“A small group of neo-Nazis have staged an anti-Semitic rally in London, but were hugely outnumbered by counter-demonstrators….The group, waving Palestinian and Confederate flags, stood surrounded by police in a fenced-in area near Downing Street on Saturday. A counter-demonstration drew more than 100 people, who chanted ‘Nazis off our streets’ nearby.”
— from Haaretz, By The Associated Press | Jul. 4, 2015 | 8:44 PM
If the Confederate flag is merely a benign symbol of pride and heritage for Southerners in the areas formerly (and briefly) self-described as the Confederate States of America, why do neo-Nazis in other countries wave the Stars & Bars at their rallies?
Anti-Jewish demonstrators attend a rally on Whitehall in central London on July 4, 2015. Photo by AFP
Born and raised in the South, I’ve lived all but five years of my adult life here, so I’ve been exposed to the Confederate flag a lot. It appears at homes and businesses and on T-shirts, hats, bumper stickers, license plates, ice coolers, boats and even dog collars. Many make permanent commitments to the flag by having it tattooed on their bodies.
It has always made me uncomfortable.
For years, our family bookstore sold U.S. and other flags and had a few small Confederate flags in the inventory. Selling one always made me feel conflicted, but I reconciled my personal feelings about the flag by viewing it as no different from selling books with content I might find objectionable.
I regard First Amendment rights as nearly absolute, so banning any form of nonviolent personal expression is anathema to me. I did not know whether a person who purchased Mein Kampf had an intellectual curiosity about Hitler or was a Nazi sympathizer, and I did not consider it my job to inquire. Having said that, if the customer had been wearing a swastika patch or tattoo, I would have formed an immediate opinion (although that would not affect the right to buy and read the book).
The swastika symbol has been used for thousands of years. The word itself comes from Sanskrit, meaning “good fortune” or “well being,” while the hooked-cross image seems to have symbolized the sun rolling through the heavens. Adolf Hitler’s adoption of the swastika unalterably changed how Westerners interpret the symbol, so unprepared tourists encountering them on Buddhist temples are taken aback. Should millions of Asians abandon a peaceful symbol that was appropriated for hate?
Confederate flag advocates use a similar rationale to argue that white supremacists have misappropriated a historical symbol that only pays homage to brave ancestors who fought and died in battle. That is flawed. The military units flying that flag were attempting the separation of 13 states from the United States to preserve the right to own slaves—to buy, sell and mortgage human beings as property. Many twist themselves in knots arguing that the Civil War was not primarily about slavery, but any careful examination of history, much less the explicit wording of secession documents, destroys this notion.
The cause of slavery was wrong. Full stop. We cannot today whitewash the wrongness of that cause for the sake of Southern pride or the memories of ancestors, who may have fought valiantly whether enthusiastic about slavery or dragged into the fray.
That does not mean obliterating Confederate symbols. We should continue to study Civil War history and maintain memorials to its battles and leaders on both sides. To learn and to grow, individuals and nations must forgive but not forget.
Unlike a stone monument erected to the past, flying a flag is a present-tense form of expression. We raise and lower them. We replace them when worn. They symbolize current loyalties. There are proper public places—museums and parks—for the Confederate flag and for Civil War memorials, but neither should coexist on the same public grounds where everyday government business, claiming to represent all citizens, is conducted.
Trying to ban private displays of the Confederate flag would be counterproductive and against free expression. I have no use for the flag, but I will avert my gaze if you feel otherwise.
However, I must ask: With the South’s innumerable contributions to our nation’s history, economy, arts and culture, why choose a symbol that was created in support of slavery and has been adopted by bigots worldwide?
If it is just about Southern pride, surely we can find or create a better regional symbol.