Flags and the Confederacy (Again)
I’m still getting a lot of mail from Confederate partisans over my recent posts on how the Confederacy was evil, and so are its flags. Most of these apologists are spieling out lines suggesting that, yes, yes, fine, the Confederacy did institutionalize slavery. But today its flags mean entirely different things, like pride and heritage and (inevitably) states rights over federal rights. Why can’t we (meaning, presumably, the folk not in the states of the former Confederacy and the descendants of the people the Confederacy explicitly enslaved) just get over it? My God, haven’t the decent white folk of the South suffered enough? They lost their country, after all.
Well, let me make a counter-suggestion, which is that I’ll start trying to forget that the Confederate flag is fundamentally evil, if the Confederacy-pushers will acknowledge that the Confederacy was in fact, a big fat loser, and therefore any of its symbols are less than fertile ground for positive associations.
Loooooooooooser. And it isn’t just a loser in war. Although it is that, let’s not forget — and it lost that war big. Sure, they kept it close in the first half, but after that it was a blowout. The North had a deeper bench. Even a post-game late hit on the North’s general manager (while he was in his luxury suite, for God’s sake!) couldn’t change that fact. But even tossing aside the war, the Confederacy is a loser in so many other ways it’s hard to know where to begin. But let’s begin anyway, shall we?
States’ rights: Loser. The Confederacy so bungled the states’ rights issue that it ended up establishing the primacy of the federal government over states, and additionally ensured that no other state could ever secede from the Union again. Oh, and then the former Confederate states were subjected to a rather unfortunate period of time (it’s called the Reconstruction) where they had about as many state’s rights as the District of Columbia. So, in all, not a particularly shining example for states’ rights.
This where Confederate partisans grumble that yeah, but technically the Confederacy was right on the constitutionality of secession. Well, kids, two things: One, nuh uh. Clearly that was a matter open to interpretation, which is why you had to fight a war about it (which — did I mention? — you lost). Two, even if the Confederacy were technically right on secession, this is a really stupid argument anyway. What, like the United States is just going to go, “Gee, okay, what we’d really like is to have a hostile neighbor to the south of us, competing with us for land on this here North American continent?” I mean, Christ, people. Get a grip.
Clearly we think the Colonists were in the right when they drafted up the Declaration of Independence and suggested that we and Britain had to go our own ways. But they still had to fight a war regarding the matter — and win it. I don’t recall the Colonists being shocked, shocked when Britain didn’t exactly roll over and cheerfully lose a few thousand miles of North American coastline. They knew what they were getting into. So it’s a little silly to suggest that the Confederates, either then or now, should feel otherwise. It’s just whining.
When it comes to things like land and constitutions, being right is half the battle; the other half of the battle is the actual battle you have to fight to enforce your claim. The Confederacy lost that part, which is just as well, because they were way off base with that whole secession thing to begin with. Bad premises, bad results.
Heritage: Loser. Let’s be honest here. There is almost no truly Confederate heritage, if only because the Confederacy in itself didn’t last long enough to generate any while it was an ongoing concern, and while it was around, it was too busy trying to survive to do much of anything else. There is of course a rich heritage of Confederania now, but it exists entirely as the fly-blown leavings from the Confederate corpse, rather than the fruits of a living tree, and that’s not entirely the same thing.
Confederate partisans try to backdate Confederate heritage to before the Confederate era, but I don’t think that is something we should cede to them. There is indeed an antebellum Southern culture, but the participants of that culture did not equate their culture with the political entity known as the Confederacy, since that entity didn’t exist. If they didn’t I don’t see why the rest of us should make that equation, either.
Part of the whitewash campaign of the Confederate partisans is to try to sell the idea that Confederate symbols somehow encompass the entire history of the South, and they don’t, neither prior to the Confederacy nor after. Let’s remember that Confederate and Southern are not synonyms. Southern heritage is a fine thing; Confederate heritage is not. Using the symbols of the latter to represent the former is presumptuous.
Pride: Loser. Proud of what? Of the fact the Confederacy precipitated a civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of men on both sides of the battle? Which — let’s never forget — it lost? Of constitutionally enslaving black people? Of being the cause of the devastation and occupation of the Southern states by Union troops and carpetbaggers?
