Respectful Insolence

Last week, when I speculated about reasons why there hasn’t been a National Slavery Museum in this nation until the one slated to open in 2007, I mentioned the power of Confederate sympathies that still persists even to today in much of the South. Basically, in the eyes of many, the Confederacy has been romanticized, downplayng the brutality of slavery upon which the economy of the South was based for so long. Another example has cropped up in the Senate campaign of Senator George Allen (R) in Virginia:

The Confederate battle flag still stirs passions – reverence in some, fear and loathing in others. And it continues to intrude into politics, notably in U.S. Sen. George Allen’s re-election campaign. Allen, R-Va., has been dogged by tales of how he wore a Confederate flag pin and hung the flag in his home and elsewhere in his earlier days. When Allen tried to distance himself last month from those Confederate sympathies, he was assailed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Why? Why, in 21st century America, does the relic of a short-lived, long-gone political entity still provoke such feelings? And who’s right? Does it represent a noble defense of American liberties, or is it a banner of hatred and bigotry?

An interesting question. John Coski, author of The Confederate Battle Flag – America’s Most Embattled Emblem explains:

To different people at different times, it’s been a memorial to revered ancestors, the mark of white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan, an all-purpose symbol of opposition to government, the emblem (affectionately or scornfully) of the redneck or good ol’ boy, or simply a shorthand icon for the South in general and its sectional pride.

Or just a good-looking design, with its striking, star-spangled X. “This is a logo that any corporation would die for,” Coski recalls artist Jim McElhinney saying at a museum symposium.

To a lot of people, the Confederate flag has morphed into a symbol of being a “good ol’ boy,” simply a matter of regional pride, its darker connotations forgotten. That’s probably why many white Southerners seem shocked and offended when reminded of the flag’s darker connotations to African Americans and othrs. They literally “rallied around the flag” when efforts to remove it from statehouses in several states gained steam years ago. A little more history:

What most people think of as the Confederate flag – the one with the big X, or St. Andrew’s cross – was the battle flag carried by many of the Confederacy’s armies, notably Robert E. Lee’s storied Army of Northern Virginia. (The original battle flag was square, though it is often reproduced in rectangular form.)

It was not the national flag of the Confederacy, a fact Confederate heritage groups like to point out. It’s meant as a tribute to the courageous Confederate soldier who fought and suffered for what he believed in, they say.

“It’s true that it was a symbol of bravery and valor. But the battle flag is not just that,” Coski said in an interview last year after the publication of his book. “It does, for better or worse, carry the burden of all the things we associate, for better or worse, with the Confederacy.”

Even while the war was going on, his book relates, the battle flag began supplanting the original national flag (the so-called Stars and Bars) as Southerners’ preferred emblem of their cause.

Coski’s research supports some of the flag defenders’ arguments. He documents that Confederate heritage groups like the SCV have a long history of condemning hate groups like the Klan.

“Flag defenders ask, not unfairly, why do we allow the Klan to define the Confederate flag?” he said.

Also, such hate groups have been as likely to wave the American flag as the Confederate one, if not more so. “Not until the 1930s or ’40s did the Klan begin to use (the Confederate flag) in a systematic, ritualistic way,” Coski said. Slavery existed under the U.S. flag – and was sanctioned by the U.S. Constitution – far longer than it was under the Confederacy, the heritage groups also note.

On the other hand, black Americans who are repelled by Confederate symbolism also have ample historical justification for their feelings, Coski said.

“Civil rights leaders came to view the Confederate flag as a symbol of racism,” he wrote, “because they encountered it in situations in which white people intended it as a symbol of racism.”

In the years following the Civil War, the flag was an emblem for many Southerners of “The Lost Cause,” which conceded slavery was dead but still asserted white supremacy, the book says. In the 20th century, those fighting for black people’s rights often saw it in the hands of their opponents.

The most important period in the flag’s post-Civil War history was the late 1940s and the 1950s, according to Coski. It was a time when the Confederate flag leaped back into the national consciousness, in contradictory ways.

First, the flag re-entered politics when it spontaneously became the symbol of the 1948 “Dixiecrats,” the Southern Democrats who broke with the national party over President Harry Truman’s support of federal civil rights legislation. “When the federal government challenged the status quo in the South, Southerners reached for the symbolism of their grandfathers,” Coski said.

