Last year, I wrote a piece that got some of the most traffic and generated some of the most commentary I’ve seen yet for any of my work. It was entitled “Yes, You Are Absolutely an Asshole for Flying a Confederate Flag…Ever,” and the gist of it is pretty self-explanatory from the title. I wrote after reaching my boiling point with history revisionists I run into on the Interwebs who defend the flying of the confederate flag in the year 2014 for a whole host of reasons. They claim that ugly flag doesn’t represent racism or slavery and they claim so based on some idiotic notion that slavery was almost incidental to the Civil War. I started the piece actual excerpts from actual letters of secession written by the states who left the union in a tantrum over the ability to own black people as property, and then went on to point out in very specific detail why they’re idiots for trying to sever the cause of slavery from the cause of the Civil War.
This of course made some people’s heads explode. How dare I call into question tradition? How dare I — as a Yankee — try and drag modern day southerners into ill-repute for flying the stars and bars? Well, I told everyone why I dared to do those things in the first piece, but the reactions I got to the piece all seemed to fall into five basic counter arguments, which I’d like to take the time now to address, in a follow up to that first piece. We’ll get to those counter arguments very shortly, but first, a few more actual quotes from actual famous members of the confederacy, just because I’m a stickler for historical accuracy, silly me.
“African slavery, as it exists in the United States, is a moral, a social, and a political blessing.” — confederate president Jefferson Davis
“My own convictions as to negro slavery are strong. It has its evils and abuses…We recognize the negro as God and God’s Book and God’s Laws, in nature, tell us to recognize him – our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude…You cannot transform the negro into anything one-tenth as useful or as good as what slavery enables them to be.” — confederate president Jefferson Davis
“The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the Negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away… Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it—when the “storm came and the wind blew, it fell.”
Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.” — confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens in his famous “Cornerstone Speech”
“Slavery Was On Its Way Out Anyway”
I bet that would bring much comfort to the slaves of the time. “Hey man, just hang in there with that whole ‘being someone else’s property and not a real human being’ thing, we swear we’ll be done with slavery…soon…ish.” Because nothing says “we know it’s wrong to do what we’re doing” like keeping right on doing what you’re doing and actually breaking your ties with an entire sovereign nation to protect that wrong behavior’s “tradition.”
Also the European slave trade had already been abolished nearly thirty years prior. Slavery, like socialized medicine, was a subject that Americans were just woefully behind the Europeans about. Yet, it’s not like it took 30 years for news to travel the Atlantic; people here knew. Of course they knew. They fought over slavery in the first Continental Congress. It was morally reprehensible then, whether the Southern powers that be wanted to admit it or not.
And all of that is just noise anyway, because the fact still remains that the Civil War was started after Southern states left the union in order to protect their slave trade industry. The confederate flag — any version of it — is a symbol of people who fought to preserve slavery, and it doesn’t actually make them more sympathetic to say slavery was out on its own anyway, it just makes them look like racist, backward, unevolved assholes who knew what they were doing was wrong, but they kept doing it anyway to preserve their little sphere of power. Sounds a lot like the argument against gay marriage these days, doesn’t it?
“The Stars and Stripes Are What Was Flown On Slave Ships!”/”What About The Mistreatment of the Native Americans?”
Oh yay! It’s Deflection Time!
1. Yes, of course some truly terrible shit was and has been perpetrated under the good ol’ stars and stripes.
2. That’s why people that share my point of view don’t tend to put a lot of meaning behind any flag because they’re well, fucking flags.
3. None of this excuses the South’s role in trying to further spread slavery and more importantly…
4. None of this means the confederate flag today, in 2014, doesn’t still symbolize the confederacy, which again, is historically provable to have been fully committed to the cause of slavery, which again, means you flying that confederate flag is a declaration to all who see it that you love you some slavery-lovin’ good ol’ boys.
“It Was About States’ Rights!”
Sure it was. The states’ “right” to “own black people as property” was threatened by the election of Abraham Lincoln, or at least that’s what the scared Southern power structure believed, and so they started jumping ship. You can try and obfuscate the details of history in any way you please, but applying a modern filter of “states’ rights” on this issue is just a neat little history revisionist’s trick to try and distract everyone from the plain and simple truth the only “right’ the states in the south were fighting to protect was the right own slaves. Ergo, the confederacy was truly about slavery’s preservation at its core, and you flying your goddamned confederate flag does indeed put you right on the same side as the slave-owning bastards who sent southern boys who’d never owned a slave but sure were under the impression that they should be allowed to off to war with their fellow Americans.
“It Was About Economics!”/”Irish Immigrants Were Abused in the Factories of the North!”
Again, these kinds of arguments are only meant to deflect away from slavery. But you cannot extricate slavery from the secession of the confederate states, from the importance it played in this country’s founding from the very beginning, or from the fabric of history that so plainly shows what the tipping point was. Sure, there have been times since that I myself have felt the Federal government was overstepping its bounds — marijuana laws being chief among them — but that doesn’t mean that the fight to legalize pot and end the War on Drugs is even in the same universe as slavery, and if you need me to explain why, just please go get spayed or neutered now so the derp in your bloodline can be quickly snuffed out.
The Irish immigrant thing is cute and all, but it doesn’t mean that your confederate flag is racist. All you’ve pointed out is another arena in which Americans were very terribly shitty to foreign immigrants, and again why I don’t drape myself in any flag. How the Irish were treated does not in any way negate how black slaves were treated, and again I have to ask that you sterilize yourself if you need me to explain why that is.
The Bottom Line Is That Today Flying That Flag Is Racist
In the end, the facts just stack up this way: slavery was a racist practice. Racist Southern plantation owners practiced slavery (yes, even Thomas Jefferson should be put in that category; dude knew it was wrong and kept right on doing it). When those racist slave owners decided their economic prosperity built on one of the worst abject and gross violations of a populace’s civil rights in history was worth leaving the country for, and ultimately starting a war over, they permanently imbued all iconography associated with their cause with the dark shadow of racism.
Maybe you’re a naturally rebellious person; God knows I am. Maybe you have an irreverent streak in you that says “Fuck the man, I’m my own person!” None of that is bad. In fact, I admire the vocal rebel as much as any other creature of American mythology. But you can be all those things, and declare yourself as such without latching onto the symbols of a truly heinous and disgusting part of our shared history together. The point is that we all should feel shame for the slave trade; not some misplaced anger that people of color have a genuine grievance for how their ancestors were treated and more importantly, how they’re treated to this day.
The way society works is that over time we have these long conversations with each other; we hash out issues like this. And the overwhelming majority of people these days rightfully attribute the flags and other elements of the confederacy with the abhorrent practice of the slave trade. All the hemming and hawing over some other filtration of the data just doesn’t matter. Feel free to fly that piece of racist shit if you want, but don’t piss on our legs and tell us it’s raining.
Your confederate flag represents racism. Maybe you don’t; but flying one sure as hell does.