When I was a high-school kid (oh so long ago), I was a bit of an idealist. Part of this came from my upbringing. I was lucky enough to have a couple of parents who were relentless in instilling virtues into me in my formative years by means of leading by example. My father taught me to keep asking questions, not only to learn what I could, but also to wonder at what the world can teach us. My mother taught me compassion, understanding, and warmth. Both of them taught me to work hard and to better myself. Always.
Growing up in a pasty-white small town in the midwest, I didn’t get much exposure to other cultures. Most of it came in the form of what I read in books and learned in history class. Sesame Street was where I for the first time saw black and hispanic kids. This led to a bit of an insulated upbringing where my idealism led me to naïvely assume that all people were taught (as I was by my parents, teachers, Mr. Rogers, et al) that I should treat others as I would want to be treated. This is why, when I was in high school and some slack-jawed yokels on Martin Luther King Jr Day decided to all wear t-shirts with a picture of the US capitol with the Confederate rebel flag flying from it with the phrase “I have a dream,” I was dumbfounded.
Then I got angry.
All of my friends were angry. I guess we all shared a bit of the same idealism and didn’t understand how a person could even WANT to wear something like that. It was a slap in the face to basic decency and courtesy not only to the one black guy at school, but also to what we had to that point been taught were basic social norms and to what is and isn’t acceptable in civilized society.
Though we were also taught the importance of free speech and all respected another person’s right to express himself, what we couldn’t understand is why one guy was sent home earlier that year for wearing a Marilyn Manson t-shirt that said “queen of fuck” on it (which he had actually obscured with duck tape and magic marker so that it read “queen of duck”), but the mouth-breathers were allowed to profane with their clothing in another, arguably more offensive, way.
So we turned the tables. Gathering names, t-shirt sizes, and $7 a head, we had our own t-shirts made with the seditionist flag crossed out below the words “you lost, get over it.” When we showed up the next week all wearing those shirts, I thought for sure that there would be a confrontation, but the knuckle-draggers were strangely silent and avoided eye-contact. I like to think that on that day the idealism of youth won a small battle.
So many years later my idealism is not dead, though it has taken a beating. I remember the 2000 presidential primary and watching the drama play out when the rebel flag was removed from the South Carolina capitol dome. It was only with some difficulty that legislation was passed to removed the flag from the dome, but with the compromise that it was still to be flown on the capitol grounds on a 30 foot flagpole at a memorial to confederate soldiers and with the caveat that it not be removed without another majority vote of the legislature.
I was dumbfounded. Again.
So now, fifteen years later we are more or less in the same position. We have a moral majority pushing to have the flag removed from the South Carolina capitol with the same people crying foul about betraying their history and heritage.
The precious little wisdom that we are able to gather as we grow older hopefully does not squelch the idealism with which we are born, but rather augments it with experience and observation. It is only now, so many years later, that I see how echoes of “queen of duck” are still with us. Just like how our school administrators had no compunctions in sending a student home, whose t-shirt offended no one, but were tone-deaf to how insulting other shirts with symbols of oppression were and how they were only stoking undercurrents of hate and intolerance, it seems like our elected officials today have convinced themselves that free speech and honoring the culture of the south trump any civil rights sensibilities. Sitting in American history class so many years ago I can also remember the teacher going through great pains to explain how the Civil War was not in fact solely about slavery, but that slavey was merely a small part of the overarching, noble fight for something called “states’ rights” (though try as well as we could, we weren’t able to find anything about that in our history text books). Today we have epic monuments to confederate armies and generals even on the grounds of state houses, which are justified by it being an important part of our culture and being a symbol of states’ rights.
Let’s be absolutely clear on a few points. First of all, the Civil War was about slavery. The only concern about “states’ rights” was the concern slaveholding states had about their rights to continue holding slaves. The notion of states’ rights was an ex post facto justification put together by the klan and other southern sympathizers and apologists after the war . It was believed that fighting for an abstract and grand ideal like states’ rights would be more palatable to the historical sentiment regarding the cause of the south. And they were absolutely right seeing as though kids are still being taught the nonsense today.
Secondly it is vitally important to remember history in order to learn from it. It is also important to be thankful to those who have gone before us to ensure that we today have better lives. It is another thing entirely to honor a system of beliefs and/or way of life that is repugnant to basic standards of humanity. We have adopted our social norms as we as a species learn how to live together on this small orb. We now know that it is not acceptable to judge someone by their religion or lack thereof. We now know that the pain of torture and public execution is not a way to purify someone of sin. Today we erect sober memorial plaques where pogroms took place and perhaps somber memorials where people were beheaded at the pleasure of the crown. We remember these events. We learn from these events. We do not honor these events. We do not look back nostalgically on these events. Though this was part of our culture, we acknowledge that this belongs to the past. When our culture is horrible, we strive to make it better. Let us honor what is good in our culture, and make it our continual endeavor to right what can be so horribly wrong with it.
When an African American looks at grand monuments to the glory of confederate war soldiers what is he to think? As a matter of fact what am I to think? I see men fighting to maintain slavery being put (sometimes literally) on a pedestal to glorify their purportedly noble cause. I think it’s pretty clear how such monuments can be seen as intimidation by anyone who could have been victims of the system that is being honored . And that’s just it. We are not talking merely about civil rights sensibilities here. We are talking about the intimidation of a minority which is far too often condoned by and supported by the state. Let us not forget the awful history of the simple symbolism of the confederate flag , which was never stated in ambiguous terms even by its creator, as one of extolling the superiority of the white race. From the monument to confederate soldiers on the South Carolina capitol grounds being given implicit endorsement by the state, to the state park of Stone Mountain Georgia purchased by the state in 1915 from men who started the revival of the Ku Klux Klan and used the grounds for rallies and now depicts confederate generals 400 feet high, to the tobacco-chewing troglodytes in high school trying to intimidate the one black kid in school with racist t-shirts, how can such symbols and sites be seen as anything less than intimidating monuments glorifying an old culture that was built on the backs of slaves?
If your culture is broken, learn from it and fix it. Do not honor it.
Freedom of speech is of paramount importance to society. If you feel like wearing a t-shirt that pictures a confederate flag, that is your right. However do not forget that freedom of speech is a guarantee that the government can not obstruct your right to free expression. Everyone else is allowed to think that you are an asshole. Your employer is allowed to take actions against you if your hate and intolerance reflects badly on or badly effects the working of the company. And school administrators have always had the right to control their dress codes to hold students to basic standards. The government can not restrict our free speech, but society requires a standard of civility from every one of us. If you go around wearing hateful symbols on your clothes, don’t be surprised when people do not want to associate with you or you lose your job. Though you might think you are a martyr being persecuted for your beliefs and that your rights are being oppressed, you are more likely just a dick.
These issues are not easy. When you are dealing with someone’s sense of identity, emotions run high and tempers flare. Removing symbols can feel like removing a part of one’s culture and that always feels personal. I am not a southerner and I don’t really understand how this might feel to someone deeply rooted in the historical past of the white south. I am not a black person, so I can’t really know how it feels to be surrounded by these symbols. But I try to understand. We all have to try to understand. Maybe the answer isn’t going to be removing all confederate symbology, but rather having an open and critical discussion of our shared past. We need to learn how together to let go of racism, hatred, and oppression, but still honor the memory of those individuals who fell fighting for an ignoble cause. We need to honor the dead without honoring their misguided ideals.
I have hope that we can bring this conversation forward and not stay mired in polemics of the past. The 10 July 2015 state bill to finally remove the confederate flag from the South Carolina state house grounds is encouraging. But it will take time. Andrew Jackson has been on the twenty-dollar bill since 1928.