Thursday, May 24, 2012

Heritage or Hate?

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Bazooka Magazine.  

Although I rarely watch the news on WPSD, I do get a lot of entertainment from their Facebook page. There’s a certain Carlinesque, nihilistic joy in having a front-row seat to the kind of willful ignorance that’s directly responsible for human civilization’s steady downward spiral towards Idiocracy. This ignorance is rarely more proudly displayed than during the Confederate flag “discussions” that the Channel 6 web monkeys incite every Tater Day and periodically throughout the year.

It’s really not surprising that there are strong feelings about the Confederate flag in Kentucky, and especially in our part of the state. After all, all the “brother against brother” cliches about the Civil War apply doubly to Kentucky. Our state was the birthplace of both Abraham Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Kentuckians fought on both sides, several bloody battles and a lot of raids and skirmishes took place here, and we were one of only two states (along with Missouri) represented in the Confederate Congress despite officially remaining part of the Union. Since Confederate sympathies were especially strong in the western part of the state--Kentucky’s Confederate shadow government’s capital was officially Bowling Green, though in reality representatives spent most of the war in exile in Tennessee--we have good reason to be conflicted about our Confederate heritage, both as a region and as individuals.  

In the interest of historical accuracy, I should probably mention that what most people refer to as the “Confederate flag” was never actually the flag of the Confederacy, though its design did appear as an element on the second and third C.S.A. flags. The first Confederate national flag--and the flag the name “Stars and Bars” actually referred to during the Civil War era--closely resembled early American flags, but with three broad stripes instead of thirteen and between seven and thirteen stars (depending on the number of states in the Confederacy). In fact, the C.S.A. flag was so similar to that of the Union that it was often mistaken for the Stars and Stripes in the confusion of battle, leading Confederate soldiers to fire on their own troops. In order to cut down on the amount of friendly fire, the Confederate Army decided to adopt a battle flag that was distinct enough to prevent confusion. They ended up choosing a flag based on the “secessionist flag” of South Carolina, and that’s the flag--the one southerners like airbrush Hank Jr. onto and paint on the top of Dodge Chargers--that most people today think of as the “Confederate flag.” Because the Confederacy was never rich in resources or strong on logistics, the flag was never universally adopted by the Confederate army, but its use by prominent units like Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia made it a powerful symbol of the Civil War South.

A lot of people on both sides of the issue believe that some people consider the flag to be a symbol of racism because it represented the Confederacy and the Civil War was about slavery, but that’s a gross oversimplification. At that point in our nation’s history, the balance of power between the federal government and the states was still a point of heated contention. In the pre-Civil War era the states were still to some extent considered sovereign entities, with the federal government playing a role more akin to the European Union today. As a result, many people thought of themselves as citizens of a particular state rather than citizens of the United States. Many southerners who were not slave owners and were opposed to secession--notably Robert E. Lee--sided with the Confederacy because they felt loyalty to their home state trumped loyalty to the Union.

It’s also important to remember that when it comes to war, there’s usually a disconnect between the real motivations of those in power and the reasons that those who are actually doing the fighting believe they’re getting shot at. While many of the loudest proponents of succession certainly benefitted economically from slavery, most southerners didn’t own slaves and many were economically marginalized because of plantation agriculture. They wouldn’t support a war solely to protect the institution of slavery any more than Americans a few years ago would have supported a war to improve Halliburton’s bottom line and allow Dubya to get revenge on the guy who tried to kill his daddy. Think of “states’ rights” as the 1860s version of “weapons of mass destruction.” As the war--mostly fought in the South--went on, many southerners who neither supported slavery nor bought the states’ rights argument joined the Confederate army for no other reason than to protect their homes and communities.

On the other hand, the claim that the Civil War was entirely about state sovereignty and had nothing to do with racism is just as much of an oversimplification. Proponents of the “heritage” side of the argument who accept that the institution of slavery was at the root of succession often point out that the debate that led to the Civil War was about the expansion of slavery to new states, not abolition, that the southern states wanted to expand slavery for economic and political reasons that had nothing to do with racism, and that black Southerners fought in the Confederate army. These arguments, however, ignore the simple fact that slavery in America was was based around the premise that people of certain races were somehow “less human” than the rest of us. Therefore, proponents of slavery were also implicit proponents of racism, and even those who joined the Confederate cause to defend the rights of the states were placing political concerns above the basic human rights of slaves.

