The Confederate Problem

[Jon Henke]

Before I step away from this blog to make way for Megan's return (tanned, rested and ready!), I want to make one more point about race. Matt Yglesias is exactly right here...

It seems that April is Confederate Heritage month. Why one would want to celebrate a heritage of violent rebellion against a democratically elected government in order to perpetuate a system of chattel slavery is a bit hard for me to say.
Even odder, as best I can tell these days (it was different in the past) most of the folks who like to wave the Confederate flag are perfectly genuine when they get offended that others see them as waving a banner of violent white supremacist ideology. But if that's not the ideology you mean to associate with, then why not drop the flag and adopt some less provocative emblem of Southern folkways?

This is a very complicated subject, particularly as it applies to the Confederate flag (let's not get into the tedious discussion over whether it was really the Confederate flag or simple a "battle flag"; it's irrelevant). Most Southerners have a relationship with the Confederate flag that has nothing whatsoever to do with slavery. Over many years, it gradually became a symbol of regional identification, pride and, yes, rebellion. But rebellion in the sense of "James Dean" rather than "secession". This is exacerbated by the condescending, antagonizing way in which southerners are treated by outsiders, including the media and politicians.

In the South, the Confederate flag symbol is somewhat akin to the Washington Redskins name and logo, which also has offensive racial connotations. Owning/supporting a Confederate flag is generally understood to be no more intrinsically racist than, e.g., supporting, or owning the logo of, the Washington Redskins. The understood symbolism simply isn't racial.

On the other hand, there is no getting around the history of the Confederate flag, and no excuse for that history. Whatever people may intend by it now, it was, as Matt Yglesias writes, "a banner of violent white supremacist ideology." Many people, correctly, are deeply disturbed by the thing; they have no obligation to pretend it is anything but a banner of the ugliest, most inexcusable policy in American history.

So, we have one group of people who intend no offense, and another group who perceive great offense. Where do we go from there?

For starters, I'm reminded of a lesson I learned as a child: don't take offense where none is intended. It would be helpful if we stopped assuming that racism is at the root of every disagreement and misunderstanding. For instance, it's probably not helpful to reflexively assume that because somebody voted against a federal holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr, the motivation must have been racist. There are many great Americans without federal holidays, and - while racism was undoubtedly the case for some - one need not be bigoted against their ethnicity or race to disagree with creating a federal holiday in their honor. In Martin Luther King, Jr's case, however, they were wrong. Martin Luther King, Jr. ought to be considered the Last Founding Father for the work he did to finally hold those truths to be self-evident.

But the reflexive assumption of racism on the part of early opponents is counterproductive and unnecessary. When offense is not intended, it should not be taken...or assumed. Opponents of the Confederate flag and Confederate History Month ought not reflexively cry "racism" and demand penance.

But I'm also reminded of another lesson I learned in childhood: don't do things you know will offend others. Even if you mean no offense, courtesy and a decent respect for your fellow man demands you take their opinions and perceptions into account. Confederate History Month should be ended, and the Confederate flag should be discarded, replaced, as Yglesias suggests, with "some less provocative emblem of Southern folkways". The Confederacy and the Confederate flag are not worth celebrating. Their revolting history is too inescapable.

I don't suppose such a change of course would be easy for either side of this cultural misapprehension, but it would be best, in the end, for all of us. So long as each side chooses to be antagonistic, however, they will get the fight they expect.