On the Rebel Battle Flag and Its Meaning

- - posted in politicshistory

Being from the South, I too once had more nuanced views on the public display of the Confederate battle flag, but I haven’t since leaving the South and I don’t think anyone else should be parsing this issue as closely as in the past few days. Look. There are a lot of ways to openly and peaceably celebrate the good parts of the Southern heritage. There are even ways to celebrate the veterans of the Civil War without tacitly endorsing the cause they fought for (I’ll give you a hint: it was not and never was “states' rights”). Flying the flag of a defeated mid-19th-century insurrection, by far one of the dumbest things this country has done to herself, is definitely not one of them.

I won’t even talk about the little racist piece of shit who shot up a church last week. He and his kind aren’t even worthy of our scorn or our sympathy, and it won’t help for me to point out to everybody how reprehensible and disgusting his actions or the motivations behind them were. If you think he was some kind of a hero you’re probably on the wrong blog.

I do want to talk about that flag though.

I grew up in Georgia, a state that was absolutely ravaged by the Civil War. You can’t go anywhere in Georgia without seeing some reminders that the war happened. There are old battlefields everywhere, with little historic markers on each one with a nice page-long description of the historic significance of whatever field or patch of forest you’re standing in. Civil War reenactments do still happen in the South, though I imagine it must be kind of a bummer for the confederate troops, knowing what’s about to happen at Appomattox. Don’t tell them; it’ll spoil their fun to know. Occasionally you can even hear someone talk about “the good old days” meaning the days before the 1950s when they could just discriminate against whoever they wanted to. I’ve heard the war be called the “War of Northern Aggression” by more than enough people to know it’s a Thing to call it that. Growing up in Georgia, I was steeped in this culture; growing up Jewish and with parents from New York, I was always an outsider there. When I was growing up in Georgia the Confederate battle flag took up 2/3 of the Georgia state flag. The remaining third was the great seal of the state of Georgia, which used to be the whole flag before— and this part is important, y'all—unreconstructed racist assholes changed the flag in defiance to desegregation.

That flag in South Carolina flies for the same damn reason. This is important to recognize, because it doesn’t matter worth a damn what modern southerners think of the flag. Its original intent and its constant effect has been to intimidate black people in the South, to remind them of their place, to remind them that the states of the South are only considering them human beings rather than human chattel because the rest of the US forced them to literally at the point of a bayonet. That flag is a constant reminder to all the black people in the South that had the tables been turned at Appomattox, had Robert E. Lee only been at the other side of that table, they might still be slaves.

Now what is really entertaining lately is watching, after this gruesome mass shooting in Charleston, all these Republican politicians who had spent their whole careers cozying up to the white supremacist and separatist movements because those are the people who write their checks and turn out to the GOP primaries most reliably, suddenly acting shocked, SHOCKED that some people have been using the Confederate battle flag, their most venerated of symbols, as a symbol of hatred. Imagine that.

So South Carolina’s governor Nikki Haley got all kinds of kudos from people for taking the “brave” and “courageous” stance that the flag should maybe be taken down if the state legislature votes for that. Why aren’t more people pointing out that this is an extremely cowardly and pathetic stance, especially since she was on record as recently as last fall in favor of the flag continuing to fly. This is a passing of the buck to the legislative process, which may or may not actually bother to take the flag down. Why not just fucking take it down already? You ask the legislature, but if you just give me a pair of bolt-cutters and a ladder and I can get that flag down for you real quick. Quit bullshitting about, Nikki Haley, and just recognize the fact that a US state should not be in the business of flying the flag of a foreign country that tried to secede from the US and failed horribly, permanently scarring our nation. If you want something to celebrate civil war heritage, go find one of those battlegrounds and pay your respects to the soldiers—both Confederate and Union—who lost their lives there, but recognize that one side was fighting for the preservation of the United States itself and one side was fighting for the preservation of slavery.

Stay above that snake line if you know what’s good for you, space cadets.