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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
15.4 (Fall 2015)
Federalism vs. Centralization, Ethnos vs. Mainstream
Should a White Flag Wave Over the Stars and Bars? The Confederate Flag as Symbolism
Peter T. Singleton
I’m in the process of navigating through a best-selling e-book titled En el Haren de Estambul (In the Harem of Istanbul), by someone named Carla de la Vega. The reason that Vega’s book suggests to me an entry point to a discussion of the Confederate flag is that it so illustratively uses an indictment of John Doe as a pretext to hang Joe Blow. The book succeeds as a shocking exposé of how certain Turks abuse their womenfolk even in the twenty-first century; but I have yet to see Vega attribute the outrageous “honor killings” victimizing hundreds of Turkish girls a year to Islam, to radical Islam, to Kurdish tradition, to some other Paleolithic cultural conditioning, or to anything but… manhood! Men are the problem. Vega’s female protagonists are all desperately trying to secure a life free of and safe from… men.
This would be deeply insulting to any civilized male if it were not so willfully obtuse and patently absurd. It’s the kind of thing that has made me tire of listening to the news, which seems nowadays to use specific incidents almost arbitrarily as pretexts for politicized preaching. As I write, reporters are busily recycling the events (or non-events) surrounding the death of Michael Jones in Ferguson, Missouri, one year ago. We all know that cops sometimes squeeze the trigger too quickly; but Jones was breaking and had just broken several laws when he was shot by an officer whom he had severely beaten. The specific flash point for the Confederate flag debate was the atrocity committed by a lunatic who murdered nine Americans of African descent (several children among them) in a Charleston, South Carolina, church. This man deserves to rot in a cage like a rabid animal; but if he had been Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the same newscasters who are ginning up Ferguson a year later would have appealed to us to understand the pressures of the child-butcher’s psychological state and cultural circumstances. Since, instead, Dylann Roof is a young white male who asserts racist motives, he’s merely a projection of the hatred smoldering in the dark souls of bigots like you and me.
In the same news cycle, the same politically tilted infotainment machine “cutely” circulated a photo featuring a huge pistol on a poster back-dropped so as to be pointing directly at Ted Cruz’s forehead. Apparently, extreme sensitivity to the fine nuances of words and images can be switched on or off by the very people who have charged themselves with interpreting our cultural conscience.
One doesn’t like being accused of sympathizing with a child-murderer, whether the child is a Kurdish female or the great-great grandchild of a Congolese. Any sensible person doesn’t even like being expected to sign off on inane declarations such as, “I hate racism,” or, “I hate sexism.” What we decent human beings hate is cold-blooded murder, and particularly violence directed at children. The men among us despise pusillanimous thuggery when brutal males inflict it upon women, and all sane adults among us are outraged at the arrogance of anyone hubristic enough to cut the thread of an innocent life on a whim (cf. partial-birth abortion).
Why do we now need to specify the race or gender of victims to define the quality of our outrage? Why should there be any qualitative difference at all?
I used a derivative of the word “thug” above—a noun of Hindi provenance, referring to a ritualistic kind of robbery/murder that once prevailed when India was aflame with fanatical cultism. Now we are told we can’t employ the word—that it is racist code for “black male”. Sooner or later, we must collectively begin to say, “No, that’s a lie,” to this mutilation of our rights as free human beings to speak our minds. “Thug” is most certainly not a racist word, any more than Michael Jones was an innocent bystander. Men, true men, are most certainly not predators who lay in wait to rape young cousins and then volunteer to shoot them for the family’s honor. If that’s a distinctly Kurdish phenomenon, then let us call it so. We must call it so. If we do not speak accurately, then the situations we abhor will continue—and then we will truly be accomplices in the crime.
Now, is the Confederate flag or is it not a symbol of racism? The issue is clouded. Clarity is not enhanced when conservative white columnists, attempting to score easy PC points on the back of a tradition which means less than nothing to them regionally, purvey historical half-truths. Wrote one such scribbler in late June, “I don’t get the concept of ‘southern pride’ to the point you’d embrace something under which so much evil was perpetrated, nor do I understand why anyone would let a dead symbol have that much power over them [sic].” By “so much evil”, the writer presumably is not holding the South solely responsible for the Civil War, but rather for the institution of slavery. Slavery, after all, is why he’s writing about the flag at all in mid-2015: to respond, that is, to the allegation that the flag celebrates the subjugation of African slaves.
No historical argument is presented, by this columnist or any of the dozens who have written similar words, on behalf of that proposition. This may well be because the argument cannot be truthfully made. Consider:
1) Most households in the South owned not one slave—and no small farmer would be fool enough to covet the right of his wealthy competitors to use slave labor.
