Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Teabaggers, Confederate Flags, and Wishful Thinking




Though I no longer live there, I suppose I will always be a Son of the South. Where I grew up, a strong sense of solidarity with the Lost Cause of the Confederacy still existed, which to me was more a romantic ideal of what might had been then any desire for Round Two of the conflict. I always felt it to be analogous to the sort of people who support a particular sports team that is always a heavy underdog and spend much time waxing poetically between themselves about close losses. "If only", these attitudes seemed to say. "If only." So on at least one level I think I can understand the mentality of the Teabaggers, since their resistance to Progressive reforms is often tied to a profound sense of nostalgia for some golden age long past and likely never to return. The particularly irony, of course, is that this epoch they reference never really existed in the first place.

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell's decision to denote the month of April as Confederate History Month and the controversy surrounding it reminds me of the political back and forth that raged when my home state of Alabama was contemplating removing the Confederate flag from the top of the Capitol building in Montgomery. Then, as now, many of the same arguments were heard. After years of debate, the flag was at last taken down. South Carolina is the last of the southern states to keep the flag flying, but even so, several other Deep South states incorporate the design into their own state flags, having faced massive popular backlash when they threatened to remove the pattern altogether.

In 2001, Mississippi voted 2:1 to keep the Confederate flag very visibly incorporated into its own design. That same year, then Georgia Governor Roy Barnes modified the state flag in an effort to greatly downplay the Confederate banner, causing a popular uproar, and was swept from power the next year by an irate electorate. Barnes' successor and the state legislature quickly adopted a new design, one putting the banner back in prominence. It is not as though Confederate flags had flown atop state capitals ever since the end of Reconstruction. They were hoist atop rotundas for the same reasons why the Teabaggers seek to hearken back to the memory of the American Revolution, even when both don't exactly fit their purposes. The symbolism involved in both instances is not exactly difficult to decipher and the anger and hatred are very real.

One person's peculiar institution is another person's brutal heritage. Yet, what I find most interesting is that the veneration of the Confederate flag in its most recent incarnation usually can be traced back to the upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement and the refusal to integrate, two key factors which reached their apex in the 50's and the early 60's. Something long overlooked in the awful back and forth of those trying times is the occasion of centennial of the war itself, celebrated in 1961, which was a huge event and source of regional pride throughout the South. I even recall that my Grandparent bought a commemorative mug and proudly displayed it in their modest living room, years after the fact. So whether by coincidence or design, the two were held simultaneously.*

EDIT: A reader e-mailed me to state that in at least one Southern state, the Confederate flag was placed atop the Capitol building to commemorate the anniversary of the Civil War, but that very quickly what was meant to be a temporary four-year-long placement became associated with resistance against the Federal Government, and as a result the flag was never taken down until decades later.

Nor is this a new phenomenon. The romantic legacy of the virtuous Confederacy has been enshrined in public memory for decades. D.W. Griffith's racist, but groundbreaking 1915 film Birth of a Nation, advances a storyline in which the South, for all intents and purposes, rises again and wins rightful victory over the Carpetbaggers and Negroes who have overrun its own territory. The book and then movie Gone with the Wind spread the Confederate myth not just across the country but throughout the world. Since then, many groups who have struggled against high odds and overwhelming resistance have found something in the story that speaks to their struggles and their condition. However, theirs is a deliberate reduction of the true ambitions and goals of the Confederate States of America, circa 1861-1865.

All of these ways of thinking do not, of course, reference slavery. That matter is deliberately sidestepped, since the practice is indefensibly barbaric and furthermore distracts from the sweep and scope of the narrative. Or, to put it another way, on a recent trip to Pennsylvania I saw, much to my shock, a Confederate flag flying on the front porch of someone's residence. To my sensibilities, it seemed tremendously out of place, especially considering that I was well above the Mason-Dixon line. Pennsylvania had been a quite vocal free state during the War Between the States so it was incomprehensible to me why that which I had always known as a symbol of regional pride would have made its way into Northern territory. I was told that the Confederate flag had become a way for those who favored less central government intrusion into their lives and greater local control to denote solidarity, and that, these days, where it was flown wasn't all that important.

Any self-proclaimed movement which clings to the Tenth Amendment when major changes are afoot, seeking to place power in its own hands, and in so doing demanding the right to make its own decisions, will always reach for symbols like the notion of the brave Confederacy fighting against the Yankee oppressors. The veracity of this comparison will always be in debate, but there must be something quite human about responding to loss in this fashion. If we were talking about Germany, Post-World War I, we could bring up the Dolchsto├člegende, the right-wing legend that,

[Attributed] Imperial German loss of the war to the public’s failure in answering their “patriotic calling”, and to the war effort-sabotage of the Socialists, the Bolsheviks, and the Jews, and not to the Reichsheer’s inability to engage battle, it exonerated the military of their defeat. Culturally, the legendary dagger-stabbing of the German Army parallels the hero’s fate in the epic poem Nibelungenlied (Song of the Nibelungs), wherein Siegfried is stabbed in the back by Hagen von Tronje.


Growing up, I always saw Confederate veneration as something very misguided, but also very harmless. It reminded me a bit of the belief system of certain conservative Christians, yet since they and I kept a decided feeling of live and let live between us, I was all for peaceful co-existence. As for today's Tea Party members, I am wary of painting them all with a very broad brush. Based on what I have read and heard of recent history, there were only a few classless individuals yelling racial slurs and spitting on legislators after the passage of the Health Care Reform Act. Still, I am understandably uncomfortable when I see the very same motifs and imagined slights incorporated into anyone's canon. This is not Wiemar Germany, but this is a time of great transition, and in times of change, there are always unforeseen consequences.

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