The Confederate Flag and the Myth of the South

“Southern Lives Matter”

That was the quote that stood out to me while reading about a recent rally in support of the Confederate Flag. It stood out to me because it illustrated how blind supporters of the flag were to any larger social, historical or cultural context.

The words were clearly intended as a play on the Black Lives Matter slogan that came to prominence after Baltimore (and assorted other shootings). But to draw a comparison between public display of the flag on government property and the killing of people (regardless of skin color) shows a remarkable lack of perspective and a self-absorption that seems almost willful.

That particular flag touches on a lot of very sensitive and in some cases complex issues. Failing to acknowledge those issues and merely waving it off as displaying southern pride is intellectually shallow. Supporters of the flag should ask themselves what message they are really trying to send and whether flying the flag is actually sending that message.

What You Say Is Not Necessarily What Others Hear

Communication is a difficult process and even face to face conversations are fraught with misunderstandings. Purely textual communication which eliminates tone magnifies the confusion and as we shorten the message any remaining nuance is lost. This explains most of what happens on Twitter.

“You can have a Confederate Flag without being racist, but you have to accept the fact that if you have a Confederate Flag on your lawn, people will think that you’re racist.” — Bonnie McFarlane

If your chosen means of communication is to display a flag, so there aren’t even any words for context, then expect to be misunderstood. What then is the value in a “display of pride” if people aren’t getting that message from it? Because the flag is associated with the Civil War and by extension with racism. That is what a substantial portion of people see when that flag gets waved.

So maybe it’s time to choose another way to show your Southern Pride?

Me Good, You Bad

The world is a complicated place. Relatively few things in life can actually be reduced to good vs. bad. You can, for example, quite easily find instances of the Union doing horrible things to Confederates. War sucks.

Unfortunately the human mind really likes to simplify. We want a good guy to cheer for and a bad guy to boo, and when the world doesn’t accommodate us, we just alter reality to suit and that seems to be what is happening with the symbolism of the Confederate flag. People are re-purposing it to represent some idealized South that never was.

Instead of just spouting vague justifications people need to take a hard look at the reality both of the Civil War and that flag. And because people always demand references for this sort of stuff I’ll point out you can confirm any of it with less than 5 minutes on Google. We’re talking really basic historical facts here.

The Lost Cause

There has been a persistent attempt to re-frame the history of the civil war almost since it ended. The Lost Cause proposes a noble, yet doomed, effort on the part of the South to stand up for States Rights. The significance of slavery is downplayed in favor of heroes like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. While both were individuals of considerable military skill they were turned into icons of impeachable good character. If you saw them portrayed in a movie you’d say they were too one-dimensional to be credible.

And that’s because these versions of them are not real. No one is that saintly or flawless. But if they are presented as paragons of perfection then suddenly the South and the Confederacy is so much more palatable to many people.

Alexander H. Stephens Vice-President of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.
The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions — African slavery as it exists among us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.. — Alexander Stephens

The simple fact is you can’t remove slavery as a primary cause of the war. Slavery drove the secession which lead to the war just like it drove the creation of states and essentially shaped the politics of the US for generations prior to the Civil War.

Nor can you portray the South as some innocent victim in the civil war since they began it not only by seceding but by opening fire on a federal garrison. They were not at any point the innocent victims of war. And yet this romanticized view of both the South and the Civil War persists, encouraged by certain organizations who may or may not have other agendas.

The Battle Flag

Of course as many have pointed out, using the “Confederate Flag” to represent the South is historically flawed anyway. What people are actually flying is the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. So it does not in fact represent the South and the fondness for it is likely driven by the romanticized version of Lee and Jackson (or the Dukes of Hazzard). The Confederate States had an actual flag (three versions in fact), but no one flies that.

Why is that important? Well one of the arguments in defense of the flag has been that removing it is an attempt to erase history. No, flying that flag in that way is in itself a distortion of history. And if what you actually want to do is show regional pride, you know your State has its own flag right? Admittedly in the case of Mississipi that’s not really any better, but I hope you get my point. Flying the battle flag is not about real history or real culture. It’s buying into a myth that has been created by various groups for their own agendas.

When people start using generalities like pride and heritage in interviews, maybe it’s time to challenge them on what they mean. What are they proud of? What heritage are they celebrating? If they can’t answer those questions then they really have no need to be flying flags at all. And if they can, well I think there might be better options to pick that relate to what they are specifically celebrating.

The R Word

Because while I actually do believe that many people who fly or wear the Confederate flag are not doing it with racist intent, there is no escaping the fact that the flag came into more common use starting in the 1960s during the civil rights movement. Nor can it be denied that what supremacist groups have taken to using that flag as one of their symbols along side the Swastika. The Confederate Flag is indelibly linked with racism historically and in the present day.

People flinch at the word racist. They get angry if it’s suggested they might be racist. That’s because the majority of people are fundamentally decent and their image of racism is the skinhead who beats up on “monkeys” or the Klan with their weird hats who lynched “uppity niggers.” I believe that the majority of people nowadays would never do that sort of thing and they’re insulted at anything that suggests they might. I say the majority because when we’re talking about the civil rights movement we’re only going back 50 years and there are plenty of people alive today who were alive then.

But remember what I said earlier about our bad habit of reducing everything to black and white. Racism is much subtler than that, it isn’t even always about hate. It can just be about subconscious prejudices and judgements. But our knee jerk reaction to mention of racism any sort of in depth conversation on the subject.

The Confederate Flag is linked to racism, flying that flag links you to racism. It does not mean you are some sort of raving hatemonger, but still, would you really want to be associated, even tangentially, with people who are?

Freedom of Speech!

Someone is bound to raise this straw man so let’s just set it on fire right now. Flying a flag is considered speech and speech is protected. There are no laws being proposed that would ban an individual from flying the Confederate Flag, or wearing it on a t-shirt or painting it on his car. Your freedom of speech is entirely safe.

What is happening is that commercial companies are realizing that they may not wish to be associated with the stigma that accompanies that particular flag and they’re choosing not to sell it any more. Which is their right, just as much as others have a right to fly the thing.

Additionally there is discussion on whether it is appropriate to fly that particular flag on state grounds. And if you look at the circumstances under which that flag was raised there in the first place, it’s hard to justify.

Think about this for a moment, if you’re arguing in favor of flying the flag in those locations you’re on the same side as the KKK. That alone should give anyone pause for thought.

Everybody Matters

Yes of course Southern lives matter, just like everyone elses lives matter. But these Southern lives aren’t put at any risk by the lack of a Confederate flag on the South Caroline Statehouse grounds. In fact their way of life has not been impacted in any fundamental way.

The fact that anyone could even remotely compare these sorts of things shows me that they have shied away from actually understanding this country’s past and are instead completely focussed on their own, rather petty, issues.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

It would be a sad thing indeed if we did not learn from past mistakes.

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