Liberals Need to Be Careful in Confederate Imagery Debate

The flag is down.  They finally heard us.
The flag is down. They finally heard us.

The past month has been a turbulent one for South Carolina.  On June 17, Dylann Roof killed several African-Americans in a mass shooting at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston.  His shooting drew special attention because of his history of sporting white supremacist imagery in photos and his declaration beforehand that he wanted to kill black people.  In the wake of that, South Carolina’s legislature voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds in a long-overdue action.

I was born and bred in the South, having spent the majority of my life in Virginia and living in Georgia for the past three years.  My father’s side of the family is from Charleston.   Some of my white family, friends, and acquaintances growing up sported the Confederate battle flag in many forms: hanging it on a wall, having it in a bumper sticker, etc.  I even knew a kid in school who had an image of it painted on the retainer he wore after he got his braces off.  I’ve never understood these sorts of people’s obsession with the flag.  Anyone who advanced past middle school knows why the Civil War was fought: slavery.  Every cause of the war can be traced back to that.  The South was afraid that newly elected President Abraham Lincoln would try to end slavery, and they started a war over it.  Period.  Full stop.

The Civil War was the lowest point in American history, pitting friend against friend, brother against brother, all to protect the disgusting institution of African slavery.   I don’t understand why that became a source of pride in the South, especially after hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan adopted the symbol for their causes.  Maybe that same attitude is why it took 100 years for African-Americans in the South to attain basic fundamental rights such as voting or not being refused goods or services because of their skin color.  Simply put, the flag is an ignominious symbol that does not belong anywhere near a government building.  Shortly after the Charleston shooting, a number of retailers entered the debate too, including Wal-Mart, Target, eBay, Amazon, Sears/K-Mart, Etsy, and Google.  They announced that they were pulling all merchandise featuring the Confederate flag from their tangible and digital store shelves.  This sparked some controversy, but I think it was the right move.

Longstreet

I wish we could simply end the debate right there.  However, some are threatening to take the debate to extremes.  In the wake of the above retailers’ decision, Apple removed all Civil War games from its App Store.  While I understand the above actions, this one puzzled me.  Many of these games are strategy games that seek to show an honest depiction of an era in American history, however difficult it may be to stomach.  The developers that made these games are not using Confederate imagery in a racist or mean-spirited way.  In fact, many of these games are used in school curricula because of their historical accuracy and realism.

The iconic carving at Stone Mountain Park featuring Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson.
The iconic carving at Stone Mountain Park featuring Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson.

The Atlanta Chapter of the NAACP also took a controversial position, calling for the famous Stone Mountain carving featuring Confederate figures Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson to be sandblasted off or sold.  While Stone Mountain has its own sordid history, having been a popular meeting place for the KKK, it hasn’t been used for that purpose in 50+ years and is now a memorial and popular meeting place.  The Confederate battle flag still flies there, next to the graves of some soldiers who fought in the war.

My main purpose in writing this post, as the headline implies, is to encourage liberals to tread lightly here.  You won this debate.  Democrats and Republicans alike joined in the effort to remove the battle flag from the South Carolina statehouse, get the flag off store shelves, and off state-sponsored license plates in some states as well.  There are probably still other places that the flag needs to be removed from.  But if we start talking seriously about destroying priceless works of art or removing the flag from memorials, the accusations from some conservatives that we are attempting to erase part of our history will be true.  We need to preserve symbols like this in their proper place: museums and other historical landmarks like Stone Mountain.  Understanding and remembering our history is key to making sure that we don’t repeat its mistakes.  The Civil War was a giant mistake, but we shouldn’t forget it.  Just as we shouldn’t forget the indignities and abuse suffered by the African-American community over the years, some of which still goes on today.  So to my fellow liberals, I say this: take yes for an answer, don’t overreach, and move on to other issues, such as preventing another mass shooting.

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5 comments

    • I should add that a lot of Southerners–educated Southerners, at least–will disagree with you about the issue in the Civil War being slavery, and say they supported states’ rights. I have no beef in this, since I’m a second-gen immigrant, but having studied history I know for a fact that Stonewall Jackson opposed slavery–even participating in illegal activities to help slaves get education–and yet he fought for the South because he believed states were sovereign, and should have the right to determine their own fates without federal interference–much in the same way that I might disagree with a person’s stance on marriage but might still support their right to make their own decision about it. You know Robert E. Lee’s daughter was arrested for sitting in the “black” part of the bus? Don’t forget Lee was approached by Lincoln for the Union army before he was approached by the Confederacy–he wasn’t known for being vehemently pro-slavery–and that Jackson’s grave was regularly decorated by black people who felt he’d always supported their independence, without bloodshed. These issues are very, very complicated, and since I wasn’t alive at the time, and only have records which educated VICTORS have catalogued, in order to go by, I tend to tread lightly when judging either side of the past. You, me, and the other children educated by the victors (the US govt), see this as being a slavery issue, but not all Southerners back THEN saw it that way. There were racist Southerners, for sure. That’s easy to document. It’s interesting to note that a very small minority population in the South owned the majority of the slaves. There were also Southerners who felt slavery should be ended the way it was ended in England–democratically, and without bloodshed–and they opposed the essence of militarization. It wasn’t what the North was fighting for that they opposed, but the fact that the North was going to arms over it. To make a modern comparison, I would like to go to war over the abortion issue, but no one is supportive of that move on my part, even though I consider it an equivalent evil to slavery–so you know, maybe the solution is not always to kill people we think are doing horrible things. Or maybe the solution IS to kill people we think are doing horrible things. I don’t know. I can only recognize that the history of the Civil War is far, far more complicated than, “it was about slavery, full stop.”

