Confederate Flag, Pop-Culture Phenomenon

What does it mean to “remove” this symbol of the Confederacy when it’s become such a familiar part of American life—through songs, clothing, and a Dodge Charger known as the General Lee?

Wikimedia / The Atlantic

You can, as of now, buy a belt buckle featuring the Confederate flag on Amazon for $13.81. You can also buy, elsewhere on the Internet, a Confederate flag t-shirt. And a necklace. And a shower curtain. And regular curtains. And paper napkins. And a beer koozie. And a beer pong table. And a pocket knife. And a beach towel. And a bikini. And flip-flops. And a baseball cap. And a saddle pad. And a money clip. And a baby onesie. And a lawnmower.

On Monday, Governor Nikki Haley called for the Confederate flag to be taken down from grounds of the South Carolina State House. On the same day, Walmart announced that it would remove Confederate flag merchandise from its stores. So did Sears. So did, on Tuesday, eBay. Which came on the heels of Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe announcing his plans to phase out a state-sponsored license plate featuring an image of the Confederate flag: He declared the image to be “unnecessarily divisive and hurtful.”

And then Amazon joined in: The megastore, its spokesperson has confirmed, will at some point in the future pull its Confederate flag-related merchandise.

The speed of all of this movement is astounding—a testament to the fact that the arc of history not only bends toward justice, but occasionally races toward it. What the swiftness belies, however, are the deep structural challenges associated with relegating the flag to, as President Obama suggested, “a museum.” The Confederate flag isn’t merely a physical item, flown in physical places and available as merchandise in big-box stores and souvenir shops and the junk-selling stretches of the Internet. Its symbolism is also incorporated into the flags of seven—seven—different states. It has appeared in artwork both high and low, and on album covers, and at concerts, and on television, and in movies. It was used in a button for—if not necessarily produced bythe Clinton-Gore campaign of ‘92. It is the visual embodiment of Americans’ storied capacity to forget our own history: an expansion of the highways that are named for Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, of the statues of Lee, Davis, and CSA Vice President Alexander Stephens that remain in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall, of the multiple schools whose names pay tribute to Lee, Davis, and Stonewall Jackson.

Which is also to say that the most prominent flag of the Confederacy has become infused, miasmically, into the culture—a symbol most immediately of racism that is structural and racism that is personal, and of the inequality that remains with us, still, and of the banality of evil, but a symbol also, for some, of other things: rebellion, culture, history itself. We can call the flag “a flag,” for convenience’s sake; what it is more specifically, though, is a meme. And, as tends to happen with memes, the flag doesn’t merely contain multitudes; it also has a way of multiplying. It has metastasized.

Whatever will happen in South Carolina, the question from there will be: What next? Not just when it comes to Mississippi and Virginia, and but also when it comes to Lynyrd Skynyrd albums and old episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard and the fact that, as of this writing—and despite the company’s statement of future merchandise-removals—sales of Confederate flags are trending upward on Amazon? How do you deal with a symbol that means so many different things, to so many different people? How do you “take down” a flag that has ceased to be a flag at all?

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This is, for better or for worse, a (relatively) recent conundrum. For a long time after the Civil War, my colleague Yoni Appelbaum notes, the flag largely disappeared as a public symbol, relegated to dusty attics and the even dustier memories of the war’s survivors. It was revived, in fits, in the early 20th century, waved at football games and sold to the nostalgic as ephemera of a bygone era. As that happened, though, the particular and pernicious meaning of the flag—its segregationist connotations and messages, and all that came with them—was revived. The Ku Klux Klan adopted it. So did the Dixiecrats.

But so did the public more broadly—people who identified themselves, at least, not as racists, but as rebels of a broader stripe. By the 1960s, the journalist Keith Coulbourn argued, the flag had become a symbol of “simple rebellion, the degenerate form of any nameless revolt, indeed for any anomic nut with a generalized gripe.” As one Kansas man explained to a reporter: “We fly the rebel flag because it’s our belief—to be able to do what you want to do.” (He added, emphatically if redundantly: “We’re 100 percent rebel.”) A popular souvenir of the Civil War Centennial, John M. Coski noted in The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem, was a Confederate soldier figurine uttering the lines, Hell, no, I’ll never forget!”

The keepsake rebel was draped in the flag.

Around the time of the Centennial, Coski writes, the flag adopted, in addition to everything else, another strain of symbolism. It came to represent not just the rebel, but also something even broader: the “good ol’ boy,” the benign strain of Southernness that one might today associate with Jeff Foxworthy’s comedy and Cracker Barrel’s dining establishments. In that shift, the flag’s historical connection to the Civil War was further dismissed in favor of a simpler connection with Southern culture—making the flag, as Coski argued it, “an effective symbol for the fierce independence and individual rebelliousness common to all these types of people.”

From there, the ahistorical associations expanded in their ahistoricism. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” was released in 1974 (complete with a flag-waving album cover). Tom Petty would unfurl a Confederate flag during shows as he sang the lyrics to 1985’s “Rebels”:

Hey hey hey, I was born a rebel
Down in Dixie
On a Sunday morning
One foot in the grave, one foot on the pedal  
I was born a rebel.

The great normalizer of the flag in pop culture, however, was The Dukes of Hazzard. The TV show, Coski notes, which ran from 1979 to 1985—and was followed by several spinoffs, including a 2005 feature film—solidified the flag’s connection with the “good ol’ boy” ethos. The show reached, in the early ‘80s, some 46 million viewers. Its most prominent icon was a 1969 Dodge Charger, the entirety of whose roof was painted with a Confederate flag. The car, which functioned as a co-star in the show, was nicknamed the “General Lee.”

Here is the beginning of the Dukes of Hazzard theme song:

Just a good ol’ boys
Never meanin’ no harm
Beats all you never saw
Been in trouble with the law
Since the day they was born
Straightnin’ the curves
Flatnin’ the hills
Someday the mountain might get ‘em
But the law never will...

Just good ol’ boys never meanin’ no harm. Which acknowledges, of course, that harm is somehow part of the equation to begin with, but quickly moves on to other and less complicated things. The pre-emptive defensiveness on display in the song is telling: The Dukes of Hazzard solidified the idea that the flag could have—or at least could claim to have—an alternate meaning besides the original one: that it could be more than a symbol of, in every sense, the wrong side of history. But the show also made clear how awkward such aggressive revisionism can be. It suggested the way that the image of a flag, painted onto to the body of a car, can have its own kind of layered meaning.

But: The coating continued. The defiance continued. As late as 2005’s feature-filmed reboot of the show, the Confederate flag remained atop the General Lee.

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It’s telling, though, that in a 2014 ad for Autotrader, which found the reunited Duke boys considering trading in the General Lee for a newer model … the flag was missing.

It’s also telling that so many companies that have a commercial interest in selling the flag, in all its forms, have halted those sales.

It’s telling that politicians are currently competing to decry the Confederate flag flying above South Carolina’s capitol.

It’s telling that they’re competing to decry the Confederate flag in general.

It’s in those incremental changes that history’s arc will likely, after this period of productive haste, go back to bending. Because if the Confederate flag is to be “removed,” in any comprehensive way, from American infrastructures if not from American memories, the removal will have to contend not just with the flags that fly over state capitols, or with the images stamped onto government-issued license plates. It will also have to contend with Johnny Knoxville, with Lynyrd Skynyrd, with Tom Petty, with Kanye West—with all the flags and non-flags that, while they are no longer available for purchase at Walmart and Sears, remain available across the Internet. It will have to contend with the places that assume, against all common sense, that a flag is just a flag. And with people who insist that history, living as it does in the past, isn’t still extremely painful in the present.