After a heated and emotional series of debates earlier this week, the Confederate flag that flew at South Carolina’s state capitol was lowered from its flagpole and taken to a “relic room.” This move came as a direct result of the slaughter of nine people in a historic black church in Charleston. That act of violence, motivated by racism and hatred, sparked a debate about whether or not the Confederate flag had a place in modern society, a debate that, at times, generated a lot more heat than light. So naturally, I waited until things had pretty much settled down before I opened my big mouth.
Part of that is deliberate. I know I had some very strong, knee-jerk reactions when all of this was fresh. But rather than speak out (aside from a few comments on friends’ Facebook posts), I thought it better to let my thoughts simmer a little, to make sure that I was responding, not reacting. For whatever reason, that simmering reached a critical mass today, and I thought that today might be the right day to share my thoughts.
But before I do, I think I need to acknowledge one of the elephants in the room:
Yes, I Know that Flag Isn’t the Official Flag
Let’s just get it out of the way, shall we? Yes, I know that the flag that was removed from the capitol grounds was never the official flag of the Confederate States of America. YouTuber CGP Grey does a great job of breaking down the history of the Confederate flags, so I’ll let him take care of things:
One thing that Grey doesn’t mention, but I believe bears mentioning, is the meaning of the “stainless banner.” The reason for the white field was not to surrender, but it was a reminder of the supremacy of white people over their black slaves. As the editor of the Savannah, Georgia, Morning News put it:
“As a people, we are fighting to maintain the heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored races. A White Flag would be thus emblematical of our cause.”
That’s kind of an important point, and I’ll be coming back to it in a bit.
But in the meantime, I get it. The battle standard that was adopted by the Army and Navy of the Confederacy was never the official flag of the entire Confederate government. But, as Grey puts it, close enough. You see the battle standard, you don’t think “ah, that’s the flag of the Confederate’s military.” No, you think CSA, simple as that. So let’s not quibble about names or official designations.The Confederate battle standard isn't the official flag, but 'close enough.' And that's still a problem. Click To Tweet
The more important question we need to ask is the thornier one, namely…
What Does This Mean?
(Can you tell I’m a Lutheran through-and-through?)
The entire debate over whether or not this flag should still be flying centers on what this flag, as a symbol, means. What does it stand for?
For many people, especially minorities, the battle standard of the Confederacy stands for fear, hatred, and racism. This is a symbol that has been used by many violent and angry people as an emblem of their fight. The sight of a Confederate flag conjures up images of men dressed in white robes, Jim Crow laws, midnight lynchings, and so on.
But for other people, they want the flag to be about “heritage, not hate.” They see it as a reminder of their history, especially their family histories if they have an ancestor who fought in the Civil War for the Confederates. To them, this flag has nothing to do with racism.
For still other people, they see this flag as an important symbol of the struggle between the states and the federal government. These folks usually try to argue that the reason why the South seceded in the first place wasn’t slavery, it was because the federal government was trying to trample on their states’ rights, and they weren’t going to take it anymore. By extension, they look at the way that they believe that the federal government has overreached in recent years, and they see in the Confederacy kindred spirits, folks who were willing to take a stand for what they believed in against a tyrannical government that tried to crush them.
Hoo boy. This is where I think I’m going to upset a lot of people.
The Cassus Belli
Let’s start with that last group first, the folks that say that the Confederate flag is a symbol of the struggle for states’ rights. I suppose you could argue that the Confederates were fighting for their rights, but my friend and fellow author Clay Morgan, a history professor who made an insightful video on the origins of the Confederate flag, had an interesting observation on that particular argument:
Maybe you could say that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights, but a state’s right to do what?
That, right there, is the million dollar question. What states’ rights were the Confederates afraid of losing? What was the threat that pushed them over the edge to the extreme step of seceding from the Union?
Well, a reporter for the Atlantic named Ta-Nehisi Coates took a detailed look at the documents of secession and other writings of Confederate leaders to see what they thought the war was about. As the subtitle of his article puts it:
The meaning of the Confederate flag is best discerned in the words of those who bore it.
You don’t have to read too far to get the gist of what they thought it was all about. For example, here’s a choice quote from South Carolina’s documents:
A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction. This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.
It sounds like they’re just trying to defend themselves from the big, bad government, but what did they fear the government was going to do? Mississippi’s statements make it pretty clear:
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin…
So why did the southern states secede? Because they were worried that Abraham Lincoln, who had just been elected president, would take away their slaves. That is the right they were fighting to defend. Remember, this was pre-New Deal America. The federal government didn’t have the power, influence, or reach that it does today.Yes, the Civil War was about what everyone says it was. And that's why the CSA flag is a problem. Click To Tweet
Coates’s article is much longer than these two quotes that I pulled from it, but if you keep reading (and you definitely should), you get a very distinct picture that for the leadership of the Confederacy, the war was all about the right to own another human being. It’s all about slavery, and it doesn’t matter how you try to dress it up otherwise. A pig is still a pig no matter how much lipstick you smear on it. I mean, I know, some people call the Civil War the “War of Northern Aggression,” but I just have one question for those folks: who fired the first shot again?
Now I get it. I’m troubled by some steps that the federal government has taken in recent years. I worry that it does overstep its bounds, and we need people who are ready and willing to stand up to “Big Government” and say, “Hey, back off!” But I question whether it’s wise to associate your cause (i.e. smaller, less intrusive government) with a symbol that is so wrapped up in racism. But then again, I suppose that America doesn’t have much in terms of symbols the represent standing up to a government. None whatsoever. ahem
Heritage, Not Hate
Now some people are willing to acknowledge that yes, much (if not all) of the motivation for the government of the Confederacy to go to war was slavery. But the reason why they cherish the Confederate flag has nothing to do with government ideologies. Instead, they remember how their great-grandfather (or whoever) went to war and fought with bravery and honor. These ancestors never owned a slave themselves.
