Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Confederate flags: The Significance of Symbols

"Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country's flag," she said.
A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came;
The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman's deed and word;
"Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!" he said.....

Barbara Fritchie to Stonewall Jackson
Poem by John Greenleaf Whittier

My fellow citizens of Hampton, New Hampshire will likely be mystified by the flap over confederate license plates in the South, which has boiled to the surface after the Charleston, South Carolina church murders by a white supremacist who draped himself in the Confederate flag.

Personally, I was always attracted to flags: They are colorful; they have design; they are like visual music--they can evoke emotion.  When Albert Speer designed the staging of rallies at Nuremberg and elsewhere throughout the Third Reich, he always included waves of bright red Swastika flags. They are festive, and inspire "pride."

Flags played a practical purpose in battle during the 19th century, when troops could look to the flag to figure out where the front of the line was. 
In Frederick Maryland, during the Civil War, a 95 year old woman (likely an apocryphal story), Barbara Fritchie, hung a flag outside her window as the invading Confederate troops marched by and they shot it full of holes, and Stonewall Jackson rode by and ordered the flag taken down and she leaned out the window and supposedly admonished him to shoot her but leave his country's flag alone. He posted a guard to be sure the flag would remain unmolested. Such was the significance of that symbol of loyalty. Winston Churchill, passing through Frederick, in 1943 recited the Whittier poem about this to Roosevelt. Such was the affection Churchill, a militarist, had for flags and their symbolism.

But during the 1960's people like Joan Baez said they did not like flags, which often were used to inspire intolerance, war and mayhem.  Many of my cohort refuse to fly flags even today, because they remember how flags were waved to stoke blind obedience to "fighting for your country" during Vietnam, when, in fact, American boys were not fighting for their country but for somebody else's country and for their own lives.

The argument from Southerners who like the rebel flag is that it is not a symbol of racism but of "States Rights" whatever those may be, and of "Heritage" and of "History."  That history is one of slavery, of a fundamentally racist state and time and of loyalty to a fundamentally brutal and deeply immoral institution.

If Germans today flew the Nazi flag and claimed they were not in favor of gassing Jews or invading their neighbors but were simply proud of their fathers who died serving their country valiantly, how would we react? 

Some day, maybe in another 150 years, Americans can see the rebel flag and think of it as a brightly colored reminder of a distant and harmless past, but today I do not think that is possible. It conjures up memories of treason, violence, enslavement and racism. 

What is there, in all that to be proud of? Can you not admit these brave hearts sacrificed themselves for the wrong cause, not the "Lost Cause?"  That Lost Cause should have been lost. It was and remains profoundly evil.

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