Here’s a handy test for measuring the tenor of your political orthodoxy:
The Confederate flag:
a) Should be outlawed for its association with treason, slavery and other forms of oppression
b) Is a complicated yet important piece of southern heritage popularly associated with courage, sacrifice and honor
c) Flies proudly in front of many public buildings in the South and if you don’t like it you’re either a socialist or a community organizer
d) Looks awesome when rendered as a bikini top with a pair of Daisy Dukes
Your answer to that question likely corresponds with the reaction you had a couple weeks ago when a Confederate flag showed up in front of the White House at a Tea Party protest during the federal government shutdown.
Or last week when Mother Jones revealed Mississippi Senate candidate Chris McDaniel had spoken before a conference run by a neo-Confederate organization that promotes modern secession.
Because on occasion I’ve written about the South in a somewhat critical fashion, I’m often asked about the flag that North Carolina scholar John Shelton Reed has called “one of the most divisive, hurtful symbols in American history.”
With respect to Reed, I’d remove the qualifying “one of the” language from that appraisal.
At the same time, like anyone intelligent enough to hold competing ideas in his head at the same time, I understand that however jauntily they might be presented, each of the responses to that question above is at least partially valid.
If the Confederate flag is divisive, it’s because the issues surrounding it bisect the politics and passions of everyone from public mucous snorters and Hannity huffers to gluten-averse liberal artistes and run of the mill defenders of freedom, justice and a soccer-free America, such as myself.
In other words, everyone.
This is why I wish progressives would grow up a little and stop with the phony outrage every time some yahoo nursing the old eternal Dixie grudge shows up at a rally wrapping his cause in the standard of Johnny Reb—as though they’d never before borne witness to mouth-breather trailer wrath and are at a loss to explain why it’s such a powerful agent of dissent.
It’s also why I wish rage-a-holic righties would grow up a lot, resist the intoxicating rush of their weekly pre-adolescent temper tantrums and govern themselves with logic and whatever portion of New Testament charity they apparently missed on their first 9,000 readings of The Bible. (Just kidding on that last one, I know y’all don’t actually read that book.)
Like it or not, the Confederate flag is part of a national heritage shared by us all. For anyone who imagines its legacy is confined to the South—or that there’s anything even remotely new about the manner in which it’s presently being used as a symbol of antipathy and defiance—here’s a quick review of the muddy declension of events that brought the Confederate standard to Obama’s doorstep.
The rebel flag first resurfaced in an official capacity after the Civil War when the state of Georgia adopted a version of the Confederacy’s original Stars and Bars (not the “Confederate flag” as it’s commonly known today) as its state flag in 1879. In the 1890s, Mississippi and Alabama fashioned state flags based on the St. Andrew’s cross battle flag, the one we now see rendered on everything from trucker caps to the contemporary Mississippi flag. These state flags “served notice that Reconstruction was over and that white Democrats were now once again in control,” writes University of Georgia history professor and former president of the Southern Historical Association, James C. Cobb, in Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity.
In 1916, just a year after a fiery ritual at Stone Mountain, Georgia, proclaimed the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, a massive 30 x 50 foot Confederate flag was draped over the mountain’s stark granite face by way of announcing the creation of a memorial to Confederate glory. The infamous carving of southern royalty (Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis) that today adorns Stone Mountain is one of Georgia’s most popular tourist attractions.
According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, however, the flag “did not reach its great popularity until the 1950s, possibly owing to widespread southern white dissatisfaction with the federal government.” (Sound familiar?) The flag thrived as an emblem of Old South bigotry through Jim Crow, Jerry Falwell and the Kenyan-Muslim socialist takeover of the White House.
There’s another side to the flag, of course, one that proponents insist stands for the positive attributes of an irrepressible heritage. According to this reading, the flag has transcended its original battlefield purpose of allowing soldiers fighting on behalf of plutocrats hell-bent on preserving a slave-based economy to distinguish themselves from the soldiers fighting on behalf of a government desperately trying to preserve its Union.
The most insightful elucidation of the unexpected metamorphosis from slave-state battle flag to qausi-national badge of patriotic glory to sheet of stubborn resentment is found in Tony Horwitz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Confederates in the Attic: “The banner (seems) to have floated free from its moorings in time and place and become a generalized ‘Fuck You,’ a middle finger raised with ulceric fury in the face of blacks, school officials, authority in general—anyone or anything that could shoulder some blame for [southerners’] difficult lives.”
Confusing things further, the flag that Horwitz also describes as a “talisman against mainstream culture” has become such a powerful symbol of all-around anti-authoritarianism that it’s been adopted, at one time or another, by independence factions in Israel, Northern Ireland and Soviet Georgia.
However tempting it is to think that everyone who displays that flag is a secret (or not so secret) racist, it’s simply not true. With the exception of a miniscule percentage of deviants—though let us never underestimate the power of miniscule deviants—none of the people who wave that flag or stick it on the bumper of their F-250 do so because they’re advocating the re-imposition of slavery across the land.
Broad stripes and bright stars
Time for a confession.
