Monday, March 19, 2007

The Confederate flag: Celebrating treason

The X has risen again, this time in Florida, where loyal Sons of the South are expressing shock and disgust at a sculpture entitled, "The Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag," which features the Confederate battle flag hanging in a noose.

Part of an exhibit entitled AfroProvocations at the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science in Tallahassee that opened as part of Black History Month, the flag-&-noose installation is the product of black “political artist” John Sims.

A 1961 Florida law actually says it’s illegal to defile or "cast contempt upon" the Confederate flag "by word or act." Florida sent 15,000 men into the Civil War, the highest percentage by population of men of military age from the Confederate states; and 5,000 Floridians died from wounds or disease. Florida's Civil War governor shot himself rather than face reunion with the North. Not surprisingly, Florida has some emotional “issues” when it comes to the Confederate flag.
Four other states – Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina – also have laws protecting the Confederate flag. That’s five out of 11 ex-Confederate States. In South Carolina, the Confederate flag still flies on the statehouse’s capitol dome, the cause of much recent controversy.

Ironically, Sims, a Detroit native, didn't know about the Florida law before he made his piece, but now that he does, he says, “that's the first thing we should deal with. This law should be taken off the books."

Naturally, True Sons and Daughters of the South disagree.

"That display is extremely offensive. It's very tasteless," said Robert Hurst, the leader of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans group, whose great-great-grandfather led a company for the Confederacy and committed suicide after the South's surrender. "This teaches contempt for not only the Confederate flag but for everything associated with it."

And “everything associated with it” would be…what? Rebellion? Defeat? Slavery? Suicide? The color gray?
* * *
Look, sorry to be so blunt, but this whole debate should have been resolved a long, long time ago. In 1865, to be exact, when the Confederacy (aka The South) lost, and the Union (aka The North, aka The United States of America) won.
Let’s remember that for a second: America won, the Confederacy lost. “We” (America) won. We beat them, and America exists today in all its 50 States because of it.

The fact that we even let “them” (today, they are us) fly the Confederate flag after their defeat has been a testament to America’s magnanimous and charitable spirit.
Our graciousness then to our defeated Southern brethren was also proof that, contrary to the South’s inflated worst fears leading up to 1861, the North never had any intention of dictating every last detail of the States’ lives by federal fiat. Post-war, America’s thinking surely was, “If they want to fly their little X, why not let them? What harm could it do?”

That was surely expedient at the time, when America’s first priority was patching up nasty old wounds in the South as quickly as possible. But today, we can see at least two bad consequences because of the U.S. federal government’s failure to outlaw the Confederate flag in the 1860s.

First, partly because we (the United States) didn't obliterate this symbol of the Confederacy, the South can’t forget the scabs of old war wounds: they keep picking and licking them, which leaves a sour taste in their mouths, politically and socially. Having lived in Alabama, I’ve seen firsthand this peculiar – what they would reckon “noble” – Southern pride in having lost. It lives to this day. It is passed from father to son, mother to daughter. (I shudder to think how insufferably haughty the South would have been to this day had they won.)

The South is also home to more than its fair share of Civil War re-enactors and respected historians (often carrying the risible title of “Professor of Southern Studies.”) Again, it’s peculiar how faithfully, meticulously, and proudly they recall their total defeat.

It’s also peculiar, if you think about it, how utterly absent is the contrary identification with victory in the Northern states. For anyone not born in the South, there is no “us” and “them” dating back to the 19th century. For us, the Civil War is something we spend a week or two studying in high school, and that’s it. The present reality is all that matters: We are an indivisible union of States, “with liberty and justice for all.” We may consider some Southerners to be backward, gun-loving, snake-handling bumpkins, but we still think of them as part of us, for better or worse.

Granted, for many Southerners, the motivation for all this Civil War nostalgia – which is pathetic, let’s face it – is the same motivation of anyone in any place who wishes to know and preserve his past. And while the South’s past has a lot of things probably best forgotten, it’s the only past they’ve got. I get that.

For others, however, something more sinister – and ignorant – lurks behind all this sepia-tinted nostalgia for a bygone age. Sinister, because they harbor active, lingering resentment and recriminations towards… whom? They’re not entirely sure. Certainly uppity blacks. The federal government, probably. Or anybody who doesn’t favor loose federalism and States’ rights.

