The Confederate Flag: In Discussion and Bikini

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Here I am, seated on the right, with several of my St. Bonaventure University colleagues as part of the Race Matters panel discussion on the Confederate flag. (photo courtesy of David Bryant)

I don’t have occasion to talk about the Civil War on my own campus very often, so I was delighted a couple weeks ago to be invited to serve on a faculty panel to discuss the Confederate battle flag. I was one of four professors and nearly 200 students who participated in the program—the first in a series of campus discussions called “Race Matters.” My function was to provide some historical context about the flag.

I’ve been trying to get my head wrapped around the flag ever since the latest round of controversy erupted over the summer. I understand why Confederate heritage groups embrace it as a symbol of their ancestors’ battlefield valor, just as I understand why Blacks, in particular, see it as a forever-marred symbol of racism. Both sides feel so entitled to their perspectives that they exclude the validity of all other possible interpretations. Heritage groups feel defensive and besieged; Blacks feel dehumanized and dismissed. Both sides get offended by the other.

It’s up to the person who is offended to decide what is offensive, one of my colleagues pointed out during the Race Matters discussion. It doesn’t matter what the intentions are of the person speaking, he explained. In other words, someone can be offensive without even meaning to.

The implication behind that statement, though, was that the person who was “offensive” is in the wrong, whether he/she meant to be or not. “Free speech gives us the right to be as offensive as we want to be,” my colleague said, urging sensitivity as an alternative. I have serious reservations about the underlying premise to all this, but that’s the direction the current seems to run these days. (Unintended acts of offense are called “micro-aggressions.” You can read more about the concept in this article in The Atlantic, which also ran an excellent counterpoint.)

So it goes with people who are offended by the Confederate flag: They get to decide that the flag is offensive, whether Confederate heritage groups intend it so or not and no matter how vehemently Confederate heritage groups argue that it’s their flag so they get to decide what it means.

But what does the flag mean?

That is, of course, the whole rub. And in my adventures over the past few months, I’ve had a harder and harder time coming to any clear understanding of that. After all, what does this say:

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The cognitive dissonance there made my head go “Ka-boooom!”

Also, it’s hard to buy into arguments supporting Confederate honor when the flag is displayed as respectfully as it was in Key West:

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That’s hardly the most outlandish misappropriation of the Confederate flag, either. For other examples, blogger Brooks Simpson has had a veritable field day looking at the multitude of ways neo-Confederates have shown their colors over the last few months. The supposedly sacred has been elevated beyond the ridiculous to the sublime, which makes it hard to take seriously any sincere calls to respect Confederate heritage. Heritage groups are fighting a rear-guard action even as they’re undercut by their own biggest fans.

Just as confusing in its own way are the many Confederate flags I see flying in western New York and northwest Pennsylvania, the area where I work—which is well north of the Mason Dixon line, I should point out.I see them all over the place. A recent letter to the editor of Civil War Times—written from Grand Island, NY, not far from me—bemoaned the same thing. “When I see Confederate flags flying in upstate New York by those with no connection to the South,” he observed, “I feel it is a subtle message of white supremacy.”

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Are these Yankees celebrating Southern heritage—either their own from long ago, relocated north, or even just in general? Are they exhibiting a “rebel” attitude in defiance of big federal government? Do the flags fly for other reasons entirely?

You’ll notice that I’m long on questions here, but short on answers. I tend to believe that the discussion IS the answer. As hesitant as we seem to be, as a society, to discuss race, the act of discussion itself becomes a significant step forward.

Let’s assume, just for a moment, no mater which side you might be on, that the other side isn’t entirely wrong. Let’s assume, too, for a moment, that the other side is not just being over-sensitive and needs to “get over it.”

How would that give us a better platform for discussion?

How would that help us better understand each other?

How would that help us show respect to each other?

How does that help us live here, now?

This entry was posted in Civil War Events, Memory, Slavery and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The Confederate Flag: In Discussion and Bikini

  1. Richard says:

    Very good post – you have stated a position I can accept or even hold, but much better than I can state it. That was a good read.

    I think your next-to-last question brings up the key point – respect. Even if you completely disagree with someone’s position, you don’t have yo insult it or reform to name-calling. Of course, that is easier said than fine if you truly feel offended, but showing basic respect fir each other would be a big step forward. If we can do that, such respect can help us reach your desired assumptions as much or more than those assumptions can bring about that respect. In other words, it may be snother version of the “chicken or egg” conondrum.

  2. ncatty says:

    I remember photos of the battle flag being waived by eastern european crwods during the collapse of the Soviet Union. They were asked why on earth they would wave that particular flag and replied that it represents “defiance”. A good answer I thought. To your point I would not display it in any way now just as a matter of courtesy, even though I have the 1st amendment right to do so.

    • I agree, that’s a good answer–and that might be a reason we still see it so much. A lot of people feel disgruntled about the government for various reasons, and that’s a way to show it. Unfortunately, the flag’s symbolic value has been so diluted, there’s no way to tell what someone really means when they fly it. It’s too radioactive to mean anything clear.

  3. Lynne Crandall Hess says:

    The historians’ position would be better accepted if the flag were to be displayed only in museums and on memorial grounds. To display a flag of a country that no longer exists on Federal or State properties does make a negative statement, and I believe it is meant to do so. Then there are those who are still fighting the war, a blatant statement of white supremacy that I don’t believe deserves respect. As an aside, the argument revolves around the Confederate BATTLE flag, not the Confederate flag, so it does not represent the heritage of a country as historians want to say.

    • I agree that flying the flag on public grounds, out of any historical context, is wrong. Public grounds represent ALL the public, not just certain slices of it (particularly at the exclusion of other slices).

  4. Well said. I’m sure you’ve read it, but just thought I’d mention “The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem” by J.M. Coski is a good resource for understanding the full and multi-sided history of this flag.

  5. wdonohue1 says:

    This type of phenomenological review of the Confederate flag issue leaves me uneasy. I relate better to previous posts which attempted to place that flag in its historical context. I find little right about the Confederacy which stood for a continuation of slavery and with all the legal and cultural horrors required to justify and sustain it. Sometimes institutions are just wrong and eventually they have to admit it, whether they are church or nation or agency, and try to overcome the evil they have done.

    • I agree that it’s hard to find any silver lining to the Confederacy considering its explicit embrace of slavery. As was said of Stonewall Jackson, though: He’s not the first good man to devote himself to a bad cause.

      I am sympathetic to people who want to honor their ancestors, since soldier motivation is a different thing than the Confederate government’s. That important distinction breaks down in modern contexts that cast “honoring ancestors” as “heritage,” though, because heritage refers to cultural background–and in the case of the Confederacy, that culture was built on free slave labor. In effect, neo-Confederates who say they support heritage, when they really mean their ancestors, have built a self-defeating rhetorical trap for themselves. No wonder they often seem to come across as defensive: they’re having to defend an indefensible position of their own making.

  6. Steve Alexander says:

    The flag is an ambiguous and divisive symbol but it could be used as a vehicle of understanding if both sides would take the time to fully defend the other sides position. Knowing how others think well enough to present it in a way they understand produces marvelous results. Like you said: the give and take is the answer.

  7. Pingback: Some Thoughts on Lee-Jackson Day | Emerging Civil War

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