In our very first essay, we wrote the following:
“If you are a person who buys the states’ rights argument … or you fly the rebel flag in your front yard … or you still think women look really nice in hoop skirts, we politely suggest you find other amusements on the web. The Bitter Southerner is not for you. The Bitter Southerner is for the rest of us. It is about the South that the rest of us know: the one we live in today and the one we hope to create in the future.”
Within hours after this story was published, four of our readers objected publicly, on Facebook and Twitter, to the fact that we had chosen to commission a story about a company in Birmingham, Ala., called Confederate Motorcycles. One of those comments hit us very hard.
“For a site that tries to combat tired Southern stereotypes, this just felt off,” this reader wrote. “And with the name (Confederate) being so provocative and loaded, it wasn't exactly dealt with head on.”
Those comments started some very deep conversations among all of us here at The Bitter Southerner. We suppose that some might ask, well, why make such a fuss over opinions expressed by only four readers?
Because their comments made us ask ourselves a damned hard question: Are we living up to what we stand for?
Unlike The New York Times, we do not have a person in the position of Public Editor to deal with such questions. But those four readers, knowingly or not, stepped into the role that all good public editors should play: They held us accountable to the statement of purpose with which we began this work a year and a half ago.
In response to their comments, I wrote the following on our Facebook page: “The truth is that we almost decided not to do this story simply because the company was named ‘Confederate.’ But then we learned that owner Matt Chambers' thinking behind the name was rather more complex than one would expect, as you'll see in Dan Carney's reporting. Chambers is an independent thinker, and we respect that. In addition, one thing is undeniable: These bikes are just amazingly beautiful, and they are being produced by a group of consummate craftsmen in Birmingham, Ala. That's why we chose to do the piece.”
The South is a complex place. We do not all think alike. But The Bitter Southerner made a promise to focus on “the South we live in today and the one we hope to create in the future.” And we have made it plain more than once in the past that we have little respect — make that no respect — for those who revel in a vision of an “Old South” that existed only through the labor of enslaved people.
So the question for us became this:
Simply by doing a story about a company with the word “Confederate” in its name, did we violate the trust our readers had put in us? And make no mistake: We value that trust with every ounce of energy we have. The Bitter Southerner is nothing without it.
The name did give us misgivings about doing this piece from the beginning, and the reader who suggested that we had “glossed over” a “charged name” got our attention. But we always attempt not to make snap judgments about the issues we cover, many of which are by their very nature “charged.”
When we first asked our readers for financial support last August, we said the mission of The Bitter Southerner is this:
The Bitter Southerner exists to support anyone who yearns to claim their Southern identity proudly and without shame — regardless of their age, race, gender, ethnic background, place of origin, politics, sexual orientation, creed, religion, or lack of religion.
In none of our encounters with Confederate’s founder, Matt Chambers, did we uncover any reason to believe he harbored prejudice against anyone. In all our encounters with him, we found him to be one of those rare, truly independent thinkers. Few people we meet give the depth of thought to how they want to build their lives and businesses that Matt Chambers gives. We did not agree with everything that came out of his mouth, but if we chose to write only about those who agreed with our points of view, we would fall short of reaching our larger goal: to paint a full and genuine picture of the modern South’s real cultural landscape.
The place we live is complex. The issues The Bitter Southerner addresses are sometimes trivial, but sometimes they are also complex. In retrospect, had we heard the voices of the readers who objected to the story before we published it, the story would have come out differently. We would have been more careful not to “gloss over” the charged nature of the company’s name.
We are grateful to our readers for holding us accountable. You hold us to higher standards than we sometimes hold ourselves. Thank you for keeping us honest, and we’ll keep doing the best we can to honor the trust you’ve placed in us.
- Chuck Reece