Shortly after, an odd “flag fad” sprang up. All sorts of people – even some Northerners – began flying the flag or using it as a decorative element.

Coski even suggests a strategy for minimizing conflict over this difficult symbol:

In the last chapter of his book, he offers a suggestion. First, people on both sides need to realize that just because the flag has a certain meaning for them, it doesn’t necessarily mean the same to other people.

“Critics (of the flag) need to make a distinction between a memorial parade and a Klan rally. Do not give in to your emotions and attack every time you see a Confederate flag.”

For their part, Confederate heritage groups should grant that their flag does not belong anywhere where it implies sovereignty, such as part of a state flag.

Indeed. Seeing a Confederate flag doesn’t much bother me, but it shouldn’t be displayed where its presence implies government endorsement of it as a symbol. In the end, it amazes me that this symbol still has such potency over 140 years after the end of the Civil War.

Comments

  1. #1 JohnA
    October 12, 2006

    Having grown up in the South, and with yearly KKK marches through my hometown’s streets, I have seen the use of this symbol in truly ugly ways. It really is a shame. There will always be controversy over what the Confederacy itself represented, so there is literally no hope that the flag will ever have a single, clear meaning. But from a purely aesthetic viewpoint, it is striking. In many ways, it is even more recognizable than the Stars and Stripes.

  2. #2 Roger
    October 12, 2006

    I echo your comment about the confederate flag having very different meanings depending upon the group involved. But, like so many other things, the important matter is the respect we show to the differences rather than immediately condemning. However the fact remians that flag has been used as a symbol degrading part of our population and as such remains tainted wherever it is displayed for many of the viewers, including me.

  3. #3 J-Dog
    October 12, 2006

    Hot Button Pushed! No doubt about it to me. Confederte Flag = Asshat, redneck, knucklehead. The war of succession was crushed, get over it. I don’t care if they resurrect Ol’ Rob’t E Lee himself, the stars and bars are a symbol of racism. Those “brave men” you reference flying their battle flag, were traitors. They killed a lot of people fighting to preserve the Union. Those “brave men” fought to preserve a system that propped up slavery, so F**K them. And George “Mr. Macacca” Allen too BTW. He is indeed a “cracker-ass cracker”, to quote a Great American Chris Rock.

    I can usually see 2 sides to a story most times, but not on this. Displaying stars and bars in this day and age = racism, and is awfullly similar to displaying the swaztika to me.

    I hate the smell of red-neck in the morning…

  4. #4 David Harmon
    October 12, 2006

    Umm… J-dog, as that article explicitly states, the Stars and Bars is the *national* flag, not the Confederate one! Of course, these days, there’s a few countries who *would* consider our flag a racist symbol, but that’s doe to much more recent follies.

  5. #5 Tom Foss
    October 12, 2006

    It seems to me that we “let” the KKK define the meaning of the Confederate flag for the same reason that we “let” the Nazis determine the meaning of the swastika. When one reprehensible group uses a symbol more often and more visibly than other groups for an extended period of time, the two become connected in the public mindset. Yes, from the end of the Civil War to the modern day, other groups may have been using the stars and bars to signify rebellion and states’ rights, but what started as a rebellion (against the threat of change) and a battle for states’ rights (among them, the right to keep slaves) was co-opted by a supremacist group that was supported by institutionalized racism. From their formation, throughout the 50s and 60s, and into the modern day, the KKK has been the most visible group using the Confederate flag. It doesn’t matter if the swastika was used by peaceful Tibetans during the Third Reich, it could have been the official symbol of “Germans United for Peace and Equality,” and it wouldn’t matter. They’re not visible to the general public, certainly not on the level that the Nazis were.

    I’ve seen the “the KKK used the American flag as often or more often” argument before. What that ignores is that the American flag was also being used by another, more visible, organization throughout that time: namely, the United States. Like it or not, no other group with the size and visibility of the KKK used the Confederate flag through that period, and so the connotations stick.

    Just my $.02. Thanks for a great post on the subject!

  6. #6 Prup aka Jim Benton
    October 12, 2006

    A few things of note. First, I agree entirely with those who see the flag as a symbol of racism. I especially consider it such when displayed by an upper middle class Californian like Allen. (“I’m not a good ol’ boy, I just play one on television.”) Remember this is the son of George Allen, the football coach whose ‘love of the South’ comes from no heritage, but from his own choice.

