A Little Honesty on the Confederate Flag

Want to fly a flag?  How about this one?

Want to fly a flag? How about this one?

W.J. Astore

Many people associate the Confederate flag (the “stars and bars”) with the South and the U.S. Civil War (Whoops — I mean “The War of Northern Aggression”).  For some people, it’s been a more or less vague expression of Southern heritage, or a symbol of rebellion, a sort of redneck “good ol’ boy” badge of pride.  Like any symbol, it is capable of holding multiple meanings.  To use academic fancy talk, its semiotics is negotiated and interrogated contextually within contingent cultural settings in which radical interpretive flexibility is possible.

Did you follow that last sentence?  If you didn’t, pat yourself on the back, because it’s all BS.  The “stars and bars” may have been a Confederate battle flag 150 years ago, but after the Civil War it morphed into a symbol of White supremacy, becoming a symbol of race hatred and violent resistance to integration during the Civil Rights movement.

A little honesty: The Confederate flag is hardly restricted to the South, and therefore it’s not primarily about Southern heritage. In rural Central Pennsylvania, where I recently taught for nine years, the Confederate flag was astonishingly common.  It was on license plates; it flew every day at a local gas station; I saw neighbors flying it openly on their flag poles.  Why, you might ask?

My wife was very good friends with a Black woman in a local town; the (White) neighbor immediately behind her openly flew a Confederate flag from his flag pole. Remember, this was Pennsylvania, Union country, not the heart of the Confederacy. There was no mistaking this man’s message — his unhappiness that a Black family lived near him, and his decision to make them uncomfortable, to make them squirm, by flying “his” flag.

Think I’m reaching here?  My wife’s friend has a son who went to the prom.  He complimented a (White) classmate on her prom dress, saying it looked “hot” on her.  He got a visit from an off-duty State Trooper who explained to him that Black boys don’t talk to White girls like that.  Not around here, son.  No, this wasn’t 1963.  It was 2013.  A half-century after the Civil Rights movement.

It’s good to see that the Confederate flag is finally being taken down from State Capitol buildings; that merchandise featuring it is being pulled from store shelves; that politicians are finally speaking out against it, even Republican candidates for president, who equivocated in such a cowardly manner until even they could no longer resist the pull of public outrage stemming from the latest racial hate crime in Charleston.

The question is: What the hell took them (and us) so long?

32 thoughts on “A Little Honesty on the Confederate Flag

  1. There’s an old saying about Pennsylvania: Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Mississippi in the middle. Thanks for the reminder of the truth of that.

  2. As a foreigner, I sometimes wonder what happened to “the Land of the Free”. When you can’t even fly the flag of your choice, there’s precious little freedom left to boast about. And I say this as someone with absolutely no axe [sic] to grind as regards race (I don’t believe there is such a thing), nationality, culture, or history. No, I just try to think logically and challenge arbitrary prohibitions that people like to place on other people’s (always other people’s) actions.

    • One can still fly the “stars and bars.” That “freedom” hasn’t been taken away. But anyone who chooses to fly that flag should recognize that many will be offended by it, intimidated by it, maybe even traumatized by it if they’ve experienced hate-driven prejudice.

      So then the question is: Why fly such a flag when you know it offends so many? When you know it’s become a symbol of hate? Is that really how you want to express your “freedom”?

      • Come now Professor Astore. Dost thou kiddest with us? The old stars and stripes’ “freedom” has NOT been taken away from us?
        Does our privacy still exist when all our means of communication are monitored by the state? Citizens whose skin color is not lily white are murdered by our militarized police and peaceful protests against government injustice and illegality.are not broken up the the same police? Did not millions of hard working citizens not be thrown out of their homes by large banks illegally manipulating the mortgage market and not a single banker has gone to jail? What and whose “freedom” are you talking about?

      • I’m talking about your freedom, traven! Seriously, you notice how “freedom” is enclosed in quotation marks. The “freedom” to fly a flag associated with slavery, rebellion, oppression, and racism doesn’t seem to me to be much of a “freedom.” The same is true of the “freedom” to bear arms. What is so “free” about that?

        Your comment captures an important point: how the “freedom” of the average Joe has come to be defined as the right to carry guns or the right to fly a racist flag. But the right to a living wage, the right to privacy, the right to clean water and air, the right to have a say in the political process: well, those rights are being denied to us, and yet so many see no infringement to their “freedom” here.

        Surely one of the great triumphs of the power elite has been the redefinition of “freedom” such that the freedoms that are allowed make no impact on their ability to rule and to exploit.

