04 June 2008

Den of Rebellion

Tampa is in the news again, not surprisingly for a rather disappointing reason. Seems the local Sons of Confederate Veterans has decided that the intersection of Interstate and 4 and Interstate 75, just east of Tampa, is a fine place to display the largest Confederate flag in the country. Bully for them. Enjoy the photo.

Oh, where to begin. I'd like to get this written today. The rest is after the jump.

First off, the flag itself. This particular design was probably not much used in the actual Confederacy, if at all. It echos the Battle Flag, which was typically square. It may not always have been square (at least two contemporary illustrations, though no photographs, depict rectangular battle flags), but contemporary literature and events indicate that it was nearly always square. In fact, when the battle flag was incorporated into the Second National Flag in 1863, it was a square; clearly the square battle flag was the recognized symbol of troops on the battlefield throughout the CSA. Although it was pictured on the later national flags, this battle flag design was nonetheless never an officially recognized symbol of the CSA; it was the flag flown in battle so confederate troops could recognize each other. In fact, as union troops flew the union flag, the confederate battle flag came into being because the first flag adopted by the CSA, the ""Stars and Bars," was considered to similar to the U.S. flag. Thus the battle flag was developed, and used in battle rather than the Stars and Bars, and later was incorporated into the second and third National Flag designs. But again, it was square. It was probably square to help differentiate it from the U.S. flag. I have never understood--and probably never will understand--why the current Confederate Flag (hereinafter CF) is a design that was never actually used. It's the same shape and design as the second Navy Jack, but, instead of light blue it uses navy blue. I have seen so CFs with the lighter blue, and I wonder whether the people flying them know that they're flying the Second Navy Jack. Perhaps they had family in the CSA Navy. That would make sense; that would be heritage. But the CF as it stands isn't. It's rather absurd to me that people would make a big deal about a symbol standing for heritage and ancestors when the ancestors in question never actually saw that symbol. Why not use the Third National Flag, which incorporates the battle flag and was an official symbol of the Confederacy?

It's tough to say what flag the earliest incarnation of the KKK used. Probably the battle flag, as the founders of that organization would most likely have had such flags, and the organization was as much as anything a guerrilla outfit for people who didn't want to let the fight die. Public display of any of the official symbols of the CSA was outlawed for many years after the war (including public wear of a CSA uniform), though these laws were largely overturned after Reconstruction. What flag was flown during Confederate memorials and by both honest veterans proud of their heritage and loathsome racist bigots engaged in lynchings and other denials of human rights to blacks is a matter of pure speculation. But the fact remains that the CF in its current form was never an official symbol of the confederacy; in my view, therefore, claiming it is a symbol of "confederate" or "Southern" heritage is baloney. It's an afterthought.

There is no question but that in its current form, the CF resurfaced during World War I, when divisions with Southern-inspired nicknames or with primarily Southern personnel began using it in their regimental flags and other symbols and insignia. It has continued to be flown since that time. In fact, the flag was raised on Okinawa after the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 by a member of a Marine company with primarily Southern members. It was ordered taken down by General Simon Buckner, son of a prominent Confederate general, who said "Americans from all over are involved in this battle."

On this basis you could argue that, initially, the CF was raised as a symbol of Southern heritage, and nothing more. Okay. I'll buy that argument. That works for me. But at least as early as WWII, some black soldiers (and possibly others) had lodged complaints about the use of the flag, such that formal investigations had been undertaken regarding how the flag was being used. By the end of the war (Okinawa not withstanding) the flag's use was apparently comparatively rare. I would argue that, if the flag was removed on the basis of complaints by blacks, then right there you've got not only clear evidence that some people didn't see the flag as a symbol of heritage at all (or if they did that the heritage was not one worth celebrating), but also that the flag was being taken off display on the basis of complaints related to race.

Did that make the white soldiers who wanted to fly the flag upset? Who knows. Did those soldiers make a point of flying the flag once they got home? I'd bet they did. It's human nature that when something you care about, and which you take as a symbol of your identity, is criticized, you dig in and support it more. It's why people who fly the CF now get so persnickity when somebody complains. On a rational basis most people I've met who consider the CF a symbol of heritage in no way (at least on a conscious level) wish to defame or insult blacks, northerners, other minorities, Jews, or anyone else (including urban white liberals) by displaying the flag. Instead, they feel their heritage as a Southerner is worthy of celebrating, and the flag is to them a symbol of that heritage. Take the symbolism away and most of these people would probably be willing to find another way to celebrate their Southern heritage that would not offend people; but because of the symbol's potency for them, and also because of the quarter the first complaints usually come from (let's admit now that the first people who show up complaining about the flag are usually not very polite), these people are themselves offended and dig in and defend the flag and its display. And so we have trench warfare and nothing gets done; everybody feels like any attempt to change their mind is a personal attack not only on them but on everything they stand for, and so nothing can be done. It's a lot like most political debates in this country these days; we have a dysfunctional politics, and display of the CF is a part of that and no more.