Unfortunately, there is hardly anybody left for Southerners to harbor resentment against: no more "bluebellies" or "carpet baggers" roam and pillage the South with impunity; the reviled Republican Party of the North is now the beloved Republican Party of the South; and everyone from that era, most importantly Lincoln, is dead.

That only leaves blacks, who can't seem to stop being black, no matter where they're from or whom they vote for.

The ignorant part is Southerners' schizophrenic dual loyalty – to the dead Confederacy, and to the current US of A – which they hardly stop to think about or reconcile. Today, the South takes pride in being more unwaveringly and vocally patriotic than the rest of America; and a disproportionate number of our U.S. soldiers come from the South.

I’m no historian, but I can’t think of any historical equivalent of our bizarre Union-hating, America-loving South. The Basques in Spain? The Irish in Britain? Nobody else seems to fit the bill. If I’m wrong, please enlighten me.

Anyway, why is Southerners’ seething but abstract resentment of any importance? Well, frankly, because thanks to air-conditioning, demographics, and economic growth, the South suddenly matters. Since Watergate, it has gone from a reliably Democrat-voting Third-World backwater to lockstep Republican dynamo (with many pockets of deep poverty remaining, to be sure), with big increases in electoral votes to boot. It is the GOP’s new power base. And Florida, where the latest X-flag controversy has erupted, with its huge population, has become a must-win state for any politician hoping to be President.

Thanks to that, we now have the worst of both worlds: A dominant national party made up of people who hate the federal government in Washington for even existing, and are wistful for the days when blacks were slaves; who are also parochial, rally-round-the-flag nationalists ready to bomb any country that even looks at America funny. That’s a lot of unarticulated, pent-up hate and suspicion, directed both inward and outward. And the South is now the face of America to the world.

Witness what perverse effects this new political reality has on our national politicians, when asked to take a stand on the Confederate flag issue.
In 2000, presidential hopeful George W. Bush was asked in a GOP candidates' debate in South Carolina if he was "affronted" by the Confederate flag atop the capitol dome. Bush answered that the flag was a state’s rights issue, and the crowd cheered its approval. In February 2001, Bush’s brother, Governor Jeb, quietly ordered the removal of the flag that had flown at the Florida state capitol for 22 years. (It helps when a state’s rights are determined by your brother, who can save you from political embarrassment and having to take a stand.)

In May 2006, presidential hopeful and “straight-talker” John McCain publicly flip-flopped on Larry King Live after saying the Confederate flag in South Carolina was a matter of state’s rights: "I said that that was a state issue. It's not a state issue. It's a symbol that should not fly over the state capitol anywhere in America." He continued, "I said that it really wasn't any of my business ... that was an act of cowardice."

Having learned from others’ mistakes, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton minced her words in a February 2007 AP interview: "I think about how many South Carolinians have served in our military and who are serving today under our flag and I believe that we should have one flag that we all pay honor to, as I know that most people in South Carolina do every single day. I personally would like to see it removed from the Statehouse grounds."

South Carolinians, it goes without saying, care a great deal about what Hillary Clinton wants personally. I’m sure they’ll hop to it.

* * *
The second, and more often discussed downside of permitting the Confederate flag to fly publicly, is that it’s a slap in the face to every black American. No, the civil war was not just about slavery; nor does the Confederate flag represent only slavery – but slavery is certainly one of the things the flag stands for. To deny that is to deny history.

When I studied in Alabama, with a small black minority on campus, some obnoxious white students wore T-shirts emblazoned with the Confederate flag and the caption, “You wear your X, I’ll wear mine.” (Note: I never saw a black student crazy or dumb enough to wear an X hat or T-shirt on a Southern white campus!) The clear implication was that the Confederate flag stood in equal opposition to the X (as in Malcolm X) of the Black Power movement. Everybody understood it. Most white students thought the T-shirt was funny and clever. Don’t tell me the Confederate flag has no racist symbolism.

