The Confederate Flag’s very name confuses. The Confederacy never recognized it as its flag, and even Southerners occasionally call it the “Stars and Bars” despite that moniker belonging to the dissimilar banner that flew over the capitol in Richmond during the Civil War.
With so much confusion over the controversial cloth where it still flies, surely Dixieland denizens can forgive an ignorant Northerner for misunderstanding the Confederate Flag, too.
My childhood impression held that the Confederate Flag stood for Lynyrd Skynyrd just as Southerners stood in unison for “Freebird” as their “Star-Spangled Banner.” They raised cigarette lighters in reverence to their anthem; Northerners placed hands on heart. They say Palmetto bug. We say cockroach.
Strangely, Bay Staters caught glimpses of the emblem to the north in New Hampshire but rarely, if ever, in New England’s “South”—let alone the American South. The propensity of Massachusettsans to glean anthropological understanding of the people on the map they look down upon by watching Deliverance and Mississippi Burning, rather than traveling below the Mason-Dixon Line, surely leads to some misunderstandings. But the reward of firsthand knowledge just isn’t worth the risk of forced sodomy on a canoeing trip or Klansmen stuffing one’s corpse in an earthen dam.
To a young Yankee, the banner appeared synonymous with slightly dirty t-shirt-and-jeans guys wearing mullets who drank warm cans of beer in parking lots, drove big trucks atop bigger wheels, and rebelled against marital norms long before the homosexual community by adopting a succession of common-law wives.
Undoubtedly, this youthful interpretation of the regional symbol offends. But whose understanding of what the Confederate Flag stands for does not offend someone, somewhere? The flag acts as a Rorschach test revealing our attitudes toward the region it represents.
As its “Rebel Flag” moniker indicated, it universally symbolized, until fairly recently, rebellion, not racism.
The Dukes of Hazzard, starring an automobile called the General Lee sporting the battle flag on its roof, played on CBS as a top-ten rated show in the early 1980s. Tom Petty, no one’s idea of a KKK Kleagle, used the rebel flag as the stage backdrop for his 1985 tour supporting his Southern Accents masterpiece. When Jimmy Carter governed Georgia, the flag that flew over the state house incorporated the rebel flag in its design (the state flag now appears as a doppelganger of the real Stars and Bars but the enlightened remain too ignorant to object). Supporters of Bill Clinton and Al Gore even used the arresting imagery on campaign buttons in 1992.
In other words, the rebel flag didn’t always hit American eyes as so rebellious. Racists, rather than the people they despise, deserve the bulk of the blame for the evolution of the flag into an icon of hatred. And given slavery’s role in creating the Confederacy, the symbolism does not strike as a misappropriation, particularly to people whose ancestors labored as slaves.
When Northerners display it, save for history buffs, the act appears at best a non sequitur but more frequently an expression that one hates the NBA, Earth, Wind, & Fire, Tyler Perry movies, and the human beings whom they believe like all that. Many Southerners see it as the flag their forebears died under. They experience an attack on it as an attack on their ancestors, their communities, their heritage, them.
Charleston church murderer Dylann Roof posing with the battle flag, alongside the standards of several other defunct states, propelled activists to act—swiftly. He also stood, à la Bill Ayers, atop an American flag. Alas, no movement arose to bar the former Weatherman from the lucrative campus lecture circuit.
But vandals at the University of Texas defaced statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Albert Sidney Johnston earlier this week. Baltimore removing Robert E. Lee’s name from a 450-acre park appears as a fait accompli. Walmart and Amazon announced bans on selling items featuring the flag. Apple pulled Ultimate General: Gettysburg from its Apps Store because the video game’s battle scenes included, of all things, the Army of Northern Virginia’s standard. CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield and Don Lemon, a sort of real-life Veronica Corningstone and Ron Burgandy, wondered if the torch-and-pitchfork brigade should march on to the Jefferson Memorial.
Six Flags has yet to become Five Flags, and no conscientious San Fernando Valley cinematic entrepreneur promises to remove the Confederate Flag as a prop from interracial porn films to not cause offense. Nevertheless, a Taliban vibe permeates the crusade to erase history, tear down statues, remove books off the shelf, and ban video games.
This seems overdoing matters. After killing 300,000 of their sons, leaving Atlanta, in William Tecumseh Sherman’s words, “smoldering and in ruins,” and awarding every moron and villain a Southern accent in the movies, Northerners look to erase cultural references to the conquered country—today, Robert E. Lee; tomorrow, Gone With the Wind, William Faulkner, 38 Special, and Larry the Cable Guy.
Before a talk a few years back, I ran into the First Lady of one of the Deep South states first to secede. “When you return home to Massachusetts,” she dryly petitioned, “please tell them we wear shoes.” I promised I would, but informed her of the futility of my task: “Nobody will believe me.”
The Confederate Flag has been used to represent despicable bigotry. The same intolerance tic exists within many of banner’s most fervent detractors.