What’s In A Flag?

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Originally published on Daily Kos June 9, 2017

“In the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights activism and new federal laws inspired the same resistance to racial progress and once again led to a spike in the use of Confederate imagery. In fact, it was in the 1950s, after segregation in public schools was declared unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, that many Southern states erected Confederate flags atop their state government buildings.” 
― Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Earlier this year, one Corey Stewart, an overcooked potato currently running for Virginia governor against Republican fixer and bagman Ed Gillespie, campaigned at a Confederate-flag-bedecked gedunk on Virginia's Eastern Shore (a home for retrograde politics ever since Governor Berkeley fled Bacon's Rebellion for safety in 1676.)

A few words about Corey Stewart: He is Chair of the Board of Supervisors of Prince William County, Virginia, and drew national media attention for spearheading Prince William County's 2007 crackdown on illegal immigrants. He was hired as the Virginia chairman of the Trump for President campaign in December 2015, and fired in October 2016. He also drew attention for his use of the word "cuckservative" in a Reddit AMA.

Republican candidate for Governor of Virginia, Corey Stewart, at a campaign kickoff rally in Occoquan, Va., AP Photo/Steve Helber

Let's be clear: Stewart hails from Minnesota and has no ties to the Confederacy aside from whiteness. Stewart has made common cause with those Virginians who have elevated the Confederate flag and Civil War monuments to false-god status:

“Over my dead body when I’m governor of Virginia are we ever going to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson or any hero of the commonwealth of Virginia,” he roared in a dance hall plastered with the Stars and Bars. He put in a good word for the flag, too.

“I’m proud to be next to the Confederate flag,” said Stewart, a Minnesota native and chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors. “That flag is not about racism, folks. It’s not about hatred. It’s not about slavery. It’s about our heritage. … It’s time that we stop running away from our heritage. It’s time that we embrace it.”

Otherwise known as shoveling fresh meat to the base.

Americans have had to endure 150 years of revisionist history from sore losers. I have (hyperbolically) argued with Confederate-flag defenders that, had we as a nation not been beguiled by Lincoln's "soft peace" after the Civil War with paroles for everyone, and executed several thousand Rebel legislators and top-ranking officers, perhaps the many apologists for the so-called "Lost Cause" would not have made so bold with their pens.

And perhaps we would not have had to continue to endure the American swastika as an emblem of the worst instincts of the American experience.

When they say, "heritage, not hate," they lie.

Let's be clear: the Confederate Flag and its derivatives, including the Battle Flag (which is often confused for "the Confederate flag) was created as a symbol of oppression. Period. The Confederacy was founded on the explicit principle that slavery is the “natural and normal condition” of black people. This is not arguable.

The flag’s promoter said:

Our idea is simply to combine the present battle-flag with a pure white standard sheet… As a people, we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause it would be hailed by the civilized world as THE WHITE MAN’S FLAG.

If that is not sufficiently convincing, take what Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate government said in the “Cornerstone Address,” specifically addressing America’s belief that all men are created equal:

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 normal condition.

The problem with the flag, and the monuments, is that they have become rallying images for the worst impulse of illiterate, retrograde types. The Trump era gas given implicit permission to white supremacists, neo-fascists and assorted Nazis to come out of the shadows and rejoin public life.

On May 14, Self-proclaimed white nationalist Richard Spencer (he of punch-a-nazi meme fame) led a tiki-torch carrying group of demonstrators in Charlottesville to protest plans to remove a Confederate monument.

Via Periscope, Spencer addressed the crowd thus:

“You will not replace us. You will not destroy us.You cannot destroy us. We have awoken. We are here. We are never going away.” 

And as if to prove the point, we learn via The Root this week that the KKK has filed paperwork for a demonstration in Charlottesville on July 8. And a group who call themselves “Unity and Security for America”  have applied to hold another event on Aug. 12.

In a tasty bit of writing-with-a-flourish, The Root’s Michael Harriot describes organizer Jason Kessler, the blogger too racist for The Daily Caller, as

…one of the many butt-hurt white boys upset over the removal of Confederate monuments—also believes in the bullshit premise of “white genocide,” once writing, “White people are rapidly becoming a minority in the U.S. and Europe,” and adding, “If we’re not able to advocate for ourselves we may go extinct…” 

…neofascists have lately made the statue a symbol of “political correctness gone mad,” because the white man’s ego has lately become as fragile as his toehold at the top of America’s social hierarchy. 

