The Moral Hazard of Dixie Nostalgia

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Moral hazard. Noun. Economics.
Lack of incentive to guard against risk where one is protected from its consequences, e.g. by insurance.

I looked up the term moral hazard as I thought it might make a catchy pun for my title in relation to a topic that’s going to turn up a bit later in this post. On checking the definition, my first thought was: well, maybe not – it’s quite specific to its context. But as I reflected, I realised that actually it works better than I first thought as a metaphor in cultural spheres outside economics.

Moral hazard. Noun. Real Life.
Lack of incentive to guard against risk where one is protected from its consequences, e.g. by white privilege.

I’m choosing this moment to dive back into the questions of race and repertoire I discussed last autumn for two reasons. One is that I am preparing a class on repertoire-building for Holland Harmony next month and have been thinking quite a lot about how to address this question in the context of a country that doesn’t share the history that blights a swathe of traditional barbershop songs.

The other is the confluence on my social media of newsfeed of the conversations that have proliferated in the wake of Joey Minshall’s #donewithdixe post and images of recent events in Charlottesville.

In my early years of barbershop, I heard a British chorus sing ‘Waiting for the Robert E Lee’. (Interesting – just went to google to see if I could find a link for you if you don’t know the song, and the Barbershop Harmony Society’s video of the Vocal Majority singing it in 1988 is no longer available.) At the time I had no idea who Robert E Lee was, or why anyone would name a boat after him.

Now of course everyone knows who Robert E Lee is. Crowds of white supremacists marched to protest the removing of his statue in Charlottesville from its place of prominence in the town's main park. One of them drove a car at counter-protestors, killing one and injuring many others. In case anyone was in doubt about the political position of the marchers, they displayed swastikas along with their confederacy flags, they did the nazi salute, they shouted racist slogans.

Now, there is an argument that Dixie culture – the flag, the songs, the nostalgia – isn’t cherished for its racism, but for its cultural heritage. And I can see how people would like to think that of themselves. It is the picture of the south painted by the Dukes of Hazzard, full of Dixie iconography, but in which the enemy is a short fat white guy named for an animal reputed for its greed. You don’t see racism because (to my recollection – I’m dredging my memory back to childhood here) there aren’t any black characters. In this context, the Dixie-isms stand for plucky folk who break the rules because the rule-makers are in the wrong.

I can see how people would like to think of themselves in those terms. (And even my prepubescent self could appreciate how cute those Duke boys were.) And how, when General Lee is a car, and ‘Dixie’ the tune of its horn, you can avoid thinking too hard about origin of the symbols. ‘Some people might intend the confederacy flag as a gesture of violence against People of Colour,’ you can think, ‘but not me, that’s not what I mean’.

So, that is the moral hazard I referred to at the start of my post. You can maintain that position only if you have the luxury of not being threatened by white supremacists. Our white privilege is to be of the demographic that extremists perceive as their own. We might not enjoy being called on that privilege, but it is a much safer place to be than that of those who don’t share it. (Though also: our whiteness won’t necessarily protect us if we publicly object to the alt-right agenda. RIP Heather Heyer.)

And I’m afraid that, since Charlottesville, it is a position that has become untenable. Newsbroadcasters of the world have shown us clearly that these symbols are wielded with aggression and hate in service of an extreme political agenda that wills violence to non-whites. It is legitimate for those who are the targets of neonazi hate to feel threatened by these symbols - and that means that it is no longer possible to use them innocently.

One of the big debates since Joey’s #donewithdixie post has been whether the Barbershop Harmony Society should change the name of its Dixie District. And, whilst I have a certain sympathy* for those who might feel that extremists have unfairly damaged their reputation (spare a thought for the majority of the world’s Muslims at this moment), not to do so now would make a mockery of the ‘Everyone in Harmony’ slogan of their strategic vision.

The best that promoting ‘Everyone in Harmony’ under a Dixie banner can say is, ‘Meh…you can sing with me, but don’t expect me to give a shit about your feelings’.

I don’t seem to have got onto my first reason for thinking about these matters here, but this post is quite long enough already. I’ll come back for the practical question of ‘how to pick songs in this minefield when you don’t share the cultural background to read the signals easily’ another day.

*Actually, a pretty limited sympathy. It's one thing for people from outside the US to be a bit clueless about the background here, but you'd have to call it willfully disingenuous to claim not to be aware of the issues at the same time as claiming a Dixie identity. But still, recent events have certainly brought the problem into much sharper relief.

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