Monday, May 19, 2014

A Flag Is What We Make It

In the 21st century controversy over the legitimacy of the 19th century Confederate battle flag, one question remains unanswered:  What does it mean to those who want to fly it?

The answer:  Anything they want it to mean.

When we run our American flag up the flagpole at our house, it means we love the idea behind it, we love the look of the stars and stripes; we love how it waves in the breeze, telling us the wind direction, giving us an indication of the velocity.  (A perk, I know.)

We believe the stories about Betsy Ross and the Star Spangled Banner.  We love the image of the flag-raising over Iwo Jima.  We pledge allegiance to our flag whenever the occasion arises. (Without endorsing the wholly unnecessary Red Scare defense "under God", it should be said.)

My husband the Marine will not allow the flag to touch the ground and replaces it with a new one when it begins to look tattered.

But there are other Americans who use that same flag to make some pretty awful points.  Hate groups bent on destroying the present government use it as a backdrop for photo ops.

George Lincoln Rockwell - American Nazi Party

Cliven Bundy uses it to try and save his ranch after refusing to pay his government lease for more than 20 years,

enlisting militiamen hostile to the government to protect him from eviction.

The American flag is a symbol for every American, but, as symbols go, the symbolism is in the eye of the beholder.

So it goes with the Confederate flag.  The KKK uses it interchangeably with the American flag.  Militia groups and White Supremacist groups use it interchangeably with the American flag.  Many Southerners fly it from their homes and stick it on their cars.  It flies on public buildings, much to the displeasure of certain groups who see it as an affront.

Is it offensive?  Is it racist?  It can be, and to some it ever will be.  Vile racism is, at the very least, inappropriate, and if a historic flag is co-opted to endorse hate, it wouldn't be the first time.

For many years we've spent our winters in South Carolina.  The confederate flag is everywhere and, as a Northerner indoctrinated in the offensive nature of what we called the Rebel flag, I found each instance shocking.  But their heritage, I came to realize, is not my history, and nowhere am I more aware of it than when I wander through an old Southern cemetery.

These are their ancestors.  Hundreds of thousands of their countrymen died fighting for a cause they may or may not have even understood.  Were those young men--often just boys--fighting to ensure that wealthy plantation owners could keep their slave labor?  Doubtful.  More likely they saw themselves as freedom fighters making sacrifices in order to save their homes and form their own union.  They fought in a terrible civil war and their side lost.  Because real people in real families were affected forever, this is not a part of their history the modern South is willing to forget.  And we as a nation have no right to ask it of them.

It's not our place to decide what the Confederate flag means and who should be able to fly it.  We've allowed our own American flag to be used and abused in such a way that by rights it should be nothing more than a meaningless piece of cloth.  It's much more than that because it means much more than that to each of us.

At different times in our history, parts of our country belonged to the English, the Spanish, the French.  We fought them and won, and we still fly their flags in remembrance.  It's a part of our history.

The South once fought to belong to the Confederacy.  They had their own flag.  How can we recognize that part of our history without recognizing their flag?   The answer is, we can't.  And the truth is, we shouldn't.

(Cross-posted at Dagblog and Alan Colmes' Liberaland)


  1. No we can't tell people not to fly the Confederate flag because that infringes on their right to free speech. But we do know exactly what that flag means -- it means people willing to fight and die to keep other human beings enslaved. Anyone who tries to argue that the Civil War was not about keeping four million African Americans enslaved is ignorant of American history. People can fly that flag and claim that it is part of their heritage, but let's acknowledge that that heritage includes the most extreme form of white supremacy -- enslavement of another race of people.

  2. My point is that the vast majority of the soldiers fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War weren't fighting to keep slavery alive. They had no stake in slavery. They were convinced the North was coming to take their homes, to destroy their families, and the only way to save them was to fight to the death for their freedom..

    You don't know exactly what that flag means to everyone who flies it. You only know what it means to you when you see it.

  3. The leader of the confederate government said that the confederacy was founded "on the great truth that the black man is not equal to the white man". To pick up a gun to fight for that flag shows some degree of agreement with that statement. Yes, most confederate soldiers did not own slaves because they weren't old enough to accumulate the wealth needed to purchase slaves.

    Everyone who flies that flag can use whatever logic they want to to justify their actions -- they have a right to free speech. But we as Americans should never deny what the founders of the confederacy said their purpose was in their own words.

  4. DC, you and I may understand what that war was all about, but I've come to realize that many people who want to keep that flag as a part of their history aren't doing it because they're racists.

