Why I regret not burning my neighbor’s Confederate Flag when I had the chance

Taken the day after the election, this new flag replaced both the old tattered one and the fading American flag that had risen above it for the last year at least.

I didn’t notice the pink rag that once had been a Confederate Flag hanging from a cobbled-together pole until this summer. The house is on a major thoroughfare about five miles from my home but on my route to work. There are a lot of Confederate flags flying where I live. Here on the Delmarva Peninsula we fought on the side of the English during the American Revolution and the South during the Civil War. We had our last legal lynching in the 1930s. One gets the impression that if there were any English-speaking participants in the Axis, we would have supported them as well.

It isn’t bold to say that I have a deep hatred for Confederate flag wavers. Not because they are ignorant losers or because they are uninformed, miserable creatures, but because they like being publicly mean. It wasn’t until I saw the pickup truck with one American flag and one Confederate cruising my neighborhood that I became a little obsessed with finding it. I live near the town’s skatepark and best-maintained basketball court and the move offended me. Within a week I discovered that I had been passing the offending flag every day. That is when I became obsessed with setting it alight.

The driver didn’t have the stones to keep the flag on his truck at all times, which suggested to me he worked at a place where having a Confederate flag would be frowned upon. As my obsession grew stronger sometimes I fantasized about following him to work and maybe outing him in some way. Mostly, though, I wanted that flag. Partly as a trophy (I have a small collection of stolen ephemera) and partly because it pleased me to imagine his impotence-fueled rage if I could steal it. I could park less than a half-mile away one evening, saunter up, pop it out of its holder and be off without detection. I kept threatening to make a present of it to my wife, who was not amused by my obsession. Plus, practically, what would I do with even a stolen Confederate flag? Throw it out? Where’s the satisfaction in that? That’s when I began to plan to burn it.

The fact that both flags were in horrible condition gave me the impression that he couldn’t afford to replace them, which, along with the dramatic irony, made burning it where it flew appealing. I felt as if burning it would not only send a message, give him a little taste of what it is to be on the receiving end of spite and make me feel a whole lot better, but I honestly believed I never would have to look at it again, or at least not for awhile.

My plan required bringing just a hint of gasoline, maybe in a spray bottle and applying it to the tatters just enough that the flag was defaced. I reasoned that it likely was plastic and so would more singe than burn. More important, in my mind there’s a difference between defacing a symbol of institutional ignorance and hate and arson. I felt that if I could accomplish one I’d be morally in the clear. If I could physically get away with not burning anything else, I’d likely be legally in the clear as well. There’s little chance of a manhunt over a defaced Confederate flag.

I cased the place regularly for months as I drove by on my way from work, fighting the impulse daily, reasoning that there was no point in turning this sad person’s hate up to 11. He is part of a dying culture and it was only a hair more satisfying to know how desperately he was hanging on to his dying symbol, unable or unwilling even to replace it. That all changed on Nov. 5.

On my way home that evening I saw that the raggy Confederate flag had been replaced with a snappy new one, a Trump Pence sign had been added at the flagpole’s base and the faded American flag had been replaced with a smaller, Fourth of July parade model. That’s when I realized that I truly had missed an opportunity in burning the flag that I never can have back.

The flag was old and had been for a long time. It was habitually displayed and only occasionally paraded on his pickup. It was a symbol for me of his desperation, poverty and ignorance. Maybe if I had burned it, in October, say, it would have singed the American flag as well and he would have chosen to replace it or not. Even if he did choose to replace the old Confederate flag with a new one, it would have been because it was taken from him. The message would have been different.

If I had burned the flag, replacing it would have been expected. He would have the pleasure of having a new flag and I would have the pleasure of knowing I deprived him of a case of Natural Light, or whatever he would have spent the $13 Confederate flags cost on. Instead, I’m reminded daily that he sees the election as a victory, and not for America, or he would have invested in that flag first. For him the election endorsed what he feared was a dying perspective. He no longer has to let his Confederate flag rot as a remnant of a decaying culture. It is, in his mind, reinvigorated and justified. In just 24 hours it went from an embarrassment to a beacon. Only days previously it could have been the reverse.

Note: The Eastern Shore officially fought for the North with both white troops and forces composed of both free and enslaved blacks.

Addendum (11/11/17)

I’ve watched with some pleasure this year as the flag has deteriorated and the white supremacists have been challenged at each turn. Strapping in for the next three years, I get a little hope from the fact.

Same flag, different angle. This photo was taken almost a year to the day after the one on top.
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