Monday, July 14, 2008

Southern Culture on the Skids, Part II

Late again--lots of overtime on the new job. Since unlike my last job I actually get paid for the hours I work, this is a good thing financially, but a bad thing when it comes to blogging. Anyway, now that I've gotten my personal feelings on the Confederate battle flag out of the way, let's discuss the articles I linked to last time.

We'll start with Morgan Brooke Wilkins's post, because, to be honest, I don't have a lot to say about it. While Morgan makes a few good points (and more than a few factual errors), she misses the main reason why a lot of people (myself included) assume that anyone waving the flag publicly is an ill-informed racist. Namely, that ill-informed racist have rallied around the flag and given it the negative connotations that it carries today. No matter what it meant 150 years ago, today most people see the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of racism.

The swastika is another good example of a symbol whose meaning has changed drastically over time. Originally it was a sun symbol, and therefore a symbol of life, and in some religious traditions it still carries that meaning. However, even people who practice these traditions would be unlikely to publicly display the symbol because the average person on the street associates it with the Hitler, just as the average person associates the Confederate battle flag with David Duke.

Now lets move on to TTP's response to Morgan's article over on the Barefoot and Progressive blog, which you should all probably be reading. TTP's first response is to the following paragraph from Moran's article, which reads:

"Social equality should not mean that blacks can take pride in any part of history they choose (even if their self-proclaimed leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X were murderers), whereas whites can only honor those parts of history which minorities and the Left deem politically correct."

TTP then talks about Nelson Mandela and the Right's "pissing and moaning" about politically correct language, but is suspiciously silent on the subject of Malcolm X. While Malcolm X was not a "murderer," he was a criminal and, more importantly, a separatist and a racist. His symbol (the stylized "X" popularized by Spike Lee's movie) is just as much a symbol of hate as the Confederate flag, but it's rare that anyone criticizes those who wear it. Exposing this double standard is, I believe, Morgan's point, and TTP sort of throws the baby out with the bath water by focusing on an obviously incorrect parenthetical statement.

After a brief tirade over semantics, we arrive at the issue of state buildings flying the flag, and TTP opines;

"What Morgan is here suggesting is that any part of history which has even one person (or in this case, one region) that reveres it, it should be made not only a part of the socially accepted canon of expression, but furthermore should be officially sanctioned by the state (ie, the confederate flag should be flown at state capitol buildings)."

No, she's not. She's saying that states who choose to do so have the right to fly whatever flag they want in front of their state buildings, even if if may offend someone. California doesn't have to remove the bear from its flag for fear of offending Stephen Colbert and Georgia doesn't have to remove its stars and bars for fear of offending most people who aren't from Georgia (and many who are). They just have to accept the consequences of continuing to display a symbol that some people find offensive.

TTP goes on to say:

"The suggestion, made in both her article and in our later discussions about it, is that just because millions of black Americans (and here we get to the elephant in the room) see the confederate battle flag as a symbol of institutionalized racism (which, as a matter of fact, it is), that doesn't mean that people like Morgan and her ilk shouldn't be allowed to fly the flag as a matter of Southern pride (even thought Kentucky was neither a confederate nor a union state) or as a celebration of "states' rights", a buzzword that is well-known to refer to slavery and Jim Crow."

TTP seems to be suggesting here that an individual's right to freedom of expression can be trumped by majority opinion. If that were the case, those of us who knew Iraq had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks would have been silenced in the lead-up to the Iraq war simply because the majority of Americans believed W's lie to be true. I'm pretty sure TTP knows better than that, so I'll move on to the final part of the paragraph.

While Kentucky was in fact officially neutral during the Civil War, that does not mean that it was "neither a confederate or union state." While the state government did not take sides, its citizens did, volunteering for both armies in droves. All of the "brother against brother" cliches about the civil war were especially true of our state. Because of this, many Kentuckians (especially those in the western part of the state, who went so far as to set up their own Confederate state capitol in Bowling Green) have just as much claim to Confederate heritage as the people of Alabama or Mississippi.

TTP is correct that in the Jim Crow era "states' rights" became code for institutionalized racism, but assuming that this has always been the case reveals a misunderstanding of history and the way our ancestors viewed the states and the federal government. In the early days of America, states were states in "sovereign nation" sense of the word, with the federal government serving a role more akin to the United Nations. The sovereignty of the state in the early days of America was such that it was not unusual for people to refer to Rhode Island or Pennsylvania or any other state as "my country."

Realizing that the people (especially in the South, an area who generally fell into the Anti-Federalist camp) identified more strongly as citizens of their state than as citizens of the United States helps to answer TTP's question, "What right of the states other than the right to possess slaves was being infringed upon by the North leading up to the Civil War?" Quite simply, the people of the South were defending their right to self-determination and self-rule.

While slavery was in fact the primary right of concern to the slave-holders who actually governed in the South, that does not mean that the average Confederate soldier was fighting in defense of slavery (most did not and could not reasonably expect to own slaves). The Confederate battle flag was a soldier's flag, and the average rebel soldier was fighting for patriotism and to defend his homeland (Robert E. Lee's letter regarding his decision to resign from the Union army makes this point well). Accusing the typical Confederate soldier of fighting in defense of slavery would be like accusing the average American soldier in Iraq of fighting in defense of war profiteering. As Steve Earle would say, the average Johnny Reb was "just another poor boy off to fight a rich man's war."

The Confederate battle flag has become a symbol of hate, but it didn't necessarily start out that way. While the vast majority of people who rally around the flag do so out of ignorance and intolerance, it can be a legitimate expression of heritage. Ultimately, however, a person's reasons for displaying the flag are not important. The First Amendment protects everyone's right to freedom of expression, and I for one believe that being exposed to unpleasant speech and symbols is a small price to pay for being able to speak my mind.
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