That flag

Yeah, of course that flag should come down from above the South Carolina statehouse. It’s been an embarrassment for years. It sucks that it took a terrible, mind-numbing tragedy like what happened in the Charleston AME church in June, and it does not in a million light-years atone for that tragedy, but it’s still a good thing that it’s gonna come down.

It doesn’t represent your heritage, unless you’re talking about the “heritage” of being a racist yokel. It doesn’t represent freedom or some sort of romantic rebel pose. (Sorry, Lynyrd Skynyrd. I still respect your music.)

What does it represent? Originally it represented Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia as they fought a war to destroy the democratic project of the United States and preserve the system of slavery. Over time it came to represent the Confederacy in general (though it was not the official Confederate flag). In the mid-20th century, it was repurposed to represent white resistance to civil rights, school integration, etc. In recent years it’s just been a symbol for dumb people, not all of them Southerners, some of whom ride motorcycles or wish they did, who vaguely want to show that they won’t bow down to The Man and don’t care about offending a few black people.

And you know what? I’m all for free speech. Free speech is a good thing; a free speech society has worked well for us. So let the ignoramuses proudly display the rebel flag on their bumpers, rear windshields, mailboxes, jean jackets, Chevy Camaros, duck blinds, 8 track cassette decks, garage workbenches, tool kits, survivalist magazines, and teenage bedroom walls. You want to advertise yourself as an idiot? Go ahead, this is a terrific way. It’ll save the rest of us the twenty seconds it would otherwise take to figure that out about you. But let’s not fly it over government buildings — because after all, in addition to being a symbol of racist violence and hatred, it is also a symbol of secession — of treason against the government of the United States — and has no business on government property.

And no, no, no, don’t go defending the Confederacy. It was not some noble project, it wasn’t about states rights or preserving a traditional way of life or resisting Lincoln’s tyranny. That’s all bullshit. The Confederacy was a bad deal, cooked up by bad people with a stupid plan, whose main motivation was to keep on making profits off the forced labor of slaves, and it ended up causing the deaths of — what was the latest estimate? — 750,000 people? — as well as nearly destroying what was, then, the only democracy on the globe.

By the way, I love the South. I love living here. I love the people, the food, the music, the history. But I’m afraid that this benign view that most white (and even some black!) Southerners have of the Confederacy and secession is pretty much baked into the culture at this point. They think Lee, well, he was such a gentleman, and Sherman, well he was a war criminal, and you know what, they were going to get around to phasing out slavery in their own good time until the Yankees interfered. I don’t know if this is taught in schools or around dinner tables or just absorbed through osmosis, but it’s not going to be dislodged anytime soon.

And so yes, it does take a terrible calamity to force change — like nine people being murdered in cold blood while they were attending bible study. And many of my friends online have pointed out that the removal of the flag is a pitifully inadequate response to the problems of a society that could produce a Dylan Root, that it is “only” a symbol, that it’s a shallow, easy, feel-good fix, that it allowed a Republican governor to grandstand, that it avoids more substantial issues — and while that’s all true, I can’t help feeling, as a historian, well, yes, but, that’s how change often happens. And it is often cosmetic or shallow or laughably inadequate, but that’s what you get, take it or leave it, and keep dreaming of more, and never forget those good people in that peaceful church before the shots rang out.


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