So, suddenly it’s become politically and socially acceptable to remove the Confederate Battle Flag from public space and banish it from polite conversation.
This is strange. In my life, I would never have imagined that this symbol would ever be contested by white conservatives in the South. There was so much honoring of ancestors and heritage in the defense of that flag that it seemed a permanent part of America.
I’ve never defended the Confederacy, though I have in the past defended secession as a general principle. I’ve always thought arguments claiming the secession of the southern states in 1860 and 1861, and the subsequent war, was about something other than slavery — such as tariffs — was foolish. Slavery had divided the nation since almost the moment it was formally founded, and certainly since the Missouri Compromise of 1820. It had set Kansas on fire, made the murderous terrorist John Brown into a hero, and fixed the eye of the Southern ruling elites toward the Caribbean, where they envisioned an expanded American empire of slavery.
(Tennessee lawyer, journalist, and “adventurer” William Walker managed to do some of this on his own when he a group of Americans conquered and ruled Nicaragua for a few years in the mid-1850s. Among his first acts as el presidente, Walker re-established slavery in the tiny isthmus state; it had been abolished in Nicaragua in the 1820s.)
At the same time, I think the end of the American Civil War (note: it was more a failed act of secession, like the Biafra War or the long and failed struggle in Sri Lanka by the Tamils for independence, than a true civil war, which is historically a fight by two or more parties to govern one particular patch of territory) is not such a happy one. Yes, slavery was ended, but white America’s commitment to true racial equality — to treating black Americans as equal citizens — was found wanting, and largely abandoned a decade after the guns fell silent.
However, it is the precedent — that no one says no to America or leaves for any reason — troubles me the most. It is state power without limit, government which cannot be resisted, and we would see — especially in the 20th century — just how far those who ruled would push those limits. It also contains in it the very seeds of an American version of The Brezhnev Doctrine — once you are part of America, you cannot walk away. Empire was the likely outcome of the war no matter how it ended. But we now live with an American empire that simply cannot be escaped.
But back to the matter at hand. The banishing of the Confederate Battle Flag from acceptable public discourse is happening at a dizzying speed. I won’t argue with it. While the South has long honored its war dead (particularly from 1898 onward, when the Spanish War allowed the ex-secessionists to feel like proper Americans again), the Confederate Battle Flag was resurrected in the 20th century primarily as a symbol of resistance rather than of unity. The War with Spain allowed the citizens of the former Confederacy to finally consciously and enthusiastically embrace American symbols, and in turn, America embraced the South in popular culture in a way it never had prior to that. The first few decades of the 20th century saw a popularization and nationalization of all things southern, including the South’s coarse racism.
Consider: Al Jolson, an immigrant Jew from Lithuania, invents large portions of his early career — in the teens of the last century — by singing songs about the Suwannee River, “memories” of “mammy,” crooning darkies, steamboat races between “the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee,” and singing in blackface to crowded halls across the country. His family may have arrived penniless in America decades after slavery ended, but he profited hugely — as did so many others — from the country’s distorted and romantic telling of it ugly racist story.
(By the 1930s, and definitely by the 1950s, popular culture had become significantly less overtly and coarsely racist, choosing mostly to ignore blacks altogether instead of caricaturing them. The resurrection of Jolson’s career in the late 1940s, for example, was largely free of his earlier, racially loaded material.)
In America 100 years ago, even progressives were racist. To be a racist was to be American, and to embrace American symbols. When it marched in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan would march with the American flag. Not the Confederate one.
By the 1950s, that had changed, as the great Kulturkampf over what America meant — were American ideals universal, meant for all people everywhere, or were they very particular, and only really for white people? — began. The majority view looked upon the end of Western colonialism (white, European rule) of Africa and Asia, and seeing independence movements springing up claiming the enlightenment heritage as their patrimony too, saw American segregation and racism as both an embarrassment (how can we claim to support African independence when blacks at home are not free?) and presenting an opening for communist ideologues to exploit (because the Americans don’t really mean it when they support your freedom; look at how they treat their own black people!). It would embrace the civil rights movement, and embrace some form of anti-colonialism abroad. This was the majority view, and the view of nearly all of America’s governing elites from the late 1940s onwards.