    As for the SCV, while I applaud the local chapter’s condemnation of Allen, the organization as a whole has been caught in a tug of war between the sort of non-racist history lovers that Coski mentions and truly racist ‘neo-Confederates.’ I recommend checking out the following article from the Southern Poverty Law Center:
    http://www.splcenter.org/intel/intelreport/article.jsp?aid=550

    A brief quote:
    Right-wing radicals in the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) have at least temporarily won their three-year battle for control of the nation’s largest Southern heritage group, culminating months of complex legal and parliamentary maneuvers. As a result, thousands of SCV members appear to be leaving the organization.
    “I have no desire to be associated with neo-Nazis and white trash,” Henry Seale, a local “camp” leader from Texas, wrote to colleagues in the SCV this spring. “With great sadness, I concede that this is what the SCV has become.”

    And, while a few years ago, I would have been sure that ‘classic racism’ in its southern garb was a rapidly dying relic of the past, apparently the ‘neo-Confederate movement’ is a little heartier and more dangerous than I would have imagined. Two other articles from SPLC are worth checking out:
    http://www.splcenter.org/intel/intelreport/article.jsp?aid=249

    And for the ideological support behind this movement and a list of the professors and writers supporting it
    http://www.splcenter.org/intel/intelreport/article.jsp?aid=510

    Again, a quote:
    As a general matter, most of the thinkers profiled below support the South’s right to secede; believe the North started the Civil War over tariff issues or states’ rights, not slavery; say that President Lincoln always secretly intended the war as a way to rob the states of their power and create a federal behemoth, and only used the slavery question as an excuse; and, in at least some cases, see the civil rights era as an evil because it had the effect of increasing federal power relative to that of the states.

    And tying the two threads together (“LOS” is the “League of the South”)

    In fact, more than 30 professors work with the Institute for the Study of Southern Culture and History run by the LOS, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has listed as a hate group since 2000.

    Forty-one professors, many of them already teachers at the LOS institute, signed the “Statement of College and University Professors in Support of the Confederate Battle Flag Atop the South Carolina Statehouse” in 2000.

    Yes the Confederate Flag is a truly striking image, almost beautiful to someone who has a long-time love of graphic design, if you can wipe away the images associated with it.

    The same can be said of the swastika, especially as it was used on a battle flag.

  7. #7 Tom Foss
    October 12, 2006

    Whoops, sorry, I used the “stars and bars” in the colloquial sense–to mean the Confederate flag–as well. The usual modern nickname for the national flag is the “stars and stripes,” after all.

  8. #8 J-Dog
    October 12, 2006

    David Harmon – I copied and pasted from the article above:

    “What most people think of as the Confederate flag – the one with the big X, or St. Andrew’s cross – was the battle flag carried by many of the Confederacy’s armies, notably Robert E. Lee’s storied Army of Northern Virginia. (The original battle flag was square, though it is often reproduced in rectangular form.)

    It was not the national flag of the Confederacy, a fact Confederate heritage groups like to point out. It’s meant as a tribute to the courageous Confederate soldier who fought and suffered for what he believed in, they say.”

    Article says “battle flag”, I say “battle flag”, it explicitly says it is *NOT* the National flag…

    Please insert your own red-neck / cracker joke here and as they say in talk radio, “Hang up on youself”.

  9. #9 Colst
    October 12, 2006

    David – You’re correct that the Stars and Bars is not the confederate flag, but it is also not “our flag.” The Stars and Bars was the *Confederate* national flag.

  10. #10 Colst
    October 12, 2006

    That should have read:

    …is not the Confederate *battle* flag…

  11. #11 ruidh
    October 12, 2006

    But this illustrates the difficult problem with symbols — they sometimes mean different things to the person who displays the symbol than they do to the audience. Because of it’s close association with certain groups, the CBF has certain associations for the average observer. And while someone displaying it today might do so for pruposes of regional pride, not everyone who sees it is going to get that message.

  12. #12 Melissa
    October 12, 2006

    “Or just a good-looking design, with its striking, star-spangled X. “This is a logo that any corporation would die for,” Coski recalls artist Jim McElhinney saying at a museum symposium.”

    That is a darn fine point. The same could be said for the swastika, in fact.