From the summer that I was 12 until I was about 14, a large Confederate flag hung on a wall in my bedroom. I’d picked up the flag as a souvenir during a summer vacation that included a visit to relatives in Georgia, a sweltering August death march up Stone Mountain and multiple viewings of “Smokey and the Bandit.”
In either the hot slog up Stone Mountain or Burt Reynolds’ cross-country beer run, it was impossible to escape the pungent aroma of Dixie pathos. Jackson, Lee and Davis were heroic figures of internecine defiance. The South was the Bandit. The United States was Smokey. All of them were cartoons, but no one could confuse the cool ones for the constipated authority stiffs. And no 12-year-old could confuse the ones with which he was intended to identify (assuming he wasn’t a future Young Republican).
There’s an elemental appeal in that flag, something everyone who’s ever flown it intrinsically understands: it’s really fucking cool. Ask Robert E. Lee. Ask Lynryd Skynrd. Ask Kanye West (of all people) who’s currently flogging tour T-shirts emblazoned with the Confed flag. It conveys an undeniable juju.
And it’s been that way from the start. As chronicled by southern flag scholar Robert Bonner, on his first glimpse of the flag in 1861, a London Times correspondent named William Howard Russell was mesmerized by the way “these pieces of coloured bunting seem to twine themselves through heart and brain.”
That Confederate flag wasn’t precisely “mine,” but by sailing it in my bedroom, I was making an immature attempt to confer upon myself not only a place in America’s proud pantheon of iconoclastic outliers, but a bit of the mule-headed nobility of the self-styled mutineer—not to mention the red clay dignity of the American commoner. I might have been living the middle class life in Southeast Alaska, but as Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins would observe several decades later, “We all got a hillbilly bone down deep inside.”
Physically distant though it may be, Alaska then as now had much in common with the South. Not two decades removed from statehood (1960) and the massive land and resource grab that commenced with the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay in 1968, there was at the time plenty of casual talk in certain beery quarters about the travesty of compromise that came with statehood and economic surrender to a government thousands of miles and cultural light years away.
The Alaska Independence Party was a fringe but nevertheless tolerated part of the political landscape. At eighteen, I briefly toyed with an impulse to check AIP on my voter registration form before ticking the box next to “Independent.”
There’s honor in sticking to your guns, in not selling out, in remaining a rebel forever. By eighteen, however, I was already coming to the realization that there’s also a great measure of immaturity—and, more dangerous, a toxic mixture of self-pity and self-destruction—in clinging to willful obstinacy for obstinacy’s sake.
A lot happened in the few years after I picked up that flag—I read a few books, expanded my experiences, began to think about the world not as a place that owed me something but as an organism that I was a part of.
I grew up.
Somewhere along the way that flag disappeared.
If throwing our hands in the air and surrendering to a future of bitter national schizophrenia is unsatisfactory (it is for me), how then do we begin to repair the common bond that divides us?
After the requisite cost-benefit analysis (Is what we’re gaining by keeping an insurgent spirit alive worth what we’re losing in national unity?) every time I turn the flag issue over I invariably come back to the same elemental question: Isn’t it time we grew up and stopped being such a bunch of self-destructive assholes over this?
The most obvious solution is also the most difficult one: do with the Confederate flag what Germany did to the swastika after World War II—make it illegal. Ban it from public display, outside of museums and select academic settings. Yes, the First Amendment protects the right of citizens to fly the flag, but if an act of Congress isn’t possible, at the very least relegate the flag and its promoters to the social status of the N-word.
With one dramatic stroke of a pen, a progressive southern government could sound the purest note of harmony this country has heard since the ones played on those mythic piccolos at Valley Forge. While progressive southerners are at it, they might as well sandblast that gaudy tribute to slave masters on Stone Mountain. Better yet, let a squadron southern flyboys in F-22s use it for missile practice.
Do this, of course, and you really would have a full-scale rebellion on your hands. Riots. Barricades. Bombs. If nothing else that’d prove that the war between the states never really has stopped.
None of this, of course, is for me to decide. Predictably, it’s not even for those most adversely affected to decide—that being the one group who will never see anything patriotic or noble or even remotely cool in that flag. A group for whom it stands largely if not exclusively for the perpetuation of the idea of white supremacy and a glorification of the history of subjugation and dehumanization endured by their ancestors. (Kanye and his ill-informed minions excluded.)
In Away Down South, Cobb quotes black Mississippi radio personality and entrepreneur Rip Daniels, who with one eloquent statement summarizes the poisoned past and dysfunctional future we can expect so long the rebel flag remains such a vital symbol.
“You leave me no choice but to be your enemy as long as you wave a battle flag,” says Daniels. “If it is your heritage, then it is my heritage to resist it with every fiber of my being.”
Look at that question at the top of this page again. Every answer might be correct, but only one of them is right. Until the majority of southerners agree on which one that is—and actually do something about it—the national divide we face will remain just as strong as the symbol that fuels it.
Chuck Thompson is the author of Better Off Without ’Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession.