August 14, 2017

The Confederate Flag Revisited

A few days ago, I was returning to my car in the Walmart parking lot and found myself walking behind a woman in jeans, flip-flops, and a top that was not a crop top but was nevertheless too short. Her car was closer than mine and couldn’t escape my notice. It was a Ford SUV with a Confederate flag plate on the front bumper and a large decal at the top of the windshield proclaiming the driver to be a “BADASS GIRL.” The driver, however, was well past girlhood.

Flags at Charlottesville demonstration
The Confederate flag (or some variation thereof) on a pickup truck always gives me an uneasy feeling. On a woman’s modest SUV, it prompted some reflection. Particularly in light of the weekend demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the flag was juxtaposed to Nazi flags, we should reconsider our attitudes and speech related to symbols of the Confederate States of America. What do such badges really mean? (Note: What is usually called the “Confederate flag” is actually some version of a Confederate battle flag. CNN offered a tutorial on CSA flags after the murders in Charleston, South Carolina, which you can read here.)

At the outset, I have to emphasize that I hold the First Amendment to be sacred. It would be wrong to ban the display of CSA or Nazi symbols in our country. One cannot exhibit a swastika legally in the Federal Republic of Germany, but an analogous prohibition in the United States would be profoundly un-American.

To some, perhaps even to the woman in a Pennsylvania Walmart parking lot, the Confederate flag may be a symbol of personal independence or rebelliousness. If that is what is being symbolized—it clearly was not in Charlottesville—it represents an ignorant and unfortunate choice. The flag cannot be divorced from its historical context. Patriotic Americans need to demonstrate that we understand that context and condemn the flag and all that it represents. The situation cries out for what the Alt Right would call “political correctness.”

What we can do is reframe references to the Confederate flag? Begin by countering the notion that it represents “Southern pride.” Pride in what? The flag was the product of the Civil War and, as such, can hardly represent some mythical antebellum pastoral gentility. Besides, the antebellum period in the South was really one that saw much of the white population in poverty and virtually all of the black population in brutal servitude. Even white folks should not be proud of that. Actually, the flag became a symbol of racial animus and Jim Crow oppression following the war, but particular in response to the twentieth-century Civil Rights Movement. Any pride in that is misplaced and needs to be castigated. If Southerners want a symbol of regional pride—the South can legitimately be proud of its musical, culinary, and literary heritage—let them find a symbol that does not call to mind rebellion and the widespread violation of fundamental human rights.

So, what shall we call the “Confederate flag”? I suggest that we appeal to that actual history. It was a flag used by troops that intended to overthrow the legitimate government of the United States of America. Why not call it the “sedition flag” or “treason flag“ or “rebellion flag”? If you like, put “Southern” before one of those names. Whatever it is, the flag is not—should not be—the “Southern pride flag.”


NOTE: I was born and reared in New Orleans and take no pride in the Southern slavery, rebellion, or racial oppression.

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