But again, until recently none of that was important, because African-Americans were second-class citizens in the law (the Black Codes, Jim Crow, "separate but equal"), and in our social mores. More than a century belated, blacks thankfully enjoy the full promise (well, nearly so) of Emancipation. And so now their thoughts and feelings – and votes – suddenly matter. And guess what? They’re terribly offended to see the rebel Confederate flag flying at State institutions in Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.

After WWII, we didn’t let the Germans fly the Nazi swastika for “sentimental” or “historical” reasons. Like the swastika, the Confederate battle flag is a uniquely incendiary symbol born out of violent defiance and an ideology of racial superiority. A symbol of liberty for some, but for too many others a symbol of bondage, it is simply too hurtful, too provocative to let fly freely and openly in the USA.
* * *
It is also illogical for the flag of a defeated nation to fly proudly in the victor’s halls of power. In 1861, the Confederacy seceded from the Union and seized a federal fort in South Carolina, starting the Civil War. By April 1865, after 1,000,000 had been killed or seriously wounded, the South was beaten by the United States of America, and the 11 rebel States were subsumed back into the Union.

Unfortunately, no politician today with national aspirations can afford to come out and say the commonsense truth: “Get that damned rebel battle flag out of our government buildings, before we charge you with treason!” The South is much too sensitive, with too many votes to give.

We right-thinking, patriotic Americans have appealed to the South’s better angels to do the right thing, and we’ve been rejected. So, my suggestion is to couch our objections in different terms. Terms which any red-blooded American jingoist can understand.

I’m talking about Loyalty Oaths.

We required them under Reconstruction (so-called “ironclad oaths”), retroactively, to get ex-Confederates out of public office. (Kind of a similar process to de-Ba’athification in Iraq.)

Also during Reconstruction, the magnanimous Lincoln-Johnson "10 percent" plan required at least 10 percent of voters in rebel states to to take an oath of allegiance to the United States, and pledge to abide by emancipation, before a state could be restored to the Union. (The Republican Congress had demanded 50%, not 10%, in the Wade-Davis Bill, but President Johnson refused, abiding by Lincoln.)

During WWII, President Truman required them (the so-called “Loyalty Program”) for “persons deemed suspect to holding party membership in organizations that advocated violent and anti-democratic programs.”

In 1972, in Cole v. Richardson, the Supreme Court upheld a Massachusetts oath that included a requirement to "uphold and defend" the Constitution and to "oppose the overthrow of the government ... by force, violence or by any illegal or unconstitutional method."

Oran's Dictionary of the Law (1983) defines treason as: "...[a]...citizen's actions to help a foreign government overthrow, make war against, or seriously injure the [parent nation]." The Confederacy certainly made war against the USA. And nobody in the history of the United States has come closer to destroying the U.S. Constitution and overthrowing the U.S. government than the Confederate States of America.

Lincoln, Johnson, Truman, and McCarthy were right: Especially in times of war, we need to know who’s on our side, and who isn’t. Does the South still identify with the Confederacy, or with the United States? They can’t have it both ways.
Congress should make loyalty oaths mandatory for all government officials in all 50 States and Guam. (Actually, we already ask state government officials to take an Oath to defend the U.S. Constitution, so if we really wanted, we could charge Confederate flag wavers in government with treason now). Then, if any government official at any level persists in flying a rebel flag, we prosecute him for a federal crime. Once enacted, such a law would have those X flags collecting dust in Florida basements before you could say “Look away Dixieland!”

Don’t make it a debate about slavery, morality, state’s rights, or anything else that white Southerners will reject out of hand. Make the issue simple: Are you a loyal American?

I can see country singer and ass-kicking Southern patriot Toby Keith scratching his head over the dilemma right now….

This big dog will fight
When you rattle his cage
And you'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A.
'Cause we'll put in a boot in your ass
It's the American way.


Anonymous said...

Your a moron why don't you look up what the south was actually fighting for and what the north was fighting for i can tell you that from a source the stars and stripes was used by the KKK till 1940. So you should actually research before you stick your foot in your mouth like you did here.

Elaine said...

"Anonymous" needs to learn how to spell and write a grammatically correct sentence before calling anyone a moron. The truth hurts, doesn't it? Flying the rebel flag is an act of treason, you uneducated fool.