In light of history, the question of whether the South’s decision to succeed from the Union was rooted in racism is “yes and no.” I realize that in today’s political climate many people will find this kind of nuance off-putting--after all, isn’t everything supposed to boil down to two diametrically opposed alternatives that conveniently align with the beliefs of the political parties who run the Two Man Con?--but it’s the only conclusion that makes sense. Even if it were possible to conclude that the Civil War was or was not about racism, so far we’ve only covered the first few years of the Confederate flag’s history, so we’ve about a century and a half to go. The meanings of symbols, like the meanings of words, change over time. When a symbol becomes strongly associated with a particular movement or idea, the old meanings are often ruined. For example, the earliest use of the swastika was in Bronze Age India, where it was a symbol of good fortune. About four thousand years later (give or take a few centuries), the swastika was adopted by a symbol of the Nazi party. The association was so strong that today most people (especially in the West) who see a swastika conclude that the person displaying it is Nazi scum. And they’re usually right.  

For the next 100 years or so after the civil war, America as a whole was largely ambivalent about the Confederate flag. Some saw it as a reminder of one of the worst times in our nation’s history, others felt it honored southerners who had followed in the footsteps of the Founding Fathers by taking up arms to defend themselves against what they saw as government oppression. Because more than a few ex-Confederates became involved in white supremacist groups after the war, the flag did take on some racist associations, but for the most part these associations weren’t especially strong. It was when the Civil Rights Movement started building up steam that the Confederate flag was widely adopted as a symbol by southern opponents of the movement, especially white supremacist groups like the KKK. Some tried to claim that opposition to Civil Rights, like the Civil War, were about state’s rights, but such arguments were paper thin and it’s during this era that the phrase gained its reputation as a racist dog whistle. More importantly, unlike the southerners during the Civil War, the people now flying the flag weren’t fighting an opposing army, they were committed acts of terrorism against their fellow citizens because of the color of their skin. All the levels of abstraction that existed during the Civil War era were stripped away and to many the flag became a symbol of open and violent racism.

So, heritage or hate? Once again, there’s not a simple “yes” or “no” answer. In certain contexts, the flag can still be a genuine expression of southern heritage. However, because of the flag’s co-option by racist agitators, the choice to display it publicly reveals a certain level of disregard for those who have been victimized by people flying it, just like wearing a swastika reveals a lack of respect for Holocaust survivors no matter how much you insist you’re wearing it for its luck-bringing properties. Of course, that conclusion is based on historical context, and most people who rally around the Confederate flag have at best a vague grasp of its history. The truth is that for most people who identify strongly with the Confederate flag, it’s about tribalism. They  wear it, fly it from the backs of their trucks, and have it tattooed on their bodies to convey a sense of identity and membership in a particular group. In this way, they’re a lot like the people who brand themselves with sports team mascots or corporate logos. The main difference is that people waving Kentucky Wildcat and Harley-Davidson flags have never burned a cross on somebody’s lawn or engaged in open warfare against their own government.

Personally, outside of a few very specific contexts I feel that public display of the Confederate flag is offensive, but I also support the First Amendment rights of those whose opinions differ from mine. However, freedom of expression does not mean freedom from consequences, so people who choose to display the Confederate flag need to accept that a lot of people will interpret it as a sign of ignorance and racism. Likewise, the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee you the right to display the Confederate flag (or any other symbol) in all situations. Private businesses can ask you to leave; school officials have considerable power to enforce rules against potentially disruptive behavior, including the display of symbols that some may find offensive; and tuber-based civic festivals have every right to ban Confederate flags from parades, even if those festivals are run by a government entity. While freedom of speech is a Constitutional right, freedom to be in a parade is not. Those who claim First Amendment violations where there are none prove they meet at least half of the “ignorant racist” stereotype associated with self-proclaimed “rebels.” Whether or not they fulfill the “racist” part of  the stereotype can usually be determined by asking their opinions on things like welfare, rap music, and the validity of Barack Obama’s birth certificate.
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