Friday, June 19, 2015

The Confederate battle flag

It was mildly amusing to read that the governor of Massachusetts got tripped up over the Confederate battle flag flying over the South Carolina state capitol. I mean, we're talking about the governor of a state that is quite a ways from South Carolina, and Massachusetts isn't a state where the Confederate flag ordinarily looms large as an issue.

The way the Boston Globe described it, Gov. Charlie Baker "said in an early-afternoon radio interview that states should be entitled to decide whether to fly the Confederate flag at their capitols, laying out a brief argument for local government." He later walked back his remarks after friends asked him, as he put it, “Basically: What were you thinking?”

I actually appreciate that Baker's first instinct was to say essentially, "This is really up to South Carolina". It's irritating to hear some idiot politician in some state hundreds of miles away lecturing me on what's wrong with my state.

But consider the Confederate battle flag. To claim that it's merely a symbol of Southern pride is to deny all the baggage that comes with it. I'm mindful of Godwin's Law, but it's no exaggeration to say that the Confederate battle flag is freighted with as many negative connotations as the swastika. It's a grotesque distortion of history to claim that the flag "just" represents the romantic struggle of states to fend off an overbearing federal government. The pretense that the Civil War was about "state's rights" transparently ignores what "right" the seceding states wanted to preserve: the right to keep slaves. The right to deny some human beings their humanity.

Baker got tripped up because the Confederate flag isn't just some innocuous local idiosyncrasy, like Cincinnati chili. If he had ever given the matter two seconds of thought, he would have known that. I'd argue that nobody with a fifth-grade education can claim he or she doesn't know that. Claiming ignorance is really claiming willful ignorance. It's refusing to face reality.

That's what the Confederate battle flag's supporters do. They refuse to face reality.

Well, the rest of us are absolutely free to call "bullshit" on their bullshit.

Yes, Virginia, there really is racism against blacks in America, and it got its start in the institution of slavery. Racism by whites against blacks endures because a hard core of people refuses to accept that slavery and its defenders were wrong. They tell themselves and their children a fantasy story about the nation's history and the relations between blacks and whites, a fantasy story that makes Southern whites the beleaguered victims of everybody else. In this fantasy the Confederate battle flag symbolizes the righteous lost cause.

Like I said, this is a fantasy. A dangerous one. And it's way, way, way past time to give it up.

[EDIT: Reworded to eliminate incorrect references to the "Stars and Bars", which was the first national flag of the Confederate States of America. Thanks to this Slate article for enlightening me as to the difference.]

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