My family’s ancestral home is a modest plantation with a sizable white house in New Market, Virginia just below Shenandoah Mountain. The plot of land constitutes a section of the “Field of Lost Shoes” on which the American Civil War’s Battle of New Market took place. To this day, bullets, buttons, and other war artifacts can be found in the ground. I remember a family trip of browsing nearby souvenir shops, and glancing at a stylized Confederate flag with an image of skeletons rising from the ground and bearing the line “The South Will Rise Again.”
Succeeding generations of the family have been planted farther and farther from New Market; I spent the entirety of my minority in southern Maryland. My years there were not devoid of relic Civil War symbolism, though the Confederate battle flag was not quite endemic as it would be in, say, South Carolina. On a hat rack in my parents’ garage rested a blaze orange hunting hat and two mesh-back baseball caps: One, strangely patterned, was part of a uniform for a sandblasting company. The other featured both a United States and a Confederate flag (I would later come to see this as ironic) and the phrase “American by Birth, Southern by the Grace of God.”
Southerners, like many people, are often very conspicuously proud of their heritage. Symbols are a common way of expressing such a pride to passers-by, neighbors, and fellow motorists. Shamrocks are found on the chests of many Irish–Americans, whether printed on cloth on dyed into their skin. Marylanders have made expansive use of a crab motif. And those proud to be from Dixie fly the starred saltire of the former Confederate States of America.
Most recently, however, the flag has been the center of controversy after 21-year-old Dylann Roof murdered nine black people in a Charleston church and pictures surfaced of him flaunting a Confederate battle flag, along with the flags of segregationist Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa. Many have called for the Confederate flag to be removed from public buildings and license plates. Those who look upon the flag with veneration have been quick to assert that Dylann Roof and his actions are not what the stars and bars stand for. Pat Buchanan claims in The American Conservative that the flag symbolizes “the heroism of those who fought and died under it. That flag flew over battlefields, not over slave quarters.” Days ago actor Ben Jones, of Dukes of Hazzard fame, issued and elaborated upon the old heritage-not-hate bromide:
That flag on top of the General Lee made a statement that the values of the rural South were the values of courage and family and good times. Our beloved symbol is now being attacked in a wave of political correctness that is unprecedented in our nation of free speech and free expression. Activists and politicians are vilifying Southern culture and our heritage as being bigoted and racist. We know that this is not the case.
Jones insists that the flag is a statement of independence and the “Southern spirit,” not a stance on slavery or other racial issues.
This is certainly not how many interpret the symbol, though. Many understandably see the Confederate flag as a symbol of white supremacy and racial hatred, but the majority of those who proudly fly the flag assure them that Dylann Roof’s actions are an abuse of the flag and a distortion of its true meaning—all symbols, including the American flag and the Christian cross, fall victim to this, they insist. So what, then, is the flag’s true meaning? Is it to be found in the intentions of those who use it? Or in the feelings it elicits in those who encounter it? Or in the symbol’s history and origin?
I do not doubt for a second the sincerity of those who say that the Confederate flag represents to them a particular Southern way of living or a pride in one’s heritage. I do not doubt that they draw it up on their flagpoles without thoughts of racial hatred pervading their minds. But it is no coincidence that the symbol is also used with the intention of communicating white supremacy. The Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and Dylann Roof did not choose the Confederate flag at random from a hat that might have also contained a caduceus, a hamsa, and a smiley face. I do believe, however, that those who are convinced they have a benign affinity for the flag obscure to themselves—or are somehow utterly ignorant to—the reasons why their beloved symbol is so often used as a provocation.
Jack Hunter, who previously made a career for himself under a pseudonym of ‘The Southern Avenger’, recently opined that “it’s finally time to take down the Confederate flag” because it is, to so many, a symbol of hate. No amount of lecturing about the Confederate states’ right to self-determination can shake someone whose ancestors have been subjugated under the flag of their convictions. Hunter implores the reader to imagine that his great-great-grandfather was enslaved in a country where the Confederate flag was the national symbol, that his great-grandfather was lynched by a mob whose color guard hoisted the Confederate flag, that his grandfather was forbidden from drinking from certain public water fountains in a state where the Confederate flag was flown at the capitol, and finally, that his father was murdered at his place of worship by a man whose website was littered with Confederate flags. It is impossible to vivisect the shameful history of the flag and remove the unsavory portions. After all this, though, Hunter makes a soft conclusion that “I care about white and black Southerners and Americans coming together … more than I care about a flag,” and that heritage, though maybe it is worth warm reminiscence, ought to take a back seat to healing American race relations.
