aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

On the Confederate flag

Symbols morph over time. They don't necessarily change their meaning, but new meanings are added, sometimes generating confusion. For instance, does a rainbow displayed in a church refer to God's covenant with Noah or LGBTQ inclusion? You have to know the history or the theological background of the congregation or denomination to have a clue.

And then what do we do with the swastika? This is an ancient sun symbol in many civilizations, including Hindu and Native American ones. The triskelion, including the three-legged symbol of the Isle of Man, is a variation. But, then, one particular version of the swastika -- das Hakenkreuz of Nazi Germany, has seemingly forever tainted this symbol. The Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD, which redecorates it exterior in maize kernels every year (no kidding) has to put explanatory labels on some of the photographs of their pre-Nazi murals which featured Native American swastikas. No one today could put swastika motifs in any work of art and hope to escape being associated with the Nazis.

Political symbols and slogans as they age also change, becoming acceptable to those who once were offended by them. I love singing "Bonnie Dundee," a rollicking song set to Walter Scott's words. But in the last verse, we read, "So tremble, false whigs, in the midst o' yer glee, for ye've no seen the last of my bonnets and me." A whig was a supporter of William III, as opposed to Dundee, who fought for the deposed James II and VII. Whigs were the party which secured "the Rights of Englishmen," which our Revolution was about (the people we call Patriots first called themselves Whigs). Whiggery became the Liberal Party in England, and it was the party of Henry Clay and all those who opposed Andrew Jackson in America. It's a continuing political point of view. I'm a whig. And so was Walter Scott, who romanticized John Graham, 1st Viscount Dundee, in his poem. Scott all but invented the romantic Highland image and packaged it for the House of Hanover to adopt. If I were alive in 1689, I'd have opposed Bonnie Dundee, but today I can sing about his exploits. I can even sing Robert Burns's song, "Killiecrankie," without irony. All the passion of those days has been drained out, and one can identify with both the villains and the heroes, as the fit takes one.

And so we come to the Confederate flag.

Monuments to Confederate war heroes are being torn down -- or their being torn down is now contemplated -- all over the South. We seem determined to refight the Civil War, as if the Union hadn't utterly defeated the Confederacy. This war on statues seems to me like an attempt to edit our history, and I'm against it. The flag, however, is more complicated.

The actual Confederate battle flag was square. The rectangular flag we see today is a 20th Century invention. In the early days of the Civil Rights movement, it was resurrected (re-invented) by the Governor of South Carolina and hoisted over the State capitol as a symbol of resistance to the federal government, which was attempting to enforce desegregation. As such, this particular flag was born in bigotry, within living memory. Calling it an artifact of Southern heritage is not a memorial to the brave soldiers of the Confederacy, but a recall of the South's less honorable history. So, I get why many black people want it gone, and why many white people are embarrassed by it.

But something happened to it in the 1970s and 80s. It got adopted by pop culture -- NASCAR fans, viewers of The Dukes of Hazzard, etc. -- as a symbol of moonshine-running, free-spirited independence. It became popular all over the country. Flying the Confederate flag was a way to show one's contempt for conformity, one's orneriness, one's standing apart from the snooty values of high culture. The idea of race was absent from these folks' intentions; indeed, quite a number of black NASCAR fans could be seen wearing ball caps with the flag on them. It seemed like the flag might be heading the same way as the whigs and highlanders of the Jacobite Risings. But some folks wouldn't let it be drained of its former content. They invested it with all the venom of the worst segregationists. And so it has become toxic in the wider world of American culture. NASCAR (NASCAR!), ignoring its outlaw past, has decided it cannot be displayed at their events, by anybody.

Now, I don't give a hoot for the Confederate flag, per se. It ain't my thing, and I don't have it on anything I own. But I've never been offended by anybody else displaying it. To be sure, I've never seen it displayed by those communicating a racist message. Mostly, it's just been seen as a signal of cheeky orneriness. Maybe I'd feel differently if I had lived in the South and seen what it meant to people there.

Still, the desire to control the symbols that others display -- and to label as hate speech what was not intended to be such -- disturbs me. I see signs and symbols all the time that offend me -- on car bumper stickers, on social media memes, on billboards -- and I don't think anybody should go around saying, "you can't display that or so-and-so will be offended." Sure, giving offense is always possible, but when you drop a brick, you generally notice it (and, whether you apologize or not, you generally don't keep doing what other people you know don't like). And so symbols and slogans are negotiated in thousands of small interactions. Some symbols are dropped, some are embraced, and some are adapted to new purposes. I guess what I'm saying is that the way to influence the marketplace of ideas is by participating in it, not by trying to control what others are allowed to express.

That's a good whig principle, I think.

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