Alright, let’s get this out of the way, because we’ve spent too much time on it already, and there are far more pressing things that I’d like to
rant talk about. If you’ve paid any attention to the news (or my Facebook feed, which I have admittedly overrun with posts on the subject), the Confederate Flag is a big deal now. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley ordered that the flag be removed from the capital building in Charleston on Monday, following the murder of nine people in a historically black church. The murder itself is, unfortunately, not getting as much attention as is the fact that the shooter had a known hatred for minorities, and left a “racist manifesto” which contained photos of himself posing with a Confederate Flag. I won’t even begin to discuss the complexities of the shooter (who will remain unnamed in this post because he doesn’t deserve any more attention than he’s already gotten), because he is an incredibly disturbed man who must face the consequences for his actions. No, the real discussion has turned to the flag, and whether it should be flown over government buildings. If you’re halfway decent at guessing, you won’t be surprised to learn that my answer to that dilemma is a fervent and unyielding “hell-to-the-no.” That notwithstanding, I’ve seen a lot of pettifogging material in the last few days, meant to blur the discussion on why the flag is not a racist or hateful symbol. So instead of continuing to flood social media, which I promised to stop doing a few weeks ago when I started writing again, I did that thing where I put my thoughts into words and possibly-offensive pictures. Now then, let’s get to it.
I think it’s fair to start with the basics: What does the flag represent? Of course, the answer is different depending on who you ask; a born-and-raised Southerner will probably tell you that the flag is a symbol of Southern heritage and pride. A historian will tell you that the flag was used by the Confederacy in battle. And the family members of nine people who were shot in a church in Charleston will tell you that the flag represents the ideals held by the monster who gunned down their loved ones. For me, it’s very simple: the “rebel” flag represents the secessionist movement that predicated itself around the hatred of the federal government and its ability to abolish slavery. In more nuanced terms, the flag is a symbol of a portion of the country saying, in not as many words, “we want to keep doing this completely immoral and unconstitutional thing but daddy told us to stop so we’re going to throw a fit now!”
From the historian’s perspective, the flag was indeed a battle flag. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t the official flag of the Confederacy. It was designed to fly over the battlefield, because the original Confederate flag resembled the American flag at the time, which caused confusion. There were also several variations on the rebel flag, but the classic “stars and bars” design pictured above has become the accepted norm. I’ve seen a lot of people talking about this, correcting the assumption that the flag represented the secessionist government of the Confederacy. And that’s all well and good, but here’s the really interesting part: IT DOESN’T FUCKING MATTER HOW THE FLAG WAS USED. It was a flag designed by men who betrayed their nation for the sole purpose of preventing the federal government under Lincoln from abolishing slavery (and preventing new states from having legal slavery), which would have severely damaged the South’s economy. Whether it was laying on the ground drenched in blood or flying above a Confederate camp, it was representative of the rebel cause. A cause that, beyond the financial motivations, was centered on a single premise: pure, unregulated white privilege masked by the facade of limiting the federal government.
Now then, this opens an entire new can of worms surrounding the Civil War. I’m not going to spend eons of time discussing the war, because 1) it ended 150 years ago, 2) I don’t have time for a historical debate, and 3) I really just don’t give a shit about the intricacies and “this wasn’t so bad” fallacies surrounding the deadliest war in our nation’s history. But I will say that, living in the South, #1 is not apparently obvious. There are Confederate monuments and streets and cities named for Confederate war heroes and rebel flags flying everywhere you look. The Civil War, despite being just another page in the history books for every other part of America, is like an old ex-girlfriend that the South just wants to get back at out of pure bitterness.
And that’s what I don’t really understand. First of all, the war is over. Period. The South lost. Period. It was a century-and-a-half ago. But beyond that, the rebel flag has taken on a persona of “Southern heritage and pride” that really doesn’t make sense to me (insert comment about me being a Yankee and not understanding a “southern thang”). I understand that the South is its own cultural body. It truly is an incredible place. But why should that culture be represented by a symbol that is almost universally seen as one used to represent hatred and racism? What’s troublesome is that there’s an ongoing point from those who support keeping the flag that any attempt to remove it is inherently an attack on the South and her culture. But that’s not what’s happening.
Look, nobody is saying that Southerners can’t have their own way of life and culture. If New Yorkers can have fold-able pizza and Times Square, there’s no justification for any kind of argument that forbids Southerners from having Rock the South and gallons of moonshine. And I think that’s where a core issue lies: the Confederate flag has somehow become integrated into the Southern identity, even if it isn’t necessarily being used in its originally-intended manner. And it’s not a bad thing to have a symbol that represents your culture. But when that symbol was originally used to represent something else, something terrible and full of death, those images become intertwined. And before you know it, the same symbol that’s used as a cultural icon is also being used to justify the murders of innocent people. So why is it so surprising that the flag offends people? It’s true that, if it hadn’t been a Civil War flag, this wouldn’t be an issue. But it was, and that’s what makes this whole thing such a clusterfuck of racist stereotypes and conservative talking points. Of all the symbols and flags in the world, why does this one single image have to be the one that represents the South? And don’t give me that nonsense about “we should be allowed to make our own choices and have freedom of speech.” No shit, Sherlock. But there’s a difference between having freedom of choice and using that freedom in an intelligent way, and I don’t see much of the latter being used in this scenario.
What truly saddens me is that the South by and large is so hung up on a war that OCCURRED BEFORE THE INVENTION OF THE LIGHT BULB. Also, just for the record, here’s a fun fact: even Robert E. Lee said “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war.” The man who led the Confederate army said post-war that we shouldn’t linger on it. So every time I hear someone spouting nonsense about how “the South will rise again,” I just pity them. And I pity the South, because voices like those speak the loudest in the national spotlight. So when some tragic event comes around, like the murder of nine people who were praying in a church, the South is again labeled as a backwoods, dirty cesspool filled with ignorant and moronic people stuck in the 19th Century. And as much flack as I give staunch conservatives and Southerners, I’m disheartened to see this label.
I’ll be honest: the South is a complicated place. I have a love/hate relationship with it. It’s rich in insanely conservative values, crazy people, and meth labs (I’m looking at you, North Alabama). It is hot and humid and frustrating. Drivers are terrible, tempers are short, and there’s always something to be angry about. There are people and things down here that will drive even the most calm and collected person absolutely insane. For God’s sake, we have Florida. That should speak volumes.
But it’s also full of incredible culture, and southern hospitality, and sweet tea that will give you diabetes after one sip. It’s full of entire communities trying to move past the stereotypes of racism in the South, and segregation in its cities. It’s full of cities like Birmingham, once a prominent place for Civil Rights-era violence, now thriving as one of the most diverse cities in the state. It’s full of families, and high school football games, and countless awful jokes about cows. It’s full of amazing food and music. It’s full of picturesque scenery and beaches and mountains. And it’s full of people like those in Charleston, thousands of whom marched hand-in-hand on Sunday in solidarity and mourning for those lives lost. It is, in spite of all its cracks and blemishes, a part of the United States of America. And although I don’t see myself living in the South forever, it’s not a bad place. It just gets a bad rap.
So about that Confederate flag… Yes, I dislike it. I dislike that it is a symbol for a civil war that tore apart a country for reasons that boil down to racism and money. I dislike that, despite this association, it was chosen and to this day stands as a symbol of Southern culture and pride. That culture, in its own right, is incredible. But it saddens me that it has to be guilty by association because of a flag. So I do hope that the Confederate flag is removed from government buildings. It belongs in a museum along with the cannons and uniforms that were donned during that period in American history. It belongs next to the chains used to shackle slaves, and the whips used to punish them. It is, despite being a symbol of Southern culture, a relic from a period of our nation’s history that we should not be proud of in any sense of the word.
I’ll leave you with the words of Paul Thurmond, a member of the South Carolina Senate. He gave an emotional and humbling speech on the Senate floor yesterday that very accurately summed up my own thoughts on the issue. This is a difficult discussion to have, but as Senator Thurmond puts it, we must be proud of our ancestors for paving the way for us, while understanding that they did not always do the right thing. “I am not proud of that heritage,” he says. And we shouldn’t be. We must acknowledge it, and accept it, and understand that it was not our nation’s finest hour. But we must not cling to that heritage as if it has any bearing in modern society. Because it doesn’t. We have to make our own heritage, one day at a time.