I just saw a meme that showed the Egyptian pyramids, while saying, “Quick! Take down these symbols of slavery!” It was a satire, of course, and it was mildly witty. But as so much of the national debate tends to do, it distorts the issue. Slaves (and serfs) have probably provided the labor for just about every architectural wonder that’s appeared up through the middle ages. People say that each stone in the Great Wall of China cost one life. But unlike the makers of the Confederate flag, the Chinese didn’t create the Wall as a symbol of their right to impose slavery. The Wall doesn’t say, “Slavery or bust!” or even “States rights (to impose slavery) or bust!” It says, “Our dynasty is great!” The Roman Colosseum says, “Caesar is great!” The Gothic cathedrals says, “God is great!” Slavery may be a means of the buildings’ construction, but it’s not part of their original proclamation.
Now you can argue that the Confederate flag gives homage to the Confederates, and that the Confederates fought for more than slavery. You can say the Civil War centered on the issue of states’ rights, and just used slavery as a flashpoint–and I’ll say meh. Seeing that slavery provided the economic basis for most of the south–and also for the very pro-slavery New York City textile industry–I don’t buy all of that argument. But for the sake of this one, let’s say I do. Since the Civil War, militant racists have used the Confederate flag as their battle standard. We all know this. Not every Confederate flag flier is a militant racist. (I guess.) But I’ll bet you my last M&M that you won’t find a black family hanging that flag from their front porch. And if you do, it’s probably because a crowd of militant racists has put it there. That’s part of the flag’s history too–and it’s a far more recent history. In a sense, we can say the same thing with the swastika. It started as a Sanskrit symbol for “well being.” But I bet you anything that you would not use the swastika to welcome a person into your neighborhood. Even most WWII memorials refrain from using the swastika. They use sculpture and etching instead. In fact, with surprisingly little creativity, you can honor the history of one group without threatening the other.
Flying the Confederate flag makes a large portion of our population uncomfortable. Whether you like it or not, this has become part of the flag’s evolved intent. So if you aren’t a person who shares that intent, why would you fight to have your state persist with the symbol? I can understand how you’d fight to let individuals fly the flag. I like free speech too; I’m part of the ACLU. But a whole state? Forget bigotry, if you insist. How about being a good neighbor?
(Originally posted July 1, 2015)