Confederacy, Again

It seems that since my visit to the Museum of the Confederacy, things have gotten a little more difficult for those who look back on the era with fondness. The shooting deaths of nine African-Americans at a Charleston, S.C. church have prompted numerous, vociferous calls to take down the Confederate Battle Flag that files at the State House in Columbia, a sentiment endorsed by Gov. Nikki Haley. That debate is ongoing, but a preference cascade has ensued: Mississippi is again considering whether to remove the Battle Flag from the canton of its state flag, the governor of Alabama ordered the Confederate flags removed from the capitol grounds in Montgomery, and eBay and Amazon have announced that they will no longer deal in Confederate-flag branded merchandise, including that beloved icon of early-80s childhood, the General Lee (from the television show Dukes of Hazzard). Even the dean of the National Cathedral in Washington has called for the removal of two stained glass windows that illustrate the Civil War, because they contain Confederate flags.

I’m no fan of the Confederacy, but I have to say that this all seems a bit much. What does a shooting in Charleston have to do with a flag on display two hours away in Columbia? (I guess, since all hopes for gun control in the wake of previous shooting massacres were dashed, the SPLC has decided that this is a safer bet? Never let a crisis go to waste!) And how is it coherent to ban computer games set in the Civil War while giving a pass to Communist, jihadist, and Nazi themed paraphernalia, still for sale on Amazon and eBay?

I think some context might be in order. In South Carolina, the Confederate Battle Flag used to fly from the State House. Following protests, the flag was moved to a Confederate memorial on the grounds of the State House. That was the compromise between Confederate heritage groups that wanted it to remain, and people who wanted it removed entirely. It is the sort of compromise endorsed by John Coski, whose book I have mentioned:

If even a vocal minority of vocal flag loyalists regards the flag not merely as a memorial to Confederate dead but as a living testament to the power of anti-federal ideology or the symbol of a still-living Confederacy, it is difficult to defend the flag as a neutral, apolitical symbol that everyone should learn to respect.

Confederate heritage groups should be free to use the flag in their functions, including Memorial Day observances, parades, and ceremonies commemorating important anniversaries… But instead of urging everyone to keep it flying everywhere, flag advocates should censure any use of the flag that is not unambiguously memorial or historical in nature. Those who truly regard the battle flag as a sacred war memorial for Confederate ancestors should oppose its use on T-shirts, baseball caps, and other popular culture items that trivialize its meaning… Similarly, flag defenders should seek to remove battle flags displayed on state flags or in any sovereignty context, since this use blurs the distinction between the flag as a memorial and the flag as a symbol of sovereignty….

Flag critics in turn must be more tolerant of the flag’s presence as a war memorial and historical symbol…. Elected officials, community leaders, and intellectuals must cease encouraging the untenable belief that there is an inherent American right not to be offended. Flag critics must (for practical as well as ethical reasons) become more willing to distinguish between a KKK rally and a [Confederate] Memorial Day parade.

Alas, the spirit of compromise has abandoned us this past week. Opponents claim that it is an American swastika, tainted for all time by its use by anti-Civil Rights activists in the 1950s and -60s. This is an ironic fate: according to Coski, in the late nineteenth century, former Confederates argued that the Battle Flag was an apolitical symbol, unlike any of the three national flags adopted by the CSA (that is, the so-called Stars and Bars, the Stainless Banner, and the Blood-Stained Banner, the latter two of which do feature the Battle Flag on the canton). The Battle Flag alone was alleged to be suitable for the remembrance of soldiers’ spilt blood. But its use in the twentieth century means that it is now more political than the national flags – or at least the first national flag, the Stars and Bars, which does not feature the Battle Flag at all, and was found to be suitable as the basis for the current flag of Georgia (2003).

But I would still draw a distinction between the Battle Flag and the anti-Civil Rights flag. In vexillology, proportions matter. That is, the Battle Flag was square (and often, as on the SC grounds, had a white border). The Southern Cross, as commonly flown in the twentieth century, was rectangular. Thus, I would say that on the grounds of the SC state house at least, it should have a place, as a part of the Confederate memorial (although I would be in favor of changing Mississippi’s flag).

Of course, you could make the case that there should be no Confederate memorials either, but I don’t think that’s a good road to go down. As someone said, where will that end? Lots of memorialized American leaders did unsavory things. Will monuments to Andrew Jackson (expeller of the Cherokee), Thomas Jefferson (slaveowner), Woodrow Wilson (segregator of Washington DC) and even Abraham Lincoln (executor of 38 Sioux in the Dakota War) be removed as well? Instead, my general preference is to live and let live. In a democracy, you have to share the country with people you don’t like, and the same right they have to celebrate their heritage is the same right you have to celebrate yours – even on the grounds of the capitol. Let us not forget that there is a large, beautiful, and meaningful monument to South Carolina’s African-American heritage on the east side of the SC State House – and I would be in favor of adding as many more monuments as will fit. And if flags are at issue, why not fly the Pan-African flag, a horizontal tricolor of red, black and green? I’ve always thought that more use should be made of this.