Sunday, June 28, 2015

We Live in Intriguing Times

Art by Bob Englehart of the Hartford Courant

Well, this has been quite a week, so I feel obliged to say something about it. 


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. 

After the June 17 shooting of nine black parishioners in their Charleston church by a white gunman, the flags of the United States and South Carolina flew at half-staff.  But the Confederate flag overlooking the Confederate monument within sight of the statehouse flew at full staff, an image truly worth a thousand words.

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.  


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. 

Update, July 11, 2015: My head is spinning.  Yesterday, less than one month after the tragic shooting at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, the Confederate battle flag that flew in view of the statehouse was taken down.  It took a two-thirds vote from both legislative chambers in South Carolina — as well as the signature of Indian American governor Nikki Haley — in order for the flag to be removed (or moved in any way, which is why the Confederate flag wasn’t lowered when the national and state flags flew at half-staff for the shooting victims).  Events have been moving at such a breakneck clip that I’d probably be dizzy even if I didn’t have vertigo.  

I’m glad to see so many people finally agree with me (or finally acknowledge) that the Confederate battle flag is a symbol of treason and racial oppression, and it has no place in or near the official halls of the federal and local governments.  I’m glad that I got to see such impassioned speeches against the flag, such as this one from South Carolina state representative Jenny Horne during the chamber’s debate to take down the flag:

I also think that the Confederate battle flag is a poor choice as a symbol of Southern pride and heritage, as so many Southerners have claimed over the decades.  I believe that if Southerners need a symbol of their pride and their heritage, they should choose one without the treasonous and racist associations of the banner that Robert E. Lee flew in battle.  

In fact, the Confederate flag has fallen into such infamy that it is no longer being shown in other contexts as well.  Most remarkably, the basic-cable rerun channel TV Land has withdrawn episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard from its schedule because the flag is painted on the roof of the show’s featured car, nicknamed “The General Lee.”  I’m not sure if I would go so far as to pull The Dukes of Hazzard from a TV schedule just for showing the Confederate flag (as opposed to, say, pulling it for being a stupid show), but I’m glad that the culture at large now agrees with me and no longer views the flag as a benign symbol.  Others are being pressured to stop displaying the flag as well, such as Kid Rock, who features the flag at some of his concerts.  Whether Kid Rock or any other individual flies or does not fly the Confederate flag as part of their self-expression is their decision to make.  What’s important is for the flag to stop being flown as part of state or federal governmental pomp.  

As I said above, removing the Confederate flag from the halls of government won’t magically make racism disappear, and there are other struggles ahead against racial disparity.  But removing the flag from South Carolina state grounds is a good first step.  Some may say that the Confederate flag is “only” a symbol, but symbols can be powerful.  If the states opposed to desegregation in the 1950s and ’60s thought that the flag was important enough fly in order to express their belief in racial inequality, then the flag’s removal becomes a symbol of racial equality, and that is important, too.  

No comments: