It’s a Southern Thing

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Some years ago, my sister-in-law worked briefly as a waitress.  Another waitress shared that her son, who had just turned 18, had gotten a tattoo, one that she had paid for as a gift.  She had made him wait until that age, fearful that he may exercise poor judgment and choose a tattoo that he would later come to regret.  She was immensely proud of his choice: the Confederate battle flag, emblazoned across his back.  I wonder how he, and she, regard that decision today.

The Rebel flag, as I call it, has always been around in my life.  When you’re raised in the South and of less than an elderly age, it just is.  Growing up, it was everywhere.  You find it on decals on the back of pickup trucks, stickers on school notebooks, T-shirts with “The South Will Rise Again” slogan, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s concerts, on flags flying from RV’s at NASCAR events, and on most anything marketed for The Dukes of Hazzard  TV show.  There was no “hate” associated with it in my experience, but also no thoughtful reflection.  It’s a southern thing.  That said, my social circle didn’t include anyone who had an affinity for it.  I missed the “other” context during my formative years.   When you’re getting your Civil War history lessons, you learn that secessionist polemics about “State’s rights,” the economic argument of slavery as critical to southern commerce, or any other similar arguments at the time attempted to neatly duck the moral injustice of slavery.  You even learn that Lincoln, who fought the expansion of slavery, said he would not interfere with it where it already existed, including in the northern States.  Lesson taught.  Lesson learned.  What was not taught was that the Rebel flag lacked any notoriety or any significant place in southern society until around 1956, when Brown v. Board of Education began desegregation.  That’s approximately when South Carolina chose to raise the “Battle flag” above the capital building.  It became a symbolic battle flag for racists.  Unless you were there at the time, you have to wait for decades to learn that, for cable channels that have capacity to inform or an internet where the world is at your fingertips.  Living a non-hateful life with non-hateful people, you see it as a symbol but completely miss its negative symbolic impact on African Americans – for a while.  

I have known a handful people deeply interested in the Civil War.  Their idea of a great vacation is to visit as many battlefields and historical markers as possible.  Some have ancestral ties, and others just find it fascinating either from a study of military strategy or simply from the fact that something so defining to our nation happened in our own backyard.  Neither speaks to any interest in racism.  What speaks from history clearly is that “our” side lost.  You might adopt the phrase “The War of Northern Aggression” as a consolatory reminder that there’s an “us” vs. “them,” even as you jokingly curse about the damn Yankees (wisely) moving south and clogging our roads.  You’re a southerner.  It’s part of your identity, and, for many good and reasonable examples of southern life and hospitality, you take pride in it.

I have no issue with how South Carolina, and other southern states, are responding to the recent Charleston shooting.  The weight of what the Rebel flag might mean for some as a symbol of southern heritage pales to the historical context of what the Southern states declared about African Americans, that they were an inferior race and whose lives benefited from slavery.  I’ve though for a long time that if you fly a flag, you’re saying “I believe in what this symbol represents.”  As such, the “Battle flag” as with any edition of the official State flags of the Confederacy, belong in museums. 

A detour:

As an issue of symbols as free speech, I take pause.  There’s a phrase that has stuck with me, “Tolerance is a virtue to those without convictions.”  Can the same be said of its opposite?  “Intolerance is a virtue to those with convictions.”  Both have flaws, but if one is potentially more harmful, I’d suggest it’s the latter.  Look no further than ISIS’s destruction of any ancient sites representing other belief systems or the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. 

What defines the rightness or wrongness of something shouldn’t be relative or based on majority vote.  God as a moral law giver has been rebuked by society, so everyone is free to view morality by whatever suits them, that guiding light being self preservation, indulgence, humanistic advancement, ecological guilt, self-sacrifice, or others.   We see the outworking of this autonomy in the evening news, whether it’s human trafficking or the murders by Dylann Roof.  The absence of moral absolutes are why more laws are passed each year, combined with a trusting faith that the fear of punishment for doing a thing with which a majority disapproves can outweigh an individual’s desire to do it.  Something bad happens? Pass a law. 

An interesting article in Psychology Today states that  Dylann Roof is the result of the country’s embrace and exaltation of ignorance.   I won’t argue that ignorance abounds, but Roof is not the result of a national failure.  Evil exists.  I’ll let the psychologists who actually get to know Mr. Roof over the years to come expound on what particular influences or traits led to his actions.  I reject the author’s argument that ignorance is at fault, just at face value of the word’s definition.  I’d rather suggest that Roof’s education spoke to values and decisions with which the vast majority of us who ascribe to self-preservation would disagree.   And, if anti-intellectualism – an absence of reasoning - is said to be the cause, it speaks of an intolerance to those who don’t reason a particular way, in this case those set by the author.  Curiously, intellectualism, as is laid out in the article, stridently opposes any further debate by picking the lowest of fruit.   Evolution, climate change (implied – caused by humans), gun eradication,  progressivism over patriotism, capitalistic evil,  and demilitarization are the hallmarks of intellectualism, it seems.  In other words, if you’re not a liberal, you’re just not thinking.  Society simply can’t tolerate people like you.

The reaction to the Charleston shooting was peaceful, due the grace of the Christian families in the hours that followed.  A racist poster child caused the opposite of what he desired, in races peacefully coming together in his wake as well as at least one symbol of his belief system vanquished from State idolatry and (a significant portion of) commerce.  That doesn’t bother me.  It’s the right thing to do.  What concerns me is the potential.  In an age where intolerance abounds both in the open or in the back pocket of elitists, there is no safe harbor for deliberate, reasoned debate i.e. free speech.  With a mass media system that is both immediate and committed to a particular social narrative, the calls for someone to be fired, products to be banned, reputations to be ruined, or institutions to be overthrown are within the reach of those who can influence mob rule.  It’s not that anti-intellectualism is the issue but rather an intolerance of ideas which are not one’s own.  As exhibited by the families in Charleston, we could all benefit from more light than heat.

In the case of the Rebel flag, the amplifying voices worked.  I am aggrieved that southerners have come to judgment for allowing a symbol to remain that the vast majority of us neither espoused nor endorsed.    But we’ll be fine without it.  It didn’t make us who we are.

1 comment :

  1. A nice write indeed. Thank you.

    But as one with no dog in the hunt (born outside of the US), I am irritated by the knee jerk reaction. Offended by the flags at Stone Mountain? Really? Why did I not hear you voice this last year? Or the year before?

    Don't like a portion of the stars and bars on the license plate? Where was your concern a year ago? If it is hateful today, certainly it was hateful a year ago.

    This is all politicking. An evil person massacred innocents and someone has to pay. This time, the flag is the one to pay. And that make me want to buy a rebel flag and fly it high.