When I was in graduate school at Iowa State in the late 1980s I hit a period, during my second year, where a little homesickness set in. So I did something to remind myself of the place and people I was missing: I bought a Confederate flag and affixed it to my desk in the office, which I shared with 10-15 other MA students.
Some of my colleagues were, I think, appalled, and it was suggested that this was a symbol of slavery and racism. No, I said. I’m not a racist – it’s simply a reminder of home. I don’t think I used the word “heritage,” but from the outside what I was saying probably sounded exactly like what defenders of the flag are saying today.
As irony would have it, at the time I was dating a black woman. Her name was Shannon and I’d met her at Top o’ the Town, the club where I DJed. So I asked her: does this flag offend you? She said it didn’t. Case closed. Right?
If you’re a shrewd reader, you’re already assembling a list of all the things wrong with this story, and if you’re like me you’re writing as fast as you can and having a hard time keeping up. Among those questions is whether or not this young woman was being truthful with a guy she had just started dating and didn’t want to upset, especially since she was a black woman living in a culture where even smart white people like me didn’t always get it. And in Iowa, even, where it probably seemed like the only black people in the whole state were on the ISU and U of Iowa football and basketball teams – I can only imagine that under those circumstances she might have decided that it was often best not to say everything that came to her mind.
Was I a racist? Well, I have been very forthcoming here in the past about my difficult journey from ignorant working class Southerner to the more enlightened man I am all these years later. I am deeply embarrassed by some of the things I said and did back then, and I know I am not fully actualized today despite my best efforts. At that moment in time I absolutely felt that I had not a drop of racist hatred in my soul and I’d have dropped the gloves to defend my goodwill had you challenged me.
On the other hand … well, I was a Southern white guy with a Confederate flag on my desk who didn’t quite understand what the symbol meant to a large segment of the American population. That is what it is.
Sam 2015 has a hard time defending Sam 1989.
My friend Sara Robinson recently forwarded along a Houston Chronicle piece by Chris Ladd, a native Texan working as a GOP precinct chair in Chicago, entitled “What It Means to Be Southern.” I recommend that you give it a read, because he opens the door to a more nuanced conversation about the South generally, and more specifically about the role of its culture in forging a new South beyond the politics that have defined it since … well, forever. As these things often do, it set me to reflecting.
I haven’t engaged the subject of the South in a serious way in a long time. For one thing, while I grew up there I have identified as a Westerner for a long time and I go out of my way to talk about Southerners as them, not us. For another, it’s just so damned hard to get a handle on the complexity of my native region, especially in a context where we tend to speak about complicated issues in bumper stickers. Finally, and frankly, I have backed away from writing in general and from contentious political issues specifically. There’s a firm knowledge, emerging from years of experience, that no matter what I have in the way of insight, it’s only going to be read by a handful of people and engaged by none of them. Perhaps none of this absolves me of my abdication of a moral responsibility to speak out, but it at least explains it.
But the Confederate flag debate, and all that it stands as a proxy for, has flared up again, and this time in a way that feels like a legitimate tipping point, so here we go.
The single most frustrating attending any conversation about the South these days is our tendency toward either/or-ism. The American mind cannot hold within itself two contradictory ideas, even for the purpose of reflection, let alone ten or fifteen. And that’s precisely what thinking about the South really requires. “Multi-faceted” barely begins to describe the bubbling mess of history and ideology and religion and politics and ignorance and beauty and creativity and sacrifice that define the region.
The Confederate flag debacle? Well, yes, it’s absolutely racist. Those who follow my Facebook feed know that on this subject I give no quarter. Are all the people who adhere to its symbolism – their idea of its symbolism, anyway – racists? Well, now we’re deep into what the term racist means. Yes, for sure, but… how well are we served by quick, dismissive pronouncements that ignore a world of crucial nuance?
In a way, the South suffers from a persistent collective case of PTSD. The Civil War and its outcome twisted the Southern psyche in ways even I have a hard time coming to grips with, and I grew up in the thick of it and have been trying to unravel its essential character for decades – as have any number of people who are far more informed on the subject than I am. Now, understand, this PTSD has persisted for 150 years due to the passion with which the culture has clung to it. Our collective cultural psycho-pathology is our greatest heirloom – it is a treasure that has passed down from generation to generation – and as the old joke about how many Southerners it takes to change a light bulb suggests (10 – one to change the bulb and nine to sit around talking about how great the old bulb was) we don’t let go easily. Not even of our trauma. The worst of us cling to our pathology because it is in some ways all we have.