And that’s where we are. The Trump era (Eric Trump: “Democrats aren’t even people”) has unleashed the zombie id of the American right, and it expresses itself in flag and monument-fetish. This is a movement nourished by hatred of the other, as old as wars of extermination of the Native American, enslavement of the African, and hatred of each successive wave of immigrants whose arrival surely announced the defilement of our women and the destruction of our way of life, whatever that means.

Racist ideology runs through the bloodstream of our body politic as surely as does a taste for violence. It has ignorance and fear at its root, and definition of “the other” as dangerous.

Symbols have no inherent meanings, only those people assign them. The Confederate flag (and assorted Confederate monuments) is now assigned many different meanings: a symbol of slavery, an emblem of rebellion, a guidon for white supremacists, an historical artifact,  even a benign display of regional pride. But as white nationalists make bold to reopen old wounds and sow deep divisions, we have to remember the words of Edmund Burke:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Note: If you are a history geek like me, and want to know more about Bacon's Rebellion (1676–1677), a litlte known and less understood episode of history, the net effect of which was to codify and rigidify a race-based caste system in British America, I recommend this article by James Douglas Rice in the online Encyclopedia Virginia.


banksy 07-flower-thrower-wallpaperSurly1 is the author of numerous rants, articles and spittle-flecked invective, and was active in Occupy. He lives in Southeastern Virginia with his wife Contrary and is the proud parent of a recent college graduate.

13 Responses to What’s In A Flag?

  • Ah, so good to be reading yet more apologist BS giving our fedgov even more excuses for their poor behavior.  Please just answer me this.  If slavery was so bad, and Yankees were so oppossed to it, why did they legalize it for so long?  Why did they profit off of it just as the Southern slave holders did?  Why was slavery okay in 1790 but not in 1860?  The Confederate flag isn't about slavery, it is about the states rights over the federal government.  Granted, the CSA were just as centralized and oppressive as the USA in practice, but the man on the street was fighting for his state.  Not slavery.  I'm not even a Southener and was certainly not indoctrinated there.  This is common sense people.  You think hundreds of thousands of recent immigrants to YankeeLand wanted to give up their lives to fight for Blacks?  Please.  Laws up North were so restrictive against Blacks even living/working there, and you want to tell me Yankees loved Blacks?  I'm not excusing any bad behavior, just saying Yankees behaved just as bady as Southerners.  Who just wanted to do so without interferance.  Which is not even touching on the whole agrarian/industrialization, commodity control issues.

    • Surly says:

      Wondering where you're coming from, friend. The "poor behavior" is coming from the racists long gone underground now paired with recently emboldened white nationalists, who are attempting to make "Lost Cause" emblems and monuments hot button cause celebres.

      If you'd read history, you'd have answers to your questions. For example, "Why was slavery okay in 1790 but not in 1860?"

      Have been reading readinf Ron Chernow's Hamilton, which details Hamilton's arduous work in getting the Constitution approved. As you know, there was plenty of abolitionist sentiment in the north, even though there were plenty of slaves held up north, including in New York. Many colonists, even slave holders, hated slavery. Jefferson called it a “hideous blot” on America. George Washington, who owned hundreds of slaves, denounced it as “repugnant.” Didn't keep them from profiting and building private fortunes from forced labor.

      But even though many of them decried it, Southern colonists relied on slavery. The Southern colonies were among the richest in America. Their cash crops of tobacco, indigo, and rice depended on slave labor. They weren’t going to give it up.

      In the political argument about representation that went on for months, the delegates agreed to the “Great Compromise.” One branch, the House of Representatives, would be based on population. The other, the Senate, would have two members from each state. Part of this compromise included an issue that split the convention on North–South lines. The issue was: Should slaves count as part of the population? This was the root of the much loathed and still cited "Three fifths compromise" reagrding ow much slave populations counted. Each slave would count as three-fifths of a person.

      Abolitionist sentiment grew here and abroad. In July 1833, a Bill to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire passed. In the US, the south wanted to extend slavery to the territories and the north did not, and tensions rose between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions. After Missouri’s 1819 request for admission to the Union as a slave state, to keep the peace Congress orchestrated a two-part compromise, granting Missouri’s request but also admitting Maine as a free state. It also passed an amendment that drew an imaginary line across the former Louisiana Territory, establishing a boundary between free and slave regions that remained the law of the land until it was negated by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. 