Oh, yes, Confederate friends, that last one was your fault. We know all about that whole “War of Northern Aggression” line you’ve got going down there, as if you were just sitting there minding your own business when all of a sudden Sherman popped up and started, like, burning things. However, allow me to suggest that from the point of view of the United States, trying to make off with half the country, as you did, seemed like a fairly aggressive maneuver at the time. I’ll be happy to know if you disagree, since then you won’t mind if I come over and take over half of your house, preferably the half with the hot tub.
Individual Southerners feel pride in ancestors who went out and fought (and sometimes died) for the Confederate side of the war, which as I’ve mentioned before is just fine. But I don’t see how one can ignore the fact that all those Johnny Rebs would have been safe as houses had the Confederacy never existed. Prior to December of 1860, it’s not as if the armies of the north were perennially massed at the Mason-Dixon line, champing at the bit to torch the south, and the poor southerners had no choice but to hoist grandpappy’s musket and slug it out at Antietam.
Many of the Confederate apologists with whom I’ve corresponded maintain that their ancestors fought and died to protect their homes, not for the ideals of the Confederacy, and I suspect that in many cases that’s probably true. It still stands whatever their personal reasons for fighting, they fought because of the fact of the Confederacy, which was an evil institution, for reasons I’ve outlined before. Essentially, these people fought and died because an unnecessary and wholly evil entity invited trouble to their doorstep. Someone needs to explain to me why one should feel pride in that.
(Anyway, I do think there needs to be a line drawn in terms of responsibility. Not every Confederate soldier was fighting simply to protect the homestead; at least a few here and there had to believe in the principles of the Confederacy or at the very least the right of the Confederate states to go their own way. These people were wrong, however bravely they may have fought. It’s well and good that they were defeated, since the “independence” they would have bought was rotten to begin with.)
The only real pride one should have as a Confederate partisan is Loser Pride, in which one invests one’s energy in a perennially losing entity primarily as an exercise in existential humility; i.e., Cubs fans. But even Cubs fans have the possibility for glory in that the Cubs are an ongoing concern. The Confederacy, on the other hand, is deader than a gay bar in Branson and will stay that way. It will never be anything but a loser.
Useful Flags: Loser! Look, the Confederacy was so screwed up that it couldn’t even get its flags right. The first official Confederate flag was the Stars and Bars, which was rather too similar to the flag of the United States; it made things even more confusing on the battlefield than they already were. So, the Confederacy decided on another flag, which was largely white. The problem with this flag was that it pretty much looked like a flag of surrender — it was that whole “field of white” thing it had going. Obviously this was problematic if in fact you weren’t trying to surrender, or alternately, if you were, since the Union folks wouldn’t be able to tell right off whether you were giving up or fixin’ to stab them with your bayonets, so they’d be better off shooting you just to be sure.
So out comes a third flag, which, unfortunately for the Confederacy, came out just about the time the Confederacy was imploding from total loserness and teetering on the cusp of non-existence. Shortly thereafter, another flag flew at the Confederate capital, Richmond, and other points south: The flag of the United States of America. And personally I’m hard-pressed not to see that as a vast improvement.
Given the voluminous evidence of the total loser-osity of the Confederacy, you’ll understand why every time I get a letter from someone proclaiming the Confederate flags to be a positive symbol, I just get flummoxed. Frankly, it’s difficult to think of any flags anywhere at any point in time that are as steeped in complete failure on as many social, cultural and political levels as these are. It’s just so damn sad that people are still out there trying to delude themselves otherwise.
The only explanation I can come up with that makes any sense is that certain people from the south simply cannot think rationally about the Confederate flags, much in the same way that certain otherwise totally rational Christians freak out about the fact they’re descended from stooped, hooting proto-primates just like the rest of us. It’s a blank spot in their brain in which they choose not to allow thought of any sort.
Fine. As I’ve said before, if you want to believe that the Confederate flags represent anything but an evil and ultimately pathetically inept institution, and all the consequent stupidity that followed through its use by segregationists, morons and demagogic flag wavers who’d rather rile up the easily excitable than actually make the South a better place for all its citizens, then by all means go right ahead. We’ll agree to disagree.
But please don’t write to me saying that the meaning of the Confederate flag has changed or should change. Short of wiping out the history of the Confederacy itself and pretending it never existed, this isn’t going to happen. The Confederate flag a symbol of evil, and like most symbols of evil it’s much better used as a reminder of the damage evil can do, than it is as a misplaced symbol of pride.
The Confederate flags are the symbols of losers, and those who glorify losers. I really wouldn’t have it any other way.