Here’s the thing nobody says. Southerners who defend the flag, arguing that it’s about #heritage and not racism (failing to acknowledge that slavery and racism are that heritage) are often quite aware of the truth of the symbol and what it stood for. Underneath it all, though, their defense of the flag’s alleged noble meaning is less about what they pretend and more about cognitive dissonance. Southerners are like everyone else in that they have an abiding need to feel pride in something. In many ways they’re worse on this point than Americans from other regions because the population and culture of the South is largely derived from Scot-Irish borderlander honor culture.
But what are people who care about their honor to do when their history – their true heritage – is so powerfully and immutably defined by the ass-kicking that shaped a nation?
The complexity surrounding Southern culture is richer and often harder to reverse engineer than a dense Brunswick stew. Toss into that soup the artistic culture Ladd talks about, then wade into the history and current state of the Southern progressive movement (which is badly outnumbered at the moment, but very much alive) and by the way, the longstanding texture of face-to-face, lived race relations (as opposed to the collective political abstraction), which is possibly even more complicated than everything else put together, and you have enough to keep historians busy for 1000 years.
The condemnations of states allowing a symbol of racism and treason to adorn their flags and fly at government facilities are just and, it must be said, decades overdue. That flag asserts that while we lost, the fight isn’t over. The flag in question isn’t the official flag of the Confederacy, it’s the BATTLE JACK, remember? So what we’re dealing with here is a symbol of defiance, a slightly more sophisticated version of the old “South’s gonna rise ag’in” belt buckle that we all saw plenty of growing up.
Further, it’s high time that we said enough is enough to those who wrap themselves in “heritage.” Yes, you have the right to say what you will here in the US, to be as offensive as you like, but you have no right to be free from the consequences of your expression. That’s how our system works – those who disagree with you have a right to speak and act on their convictions, too.
All these things being said, it’s critical that those of us yearning for a true enlightenment keep in mind that complex soup I talk about. Among the number of those defending the flag today are people who are ignorant of some important realities and who, as a result of their heritage and deeply rooted collective trauma, are unwilling to see past their own narrow ideologies. People like Sam 1989, if you will. However, they may not fit the hillbilly racist stereotype as neatly as we imagine. That crowd may well contain future Civil Rights champions, and if so, nothing will ease their path down that rocky road quite like our willingness to reach out and reward their humanist impulses wherever we find them. Is there a way we can help them see honor in repudiation of hurtful symbols instead of in their embrace?
The Confederate battle jack represents a history of racism – no doubt. But it’s counterproductive when we reduce a problem that’s a million miles deep to a bumper sticker. You don’t cure PTSD by telling the patient to cowboy up, get over it and smile more.
Categories: American Culture, History, Politics/Law/Government, Race/Gender
An interesting read, Sam. As someone who knew Sam 1989 and knows Sam 2015, it makes sense on both a personal and societal level.
What I have wondered about quite a lot lately is the distinction between the flag’s display in a governmental setting versus its availability for…let’s call it “personal use.” For as long as I can remember, displaying the Confederate flag in a governmental setting (like the SC state house) has made no sense to me. It has nothing to do with either the State or the nation. As you point out, it’s origin is as a battle flag – one which carries with it strong sentiments that have no place in that context. And though when I hear that stores like Walmart have decided not to sell Confederate flag items anymore, I generally applaud their actions, I wonder what the end game is. If someone chooses to fly the flag, put it on their desk or sport it on a coffee mug, it seems like they should be able to do that. It’s a personal statement that says a lot about that person. And they should be able to say it.
Now, will this display enrage some people? Sure. But it’s a statement they have chosen to make. Not unlike putting a “Trump for President” sign in one’s yard, it can hardly be seen as accidental. Going further, though, is a slippery slope. For instance, banning the sale or display of the flag would only coalesce a discontented group in a potentially dangerous way.
The dialogue we’re having now about the flag is largely a good one, I think. Like many tough conversations, it was forced by a senseless and horrible tragedy. It would be nice to peer into the future and see one where the flag is a true relic. Not because it was forced into hiding, but because we as a society were able to move on from it. And that would mean southerners would have to embrace that notion as well. I think it’s more likely that the conversation evolves and advances by degrees. I hope it’s a conversation based on honesty and respect. I guess we’ll see.