But there was another view, that saw independence struggles in the emerging “Third World” as a form of communism in and of itself. The United States should support white rule where and when it can, because nothing good can come of dark skinned peoples governing themselves. Indeed, they are incapable of doing so. This was never widely held among elites (although it was probably what FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover believed), but it was widespread among conservative white America from the beginning.
As an example, the intellectual forebears of Dylann Roof [sic] condemned the Kennedy Administration’s failure to support Salazar’s Portugal following India’s invasion and annexation of Portugal’s last possessions on the Indian subcontinent in 1961. Failing to stand with Portugal, the thinking went, was a victory for communism and the eventual destruction of white civilization.
This was never a majority view following the Second World War, this idea that the world’s dark-skinned people are incapable of governing themselves (again, this was a progressive view once; Woodrow Wilson believed this intensely). But it was held by enough people to cause trouble. And it’s still not settled. Not really.
Which, I suppose, in a roundabout way, gets us back to the Confederate Battle Flag. It should have been banished from polite conversion decades ago. It doesn’t belong there.
At the same time, I cannot help but think the whole move is … well, meaningless. It will be one more thing for conservatives to be angry and resentful about in a few months the next time righteous anger is stoked when a black man dies at the hands of a police officer.
“What do you people want from us?” I can hear a Fox News talking head say in angry exasperation. “We’ve done everything you’ve asked!”
The flag is a symbol, and the sins of America are not symbolic. It also costs nothing to apologize for sins you didn’t commit. It may make you feel good, but you can’t really repent of something you didn’t do, and thus cannot really make right. (This also applies every time liberal Christians apologize for the Crusades or slavery.) You didn’t do it, and Jesus’ admonition to the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23 comes to mind:
29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets. ’ 31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29-31 ESV)
The only sins you can repent of are yours. Yes, scripture is clear, you may pay for the sins of your fathers (and their fathers, and theirs), because of the things their sins set into motion, but you cannot really repent of them. You can only bear the consequences of their sins. And hope that repentance will alleviate or ameliorate the current course of events.
And the sin in question is foundational to America: that blackness is viewed in and of itself as a permanent other, a threat to good order, potential disorder which power and law and authority must control and dominate. This is foundational to America, it goes back to the 17th century. (In some flavors of the American civil faith, blackness is viewed as a “curse,” something that cannot really be undone.) If we wish to repent and atone and do penance, then we must consider not the Dylann Roofs of America (though the fact that alienated young white men are most likely to do this says something else about us we need to consider), but how we think about blacks, how we police them, how we fail to consider them — long after the ending of the War Between the States legally made them full citizens — as equal participants in America.
Because we still treat them as occupied people, people to be controlled. We still govern and police them in ways we don’t even police or treat poor whites (who we are generally content to let wallow in their own misery and failure). We still consign them to a kind of outer darkness, and we generally close our ears to their wailing and gnashing of teeth.
This, and not slavery, or some flag, is what we as Americans now need to repent of.
I’m not optimistic. I’m not even hopeful. Because the criminalization of blackness is so foundational to America, and so rooted in “evidence” and “reason” for some, that fixing it (even if that’s possible) would be like trying to repair a portion of the foundation of a house while trying to live in it and keep it from falling over. I know there are people of goodwill out there trying to improve things. And I know many black folks are angry that after so much struggle, and so many promises, so little has changed.
I do know people of goodwill can hack through or find their way around it. I’ve seen them do it. I’ve tried to do it myself. But fixing the society … I don’t know.
I do know that 30 years ago, a white conservative could defend Rhodesia, apartheid South Africa, and even Portuguese rule in Angola. (Because I heard them do just that.) But even then, most such conservatives had long forgotten Goa, just as today they had long forgotten, and are embarrassed by, Rhodesia. That’s something.
Maybe there’s reason to be hopeful, then. As we consign symbols to outer darkness, we banish the things they represent as well. It’s slow, agonizingly slow, and too many brothers and sisters will suffer and die between here and there. And it still only marches around the fundamental sin of America, the criminalization of blackness, and the daily brutality that results, which remains on ugly display, something far too many are still far too proud of.