      • Tricky word, that “freedom.” The bigots who insist that “god” frowns severely on the very concept of same-sex couples, let alone legal marriage equality for them, are now loudly proclaiming that they feel endangered in this society! “We hope we’re not going to be subjected to discrimination” they plead, crocodile tears welling up. Ah yes, play the “victim card.” One of THE most important freedoms I am willing to fight for is the right to NOT have public policy based on the superstitions of narrow-minded bigots offering the Bible as the basis for their ideas on how we should be governed. As for firearms, the claim to freedom to stockpile them and carry them in public, etc. is based on a preposterous interpretation of the 2nd Amendment, a gross distortion, endorsed by SCOTUS in one of their very worst decisions. “Freedom from fear” is one of the Four Freedoms proclaimed by FDR. I fully support the right to self-defense, but it is a sad, sad commentary that in this society people feel it necessary to keep firearms in their domiciles to protect the premises. (Don’t get me started on idiocy, idiocy with racist undertones, like Florida’s “stand your ground” law.) The populace seems mighty easily frightened, as others have observed here–beware the 4th of July, beware the 4th of July!–despite living in the most heavily fortified nation on Earth. Gee, I wonder if citizens of Costa Rica, which disbanded its military many years ago, walk about in a perpetual state of fear? I tend to doubt it!

      • wjastore, I love your commentary on the “freedom” of the average Joe. You are right. We live in a false freedom. Never the freedom that the Founding Fathers wanted for us. I read “Happy New World” when I was 17 years old after I have already read “1984”. It terrified me more than”1984″ because I could see the sophisticated scientific manipulation in HUXLEY’s book that it was not in the brutal treatment of the masses. Every force creates a contrary force of the same intensity. I paraphrase because English was not my first language. In “1984” you could “see” the power coming after you. In “Happy New World” you were absorbed by the good treatment. You became a slave dreaming sweet dreams with”soma”, with beautiful colors that surrounded you, with beautiful smells that you could perceive but had no apparent origin. And you got used to the colors, the aromas and the soma. Who could dream of anything more perfect? And anything you were asked to do was secondary to your sensory stimulation. Nazism was not the same but used the same idea. Create a common ideal that unites the people. Do not show them the ugliness only the beauty of the parades, the beauty of the marches, and you have them. Remove the children from the family and educate them in the beauty of the idea. Anybody that rebels against it make him or her disappear. Reward the follower. And you have a generation to do whatever you want with them. Even denounce their own parents. Nowadays in the USA we have gadgets, that are better every year and need to be replaced. If we, the parents, do not react soon they will have taken our children away. We are busy and worried about our children, our lack of jobs, our home mortgage or the foreclosure, the confusing political horizon where different sides end up doing the same but for different reasons, like the two sides of a triangle that meet at the top but are far away at the base, our country has more debt than ever, but our tax money is not enough to feed the greed of The Pentagon, that all the support we created for our old age is being destroyed, that they little by little take away from us everything that was valuable in the past. Be very careful I am not talking about beliefs or family values I am talking about the freedom we used to have to plan and achieve our own personal goals. They watch us, they listen into our conversations.Our children keep playing with their gadgets and do not care for our worries. What do we know? We are old and this is their world and they do not care if they are watched or heard. What can they do to them?, they ask you. We are old and paranoic. This is the beginning of the happy new world. Yes, this is the “freedom” of the average Joe that soon will disappeared to be replaced by the new happy generation.

      • Thanks, Grace. Yes, today’s soma is a combination of prescription drugs and gadgets. Parents and kids are taking various forms of calming drugs, and gadgets occupy our attention, keeping us distracted. Drugged and distracted, we are encouraged to assert our existence with “social media” and photos taken with selfie sticks. What we’re not encouraged to do is to participate in politics in any meaningful way. We’re not encouraged to organize and to act together for meaningful change.

      • Graciela–I think we are getting a dose of both Huxley’s “Brave New World” AND Orwell’s “1984” in society’s direction. I continue to argue that Orwell’s book is THE most important novel of the 20th Century. In another Comment the other day I explained how remarkably inexpensive it actually is for the US to launch endless unjustified military actions overseas. As long as those of us who try to point out that “the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes” (that is, the US dollar is backed by NOTHING and can be printed endlessly) can be dismissed as “old and paranoiac” the big shell game can continue! I’m rather old myself but am quite confident I ain’t paranoid. Perhaps, Graciela, you’ve never encountered this bit of wisdom: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean the bastards aren’t really out to get you!”

