On Flags and Losing

I am glad the Confederate Flag is coming down in so many places. I am also glad that the attention on it has allowed its actual history as a explicit symbol of race hatred and resistance to civil rights and desegregation, rather than a battle flag, to become more widely known. It is good that we having an opportunity to clear up the “it was about states rights” lie, even if some politicians are avoiding it.

I have been more uncomfortable with the number of people in my own social networks who have been arguing that one of the reasons that the flag should come down is that it is a symbol of treason and after all, “the South lost!”

Let’s be clear. That flag should not fly. It should not fly on any government property, nor be sold or displayed by any person of conscience and integrity, because it of what it explicitly stands for and always has. End of story. We do not need another reason.

But beyond that, as other reasons go, “you lost” is a really bad one.

If the indigenous peoples of this continent had had flags for their nations, would you now ban them from displaying them? Do we prevent Anglophiles from possessing the Union Jack within the original 13 colonies?

Losing a war is not a sin. Starting a war with the intention of propping up an economic system dependent on chattel slavery is. Slavery is a sin. Lynchings are a sin. Decades of unmitigated racial terrorism is a sin.

Secession, in the abstract? Not a sin.

Remember Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman’s risking life and limb to report on the independence fight of East Timor? How many people accusing the South of treason have “Free Tibet” bumper stickers? Indonesia and China would call those “freedom fighters” treasonous.

But the South’s succession was not actually about self-determination of an oppressed cultural group or occupied territory. Nor was it the repulsion of an invasion. It was about slavery and white supremacy and the economic system that enabled. It was about refusal to relinquish power and financial gain. It was about keeping poor white folk in line and not questioning those in power by giving them someone to abuse and feel superior to.

That is why the stars and bars must come down. That is why flying it in any official capacity over the halls of what are supposed to be representative government is a constant insult to every decent citizen of this country.

And I’m not just picking nits here. Because the problem with the “stop being a sore treasonous loser already” narrative is not just that it’s hypocritical, but also that it plays right into the Confederate flag apologists’ own narrative. In that narrative, their unique and special way of life, their culture, was attacked in the “War of Northern Aggression” and we haven’t stopped since. Hate groups cultivate this idea, encouraging it in people who need someone to blame for their economic dislocation. That feeling of being under attack is perfect for fomenting and justifying the kind of violence that took the lives of nine people in that Charleston church.

It is absurd, of course, in a land rife with systemic racism, especially anti-black racism, for white folk to be the ones operating from a siege mentality (at least from an identity as white people, as opposed to, say, from identifying with the working class or the 99 percent). But that’s all the more reason not to reinforce that twisted worldview with offhand comments.

And to be honest, there is a strain of anti-South snobbery among some Northern progressives. Jokes about trailers and rednecks and hicks and inbreeding are astoundingly common. As if Southern people of color don’t exist. As if Southern white folk are a monolithic lost cause. As if racial horrors did not happen here as well. It feels to me like a desire to be able to pat one’s self on the back and ignore the horrific racism and racial inequity that surrounds us because some people somewhere else are more overt about it.

I think that is a seriously dangerous attitude to take.

Just as it matters why the Confederate flag is flown, it matters why we call for it to be taken down. It should come down as a step toward collectively acknowledging (not hiding!) our past and joining together to repudiate the parts of it that deserve repudiation, which is a necessary, though clearly not sufficient, step toward justice.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on July 2, 2015.)

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