The Confederate Flag: And the Meme Goes on
When I was a child living with my cousins in Biloxi, Mississippi circa 1958, we watched a television show called The Gray Ghost, which popularized the exploits of the real life rebel, John Mosby. After watching, we often went outside to reenact what we had seen. We were thrilled to recreate the battles for the “Noble Cause.” We even made our own Confederate flag out of an old pillow case and some water colors. But one day, my younger cousins wanted to be wanted to be rebel soldiers instead the Union soldiers we older boys made them play. When our arguing grew loud enough, my aunt came out to referee. After listening to us patiently, she asked us why we all wanted to be Confederates when they were the ones fighting to maintain slavery. We were stunned. We had not garnered that fact from the TV show. Our argument ended, and we eventually decided on playing Zorro. Unfortunately, arguments between adults over the rebel flag haven’t ended as easily.
The Confederate flag is once again in the news. I understand the quixotic appeal of the Confederacy and its symbols. I also support anyone’s right to fly the Stars and Bars as a political statement. Or any flag, even a Nazi or ISIL flag. Or to burn them. But use of symbols has consequences particularly if one is careless about time and place. For example, if you burn an American flag outside of the VFW, there are consequences such as a bunch of veterans beating the tar out of you. It may not be morally right or even legal for them to do so but it will probably happen anyway.
You’d think that 150 years after the end of the Civil War we’d be over any nonsense about such distant events. But we’re not. The North was mostly willing to forgive and forget. But the South continues to pay homage to the vow that “they may be defeated but would never be conquered.” And the rebel flag is a part of this stubbornness. As with many historical events, there is a lot of mythology surrounding “The War of Northern Aggression.” It doesn’t help that generations of Southern historians, writers, and filmmakers have added more smoke to the fire. The history books in Southern states do not tell the same story that the rest of the country is taught. It is a narrative about “The Noble Cause, States’ Rights, tyranny, etc.”
For many people, this story doesn’t pass historical muster after reading the original documents from the time period. I share the view of many that the Confederate flag is a contemptible symbol, but not for the same reasons. Those who see it as a symbol of racism, segregation, and racial intolerance have plenty of evidence to back up that viewpoint. Exhibit A is that in 2015, the state of Texas argued in front of the Supreme Court that they shouldn’t be forced to put the Stars and Bars on their license plates. This is one of the best examples of irony I have seen in my life. But the point is that Texas doesn’t want license plates that offend the businesses they are trying to attract. If Texas says something is racist and offensive, I think the matter is pretty well settled.
There are some high school students in Windsor, Colorado who don’t share Texas’ view, however. They thought it was a good idea to celebrate Diversity Week by flying Confederate flags on their vehicles. According to Madi Markhan, “It [the Confederate flag] represents the South. It doesn’t represent racism or slavery or anything other people perceive.” As I said, I support their right to fly the flag, but I do think they showed poor judgment and timing. The first thing they don’t understand is that perceptions matter. And neither they nor I get to assign connotations to cultural memes like the Confederate flag. Memes have their own life and are the most democratic of communications. Majority rules, right or wrong.
To understand the issue, it helps to look at another meme, the swastika. This is an ancient symbol for Asians and Native Americans. It had positive, life-affirming meanings until Hitler adopted it. Now it is the symbol of hatred, genocide, and dictatorships. Thanks to the Aryan Brotherhood and other groups, we can throw in White Supremacy beliefs as well. No matter how much Native Americans point to the history of the swastika, its association with the death camps cannot be wished away. Flying the Confederate flag to celebrate diversity is like passing out swastika lapel pins at a bar mitzvah. It doesn’t help the argument that the flag is simply an innocuous banner when it is the favorite symbol for the aforementioned hate groups.
Support for the view that States’ Rights was a political smoke screen comes from reading the actual declarations of secession by Southern states. South Carolina, for example, writes about slaveholding in the very first paragraph. And it uses Northern reluctance to return runaway slaves as one of its justifications for secession. To say that the war, and by extension the rebel battle flag, was not about slavery is disingenuous at best. The fact that Lincoln’s election triggered the war rather than any legislative or cultural action is the smoking gun as far as I am concerned. But it is not why I hate the Stars and Bars.
I see the Confederate Army as traitors and its flag their birthmark. Many of the leaders of the rebel army were Union officers when the war broke out. Most were even graduates of West Point. All had taken an oath to defend the nation. Resigning their commissions doesn’t let them off of the hook as far as I’m concerned. They changed uniforms and started killing their former comrades. No different than Major Hasan at Ft. Hood in my calculation. Some Union soldiers in the South joined the Confederate Army and turned their armories over to the rebels. I view all of these actions as traitorous. I also understand many Confederate soldiers thought they were fighting to protect their land and their freedom. But the brutality of slavery and Jim Crow can’t not be stripped away from their association with the Confederate flag. And neither can the traitorous actions of the South’s military leaders. It’s not a popular view or a common one. But I arrived at it through a lot of research and thought.
I have another negative emotion about the Confederate flag that is harder to explain. First of all, I know that Confederate soldiers, like their Union counterparts, were brave beyond belief. They fought in the first modern war against modern weapons while using ancient tactics. They fought on battlefields filled with slaughter and carnage on a scale that was only surpassed in WWI. I don’t even judge the tens of thousands of rebel soldiers who deserted near the end of the war. Abandoning an army that cannot feed, clothe, or give you ammunition is not cowardice. It’s common sense. It’s who didn’t fight for the Confederacy, and their subsequent Confederate flag waving that gives rise to my dislike.
In Shelby Foote’s 3,000 page exhaustively researched trilogy on the Civil War, he tells a story about a confrontation between General Joseph Johnston and a young man in his twenties. Johnston was the senior ranking Union officer to resign his commission and join the CSA army. He was second only to Robert E. Lee in the CSA military hierarchy. It was several years after the war and the young man wanted Johnston to join in a local celebration of the Confederacy, complete with prominent displays of the Stars and Bars. Johnston refused and was disgusted at the man’s excuses for why he himself hadn’t served in the army. According to Foote’s calculations, about 70% of the eligible men in the Southern states refused to fight. Without a draft, the Confederate army lacked the manpower it needed for victory. I’m not sure what to call people who let others do their fighting for them. But I don’t like it.
Every day I drive past a single-owner business that flies an American flag, a Confederate flag, and a Marine Corps flag. I’m not sure why the owner feels these symbols are important to display all at the same time. I could stop and ask, but I don’t think it would end well. I know I won’t use his services, and I know others who don’t either.
When my aunt called all of us in for baths and bed, we threw our Confederate flag into the trash can. Even at eight years old, we got its symbolism. It’s too bad so many adults do not.