Making Sense of Modern Life
As far as legal rights go, the first amendment fully protects being able to display the confederate, or any other flag, on your property. Full stop. It’s allowed. Five states; Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina and Louisiana go further and legally protect against desecrating the confederate flag. Though the supreme court has ruled that we have the right to burn or destroy all flags, including the confederate and American flag as a form a freedom of speech.
There is absolutely a healthy argument that allowing states to continue to fly these symbols of division was ill advised. Letting a conquered party maintain and promote their identity maintains the division. Following the American Civil War the federal government allowed incredibly broad concessions in the interest of ending the conflict. Faced with approximately 140k casualties to the confederate’s 74k, they were likely seeking an end to the hostilities while they had clear leverage. As the saying goes, “mistakes were made.” Liberty was granted, but the plight of people of color persisted under sharecropping, and worsened with Jim Crow.
What we call the confederate flag was never the actual flag of the confederacy. It was, with minor format differences, the battle flag of the armies of Northern Virginia, and Tennessee. Thus it is inextricably linked to the slave trade; being willing to fight and die for the right to keep people as property, strip them from their families, torture, rape and abuse them in favor of profit. It is a symbol of being so attached to these ideas, that these sates were willing to commit the treason of secession. Rural, and southern white people like to portray this flag as a symbol of a “rebel spirit” or “standing up against the ‘big government’.” Certainly an examination of semiotics reveals that the nature of symbols allow us to define them in any number of ways. I can for example say that to me the word, “penguin” means “carrot” but if I say “I want to eat a ‘penguin.” No one is going to think I dine upon an orange tuber.
The facts of why the South seceded are openly documented in the relevant states’ own articles of secession. They are in English and easily legible. This is not an instance of interpreting sacred documents authored in forgotten languages. There is no mystery why they left, they bluntly state their reasoning. It wasn’t northern aggression, or “states rights,” beyond the right to keep slaves, or the aggression of refusing to tolerate this blight upon society. While a few additional complaints are tossed in for flavor, all of the states prominently discuss the right of slavery, an opposition to abolitionists, and two expressly cite the economic pain of giving up slavery. This flag was the emblem and rallying point flown at the head of armies fighting to preserve the dehumanizing practice of slavery.
It’s a banner of racism and hate. No matter how you cut it, this is what it says. When you fly it you are committing an act of aggression towards every person of color that encounters it. With recent sociopolitical developments that messaging extends to LGBTQIA folks, immigrants of all origin and many religious minorities. You are telling all of them, “I think my money and my power over others matters more than your liberty or right to life and love.” To pretend otherwise is the manipulative practice of gas-lighting. It is additional abuse layered on top of hate, regardless of what you may pretend.
Many people like to compare the southern flag to the rainbow or other queer pride flags. This is a specious argument. On the surface, yes both are emblems of a subgroup of US citizens’ pride. Both are used as a rallying point; that is the nature and purpose of a flag of any type. However, where the confederate flag is an emblem of fighting for oppression, queer pride flags are representative of marginalized, abused populations that continue to face heavily documented abuse and reduced rights within our society. It is a wholly different situation. LGBTQIA pride stands for inclusion and equality, finding worth and value in the face of adversity. It seeks equity not superiority. When someone equates these two statements they are expressing bigotry towards people of color and LGBTQIA folks. It is hate speech.
We also do not need the Virginia battle flag to remember the atrocity of slavery. It doesn’t serve as a reminder of “never again.” This flag does not hold up the mirror of historical truth. Instead, it glorifies the perpetrators of hate. Adopting any of these arguments seeks to whitewash and forget villainy in favor of past and present racially-fueled sin.
There is the paradox of tolerance that if you tolerate intolerance you increase intolerance not the other way around. When we allow people to engage freely in hate speech and activities of intolerance, we see a lessening of tolerance. It is comfortable as a white moderate to cry for acceptance of these ideas. We do not experience the hammer of racism in our day-to-day lives. Resting in this comfort is to tacitly accept that the bigots of our society deserve more safety and protection than their victims. We may not like the discomfort of calling our family, friends, and community members out on these behaviors, but not doing so makes us complicit to their violence. No one likes a tense holiday meal, or an estranged loved one. But refusing to engage with this behavior allows it to persist and expand. We have to speak up. Martin Luther King speaks extensively and clearly to this issue in the Letter from Birmingham Jail. Read this document regularly. It is one of the clearest explanations of the structure of obstacles facing minorities rights and the reasoning behind direct action.
I don’t deny the unique challenges faced by a lot of our southern and agricultural regions. They are without fail economically depressed and struggling. I’m originally from North Carolina. I’ve watched the economic tech boom empty small towns, mom and pop stores close, while big agra crushes farmers. Ultimately as a nation, we thrive with the cooperation and growth of both urban industrial centers and rural agricultural regions. Both are essential. There should be a pride and support movement for rural small town folks. Absolutely. The popular mockery of the “ignorant redneck,” and the urban schadenfreude at the doom of rural America are cruel ideas that erase very real crises that must be solved. Depressed areas become fertile grounds for nationalistic extremism. Yet, as long as rural pride is attached to one of the greatest stains of our nation, a stain of hate and cruelty, it will not engender support. It’s past time to find a better cause than “rebel” or white pride, and find a new flag to represent it. Don’t promote an emblem and thereby an ideology that tells the world you are willing to accept racial hatred to prop up your own ego.
[Edited 7/25/19 to incorporate feedback from a reader who showed that what we typically call the confederate flag was a battle standard for the Army of Tennessee as well as Northern Virginia.
Edited 7/30/19 to correct a handful of typos]