2) Even among slaveholders, the vast majority owned no more than two or three. I have long suspected from my reading of slave narratives, though I cannot prove this objectively, that a few—perhaps many—of these small holders purchased slaves to keep them out of the hands of their more brutal neighbors. Freedmen with papers were routinely rounded up by dealers and sold back into slavery; they were often kidnapped, even, from Northern states (which didn’t seem overly concerned about the practice). Buying Old Jim’s freedom, therefore, and giving him some papers to carry would merely have put a bull’s eye on his back, and he wouldn’t find a lot of staunch defenders if he crossed into Illinois.
3) Speaking of Illinois… the sainted Mr. Lincoln deliberately excluded from the Emancipation Proclamation those northern states where slave ownership remained grandfathered into legality. Where he could actually have freed slaves with the stroke of a pen, he didn’t bother to. Ulysses S. Grant, among other Union officers, owned slaves.
4) Lincoln insisted in his debates with Stephen Douglas and elsewhere that black men ought never be allowed to sit on juries adjudicating matters concerning white men, or to intrude into white affairs in other significant ways as equals. Lincoln’s fondest desire was to repatriate as many blacks as possible to Africa. Alexis de Toqueville had remarked somewhat earlier that blacks never seemed to vote in areas where they were legal citizens, fearing that they might pay with their lives for doing so. The racism of the times, in short, was spread fairly evenly throughout all states.
5) The ship-owners whose vessels transported slaves from Africa to Charleston and New Orleans were overwhelmingly Northerners. The South possessed no shipyards to speak of.
6) The Northern economy would not have supported slavery. Already comparatively industrial in the first half of the nineteenth century, thriving northern urban centers drew their “slave labor” from ruthlessly exploited Scots, Irish, Welsh, and German immigrants, who competed for a barely livable wage and didn’t impose upon the industrialist the added expenses of room, board, and medical care.
7) In fact, the root cause of the war had much more to do with the friction between the North’s industrial, protectionist economy and the South’s agrarian, overly taxed economy than it did with slavery. The latter was scarcely more than a rhetorical convenience for Mr. Lincoln as he sought support for his vision of a much more centralized government.
Enough of that. Historically, the Stars and Bars can no more be said to represent a confirmation of slavery than can the Union Jack. To the Southerners who lost limbs and lives resisting the Union’s invasion, the Confederate flag did not symbolize a determination to keep Africans in chains. It symbolized a desire for self-determination and local autonomy—a desire whose compatibility with slavery was admittedly an outright contradiction, especially if one considers all Southerners to have been slavery-supportive by association. Yet this would be as crude an equation as was the South’s own oversight in allowing slavery to taint the case for freedom. The issues were unhappily murky on all sides, and the thinking disastrously incensed by passion.
None of this is to say that a descendant of slaves today would be likely to see the flag as signifying his freedom to bear arms in defense of his home (though, for that matter, there were indeed black troops among the Confederacy’s soldiers). To men of my grandfather’s generation, however, and even to those of mine who didn’t emigrate northward, the Confederate flag—perhaps clumsily, but evocatively—was the colorful face of the Bill of Rights.
And then again… should we not be at least a little concerned if drug-addicted sociopaths like Dylann Roof associate that flag with their feverish visions? How many KKK members have honored the flag for approximately the same reasons? How many are too many?
I personally am so far from objecting to the Confederate flag’s being stripped from official, tax-funded spaces in South Carolina that I do not even think it should ever have occupied them. (If you want to parse the symbolism of the setting… why would any Bill of Rights enthusiast want his cherished symbol to flutter beneath the imperialist’s banner in open humiliation?) There are far greater issues waving over our heads, however. If the Stars and Bars is tainted, what about the Stars and Stripes? Revisionist historians blame the European founders whose system and culture our national flag represents not just for tolerating slavery too long, but also for exterminating indigenous peoples. Louis Ferrakhan has declared in a DC church that “we need to put the American flag down. Because we’ve caught as much hell under that as the Confederate flag.” This is a ridiculous comment, to be sure, coming from a man so big a fool as to embrace the religion that originally enslaved and sold his ancestors to Westerners. Yet the argument against the Confederate flag was ridiculous, too, on its historical merits.
If we proceed to accepting or rejecting words and symbols without any attention to how ignorant their judges are, but only to the raw numbers of thumbs pointing up or down, why not lower our national flag, as well? How many votes will it take, if we don’t yet have critical mass?
What value do facts have in their ongoing war with feelings? Are feelings not the new facts, the superior facts, of an increasingly reflexive, tirelessly tweeting culture? And if they are, then where does all the anathematizing end?
If my father had been killed in the South Pacific by the Japanese, would I have a right to rage against a big red happy face because it reminded me of the Rising Sun on a kamikaze Zero’s wing? Certain self-appointed advocates of the Native American community have lately decided to fulminate about teams with names like Redskins, Braves, and Apaches. Should local, long-standing designations like “Arapaho Drive” be altered? Should feathers be pulled from hats if one or two people claiming Indian ancestry say that they feel violated? Since any gesture or utterance can potentially offend anyone with an unhealthily active imagination, at what point do we recover our right to speak? Will not silence, indeed, run the risk of being interpreted as a snub? What future awaits a society that indulges itself in such lunatic debauches of sensitivity?