      But today? Today I think for most black Americans a Confederate flag means slavery and racism, and I’m glad to see it taken down from places. I’m just very wary about rewriting history. History is never, ever, ever black and white, with good and evil sides clearly demarcated. Human beings are far, far too evil to make it that easy.

      • I mean, what was the Confederate flag doing outside the South Carolina courthouse anyway? They lost, they’re part of the Union now and forever. How long was that even going ON? Geez, this took a while.

      • I was thinking about this a little more this morning–about the sides in the Civil War, and the imposition of morality in slavery or abortion debates. Immigrant status notwithstanding, if I were an American back during the Civil War, I would’ve fought for the north because I believe justice is more important than the human freedom to decide for oneself what’s right and wrong. If it came to killing people to set slaves free, I would do it, and if a similar war broke out over abortion, I would probably join up. In my opinion if you’re hurting another human being you’ve earned the right to be hurt.

        But you know in modern terms that sounds very, very horrible. Killing people because you believe they’re wrong? That’s not a very American ideal. America is kind of all about everyone disagreeing with each other and coming to terms about it via votes. I DON’T go around killing abortion doctors for the same reason that for over a hundred years, no one went around killing slave owners. But at some point, incalculable evil does meet its recompense. Extremists like myself (and, I would argue, Obama and Lincoln and anyone else who is willing to usurp legal precedents to achieve their goals), tend to catalyze that reaction, and I don’t know if that’s always a good thing.

        If you consider slavery and abortion on the same plane, as many abolitionists and anti-abortion activists do and did, then the Civil War, from a diplomatic, purely moral perspective, was when Northern Americans decided they were willing to kill to impose their morality, and Southern Americans were put in a position of either defending a wicked, broken, system, or defending their neighbors’ rights to self-determination in a wicked system. That’s why Lincoln was so sympathetic about full reinstatement of the South should he win the war–he understood that everyone against him wasn’t pure evil, like we seem to believe today. When John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln before the war’s full resolution, there was no longer a voice of compassion on the winners’ side, and the victors in the North became a force for revenge, spurring the nastiness of Reconstruction-era South. The cycle of revenge continued, Southerners blamed black people (rather than white Northerners) for the persecution and rape and oppression of Reconstruction, and you get the horrific evils of Jim Crow, and the cycle continues on. As that orboros spirals into the modern era you get increasingly skewed views of the past, polarized into the blacks and reds of bloodbath vendettas.

        I would hope that someone out there can end this kind of cycle, and that forgiveness and love and understanding can permeate our view of history, rather than judgment. I hope this because I know I am capable of doing bad things in the name of good, and I hope that when or if that should happen, history will regard me gently. My greatest fear is one day somehow becoming an extremist like Nat Turner or John Brown, who murdered women and children because they believed so much in the Bible and in doing the right thing, and yet it staggers me sometimes at the same time to note that their vision, extreme at the time, became essentially the vision of the North during the war (remember Sherman’s march to the sea). Sometimes I wonder–are we, as a society, too insipid and weak NOT to be fighting, physically for what we believe? I don’t like to think that. I like to hope that love and discourse can solve our problems, like the British did during their abolition movement. Americans have always been a bit roguish and violent. Is that good or bad or good and bad?

        Because whether its right or wrong, that’s the direction our society is moving again. History repeats itself, and it repeats itself faster when we fail to remember it with kindness, so as liberals and conservatives and gay rights activists and race activists and political correctness activists become more extreme, you’re going to see violence again. You’re seeing ripples of it already in social excommunications (http://thefederalist.com/2015/07/06/the-new-totalitarians-are-here/) and race riots. The question only remains what issue will ultimately spark the fire. Will either side be just? I don’t know. I hope so. I hope there will be good guys and heroes.

        Is it wrong for me to hope I’ll be long gone before the blows begin?

  1. First of all, thanks for your thoughts. I’m glad my post made you think this much.

    I agree that America has always been a deliberative country. We tend to want to discuss and debate in the marketplace of ideas before using military solutions. This is even true of the Civil War, as many legislative/non-military solutions were tried before it came to war (the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, to name a few). It’s when people started digging in their heels on the issue, and you had incidents like Bleeding Kansas and the caning of Charles Sumner, that it really started to spiral out of control towards war.

    And you can see some parallels in today’s discourse. Since around 2000, our political system has become more and more polarized. People are voting straight tickets more often and activists on either side are all too eager to demonize their opponents (such as the LaRouche group portraying Obama as the new Hitler in the health care debate, or those liberals that I cite above as trying to erase history). Typically, it takes a catastrophe for people to shift their thinking in a big way, which is why there could be some sort of violent end to all this. Incidentally, it’s also the reason why I think climate change is the most likely event to end the human race — by the time we figure out it’s a huge problem, it will be too late.

    On a related note, I also thought the article you sent on political correctness made some interesting points. I’ve noticed that that aspect of our society has gotten harsher recently. I read an article (can’t remember the title or I’d link you to it) where a content creator recently confessed that he’s afraid to publish any of his scripts/plays/what have you, because everything seems to inevitably offend someone because it doesn’t have enough female characters, enough black characters, appears to stereotype gay characters, and on and on and on. It sometimes seems like everyone can find something to pick at, and even jokes and satire need to be censored at times. Sadly, those on my side of the aisle are often the culprits here.

    But, there have been plenty of problems that America has solved without war. For instance, it’s been theorized that Joseph Stalin’s blockading Berlin post WWII almost started World War Three. The Allies, fortunately, took the peaceful route, undergoing the Berlin Airlift to supply West Berliners until Stalin backed off. I tend to be an optimist at heart, and I’d like to think the better angels of our nature would take over before something truly terrible happened.

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