Friday, July 10, 2015

Stars & Bars

Full disclosure, I am white and was born and have lived all my life in a secessionist state. Like most of you, I am tired of hearing about the Confederate flag. Its supporters argue that its place on the South Carolina statehouse should be attributed to “heritage and not hate” and that we cannot change history based upon the ever-fickle whims of public sensibility. Opponents of the flag believe its presence was (and is) nothing more than a blatant reminder of racism, oppression, and slavery. Therein lies the difficulty of interpreting symbols, they rarely remain stagnant and the stars and bars are no exception.

The flag first went up at the South Carolina capital on April 11, 1961 at the request of Representative John A. May who subsequently announced his intention to introduce a bill that would have it remain there for one year to celebrate the Confederate War Centennial. For whatever reason, the adopted bill omitted a removal date so the flag simply remained where it was. That we know. The mindset of those who placed it there can become murkier.

We know that up until 1948, the Confederate flag rarely appeared outside of Civil War reenactments or Confederate commemorations and was utilized simply as a tribute to the heroism of Confederate veterans. Then came the State’s Rights Democratic Party or “Dixiecrats” who adopted the flag as “a symbol of Southern protest and resistance to the Federal government.” The Dixiecrats, and their presidential nominee Strom Thurmond, ran on a pro-segregation platform opposed to Federal “totalitarianism” and “interference with individual rights.” From this point on, the flag became increasingly intertwined with the pro-segregationist movement.

Given that context, one could argue that by the time the flag was placed atop the South Carolina capital in 1961, few involved would have been unaware of its racial connotations. Daniel Hollis, a member of the commission that planned South Carolina’s Confederate War Centennial, later indicated that even he was against placing the Confederate flag atop the capital.

One could perhaps argue that, like the 1948 Dixiecrats, accused-killer Dylan Roof further hijacked the symbolism of the Confederate flag when he associated it with the racially-motivated Charleston church shootings. Regardless, the tide has turned against the stars and bars and we found out today that it will no longer fly at the capital of South Carolina.

The decision did not shock me as much as the backlash against it did. After all, the majority of those who defend the Confederate flag are political conservatives who lean heavily toward state’s rights and the removal of the flag was a decision made by Republican-controlled state legislation and endorsed by the Republican governor. The removal is, in many ways, a case study in the exercising of a state’s right to decide what appears at its own capital.

By virtue of the Google News lottery, I found myself reading the write-up of the decision which invariable leads me to the comment section. I observed the following patterns:
1.      Rampant use of the derogatory suffix “tard” by proponents of all ideological persuasions. Notable examples include “Foxtard” and “Obamatard.” Your lack of creativity is only narrowly surpassed by your inability to participate in meaningful dialogue.
2.      In a few instances, comments dismissing racial aspects of the issue as inventions of the “liberal dogs” were followed by comments referring to African-Americans as “pavement apes.”
3.      One person accused government welfare of being nothing more than “reparations” while an angry liberal referred to Social Security Disability checks as “patriot payments” disproportionately going to small government conservatives.
There was even a solid response to a “The South will rise again…” comment when someone finished the thought with “…in illiteracy and obesity rates.” What was really striking was the lack of information when it came to what the decision means. Several people assumed that this was a Federal ban on buying, selling, or displaying the flag and/or the end of America.

While several large retailers have stopped carrying it (Wal-Mart, Amazon) they did so for the most important reason in business: money. If something goes from being a fiscal asset to a financial liability you stop carrying it. Once again, the people most upset about the decision made by these private businesses tend to be ardent supporters of autonomy for private businesses.
The bottom line is that you can still buy and display a Confederate, Nazi, or ISIS flag if you want to. You can fly it in your yard next to a giant sign that says “Death to America” because that is your right. That being said, I am not sure that we need to digitally edit Dukes of Hazard reruns or remove historical markers, but I do support the decision to remove the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s capital. Laying aside any racial implications, it is a historical flag that represents one of the darkest and most divisive periods in this country’s history. It belongs in a museum and at re-enactments, not atop a state capital.

At its best, a democracy reflects the evolving views of its majority while protecting the rights of its minority. It would appear that South Carolina has exemplified that in this case.

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