If wrestling with contradictions built muscles, more South Carolinians would look like Charles Atlas or Jesse Ventura. My home state thrives on voicing defiance even as it glories in adapting to opportunity.
There is always something old under the sun for a returning native to reexamine. This summer the past that refuses to stay in the past involves the Confederate battle flag, the state house and the NAACP. While the rest of the world heads into a new global millennium, South Carolina savors the local worries of this one awhile longer.
The NAACP has called on Americans to shun the state's thriving tourism industry until the state legislature hauls down the Confederate banner now flying over the capitol building. That flag represents distress and humiliation for the state's black citizens, the civil rights group argues.
In letters to the editor, interviews and over outdoor grills, many whites here angrily answer that outside agitators want to push them around. They say they will not submit to pressure, whatever the merits of the case.
That's the Fort Sumter reflex of defiance that started the Civil War a few miles down the road from this quiet beach resort. But the NAACP's new national leadership, trying to revitalize the organization, chose its weapon well: This is also a state that in recent years has adapted admirably and profitably to the changing national and global economy when it put its mind to it. It has much to lose.
South Carolina has led the nation in attracting foreign investment per capita in some recent years, and has become a vacation and retirement lure for once disdained "outlanders." A national embarrassment over race relations could jeopardize much of this affluence.
This renewed controversy is in fact about the recent past, not the 134-year-old defeat of the Confederate States of America. It is about the use of history, not history itself. And this is the Achilles' heel of those who portray the core issues here as tradition and heritage.
The 1865 defeat always seemed a fresh humiliation to my grandfather, dead at age 70 four decades ago now. An admirer of the Confederate Army and its commanders -- he was after all named Lee -- Granddad would be outraged by the misuse of the battle flag by the state legislature today for petty political purposes.
Men who rode under the Confederate banner were capable of gallantry and bravery as individuals, even as they were terribly mistaken in their political beliefs as a group. That was the gist of the introductory course on the contradictions of the human spirit that I received on his knee, where the corrupting evils of slavery and racial hatred were never minimized.
But the surrender at Appomattox is not the lost cause the South Carolina legislature commemorates. The Confederate flag was hoisted over the capitol building in Columbia only in 1962, in obvious response to the gains of the civil rights movement.
The loss this flag-raising marked occurred in courtrooms and at lunch counters, with no gallantry or bravery in sight on the losing side. This is not heritage. This is a racism that dares not speak its name. The effort to appropriate honor from a distant past into a squalid endeavor today is a bluff that has now been called.
Hauling the flag down now -- before the embargo call becomes a polarizing factor in local and national race relations -- would do much more for South Carolina than avoid a bruising collision between economic pressure and political resistance.
It would be a delayed way to honor those moderates of both races who stood on the right side of racial justice in the 1960s, in South Carolina and elsewhere. It would also help strip away the hypocrisy that has crept into the use of Civil War era symbols to make contemporary statements of bigotry.
It is progress of a sort that the symbol of the lash, rather than the lash itself, causes pain to South Carolina's black citizens today. It is progress toward what Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson describes as "a civilization that is neither purely `black' nor `white' but an ecumenical synthesis that draws its energy and its greatness from the very contradictions of the past and the mighty struggles to overcome them."
It took the Civil War to resolve America's greatest contradiction -- that of slavery and freedom. The South chose the wrong cause to defend. But that choice, and Yankee victory, did not rob the people of the South of all possibility for honor or of a sense of right.
They have no reason to be ashamed of their history -- unless they allow small politicians to misappropriate and distort it, as the South Carolina legislature has done with this flag-waving.