For days on end, we’ve been pelted with the sudden and inconsistent outrage over the Confederate battle flag, which, apparently, has moved thousands to commit heinous acts in the name of a long-since disbanded secessionary force that may or may not have been defending an agrarian way of life against an industrialized interloper that threatened to force them to abandon their hoopskirts and post-supper porch tobacco. The flag has, of course, existed in some form or another since the mid-1800s, and until two weeks ago, had lived a relatively unmolested life, flying over Southern statehouses and in the windows of four-door diesel trucks with fake testicles hanging from their rear license plates.
In the wake of a tragedy, everyone looks for an easy answer that will prevent a tragedy like a mass shooting from happening once again, as if there were an easy answer. Often, as with our President, the answer is to ban guns, as though in places like Chicago, where a full gun ban is in effect, such a blanket “solution” makes much of a difference (other than, perhaps, to disarm potential victims). In the world of bloggers and liberals, the answer this time seems to be the nationwide retirement of the old “Stars and Bars.”
I’m not saying this is a bad thing. What once stood for a certain way of life is pretty much only used to denote a “redneck-chic” way of life, practiced only by the most devoted country music fans, or worse, as a symbol of long-outdated notions of racial superiority. If you want to demonstrate your commitment to Southern gentility, you’re better off sporting Lilly Pulitzer or a seersucker three-piece than you are a Confederate flag, and if you’re looking for something to demonstrate your defiance of Federal incursion, the Conch Republic’s blue-and-yellow makes a better statement — representing an actually successful rebellion, accompanied by margaritas.
But the push, it seems, from where it’s most ardent — social media — isn’t merely to obliterate the most public vestige of the Confederacy, but to take on an entire era in our nation’s history — the bloodiest, most divisive conflict in our short life-span and one which defined America as it stands today — and wipe it off the history books because it exposes what some consider to be a distasteful characteristic of America’s rugged individualism: an aptitude for going to the mat, and often the battlefield, to protect our right to be wrong.
After all, if it were just about combating the “forces of evil” that inevitably led to the death and oppression of millions, Amazon and eBay, who’ve made a public point of removing all Confederate flag merchandise from their stores, would be more concerned about the availability of Nazi paraphernalia (which is, to be sure, even more closely aligned with America’s hate groups than the Confederate flag), or the thousands of Che Guevara t-shirts available for English graduate students to purchase and sport as a show of allegiance with the proletariat — and, unwittingly, for the deaths of thousands of intellectuals, whom Che regarded as a threat to his superiority and control. eBay’s CEO might have a “longstanding policy” of prohibiting items that “promote hatred” or “glorify racial intolerance,” but his site doesn’t. It once took almost 10,000 individual complaints to get eBay to even consider pulling the auction of a consecrated host, a horrendously offensive affront to Catholics. And at last count, there were only 25,000 or so listings on eBay containing the word “Nazi” (in fairness, of course, some of those auctions are for the Dead Kennedy’s seminal album, “Nazi Punks F*** Off” on original vinyl — at great prices).
And, when you think about it, the Confederate battle flag has been a symbol of hatred and intolerance since before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. You’d think, if it were really the painful thorn in our compassionate politicians’ sides it seems to be, one of them would have gotten around to concerning themselves with its erasure sometime before last week. I mean, granted, not every presidential contender is affiliated with a campaign that once issued “Sons of the New South” pins, with not only the “Stars and Bars” but the President and his running mate in full Confederate battle dress, but they’ve all made a trip through their history books.
We have to appreciate our national heritage with an eye to the full story. Perhaps it’s high time the Confederate flag be retired in the name of national unity, or at least, recognition that the side trying to keep a massive and unwieldy nation together eked out a victory and began a process of healing and inclusion that has ultimately transformed a stain on our proud history into the catalyst for national reinvention, bringing industrialization and trade to the South, bringing mechanized agriculture to the West, spurring on our national drive to complete our Manifest Destiny, and building strong metropolises from sea to shining sea. Before we start tearing down statutes of Jefferson Davis or renaming New Orleans roundabouts, remember that the bad parts of our history are still parts of our history, and America is standing today because a lot of people had the guts necessary to do a lot of stupid things, including but not limited to, declaring a series of random states a new country.
Plus, if you change the name of Lee Circle, how will drunken Mardi Gras revelers know where to use the bathroom? General Lee may have once sat proudly over a collection of Confederate forces, but he’s best known to my generation for watching intently over a the only (kind of) clean Porta-Potties on the parade route.
That tale — and many others — of temporary American insanity may not be palatable to some. After all, the most derided and “outrageous” notions today are those of insubordination to our governmental “betters.” The American left looks for nearly any excuse to chastise conservatives and libertarians for not succumbing to the whims of the intellectuals in charge on a variety of issues, from environmental policy to foreign affairs to college syllabi to school lunch contents. Opposing viewpoints are “triggering” and ideas of liberty are seditious. It’s only natural to many that reminders of an era where submission to Federal authority was openly flouted be eliminated from the public view. We’ve become a nation afraid of our past, and more apt to feel endless guilt over our sins than to acknowledge that any great civilization plays host to a series of unfortunate events. Our mistakes are terrible, but the great societies don’t dwell on them. They understand what they did wrong and move forward with the knowledge they’ve gained from the bridges they’ve burned, better for having admitted them.
American “badassery” isn’t just a negative characteristic. The Civil War divided us, for certain. The South fought to protect a way of life that had long since grown outdated and unnecessary and was, quite frankly, immoral, thanks to purely American innovation. But the same blind, American courage that brought us to the battlefield of the South brought us to the bridges in Selma, the courthouses of D.C., the barren fields of Oklahoma, the beaches of Normandy, the skies over Kitty Hawk, and the wastelands of the moon. We’re idiots. But we’re brave idiots, always willing to challenge the status quo, build the better mousetrap, and shed blood for the things we believe in.
So while the Confederate flag and all it stands for might finally be relegated to the dustbin of our national conscience, in the wake of a national tragedy, don’t wipe out every last vestige of Confederacy. We need the reminders of the bad parts of our national life as much as we need the good ones.