|Art by Bob Englehart of the Hartford Courant|
Well, this has been quite a week, so I feel obliged to say something about it.
FLAGGING SUPPORT FOR A SYMBOL OF DIVISION
First of all, the Confederate battle flag, which once had present-day (white) Southerners falling all over themselves to say how it wasn’t a symbol of racism, has now fallen into disrepute due to white man Dylann Roof’s — I suppose I need to insert the word “alleged” — racially motivated attack on the Emanuel AME church of Charleston, South Carolina, last June 17, killing nine black parishioners.
Given the fervent support that the battle flag has enjoyed for decades, what is amazing to me is the speed at which many people, including some white Southerners, are calling for the flag’s removal from official grounds throughout the South. The haste of some Southerners at least to keep the Confederate battle flag at arm’s length, if not to consign it to history, is something that I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. Many American’s go out of their way to rationalize the Confederate States of America. About a week ago, I was posting on Facebook, and the topic of Robert E. Lee came up. A Facebook friend with more conservative views instantly jumped in to say how great Lee’s service to the U.S. army in the antebellum years was, and that is what he should be remembered for.
Now, I am not the most qualified person to cast judgement on Robert E. Lee’s life. To my limited knowledge, Lee’s service in the U.S. army in those years before 1861 was one of distinction, and I understand that he, on the whole, led a very honorable life. But the fact remains that he was also a traitor who took up arms against the United States of America primarily in order to keep a race of people enslaved. Shouldn’t that be the headline of Lee’s life, rather than how gentlemanly and honorable he was? The mere fact that I need to ask this question speaks volumes about the United States in the post-Civil War years.
I spent much of my time growing up in central Virginia. As a grade-schooler just learning about the Civil War, I remember being struck by the sight of a sunbather at Virginia Beach lying on a stars-and-bars beach towel. I remember thinking what a casual use that was for the flag of an enemy (one on the wrong side of history) that the U.S. army fought and defeated. While lying on top of a flag my not be the most respect one can show for it, the fact that the sunbather seemed so accepting of this enemy’s ensign struck me as disregard for the values that the Union victory in the Civil War stood for — keeping the country together and ending slavery in particular. But since I was just a grade-schooler at the time, I didn’t say anything about it.
Afterwards, I started noticing the ubiquity of the Confederate battle flag and the esteem in which many seemed to hold it. As a child, I was especially disquieted by my first ride as a passenger in a car down Richmond’s Monument Avenue. I rode past towering statues of Confederate historical figures: Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Matthew F. Maury. It not only struck me as strange that the people of Richmond took such pride in these turncoats, but the grandeur and defiance of these statues communicated the following message: the South didn’t really loose the Civil War. Monument Avenue filled me with apprehension. (Since then, a statue of black tennis-player and Richmond native Arthur Ashe has been added, apparently to offset partially the pro-Confederate signal sent by the other sculptures.)
|R.M.T. Hunter (1809-1887)|
As I got older, it also became clearer to me that the Southern side of my family also held the Confederacy in somewhat high regard. Here’s an example: A distant family relative is Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter (1809-1887 — the family pronounces “Taliaferro” as “Tolliver”), a lawyer and statesman who built a large farm that my family still uses. Growing up, I remember a history-buff uncle telling me with a twinkle in his eye how R.M.T. Hunter served as the Confederate Secretary of State. Only later did I discover that Hunter had also been a statesman for the United States, and at one point, he not only became Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, but he remains the youngest ever to have held that distinguished position. But that kind of accomplishment apparently wasn’t worth mentioning, only his involvement with the C.S.A.
In the decades since, of course, I came to see in what great regard the Confederate battle flag — and, to some degree, the idea of the Confederate States themselves — was held in much of not only the South, but the northern United States as well. Over the years, I have heard many rationales for people embracing the Confederate flag: it being a symbol of heritage, history, and any kind of against-the-grain rebellion. But, I thought to myself, shouldn’t the fact that it was a treasonous symbol for perpetuating slavery, going against the founding notion that “all men are created equal,” trump any other kind of meaning the flag might convey? I gradually got the idea that most people who wave the Confederate flag don’t believe in all people being created equal; it was a way for them implicitly to signal that African Americans are still inherently one-down in this country.
Perhaps because of the gradualness of my discovery and my family’s warmth (at least in part) to the idea of the Confederacy, I kept my qualms about the battle flag — and other celebrations of the Southern succession, such as Monument Avenue — to myself. Could I be overreacting to the Confederate flag? Could the flag be a more benign symbol than my negative visceral reactions to it told me? Whatever the answer, seeing how widespread the esteem for the flag and for the Confederacy was in Virginia, I didn’t think that there was anything I could say about the subject that would change anyone’s mind.
For a long time, I’ve wanted to ask Confederate flag supporters why it was only this particular symbol of the South, and not another, that could adequately express their pride or heritage or whatever. Knowing that the Confederate battle flag came into widespread use in the South in the 1940s and ‘50s as a symbol of resistance to racial desegregation, I have a feeling that the answer to my question would ultimately be — regardless of what I would be told — that such flag supporters didn’t truly believe in racial equality.
Now, many white Southerners are apparently regarding the Confederate battle flag as an undesirable object. My youthful negative reaction to it appears to be vindicated. No, taking down the flag won’t magically undo racism — or even the lingering legacy of the Confederacy — in the United Sates. But it’s a good start.
ONE PLUS ONE EQUALS...
The other major event this week was the Supreme Court’s ruling, in Obergefell v. Hodges, that same-sex marriage — or more exactly, marriage equality — is constitutional in all 50 states. Many who disagree with this 5-4 decision are criticizing it for supposedly stretching the bounds of what is protected by the Constitution. Others are finding fault with Justice Anthony Kennedy’s flowery language in his majority opinion (I have not read the full text), which goes on at length about how ennobling marriage is. Although I support marriage equality, I can understand, to an extent, the criticism of Kennedy’s opinion.
For me, the entire case in favor of marriage equality boils down to one issue. According to Wikipedia, married couples have access to 1,138 rights that unmarried people don’t have. If the government allows one segment of its population access to certain rights — such as the absence of inheritance taxes upon the death of a spouse — via marriage to the consenting adult of their choice, but denies those rights to another segment, then the government is relegating that latter segment to second-class status. And the government shouldn’t be doing that. That’s it. Everything else, including any “ennobling” qualities of matrimony, is just embellishment.
Some have also criticized that the basis of this opinion was not to be found in the Constitution. But if the Constitution protects those rights and responsibilities for heterosexual spouses, it should protect them for gay couples, too.
Marriage equality for gay couples and a newfound ignominy for the Confederate battle flag — yes, this has been a very historic week.