, slavery was the enriching of white people through the legalized destruction of black families. And that is the cause of the men who raised the Confederate flag:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

If you accept that the Confederacy fought to preserve and expand slavery, then you might begin to understand how the descendants of the enslaved might regard symbols of that era. And you might also begin to understand that "offense" doesn't even begin to cover it. Reading Penthouse while having Christmas dinner with your grandmother is offensive. Donning the symbols of those who fought for right to sell Henry Brown's wife and child is immoral.

It is important to speak this way. Nothing is changed by banishing the Confederate Flag out of a desire to be polite or inoffensive. The Confederate Flag should not die because black people have come to feel a certain way about their country, it should die when white people come to feel a certain way about themselves. It can't be for me. It has to be for you.

*I want to be clear that I wasn't being sarcastic. Intellectual grappling is always, always a good thing.