There is no question, besides, that “symbol hysteria” can be and is being exploited politically. Some people claim to view the Cross as a symbol of oppression. If a mass-murderer of Muslim citizens burned a Crucifix into his victims’ bodies, Christians everywhere would be placed under intense pressure to renounce the symbol. Yet so violent a trigger-event will not be required to promote this attack on one of our few surviving cultural mainstays. School children are already being sent home for wearing or having imprinted on their clothing a Crucifix, or for writing a book report on a section of the Bible. Query: if your child were given instructions by a teacher to wear a “rainbow” selection of haberdashery tomorrow to show solidarity with gay marriage, and if you refused to let the child out the door in such a state for such a reason, would your religious scruples not be received as hate speech? Would your child not be harassed until he or she turned against you?
My son’s college (a Franciscan institution) forced the whole baseball team this spring to model a pale pink tee reading, “Strike out sexual assault,” during warm-ups before a game. An all-campus assembly discussing the virtue of self-control, the squalor of drunkenness, and the immorality of hook-ups was not considered appropriate. Instead, male athletes were explicitly targeted to become walking placards, as if the words on their chests would be absorbed into their pliant brains and replace the Cross’s worn-out symbolism with new aphorisms and prompts. The incident vaguely reminded me of the Stanley Kubrick film, A Clockwork Orange: the conditioning of young males through electrodes as if they were rats in a Skinner Box didn’t seem a far stretch from the mindset behind the shirts.
What we may and may not wear, what we may and may not say, what we may and may not fly at the masthead… we are all routinely treated now like toddlers incapable of grasping moral concepts, and whose conduct must therefore be conditioned by gold stars or time-outs. The infantilization of our entire culture in this manner betrays a rather advanced contempt for the human spirit. We are pawns to be moved about by masterminds, robots to be programmed by engineers. We are granted no leeway to argue our case and explain our dissent: our reasons are uninteresting, because the only possible motive for any human behavior is conditioning. The correct response to wrong conditioning isn’t to permit the malfunctioning robot to babble his muddled heresies: it’s to reprogram him. Those who own a Confederate flag must have their hands slapped. Those who are male and in excellent physical shape must be advised that they are always and only to serve as partners at the female’s discretion.
The connection here with sexual harassment is indeed highly instructive. Infractions, that is, are not to be determined by objective evidence: they occur when a party already endowed with some kind of minority status registers a painful sensation. In sexual harassment law, the plaintiff has a case if she thinks she has a case: the threshold of criminalization is her feeling that she has somehow been violated. I shall always remember a brochure circulated at an academic workshop. On its cover, a young woman in a very short and tight-fitting skirt was bending over right beside the desk of a young man who, of course, went saucer-eyed. We may assume that the woman catches some of this gape out of the corner of her eye. The subtext was that she has just been harassed, if she finds the attention “predatory”. The Confederate flag is apparently that ogling gaze. If someone protests, “That makes me feel like you want to enslave me!” then—by golly, that’s just what the flag means. Your protests to the contrary mean nothing: you were not the offended party. The refusal to clothe your child in a rainbow tee shirt could be constructed in the same manner. The gay plaintiff could moan, “Even now, someone still disapproves of me! I’ll never be accepted! I feel so hated, so banished… I think I’m going to faint!” The intent of your refusal becomes irrelevant: you are now liable for the victim’s medical bill.
This blatant, insane rejection of logic and fairness is so spectacular on the part of the plainant that it is apt to distract our attention from those who manipulate him and his “grief”. Yet the ultimate issue must be said to lie with that manipulation. As we ordinary citizens are moved about like vile little tokens in a board game, some insufferably haughty person behind the scenes is surely thinking out the moves. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the most consequential implication of O’Brien’s torturing Winston into a profession that two and two are five is the unlimited arrogance latent in political power. Two and two are not five, and never will be; but the elitist insists on being able to take the most fundamental components of reality and rearrange them. Tight skirt: avert eyes. Gay marriage: think true love. Crucifix: think intolerance. Confederate flag: think slavery.
All things considered, I must conclude that it is a huge mistake to let the Confederate flag be vilified across our culture, although removing it from state offices should have been done as a matter of legality long ago. The fight for our images and icons—the fight to defend the meanings which we choose to bestow upon them rather than to accept the meanings dictated to us by faceless authority—must be waged with our last drop of blood. To me, that fight is not at all unlike the cause for which the flag originally stood; but I recognize the controversy in that assertion, and I will not insist upon it. I insist, rather, upon our vital need to begin the fight somewhere. If the Stars and Bars are not to be that point of beginning, then we had better find a defensive position that we prefer very soon, plant our standard deeply in its high ground, and hunker down for the battle of the century.
Dr. Singleton, after a professional career of thirty years, now teaches part-time, consults as a writer, and nourishes his inner amateur. He resides in the North Texas area.