The Stories we Tell Ourselves (Battle Flag Edition)
An important tenet of the internet is "don't read the comments." Well, I have violated that rule of late--which means more musings on the symbols of the CSA.
An important tenet of the internet is “don’t read the comments.”* I have violated that rule a few times over the last couple of days on Facebook specifically on local (to Alabama) news stories about the Confederate battle flag issue. It has not been an uplifting experience.
I suppose the good news is that I have not seen too much in the way of blatant racism (but plenty of not-so-subtle, yet indirect, jabs—and make no mistake, there is plenty of racism to be found, but one suspects some level of comment moderation is in effect as well). However, one thing that has struck me as I skim through these threads is an utter lack of basic historical understanding linked to a profound inability to assess (or even seek) evidence for a given position. And along those lines it is a reflection of our broader political discourse (and perhaps of human reasoning in general) insofar as it all about the stories we tell ourselves. We all take comfort in various narratives, but I would argue that a skill that too many of us do not cultivate is the examination of those narratives to distinguish between what parts are discomforting fact and which parts are comforting fiction.
The story a lot of southern whites clearly want to tell themselves is that the Civil War was not fundamentally about slavery and, therefore, all this battle flag discussion is either a) nonsensical to them, or b) yet another example of the Yankees looking down at them.
I do think, as an aside, that to a lot of people the flag has only vague, innocuous symbolic meaning not unlike the logo of a baseball team or a Starfleet emblem on a t-shirt. That is: they are identifiers to the outside world about membership in a given tribe (and all they want to do is show some southern pride). The problem is, the logo of the Tamp Bay Rays only identifies a person with a baseball team and a Starfleet logo only signifies a connection to nerdom, while the Battle Flag has so many other insidious connotations (some of which were wrapped up in its origins and others were added later).** While it is possible to display that flag without racist intentions, it is impossible for that flag to be displayed and not have observers see the history it represents. This is especially true when the flag is displayed in a blatantly political fashion (as in places of honor on state grounds).
Back to the comments noted above: one of the more striking things I have seen is that many defenders of the flag think that they are doing so from an historically superior position (“crack open a book” on pro-flag commenter wrote on a thread, while others decried the lack of historical understanding of the past). The story that these people tell themselves is that the war was over states’ rights, tariffs, and/or northern aggression. Now, it is true that a) that the north fought the war to maintain the Union, and b) the war was not launched as a moral crusade to end slavery. Indeed, Lincoln himself stated that his utmost goal was preservation of the Union and that he would have preserved slavery if that was needed to achieve that goal. As such, the simply morality play version of the past (the Good Anti-Slave North on the march) is false. However, those facts do not take away the fundamental motivation of the CSA, which was to maintain, in an institutionalized form, white supremacy and chattel slavery. As such, I think it is important to underscore that all one needs to know about the moral balance of the Civil War is to look at the south’s own self-declared motivations. Lincoln needs not be a Saint of Emancipation for one to view the south as morally bankrupt on this topic.
When it comes to cracking open a book (or, using Google) I really wish a lot more people would read Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech or any of numerous declarations of secession by confederate states which all clearly and unequivocally spell out the pro-slavery, white supremacist motivations of the CSA.
Just to remind everyone of what Vice President (of the CSA) Stephens said:
The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.
Or, the state of Mississippi: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.”
The declaration of secession by South Carolina lacks a simple sentence as clear as the one above, but the entire documents is a narrative about the tension between slaveholding and non-slaveholding states. As such, the state’s motivation could not be clearer. This is likewise true of the Texas declaration, which criticizes the northern state for trying to “steal our slaves” among other things. Virginia’s (which is brief) speaks of the “oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.”
So, yes, by all means, let’s crack open some books.
And yes, if there was a defense of the rights of states in this context, the right in question was the right to maintain slavery as a legal entity. That this is so blithely ignored by so many is highly frustrating (to put it mildly). Indeed, the states’ rights argument is especially interesting in this conversation as the southern states were opposed to northern states attempting to use states’ right arguments to aid fugitive slaves. So, the notion that there was some inviolable appeal to a sacred view of the relationship between the federal government and the states is laughable if one knows the history. (Again: crack open a book).
Not to go all anecdotal on you all, but I do not recall reading any of those documents in K-12 or even having any specific references to them—and my High School level US history and civics were taken in southern California (and middle school US history in Texas). Likewise, I do not recall this stuff coming up in my kids’ studies either.
It is often said in some quarters that we in the US dwell too much on the negative and not enough on the positive about our own history. However, I seriously question that sentiment, especially on this topic. We certainly do not, en masse, seem to have fully internalized it.
To revisit a notion I touched on a few years ago: the veneration of symbols of the Civil War era simply makes all the more difficult to get contemporary audiences to come to grips with the past (and the evils that existed then and those that were perpetuated for decades and decades). When two of the public high schools in Montgomery, Alabama are named after Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, when the seal of the city notes that it was “The Cradle of the Confederacy” what signals are sent?
What is there to celebrate about Jefferson Davis?
Why must “southern” be equated with “confederate”? (and if that really is appropriate, consider what that means!).
What is the point of a giant Confederate Battle Flag flying alongside the interstate (as is the case on I-65 not far from where I sit)? It comes across to me as naught more than a giant middle finger to African-Americans/the non-south.
At any rate: since the CSA was constituted for the purpose of maintaining (and expanding) chattel slavery and white supremacy, it is impossible to divorce those facts from symbols that directly represented that entity (especially that represented the use of force by that entity to preserve the institutions in question). It does not matter, by the way, that most of the soldiers did not own slaves, nor does it matter than one is descended from a family who was too poor to own slaves. The bottom line remains: the battle flag flew over battles that would determine whether the CSA would continue to exist of not. That many want to tell themselves a different story does not change this fact.
As a side note: the notion that any war is to be judged by the actions of the foot soldiers is problematic. Wars are wages by elites, even if they are fought by the rank-and-file. The value of southern slaves was immense and the agrarian economy of the south was fueled by cheap labor. This was what the war was ultimately about.
More importantly, this is not a debate simply about what happened in the 19th Century. It is about Jim Crow and the KKK. It is about fights against integration of the races in the 1950s and 1960s (and eve into the 1970s and 1980s). It is about the fact that it took almost a century for the promises of the 15th amendment to be fully implemented (and even now the voter ID debate is linked to this issue). Beyond all that seemingly ancient (but actually not-so-ancient) history are Ferguson and McKinney and any number of other events in which race is clearly important. I can’t help but think that a true understanding of our collective past would help us come to grips with our present reality. I do, in fact, think that venerating symbols and figures from the CSA make it hard to accomplish this feat.
I know that I am largely repeating things I have written before and that none of this constitutes a new or unique contribution to this discussion, Further, it is highly likely that most regular readers (assuming they get this far) will be wholly sympathetic to my position. I write this partially out of the catharsis that comes with putting words to paper (so to speak) and partially because despite the fact that the above is blatantly obvious to me, the message is clearly not getting out. If one more persons thinks about this topic more deeply as a result of this brief essay, then that’s progress.
(BTW, the battle flag is probably the more appropriate headline image for this post, but I am tired of looking at the darn thing at the moment).
*Except, of course, at OTB (although there are a a few names who cause me to skip on down the list).
**Indeed, part of my general frustration with some who defend the flag is their denial on this very point. The flag was first deployed to fly over a battlefield wherein if those over whom it flew had won that that victory would have meant the continuation of a government specifically instituted to protect slavery. From there the flag was used by racist hate groups (from the KKK to the Skinheads and beyond) and was further used as a symbol in opposition to desegregation.
How many strikes does a symbol need before one backs away?