ATLANTA — The answer to the Confederate flag controversy is so obvious - and so Southern - even Southerners sometimes can't see it. Especially the legislators in Mississippi and South Carolina, who were debating the symbol again this week. (South Carolina senators Wednesday did make a breakthrough - though not unanimous - to remove the flag from atop the State House.)
The Confederate flag itself holds the key to solving the raging controversy. If you look at the Southern values the flag celebrates, it's quite clear the flag should not be flown in public or carried in the back of a pick-up truck.
In fact, flying the Confederate flag is a very un-Southern act because it violates the grandest of all Southern values: civility.
Honor, civility, and politeness are cherished ideals of the Old South, and they've endured to this day. You can see it everywhere, especially where I live - in Atlanta, the capital of the New South. I do not have the privilege of saying I'm from the South, only the honor of saying I live in it. And it's precisely because I'm not from here that I so admire the Southern trait of minding your manners.
In the South, it is more important to be kind than to be right. You do not insult someone if you can help it. Being considerate of your neighbors, friends, even strangers is a bedrock value.
Where the North might bark "I'm hot, somebody open up a window," the South suggests "Is anyone else feeling warm?" Where the North might answer "No way," the South would say "No, ma'am."
Social grace is as much a part of the Southern landscape as fig trees, June bugs, and egg-custard pie. The South has a wonderful quality of preserving the dignity of people. And that means - rightly to some, wrongly to others - shielding them from the truth if the truth is hurtful.
The South even has a motto in this regard: If you can't be kind, be vague.
And that's the biggest irony of the flag controversy: In their zeal to honor and protect Southern values, Confederate-flag supporters are looking an awful lot like Yankees.
The South is a society of such indirectness it still refers to the Civil War as "the recent unpleasantness." How did a society with such an emphasis on courtesy and manners become so coarse about the flag? In Southern lore, it's the Yankees who know nothing about the social graces, the Yankees who are inconsiderate of their neighbors' feelings, the Yankees who confuse crass with class.
In "Gone With The Wind," when Aunt Pittypat is informed the Northern Army had entered Georgia, she practically had to be carried into her house.
"Yankees in Georgia!" she exclaimed. "How did they ever get in?!" Well, they're not only in, by the looks of it they're the ones holding up the Confederate flag.
The irony of dyed-in-the-wool Southerners embracing a Northern strategy to defend their Southern heritage seems lost on everyone.
Legislators in Mississippi and South Carolina are so polarized by their positions that they can't see that the solution lies in the heart of the South's values.
It is unthinkable to invite someone into your home and insult them. Are public spaces not part of the South's home?
Confederate flag supporters should ask what all Southerners ask themselves when they've betrayed their breeding: "Where are my manners?"
*Michael Alvear writes a syndicated culture critque. To his eternal regret, he was not born in the South.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society