    Hundreds of thousands of families were affected by that war, and while some of them are and will be racists, others see it as a remembrance of a tragic event causing great upheaval in their families.

    There is, of course, a kind of in-your-face pushback, considering the flak that flag has caused because of their insistence on keeping it alive, but even then it may or may not be a racist pushback. It may just be the kind of stubbornness that says "You can't tell us to hide any part of our history simply because it offends you."

  5. Actually, we're in agreement. I don't believe that flag should be banned or people should be told they can't fly it. That kind of censorship is not American and utterly pointless.

    I am just dismayed by the huge numbers of people who don't understand what the Civil War was really about. People should express pride in their ancestors, but that pride needs to be tempered with some humility that their ancestors were in fact human beings who made mistakes like we all do.

  6. Absolutely right. I do clearly understand how the sight of that flag can be so painful to many people, especially African-Americans who have had to endure the kind of on-going racism the South is so famous for.

    I just wanted to look at it from another point of view, using our own flag as an example of a complete misuse of a symbol held in high honor by others.

  7. You could make the same argument for the Nazi flag. Many, perhaps most, soldiers in the German army did not know about the concentration camps. They believed what their government told them. Does this make a flag with a swastika acceptable? Of course not. It was a symbol of hate, same as the Confederate flag. The Confederacy existed to keep people in slavery. This talk of "heritage" is revisionism.

  8. The vast majority of soldiers in Hitler's army weren't fighting to keep the concentration camps in business either. Nazi flag, confederate flag. What's the difference? They both represent hatred. Please don't try to revise history with this "heritage" nonsense.

  9. Not the same thing at all. The Nazi flag represents a movement, not a nation. The Confederate States of America was a separate nation from 1861until April, 1865, when Lee surrendered and it was dissolved.

    The confederacy was made up of slave states, to be sure, and the flag represented those states, but when the war was over, Northern leaders made it clear that those southerners who lost their lives during the Civil War were to be honored as soldiers. There was to be no desecration of graves or tombs. Each state kept its name. The citizens of the Confederacy once again became American citizens.

    Their flag was a nation's symbol for those few years and there's no getting around the fact that it means different things to different people. But to equate it to a Nazi flag is nowhere near accurate.

  10. Well I served in the military and our practices were at sunset to stand at attention and salute the flag, when the colors are presented, I salute the flag as that is the representation of this country.
    Last year, we attended a funeral for a Veteran and we saluted the flag and we stood at "attention" when the flag was folded and presented.
    We have many ethnicities and cultures that make up this country called the United States and our borders are North,South, East and West but there is One Flag.
    I like that Ed, a Marine, runs that flag up every year. I know many Veterans that do. And when we have tragedies in this country, we fly our flags to represent Us as a People.

  11. There is something about flags that makes us all emotional. My heart skips a beat when I see ours or another flag at half-mast.

    I hate it when commercial businesses use it as an advertising gimmick. The bigger the better. I think it's disrespectful, but it's a part of our culture now. They're everywhere.

  12. The Nazi flag most certainly did represent Germany during WWII. And had they won, it would have been Germany's flag. Similarly, the CSA was also a movement, a sectarian movement within the United States which broke off to form their own country. But the entire breaking away was illegitimate and unconstitutional. They, the Southern states, didn't become a country, which is actually at the root of the compassionate treatment toward them that Lincoln hoped to implement. They were fellow Americans. Had they actually formed a separate country, they would never have been reunited with the rest of the country.

  13. They actually were a country with a constitution and bylaws and their own leadership for those years before the war ended.. The fact that we didn't see them as legitimate had no affect on them.
    As much as some of us would like to erase that part of our history, it's embedded there, and many in the South see the Confederate flag as their Southern flag. They attach no hate or racism to it. It's simply their Southern flag. That doesn't make it right, but it doesn't make it any less a fact..

  14. I would argue that THEY are trying to erase or sanitize history when they see it as "simply their Southern flag." It's a stunning denial of the clear, well-recorded history surrounding this flag. To pretend that, as an object, it's not soaked in hate and racism is to live in denial.

  15. You make good points, but my observation is that many (not all) of them aren't thinking at all about hate and racism when they fly it.

    I wish more of them would, but the reality is the generation now flying the flag probably do romanticize the Civil War and see themselves as rebels the way a teenager would when they're doing something they know the grown-ups don't like.

    Some of them resent the fact that there is an onus on the flag their ancestors carried into battle. They see honor in their sacrifices, as hard as it is for outsiders--especially blacks--to understand.

    And some of them are racist as hell and fly it because they want us to know they're racist as hell.

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