Good writing Sam. It is indeed a complicated matter, and one that is not dealt with easily in our sound byte social media culture (or a bumper sticker culture for that matter).
I wish those state flags had been nixed before being allowed back in the Union. And flying the bare Confed flag should never have begun in the first place. I understand needing some kind of pride, but shouldn’t they have chosen something more local, or state oriented?
A friend posted a thing on FB commenting on stores such as Amazon not selling Confederate flags but still selling Communist flags and various Che crap and said “This (Confederate) flag never killed anyone.” I replied that it did, at least 600,000 in the Civil War alone. As I believe I read here at S&R, one big wrong doesn’t make a lesser wrong OK.
I’m not a Southerner, but I grew up in SE Kansas, close to MO, AR, and OK and I had some friends who had Confederate flags on belt buckles, bandanas, etc. As far as I know, they thought it was a “rebel” thing and it’s always cool to be a rebel, right? The only thing I may have had with the flag was a Hot Wheels of The General Lee. That flag never meant anything to me.
My Question is this.. when you were home sick, why did you buy a flag that out of all the ones Politicians voted to represent the confederacy, never was.
When you Quote; to define the meaning of this Flag of the army of Northern Virginia. Who do you quote, those who Started the war or those who did follow the flag bled and died protecting their families and neighbors, kith and kin.
You at least come from such a cultural heritage and can choose which part means what to you.. You like I Am politically active so can fit under the Battle Standards meaning of “Them Fool Politicians”, whether you or I ever actually Run is meaningless. We both stand for political Ideologies which may or may not be fought over, possibly spilling, blood may be destroying property, definitely trying to change cultures.
i personally fear Utopian thinking, for the blood and death, that Utopian Governments have used to perfect their societies. [CAPs used deliberately]
So Anyone saying that a way that the Government must think is Correct, worries me since they [the Government] might take it seriously.
Okay, I’m not sure I have any idea what you’re trying to say. But I’m going to take a whack at a couple things.
Are you saying the stars and bars didn’t represent the Confederacy? If so, you’re tragically uninformed. It was the battle jack, as stated, and has since come to be the standard representation. So regardless of who voted what then, it’s the accepted symbol now. If I understand what you mean, which I’m not at all certain I do.
Again, really fuzzy on your point, but I’m referencing those in authority at the time who were VERY explicit that the Confederacy was about preserving slavery and that the flag represented that ideal.
If you would, as a courtesy, please work on making your comments more coherent and also some attention to basic grammar and punctuation would be helpful, as well.
Since I’m a Libertarian; Quoting authorities about the meaning of a flag that they refused to consider for the Confederacy, I find doubtful.
. . Why don’t you use one of the flags they did choose, to represent your points.
. . The fact is some of those flags even have it as a part of it’s body.. what the Politicians DIDN’T choose, was to have It represent the Confederacy.
. . Even though it was in active USE at the time.
It is the Rebel flag.. a people who fought and died to protect their own. In spite of “those fool politicians”, even their own.
It was the Flag of those who bleed, not those who voted.
Would plantation owners, and politicians go to fight the war.. sure some did.
If you see a politician or plantation owner on a statue horse, why is the statue there.
. . Because in a time of bleeding and death people followed, not because they voted, because like them they fought body and blood, living and dying, to protect their own.
. . All to often that statue is there to represent those who followed, living and dying.
If the words of Politicians are more important to you,
then the reasons those who followed a flag,
lived through it or died of it.
. Is the flag even Yours anymore?
Again, that flag WAS USED. I have no idea why you think it wasn’t.
And again, you’re dodging the issue aggressively enough to make me suspect you’re trolling. Let’s say for a second that the battle jack wasn’t the official flag. It was, but let’s pretend. The fact remains that it has been adopted by zillions of racists since the war and is now the de facto symbol of Southern “heritage.” So its place in this story is central and your niggling is nothing more than a pedantic annoyance.
Commenters here are obliged to advance the conversation in good faith. You need to stop this misdirection now.
Well, yes – that’s what I have been saying.
I have no idea what your point is, but the bottom line is that “bleeding” or “voting” or whatever, these people were traitors, BY DEFINITION. They were bleeding and voting and whatever so they could LEAVE America. So they wouldn’t be Americans anymore. They took up arms and attempted to overthrow the US – that’s what we call treason. Period.
Fuck no. I’m an American, not a traitor.