    It’s the Star Wars principle in action– bad guys get the coolest uniforms, and evil gets the coolest graphics. (Ducks and runs from the flames from Confederate pride types!)

  13. #13 Paul
    October 12, 2006

    Tom Foss wrote, “When one reprehensible group uses a symbol more often and more visibly than other groups for an extended period of time, the two become connected in the public mindset.”

    This can be seen in England, too. The English national flag, the St. George’s Cross, is more often seen exploited by racist groups and football hooligans – who are, more often that not, the same group of people.

    As a result, any sense of national pride is often muted by the fear of being perceived as racially intolerant. Sad, really.

  14. #14 pyrephox
    October 12, 2006

    As a Southerner, I tend to end up ramming into this controversy about once a year, on some level or another. From my perspective, the Confederate flags (any of them) are symbols of a failed rebellion, and no matter how good or noble or valiant the soldiers in that rebellion may have been or not been, I see nothing worthwhile in flying that flag or venerating that time period. Added to the frequent and aggressive use of the Confederate Battle Flag in racist demonstrations, I don’t think that there is any point in trying to ‘reclaim’ the flag for a dubious heritage.

    Southerners should have more to be proud of than our failed attempt at rebellion. If we don’t, then our energy is better spent /doing/ something worth celebrating, than dwelling over our glorious defeat.

  15. #15 Joshua
    October 12, 2006

    “As a result, any sense of national pride is often muted by the fear of being perceived as racially intolerant. Sad, really.”

    Is it really that sad? I mean, look at the unhealthy levels of misdirected “national pride” at play in America in the past five years. I’d say you guys are better off without it.

  16. #16 Calli Arcale
    October 12, 2006

    I’ve never seen the Confederate battle flag as a racist emblem. I’ve seen it as a quaint relic of the past, and I’ve seen it as a symbol of insurrection. It’s always puzzled me why anyone apart from reenactors would want to fly it, honestly, since it represents a cause which was lost nearly a century and a half ago. I certainly don’t approve of its use on government buildings (except perhaps museums) because whatever else it may mean to people, those colors led people into battle against the Union. And that’s not something the government ought to be condoning. This is why Mississippi’s state flag bothers me. (It bears the Confederate battle flag as a canton.)

    BTW, for those who don’t know what the Stars & Bars is, it was the original national flag of the Confederate States of America. It did not include the Battle Flag design or any saltire (x-shaped cross). It had three horizontal “bars”, red, white, and red, and a blue canton similar to the Stars & Stripes canton with a white star representing each state in the Confederacy. It did not last long, though, as it was too easily confused with the Stars & Stripes. By the end, the CSA was using a national flag which bore the Battle Flag as a canton.

  17. #17 obstreperous
    October 12, 2006

    “Those “brave men” you reference flying their battle flag, were traitors. They killed a lot of people fighting to preserve the Union. Those “brave men” fought to preserve a system that propped up slavery, so F**K them.”

    I grew up in a small southern town where the flag was prominently and frequently displayed. There is an (often) unspoken understanding among racist individuals communicated by the flag. They know that there are consequences to being openly racist today (even in the deep south). The flag provides a symbol of identification which is sometimes hidden behind a facade of supporting heritage.

    On the other hand there is always a danger in generalization. History and family are frequently topics of great interest among Southerners and often they find that they had a family member who participated in the war. To them the flag truly does symbolism courage and serves as memorial. To label all the soldiers who fought for the confederacy as fighting for slavery and racism, would be like accusing our soldiers in Iraq of fighting for oil and corporate America. While the intent of the leadership may or may not be viewed as suspicious, I think most would agree that the majority of the soldiers in Iraq are fighting because it is their job/duty whether due to ideology, circumstance, or choice. I feel like many confederate soldiers were probably similarly dragged along by forces which they truly felt were beyond them. History should not give a moral pass over soldiers in any war, but neither should it paint good and evil with such stark colors when it is awash in grey.

    Just like the symbolism of the flag, both the objective and subjective symbolic associations with events, ideas, or incarnations mix to form a muddled picture of hate and love, courage and cowardice, violence and peace…and perhaps that confusion provides the most accurate symbol of our past and present.

  18. #18 matthew
    October 12, 2006

    Unfortunetly, I also lived in a small southern town (Ga.) for several years and saw the same things that obstreperous is talking about… Sometimes its meaning is silently understood, other times it is shouted from the back of pickup trucks. There are many, many places that are still fighting the war. It’s sickining.

