Sunday, July 5, 2015

A Few Thoughts on the “Confederate” Flag

Curmie played a fair amount of “Civil War” when he was a little boy. I didn’t realize it at the time—at least not with any real comprehension—but the reason for this interest, and for the ready availability of appropriate paraphernalia, was the centennial commemoration of the conflict: the 100th anniversary of Fort Sumter happened when I was in kindergarten.

Early on, if I had a choice, I “fought” for the Confederate side. The reason was simple: I had hats from both sides, and I liked the “rebel” one better, probably because it was cloth and the other was plastic. (And I like grey.) I was perhaps dimly aware that the Union soldiers were the “good guys,” but that was more a function of coming from the northeast and knowing who won: little kids are attracted to winners. (Curmie had not yet developed the theorem that the bad guys always get the cooler hats. Seriously, though, who has a cooler hat than Darth Vader? Indiana Jones is the exception that proves the rule.) But even by the time of the centennial of Appomattox Court House (4th grade), I’d learned enough about the causes of the war and the ideals of the respective combatants that I was uninterested in being a “Reb” any more.

Still, there was a time when I chose the South. I had an excuse, though. I was five. For today’s adults who argue “heritage” and “states’ rights” and similar codswallop to perpetuate flying the Confederate battle flag, however, there is no such mitigation. That flag is associated with slavery and racism. Period, the end. To assert the contrary is to argue on the basis of ignorance, stupidity, or outright prevarication (not that these three are in any way mutually exclusive).

A few points, not necessarily related to each other:

The actual Confederate flag.  (Well, one of them.)
1. The flag we now refer to as the “Confederate flag” wasn’t ever adopted by the Confederate States of America. It bears considerable resemblance to the battle flags of northern Virginia and Tennessee (but not of, say, South Carolina or Texas, to choose two other states not entirely at random). The flag shown to the right represents heritage (so do the other two that were officially adopted by the CSA); the one at the top of the page, treason. Oh, and if your ancestors weren’t from northern Virginia or Tennessee, that flag has precisely nothing, repeat: nothing, to do with your heritage, so STFU, please. Oh, sorry… or if your forebears were members of the KKK. Apologies for the oversight.

2. The Civil War was always about slavery—yes, states’ right, too, but state’s rights only insofar as the southern states saw the Union (and the election of Abraham Lincoln) as a threat to their ability to own slaves. The secession decree by South Carolina, the first state to secede, makes that clear: “But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the Institution of Slavery has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the general government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.”

Think Texas was any better? How about this:
In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon the unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color—a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and the negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.
There is your “heritage,” Texans. Tell me again how the war wasn’t about slavery. Of course it was. You can dress it up any way you like, but it was about slavery.

3. “But… but… but…The ‘Confederate flag’ wasn’t originally about slavery, so it shouldn’t be considered racist.” First off, yes, it was about slavery, as the previous couple of paragraphs ought to demonstrate pretty convincingly. But even if this were not the case: are you seriously suggesting that a flag that is now associated with slavery and with hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan (which was largely responsible for its return to prominence) ought not to be regarded for what it now symbolizes? Are we to think a swastika is a neutral symbol because it is a religious symbol signifying auspiciousness in a number of Asian cultures? You think there aren’t going to upset some people if you walk down the street in a Gestapo uniform?

4. The “heritage” argument takes another hit in the recognition that the battle flag didn’t fly over any government buildings for nearly a century. Its return to the South Carolina statehouse, for example, was in 1961. That would make it an emblem of white (racist) defiance in the wake of the Brown v. Topeka Supreme Court ruling of a few years earlier and in fearful anticipation of the Civil Rights movement a few years later. Who knew, right?

What we’re left with is a flag that is inherently racist in its current connotations, a flag that has literally and absolutely no business flying over a statehouse (or as the banner of a major state university). It may be simplistic and opportunistic to push for the removal of this symbol of oppression in the wake of Dylann Roof’s outrageous and obviously racially-motivated murders a couple of weeks ago. But if that’s what it takes to get a little momentum on the side of turning back a hateful and intentionally oppressive act of over a half century ago, so be it.

At the most basic level, it doesn’t matter what event or series of events would motivate someone to do what is quite obviously the right thing. Just do it. It’s not like we haven’t had time to think about the matter: this isn’t the sort of knee-jerk hysteria that resulted in an abomination like the PATRIOT Act, nor would legislators be expected to vote on a proposal they couldn’t possibly have read with care (e.g., Obamacare). No, this would be a simple, one-page proclamation that we’re never again going to fly a flag that is consciously and quite intentionally offensive to a significant number of people on statehouse grounds.

I italicized those last three words for a reason. The Confederacy and the Civil War are part of American history, and should be commemorated as such. So yes, it’s perfectly appropriate, even positive, that there should be memorials to the Jefferson Davises, Stonewall Jacksons, and Robert E. Lees of the world, and that Chancellorsville and Manassas should be included alongside Gettysburg and Antietam as national historic sites. And it’s completely reasonable that a Confederate flag (ideally, the historically correct one) should fly over those sites. Re-enactments, historical sites, museums, theatre and film productions… and we’re done.

Curmie was in London a few weeks ago, and, as usual, spent a fair amount of time in the general vicinity of Westminster. There’s a statue to Oliver Cromwell (hissssssssss) near the Houses of Parliament, erected long after his death. Let’s face it: Cromwell doesn’t have a lot to recommend him as a British hero, unless of course you’re so violently anti-Catholic that you’ll forgive him for his attacks on the Anglican Church, the Irish, the theatre, the celebration of Christmas, and the very concept of a constitutional monarchy. But there is no denying Cromwell was the most important single figure in England in the 1640s and ‘50s. Should there be a statue to him? Yeah, I think so… if only so I can hiss at it.

Which brings us to the attempts to outlaw sales of the Confederate battle flag altogether, or to de facto do so by making it untenable for a company to stay in business. The Dixie Flag Company in San Antonio, for example, has been making headlines of late: first they insisted they’d continue selling the flag; the next day they reversed course; now they’ve apparently changed their minds again.

Various Confederate paraphernalia, including a range of flags, certainly appears to be offered for sale, and the homepage now carries a banner reading “It’s Not About Hatred, It’s About History,” and there’s a defiant (and often misspelled) statement about “pandering to whiney political groups seeking to rearrange the facts of our history and our heritage.” There are links to Fox News (who else?) stories about a variety of Civil War and flag-related topics. And there’s an ostensibly balanced statement which nonetheless legitimizes a view that, to some, the Confederate flag “is a symbol of their heritage, a time when their ancestors stood up for a greater good against tyranny and came together, a symbol of their pride and heritage.”

This argument, of course, is unmitigated crap. That said, I’m fine with the company’s continued existence and indeed with their decision to continue selling materials I find abhorrent. For one thing, I’m a firm believer in freedom of expression. If nothing else, Dixie Flag is absolutely correct that they’re constitutionally guaranteed the right to sell the Stars and Bars, the Southern Cross, or whatever other flag they want (including Nazi banners, the hammer and sickle, or whatever else their little hearts desire), just as it is constitutionally protected “speech” to buy one of those flags with the express purpose of setting it on fire, as a customer talked about in one of the TV spots about the company’s decision-making process.

But there’s an extra bonus, too. Especially around these parts, having the Confederate battle flag be completely legal saves me a lot of research time. I can just drive down the street and know where the assholes live.

No comments: