Since I'm on a roll, this will be long post, so beware.
I've mentally tossed around on this issue for some time. I've seen things that I've agreed with as a good citizen of our United States, and also seen and disagreed with as a good Southerner and descendant of quite a few Confederate vets. Now is as good of a time as any to unload my opinions into a public forum.
This ball started rolling innocently enough when I did my weekly check on Civil War Interactive, where they feature the active CW blogs floating around in the blogosphere. The blog featured was Civil War Power Tour. An interesting concept to be sure, but what interested me the most was his take on some incidents where he lives that involved an actual or images of the Confederate flag. His take is most interesting, and worth a read. I found that I agreed with some of his observations, disagreed with others.
I'll start out with some personal caveats before going into the meat of the subject:
- The term "politically correct". I feel this term is overly-used to stifle opinions and ultimately clouds any honest discussion on the issue concerning the flag. For the purpose of the discussion, we'll stick with good 'ole Merriam-Webster, who defines it as: conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.
- I reenact for the purpose of feeding an interest in things military, not to specifically honor the Civil War dead. I'm as comfortable in Union blue, or in WW1 or WW2 uniforms as I am in Confederate gray.
- I don't belong to any organization outside of reenacting and work that has an opinion one way or the other on the flag issue.
- I am a descendant of Confederate soldiers, but I'm also a descendant of their pro-Unionist neighbors, so my family stories are filled with Confederate heroes as well as homeguard villains.
- And yes, I did read "Confederates in the Attic" by Tony Horowitz, and found it 1) mildly humorous 2) a tad bit ignorant and greatly focused on the exceptions of the South, rather than the mainstream.
With the caveats out of the way, I'll divide up my post into three parts: the way I see the flag as a public symbol, the way it as a political/social statement, and lastly as a historical symbol.
The flag as a public symbol
When the national news goes on about another confrontation about the Confederate flag, it's typically in this realm. When the SC flag issue came to a head, I couldn't muster up any feeling to keep it flying above the capitol building, even when Jesse Jackson getting the TV time. Although I do feel that Jesse Jackson is a political hack and an all-around clownshoe, I think there was a decent point about taking it down. The same goes for changing the Georgia state flag. Does it involve political correctness? Nope. It does involve history and the current state of our nation.
The way I look at this issue is simple. We live in the United States of America, and current symbology (flags) should be inclusive as possible of the people it represents, particularly when attached to institutions representative of the public as a whole. For example, we add a star to the US flag when a state is added to the Union. Most state flags are pretty unassuming, using a state seal and a Latin motto, a letter, flora or fauna, or something else to capture the general essence or historical heritage of the state. As the make-up of our nation and states change, so should our symbology, like it has since the colonization of America.
Coming back to the flag issue. The Confederate SC capitol flag was first flown in 1962, I assume to commemorate the Civil War Centennial (and probably as a deke on Federal government, too). The unassuming (but vaguely Confederate) Georgia flag was changed in the '50's for whatever reason to a more Confederate-looking symbol. But, neither one really had any deep significance past the Confederate history that it represented on the surface. They both were put up by a legislative vote - in other words, by politicians who probably wanted to curry favor with their public. In 40 years time, things have changed, and the real reasons these flags were flown became lost in favor of the heritage they reflected.
The Mississippi state flag is more problematic. It was adopted in 1892 to commemorate the Confederate war dead in a time when it would have meant something deep to actual living veterans, so it does have a significance that goes deeper than the SC and GA flags. Although the proposed flag to replace it has some symbolic significance, it also kinda looks like an old Federal battle flag. I'd be very content leave it to the people of MS to decide on their flag, and honor it as it is.
The flag as a political/social statement
If the flag as a public symbol is what garners the attention of the US as a whole, then the flag as a political statement is what we see locally, and what really drives the current preception of the flag as we see now. It's what has caused the most damage to the way the public perceives the Confederate flag and what it stood for.
The Confederate flag has had a rugged history in the hands of people who understand less about history than they do about symbolism. I'm not just talking about the KKK and their ilk, I'm also talking about the good 'ole boy politicians and 'redneck' high school students. Unfortunately, these are the people who really shape the way we and others perceive the flag, and ultimately, the history of the Confederacy.
The most damning association the flag has is with white supremacist groups, who actually have little or absolutely nothing to do with the history of the Confederacy as a whole. But, they have the strongest message, a little actual historical association, and the willingness to show the flag as a symbol of what they feel as a kindred cause. Thus people make the association. This has always created a challenge for Confederate CW reenactors, and there's nothing that can really change that.
Sycophant politicians gladly continue to add to a controversy that really shouldn't be. They're the ones who voted on changes to the Georgia state flag, and continued to allow the flag to be flown above the SC capitol. Then when the times changed, they're the ones who happily step on the flag to further their own agendas. I have a vote come election time, and I use it as a tool to get rid of toadying politicians.
Lastly there are the 'rednecks' who fly the flag as a symbol of something that is a fantasy within a factual context. Joshua Blair rails on this on Civil War Power Tour, and while I agree with some of what he says, I don't think he totally gets the southern angle to this. For the past couple decades, teens have grown up associating with icons and symbols. Back when I was growing up it was the KISS logo, or the Izod alligator. Nowadays politics are chic, so the leftward kids wear the hammer & sickle or the image of Che Guevara. What do the rightward kids associate with? The Confederate flag, of course. It's something homegrown, somewhat socially taboo, smacks of being a rebel, and is annoying to the right audience (apparently collaterial annoyance is good too). The bad thing is that these kids either 1) do not know the history of the flag they wear/fly, or worse, 2) know some radicalized fantasy version where seemingly the Confederacy is the Last Great Alliance, and the Yankees are orcs from the bowels of a cold and overly urbanized Mordor. It's "Us vs them", or "Us vs the people who'll never understand my heritage the way I understand it."
The flag as a historical symbol
I wanted to write this part last, because the flag and its issues needed perspective outside mere heritage. This part is what the 'honest folk' (historians, reenactors, etc...) are left with trying to explain the flag and its history to lay people who have been bombarded with what they see on TV and read in the local newspapers. It's a challenge to say the least.
In my opinion, the flag naturally does carry an element of controversy. It did represent a segment of the nation that wanted to maintain slavery, who in turn, wrapped the issue within the state's rights blanket. But we all must realize that we live in the current times, and our attitudes are worlds apart from the typical 19th century person. What we feel as bad or evil about slavery now, wasn't so much back then. The nation was waking up to these out-moded and morally obtuse practices. We are the beneficiaries 145 or so years of social change that eventually admitted that slavery is bad/evil and diametrically opposed to the liberties this country was founded on.
But we as reenactors have a hard time conveying that message effectively. We Southerners tend to be defensive about our heritage, and at times refuse to see that it has the typical warts that all other societies wear. At the same time, we are bombarded by people who think like Tony Horowitz and seem to only see the extremes of the South without giving much play to what's the norm. Goofy, strange people make for better stories.
My opinion has been formed by trying to look at all angles of the issue. I believe the South has nothing to apologize for, the Civil War was fought and lost 143 years ago amongst people who had different views and values than we do now. It was also a time that further defined a great nation that I love deeply. The old South is history and not representative of the present day, but it's nothing to be ashamed of - like the rest of the country, it wasn't perfect and had the warts to prove it. Many southerners today have recent northern (as well as everywhere else in the nation and abroad) roots, so nowadays, the Confederate flag isn't representative of the current south.
The flag represents the South of long ago. But, like many other symbols it has a place in the nation's history, if not exactly honored - it should be respected - for the lives sacrificed in defense of their homes and states during a time of uncertainty and upheaval; the racists, politicians and rednecks notwithstanding.