Two questions present themselves here. One, is Southern heritage worth celebrating? Two, is the flag the right way to do it? If we could resolve these questions we might find a solution to display of the flag.

I don't have much Southern heritage. At least half of my family came to the U.S. after the war was over, although they did settle in the South once they arrived. At least one of my ancestors fought in the war (at least one fought in the Revolution, too, a war we really need to spend more time focusing on instead of the damned Civil War), though I don't know which side (the family was in Southernillinois at the time, and regiments from that area were in both armies). Hey, it's tough to do much serious digging genealogically when your surname is the most common one in the country and has been since at least 1840.

I've certainly spent most of my life in states of the old Confederacy, and I consider myself a Southerner, although not Southern (a distinction that admittedly most people would find too fine to be worth making). I also like the South, and I find that people who are Southern--who have been in the South for a few generations and would call themselves Southern--are really nice, decent people, frankly the nicest and most decent I meet. Southern manners are genuine, although the South has so many non-Southerners it's not that common to find them anymore. You have to be in a rural area, but not an area so rural as to be nativist. That's tough to find anywhere in this country these days.

Anyway. I think Southern heritage is worth preserving, and for several reasons. I think all of American history is worth preserving. And there are things about the South that can and should be celebrated as a vital part of our collective heritage as Americans. I'm not going to run through a laundry list but any Southerner who can define what it means to be Southern knows that the South gave more to the world than sweet tea and fried okra. One of the features of Southern culture that I think is still among the strongest is the willingness to fight for a cause. I refuse to be dragged into a debate about what the "average" confederate soldier was fighting for; fact is, at the most basic level, most of them were fighting to defend there land against invaders. Never mind that the invaders were the people they used to be; if folks from St. Paul invaded Minneapolis under force of arms, regardless of how much Minneapolis deserved it, people in Minneapolis would take up arms against them. Doesn't matter that they both root for Vikings.

Okay, I'm starting to stretch credibility with my analogies so we better move on. Let's assert that Southern heritage is worth saving and celebrating, at least some parts of it. We don't need to celebrate slavery or lynch mobs, which are part of Southern history--but both things were plenty evident in the rest of the country as well. Abolition as a movement developed in the north when it did because slavery as an institution had ceased to become profitable by that time, so society was not underpinned by slavery. Being an abolitionist in 1850s Georgia meant publicly working to undermine the entire local economy, including your own. Whether you owned slaves or not the wealth of the South to which you owed your livelihood was still at least in part due to slavery. Put another way, it's easy to tell other people to stop smoking when you neither smoke yourself nor farm tobacco.

Is the current incarnation of the confederate flag the right way to celebrate Southern heritage, though? Hmm.

The flag, like many symbols, means different things to different people. There is no question but that to the vast majority of African-Americans, it is a symbol of slavery, hatred, racism, lynching, and all manner of awful things. It is also a symbol of the KKK, and of the neo-Nazi movement in this country (and elsewhere). In this case it is a symbol that has been adopted by those movements to symbolize what they stand for--and what they stand for is rather a nasty business. Because of these groups' selection of the flag for themselves, people like me, who frankly could care less one way or the other, tend to associate the flag with racism, hatred, bigotry, and the like, sometimes violent forms of those things.

Where I grew up, there was a Klan march annually in a town down the road. They marched through town waving their Confederate flags and what-have-you. Now I certainly know what the Klan is about, silly little marches aside, and I find their beliefs disgusting and their actions despicable. Because the Klan celebrated their beliefs with displays of the Confederate flag, I associate that flag with the Klan. Can you blame me? Where I grew up, people didn't display that flag unless they sympathized with the Klan. They might couch it in terms of white heritage or "standing up for white people" when everybody was against us, and they probably wouldn't ever dream of actually participating in a lynching or burning a cross in someone's front yard. But they flew that flag (or had it on their truck bumper) because the sympathized with the softer edge of what the Klan claimed to stand for.

I'm not alone, folks. Lots of middle-class white people regardless of where they were raised look at the flag and think: Klan. And think: racism. Lynching. Hatred. When I somebody with the flag flying outside their house, I wonder: how deeply do they agree with the KKK? Would my wife be welcome in their household (not that she'd go in anyway)? We would be welcome in their neighborhood? I think the same things when I see the flag on a truck bumper or license plate. I can't help it. That's where I was raised, and that's what the flag means to me.

Now, supposing you were raised in an area where the flag didn't have those connotations, but was simply a way to say I'm a Southerner and I'm proud of it. For you it is genuinely a symbol of your heritage, your culture, who you are. So you want to fly it. Fine. When I see it, I assume you're a racist.

That's not fair on my part of course. It's never fair to pass judgment on somebody without first getting to know them well, and perhaps there's not a bigoted bone in your body. But because you're flying that flag, I assume there is. The question is, am I alone? What do most people think when they see the flag?

