So, in part one we went over the origins of the Confederate Battle Flag and its use during the American Civil War. Now we’re going to talk about the post-Civil War history of the flag and what to say about it today.
Anyway, the flag ended up being incorporated and nodded to in numerous Southern state flags after Reconstruction ended, and the homages were seen as part of the process of the South controlling itself instead of being controlled by carpetbaggers. That this involved disenfranchising black people en masse would have been a little awkward for people capable of seeing past the end of their noses, but the people in charge of all this nonsense, as usual, really couldn’t.
And now we’re going to skip ahead to the 1950s and 1960s, because that’s the part living people remember and where things get really, really awkward for people who want to think of the flag as a symbol of resistance against tyranny. Here’s why.
The only Confederate flags that weren’t somehow related to the Civil War Centennial (and even some of those) were being waved by racists and segregationists demanding the right to treat black people like they weren’t real people. This was propagated by the Ku Klux Klan, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, numerous state governors, and various other notables. And the state of Georgia threw it into their state flag for the same reasons. To boot, a lot of people still use it now for those reasons. The Southern Identity movement, the League of the South, the Klan…there’s a lot of that going around. And all of this more recent history, which is what most people who despise the flag remember, renders non-racist interpretations of the flag exceedingly difficult to present to an audience from outside the South–or a lot of audiences within the South.
Now, remember the first part of this post. A lot of the ordinary people who fly the thing choose to remember guys like Cleburne and Lee, who were basically honorable men who served an exceedingly dishonorable cause because they didn’t quite get what cause they were serving. They legitimately don’t see it as a declaration of white supremacy.
“How could they not?” is the cry I hear. Well, if you don’t make a detailed study of Reconstruction, the Klan, the Civil Rights Movement, and hate group symbology, it’s really not that hard. By comparison, it’s kind of like the people who wear Che Guevara t-shirts unironically, without knowing that he was a psychotic failure.
This, however, is countered by the fact that, in the minds of tens of millions of Americans, the Confederate Battle Flag is associated, not unjustifiably, with being a racist jerk.
Let me put it another way. If you didn’t actually bother to read Cleburne’s proposal that I linked to in the previous post, I’m going to give you the opportunity to read it again, because you really should. It’s a masterpiece of writing by one of the most honorable men on the Confederate side of the war as he desperately tries to get the Confederate government to figure out that as long as they continue to support slavery, they will not have independence, and that it would be better to have to deal with four million free blacks rather than to be ruled by the North. The money quote is towards the end of the thing, when he and his co-signers write “It is said slavery is all we are fighting for, and if we give it up we give up all. Even if this were true, which we deny…” and, given the rest of the statement, probably actually mean it.
Not in the letter is the part when Cleburne got whacked with the clue-bat of the fact that most of the civilian leadership of the Confederacy really thought that winning the war without slavery wasn’t really better than losing, much like the Battle Flag has come to be a symbol of racism.
If you fly the Confederate flag without racist intent, you are in the role of Patrick Cleburne. You have your own motivations, honorable ones–to honor your kin, or the valiant dead, but in the broader picture you are fighting for a cause unworthy of you. We should keep it on the battlefields where it flew, and on the memorials for the Confederate dead, and in the living history museums, for under that flag many did not fight to keep the black man in his place, and to eradicate it from those places would be to deny the reality of history.
But keep it out of your yard, unless it is a Confederate cemetery. Keep it off your truck, just in general. There are so many better ways to express defiance of overweening government than to fly the flag of a government that instituted conscription before its opponent did and was based on being tyrannical to a large portion of its populace.
But despite the hypocrisy and opportunism of those denouncing it, despite the hysteria of comparisons to the swastika, despite the fact that many of the people demanding its removal would demand mine if they thought they could get away with it, we should remove the Confederate Battle Flag, in its present form, from anything that is not dedicated to the preservation of history and its memory, for the sake of the public discourse, if nothing else.
As for myself, if I’m going to fly a flag other than the American one, I’d rather it be this one:
To my brethren in this sign: let this be our banner in all things. Let us never fight for causes that we are better than, but only for causes that we are worse than. For those are the only ones worth fighting for.
‘Til next time,
Lowell Van Ness