Friday, June 26, 2015
In response to the current effort to remove the Confederate battle flag (aka the Stars and Bars) from public spaces, an elderly man complained that to him it symbolized his ancestor’s heroism in the Civil War. “’You’re asking me to agree that my great-grandparent and great-great-grandparents were monsters,’ said Greg Stewart, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the executive director of Beauvoir, the last home of Jefferson Davis.” (NY Times, Dig. Ed. 6/24/2015.)
At first glance, one might sympathize with Mr. Stewart. I would not want to be deprived of the right to honor my ancestors who fought for this country in the world wars. But first glances aren’t enough. There is a difference. Mr. Stewart’s forbears fought AGAINST this country. They fought for their state’s right to deprive human beings of their freedom.
This was and is one of the worst causes ever fought for. It should have been lost and those who sought to support it and fought and killed other Americans should be viewed as traitors rather than heroes. They were wrong to fight for it. Bravery on behalf of an evil cause is not something that should be honored by the society.
Mr. Stewart and others may, if they choose, continue to revere their ancestors who died as soldiers, just as the Japanese and Germans may honor theirs. But that is different from honoring the causes they fought for. Germany bans the swastika and other Nazi symbols for good reasons, not all of them merely politically correct policy to prevent embarrassing reminders of a bad nightmare. There are ethical and moral reasons for their decision—a collective sense of guilt, shame. The banning shows a raised level of sensitivity that bespeaks of progress. Germans should take more pride in this cultural shift than all of Wagner’s compositions.
The Confederate battle flag attained public exposure as a symbol in the 1950’s when the Civil Rights movement gained traction in the south. It was used by the KKK, White Citizen’s Counsel, and then by every redneck thug as a battle flag to show violent opposition to any advancement of equality. It thus became a vivid symbol of hatred and violence.
Some argue that this is trivial: it is only a symbol that can mean different things to people. Civil War memorabilia, carried into battle by brave young men who fought and died with courage. Certainly, a flag can represent such things. It is only a symbol and as someone said, the “deranged young man” was the killer, not the flag. Yes, and guns don’t kill without people shooting them. I get it.
Symbols are a source of contention because they are important. A lawn jockey. The Frito Bandito. The swastika. How do good Christians feel about the pentagram and 666? These and many other symbols are offensive, not only because they hurt particular groups, but also because there is a social consensus that they are, in the least, in such bad taste that they should be forbidden.
But what about the First Amendment?
The issue of free speech as defined by the Supreme Court is a separate issue. Flags and other symbols certainly are a form of expression (as is flag burning). No law prohibits private individuals from the poor taste of possessing or exhibiting these things that have become symbols of hate to others. Removing the symbols from places that are supported by public funds or on public property is a different issue.
Democracy is rule by the majority BUT with respect and tolerance for the minority and sensitivity toward the legitimate concerns of all. This distinction is the essential ingredient that separates our society from those in which the majority (or dominant plurality) tramples the rights of minorities. ISIS, for instance, crushes all opposing religions, destroys all symbols of others, past or present. We perceive these acts as barbaric, but they are consistent with the fundamentalist notion of heresy – and fanatics aren’t the only ones who destroy symbols of enemies as soon as they get the chance. The Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem; Goths and then Christians toppled Roman statues; Moslems converted Christian churches into mosques and destroyed icons; Hindus in India destroyed mosques . . .
Islam prohibits adherents to worship idols and forbids images of the Prophet. The evil is not their faith; it is the imposition of their belief on others and their intolerance of the beliefs of others. They destroy a Buddhist statue to prove their power, not their righteousness. But it is very bad judgment for non-believers to intentionally provoke violence by offending believers of any faith. We protect the right of individuals to do so because of our faith that freedom of speech is an essential part of democracy. BUT we do not permit our government or its officers to intentionally insult religions or religious people. (The First Amendment also promises that no laws shall either impinge on the free exercise of religion or create an official state religion).
To many white southerners, the Confederate battle flag is a relic of “The Lost Cause.” Southern white culture ever since 1865 has mythologized the famous heroes of the Confederacy like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and the brave soldiers in butternut and grey who fought for these leaders and died under that flag. Lincoln (who was and still is hated by many owners of that flag) urged mercy for defeated rebels, refused calls for their trial and punishment as traitors. He ordered Grant to provide lenient surrender terms to Lee’s tattered army. As soon as they swore allegiance to the American flag, they regained their citizenship, which included the right to vote.
For many years after the war, Southern writers, artists and politicians perpetuated the romantic myth of the unjust defeat: powerful dramas such as Birth Of A Nation and Gone With The Wind told the romantic (and dishonest) tale, glorifying the supposed gentility of ante bellum south, the nobility of the war to preserve a comfortable and civilized way of life, and perpetuated the belief that corrupt and greedy northern carpetbaggers conspired with ignorant and greedy freed Negroes to force reconstruction on the downtrodden white population.
It is safe to say that a most people no longer argue the righteousness of the rebel cause in the issue of slavery. But the South still clings to its sectional prerogative; the residue of “states rights.” But as one southerner said, the believers in that faith are of a dwindling breed. The New South is integrated, multi-cultural, far more cosmopolitan, at least in urban areas. African Americans and Hispanic s as well as other non “nativist whites” permeate the power structure and this trend is inexorable. Holdouts in rural areas and small towns, where poor whites still subsist and resent “foreigners” are dying out; their children moving to the cities for education at integrated colleges or for jobs at integrated Walmarts, hospitals, and Toyota plants.
My generation was torn in half by the major post WW II issues. Civil rights – for African Americans and other ethnic groups; for women and children, for gays; for the disabled. And the Cold War, including Viet-Nam and other wars. The opponents of progress lost the arguments in all of these societal debates. Now, our generation is dwindling in size and power. In the 2008 presidential election the most vivid images were of Obama, the son of a white liberated mother and an African father opposed by a man who was a hero in the Viet Nam War. Mc Cain’s rallies were attended by elderly white males and their wives, all bemoaning the fact that they were losers in the social debate of the last forty years.
Despite all the sins committed by my generation, the heritage that is most important for the immediate future may be the suppression (if not defeat) of racism.