One of the kerfuffles that is currently dividing Americans and distracting them from their real problems is the debate about the meaning of, and the proper usages for, the Confederate flag. Americans in general have suddenly become aware that reverence for that flag has a distinct racist component, and white Southern Americans in particular have thereupon dug in their heels for the right to employ it as a symbol of pride and a matter of cultural heritage. As so often happens in kerfuffles, neither side is entirely right, nor entirely wrong.
Let’s be clear about two things:
1. Flags have meaning. They are powerful symbols for the political entity that they represent; and
2. Revisionism is a bad thing. Political entities and historical events must be judged on the facts, as they were at the time.
I’m about to go off on the Confederacy, for which I have no sympathy. The Civil War was a horrible idea, rashly begun, and millions of people suffered needlessly because a handful of artificially wealthy men got their panties in a twist. But first I want to admit that I believe that the individual white Southerners who constituted the Confederate Army deserve our respect, and that they do, indeed, have my respect. Those brave fellows were not asked to vote on the war; they were not consulted in any way. The war was presented to them as a fait accompli. They were only asked to “defend their homes,” and their “way of life.” That they did so, and the manner in which they did so, were generally honorable. (Without making a list of the dishonorable things, let’s just say except for the treatment of Union prisoners.)
That’s the soldiers. The generals, I’d say, were less admirable, because they knew much more of what they were doing. But even the generals had little to say about the starting of the war. They also fought and died in a war that was not of their invention. I prefer to judge them on their actions as generals, rather than judge them harshly on the decision to fight for their states.
Having said all of that, the flag in question, the Confederate flag, is the banner of a political entity that had no right to exist from the beginning. The United States had existed for almost 100 years, all of the states in the Confederacy had signed onto the Constitution of the United States and all of the amendments thereto, and all of the politicians in the Confederate States had sworn allegiance to the United States and its constitution. Rather than honor their commitments, they turned away from the country of their birth, created an insurrection, and started a traitorous war against their own country.
They did this for one reason: to preserve and institutionalize the system of human slavery that had made some of them rich.
And yes, I can say that so straightforwardly. The Confederate States wrote a constitution of their own, and it tracked the U.S. Constitution in remarkable detail, with one exception. Slavery was codified, and the rights to own slaves, and to profit from their labor, and to buy and sell them as freely as you might sell a desk, were guaranteed.
That’s what the flag stands for. It stands for an insurrectionist pseudo-government that was pro-slavery, white-supremacist, anti-black, and at war with the United States. Revisionism notwithstanding, there are no two ways to look at it. It marks one for a fool to suggest with a straight face that it was a war over “states’ rights,” or a “war of Northern aggression,” or "a war between the Confederates and the Federals,” as though they were two sides of the same coin.
Back To The Kerfuffle
The last month has been quite an education about the various flags used by the Confederacy and their utility. The flag that we now recognize as the Confederate flag turns out to be the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. So be it. It is, nevertheless, the very Confederate flag itself in our memory and in current usage.
I think that there are two true things about this flag:
1. There are many honorable, non-racist people in the South for whom this flag is a symbol of the struggles of their forbearers during the Civil War. They see that struggle as having been honorable, based on what they believe to be their forbearers’ honest feeling that they were defending their region. In light of the entirety of American history, this is not hard to understand. The key element running through the formative years of America was “local control.” The thirteen colonies rejected not only control from England, but also control from the other colonies, later the other states. I think that it would greatly overstate the case to say that the entire Civil War was fought over the issue of “states’ rights,” because it was so specifically about slavery. This is obvious from a reading of the history of the ten years leading up to the war. It is, however, fair to say that there was a measure of local control in the minds of non-political, non-slave-owning Southerners that were caught up in the war; and
2. A very substantial number of the white Southerners now waving the Confederate flag and complaining about some kind of a genocide of white Southerners are using the flag as a symbol of racism and white supremacy, in the same spirit in which the Civil War was declared.
In light of number two, and in spite of number one, I believe that the flag has no place in modern discourse, and its display outside of historical contexts should be condemned.
A Word About Confederate Monuments
Within the last month, this flag kerfuffle has spread to include Southern institutions and municipalities named after prominent Confederates and monuments to Southerners who died in the war. This is almost certainly overreaching on the part of the righteously indignant. The individuals whose names are invoked, and more certainly the individuals whose sacrifices are memorialized, do deserve their place in the historical context. Defacing statues of ordinary soldiers is a cheap way to advertise one’s non-racist, politically correct bona fides. Stone Mountain Georgia should remain safe in its impressive and imposing dignity. Sure, some of the racist element will employ these monuments for improper purposes, but the monuments themselves remain valid expressions of historical recognition.
The flag should go back to the museum, but the monuments can stay.