      Three years later, the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, on the ground that Congress was prohibited from depriving individuals of private property without due process of law. This led directly to "Bloody Kansas," a conflict between anti-slavery forces in the North and pro-slavery forces from the South over the issue of slavery in the territory, and thus presaged the Civil War.

      Having grown up in the north, I can warrant that northern whites harbor no more love for blacks than any other. Ignorance is learned and taught.

      And the US government absolutely turned its back on the rights of emancipated blacks, and handed the south back to Jim Crow and the KKK with the horrid Compromise of 1877,  an unwritten deal that settled the intensely disputed 1876 U.S. presidential election. It resulted in the United States federal government pulling the last troops out of the South, and formally ended the Reconstruction Era. Through the Compromise, Republican Hayes was awarded the White House over Democrat Tilden on the understanding that Hayes would remove the federal troops whose support was essential for the survival of Republican state governments in South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana.

      And that's how politics works.


      • Washington and Jefferson are typical politicians, saying one thing and doing another, granted.  That is how their species thrives.  My point is that to get more power into the hands of the central government, over the states, the Constitution was passed.  It allowed slavery.  Slavery was legal.  Then, later, wanting even more power, the feds changed their minds and decided suddenly slavery had to be illegal.  It was propaganda used to grab power, which is how politics works, as you state.  Naked aggression is one thing, expecting me to go along with its excuses to villify those transgressed against, no thank you.  You can claim the war was about slavery because the South wanted to keep it, but the deeper issues are being ignored.  Such as the right of the states over the federals.  If Southerners wanted to keep it, or abolish it, since it was legal, should have been their decision.  Not the feds, who allowed it for their own interests and then tried to abolish it for their own interests.  They wanted their cake and also to eat it, as it were.  Why are you surprised the Blacks got thrown under the bus?  That is what those in power do.  That's realpolotiks.  Expecting me to excuse it defies common sense and logic.  Both sides were just as evil, so don't pretend otherwise.  My argument is that southerners were less evil, as they were defenders rather than aggressers.  Non-slave holding citizens went to war not to protect the interests of their rich but of the interists of their state.  It was their decision to decide for themselves, where the North was fighting to eliminate the choice of individual states.  Think of our current killing of anyone getting in the way of "our" oil in other lands.  The Yankees were killing anyone standing between themselves and profits.

        • Surly says:

          I don't know where you get your history, or even what point you wish to make, except that "power corrupts."

          Lincoln was absolutely clear when he said that, "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union."

          Southeners as "defenders rather than aggressors?" The seditionists and traitors fired the first shots on Fort Sumter, did they not?

          For you attempt to to reframe the Civil War as a "states' rights issue" gets no play here. The issue of the primacy of "states rights" was pretty much resolved with the final ratification of the Constitution in 1791. A federalized system was adopted and "these United States" become "the United States."

          I am sure that enslaved Africans and their decendents had/have a very different view of your tender concerns for the sanctity of the property rights and decisions of slaveholders. Not to say their relative "evilness."

          • I believe you are looking through a modern lens to view history.  Being politically correct.  I'm trying to view events through the eyes of those who lived at the time.  Ans as you might tell, I'm not a big fan of the federal government.  Which I grant you could be my own folly as I view things.

  • wm says:

    Yes, and the Iraq invasion was about weapons of mass destruction.

  • Surly says:

    @James, whether a dim view of the federal government is a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen. I am old enough to recall when the federal gov't. was seen as the guarantor of individual rights. Now it seems to be eager to hold the coats of corporations as they find new and exotic ways to mine the little guy for profit. What form the government will take after a Trump administration is anybody's guess. Safe to wager that neither my rights, nor yours, will be high on their list of priorities.

    In terms of viewing things as they were at the time, I agree that historical revisionism is a slippery slope to travel. Maybe I'm guilty of it, but now is when I live, and I write about what I observe. I deeply oppose the policies and practices of those white nationalists who fetishize Confederate monuments, and oppose them with every fiber of my being.