  19. #19 David Harmon
    October 12, 2006

    Cali et prev: Thank you for the clarifications. I had parsed the text quite differently, since as a born Northerner, I don’t normally think of the Confederacy as a nation per se.

  20. #20 Frito
    October 12, 2006

    “In the end, it amazes me that this symbol still has such potency over 140 years after the end of the Civil War.”

    I guess we will see how much potency the swastica will have in eighty years. I am going to bet that it will still mean something long after the last people who lived through the era have died.

    In a lot of ways there was never a lot of closure with the Civil War. Only one person was put to death after the the surrender and that was for war crimes in running a prison for union soldiers. The slavery went away, but the economic model stayed and the institutionalized racism stayed and it stuck with both the whites and blacks in the south.

    WHat really makes me sick is seeing people here in Michigan with the confederate flag on their trucks. I mean, honestly… you are assholes.

  21. #21 raindogzilla
    October 12, 2006

    If you like the thing, put one up in your house. Once you run it up the pole outside, it becomes everybody else’s business. Kind of like religion.

  22. #22 rab
    October 12, 2006

    On a vacation trip to Sweden a few years ago, we saw the Confederate flag displayed on an old 1950’s American convertible that a bunch of Swedish 20-somethings were driving around in. We assumed that they didn’t understand the controversy surrounding the flag and its meaning(s). They probably thought the flag had something to do with Elvis Presley, or Happy Days or country music.

    It was sort of sad to see it showing up in a country that prides itself on treating people decently.

  23. #23 Andrew Dodds
    October 13, 2006

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oliver_Cromwell

    The problems with the Union Jack have – especially in Scotland and Northern Ireland – been around for over 350 years. Don’t expect thaty Confedarate thing to go away any time soon.. if you give an economically backward region a reason to think of itself as put-upon then be sure they won’t forget it in a hurry.

  24. #24 manfred
    October 13, 2006

    Political correctness once again

    Remember THE DUKES OF HAZZARD and their 1969 Dodge Charger (called appropriately General LEE) with the Confederate Battle Flag on the roof? Judging from film reviews there was some controversy about the flag being displayed in the recent movie. Funny, but when the original TV series aired NOBODY CARED!
    This is hardly surprising though, because the insanity of political correctness was not invented then.
    Here are some interesting qoutes from an February 2005 article in AMERICAN RENAISSANCE:
    “Despite the enduring popularity of the General Lee, studio executives are afraid that if they keep the flag on the car they will be accused of promoting “racism”. They want fans of the television program to watch the movie, and are afraid they will be angry if the flag is gone. Therefore they will keep the flag, but point out that it is an “inappropriate symbol of the dark past.” (…) DaimlerChrysler, which plans to bring back the Charger next year, considered doing a cross-promotional tie-in with the film, but decided against it, fearing the Battle Flag would “elicit a negative response”. (end qoute)

    By the way: Did you realize that the empty headed political correctness crowd and the forces behind them rail ONLY against symbols of White heritage? Imagine the outcry when some Arabs demanded that a star of David flag be taken down!

    Last not least: There is a novel about this issue, THE LAST CONFEDERATE FLAG by Lloyd E. LENARD. I have not read it, but judging from amazon customer reviews this appears to be a gripping read!

  25. #25 Wade Rankin
    October 13, 2006

    As has already been pointed out, the battle flag was not originally intended as a “symbol” of anything. It was devised as a flag to differentiate one army from another, and the national flag — a true symbol — could not do that because it resembled the “enemy’s” flag a little too much. That somewhat neutral inception has allowed many a son of the south — including me I’m a little ashamed to say — to hang the battle flag on their dorm room walls without really thinking about how it has become a symbol through the actions of evil people. It’s use as a rallying point by people (I hate to use the term “people” to describe the David Dukes of the world) who refuse to acknowledge the war ended has co-opted the flag in much the way another group of evil individuals in the thirties started using a very old and relatively benign symbol called a swastika. The point I have taken too long to get to is that the associations we make with some objects transcends the individual intent of the object’s use. No matter how much some of us may treasure and honor the traditions handed down by Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, we can no longer ignore that we live in a time when the battle flag they fought under has become an icon of hate.

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