Gone With the Wind Still Sucks

confederate flag

The movie Gone With The Wind was officially released on January 17, 1940, and subsequently won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It was so popular that, adjusted for inflation, it’s still the most success film in movie history.

I saw it for the first time when I was in middle school and our teachers took everyone in our grade to the local movie theater for a special showing. We were told we needed to see the movie because it was a classic. Since we were getting out of school for the day, we were excited to go, even though few of us knew much about the film.

But I still remember the feeling of growing disappointment as I watched it. First of all, it told the story of the last days of the white slave-owning aristocracy of the old South, and we didn’t care about those people. And most of us were uncomfortable with the movie’s portrayal of slave owners as benevolent caretakers of ignorant, childlike blacks. I found the scene where the slaves were eager to help build defensive positions for Confederate soldiers outside of Atlanta difficult to believe. The character of Scarlett O’Hara’s maid, Prissy, was outright offensive.

The movie was also really long and tedious, so when the intermission came we were all very disappointed that the movie wasn’t over. And finally, who cared if Scarlett and Rhett never worked things out between them? She was a selfish bitch and he was better off without her.  It was the lamest field trip of my school years.

Gone With The Wind was a work of fiction, based upon a 1936 novel by Margaret Mitchell. She grew up in Atlanta, and both of her grandfathers served in the Confederate army, so she knew a lot about the old South. But her book and the movie weren’t historically accurate.

A couple of weeks ago I went to see the new movie 12 Years a Slave, which is based upon the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was kidnapped while visiting Washington, D.C., in 1841 and sold into slavery. He was a slave on plantations in Louisiana for twelve years before his true identity was revealed and he was allowed to return to his family.

12 Years a Slave shows what the old South was really like. Many of the movie’s scenes are horrific, especially since they were true. The movie also shows how the institution of slavery had totally corrupted Southern white society, as its preservation was based upon the use of terror against any threat of change – even when the threats came from white slave-owning Southerners.

You leave the movie with the clear understanding that the real cause of the Civil War was the evil commercial concept that a human being could be legally designated as a piece of private property. And you realize the modern day right-wing’s fixation on the inviolable sanctity of property rights, at any cost, isn’t a new phenomenon.

No matter who you are, you will leave the movie feeling some strong emotions. But if you’re white, you will feel ashamed that slavery was allowed to continue for as long as it did, and want to find some way to apologize for it. I saw the movie with a black friend and as we were walking out of the theater he said, “It’s a good thing we’re friends, because otherwise I’d really want to kick your ass you right now.” I understood how he felt and took no offense.

According to the American Film Institute, the movie Gone With The Wind is 4th best film of all time. I don’t think it deserves to even be on the list. It still sucks.

150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address

Lincoln Memorial
Lincoln Memorial (Jeff Burgess)

On November 19th, 2013, Americans celebrated the sesquicentennial anniversary of the famous speech President Abraham Lincoln gave in 1863 during a ceremony to dedicate the Soldier’s National Cemetery at the site of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Lincoln’s famous words included the reminder that our nation was, “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” And he declared that the Civil War needed to be won by the United States to ensure, “a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

While Lincoln’s speech is now recognized as a defining moment in American history, back then it was criticized by newspapers aligned with the Democrats – his political opposition in the North. For example, the Chicago Times, a Democratic newspaper, editorialized, “The cheeks of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances.”

The advent of the Civil War had split the Democratic Party into the two camps – the War Democrats and the Copperheads. The War Democrats supported President Lincoln’s prosecution of the war against the rebellious Confederacy, but they didn’t control their party. The Copperheads opposed the war and wanted to make peace with the Confederates and allow the continuation of slavery. Many Copperheads were racist and saw no need to free African Americans, especially because the war was so costly and had led to a great increase in the power of the Federal government over the states. And some Copperheads were merchants who had lost profitable trade with the South.

So Lincoln’s political opposition was primarily focused on the supremacy of states’ rights, no matter the cause, and the protection of wealth, no matter the morality. These were the same basic grievances of the Confederacy. (Today, ironically, they’re favorite issues of the modern Republican Party’s powerful right wing.)

I visited the Gettysburg National Military Park during the summer of 2013 with a couple of friends because we wanted to say we were there on the 150th anniversary of the battle. It’s a place that every American should visit. The National Park Service has done a great job of making it easy for any visitor, no matter their knowledge of American history, to understand what happened there. One of the things I came away with was the realization that all of the soldiers in the Union Army understood the importance of the battle, and were determined to win, no matter the cost – even if it meant giving their life. Lincoln recognized this fact with his speech.

We took a couple of days and toured the entire battlefield, including the Confederate positions along Seminary Ridge. This was the place where their commander Robert E. Lee had launched his ill-conceived assault that went uphill and across open ground to try and pierce the middle of the Union lines on the decisive 3rd day of the battle. The attack, now popularly known as Pickett’s Charge, failed miserably. It’s considered a turning point in the Civil War, and is often called the high-water mark of the Confederacy.

At the jumping off point for Pickett’s charge the National Park Service had mowed a lane in the tall grass across the entire three-quarters-of-a-mile wide field that had separated the two armies in 1863. The purpose was to allow visitors to easily walk the distance and personally experience what the Confederate soldiers had done that day. While we were standing there a white man with his middle-school-aged daughter walked by us and started across the field. I overheard him tell her that she had to take the walk so that she would appreciate her Southern heritage.

last confederate flag
The Last Confederate Flag

This troubled me, and it still does. I respect the bravery and sacrifice of those Confederate soldiers, but they fought for the wrong reasons – and that’s an important thing for us to continue to recognize. Union commander Ulysses S. Grant felt similarly about this. He accepted Lee’s surrender in 1865 and later wrote that, “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

Even today, with an African American president, we need to be reminded that we still haven’t fully achieved Lincoln’s vision for our country. People who try and claim that the Civil War was really about states’ rights should be roundly condemned as un-American . (Go see the movie 12 Years a Slave if you think slavery had a benevolent side.)

It’s difficult, and almost inexplicable, for me to understand why President Obama didn’t speak at the 150th anniversary celebration of the Gettysburg Address. Perhaps he felt he couldn’t improve on Lincoln’s work. But he should have done something significant to recognize the importance of the occasion.

As for the brave Union soldiers who gave their lives at Gettysburg, I give you the words of Confederate General Pickett, who led the doomed charge against the Union positions along Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863. Years later, when asked why the charge had failed, he replied, “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

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