Before I begin this, I should mention in the interest of fairness that I am the descendant of Tennessee Confederates of 140 years ago. I don’t believe that that’s particularly colored my judgment in this matter, but it should be mentioned at the outset all the same. I also realize that these opinions will probably be unpopular, but in the interests of noding for the ages, I thought that they should be represented in the final accounting.
There has been much controversy in recent years over whether or not the Confederate flag should be flown from the flagpoles of state capitols in places like South Carolina, leading to a question of whether or not the Confederate flag should be allowed to be displayed, period. Those who have dared to display the flag in popular media with any degree of sincerity (e.g. Lynyrd Skynyrd) have been accused of bigotry and other sorts of Southern-associated evil.
The Southern justification, in somewhat enlightened form (i.e. with special pains taken to avoid any form of racism), is usually that it is a way of honoring the Southern way of life and their rebel forefathers. They, as a nation in most senses, endured not only the foolishness of the war as well as hosting the majority of the fighting but they also endured the perceptions of social disorder and Yankee domination. In such an agrarian-elite dominated society, all of the stages of the war listed above would’ve been fairly evenly distributed over the entirety of the population of the South and so would’ve added up to one huge Southern bond-a-thon. Nation building had had a long time to take place before the war and a lot of reason to be reinforced during and afterward, what with the sharp ingroup/outgroup classification typical in any population that feels embattled or threatened as a whole (cf. the resurgence of American patriotism after September 11).
In an American-based society like the Confederacy, relatively few national icons come ready made due to the relative youth of the nation. This phenomenon was especially pronounced in the South where war heroes were somewhat under-appreciated due to the fact that the whole South felt the brunt of the war and felt that it was being lost. The only thing to which one could unequivocally attach would’ve been the flag, since it hadn’t lost any battles and could even be somewhat disassociated from the rich planter dumbasses running the C.S.A. into the ground for their own personal benefit.
So even after the war had ended, the South felt like it was under siege. Even after the Union soldiers stopped occupying the place, there were decades of economic ruin to deal with. One of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s major policy initiatives was to improve the horrible economic conditions of the especially depressed South. Yes, it was a nation-wide depression, but the South had been depressed to begin with and thus felt it much more severely, as evidenced partially by the huge Southern migration to the north that happened during this period. It wasn’t until the 1950’s and 1960’s that the South as a whole started to look, in terms of general living conditions and such, like the rest of the nation.
So, doing the requisite math we find that the South had a good reason to feel embattled from about 1850 to, say 1940, estimating conservatively. That’s 90 years of nation building that’s taken place because it’s 90 years in which the South felt a good reason to band together because of common grievances with common enemies. With only one viable national symbol unsmirched by horrific defeat, embarrassment, or the founding of major hate organizations, the Stars and Bars became the symbol of the partially mythical Old South that had passed and left its advocates collectively holding the bag.
Although older versions of that vision generally included some sort of weird, patriarchal relationship between the masters and their supposedly admiring slaves, more recent versions tend to focus more on the preservation of chivalry, honor and the “great society” the Old South myth represents. There’s also a dimension of ancestor worship involved, and a determination to honor those ancestors whether you agree with the stupid secessions and human bondage they were involved with or not.
Racism is a troublesome issue, because obviously that great big starred X does represent the enslavement of the ancestors of a large number of people in America. There’s no debating that my ancestors did something inexcusable to their ancestors, but does that mean that we, their children, should disown them? I guarantee that if you dig around in the history of any people, you’ll find some sort of atrocity or horrible act of small-mindedness and injustice in their past, perpetrated upon some other group that did the same thing to somebody else some other time. Should those people, too, be forcefully forgotten, driven from the consciousness of the world and disowned entirely? It’s a sticky issue, and I think the best way to address it is to approach another controversial symbol: the swastika.
The swastika apparently had a life before its adoption by the Nazis. It was reportedly used among many ancient cultures, where it represented fire, sun, life, resignation, and the Hindu goddess Kali. However, once the Germans got hold of it its prior ideological signifigance was enormously overshadowed in favor of the regime which adopted it, whose crimes haunted the thoughts of all who heard of them.
First, let’s start with the groups for whom the swastika would be a viable national icon. It was the icon of the Nazi regime, who ruled Germany during World War II, obviously. However, I would argue (in my admittedly limited understanding*), that the swastika, as it represented a regime that did not exactly have grassroots support (especially toward the end of that losing war) in a nation which had every right to blame all its misfortunes upon that regime (Hitler in fact tried his best to sabotage the national transportation and production infrastructure of Germany at the end of the war, saying that the weak Germans who had failed no longer deserved to live), actually represented a relatively small subset of the total German population when new national symbols were being chosen after the defeat. After all, Germany had many national emblems both before and after the Nazis on which to draw, so why turn for representation to what had been a sort of national nightmare? Thus, the swastika fell to the groups at the vanguard of its adoption, namely the hate groups.
The difference is the depth of meaning. The swastika is exclusively, at least based on the argument above, associated with hate groups, so only to the extent that a society decides to tolerate hate groups should the swastika be tolerated. The Confederate Flag, however, is not just the emblem of the plantation owners, a minority of the population who owned damn near all of the slaves anyway and who started the war and in doing so dragged the whole place to hell. The Confederate Flag came to symbolize not just the opulence, chivalric culture, and slavery of the very rich but also the national trial through which the South had come as a whole, not to mention the rich culture that has always existed among the very poor farmers that made up so much of the population. Thus, although the Confederate flag has been adopted by hate groups who we as a society might choose not to tolerate, the flag itself should only be repressed if Southern identity in general is to be repressed as well.
Now, I don’t think that states like South Carolina and Mississippi should go around officially flying flags that they started flying when they started shooting rifle balls at the Union. That’s frankly asking for trouble where it’s not needed. However, if elimination of hate is the object, focus on guys in white hoods who burn crosses or something and leave the other symbols alone. After all, if we honestly want national diversity in the U.S., subcultures and such like this shouldn’t be stamped out.
That’s my two cents worth, at least.
*Of course, if my understanding here is incorrect the whole theory goes to hell and I’ll have to think up a new one. If you have any problems with this understanding of things, feel free to /msg.
Source on the history of the swastika: http://www.iearn.org/hgp/aeti/aeti-1997/swastika.html