And that may be true. But my question is this: is “I was only following orders” a legitimate excuse in an unjust war?
Allow me to make an argument by way of analogy. Let’s say that, in September of 2039, Germany decides to start flying the Nazi flag outside the Chancellery building. They insist that this is not to celebrate or glorify the Holocaust, but to remember the bravery of the German men and women who served with integrity and honor in World War II. Many of those men and women never killed any Jewish people or sent them off to concentration camps. They simply fought for their country. And that’s why the swastika flies in Germany once again.
Okay, okay, I know. I’ve technically just lost my entire argument (but if the Confederacy teaches us one thing, it’s that you don’t have to stop making noise even if you’ve lost!). But I don’t think any of us would buy that. The symbol of Nazi Germany is too tied up in the horrors that they inflicted on their victims. There very well may have been members of the German military who disagreed with what Hitler was trying to accomplish, folks who fought for their Fatherland, not for the Fuhrer (and we know that there were). But using the swastika to honor them would be in questionable taste.
Same thing is true here, I think. The reason why someone has to go to war is just as important as how they conduct themselves in that war. And the symbol of that cassus belli is just as important too.Why you fight a war is just as important as how. Click To Tweet
Remember bravery, integrity, and honor, definitely. But don’t wrap those virtues up in a symbol of white supremacy.
I guess what I’m ultimately trying to say about the flag is this:
Symbols Have Inherent Meaning
You can’t divorce a symbol completely from the intention of the people who created it. You can try to import new meanings into it, but you can’t gloss over what it originally stood for. The battle standard of the Confederacy has an inherent meaning to it, one that was intentional. It was used as symbol for a government that wanted to continue the enslavement of people based on the color of their skin. That is what was being fought for. You may see it as a symbol of states’ rights or as a reminder of your ancestor’s courage. That’s fine. But it also stands for hatred. It also stands for violence. It’s also been used by people who rallied around it to terrorize and brutalize minorities. You can say that we should ignore those incidents, but I’m not sure we can.
But now the rubber has to hit the road, because there have been a number of issues that have come up surrounding this flag. Rather than try to lump them together, I’m going to try to disentangle them as best I can:
State Governments Flying the Flag
Not a good idea, in my not-so-humble opinion. First of all, let’s remember that the South lost the war and was brought back into the Union. This flag is the symbol of rebellion. Why does it get to keep flying?
Plus, let’s not forget that the timing of when many of these flags started popping up. Ostensibly, it was to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Civil War. I’m sure that it was just coincidental that these flags went up the pole during the Civil Rights movement, during the days of desegregation, the unraveling of Jim Crow, and so on (which these states opposed at the time).
Just a coincidence.
It’s not right for the governments of the southern states to continue to fly this flag. South Carolina did the right thing by taking it down today. Other states should follow suit. Send the flag to a museum. That’s where it belongs.
Now do I believe that by taking down the flag, that will somehow magically solve all problems in our country, that racial tensions will dissipate and we’ll all go skipping off into a rainbow together? Of course not. Don’t be silly. No one seriously believes that. But this is a step in the right direction. Rather than enshrine what could be a rallying point for folks with racist views, we are removing it and relegating it to where it should have been all along. Baby steps.
A few weeks ago, I was stunned by the news that Apple was removing games from their app store if those games depicted the Confederate flag. That strikes me as an overreaction. Look, the Confederate flag is a part of history. It was carried into battle in the Civil War. If you’re making a game, movie, book, stage play, or radio drama that’s set during the time of the Civil War, you’ll have to include the flag for historical accuracy.
Okay, maybe not that last one, but you get the idea.
The old adage is true: those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat it. It’s impossible to learn from history if you hide it. It may be uncomfortable. It may stir up difficult thoughts and feelings. But it’s important that we wrestle with those thoughts and feelings so we can grow as a society.
I think that goes for the General Lee from Dukes of Hazzard, too. It may have not been the best idea to slap the battle standard on the ol’ General Lee when the show was being made, but the show’s not being made anymore.
Now it is important to note that in both of these instances, Apple and TV Land made these decisions on their own. So far as I can tell, there were no petitions to remove the flag, nor was there any concerted pressure on them to do so. I’m assuming that the folks who made these decisions were trying to be proactive and they may have gone overboard a little. It’s hard to blame them for that. Our modern discourse has become so toxic and vile, it’s hard to have a conversation about serious subjects without some spewing venom all over the place.
And that brings us to the final issue:
Individuals Displaying the Flag
A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a blog post entitled Yes, you’re a racist… and a traitor written by a man in central Pennsylvania about one of his neighbors who was flying the battle standard outside his home. The author was…perturbed, to say the least. He was extremely upset that this person would fly that flag in his neighborhood.
I can understand his reaction, but I also understand the realities of the First Amendment. Freedom of speech means that people can fly the Confederate battle flag and I can’t tell them to take it down. They can plaster it on their shirts, belt buckles, even tattoo it to their forehead, and they’re perfectly free to do so.
But I think the words of John Oliver are important to remember:
Okay, that’s a bit extreme. It’s hyperbole. Very nice people can wear the Confederate flag. It’s not like you turn into a slavering monster the moment it touches you, but I think the underlying point is valid. If you choose to wear a symbol that people interpret as representing hatred and racism, you can’t get upset and insist that we not interpret it that way just because you say so.
So if you want to wear the flag, go ahead. You have the right, as an American, to do just that. It’s part of your First Amendment rights.
There we go. This post was a little longer and a lot more serious than what I usually do here, but I felt I had to get all of this off my chest.