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Choose Your Symbols Carefully

It always fascinates me to see how the defenders of the Confederate battle flag fall all over themselves, performing incredible contortions of logic and history to convince the world they have really have a silk purse instead of a sow’s ear. Such gymnastics has been on display recently on The Times’ editorial pages, as a result of a column by its managing editor Alan English on Jan. 16 condemning the display of the flag.

Let’s investigate the common arguments made by the flag’s apologists:

The flag doesn’t stand for racism, it stands for honorable intentions against tyranny.

It’s true that a common canard about the Civil War was it primarily concerned slavery. No, the primary locus of conflict came over the question of whether the Southern states had a right to withdraw from the Union. Defenders of this move have argued that federal government tyranny left the Southern states in a position akin to those of the thirteen colonies with Britain, where they had to rebel.

But such an interpretation flies in the face of history and logic. First, in the pre-Revolutionary war era, the American colonists politically were treated very differently than their English counterparts (not that the typical Englishman enjoyed a great deal of rights in those days). Second, the English government, while the least authoritarian in the world at that time, still was an authoritarian government.

By contrast, Southerners were treated no differently than anybody else in the run-up to the Civil War. They exercised equal political rights, and considerably more of them than their colonial ancestors. And it cannot be stressed too much that this revolution occurred against not a tyrannical government, but a representative democracy where they enjoyed many rights, including that to enslave other human beings.

Note that the reason for rebellion was mostly because of a fear of the federal government ridding the land of slavery after Abraham Lincoln’s election, not from any identifiable act prejudicial against the South. The best argument one can come up with justifying the rebellion was the federal government could have interfered with a state’s rights to enslave others. In short, there was no massive disenfranchising of liberty of Southerners by the federal government, which could have justified a revolution to restore lost rights. There was no tyranny, and the only things backing secessionist sympathy were the powerful classes of the region wishing to hold onto their power and privilege, and their needing to incite the vast majority who did not own slaves that their sovereignty was being impugned to follow them.

Most who fought under the flag were not slaveholders, some were even black, and they did not care about perpetuating slavery.

All true, but not exculpating the meaning behind the flag. Since most Germans in the 1930s and 1940s did not persecute Jews personally, does that rehabilitate the Nazi flag as supporters of the laudatory view of the Confederate flag argue for their strip of cloth? After all, the Nazi government in Germany brought about law and order, prosperity, and pride back to a Germany defeated by war and battered by the Depression. Ultimately, when picking a symbol to represent something, you do not have the luxury of choosing which meaning you want to convey; if society has assigned accurately a certain meaning to it and expresses displeasure when you seem to champion that undesirable meaning to it, do not pout about its discomfort.

But that’s the problem, the flag has been “hijacked” away from its “real” meaning, and backers of the flag are just trying to remind everybody of this “true” meaning.

First, the myth of tyranny against the South has been dispensed with. Second, recall that the “freedom” being fought for by the South was the freedom to enslave those who looked different from the dominant group. It is not virtuous to fight for one good thing if it is used as a means to support an immoral act. You simply cannot wish away that part of what the rebellion was all about and read it out of the symbol (with that logic, why is the swastika seen as an offensive symbol considering its benign origins were “hijacked” by the Nazis?). You have to accept things as they are, and a love of slavery of black people was what part of the Confederacy was all about.

Slavery meant little to the South and/or it was as bad as others states in this regard so their flags ought to be held in contempt, too – look at the Emancipation Proclamation, which allowed slavery to continue in the Union even as it outlawed it in the rebelling states!

Obviously, slavery was everything to the South. Can anybody seriously argue (other than crackpots who spin a conspiracy theory, with little historical support, that Northern industry was trying to choke the agrarian South, inviting the uprising) that there would have been a Civil War had the South not had slavery?

While no country is perfect, it mystifies me why battle flag supporters feel they have to tear down their own country to when they make the argument that “there were warts with the Confederacy, but there were/are also with the U.S.” This isn’t a comparison game between countries, this is the evaluation of a people against an ideal – perhaps an unattainable one but one to which we should make maximal efforts to reach. I would argue that, to demonstrate fealty to the ideas of liberty, equality, individualism, duty to country, and others, why not fly Old Glory instead of its shady cousin the Stars and Bars? Why purposely promote a symbol that you know is divisive when, if you claim you support a certain set of outstanding values, you can display this support through another symbol relevant to you that has none of the undesirable baggage of the other?

That’s my advice to the supporters of flying the Confederate battle flag: if you want to promote something standing for freedom, hope, goodness, and other such salutary values, the Stars and Stripes is your ticket (as many do). The Confederacy is long dead, its meritorious values subsumed back into America, its tawdry ones ground into dust at great cost. But if you do choose to continue to display it, know that you choose an inferior symbol to convey your beliefs, one which, like it or not, has acquired meaning that offends, with good reason, a nontrivial portion of the population. Fly it as much as you like (and with me resist those who would call for its outright banning because we cannot afford to erase our history, good or bad) but then do not act surprised or even offended that you have offended others.


Ian McGibboney said...

Thank you for a highly articulate and lucid argument against using the Confederate flag as a substitute for the American flag. I too am tired of the "apologies" spewed forth by those who, more often than not, have ulterior motives.

Anonymous said...

This was a worthwhile read. Thanks for the thoughts.


Jeff Sadow said...

Well, I aim to please. But not everybody on this issue, as some notes from others who did not leave comments make clear.