Believe it or not, no quality polls have been taken on this issue. If I had money I'd commission one. Lots of internet polls are out there and other polls with questionable methodology, and of course flag supporters have produced plenty of polls that wouldn't pass scientific muster supporting it as a heritage symbol only. A good scientific poll is desperately needed to see what the majority of Americans (and let's get it broken down by region and state, gender, race, education, income, age, etc) think when they see that flag.

I have a feeling--based on my own limited and flawed experience--that more people see the flag negatively than positively. I suspect it's by a fairly wide margin, too, probably about 3-1. I might be wrong, but what if I'm right?

Would you still want to fly the flag in that case? Would any decent, upstanding unbigoted person still want to display that "symbol of heritage" if three fourths of the rest of the country would see it and assume it implied hatred? I would hope not.

That's my problem with the confederate flag, anywhere it is displayed (except as part of battlefield memorials) but especially in the case of our new gigantic one. I believe, and have no reason not to believe, that most people, when they see that flag, view it as a symbol of hate. So unless you really mean it that way, you shouldn't display it. Leave the flag to the people who have appropriated it to their own nefarious ends, and find a better symbol to celebrate your heritage, one less likely to be taken the wrong way.

Okay, but the flag, you say, is not a symbol of hatred or oppression, that's just what some people have read into it, and that's their problem, not mine. Sure.

Let's say you're a Jew in Palestine. You've lived there for many years, generations even, you're a shopkeeper in a town that your family has lived in for centuries. There've been Jews in Palestine for thousands of years, after all. Your customers are Arab Palestinians, Muslims. You get along with them, they are you neighbors and customers. You feel no ill will toward them. Should they feel ill will toward you? Of course not. You are members of a community.

But you are proud of your religion and your heritage, and one day you decide it is entirely appropriate for you to be proud. So you purchase an Israeli flag, and fly it outside your shop. Do you suppose your customers might drift away? Your neighbors might stop visiting? Your shop might become the target of threats, vandalism, violence? Duh. Of course. That flag symbolizes something more to Arab Palestinians than it does to you, and no matter your reason for flying it, it isn't going to be taken well by them.

You wear a yarmulke when it's appropriate though, and have for years. It's not as if your customers and neighbors don't know you're Jewish. They just don't associate you with the state they view as an oppressor. When you suddenly associate yourself with it, it's not going to be seen as a matter of pride or a personal statement of heritage, it's going to be seen as you've decided to support what the flag stands for to those people.

The confederate flag suffers from the same thing. It's not that you have no right to be proud of the South or your heritage; it's not that other people conflate your heritage with hatred. It's that the symbol you've chosen to demonstrate your heritage is already associated with hatred and bigotry. When I say I think the confederate flag is a symbol of hatred (I don't; I think it's a sign that the displayer of the flag is probably a bigot. The flag itself I view as neutral because it's a pseudo-historical item with multiple meanings) that doesn't mean I think Southern heritage and culture are nothing but hatred and bigotry. It's just the way I view the symbol you've chose. I don't see why it isn't obvious to people to just choose another symbol not already loaded with negative connotations.

Unless, of course, the people fighting for the flag really are bigots.


Lucky Bob said...

You know what's really funny is that not more than 2 weeks ago I was having a conversation over IM with a friend in Canada about this very thing. We were talking about how certain people and groups can co-opt a symbol and destroy its usefulness and symbology for another group. I said that I took Memorial day as vacation, and that I like to fly my US, State, and University (It was a military school for a while after all.) flags on the front of my house. I would also like to get a version of the Third National Flag of the confederacy to fly occasionally. (Of course the US flag is higher that rest of them.) But I told her that I couldn't in all honesty get one and fly it because I knew it would communicate the wrong ideas to people passing my house.

I would want to fly the third national flag to remember those that gave their lives trying to defend their homes, families, and economy. And also to serve as a reminder of the disaster that can come when you defend to the death something that deep down you know is wrong. It also serves as a lesson on the refusal to compromise, by both sides. I’m reminded of the question of “What happens when the irresistible force meets the immovable object?” The answer of course is that you end up with an incredible mess. Money and power make people do stupid things.

I must freely admit that I am a southerner. My family has been here since before secession. (In fact one may have been on the Lewis and Clarke Expedition.) I know I have relatives who fought and some owned slaves. I’m not embarrassed by it. It was common at the time. In fact I feel it really was a trapping of the economy of the time. If you wanted to have and keep money you almost had to have slaves. But that doesn’t make it any less wrong or short sighted. I just understand that dependence on something makes it hard to even consider giving up. And those who did consider it probably felt it would be like resigning your family to destitution if you just gave up slavery. So instead the path was paved by the blood of 620,000 lives. But I digress.

Fly it if you want, but understand what some people will think. In fact for the naval jack I’d probably think bigot or racist. Now if someone flew the third national flag I’d think they were smart and knew their history, but then I’d probably be a minority.

Melinda said...

Funny...the very same day that I read this post, I watch The Colbert Report and see Stephen Colbert do a segment on this very thing.