Sunday, February 24, 2008
This is a neat picture of an old confederate soldier, taken in front of a Rebel flag in the year 1913. The soldier would have probably been about 70 years old. It is interesting that there is probably no symbol that is more divisive in this country today than the confederate flag.
First of all, it should be noted that the flag in the picture is not actually the real confederate flag. Pictured is the "Southern Cross", which was the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. It would have been the flag that Robert E. Lee fought under in battle, but was never used as the Confederate National Flag. The actual National Flag of the Confederacy, the Stars and Bars, was completely different. Nonetheless, this flag is a divisive symbol that generates heated disputes. As I study the debate, I come to the conclusion that the root of the controversy comes down to this fact . . . the flag means different things to different people, and the problem arises when people assume that the flag means the same thing to everybody that it means to them. I see four basic groups, with four different views of the flag.
The first group I will call the Southern Romantics. These are typically southern folks interested in the Civil War, and who romanticize about the Old South, and the Civil War. These folks realize that slavery was a grave mistake, feel bad about it, and are sorry that it happened. Nonetheless, they are inspired by men like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and P.G.T. Beauregard who were not slave holders, but were willing to risk all and face overwhelming odds to stand up against what they considered to be an oppressive federal government. These people harbor no ill will towards anyone, but love the flag as a symbol of great men involved in an epic struggle. The analogy I would give to help understand this group of people would be this. I am a proud American. I think the US is a great country. I have two 5o foot flagpoles in front of my house. One flies the American Flag, and the other flies the Texas Flag. I believe we live in a great country, and I am proud to fly the colors of my country and my state. At the same time, I am not proud of every last thing this country has done. In particular, I think the way we handled the Native American population in the last half of the 1800's was pretty bad. Not just that we were at war with them, and there were some unfortunate abuses, but that we broke pretty much every deal we ever made with them. When I fly the American flag, I am not celebrating our treatment of Native Americans, I am seeking to honor all the good things we have done, and all the brave men who did them, and the great things we have yet to do. Similarly, a southern romantic who might display the Rebel flag is not celebrating slavery, but is showing some sympathy to the positive aspects of the Old South, and men like Lee, Jackson and Beauregard.
There is a second group of people who fly the Rebel Flag. This group, for a lack of a better description, I will call the "Redneck" contingency. These are typically blue collar workers who today feel totally disenfranchised in this country. They work very hard, but are barely able to keep their head above water. The "trickle down" economy touted by the Republicans never seems to trickle down to them. At the same time, while they are working double shifts to try to support their family, they go to the grocery store and see able bodied young men buying food with food stamps. They feel like the Democratic Party has been hijacked by special interests, and that they are more concerned with the people who can but won't work. They feel that no one is representing their interests, Republican or Democrat. They are the working poor. They work hard to pay taxes that go to support people gaming the system. They are barely making it, working themselves to death, and they are left hanging, all on their own. They feel a particular affinity to the confederacy because people who similarly felt oppressed took up arms and tried to overthrow the oppressive system. They would never take up arms themselves . . . that would just never happen, but displaying the Rebel flag on their truck or shirt is their way of saying, "I am Mad as Hell and I am not going to take it any more". These people realize that there are a lot of things that they can not do, but the one thing that they can do is to display the flag as a sign of protest. In effect, just their little way of sticking it to the man. They are not racists, and are not deliberately trying to offend a specific race, but are not particularly concerned that displaying the flag might be politically incorrect . . . they are trying to be politically incorrect.
The third group of people are people descended from slaves, or people very sympathetic to those who suffered under slavery, and the disadvantage that the descendants of slaves might face. To these people, the Rebel Flag is a symbol of the system of slavery. The flag is a very disturbing image to them, and one that they would prefer to not see. It is a very painful image to them, and understandably so. They sometimes believe that someone displaying the flag is celebrating, and perhaps even wanting to return to, the terrible institution of slavery.
The forth group of people are a group of racists. These people are filled with hatred, and use the Rebel Flag as a symbol for that hate. In effect, they have hijacked the flag, and made it into something really bad. This group, as you can easily see, inflame intense emotions from group three, as one can easily understand.
So, the badness of group four over the years has rubbed off on the old Flag of Northern Virginia. Group four has made life very difficult on group three. This all has made group one and two somewhat displaced, in that they do not understand why they should not be able to display the flag. They feel at times somewhat bullied by group three, whose real beef is with group four. At the same time, group one is not always sensitive to the real issues of racism and hate that can still exist in this country. They are sometimes not sensitive to the fact that the flag is a very painful site for many people. Group two does not particularly care what anyone thinks, they are just going to keep flying the flag.
Anyway, I would put myself somewhat in group one. As I study the Civil War, I find myself rooting for Lee and Jackson. I always like the underdogs. While I root for the south, I find myself thankful that the south did not win, as I feel that would have been a disaster, for many different reasons. I have both a Confederate National Battle Flag, and a Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. I do not fly them however, because I really don't want to offend anyone.