Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Stars, Bars, and Self Delusion

I'm not defending the Confederate flag here. I grew up largely in Vermont. I am a Yankee through and through. Whether there were any race issues with it or not, I've never been a fan. To me it always represented ignorance. I'm glad is coming down so many places and generally disappearing. At the same time, I think we need to pump the breaks a little bit on what we're talking about when we talk about the flag, the Civil War, slavery, and racism.

There's always been a lot of debate about the causes of the Civil War, which usually boil down to "states rights" and "slavery." Ultimately they're both elements of economics, because, as we know, money is the real cause of every war. People have written better, more eloquently and with stronger grasp of the material on this issue; I won't belabor the point too much other than to say, "slavery" and "states rights," while not identical, were pretty darn close to such in the 1860s.

The real Civil War conundrum we find so many modern flag haters falling into is projecting today's race struggles onto Civil War-era America. Yes, many Northerners (and a few in the South) were upset about slavery, but it was more a humanitarian objection than an egalitarian one. It's not as though every northern abolitionist was chomping at the bit to marry his daughter off to a former slave. Shoot, many northern cities are incredibly segregated even to this day - and not just geographically, but socially as well.

There are real moral issues at play here, but we really need to stop the generalization that those who embrace the Stars and Bars are somehow far behind the rest of society when it comes to race. No one is really passing that exam with flying colors.

In fact, I have some sympathy for those southerners who really do associate the flag with individualism or states rights. There are a whole lot of people (some who don't even live in the south) who would like to keep "states rights" at the forefront of political debate, even as they acknowledge that the equality (or ownership) of persons is not one of those "rights" the states should decide.

Slavery was a big part of the Civil War, but race and racism really wasn't. By today's standards, 95% of both sides were flaming racists - they just disagreed on how far it was appropriate to go in mistreating black people.

The real problem for the Confederate flag and those who love her with race-neutral motives, is the re-emergence of the flag in the 1950's and 60's as a protest to Civil Rights. The famous South Carolina statehouse flag only went up in 1961 - probably the first time they could get away with it since, you know, it was representative of a treasonous rebellion and one of the most brutal wars in human history was fought precisely to keep the thing from flying.

Whether the Confederate flag was a racist symbol before Civil Rights or not, it certainly became one when the out and proud racists consciously chose to make it so. Strom Thurmond draped himself in the Confederate Flag during his 1948 Presidential run, where he campaigned on the basis of maintaining segregation.

So, in an ideal world, it would be great if honest, well-meaning southerners could keep a symbol of their heritage pure and unsullied (I really mean this - believe me, I am as big a fan of rebellion as anyone), but it's just not possible. Other people have messed up something you hold dear. I'm sorry, but it's still got to go. There are a lot of Asian cultures who would love to have maintained their sacred, 5000-year-old religious symbol, but unfortunately the Nazi's took it and stuck it on their flag, thus ruining it for all time.

These things happen.

We can hear your heartfelt defenses all day and all night - and I have no reason to disbelieve anything you say - but it doesn't cover up or outweigh its co-option by forces of racism and segregation, not just in the 60's, but just last month when 9 people lost their lives. It stinks, but this is reality. And for those of you who'll say, "I'm not going to let one stupid kid ruin this cultural tradition," well, you should. Let him ruin it forever and let's just move on.

Because we do (all of us) actually have real issues of race to figure out and this flag thing is just a distraction. It's giving a lot of us Yankees (and amenable southerners) an excuse to pretend we're righteous in all of this, that some of us have racism figured out. The Confederate flag has become another in a long line of convenient scapegoats and we've got to get beyond that. We just do.

Ultimately we're not too many steps removed from the racial attitudes of the Civil War. The north's perspective was, essentially, "We don't care what happens to black people, so long as we're not enslaving them anymore." Today, in large part, we think, "I don't care what happens to black people, so long as they're equal under the law."

If it takes 150 years to make that small step, well, we're probably not moving fast enough.

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