Days after Dylann Roof murdered nine Bible study attendees, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a limning article in The Atlantic about just what the Confederate battle flag was created to symbolize. “The Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause,” he writes, “and the Confederate cause was white supremacy.” At this point, proud Southerners will object that, contrary to the public-school liberal propaganda, the war was actually fought over states’ rights. Pressing further to ask which rights the states were interested in preserving will yield one of two results: Most will respond with nothing that resembles a real answer, and the casuists among this camp will insist that the whole war was fought over a tariff dispute. Coates gets to the bottom of which right in particular so concerned these Southern states.
While the true cause for the secession of the Southern states has somehow become a mystery in the age of limitless information, it was nothing of the sort to those doing the seceding and we would do best to gauge their intentions by their own words. Coates quotes not one, but several of the declarations of secession delivered by the respective states. Following the presidential election of Abraham Lincoln, the political body of South Carolina spoke:
A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that ‘Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,’ and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.
Mississippi followed shortly thereafter with their statement: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world … There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.” Texas, Alabama, and Louisiana unequivocally stated the same grievance—the election of Lincoln was a threat to the Southern states’ right to preserve their sacred institution of slavery. As the Louisiana declaration wrote, “[t]he people of the slave holding States are bound together by the same necessity and determination to preserve African slavery,” and the Confederate flag was to symbolize that bond on the battlefield.
It is unmistakable that the Confederate flag was intended as a symbol of the literal fight to preserve an arrangement where whites owned blacks as they would own horses. While Pat Buchanan may be right in observing that the flag was flown on battlefields, not over slave quarters, he conveniently ignores that the men were on those battlefields to preserve an abhorrent institution. And while Ben Jones and his ilk state correctly that the flag is a symbol of Southern heritage, they fail to consider that this is an ugly heritage only a racist or an ignoramus could wish to celebrate.
The meaning of symbols is, of course, ultimately subjective. For whichever explanation one accepts for the meaning of the Confederate flag, though, there are other conclusions that could be made with the same reasoning that he would find unsavory. If Jack Hunter is willing to concede that the Confederate flag be taken down because it evokes such negative feelings and summons up visions of injustices toward a certain group, then ought he too call for the lowering of every American flag? Shouldn’t all Independence Day celebrations be immediately halted? An older article from The Onion jocosely reports that the U.S. flag has been recalled after causing 143 million deaths:
Millions of U.S. flag-related injuries and fatalities have been reported over a 230-year period in locations as far flung as Europe, Cuba, Korea, Gettysburg, PA, the Philippines, and Iraq. In addition, the company found that U.S. flag exports to Vietnam during the late 1960s and early 1970s resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, a clear sign that there was something seriously wrong with its product.
While this may seem absurd or sensational to many Americans, this is the picture the stars and stripes conjure up in many minds around the world. The flag that flew at the massacres of Mỹ Lai and Fallujah stand in the way of the American people repairing strained relations with the people of Vietnam and Iraq, any justifications of U.S. intervention notwithstanding. One cannot expect this sort of consistency, though.
If we should, instead, consider historical national flags as an expression of harmless pride in one’s heritage, then we must be willing to apply this not only to the Confederate States of America, but also to, say, Germany of the 1930s and ‘40s. The Nazi era is just as much part of Germany’s heritage as the Confederacy is part of the South’s heritage. Although I usually find it uncouth to bolster Godwin’s Law, flying a Confederate flag at the South Carolina capitol is equivalent to raising Nazi banners at the Reichstag building, which, I am sure, would alarm and appall proud Southerners. Anyone who defends the Confederate flag as celebrating heritage without making any clear political statement must also be able to look at a man waving a swastika without making any assumptions about his thoughts on the Holocaust.
Broader application of Coates’s reasoning for the meaning of the Confederate flag—that it is best discerned in the words and actions of those who originally bore it—leads us to less controversial (but still significant) conclusions. The Confederate flag was originally meant to symbolize the fight to preserve slavery, thus it is deplorable. The Nazi swastika motif was originally meant to symbolize national socialist ideology of which racial hatred is part, thus it is deplorable. In order to understand whether another flag is appropriate for display, we must identify and judge the goals it represents. The Union Jack, which a vexillologist sees as a combination of the crosses of Saints Andrew, Patrick, and George, was created to symbolize the political union of Scotland, Ireland, and England. If England was unjustified in bringing Scotland and Ireland into its dominion, then the flag must be deemed deplorable.
Recent events have rightly forced Americans to question whether the Confederate flag symbolizes something of which people ought to be proud. But we should not stop at the Confederate flag. It is perfect time for everyone, everywhere to look to the top of the nearest flagpole and ponder whether the cloth hoisted from it is something worth celebrating.