Sunday, August 2, 2009

This Southern Life - That Confederate Flag

There are more controversies about the Confederate Flag than you can possibly begin to discuss. The Confederate battle flag, called the "Southern Cross" or the cross of St. Andrew, has been described variously as a proud emblem of Southern heritage and as a shameful reminder of slavery and segregation. In the past, several Southern states flew the Confederate battle flag along with the U.S. and state flags over their statehouses. Others incorporated the controversial symbol into the design of their state flags. The Confederate battle flag has also been appropriated by the Ku Klux Klan and other racist hate groups. According to an independant study, more than 500 extremist groups use the Southern Cross as one of their symbols.

So why do people get so worked up over something so old and so trivial?

First, we must understand that symbols like the Confederate Flag have no intrinsic meaning. The meanings symbols carry are those which each human attaches from their own experiences and learning. Thus, any viewer of a symbol is free to assign it any range of meanings. The symbol itself, then is constant, but the value symbolized is not. Herein lies the source of controversy over the Confederate flag.

Where one person views the Southern Cross as a symbol of his own unique individualism another can view that same symbol as a reference to a less enlightened time of hate and subjugation. And yet in our American society, we agree that each person has the freedom to express themselves in their own way. Where do you draw the line? Where do we say 'Ok you can view this flag as a symbol of your memory of your ancestors and this other person should not view it as an insult? Therein lies the controversy.

The controversy is not going away. There will always be people who view the Confederacy as an honored memory, and not for the death and racist, segregationist traditions for which it stood. Here is a modern allegory: In a recent post on, a young person asked whether he would be arrested by wearing a shamagh in public. Obviously the shamagh (a desert army scarf used to keep sand out of the face) is quickly referenced to terrorists and recent world events make the wearing of one as controversial as carrying a Confederate Battle Flag. The young man didn't seem to understand this until it was pointed out to him.

Not being raised in the south, I can honestly say that I have no wish to have the Confederate flag draped on my house, car or beer belly (no I have no beer belly, but thanks for that visual) and yet I truly understand the feeling that one wants to have for history. When I lived in Colorado, I had one of those NATIVE bumper stickers on my car, proclaiming to the world that I was born and raised in the Mile High State.

I considered getting a large 6' poster for my room but never could find one. But the NATIVE bumper sticker has no controversial history. It's not related to any movement of violence or subjugation. Even if I put a huge green NATIVE flag on the back of my pickup and drove around town the most I could get is blank stares. This again has to do with the perceptions of the viewer, not the intent of the owner. Southerners who display the flag may merely be showing their love of Southern history, not the slavery inherent IN that history, but the viewer only sees the effect, not the intent.

But let's take a moment to add to that thought. The Civil war was fought about more than slavery.  It was about freedom.  The CSA wanted to secede, The North wanted the southern resources.  Slavery was a part of this whole mess, but there was a lot more going on than that. Most of the soldiers fighting for the south were NOT slave owners. Many of the soldiers fighting for the south were black. The Confederate Battle Flag honors them all.  Again, where do we draw the line?

At one time I suggested that perhaps we should all agree that what ever we want to do with the Confederate Battle Flag, we should do it like we do our other private private. But with this new thought as to the history, I'm not so sure. In this free country, I'm not sure we can tell someone that they cannot carry around a symbol which means one thing to them while it means something else to someone else.   

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