Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Confederate flag

Every time you have an incident like the Chas shooting, there's the predictable call to get rid of the Confederate flag. I'll venture a few personal observations:

i) I have ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War. My great-grandfather, who fought with the Union, used to horrify my father with war stories about how he and his comrades used the black cooks as target practice if they didn't like the chow. And that was the side that liberated the slaves.

I've lived in the Deep South. I generally feel closer to my Southern relatives than my Northern relatives. But I grew up in the North.

I think I'm just Southern enough to understand how some white Southerners feel about the Civil War and the Confederate flag without feeling the way they feel about it. 

ii) The Confederate flag means nothing to me. And flying the flag can be tactless or provocative. 

Certainly there are times when we should resist conforming to other people's feelings. That becomes tyrannical. But it depends on whether or not this is a worthy cause. 

I think the Confederate flag can become an idol. It's the wrong way to make a statement. It's too tainted to be a useful symbol. 

iii) However, I think both sides make this more important than it really is. Both sides take it way too seriously. 

The problems facing the black community aren't related in any way to some people who fly the Confederate flag. It becomes a diversionary tactic. A debate over empty symbolism that deflects attention from real problems and real solutions. 

Moreover, it's a futile debate. Although one can (and should) prohibit state agencies from flying the Confederate flag, one can't prohibit private individuals from doing so. It's Constitutionally protected free expression.

iv) I'd also like to venture a few observations about the Civil War. I think the Civil War had many villains and few heroes. And I apply that to both sides of the conflict. From what I've read, Lincoln was a tyrant. He posed a threat to democracy. He suspended habeas corpus. He imprisoned newspaper reporters who criticized the war effort. Likewise, Gen. Sherman went onto become a notorious Indian killer. 

On the other hand, Robert E. Lee was a cruel slave master. And even though the South could rightly complain about Northern oppression, that complaint was offset by Southern oppression of the black population. 

v) The best argument I've read for the Southern cause goes like this: imagine you're a Southern farmer. Not a gentleman farmer. Not a slaveowner. You have enough land and livestock to support your family. 

The reason you fight the Union is not for ideology, not to protect the institution of slavery, but to protect your family and your livelihood. If your part of the world is invaded, if that threatens the life or livelihood of your dependents, you have a right and a duty to fight back. Even if the overall cause is unworthy, even if the invaders have a worthier cause, your first priority is to protect and provide for your dependents.

I think that's a legitimate argument so far as it goes. However, it cuts both ways. It justifies slave revolts. And it justifies slaves collaborating with Union forces. Slaves can invoke the same principle in reverse. They are defending their own interests. 


  1. On the other hand, Robert E. Lee was a cruel slave master.

    Robert E. Lee helped to manumit his father-in-law's slaves after his death and was a devout Christian. His wife even operated an illegal school for them at Arlington House.

    1. For her newly published biography, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters, historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor draws on a cache of previously unknown Lee family papers, discovered in 2002 in two sturdy wooden trunks that Lee's daughter stored in a Virginia bank about a century ago.

      Lee's wife inherited 196 slaves upon her father's death in 1857. The will stated that the slaves were to be freed within five years, and at the same time large legacies—raised from selling property—should be given to the Lee children. But as the executor of the will, Lee decided that instead of freeing the slaves right away—as they expected—he could continue to own and work them for five years in an effort to make the estates profitable and not have to sell the property.

      Lee was considered a hard taskmaster. He also started hiring slaves to other families, sending them away, and breaking up families that had been together on the estate for generations. The slaves resented him, were terrified they would never be freed, and they lost all respect for him. There were many runaways, and at one point several slaves jumped him, claiming they were as free as he. Lee ordered these men to be severely whipped. He also petitioned the court to extend their servitude, but the court ruled against him and Lee did grant them their freedom on Jan. 1, 1863—ironically, the same day that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.

  2. The Civil War has been over for awhile. How many Southern Caucasians today are fond celebrants of their halcyon days of whipping "uppity negroes" and breaking up families at the slave-market as the lady-folk sipped sweet tea on the veranda while Aunt Jemima prepared lunch?

    Probably about as many Jews who long for the good ol' days of Canaanite subjugation and still hold a grudge against God for the institution of the Jubilee year.

    The reality is that apart from a very tiny minority of race agitators, mostly within the Sharpton / Jackson camps, no one else is still stuck in the past nursing imaginary personal grievances.

    The Confederate flag, like many other useful foils, is basically just a convenient propaganda tool for folks who earn their living as professional agitators. Its symbolism varies along a continuum depending on who you ask.

    I don't personally care about it either way, but insofar as banning it represents caving in to the tyrannical PC thought police, then I oppose its opponents and support freedom of expression in principle.