Much brouhaha in the United States right now over the Confederate flag — more properly the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia — and whether it should be flying over the statehouse in South Carolina, or anywhere for that matter. Walmart and Sears stopped selling them last week. In typically stale and unthinking reporting, successive journalists have described the debate as one that pits those who see the flag as a symbol of racism and oppression against those who see it as a symbol of history and heritage, as if it can’t be both.
Back when I taught American history I would sometimes get confronted by enormously self-assured students who told me that I had it wrong. The American Civil War wasn’t about slavery, it was about states’ rights. They learned this in high school. In a sense, they were correct. The Civil War was indeed about states' rights, of which the only one worth going to war over was the right to own slaves. The Union did not go to war in 1861 to free slaves, but the South most assured did go to war in order to keep them. If the Confederacy had won the war the institution would not have died in 1865. Having lost the war, however, the former Confederate states mobilized politically to replace slavery with legal forms of racial discrimination that endured for over a century, and whose social and political legacy remains deeply entrenched.
The “Confederate flag” is a symbol of all that, and its opponents are right to insist that it belongs in a museum, not over a statehouse, or in Walmart, or on a bumper sticker.
But how selective our righteous indignation can be. I wonder how many flags aren't symbols of cruelty and oppression for some group of people, or even very large groups of people? Certainly not Old Glory. Or the Union Jack. Or Japan's flag. Or the Republic of China’s. Shall we count bodies of the innocent? In reverse order from the list above, we would start with about 40 million.
Amazon is no longer selling the Confederate Flag, either. Whew. Wouldn’t want that symbol of oppression to fall into the wrong hands. Buy one of these instead.
Addendum: shortly after I posted this column, South Carolina took down its Confederate flags from the state legislature. I approve but, remember: when they de-Stalinized the Soviet Union, the point wasn't to confront the past. It was to bury it.