    • Perhaps I got a bit heated in my response, so I can certainly see how your passion is your muse.  I will concede certain points to you, such as the states rights were by 1861 more fantasy than reality.  And that, yes, the CSA firing first could be excused as politically provoked but that is still a bit thin as an argument.  It was an invigerating exchange, thank you.  I wish you well.

  • JJGrey says:

    Sure the flag has been adopted by racists, but I also think that getting rid of all signs of the south’s former slavery and attempt at independence (such as tearing down statutes that have been up for close to 100+ years) is going the other way too far. I think that those statues might need an additional plaque for those who have a grievance with the policies enforced by those former heros, but getting rid of the symbols of history just leaves people in greater ignorance. 

    People who rally to the flag of dixie are of two mindsets – sometimes conflated in one person- one of states rights/heritage, and one of racism. Trying to ban this symbol doesn’t help, but making other symbols that diverge these purposes for the mindsets to choose instead, might. Of course the mindset of racism is doing its best to hide itself behind anything else at this point, so it might not help after all.

    • Surly says:

      As I noted above, "Symbols have no inherent meanings, only those people assign them." When such a symbol (like a flag, or a monument) is imbued with multiple meanings, there is never a right answer. As for the monuments, that is a lot trickier. Monuments typically memorialize bravery, or valor, and who in their right mind would gainsay that? Yet there may be a compelling argument to gather said monumnts into a memorial space curated for that purpose, and give these monuments context. As opposed to being rallying points for white grievance. 

      The romance of the "Lost Cause" gives internet courage to an entire generation of militia types who feel their white privilege being threatened by newer, browner generations, and who build on generations of perceived right-wing victimhood with a new, symbolic cause. My attitude towards these people is clear.

      New Orleans has managed to remove several monuments, and the white militia types made life unpleasant for everyone involved. Mitch Landrieu's speech was pitch-perfect.

      You'll recall that the first monument removed in New Orleans was an obelisk erected in 1891, to honor members of the Crescent City White League who in 1874 fought in the Reconstruction-era Battle of Liberty Place, against the racially integrated New Orleans police and state militia. For all intents and purposes it was a monument to the KKK.

      Good riddance.

      • JJGrey says:

        Flip the symbols. Just as the swastika was a symbol that was flipped from a largely pacifistic religion to one of hate and genocide by nazis, and the term 'black' was flipped from an insult to a neutral or even positive term by 60s civil rights activists, turn the monument to the KKK into a lesson of its negative meaning, Auschwitze (sp?) still stands – no long as a symbol as originally intended of "work setting you free" (IIRC) but instead a symbol of genocide and horror – and an entire nation remembering that horrible mistake that it would prefere to forget… 

  • Davebee says:

    I'm eagerly awiting your next slavery article which will of course cover the centuries of slavery that the Muslim Arabs thrived on via regular slave raids into East and central Africa.

    Come to think of it I believe the slave trade is getting going once more in the ME….See: Friday's Swiss court convictions (In abstentia) of ME princess royal lowness personages treating their servants worse than farm yard animals.

    Over to you and your white hating tantrums Surly. In closing, how do you suppose slavery, or the Afro versions thereof was such a runaway commercial succes story anyway? Simple actually, the biggest slavery enablers/raw material suppliers were Africans themselves.


  • Surly says:

    Davebee's presence here provides an answer to the question, "What do they actually THINK under those hoods?"

    You sir, clearly are one of those WHAMs, that tribe of once proud but now embattled white, heterosexual American males, each one a special snowflake fully deserving of the Mandate of Heaven bestowed by a Just God (who after all, equates material wealth with "blessings”). WHAMs are long accustomed to standing at the head of the line when the blessings of American freedom are distributed. Those not participating in the blessed trifecta of being white, heterosexual, and male get the slops.

    You DO manage to stumble into a correct assertion (although you didn't say it– I inferred it from your bleatings) that slavery has long been a part of the human condition. True, and so what? Humans have been making slaves of the conquered since the first clan conquered another. The sad fact that slavery exists today should lead to redoubled efforts on the part of decent people to eradicate it wherever it exists. As Sir Richard Francis Burton, 19th century explorer and linguist once put it, "What a slave wants is not so much freedom as a slave of his own."

    As for penning "white hating tantrums," well, caveat emptor. But I'll confess that I do not hate whites: just white privilege, particularly as held by those who benefit the most and acknowledge it the least. And yeah, I'm talking to you.

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