  3. My sister lived in Pennsylvania coal country for decades, so I’ll send her your blog, which she’ll appreciate! We could feel and see this when visiting — even in Philadelphia’s “old town” tourist areas, racism ruined the atmosphere of many a nice restaurant. Now we get to drive through and past it all, all the way to Florida where she now lives. It’s fascinating how each state (or maybe certain cities?) has a unique atmosphere around racism, some downright scary.
    A thought: Once the flags become invisible, how are you going to know where the racism is strong? Personally I’ve come to the conclusion that racism can never be over until communities are welcoming racial inter-marriage and the resulting offspring. And if that ever happens, guess you might start to deal with ‘America and its guns’? It’s all so sad and complicated, sometimes we Canadians even avoid crossing that scary border into “the greatest country on the face of the earth”… :-(

  4. Boy, I come by to let you know you better git semiotically correct when it comes to comments about white young ladies, or you gonna find yourself in a whole heap a’ trouble. Sorry. I just have to use semiotic in a sentence right away so I maybe remember this word.

    Why does it take so long to get things right? Critical thinking often is not the foundation for existing societal norms. Anthony Kennedy, the swing justice on the USSC, stated during oral arguments this spring (for the gay marriage case the Court will render judgement on this month) that man-woman marriage has been the only recognized union “for millennia”: exactly why-how should this institution be altered, if at all? he queried the interlocuter for the plaintiff.

    “Times can blind, and it takes time to see stereotypes and to see the common humanity of people who had once been ignored or excluded,” Mary L. Bonauto, a lawyer representing plaintiffs suing to overturn state bans on same-sex marriage, told the justices.

    And Justice Breyer seemed to answer his own concern later in the oral arguments when he argued that history, even thousands of years of it, might not be enough to justify excluding gays and lesbians from what he suggested was a fundamental right. “The answer we get is, well, people have always done it,” he said. “You know, you could have answered that one the same way we talk about racial segregation.”http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/29/us/millennia-of-marriage-being-between-man-and-woman-weigh-on-justices.html?

    To borrow from Euthyphro: is a thing so, and right, and as it should be, because the god’s say it? Or because this is how it has always been? Or because (pick your fallacy and place it here) … ?Humanity is certainly still a fur piece from establishing norms based on best evidence and reasoning instead of emotionally sustained beliefs.

    • How conveniently the defenders of the status quo–that is, status quo in the states actively resisting granting equal rights to same-sex couples–overlook the fact that for millennia (a helluva lot of millennia!) humans had no understanding of what causes diseases and how to combat them. Those who preach that society should conduct itself only by the precepts expressed in the Bible, and the knowledge of the physical Universe there encapsulated, should be invited to throw away all their modern conveniences and go live in a rain forest somewhere (before the last one is cut down!), clad only in loin cloths. Then we can all see what TRUE “fundamentalism” is all about!!

  5. Well, the Keystone State sure has no monopoly on “red neck pride.” When I moved out of New York City and into New England–the very heart of those damned Yankees and their Satanic notions like abolitionism!–one of the first things I noticed was the significant number of motor vehicles displaying the Stars & Bars. The embracing of this symbol of hate and divisiveness by members of the white working class all over this country–you can bet it will be found waving in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, you name it–is perfectly emblematic of the technique of divide and conquer that keeps the folks on the bottom economic rungs at one anothers’ throats and away from the throats of the Ruling Class. As a certain Mr. Dylan sang 50+ years ago: “They’re only a pawn in the game.” And Curtis Mayfield assured us: “Blacks and the Crackers, Police and their backers…Don’t worry, don’t worry. If there’s a hell below, We’re all gonna go…” I will welcome the removal of the flag of CSA from governmental facilities but I join Mr. Astore in asking: what the hell took you so long? It took the murder of nine African-American churchgoers for mealy-mouthed hypocrite politicians to discover a tiny little shred of conscience within themselves? But only after the application of great public pressure, since initially many of them defended the display of this “innocent symbol of our historic past”? Yes, a little honesty would be required for hardcore old-school racists to admit their real motives for showing that flag.

  6. As a New Zealander in his late 40’s who has never been to the States, I can tell you I have always (well, since I was a teenager and able to understand these things) considered the Confederate flag a symbol of White Supremacy and racial hatred. It’s obvious!!!!

  7. As a New Zealander in his late 40’s who has never been to the States, I have known since a young teenager that the Confederate flag has been used since the end of the American Civil War as a symbol of white supremacy and racial hatred. It’s obvious!!!!!

  8. So what was the (un)Civil War all about: In the Texas Ordinance of Succession February 2, 1861 (Texas was formally admitted into the Confederacy February 29) it was made clear that “holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery–the servitude of the African to the white race within her (Texas) limits” and the expansion of slavery to new territories were the dominant cause of secession. It appears that most Texans, and the other confederate states, at that time believed that property rights trumped life and liberty (succession was confirmed by a plebiscite – notice I quoted the legislature’s actual words).
    The state’s rights that some like to say was the cause of the (un)Civil War was the right to have and expand slavery. Slavery was the means that some made their fortune at the expense of others. Does this sound familiar. (note: “a free man should not live for the benefit of another” Aristotle, Politics 0
    The monuments and symbols of the Confederacy need to be retained and serve to demonstrate a flaw in this the history of the USA.
    As to those that love the ‘lost cause’ today — Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America explains it eloquently: “There is a natural prejudice which prompts men to despise whomsoever has been their inferior long after he is become their equal; and the real inequality which is produced by fortune or by law is always succeeded by an imaginary inequality which is implanted in the manners of the people.”
    Rewriting history – wasn’t that Winston’s job in ‘1984’

  9. I am very happy to see the idea of freedom addressed in more real terms. What is critically needed is discussion that Freedom, for an individual can only exist when it does not impinge on the freedom of others. The issue of the Confederate flag needs to be discussed with in this context. Flags are symbols as evidenced by the brouhaha around flag burning as protest against the Viet Nam war. Some of us can remember that issue. The Confederate flag, a symbol of white supremacy, is always a threat to the safety of Black people, and by extension of all peoples of color. People do not have the freedom to threaten the safety of others. “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” is a societal goal for everyone–not just a few white folks who need to feel better than others.

    Also, missing from this article/blog and commentary is the political and economic motivations. The Confederate flag exists to perpetuate the divide and conquer strategy of the ruling elite. Keeping the general public up in arms with each other over the rights of people of color to exist with equity is a great diversionary tactic. This is what needs more attention and I wish people with the stature of WJ Astore would include such concepts in their writing.

      • Not bragging, just a statement of fact: if “tamarque” will scroll thru all the comments he/she will find that I, too, addressed divide and conquer tactics just a few days ago in comments re: Confederate flag.

      • “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” (H. L. Mencken)

        A proven technique over time and independent of forms of governance.

    • “The Confederate flag, a symbol of white supremacy, is always a threat to the safety of Black people, and by extension of all peoples of color.” Modern BS, true as far as it goes, but that is only part of the story. ‘Confederates’ were oppressive and dangerous to anyone that didn’t think there way (sound familiar?!).

      Read the article at the link; a synthesis, but source documentation is available. https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/jig01 {notice large slaveholders were exempted from the ‘draft’)
      There was a sinkhole in Burnett County where the bodies of Union sympathizers were dumped. I could go on and on. The Confederacy was one of the stains on humanity’s record. It should be remembered and the TRUTH told.

      “Unfortunately, our history has abundant examples of patriotism being used to hurt those who express views in disagreement with that of the majority.” (Vic Snyder)

      • “BS,” “equote”??? So you’re suggesting that I, as a “caucasian” citizen, walking down a street where every other house is displaying a Confederate flag am EQUALLY in danger of being insulted, if not assaulted, as an African-American individual? Such a suggestion reflects a conscious attempt to water down the issue of racism and offends me intellectually. And please don’t accuse me of trying to be “Politically Correct”! I refuse to use that phrase, personally, because I know it was concocted by the extreme right when they floated the idea that 95% of college professors in the US are card-carrying Marxists!! It’s all just too foolish to dignify with serious attention.

      • Greg, did you read the read the article at the link? Racism is, indeed pervasive in the USA. It is America and has been major theme in American history. My point, apparently not well made, is that racists believe “All the people like us are we, and everyone else is They” (Rudyard Kipling) – in belief as well as appearance — AND that ‘they’ are a problem. A problem to solve, with genocide (the North American natives), subjugation and oppression (the Blacks) and or expulsion (Hispanics). You may be at risk not as much as those whose appearance identifies them as ‘they’, I am at risk if I state this case where I live. My, attitude, and yours, would be tolerated in Austin – but not ‘out yonder’.

      • Within two years of my having relocated from NYC to the “out yonder” part of New England (i.e. decidedly not an urban dwelling place, as I had had it with cities) the KKK held a rally in a town just down the road from mine. Protecting their right to spew hate speech were dozens of State Troopers in riot gear. Their preparations proved unnecessary, as opposition to the haters was fairly tepid. After that, no more actual rallies I’m aware of, but they still have a presence here, I’m sure. Will this country ever resolve the problem of racism or will climate chaos render it all moot first? I sure don’t know. Just saw a headline about Obama’s approval rating rising in latest poll. I’d like to know who the heck they polled! Obviously not the “backlash” crowd that’s up in arms (let’s hope it remains only figuratively, though we sure can’t bank on that) over criticism of the Confederate flag and the same-sex marriage ruling.

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